Note: This case study was completed for assessment item 3, INB347 Semester 1, 2011.
WordPress.com is a hosted blogging platform based on the open source WordPress system. It is designed to allow users to sign up and create their own blog. Users can choose from a completely free version, or pay for upgrades to add functionality, including the ability to use custom designs and to register and use a custom domain name instead of the free youraddress.wordpress.com sub-domain. WordPress.com provides a suite of easy to use tools including a what-you-see-is-what-you-get content editor for blogging, simple CMS functions and tagging. It also allows for simple customisation of their provided templates through the use of widgets, many of which allow content to be pulled from other services, such as Flickr feeds and RSS feeds from other blogs.
WordPress.Com has two primary competitors, TypePad and Blogger. Comparatively, Blogger is the only one of these three platforms that was originally developed as a hosted blog publishing service and was first released in 1999 (Google, n.d.). WordPress was originally developed as a standalone blog solution for individual blogs and was first released in 2003 by developer Matt Mullenweg (Mullenweg, 2003). TypePad has a similar story, originally developed as the Movable Type blogging platform that was first released in 2001 (Trott, 2001). In 2003, Google bought Blogger and began to push it as a blog publishing service (Gillmore, 2003). TypePad came soon after in 2003 (Wikipedia n.d.). In 2005, WordPress.com was released as a hosted blog publishing service (Mullenweg, 2005). This could be seen a way to turn the open source platform into a viable business with an effective business model capable of revenue generation.
Addressed throughout this case study, are examples of how WordPress.com has fulfilled the 8 patterns of Web 2.0 as defined by O’Reilly (2005). Also inclusive are gaps, legal and ethical implications, and potential future directions for the company. The case study will then look into the strategic side of Web 2.0 and how WordPress.com has approached it.
Section A – Case Study Part 1
1. Harnessing Collective Intelligence
WordPress.com harnesses collective intelligence in two key ways:
- Harnessing the intelligence of developers worldwide to develop the open source system, WordPress, that forms the basis of WordPress.com; and
- Utilising individual users to develop content that can be used for advertising to create a revenue stream independent of their paid upgrades.
With the intelligence of so many developers contributing to the WordPress platform, there is the ability to quickly implement changes and fix issues detected by the vast test user base. This test base allows bugs to be quickly picked up and corrected before official production versions are released.
As individual users create content, this quickly develops into a diverse series of websites with content on a range of topics that interest each user and their audiences. This same task would take an enormous amount of time and effort for a paid team to develop. This user content allows targeted advertising through the Google Adsense advertising network, enabling the generation of revenue through user blog posts (Mullenweg, 2008). A paid upgrade option allows advertising to be disabled helping to make up the difference in revenue lost from advertising (WordPress.Com, 2010).
Similarly, TypePad also utilises the intelligence of developers and testers around the world through the open source development of MovableType, the platform that TypePad is based on. In contrast though, TypePad does not show advertising at all on their free solution (TypePad, n.d.), instead, their paid options entirely fund this. However, the implication is a more expensive paid subscription with less flexibility than the alternative WordPress.com option.
In comparison, Blogger does not utilise an open source development model, instead, it is developed in-house. As with TypePad, it does not display advertising by default. It does however, give users the option to enable Google Adsense on their blogs (Google, n.d.), and offers the equivalent revenue percentage as if the user was displaying Adsense advertising on an external website (Google, n.d.).
2. Data is the next “Intel Inside”
Data is vital to the success of WordPress.com. Without user-generated data there is no reason for WordPress.com to exist, and without that data, there is no need for paid upgrades, nor is there any advertising revenue. Continual data creation ensures the ongoing economic viability of the company.
By providing a service that customers want to use, WordPress.com is able to harness the collective data of over 20 million blogs (WordPress.com, n.d.) to display targeted advertising to readers (WordPress, 2011). This targeted advertising generates revenue for the company, allowing them to continue to provide both new and existing features, free of charge. Without this revenue stream, WordPress.com would need to rely solely on paid upgrades to generate income, or a subscription based revenue model such as TypePad (discussed below).
In comparison, while user generated data is vital to the existence of TypePad and Blogger, it is not as directly linked to their revenue stream. TypePad’s revenue stream is based solely around paid user subscriptions (TypePad, n.d.). Blogger on the other hand, generates revenue for parent company Google by encouraging user’s to run Google Adsense advertisements on their blogs (Google, n.d.). This generates revenue for both the blog author and Google, while ultimately providing the funding needed to continue development on the platform.
3. Innovation in Assembly
WordPress.com is at the forefront of the blogging community with over 20 million blogs hosted on their platform (WordPress.com, n.d.) compared to 4 million self-hosted WordPress blogs (BuiltWith, 2011) (though there are over 12 million downloads of the self-hosted WordPress system at the time of writing this (WordPress, n.d.)), 398,000 on Blogger according to current statistics by BuiltWith (2011), only 21,000 websites using TypePad (BuiltWith, 2011), and 53,000 on the self-hosted Movable Type platform (BuiltWith 2011). This gives WordPress.Com a greater market share than all other major competitors combined, including its self-hosted solution. This dominance has been achieved through constant innovation in assembly.
