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Open Source May Be the Solution for Your Web Site

by Cord Blomquist
April 19, 2010

You’ve heard the sales pitch: a one-of-a-kind, custom Web site solution for your organization that will do everything you want it to do. A few months and tens of thousands of dollars later, you’re left with a Web site so custom, so tailor-made that it’s compatible with little else.

To make matters worse, the company that built your white elephant is the only one that can maintain it, because no other Web developer would know what to do with it. You’re locked into a relationship with a contractor who built a product you don’t like, and it cost too much.

Thankfully, open source software has become an open industry standard for developing high-quality Web sites that can save you from this sort of situation. You wouldn’t buy a custom car that could be serviced by only one mechanic, so why buy a Web site that can be updated by only one developer? You need to separate the software from the contractor. Open source is the Web site equivalent of a Ford truck—something that can be fixed by anyone.

Unfortunately, the same folks who make a killing selling you proprietary software say a lot of disparaging things about open source software, claiming it’s too expensive to implement, hard to maintain, unreliable, or a Communist plot. These claims couldn’t be farther from the truth.


What Is Open Source Software?

Open source differs from proprietary software, which is released under strict licenses that keep the underlying computer programming code a secret. Instead, open source software is released under a license that allows anyone to use it, so long as the code is kept open. Such licenses allow anyone not only to examine the quality of the code, but also to change it, fix it, and add to it. Making the code accessible allows a community of coders to perfect a software product and to extend its functionality.

For example, companies like WordPress use the open source approach to make their product more robust—and far more popular—than that of their closed source competitors. WordPress not only makes its code available at no cost, but also actively facilitates the exchange of ideas between developers building tools for their platform. Their community-focused site features extensive documentation, user forums, a blog detailing new developments in the core product, and a vast archive of user-created add-ons.

This has enabled developers like Arne Brachold, a German-based WordPress developer to build a tool that helps search engines find the content in WordPress-powered Web sites. This sort of basic search engine optimization development is incredibly valuable, as search engines are the primary driver of traffic to nearly every Web site.

Brachold gives this software away, because it’s a way for him to demonstrate his programming prowess and gain more notoriety and business. This works pretty well. His sitemap tool for WordPress has been downloaded a staggering 3.2 million times. It’s good for WordPress, good for Brachold, and good for you.

The add-on’s popularity motivates Brachold to keep it updated. Last year alone saw more than 10 updates to his software, including those that fixed bugs and kept his sitemaps up-to-date with changes at Google, Yahoo, Bing, and Ask.com.

Other such software add-ons—developed by everyone from freelance programmers to large million-dollar Web design firms—transform WordPress from a simple blogging platform to a social network, discussion forum, photo gallery, video gallery, or even a full-fledged magazine site like Time.com, which recently adopted WordPress.

With more than 8,700 add-ons made for the platform, WordPress is a widely used standard. That’s a lot more after-market parts than the typical Ford! If you were still using that white elephant proprietary system, you’d have to pay a developer to design each of these tools from scratch.

WordPress benefits from these third-party add-ons by incorporating them into its core software. By fostering a community of developers who seek publicity or just simply recognition by giving away their code, WordPress outsources a great deal of its product development—or, more accurately, WordPress crowd-sources its product development.

By harnessing the power of not just dozens or hundreds of minds, but tens of thousands, WordPress has created incredibly intensive peer-review and quality-assurance systems, resulting in a rock solid Web site platform.

For these reasons, big-name brands like CNN, the BBC, the New York Times, and even America’s finest news source, the Onion, have adopted open source solutions like WordPress to run their Web sites. In fact, open source software powers 60 percent to 70 percent of Web servers worldwide and is used by most Fortune 500 companies including IBM, Google, Yahoo, Nokia, Dell, Intel, and even Microsoft. Open source is no fringe movement; it’s the mainstream.

But what about the high costs of implementing an open source site? What about maintenance?

While it’s true that platforms like WordPress—or other content management systems (CMS) like Drupal or Joomla—often need a professional Web designer to customize them to fit your needs, the same can be said for any proprietary, closed source alternative. Typically, however, the open source solution is drastically cheaper to install and maintain, because the customer doesn’t need to pay for writing or re-writing code, but only the minimal cost of implementing free, off-the-shelf code.


How to Choose an Open Source Product

So now that you’re a convert to the wisdom of open source software, how do you pick the right software for you and your organization?

First, figure out what you really need. Avoid the typical “wish list” approach—these turn your attention toward technologically novel features, instead of the core functionality your Web site needs.

Assume users are incredibly impatient—this is true in most cases. Focus on straightforward content organization that will make sense to people unfamiliar with your organization and get them where they want to go quickly.

Once you have this assessment done, compare your list to features found in the big three systems—WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla—and see how they compare. Keep in mind that many of the features you’re looking for may not be supported by any of these systems out-of-the-box, but could be part of an add-on developed by a third party.

If you’re interested in looking beyond the market leaders, consult Water & Stone’s 2009 Open Source CMS Market Share Report (available at WaterAndStone.com). It’s an unbiased evaluation of which open source CMS solutions are widely used, are gaining in popularity, and have the greatest amount of third-party support.

Also, consult with your friends and colleagues. It’s likely that someone in your professional network has some experience with an open source project. Get references for both content management system solutions and good contractors.

If you need further help finding a contractor that fits your needs, consult sites like Guru, Elance, and Sortfolio. Each lets you find Web developers who fit your budget and work in your area. Be sure to get a ton of references from any contractor. (A good portfolio often masks a lot of very unhappy customers.)

When selecting a contractor, remember that a big price or a big name is not an indicator of quality. Some of the best programmers around are small freelancers who charge bargain prices, and some of the most unprofessional, sloppy, and embarrassing code emerges from high-priced PR firms.

Ultimately, choosing a CMS or a contractor is all about staying flexible. To keep up with the pace of technological change, the software you choose needs to be cheap, and the relationships you form with contractors shouldn’t be permanent. Open source software meets both criteria, keeping your organization agile and ahead of the game.


Mr. Blomquist is New Media Manager at the Mercatus Center and a co-founder of ReadyMadeWeb.com, an online guide to using off-the-shelf technology to build your Web site, promote your brand, and enhance your productivity.


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