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September 27, 2011 6:16 PM   Subscribe

I have until noon tomorrow to prove to my company that switching out our proprietary CMS system to Wordpress is a terrible idea. Difficulty: I know nothing about Wordpress. Help!

Okay, here's the problem:

I provide articles to many different web sites covering my company's area of expertise. Thousands of them. Until now, we've hosted the article pages and templates ourselves; this way, we can append tracking and display the proper template for each affiliate/partner.

Awhile back, the developer who created our proprietary CMS was fired. This software was built and designed over a decade ago, and nobody in the company knows how it works or how to fix it (including me). Said developer is uncontactable and whereabouts are unknown.

Now, upper management has decided that I should just "put everything on WordPress" - however, they do not understand how the content distribution system works. Right now, I might be displaying the exact same article on 17 different sites; each of the 17 sites has a unique tracking ID. I am easily able to see who visits my company's site, buys a product and/or how long that visit lasts from each affiliate, including page views. I calculate and divide the revenue share with each affiliate based on this tracking system.

Not to mention that I use variables and JavaScript to display different images and search queries for each affiliate, because several of them are direct competitors, so not having these variable options would be a Bad Thing. (Imagine one partner REQUIRES A to be the default search engine, while the other REQUIRES B - hopefully that's clear enough for you.)

Right now, the CMS I have is essentially an interface for managing the actual data stored in SQL database tables. Each article is like the filling in an Oreo; my job is to slap on the cookie parts (one side being the affiliate article template, and the other being our company's tracking/billing/promotions for new products/etc.). Also, there are no timestamps or publication dates on our articles; while we might promote product A in one part of US this year, it won't roll out to the rest of the country (or globally) until months or even years later, if at all. However, to work within my limited budget, I must re-use the same article to promote the same product along different timelines on different sites to different competing businesses. Therefore, there can be no set publication date or timestamp.

While our proprietary CMS can do all of this, I don't believe Wordpress can... can it? If I'm right, how can I explain this to a brand-new CEO (who has no technical background) or the social media consultant they hired who made this recommendation - in layman's terms?

If what they're asking for can be done in Wordpress, HOW?

And finally: IS there an open source or cheap/affordable CMS that can do what I'm currently doing? I've spent all day looking at options and I need a solution that works right out of the box.

Disclaimer: I have zero knowledge of Python, Ruby on Rails or PHP; however, I am willing to learn. The variables and JavaScript elements were set up before I began this job, and while I am familiar with some of the programming basics and HTML, the company is not allocating any additional resources to this project.

posted by Melusinewave to Technology (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Considering that you, your CEO, and his consultant can all be described as non-technical, it seems like what you need is exactly WordPress. The ecosystem is unmatched.

Have you looked into how many affiliate program plugins exist for this thing? Here's one. I think your best move is to show up at noon tomorrow ready to make this thing happen on WordPress. Give it a real chance before you dismiss it.
posted by evariste at 6:34 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think you (or well, someone familiar w/ wordpress/php) can certainly cover all your basis here. Thing is, you want someone who knows what they're doing to work closely with you to implement all of these requirements. Worpress can be very powerfull in the right hands.

So to answer your question (I think) it's doable, it's not a terrible idea, but you would need a strong developer to implement it or this project will fail. I don't think this can be done willy nilly and work properly.
posted by pyro979 at 6:36 PM on September 27, 2011

Sounds like you could make it work if you write a custom plugin to dynamically serve headers, images, etc. according to who is sending the link, and provide a nice backend for updating that information. The plugin will take a lot of work and I doubt this social media consultant will have a clue how to do it.

Wordpress can probably be made to work as well as your old system but probably not as well as a new system built to meet your company's needs.
posted by michaelh at 6:37 PM on September 27, 2011

Best answer: I'd be happy to learn WordPress. I estimate my training time to be __ days/weeks to develop proficiency and __ days/weeks to develop expertise. I will need a server/access to an existing server, and __ time to manage the WordPress installation. This would be an ongoing time commitment. Our current CMS has approximately __,000 documents, and __ reports on usage. The current CMS serves __ pages/documents/metrics per day/month/etc.

