A Comparison of the Two Most Popular Free Content Management Systems

The WordPress vs Drupal content management system (CMS) question is one that most non-profit communication departments face at some point. To determine whether Drupal or WordPress is the best content management system for your non-profit organization, you first have to identify what your organizational needs are and what resources you have available to develop and manage the CMS.

An Overview: What are WordPress and Drupal? Which is the more popular CMS?

WordPress and Drupal are open source (which means that the source code is free and available to all to review and manipulate) content management systems that allow multiple webmasters to manage and edit content on websites — usually without a lot of technical experience or coding knowledge. Both are built on the MySQL database management system and coded mostly in PHP.

WordPress was first launched in 2003 to fill a need in the market for an sophisticated personal blog publishing system with an easy-to-use information architecture and interface. Drupal first became open source in 2001 and started as a message board. Both of these systems are supported by a massive developer community that keeps its core and add-on functionality updated consistently.

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Data Source: W3Techs (Nov. 2015)

According to the latest data from W3Techs, 25% of all sites across the web are powered by WordPress (with nearly 150 million downloads), while just 2% are powered by Drupal.  In the nonprofit sector, the comparison between the two CMS’ in terms of use is less stark. WordPress powers top 100 organization sites like: (Red), the Kaiser Family Foundation, and The Jane Goodall Institute. Drupal powers the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life website, as well as Amnesty International and Greenpeace UK.

Since WordPress is more commonly used worldwide, it offers a number of advantages just based on the community size: more plugins/modules, more themes, faster community support, and far more experienced contractors and agencies available to manage or build custom functionality for the site.

WordPress vs Drupal: Customization with Themes

Since WordPress is a lot more popular than Drupal in terms of usage, there are almost double the amount of themes and free templates available. This means you have a lot more options if you can’t afford an agency budget. As of this writing, there were just over 4,000 themes in the WordPress repository and more than 2,000 for Drupal.

WordPress vs Drupal: Adding Functionality with Plugins & Modules

Credited to the more than 100 million downloads of the WordPress CMS, the development community is much larger and therefore also offers a lot more free plugins. As of this writing, just over 46,000 plugins are available for WordPress (with well over 1 billion downloads) versus 34,000 modules for Drupal. WordPress provides access to its full repository of plugins within the backend interface, significantly reducing time to install free add-on functionality.

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Drupal excels in the out-of-box flexibility offered in functionality. Drupal has out-of-the-box integration of public/private memberships and limited user-generated content options. Specifically, if you require enhanced roles/permissions, if you want to dynamically display and sort content, and if you need to display a large variety of content types and have the data from that content available for sorting/display.

Users will often find that Drupal’s functionality add-ons — modules — are often forgotten and not updated. This is a strong downside for the non-technical user or project manager that is tasked with keeping the system and website upgraded. Drupal’s modules use a wide variety of syntax and poor HTML output, which sometimes requires editing the module’s code itself to add customizations. The result is a module that can’t easily be upgraded. Most larger enterprise sites powered by Drupal are using custom-developed modules (not ones from the open source community) to achieve the custom functionality and desired HTML output.

WordPress vs Drupal: Ease-of-Use & Long-Term Maintenance

In my opinion, the primary purpose of using a CMS is to allow users to at the very least make minor updates without the help of a developer or agency. Every non-coder on your staff can speedily learn WordPress in a day or less. A non-technical user will have a very difficult (if not impossible) time learning how to manage content in Drupal without significant training or written instruction.

WordPress Dashboard

WordPress has a more intuitive back-end user interface, so there is a much shorter learning curve — in comparison to Drupal or even Joomla. One key difference in my experience with both content management systems is the ability to search media libraries in WordPress — this feature is noticeably unavailable in the Drupal core install.

Even after getting a solid grasp on the content editing interface in Drupal, it often takes a longer time to add content from another source (for example, copying post content from an email or Word document), because the WYSIWYG editor in Drupal often adds unwanted tags and classes. Many content managers will find themselves editing content exclusively in source code mode to avoid this — further cementing the fact that coding experience is necessary at the most basic end user level for Drupal.

Drupal, then again, is a more robust CMS. Drupal has more content types out-of-the-box, but it takes an extraordinary amount of time to get it up and working as desired. The time that it takes to train staff on how to use Drupal, they could be well on their way creating and editing content in WordPress.

