In 2012 John O’Nolan–designer, developer and former deputy head of the WordPress UX team–published a radical new design concept. It was original, elegant, simple, and made instant waves in both the WordPress community and the wider blogging community. The concept was for a new blogging platform he called Ghost.
The buzz lasted throughout the ensuing months, through the Kickstarter campaign that made his concept a reality, and then slowly fizzled out during the actual development of the product itself. It seems that everyone is waiting to see if the new platform will live up to the high expectations it debuted with. And if not, then perhaps to let their enthusiasm die a subtle, unnoticed death. But of course we can’t let that happen.
So let’s talk about Ghost now. Today. How it currently compares to WordPress and what the future of these two platforms might have in store for us. After all, Ghost has been hailed as a “WordPress Killer”, the “new direction of blogging”, the “first exciting thing to happen to blogging in years” and much more. All of this high praise begs the question: is it true? Is it the next big thing for blogging and online publishing in general? Will it supplant WordPress as the best and most popular blogging platform in the world?
These questions, and perhaps a few more, are what this article is all about. Where possible, I’ll try to provide both answers and commentary concerning this developing narrative. We will talk about how Ghost came to be, how it stacks up against WordPress, some of the pro’s and con’s of each, and of course why all of that matters to both serious and casual bloggers alike.
Some Backstory: The Birth of Ghost
Firstly, for those not familiar with the ongoing “WordPress vs Ghost” narrative, let’s take a look at the birth of Ghost, so that we can understand how the frustrations that gave it birth are what will continue to direct its impact on WordPress, blogging, and the larger world of digital publishing.
As I mentioned above, it was in 2012 when John O’Nolan published a page on his website that outlined his idea for a new blogging platform called Ghost. As an avid blogger and professional designer of blogs, he was more than a little tired of the undeniably clunky WordPress UX and it’s increasingly distant prioritization of blogging.
In this initial proposal Ghost was meant to be a simple fork of WordPress (echoing the way in which WordPress itself came to be, as a fork of another platform called b2) in order to create a sort of “back to basics” or “WordPress lite” blogging platform. Or in other words, to create a platform headed in the opposite direction WordPress has been headed for the last several years. That of a fully fledged CMS, and even more recently, a web OS.
O’Nolan’s basic premise was that if WordPress is moving away from being the best blogging platform in the world to the most flexible and easy to use CMS (and ever onward), then that means there is a product gap that needs to be filled. Something just for blogging, without any need to be a fully functioning website, but more powerful, open and elegant than current platforms like, say, tumblr, medium or Svbtle.
His pitch in 2012, for a product that did not yet exist, was accompanied by several gorgeous design mockups that completely re-imagined what a blogging platform’s backend should look and feel like. From a beautiful dashboard to simple post creation and management, it was immediately apparent that O’Nolan had a much “sexier” and simpler version of blogging in mind than WordPress is known for. But not just for the sake of aesthetics alone. The UX concepts really did (and still do) have the potential to make blogging itself better for the blogger.
The response to the Ghost concept designs were overwhelmingly positive and helped launch a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign that garnered over £100,000 in under 48 hours. In the end, they made £196,362 (or about $320,000). This response, mainly birthed out of existing WordPress users, sent a clear message to both Automattic (the company behind WordPress) and the folks at Ghost. That message being: this project has resonance; people want it and they’re frustrated with the status quo. But what exactly do they want? The sexier UI? The renewed focus on blogging? The simplified experience? An outlet for frustrations they would never otherwise act on? Or some amalgamation of all-of-the-above? In the next section we’ll take a look at the key differences between these platforms and the companies behind them so that we can try to answer those questions more completely.
WordPress vs Ghost: The Key Differences
At this point I think it is important to note the biggest distinction of all, which is that while both of these platforms either started or are strictly concerned with blogging–they have fundamentally different goals. When we look at those first, the rest of the differences between the two make more sense and we get a better idea of what their current relationship/dynamic is and how it might play out in the future.
Stated Purpose/Direction of WordPress:
WordPress was first for pure blogging, then became embraced as a CMS (though some people still deny this), is seeing growth and innovation in being used as an application platform (I think we’re about a third of the way through that), and just now starting to embrace social and mobile — the fourth phase of our evolution.
I see the future of WordPress as a web operating system.
Stated Purpose/Direction of Ghost:
To be a beautifully designed, free, open source platform dedicated to one thing: publishing.
Already you can see that WordPress is simply not content with being “just a blogging platform” while Ghost wants to be exactly that. With that in mind, I thought that one of the most interesting slides of Mullenweg’s 2013 State of the Word was this survey result.
Just 6% of the WordPress users surveyed use WordPress for blogging alone–whereas Ghost, again, does nothing else. Either bloggers have more complex needs than they used to or those who want a simpler experience are going somewhere else. From this slide at least, it seems possible that O’Nolan was spot on when he said there is a product gap for just a blogging platform. Or, and this is a big “or”, perhaps what WordPress has learned over the last decade is that many bloggers–whether they want it at the beginning or not–eventually desire to grow their blog into a fuller site? More on these questions at the end.
