Why Static Site Generators Aren’t The Next Big Thing

Static Site GeneratorsTowards the end of last year, Mathias Biilmann Christensen published an excellent article in Smashing Magazine entitled Why Static Website Generators Are The Next Big Thing. It’s well worth reading, and I agree with most of the points Christensen makes. I’m a fan of static site generators and I’ve written about them many times on this very blog, but — being in a contrarian mood — I want to argue against the basic premise. I’m not so sure static site generators are the next big thing.

Don’t get me wrong, SSGs are great for developers, designers, and web development hobbyists. Static sites are blazingly fast even on the most modest of web hosting. The security advantages alone are reason enough to make static sites worth considering. But, static site generators as they currently exist aren’t the right choice for everyone.

The vast majority of web hosting users simply want a no-fuss way to write and publish content. A significant minority are publishers who manage complex publication workflows involving many different people — writers, editors, proofreaders.

Static site generators can for work these people, but content management systems like WordPress are often a better option. It all depends on what the user wants to achieve and how much effort they’re prepared to invest to achieve it.

Some Coding Required

To make the most of a static site generator, you need to have at least a passing familiarity with HTML, CSS, and potentially JavaScript. You also need to be comfortable on the command line. Jekyll, for example, is a great tool, but setting up a local Jekyll environment is often a nightmare of conflicting Ruby versions and dependencies that need to be sorted out on the command line.

Writing or editing a custom theme for an SSG like Jekyll is a breeze for a developer — not so much for the blogger who simply wants to publish articles about their hobby. It is possible to download a theme, but it’s nowhere near as simple as installing a theme in WordPress, and the user will still have to delve into configuration files written in an arcane language.

What’s A Content Management System?

For the most part, static site generators don’t offer the tools that a publisher needs to manage complex content management and publishing workflows. Running a popular blog that publishes many articles per day — each of which requires several editing passes — is possible with an SSG, but it’s not ideal to say the least.

Publishers would have to use other tools to manage content. That’s perfectly doable, but content management systems like WordPress were created in the first place to integrate all of that functionality into one tool.

Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on your perspective. Some argue persuasively that separating the content management and site generation functions is a good thing, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but it’s not what many bloggers and publishers want.

You Want To Publish From What?

Almost everyone with a website or blog will want to publish from their mobile devices at some point. If your blog’s static site generator lives on your laptop, then you need your laptop to publish.

Of course, there are ways around this limitation. One popular workflow is to store the site’s source on GitHub and edit it there using a tool like Prose.io from your mobile device. If you hook the GitHub repository up to a continuous integration service like Travis CI, a build can be triggered when a file is changed in the GitHub repo, and the results pushed to the live server that hosts the site.

Now, read that again and tell me it’s something the average blogger or business site administrator wants to do.

(I know GitHub offers free hosting for Jekyll sites, but it’s really only suitable for low-traffic personal blogs and open source projects.)

I want to stress again that I love static site generators, the ease with which I can build custom sites with them, their flexibility, their security, and the sheer fun of using them, but for most people, WordPress and other CMSs will remain the optimal choice.

Matthew Davis is a technical writer and Linux geek for Future Hosting.

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  • jasongowans

    An alternative to GitHub Pages is Aerobatic (www.aerobatic.com). No CI tool necessary. Jekyll builds happen automatically. You’re right that SSGs still need to be easier to edit to gain mass adoption by non-technical users, but that’s a function of time in a quickly-evolving space and not an indictment of the whole movement in my opinion. Disclaimer – I’m a co-founder of Aerobatic.

  • But what about a flat-file CMS like Pulse CMS? It gives you the best of both worlds. The advantages of a static site and also the admin UI (CMS) for content publishers.

  • There’s also forestry.io (is static site CMS an oxymoron?) But I don’t know what about multiple editing passes.