Drupal has a lot of built-in functionality out of the box that makes its back end user interface a lot bulkier. Interfaces are clunky and often offer just too many options for a content manager to quickly make updates to content. Those complexities continue into the design and development phases of the process. It is relatively easy and fast to get a complex Drupal site up and running using the themes and modules — but it’s the fine tuning of the themes and module functionality that causes a headache for the non-technical user or the organization with limited technical or financial resources.

drupal backend

If your organization is unsure that it can consistently have a technical person on staff with knowledge of HTML CSS and PHP to manage and enhance functionality as needed, then it’s probably best to go with WordPress.

Another note for content managers: users can access the administrative dashboard for WordPress in a native mobile app for easy updating anywhere. Drupal does not have a native app.

WordPress vs Drupal: Security & Performance

WordPress vs Drupal native mobile app

Image Source: Big Tuna Interactive

Drupal has enterprise level security and scalability out of the box, whereas WordPress requires plugins to add the necessary minimal security. Most government websites are powered by Drupal because of this inherent security. Enterprise-level large-sized businesses, especially those using personalized data and those with compliance requirements (like HIPAA or Sarbanes-Oxley), should use Drupal to leverage its built-in security and multi-user functionality.

In comparison, because WordPress is used so much more frequently, it is a more prominent target for hackers. To effectively safeguard a WordPress site from hacking, some security and spam-blocking plugins are needed.

Drupal is also generally less resource intensive with faster load times, although the majority of sites that are built on the drupal platform are large in terms of content anyway.

Drupal is easier to adapt with APIs and its built-in default caching features are more powerful while WordPress requires a caching plugin. For national organizations that have a need for mini sub-sites (for example, state chapters), multinational or multi-lingual sites can be deployed out of the box with Drupal. However, the multisite feature is groovy in WordPress for managing big portals, but you will just need customization and enhancing the ready made plugins.

Drupal mobile themes run best on a subdomain, for example, m.domain.com, but creating a subdomain presents challenges for indexing that sub-domain on search engines and requires a thought out mobile strategy before development. WordPress mobile versions can run on the same mobile sub-domain and don’t present similar issues.

For organic SEO, a crucial component of building traffic for most sites, Drupal far underperforms the same type of site built in WordPress.

WordPress vs Drupal: Speed of Installation & Development Costs

WordPress is the obvious lead if you are looking to quickly set up a streamlined CMS and scalable blog that can be extended with custom post types, plugins, and themes. WordPress, since it is so basic out of the box, is the best option for sites that need to get up quickly – A WordPress instance can be installed in less than 5 minutes.

WordPress is usually the first to market with accessible integrations of the newest web apps and technology.  Most popular webs apps have released a WordPress plugin for easy integration. WordPress’ interface offers uncomplicated content management, quick installation, turnkey maintenance, regular upgrades, and easy addition of functionality with thousands of free plugins.

In contrast, customizing Drupal really does require an intermediate understanding of HTML, CSS, and PHP. In general, it takes 2 to 3 times as long to develop a site on Drupal than on WordPress with the complexity of the user interface made up of taxonomies, nodes, views, dependencies, blocks, content types, and permissions.

WordPress sites cost about a third less than comparable Drupal sites–and generally end up being used more by clients.

drupal installation

WordPress vs Drupal: Updates, Upgrades & Backwards Compatibility

WordPress releases core updates quarterly on average and emphasizes backwards compatibility over architecture. This means that with each update, WordPress aims to minimize incompatibility or breaks in functionality. Drupal releases new versions far less often and usually makes massive core changes in architecture that can break backwards compatibility. Once again, another reason why it is imperative to have an agency or Drupal developer contracted at all times to maintain the core and updates of your site.

Wrap-Up: A Comparison of WordPress & Drupal Content Management Systems

To summarize, WordPress is a fast and easy-to-use content publishing platform with low training overhead and develop cost in comparison to Drupal. It’s easy to set up with a 5-minute installation process and it’s scalable and flexible with a large community and repository of free plugins and themes to choose from.

Drupal is a robust and less resource-intensive CMS that is more flexible out-of-the-box in terms of usage. There is a high overhead for training, maintenance, and implementation. It requires significant technical expertise to customize and update it over time. However, it is great for complex sites with lots of moving parts and data.

If your organization is small or medium-sized, with limited technical resources and developers on staff, and you are not limited by compliance requirements like HIPAA or Sarbanes-Oxley, WordPress is most likely suitable and scalable for long-term use.

If you are running a data-intensive website with tens of thousands of pages, as well as many content types and unique code-intensive custom applications, and have developers and technical users on staff, Drupal may be a better long-term fit.

In the end, you can build just about any site with either, but you will face different challenges with each.

Quiz: Help Choosing the Best Open-Source Content Management System for Your Organization

In the WordPress vs Drupal battle, which is the winner for your organization? If you are still unsure which to choose, take the 3-5 minute quiz below to get an answer.