Have you ever had a new house built, or maybe watched one go up in your neighborhood? We live in a growing community and now that the economy is improving, construction is exploding again. We have two houses being built across the street, and two more where the lots are already sold. In each case, once they were ready to begin construction, the first task was to dig a hole and insert metal frames so that the concrete foundation can be poured. Once the foundation is in, they can build up the rest of the home’s walls, flooring, windows, siding and rooftop.
Your website is that foundation. Your site needs to be the structure on which the rest of your marketing is built, and therefore, it must be solid and well constructed.
When I started my web development firm in 2007, I knew that building static HTML websites was a thing of the past. They were inefficient for customers, and I hated having to update them. At the time, the prime choices for building dynamic, independent websites were WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and DotNetNuke. After careful evaluation, I chose to specialize in Drupal. Since then, WordPress has improved dramatically, DotNetNuke is virtually dead, and Joomla is still pretty much the same. Drupal, meanwhile, has continued to improve and remain, in my opinion, the top choice for professional-grade websites.
What is Drupal?
Before I go into the benefits of Drupal, let me better explain what it is. Drupal is an open source website platform. That means that you can install Drupal anywhere you want, and change anything you want, and it is entirely yours. For the technical-minded, Drupal uses the coding language PHP and works best on a LAMP stack (Linux Apache MySQL PHP).
Just like WordPress, Drupal is a Content Management System (CMS). A CMS allows you to log into your website and add content or make changes whenever you wish. The website’s files on a server are only core configuration and design files. All of your website’s information and data is stored within a database.
Drupal started to be used as a platform in 2001 and became extremely popular starting in 2005. There are now millions of sites using Drupal including high profile sites like IKEA and The White House. Why are so many sites, and so many professional web developers, choosing to use Drupal? Because it’s flexible, secure and extendable.
Drupal is one of the most flexible platforms available today, and was designed that way from the beginning. WordPress has done a great job in recent years of adding additional plugins to give it more flexibility, but I believe WP is still playing catch-up.
For example, one of the key strengths that I identified early on with Drupal was that I could use a simple module called CCK (short for Content Construction Kit), to create entirely new types of content. Out of the box, Drupal would allow users to create Pages, Blog entries, Stories, Books and Polls. Those are great, but what if I wanted to also create FAQs or Testimonials or Press Releases? By separating those into different content types, I can exert complete control over what fields are or are not included in the forms to create those pieces of content, where they’re displayed, and even how they’re displayed. And those are just some basic examples. It’s just as easy within Drupal to create complex Home Listings that have all kinds of data fields for square footage, beds, baths and so on.
Another example of the flexibility of Drupal is that you can have multiple users, each with different roles and permission sets, and multiple bloggers. That may not sound like a big deal, but it really is. Being able to allow multiple employees to create and post blog entries for the business, or being able to accept guest blog posts that are propely attributed, is critical to successful content marketing strategy. Drupal handles this with ease.
Now more than ever, security should be of paramount concern to business owners. A successful inbound marketing campaign is going to result in large amounts of traffic to your site, and your site needs to be able to handle that traffic and increased attention. Thankfully, Drupal’s built-in security is incredible.
For instance, Drupal will completely lock down whatever directory it is installed in so that individual files – configuration files – can never be accessed directly. If you attempt to call up a file by typing it directly into the address bar, you will come to a custom Access Denied or Page Not Found error page within your site.
Furthermore, Drupal.org maintains a dedicated security team that regularly reviews issues and releases updates. A Drupal installation can instantly notify you if there is an update available for Drupal core or any contributed module you have installed.
In fact, most of the security releases that come out are for issues where there’s only a loophole if something hasn’t been configured correctly, but they look for those instances and address them regardless.
Extendability refers to the ability to take a platform beyond the core capability through the addition of contributed modules. Most of the major CMS options include modules, plugins or extensions, and Drupal is no different.
With Drupal, any time you want to add some additional functionality to your website, there’s a module for that. ECommerce is the most common example, and a great one. If I’m building a website for a client and they decide they want to sell a product or charge for a service or offer a subscription membership, that’s no problem. We can simply add the approprite eCommerce module(s) and configure as needed to achieve the result they were looking for.
