WordPress: it’s complex

I’ve just finished reading a book (Flash Boys by Michael Lewis) about high frequency trading on the world’s stock exchanges. It’s a great book! But the reason I’m writing about it is because a quote in it inspired a realisation for me, an important one.

“People think complex is an advanced state of complicated. It’s not. A car key is simple. A car is complicated. A car in traffic is complex.” Zoran Perkov as quoted here

As a web developer, I’ve often used cars as analogies to try to explain websites and web technology – e.g. lots of components, a complicated product, you need to learn how to use them and get them serviced regularly, etc.

But Zoran’s point resonates: your website isn’t like your car. At all. It’s like your car in traffic. A very complicated thing in an unpredictable system.

What is complexity?

[Zoran] defines a complex system as “something you cannot predict”


Why is your WordPress site complex?

Here’s just a glimpse of what’s involved in serving a typical webpage to your visitor:

  • The internet – the infrastructure: undersea fibre optic cables, wireless networks, the whim of BT and Virgin
  • The web – the transport protocols and fundamental standards on which the web works
  • The server – the place your website lives, in a data centre somewhere, with a specific ‘stack’ of software that in the case of WordPress includes (at least) an operating system, web server, scripting language and database – all of which will be under continual development and have specific versions and configuration
  • Your specific software configuration – even on top of the server stack, you have WordPress, plugins and themes – all of which is software, all of which will most likely have ongoing development and versions as well as settings – the exact combination of which will likely be unique to your website
  • Your specific code – often, you’ll have custom code running on your site – from some minor CSS amends to a totally custom theme or plugin – that’s only ever going to be written for, and tested by, you and your website
  • Your content – even forgetting the whole software side of things, there’s your content – images, text, video and more, all of which can have it’s own complications – encoding, embedding, interacting with everything else
  • The browser – and then, even if you get all this right, you’re at the mercy of your visitor’s browser. Maybe they’re using an old version of Internet Explorer. Or they’ve been hacked and some malware is interfering with your website loading. Or they’ve turned off cookies or JavaScript or something else.

When you really think about it, it’s a miracle that anyone ever manages to load a web page at all.

Why does it matter that it’s complex?

As Zoran says:

a place where “Sh*t will break and there is nothing you can do about it”

Wait, hang on? You mean that my website will probably break at some point?

Yep. Sorry! We all take risks the whole time. We live in an unpredictable world. When it comes to websites, WordPress or not, they’re complex. If you want a website, you have to accept that.

When it comes to WordPress, why does it matter that it’s complex?

  • Because you need a partner, not a supplier – you’re not buying a car, you’re asking someone to look out for your interests and care about whether you make it through the traffic or not.
  • There is often no single “right” answer for now. Sometimes I feel like a politician answering a ‘can we do this?’ WordPress question. There’s almost always more than one way to achieve a business objective, or even a plain functionality one. Do you want design with that? What are the content implications? How likely is that plugin to be updated? Are there likely to be any conflicts? Our policy at Pragmatic is to advise you of what we would do, if it was our business, our money. We build hundreds of sites and host more. Experience counts for a lot, but even then…
  • You can’t predict the future. Even if we make the right call for here and now, there’s no telling what the future holds for the web. Google’s algorithm will change. There will be new social networks. How will you respond?

Seen in this light, it should be clear that running a WordPress site (or pretty much any website) isn’t about expecting perfection and predictability, but about:

  • maintaining awareness of the risks and benefits
  • understanding the nature of the web and being ready to seize opportunities that its unpredictability creates
  • mitigating the risk that if anything breaks, it has a negative impact for you

What do we do to help?

Whether you see it as something you must do, or a shaping force that helps you drive you forward, websites are important and realising that they are complex will help you to frame your expectations and understand our input better.

Here are some of the things we think we do that are important:

  • Care about your business and be your partner
  • Apply our experience and expertise to help you make informed decisions – to share the responsibility of important decisions rather than forcing you down our preferred route.
  • Staging sites are key. Our managed WordPress hosting service includes a staging site where you can test out changes before touching the live site. Likewise, it allows us to mitigate the risk of updates breaking your live site by testing them in a safe environment.
  • Make sure that we’re following best practice in terms of backups and security to make sure that if anything bad happens, we’ll be able to get you back up and running as quickly as possible.

Do you need a WordPress partner?

Good!  Please do get in touch!


Image credits: Traffic thanks to Minesweeper on Wikipedia. Lights at night thanks to jonbonsilver on pixabay

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