As for the other key differences, here they are:
1. Non-Profit vs For Profit: I mention this one first because with this difference there is an implication that the for-profit status of Automattic is in some way holding WordPress back and/or preventing it from offering the best product possible to end users. That’s about as fundamental a difference as you can get. Personally, I’m not sure what to make of this insinuation because I have always been blown away with what WordPress has made possible. That said, O’Nolan has been a contributing member to the WordPress product itself and I’m sure he has his reasons for believing a non-profit is a better vehicle for innovation. In general, I think this move is indicative of O’Nolan’s “if I could make WordPress from scratch now, knowing what we know from the last decade, how would I make it better?” mindset. Whether we all find it to be true or not, he certainly feels that beginning with a non-profit will set Ghost up for a more honest and pure relationship with both end users and publishing as a concept.
2. Type of Open-Source: WordPress uses the GNU or General Public License, which has caused some major battles within the WordPress community in the past concerning whether or not certain modifications to WordPress are proprietary or free to use by all–i.e. grandfathered in to the GNU license by default. To skirt this issue (and possibly to encourage the faster growth of premium themes and plugins) Ghost is opting for the MIT open source license, which in their words “pretty much means you can do anything you want with it…so long as the copyright notices remain in tact.”
For a full comparison of the two, see this wiki article or this stack overflow discussion for a summary and some other links. There are good reasons for both licenses and it is safe to say that both WordPress and Ghost feel strongly about their choice. Only time will tell whether one gives a definite advantage over the other.
3. Node.js vs PHP: WordPress has, for better or worse, been built using the coding language PHP. While this language has been popularized as a great “hacking” language that is good for rapid prototyping and quick iteration, it has also been criticized as difficult to scale, constantly changing, and prone to semantic errors–among other things. Ghost’s response to this reality was to skip their original idea of forking WordPress and start from scratch with Node.js.
4. Simplicity vs Flexibility: For years WordPress has been plagued with the legitimate gripe that its admin was overly complex and difficult for new users to use and navigate. Advanced WordPress users on the other hand have long been fans of the incredible flexibility this has offered them in crafting the exact website and publishing experience they’re after. Ghost, on the other hand, wants to strip most of the “bells and whistles” away. Baking the essential blogging features such as SEO optimization, social sharing, and other essential plugin functions right into the core. Resulting in very little configuration and an experience that, again, puts the focus on you creating and publishing content.
5. Content Management: WordPress has gone from standard blog posts to posts/pages, custom post types and of course post formats. Managing them all requires you to jump between menus and preview modes for each individual post, page or type. As it stands in WordPress 4.0 these features are a strength instead of a weakness, except perhaps the lack of multi-panel previewing on the backend. Other than that, having your blog posts, pages, and post types in separate places makes sense and the archive structure and search features have improved over the years. That said, Ghost has at once simplified content management and made it more visually appealing.
Ghost makes use of a split screen design, reminiscent of an email inbox, with a post archive on one side and a full post preview on the other. This allows you to browse through your posts (in a meaningful way) much quicker and easier than the current WordPress archive allows. And if you decide a post needs editing (or you’d like to create a new post altogether) you are brought to a similar split screen post editor.
6. Content Creation: Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the two platforms, particularly in their blogging experiences, is Ghost’s split screen writing environment. It uses Markdown to create non-stop seamless formatting as you write. This innovation is one of the most exciting things about the new Ghost platform and a clear example of how its stated purpose of focusing just on blogging is already making a difference for users.
7. User Management: Speaking of users, the next big thing that Ghost does differently from WordPress is attempt to tackle the unique challenges of managing a multi-author blog right out of the box. Sure, WordPress has the ability to add users and assign user roles, but what Ghost is trying to do specifically is provide baked-in newsroom functionality for multi-author blogs and online magazines. Of course these are features that are available to WordPress users now via various plugins, but beginning with a well designed, native system for managing a large writing staff would be huge for the future of online publishing. I say future because at the moment this feature is not very fleshed out on Ghost as their initial focus is small, personal blogs. However, this is one of the features they seem to be most passionate about developing.
8. Dashboard: Perhaps one of the biggest drivers of passion for the Ghost project has been their vision for a new Dashboard. Traditionally, the WordPress dashboard has been one of the uglier, clunkier pages of wp-admin. O’Nolan stood this trend on its head by arguably making the Ghost dashboard the most attractive and feature rich page of the whole backend. He does this, in part, thanks to his philosophy of simplification. By removing the need for extra plugins that provide the desired dashboard widgets nearly every blogger is going to want, they instead baked all that right into the core, allowing Ghost to provide the appropriate dashboard widgets–displaying important social data, post analytics and other important bits of data every blogger wants to know–decked out in beautiful design.