Often though, it’s much smaller requests where Drupal really shines. Perhaps you want to have a quick drop down menu in a sidebar that automatically populates menu items from a vocabulary list of blog tags, or some other feature that would be nice to have. The Drupal developer community has not only created a rich set of modules to choose from, there are often several modules with similar capabilities. We can try one and if it doesn’t do exactly what we hoped, we can try a different one. On Drupal.org, all modules are completely free to download and use.
And of course, if the module doesn’t do exactly what we want, or there just isn’t a module available, because Drupal is open source and PHP-based, we can modify a module if we want to or even create a completely new one, depending on the need.
There are also a lot of myths and misperceptions about Drupal that should be cleared up.
Myth #1 – Drupal is hard to use.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Drupal is, in fact, extremely easy to use. I have worked with clients who came from Joomla or WordPress and honestly found Drupal to be easier to use.
The problem is that Drupal is in fact harder to install and configure. I will be completely honest about that. Setting up a Drupal site is not a task for a weekend warrior. It is a professional-grade system for a reason, and even though some hosting companies will offer a self-installer, if you’re determined to build your website yourself, particularly if it’s for fun or a hobby, WordPress is probably a better route.
My Drupal implementation clients receive complete administrative access, training, and online Drupal documentation that is specific to my installations. Anything that a site owner needs to do is explained and configured to be as easy and efficient as possible.
Myth #2 – Drupal is limited to boring, old designs.
Again, this myth is busted. Because Drupal is based on HTML, PHP and CSS, you can design your Drupal site to look like anything.
The problem here is that because Drupal isn’t the most popular kid on the block, there are fewer templates that people can use if they don’t have design skills. And the templates that are available aren’t the greatest. This results in many Drupal sites that look ho-hum. But that’s not the fault of the platform. If I choose to use a boring, free theme for my site, that’s my fault. (And that’s also bad for my business!)
Does this look like an old, boring site to you?
Myth #3 – Drupal is poor for SEO.
I hear this myth a lot and I think I know where it comes from. When you first install Drupal, it will test to see if your server can use something called “Clean URLs.” That means that, instead of having q?= and other characters in the URL for your site’s pages, you will have clear, readable words separated by slashes and dashes. if your server isn’t configured correctly, or you don’t choose to activate this feature, the result will be URLs that are ugly, and potentially not as friendly to search engines.
Similarly, the default naming structure for new content is content/[title]. That’s not really ideal. But it’s easy to go into the settings and tell blogs to be named blog/[title]-[date] and all your other content can be similarly adjusted.
Full meta tags, XML sitemaps and other features can all be added easily, and in fact, are standard in each of my installations. As a result, I have seen new Drupal sites that replace other, older sites, and immediately achieve more search engine traffic with the exact same content.
Myth #4 – Drupal is slow.
Again, this is a myth that’s spawned from too many incorrect or incomplete implementations of Drupal. Like any dynamic website, if you install every cool looking module and plugin you can find, it’s going to slow down. And if you host with a subpar hosting vendor, it’s going to be even worse.
For example, I mentioned CSS Aggregation. That refers to the fact that in most Drupal installations, you’re going to end up with multiple CSS files. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) are the files used to dictate how things look. A basic site wil have a simple style.css file, but more complex designs will use multiple CSS files to better organize layout and design, rather than have one long file with thousands of lines of code. Additionally, many modules will load CSS files of their own if the module provides some functionality that requires visual styling. As a result, each time you load a page, Drupal has to serve all of these CSS files and each one takes just a little more time. We’re only talking about fractions of a second, but that can add up. Instead, once you’re done editing these files, you can turn on CSS Aggregation and Drupal will compress all of those CSS files and merge them into one fast-loading file. It does a fantastic job of increased page load speed, as well as addressing CSS file limitations in older Internet Explorer browsers. As a developer though, if you go back and change one of the individual CSS files, in order for your change to go into effect you have to rebuild the aggregated CSS file. That takes just a moment, but if you’re making a series of changes, it’s better turn off aggregation and then turn it back on once you’re finished.
These aren’t the only benefits or myths about Drupal. If you’ve used Drupal and want to share a few of the benefits you’ve noticed, please do! If you’ve heard another myth I didn’t address, or have any questions at all about the Drupal CMS, please feel free to share them in the comments.
Image courtesy of alltooeasy, Drupal Groups.