WordPress vs. ExpressionEngine: Apples and Oranges?

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March 10, 2010

This post has been a long time coming. Whether on Twitter or in the blogosphere, the question often arises, and I have been asked numerous times for my opinion on the ExpressionEngine vs. WordPress debate, and why one would choose one content management system (CMS) over the other.

My usual answer is that they cannot be compared. While WordPress had made huge strides in usability, for anything other than a blog it is an apple.

ExpressionEngine, with the release of version 2.0, makes for a lovely platform that is, as we will see, an orange.

Handling Content

The biggest difference between WordPress and ExpressionEngine is the way in which content is handled.

In WordPress, we all know that you can create a new post. This new post usually has a content section but may have some custom fields that are defined either on the fly or by the developer who created the template's framework.

So, when you create a new post, the content will be displayed in different ways, depending on the category chosen and whether the category is a parent or child (i.e. sub-category). For the most part, though, whether they choose a new category or input data into pre-defined custom fields, the user will see the same input screen.

The items chosen by the user determine how the content is displayed. Some users like this. I think it shows WordPress’ roots as a blogging platform. This is not a knock because WordPress has certainly pushed the envelope on what can be done with a CMS just by uploading a few files. More to come on themes later.

Changing Channels

ExpressionEngine handles content quite differently. In ExpressionEngine, the user defines channels.

Each channel can be thought of as a separate blog—in fact, this is what it was called back in version 1.6.x. For each channel, you can define custom fields, categories and behaviors.

All of this is hidden from the average user in the administration portion of the website. The user would typically have access only to the “Publish” and “Edit” sections of the website and possibly some modules (which is similar to plug-ins in WordPress).

An Example

Recently we built a website for the Bay Community Church using ExpressionEngine. The website has a media section, and in that channel we created the following custom fields: title, description, image, audio and video files, file sizes, file lengths, and date on which the files were recorded.

Of course, channels can be as simple or as complex as you like (this particular website had five to six more custom fields for the media channel alone).

Most ExpressionEngine developers realize the power of the CMS’ add-ons, which also happens to be why most of them have been slow to move from version 1.6.x to 2.0. They know that most of the add-ons won't be available for 2.0 for another couple of months.

With just a few add-ons, we extended ExpressionEngine, allowing church staff to add multiple files per entry. In the content structure of this particular website, a sermon series would be an entry on its own, and individual sermons for that series would be added to it.

To make it even more complicated, you could have any number of different types of fields in a channel (e.g. textbox, textarea, checkbox, S3 Integrated BucketList, FieldFrame Matrix, nGen File Field).

The website also has a section for small groups of people who gather for studies or fellowship.

If you navigate to a “New entry” page for the small groups, you would see a completely different set of custom fields (title, leader, location, meeting time, etc). So, from the user's perspective, entering new content is easy because each channel is tailored to the content they are recording.

Why I Love ExpressionEngine

As a web designer, I love ExpressionEngine because it gives me extensive control. Most of my clients don't have a single WYSIWYG editor anywhere on their website! I can control headings, MP3s, PDFs, lists and whatever else needs styling through CSS.

Unless they decide to learn HTML in order to apply inline styling, the design won't be horrendously violated with 50-pixel blinking red fonts.

Content Construction Kit

I believe the Drupal community originally coined the term Content Construction Kit (CCK). CCK basically allows the user to define various types of content.

Perhaps the folks at EllisLab would disagree, but I would define ExpressionEngine as a CCK system. WordPress seems to be moving in that direction but is not there yet. Plenty of WordPress template developers are designing and adding to the framework, giving WordPress new kinds of functionality.

Changing the Look and Feel

For the most part, anyone can set up a WordPress blog or website with little knowledge of WordPress, PHP, HTML or anything else that would keep an Internet newcomer from blogging.

I have a non-technical friend who has set up several WordPress blogs without any of my help. Just download a template package; unzip it; upload it to wp-content/themes; log in; activate the new template; and voila! Magic happens, and you end up with a whole new website. WordPress shines in this area.

ExpressionEngine 2.0 Moving in the Right Direction

ExpressionEngine, on the other hand, has no easy way to add or change themes… yet.

With version 2.0, we are seeing the team at EllisLab starting to move in that direction. The team has added functionality that allows users to upload HTML and CSS files into folders with specific naming conventions (blog.group, main.group, portfolio.group, etc.), and you can synchronize the HTML and CSS files with ExpressionEngine, which will recognize and render them.

The problem is that ExpressionEngine only begins to shine when you get into its CCK capabilities. So, syncing files is great, but that does not get you the custom fields, categories and channels that bring ExpressionEngine to life.

EllisLab has added a file to the CMS named default_content.php, which is required to install a theme and which specifies default content, channels, custom fields and the like. But the file is not exactly intuitive.

ExpressionEngine fields are highly relational, so you definitely need to grasp SQL if you want to put a default_content.php file together.

Changing Themes

With WordPress, you can upload a new theme to change the look of the website at any time.

ExpressionEngine, on the other hand, allows a theme to be added only at the point of installation. So, if a user wants to change the look of their website, they'll have to jump through hoops.

They would either have to keep their HTML, custom fields and other elements and then change the CSS and images. Or they would have to learn the system and then define custom fields, categories and channels. But this goes back to the way the two systems handle content.

Themes in WordPress typically all handle content the same way. Themes in ExpressionEngine do not.

What Have We Learned?

WordPress is especially good for PHP developers, tinkerers and bloggers. It is great for PHP developers because they can bend the CMS to their will; they can add functionality to the framework, as well as add custom fields and modify them at will.

It is great for tinkerers, who can set up a website easily; and if they ever get bored with the look and feel, they can search online for a new theme and have a completely new website in 20 minutes.

They can also download widgets and plug-ins that add functionality quickly. And having started out as a blogging system, WordPress really shines as a personal blog.

ExpressionEngine is great for front-end developers and designers because it does not require that users learn a difficult programming language in order to manipulate it.

Most HTML and CSS gurus can grasp the simple expressions and how to use them.

ExpressionEngine is the tool of choice for some well-known designers: Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain, Veerle Pieters and Andy Clarke, to name a few. It is extremely flexible, and few things cannot be accomplished with it.

As you can see, then, it really is an apples to oranges comparison.

This post was written exclusively for Webdesigner Depot by Marcus Neto. Marcus is a member of the ExpressionEngine Pro Network and is the man behind the curtain at EETemplates.com and Blue Fish Design Studio. He also has his say on Twitter @marcusneto.

WDD Staff

WDD staff are proud to be able to bring you this daily blog about web design and development. If there's something you think we should be talking about let us know @DesignerDepot.

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