9. Mobile: WordPress has been making decent progress in mobile for the last few years via their apps for iOS and Android. Ghost on the other hand seems to be taking a web app approach that works strictly through the browser. Having tried both, I think Ghost has a long way to go before its mobile browser experience is anywhere near as good as a native app.
10. WordPress.com vs Ghost(Pro): Both Automattic and the Ghost Foundation provide a hosted version of their blogging platform as a means of monetization. The major difference between the two however is that Automattic’s WordPress.com is essentially a massive WordPress multi-site install where as Ghost(Pro) is more like a managed WordPress hosting environment. Think WordPress.com but with all of the flexibility (themes/plugins/etc.) of a WordPress.org install. Down the line, when the Ghost platform and ecosystem are more mature, this could prove to be a massive advantage.
11. Marketplace vs Directory & Ecosystem: Speaking of business advantages, Ghost also seems poised to benefit from a centralized marketplace as opposed to the widely dispersed WordPress ecosystem of free/premium themes, plugins and services. By making all Ghost products (whether free or premium) available in one place they set themselves up to exert more control in this area than in any other. The WordPress community, knowing that Automattic is a for-profit company, might have serious misgivings about this sort of setup. However, with Ghost being non-profit and re-investing everything back into the platform, it makes sense to create a tighter more optimized sales funnel on the main site.
So, Which Is Better?
Perhaps “better” is the wrong word. Again, these platforms have different purposes and we therefore cannot compare them in every aspect. Ghost will never be about building great websites or web apps, so comparing the two as a CMS, for example, would be pointless. However, now that we understand the primary differences that set these platforms apart as a tool for blogging, we can begin making judgements about which is better suited for particular types of bloggers.
In this light, the most pertinent questions to ask become:
1. Which platform is best suited for just bloggers?
In the long run I’d say this category of user will most likely go to Ghost. Which is probably why we’ve seen such a drastic response from WordPress over the last year. I think the WordPress community (and particularly the folks over at Automattic) realize that Ghost has significantly upped the expectations of users when it comes to a beautiful, seamless content creation and management experience. The evidence of this can be seen in the flatter, more simplified design of WordPress releases 3.6-3.9. And most recently, in WordPress 4.0, we’ve seen WordPress finally take a crack at some major improvements to their post editor. It’s not quite a slick as Ghost yet but it looks like the new direction of the WordPress admin is much simpler and more intuitive.
2. Which platform is best for bloggers who may one day want a full website/CMS?
It would seem that this one would clearly go to WordPress. However, it is possible to install Ghost on a subdomain of a WordPress website. Which means it’s possible some may choose to start out as a Ghost blog and grow into a full website. And when that time comes, they will expand with WordPress.
Personally, I think WordPress has the distinct advantage in this category. I know I don’t (and probably will never) prefer to jump between two platforms for one website. I love having it all manageable from one admin and when it comes to that WordPress is without a doubt the big winner.
3. And finally, which platform is best for existing websites (WordPress or not) who also want to have a great blog?
There are a great many website building platforms out there that may or may not be as good at blogging as Ghost or WordPress. If someone has an existing site built on one of these platforms and is looking to add a new blog or improve their current blogging experience I think it might actually be a toss up between WordPress and Ghost. Perhaps with a slight advantage to Ghost (in the long run) if they maintain their simplicity and yet mature enough to offer everything a serious blogger wants out of a blog.
So one out of three categories goes to Ghost, with a possible second, both in the long run. Not bad! However, as things currently stand, high praise for Ghost’s passion/creativity/design/momentum/etc. aside WordPress is still far and away the better option for a few important reasons:
1. WordPress is easier to install on most hosts as many hosting services do not yet offer one-click installation for Ghost. This is both a large and non-issue for Ghost right now. It’s a large issue because the perception of what is most likely their largest target audience–people on WordPress who want a simpler blogging experience–are used to the self-hosted install being the one with the most power/flexibility. As long as that perception persists (while simple installation is not an option) the rate of new users is likely to stymie. However, it’s actually a non-issue because the Ghost(Pro) service is not like WordPress.com–without access to most themes/plugins/etc.–it’s actually more along the lines of a service like WPEngine or other managed hosting options. If Ghost can educate people about this important distinction they will probably begin to see wider adoption.
2. While the backend experience for Ghost is beautiful, extremely simple, and easy to use (easier than WordPress, for sure) the quality of theme design for the front-end on Ghost is currently lagging behind in a big way. Even those who want a simple yet effective blogging theme might be hard pressed to find one for Ghost that isn’t over-simplified to the point of looking amateurish or “tumblr-esq”.
3. And finally, even though many of the biggest developments in recent years–across the entire WordPress ecosphere–have had nothing specifically to do with blogging, there are still way more tools for bloggers to use on WordPress than their are on Ghost (at the moment).
The unfortunate reality is that even though it’s been over a year since Ghost launched on Kickstarter (and even longer since O’Nolan published the concept) it’s going to take a long time for it to make up the ground on WordPress that it needs to before it becomes a serious contender–even just as a blogging platform.
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