Beyond WordPress: Static Site Generators

February 27, 2020

written by
Rex Vokey

(originally posted Feb 2020 – updated Jan 2021)

static site whaaat?!

In the early days of the Internet, most sites were “static.” In other words, they consisted only of some HTML and maybe some images and links.  It didn’t take long before we realized we’d like to be able to do more than just read some text, look at some images, and click on some links.  

Maybe I want to fill out a form or purchase a product.  This involves data/requests going somewhere and something being done with them.  You expect some kind of response once you take action. Oversimplifying things just a bit, this desire for interaction grew to the point where almost all sites were built on some kind of interactive infrastructure – even if only to process responses on your contact form.  These aren’t static sites. They are dynamic sites.

By far, the most common reason for having a dynamic site these days, is to make it so users can manage the content on their own sites—Content Management Systems (CMSes).

wordpress is still king

Of all of the CMSes out there, WordPress is by far the most popular, with over 27 million live sites.  We’ve been devoted to WordPress for years, now.  Formerly specializing only in Drupal builds because of its flexibility, we eventually gravitated towards WordPress for its larger community, developer-friendliness, and many other reasons.  But for all that WordPress has going for it, we feel it’s still not the ‘ideal’ solution. Don’t get me wrong: it’s ideal enough that 3FO, and our clients, and 27 million other sites rely on it. So what do we think can be improved?

performance and security

Bluntly, static sites are faster and more secure. There’s nothing to hack and users (including Google’s search engine) love the speed. Which means less spent on security, less time on maintenance and reviews, plus a WAY better SEO game. All of which translates to the golden ticket; it’s cheaper in the long run. 

WordPress brings convenience, recognition, and a svelte interface to the game.  But it is not known for its speediness and page speed matters. It has to generate a page each time a user asks for it (by clicking on a link).  For a page that has text and images on it, that’s unnecessary overhead. A speed comparison done by one developer showed a page taking just 12% of the time to load statically versus being generated by WordPress on demand.  That’s over 7 times faster!

While WordPress is pretty secure, being an open-source system means you have to stay on top of security updates if you want it to remain secure.  You know those hackers that change the content on a site and hold it hostage? Yeah, you can’t do that with a static site. 3FO spends a few hours of every retainer each month reviewing WordPress and plugins for security updates. Imagine if we could spend those hours developing new landing pages or improving user flow on a website instead of dealing with bad actors.  Everyone’s websites would be better and faster! 

So, why don’t we use this fabulously amazing static site build in everything we do?  Well, we’ve actually started!

where are we now?

Last year around this time, we had yet to put any Static Site Generators into use.  Things have actually matured quite a bit even just in the last year!  We’re actually in the process of rebuilding a client’s site on NextJS, Vercel as the hosting provider, and DatoCMS as the content management system.  These three systems work exceptionally well together, and we’ve even managed to set up a system so that we can do this one page at a time, proxying any pages not yet built on the new system straight through to the legacy site.