To port our existing usability to any new system will be a lengthy process, especially because we can't have any down-time. I'd like additional time to investigate other resources, such as these, etc., etc., etc.

This is a significant change in our delivery of content, and I'd like __ time to review the literature before we make a commitment to a platform.

In all of this, build in a lot of enthusiasm for a new CMS, and the need to have a secure, supported platform, because you really do need that. However, if somebody's brother-in-law said Just use WordPress, that's not enough to go on.

datapointfilter: My company went with Drupal. Our needs are not the same as your company's needs.
posted by theora55 at 6:38 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

What is your proprietary CMS built in? And how familiar are you with databases? At a minimum, with the number of articles you're talking about -- I think you're going to want to automate the move to whatever CMS is in the future. Underestimating the level of effort to migrate content is a pretty big project risk here.

I think you're doing a pretty good job about explaining the issues in this note. How about extending the brain dump into some more universally understood language? Distill the problem into risks and unknowns.

Wordpress migration utility, unknown. HIGH risk of issues with data import. HIGH risk of scope creep & expense ramp up. HIGH likelyhood of requiring additional technical resources to finish project.

Wordpress ability to manage multiple templates, unknown. HIGH risk of issues cross posting articles. HIGH risk of revenue loss from failing to map tracking codes with articles.

Conclusion (after further elaboration of unknowns and risks), further investigation is necessary to reach a reasonable course of action. Wordpress *may* handle your CMS but to pursue migrating content into Wordpress without going through a discovery phase to determine if the requirements meet your needs means that cost will creep up (cost is really unknown at this point) and the project starts off on shaky ground.

The deadline seems arbitrary and you/your org isn't ready to make a decision. Illustrate that point at noon rather than try to push for/against wordpress until the technical possibilities/limits are clearer.
posted by countrymod at 6:41 PM on September 27, 2011

WordPress is a really fine piece of software. Where I work we're moving to it from an years-out-of-date CMS, and it's going to make life a lot easier. Our situation isn't like yours, though.

All of the previous comments about what a big job this could be, how many technical issues are involved and how much a good developer is required, are true.

But it's possible that WordPress might end up doing what you need, and doing it better than before, with other benefits to your company (which is probably why the social media guy is recommending it).

I'd suggest the best way to approach is not to try to throw WordPress in the mud from the start, but to be very clear about what your CMS requirements are and make sure that dealing with them is a major part of considering how to move to a new system.
posted by wdenton at 7:36 PM on September 27, 2011

I have a WordPress installation with over 1000 sites in it. Each site can use a different template (although I only have maybe 30-40 installed). That is "out of the box" functionality as of WordPress 3.0. Some of the templates are customized uniquely for particular sites--it's trivial to make one use one search box or whatever. Thanks to one plugin, all sites have the option to use separate Google Analytics code to uniquely track the traffic on that site. There are numerous plugins for allowing each site to use a different domain name.

However, if you configure WordPress to use options like these, then although the sites will live in the same MySQL database they won't use the same tables for their content. What you'd still need is some sort of plugin for multi-site content posting. This might work, but it's not something I can attest to.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:04 PM on September 27, 2011

Best answer: This question is framed incorrectly. Your company has a need for a maintainable CMS with some serious complexity. The question to start with is: What are the requirements for your new CMS system?

You've listed a formidable set of requirements already, and on top of that, we can presume that the system should be low-cost and easily maintainable by a broad community of consultants or developers for hire. Now, I used to work for a company that sold a CMS that competed with WordPress for many years; I know the platform and particularly its weaknesses well. Can it be made to perform the tasks you've described? Almost certainly — and it'd require an investment plan along the lines that theora55 outlined above.

