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The Pros and Cons of Front-End Editing and Modular Content in WordPress

To say that WordPress has grown quite a bit since its initial release in 2003 is something of an understatement. What was initially created as a blogging tool has developed into a full-fledged Content Management System. The popularity of WordPress is due in part to an almost unlimited feature-set, thanks to thousands of free and premium plugins created by developers around the world.

The great thing about WordPress and it’s extendibility is that almost anyone who understands a little PHP and CSS can create a very basic plugin. The possibilities to extend WordPress to meet the needs of clients is a big reason why there are so many developers creating WordPress sites (accounting for nearly 20% of sites on the web).

With the imaginations of so many developers trained in WordPress, just about every aspect of its functionality is under scrutiny, and that’s especially true of the functionality used to create and edit content. In the current release of WordPress, editing is accomplished by logging in and navigating to the content you’d like to edit in the back-end admin panel. The problem with this — at least in many people’s view — is that you are no longer looking at the website itself when creating or editing content. Instead, what you’re looking at is an interface that looks like a Word document, with content editors having to guess what it will look like once published (or via a preview).

In my eyes, there isn’t anything wrong with WordPress’ editing functionality as it currently exists. People know how to create and edit text documents, so the learning curve is low. As long as your WordPress theme (the set of code dictating how your website is set up visually and functionally) is built in a way that allows for content to seamlessly fit into pre-defined content areas, you’re golden. Is there a better way, though? Maybe.

So what is the alternative? For many developers, it’s front-end editing. Front-end editing allows a client to edit their website in real-time. In this scenario, rather than needing to log into WordPress’s back-end admin panel and locate specific content from the back-end menu system, content editors can just click the text they want to edit while looking at the website. Want to change the headline? Just click and edit. Want to insert a slider below your introduction text? No problem, just click away.

This sort of front-end editing functionality has been implemented recently through various free and premium WordPress plugins. As is typical with most software solutions, though, nothing is perfect. What may be the best feature-set for one client might be missing a critical component for another client. Plugins like Visual Composer are quickly being adopted by the WordPress community and are being used to customize content blocks for clients. Other lesser known plugins are also upping the ante, such as the Fastline Page Builder plugin, which has great potential for customization. Even is developing a front-end editor that allows for more simple text and image changes.

Not only do these plugins allow you to edit text, images, and videos while viewing the website, but most of them are also modular. Chris Butler’s popular post on this topic explains modularity in greater detail, but to summarize, modularity allows you to have specific, pre-defined sections and/or types of content that can be moved around on the page in any order or layout you desire. So, you could potentially put the footer above the header, or the sidebar below the main content of the page. I can’t imagine why you would want to do that, but you get the idea.

Sounds great, right? Well, not exactly. Many of these front-end editors utilize short-codes for every content element. Short-codes are great to place snippets of code wherever you want. For instance, you can create a short-code that shows your five most recent blog posts. You can then place that code anywhere on your site, as many times as you want. However, what happens if your entire layout is created with short-codes via a front-end editing plugin, and you decide you’d no longer like to use that plugin? Well, first, your layout will break and your website will look like a huge mess (or like nothing at all!). In the back-end, you’ll see a bunch of indecipherable brackets of code, which to a non-coder will look like something is really, really wrong.

Recently we’ve seen several plugins solve the short-code problem by copying a page’s content into the content editor in the event the plugin is deactivated. In short, you don’t see a mess of short-codes; instead, you see the content you created on the front-end (albeit unformatted). VelocityPage and Fastline Page Builder are two plugins that handle this process elegantly.

Another area of concern is a plugin’s longevity. While the drag-and-drop modular functionally might seem really cool and fun, how cool and fun will it be in two years if the developer stops updating their plugin? WordPress is updated every several months. Plugin developers have to diligently check to see if their custom code is still compatible with the latest WordPress release. Because of this, it is paramount that you choose your plugin usage wisely. Websites generally last around 3 years before the need for a refresh (if not sooner!), and if you aren’t confident that the developer for your plugin of choice will be around for the duration, I’d recommend not using that plugin.

So, should you use a front-end editor or not? It really depends on the client, their needs, and the complexity of their site. I probably wouldn’t recommend a front-end editor for a site that serves as a news aggregator, since most of the content would be dynamically pulled from other sources anyway. A more straightforward site that doesn’t contain as much dynamic content and is laid out in very deliberate interchangeable content blocks might make more sense.

The other question to ask is whether it’s responsible to give the “keys to the kingdom” to clients so that any visual change imaginable can be made on the spot. I have two thoughts about that. On one hand, I absolutely think that clients should be able to change and edit whatever they want. After all, it’s their site, and over time the site might require visual adjustments. On the other hand, a strategically created website is more than a bunch of visual elements that just happen to be next to each other. In a well-designed agency website, every element of the page is deliberately placed to maximize the agency’s messaging, serve relevant content to its audience, and optimize calls-to-actions in order to generate leads. Just because you CAN change something doesn’t mean you SHOULD change something. Take a look at any social media site that allows for unlimited visual customization and you’ll see a lot of ugly profiles (old Myspace, anyone?).

Personally, I think that if you take the effort to create a website that works for you strategically and aesthetically, you should be set for several years to focus on content creation — not drastic layout adjustments. However, if it is critical that iterative layout adjustments take place on a frequent basis, the pros for front-end editing might outweigh the cons.

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