The pain of choosing a CMS – Ghost vs. CraftCMS vs. Statamic vs. Wordpress vs. HUGO

cmscontent managementfront-enddesign

In a previous article I wrote about my rough idea to take my publishing to the next level when it comes to my websites and One of the things on the task list is to fid a content management system (CMS) which I can use to do what I want to do.

The easy way out

When I started my Gin Blog I did what I did with many other projects before: Download Wordpress, choose a theme that fits my needs to some extent, install it in a few minutes and get going. There is nothing wrong with that. Wordpress offers a million plugins, loads of themes, has even come around when it comes to GDPR compliance and has an amazing community and wealth of knowledge videos/articles/code snippets to tap into. Heck I even wrote Wordpress themes myself back in the days.

Let's quickly get the other pros out of the way: free to use, great e-commerce functionality with WooCommerce and unbelievably backwards compatible. A Wordpress blog can run for decades and still be security patched. I know that because I am aware of folks who do have Wordpress 2.x installed (15 years and counting).

The usual problems

Why don't you use Wordpress if all is good and fine? First of all it feels like being trapped in the system. There are export functions out there but that does not necessarily mean that you can get the content and structure into a new system after a platform change.

Wordpress feels sluggish in oh so many ways, the backend is a mess and simply makes me feel like I do not want to use it. That is the reason why I backed and enthusiastically started using Ghost the moment it showed up on the surface. Up until today I am super happy with the UI and the way I can type. It is clean and so slick. I have stopped writing in a text editor for a long while and it did what it promised: Being a simple blogging platform/software.

Now many of the themes for Wordpress out there look great and come as fully equipped battle ships. But you know what? I just want a slick boat with a few extras making my content shine. The moment I get all that functionality into Wordpress I have created a monster with a gazillion plugins and so many dependencies. My content is a mess of shortcodes and text fragments. Data is dumped into fields which will never come out of the system again.

The frustrations with other software

I am very familiar with Wordpress, know how to get it to perform like a F1 car and could do a lot of things myself. But it distracts me from creating content. And in order to get my setup the way I want it to be in a perfect world would take ages and lots of tweaking.

Ghost was great so far as it got me writing again. It is clean, it is fun, it is super limited and it costs me years of my life, literally. Ghost is run by a non-profit which employs the developers and offers a hosting service to make money. For a blog that you just want to quickly set up that is great. Except for one thing: The price. It feels ridiculously expensive. Plans start at 29 USD/month and there is not a whole lot of to get for that except for flawless hosting, continuous updates and backups. In times where one gets a server for 5 USD at DigitalOcean or the alike this is a lot of money.

Now I run various Ghost blogs (this one,, and that would be 87 USD/month so I opted for the self-hosted version. Making this work made me scream, rage and cry. I am a designer and I know a few things about tech. I do not fear the terminal. Frontend development is something I do for fun and half of my reading is tech related. But try getting three Ghost blogs installed on a server and keep them updated. Nightmare because the CI-tools simply do not work for me. I searched half the web but still there is something wrong every single time. So I settled for manual updates (sic).

In addition to the update nightmares the latest development for Ghost to make it subscription ready is great and was part of my thinking. But the problems remain the same. Plus: To make the subscription model work for me I cannot remain 100% GDPR-compliant without making use of non-EU companies, just stripe for payments so far. Sorry, cannot use it.

Another thing why Ghost is not the thing for the future is the fact that it cannot do what I want my CMS to do with my content. When I write a  gin review I want to link to matching tonics. Relations and connections in Ghost? Only via tags and that will be a hack. And the same goes for other connections and related topics etc. In short: This functionality is still missing.

The requirements

So what do I really need?

  1. Bring your own Code: clean and lean markup, no bloated 1.5 MB source code.
  2. Relationships: Offer cross references and linking to related content.
  3. System agnostic content: Writing in Markup is what I do anyway, so that would be perfect. Ghost understands that, Wordpress as well these days.
  4. Simple technology: Easy installation and updates.
  5. Speed: My site is simple and should load blazingly fast.
  6. Be flexible: A podcast and shopping functionality would be great.
  7. Multi-Language: I will need some dual language pages as well in the future.
  8. Beautiful UI: Having a nice backend UI is what makes me like going to my writing pad.
  9. Price: Free is great, but I need a sustainable CMS. Something which will be there tomorrow.
  10. Good documentation: Code snippets, demos, community. All essential to me as I am not a native developer.

My CMS Shortlist

I came across quite a few systems in the last 20 years and I have always tried to use best practices when it comes to frontend development. This has helped me in communicating a lot better with developers and led to creating the UIengineering initiative and podcast with Dennis Reimann. Many systems were never an option as they shipped with wrong or old-school markup, mixed content and structure, etc.

My list of systems to evaluate now is based on my current selection and potential candidates. Those are:

Let's compare them in a table:

Feature Craft EE Statamic Ghost HUGO
BYO Code
Relationships -
System agnostic - -
Simple installs/updates ? - ?
Flexibility -
Multi language -
Good UI - -
Price 299$ Free[1] 199$ Free[2] Free
Shop 199-999$ -[3] - - ?

[1 Support starts at 99$ / month]
[2 Hosted version starts at 29$]
[3 Paid for third party add-ons]

These are just a few of the aspects when you compare CraftCMS, ExpressionEngine, Statamic, Ghost, and Hugo but they are relevant to me. Since I do not write code that often I probably need to look up things in the documentation anyway. There is no preference to me really.

The potential candidate

So far I am biased to choose Statamic. It offers a fair pricing, seems to be developed consistently, has a good documentation to get started including great videos on YouTube, lots of great humor built into their site and videos, smart UI decisions, and let's me keep my content completely in markdown with some frontmatter.

While Craft was my initial candidate before I discovered Statamic, I like the fact that after a little bit of a setup marathon to get a dev environment ready on my machine, Statamic v3 looks like a nice collaboration tool as well. And it can be tracked in GIT, which makes updates and deployments a breeze. And as far as I can tell the pain of different databases when using any of the other systems (except for HUGO) is eliminated by using statamic as well as it has none but operates based on flat files which can be synced and deployed easily.

My next steps are to analyse my website concept in detail and see whether I find things which might be a pain point with Statamic but could be done more easily with any of the other systems. However so far I am quite confident to be able to use it as my system of choice.

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