WordPress.com offers some API’s at this time, though not specifically for individual blogs. The closest thing to an API on an individual blog is the ability to use custom stylesheets with the premium CSS upgrade. In a more general context, WordPress.com has an API that works like the Twitter API. It allows users to follow blog’s and post to blogs through a Twitter client (WordPress.com, 2010). Subscriptions at this time are managed through their Blog Surfer system, and this system doesn’t directly integrate with Twitter, but mimics the behaviour of Twitter when used with a Twitter client that supports custom API’s. Replies and retweets are not currently available, but the Twitter API page does indicate that they are in the works (WordPress.com, 2010). Similar to this, other applications are available to create blog posts on other devices. The majority of these are WordPress.com developed applications, such as their iOS, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Android and Nokia applications, however third party applications are also available (WordPress.com, n.d.). Furthermore, RSS feeds are available from every blog, allowing data to be aggregated or syndicated in various ways, including through WordPress.com’s own “Freshly Pressed” – some of the top, most recent blog posts on the WordPress.com network. As of March 2011 (Mullenweg, 2011), Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, released the Jetpack plugin, which behaves like an API. Jetpack allows users of the self-hosted WordPress solution to literally plug into some of the features of the WordPress.com cloud system. This includes website statistics, short-links, spell checking, social sharing tools, LaTeX markup support and more, with other features planned for the future (Automattic, n.d.).
WordPress.com’s API’s differ from the self-hosted WordPress platform API’s. The self-hosted WordPress platform utilises a plugin API that allows developers to build their own add-on utilities for self-hosted WordPress installations. Particularly popular and easy to use plugins can and sometimes are incorporated into the WordPress.com system after community discussion. Examples of this include integration with the Flickr and Delicious API’s.
While not everything is available through an API, WordPress.com has still become both extremely stable and popular. Without an API to truly allow third parties to interact with the underlying system more freely, it limits extended use cases. It could however be argued that this isn’t a limitation as it ensures system stability and security, and the self-hosted WordPress solution does not have this limitation. If users do want to incorporate some of the WordPress.com benefits in their self-hosted blogs, in the words of Matt Mullenweg, “have your cake and eat it too”, it is partially possible through the Jetpack plugin, bringing the self-hosted solution to near-parity in terms of features, with WordPress.com.
Competitor TypePad does not offer any API at this time; the closest is the plugin system available through the self-hosted version, MovableType. Blogger does however offer an API with a range of existing third party applications (Google, n.d.). “The Blogger Data API allows client applications to view and update Blogger content in the form of Google Data API feeds. Your client application can use the Data API to create new blog posts, edit or delete existing posts, and query for posts that match particular criteria.” (Google, n.d.). This means that when using the Blogger Data API, you can create a list of blog posts and comments for use on another site; an application or application plugin that allows blog post creation; or, a blog aggregator application (Google, n.d.).
4. Rich User Experiences
WordPress.com has focused on providing a rich user experience from its inception. Despite significant efforts towards improving usability of the self-hosted WordPress package a technical barrier still remained in the setup process. As stated on their “About Us” page WordPress.com aimed to change this by allowing users to create a new blog quickly without any technical knowledge (WordPress.com, n.d.). With this goal in mind, WordPress.com has created not only a simple to use system with a rich, desktop-like interface, but a detailed, step-by-step user manual, “From zero to hero” (n.d.), that guides users through the process of creating a blog and getting found online.
The WordPress.com system is based on the open source WordPress platform (WordPress.com, n.d.), however, the WordPress.com website integrates a number of additions seamlessly into this hosted blog environment, including: help; tag clouds; forums; paid upgrades; multiple blog support; and more, to form a larger community network. This means once a user is logged in, they have access to all of these features in an environment that is consistent and works the same way no matter where it is accessed from, including via mobile devices. This translates into a rich user experience. The website incorporates a large amount of AJAX, even the signup form utilises AJAX to check domain name availability and make alternative suggestions in a user friendly way. The above example and others, can be seen throughout the website, allowing it to function on a low speed internet connection as though it were a desktop application.
Competing systems such as TypePad lack the extended network of WordPress.com, so the user experience is limited to the blog platform itself. However, consistency has been maintained throughout their desktop browser interfaces and across their mobile interfaces (TypePad, n.d.), meaning users have similar experiences regardless of how they interact with the platform.
Further, the Blogger system is more simplistic in the interface used and doesn’t make use of much AJAX or other automated tools. At this time, it does not provide a full mobile interface like WordPress.com or TypePad. Instead, it offers the option to create a blog from a text message (Google, n.d.) or from an email (Google, n.d.). This is an inconsistent user experience. WordPress.com and TypePad both offer a richer user experience than Blogger.