But more importantly, you're radically changing a business process without making an informed decision. "Put everything on WordPress" is like saying "we need a book written — let's put everything on Microsoft Word!" Sure, you've picked a software tool, and it may even incidentally be the right one (or one of the valid options). That's the first step in a long, hard, arduous process that's tripped up many companies much bigger and more complex than yours, though.

Don't fight them on the platform choice, cheerfully agree "Yeah, WordPress might well be great for this! Or even one of the other great, free open source tools like [Drupal | A custom Django app | Something built in Ruby on Rails | etc.]!" Treat the platform choices as fungible, because they are. Then focus on the important part: Your company is about to undertake a risky, mission-critical technology migration project, and nobody involved is actually qualified to evaluate content management systems.

You wouldn't say, "Boy it's hot in this office, let's get a Fujitsu Halcyon AUU18RML and see if we can figure out how to install it!" You'd say, "Boy it's hot in this office, let's call an air conditioning company and see how to fix it."

I'd guess the social media consultant has been the driver before this. Outline just the few requirements you listed above, around the 17 different output formats, and tell them you'd like to see a project plan for templating, testing, staging and deploying just that one small part of your overall process. Emphasize that it's only 10% of the overall migration project, and then ask how many hours he/she thinks it will take. That should quickly get the conversation focused on the important issues at hand.
posted by anildash at 9:03 PM on September 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

Wordpress Vulnerabilities.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:05 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is picking a CMS because of something somebody overheard somewhere, not an informed decision.

Just a couple of gaping holes: I see no redirect strategy (the URLs for your old system are not going to be replicated in WordPress, so how will you redirect user's bookmarks, for example?), there is no data migration plan, there's just some magical thinking that installing WordPress will fix your current issues.

Anildash is absolutely right--frame the questions correctly, scope out the work, have a developer look at what you're doing. Otherwise in one to two months there will be another question about how this transition went to hell and how does it get fixed.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:22 PM on September 27, 2011

Best answer: Wordpress Vulnerabilities.

That's pretty reassuring, really, since none of those are current. Even the sole recent advisory there is for way old version of an uncommon plugin.

OP, if you want to be reassured further, these reports may help. On the other hand, if you want to scare the pants off your CEO, this will work. That's bound to make anyone blink.

The middle course, rational takeaway, though, is that you should (1) set up automated backups, (2) keep your software up to date, (3) minimize your attack surface by not installing components you don't need, and (4) maintain two copies of any web apps you have, so that you can apply patches and test upgrades before deploying the new version to your business-critical site.

You should be doing all of that with your current CMS already. Whatever CMS you choose to switch to will have vulnerabilities as well and demand a similar process.

Incidentally, on reflection, I think you could probably meet your stated requirements with one underlying WordPress site, a complicated theme, some use of the custom fields WordPress will let you do per article to denote the pertinent site(s) for an article, and multiple workarounds having to do with WordPress's love of absolute links. It's actually more complicated, I think, to do it that way than with the multi-site solution, but that multi-site content manager seems a little risky too.

One thing I can agree with in all this is that whoever thought this would be a straightforward implementation either knows a lot or knows nothing.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:27 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input, everybody - I'm going to go over these options this am with my coworker.

Monsieur Caution, you're onto something with the "knows nothing" speculation. The social media guy has been asking bloggers to post content about our company for free and asking them to include a link back to (companyname) in their blogs on WordPress; he believes this essentially can replace the current system we have of promoting new products.

When it was pointed out to him yesterday that asking people who don't work for the company to post articles ABOUT (companyname) with links that don't include tracking puts us in a position of liability - i.e., we don't own that content, and have no way of knowing which bloggers/sites are driving traffic/customers or getting any SEO benefits from their work, which dilutes our brand identity in search indexing - he became defensive and implied that any "free" marketing system trumps any "paid" marketing system automatically. Without owning those blogs outright, though, outdated product/site links and information will live online forever. That's when the "just move everything to WordPress, then" edict and the planning meeting for today happened.

