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Stand Out from the (Wordpress) Crowd with a Static Website

Revamp your web presence.

April 12, 2016

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is doctoral student in English Literature at Northeastern University. You can find him on Twitter at @jon_fitzgerald or at his (static) website www.jonathandfitzgerald.com.




If you don’t already have a personal website, you’ve probably been meaning to create one, right? You'll set up a home page, maybe a short bio page, definitely a link to your CV. Maybe you’ll add a space for blogging because somebody told you once that academics should blog. And, you’ll probably utilize WordPress to put this altogether. Maybe, if you’re waiting, it’s because you think you have to learn WordPress. But you really don’t.


WordPress is easy, and it has become the go-to tool for academics who want to establish a web presence, for good reason. Besides being easy to use, it’s fairly customizable and extensible. For any functionality you can dream up, it’s a pretty sure bet somebody has created a free plugin to do it. But WordPress also has its limits. At its core, it is a blogging platform, and while academics may want to include a blog as part of their personal website, it is typically not the centerpiece. Additionally, WordPress sites rely on a SQL database to store their data, which makes them notoriously slow. This can prove a barrier to entry for those who don’t have a high speed internet connection. Finally, because so many sites use WordPress, it has become a target for hackers.


But in addition to these (admittedly minor) limitations, creating your website in WordPress may not be the best idea for another reason: its popularity means that websites built with WordPress often end up looking the same. There are a number of other content management systems (CMS) out there—I’ve personally tried out Drupal, Joomla, Squarespace, and Textpattern—and just this past month Medium, arguably the most popular blogging site in recent years, launched Medium for Publishers, their answer to the CMS. These all have their strengths and weaknesses, but recently I decided to move my personal site away from a web-based CMS altogether in favor of a stripped-down static site generator called Jekyll.


If you Google “WordPress vs Jekyll” you’ll find pages and pages of results with comparisons and, mostly, reasons people switched to Jekyll, so I won’t rehash those here. Rather, I want to talk about why, as an academic, I moved my site, and why you might want to consider Jekyll too.


What is Jekyll?


Jekyll is a static site generator. Basically this means that rather than relying on a database to store your website’s information, everything you see on a webpage is actually there, coded in HTML. This means that your site is super fast. But it’s not as if you have to hand code every page from scratch, that’s where the generator part comes in. Rather, you set up templates for parts of the site that don’t change, the header, navigation menu, footer, etc., and then when you generate your site, it’s all compiled on each page. It has some other cool features like the ability to write in Markdown, but for more detailed information, I’d direct you to Jekyll’s documentation page.


Why Jekyll?


You can create a unique web presence…


As I said, one of my main problems with WordPress is the way that sites built with it end up looking the same. The truth is, WordPress is fully customizable, but by nature of its design it’s not easy to do. Rather, WordPress assumes you’ll find a theme you like and maybe make some minor changes to the built-in colors and logos and the like. Jekyll is called a static site generator because, though it has a dynamic build process that utilizes the command line, the resultant site is a set of HTML files in an easy to understand folder structure. This means that, with some coding knowledge, you can make a Jekyll site look exactly the way you want it to.


…while learning new skills.


What’s that, you don’t know anything about coding in HTML or using the command line on your computer? Well, that’s just another reason to give Jekyll a try. When you build your site with WordPress, you’re not really learning anything. Sure, you can put “WordPress” under the “Technical Proficiencies” section of your CV, but anyone who has used WordPress knows this is basically meaningless. All it says about you is that you can follow easy directions and you know how to write in a word processor. But if you successfully create a Jekyll site, go ahead and add “Ruby, RubyGems, YAML, HTML, CSS, Terminal, and (most likely) GitHub.”


Host your site for free!


As if the above reasons weren’t enough, there is an added perk for grad students on a shoestring budget: GitHub Pages offers free hosting for sites built with Jekyll. As it is the engine that powers GitHub Pages, publishing your website there is super easy. You basically just check your site into your GitHub account and the site is generated automagically. And, again, did I mention it’s free? That could save you around $100/year as compared with WordPress or Squarespace hosting.


All of that said, there is another cost involved that is more difficult to quantify, and that is the cost of your time. There is a learning curve involved in mastering Jekyll, and, while I think it’s worth it to learn new skills, this is not the one-click publishing that WordPress promises. But, if you take the time to learn it, in addition to the pride that comes with acquiring a new technological skill, you’ll get a fast, fully customizable site that will stand out from the crowd and be a less likely target for hackers.


And yes, you can blog with Jekyll too.


What did you use to build your website? Are you happy with the way it turned out? Have you tried a static site generator?

[Image from Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license]


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