Cost-cutting is a huge issue for the time being, and he's sold the idea to the higher-ups that he can find a way to do what my department does with a budget of zero with this technique (along with posting things on Facebook and Twitter). My goal is to show that the risks involved aren't worth the potential cost savings. I'll mark best answers after the meeting, but Theora55, thanks for the template! I think you just saved my butt today.
posted by Melusinewave at 6:28 AM on September 28, 2011

Wordpress is likely the right technology, but the pain will come from migrating your existing content over there. This will be the hardest part to estimate. If it appears too costly to do you may need to decide what content you can orphan in the old system or run them simultaneously with a plan to turn down the old CMS after a period of using Wordpress.
posted by dgran at 6:55 AM on September 28, 2011

I have until noon tomorrow to prove to my company that switching out our proprietary CMS system to Wordpress is a terrible idea. Difficulty: I know nothing about Wordpress. Help!

This is, 100%, the wrong way to approach a technology decision. If you know nothing about it, you don't know switching to WordPress is even a less-than-amazing idea, let alone a terrible one. You should have been at least a little embarrassed to even write this sentence down and hit a publish button.

While our proprietary CMS can do all of this, I don't believe Wordpress can... can it?

As others have said above, it absolutely can. And then some. How easy or difficult will depend on a lot of factors that you haven't really given enough information to answer. For example: 17 affiliates? Do you control them all? Do you control any of them? How do you get the content to them now? etc, etc, etc.

The problem seems to exist because your current CMS doesn't fulfill all of your needs. If you can't figure out how to get it to, you're going to have to move.

My recommendation for your company would be to hire someone who knows enough about programming to figure out if your current CMS is optimal or if WordPress would be better and, in either case, be able to write the code necessary to make it work and/or work better.

This new hire would, of course, probably be your replacement, so my recommendation for you would be to avoid presenting that as an option and, instead, sit down and very carefully map out your current system. Get as technical as you can.

When you're done, go give WordPress a fair look. Look at how much it does off the shelf, how much would have to be custom-coded, how much there is an existing plugin to cover. Then investigate how much time it will take to transition your current content to WordPress. Come up with an alternate estimate for the amount of extra work it would create to run both of them side by side.

Put this all in terms of hours and how quickly you can make it all happen by yourself with no extra resources. Include in those estimates how long it's going to take you to learn how to program [in PHP] at a level that would be required.

Then provide an estimate for how long it would take you to make your current CMS handle the new requirements that your CEO wants out of wordpress.
posted by toomuchpete at 11:56 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try Drupal. It has a very steep learning curve, but definitely powerful than wordpress.
posted by WizKid at 2:17 PM on September 28, 2011

Response by poster: Update: We had the meeting with some developers today, along with the social media consultant and myself and the SEO experts. Turns out I was right; the entire pitch for moving the system came because the consultant wanted my job, and this was how he was going to take over my department.

Being ignorant of the work, he had no idea the scope of what I do from a business perspective. Wordpress could only be usable with massive amounts of support, a developer, custom coding, a long timeframe for data migration, etc.

However, I knew that wasn't the issue because I've been asking for a new CMS forever. The CEO had agreed to do this only if it could be done for free, by the social media consultant, without spending a dime and it had to reduce my department's budget and no additional resources allocated or else they wouldnt sign off on it. That's why I was so skeptical. We've looked at other ideas for years and did nada, even when we had a whole team of developers to build it in-house.

And I'm not embarrassed, actually, TooMuchPete. When I said "thousands" I meant high tens of thousands (plus 2 langages which I forgot about.) and damn near every one uses relative URLs not to mention hundreds of variable graphics (different ethnicity people in the images for different countries and different shopping links that track payment by variable billing id etc.). Plus there are 3 different templates and 3 different APIs. ugh.

I just knew my gut was right about this - it was cronyism of the "should we hire this guy that so-and-so recommended - he says he can produce gold eggs on demand with Wordpress" thing. But I didn't want to be overly biased before my suspicions were confirmed. You guys helped me get through the meeting without getting emotional so thanks!!
posted by Melusinewave at 8:25 PM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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