5. Software Above the Level of a Single Device
WordPress.com has extensive compatibility across devices, both in terms of the user interface for authors and the interface for readers. The author is able to use the platform from anywhere on any device, and similarly, the audience is able to access and read the blog from anywhere on any device, regardless of how much traffic it is getting. As discussed later in “Lightweight models and cost effective scalability”, the WordPress.com grid is a cloud computing platform that enables WordPress.com hosted blogs to be load-balanced across hundreds of servers (WordPress.com, n.d.). At the back-end, behind what the users see, the website is run across a number of servers in order to maintain stability and scale as necessary to meet demands of the website traffic. In both these ways, WordPress.com operates above the level of a single device.
TypePad can lay similar claims in both their accessible interfaces across multiple devices for the reader and author, and in their hosting capabilities. However, they are not as transparent about their hosting platform’s capabilities, but they do indicate hosting a number of high-profile websites that receive large amounts of traffic including the BBC (TypePad, n.d.) which indicates that their hosting platform is capable of scaling to handle large quantities of traffic.
Blogger is also capable of operating across multiple devices for the author and for the reader, however it’s not known exactly how it is hosted except that it is on Google’s scalable platform (Klau, 2010).
6. Perpetual Beta
WordPress.com, while not officially advertised as being in a state of perpetual beta, does advertise that updates are rolled out almost every day (WordPress.com, n.d.). New features are often tested through the self-hosted WordPress development community prior to their implementation, and finally approved by one of the lead developers for inclusion (WordPress.com, n.d.). This means that WordPress.com is under a constant state of development, and while the self-hosted WordPress system does have version numbers, WordPress.com does not. These two items indicate that WordPress.com operates in a state of perpetual beta.
TypePad and Blogger operate similarly with disregard for version numbers, simply making new features available to users as they are available. Blogger does however have a “Blogger in Draft” version that gives users the ability to opt-in to features that are in testing and are not considered ready for production (Google, n.d.). Like WordPress.com, TypePad relies on the input of the open source community in developing new features and testing bugs. Blogger however, is developed internally.
7. Leveraging the Longtail
WordPress.com leverages the longtail in one key way, user blogs. WordPress.com itself does not rank well in many search results, for example it doesn’t show up in the first page for “create a blog” or “write a blog”, though it does rank well for “free blog sites”. How it really leverages the long tail though is through link placement on user blogs. This exists even on high profile, VIP hosted, premium blogs such as the official NFL blog (NFL Enterprises, n.d.). User blogs all contain unique content targeted to different audiences searching for different keywords and phrases. WordPress.com is then linked to from each and every page on each and every blog hosted on their platform. This means when a reader searches for something and finds a blog post, the “Blog at WordPress.Com” link or the “Powered by WordPress.com VIP” link is shown at the footer of their blog, allowing them to be found for numerous words and phrases that they may not have otherwise been able to be found at.
In comparison, TypePad does not show any links back to their website from their hosted solutions. Blogger places a “Powered by Blogger” link at the footer of each blog, as well as a toolbar at the top of each blog that allows readers to create a blog directly from the page they are reading. WordPress.com does have a similar toolbar available on their website, however it is not displayed on user blogs unless the reader is logged in. Enabling this toolbar for anonymous users could potentially improve their longtail results, but it would risk losing some customers who may not like the toolbar being shown prominently at the top of their blog. This is definitely a gap in WordPress.com that could be leveraged better, but the balance needs to be maintained so as not to detract from the service and potentially send customers to competitor TypePad instead.
8. Lightweight Models and Cost Effective Scalability
WordPress.com blogs are hosted on the WordPress.com grid, capable of scaling to handle traffic spikes through load balancing across hundreds of servers (WordPress.com, n.d.). Therefore, WordPress.com websites are automatically capable of handling going viral and will scale as necessary to meet demand. While not as lightweight as some startups, the company behind WordPress.com, Automattic, operates with approximately 76 staff across the world (Automattic, n.d.). 76 staff though is still remarkably small for a company that manages a network infrastructure with over 1,200 servers across 3 data centres (WordPress.com, n.d.). Staff must additionally handle continuous maintenance of the WordPress.com platform (WordPress.com, n.d.), as well as contributions to the open source, self-hosted WordPress platform. Further, WordPress.com provides email support services and paid VIP support for enterprise level clients (WordPress.com, n.d.) in addition to their extensive self-service support section (WordPress.com, n.d.).
WordPress.com offers a full-featured free version with the ability to pay for extra features you want to have added-on, such as custom domain names or extra storage without the need for a subscription that may have unnecessary or unwanted features (WordPress.com, n.d.). In comparison, Blogger offers a similar feature set, but is completely free with no paid versions available (Google, n.d.). TypePad however puts the emphasis on their paid subscription plans with a free “Micro” version available for personal users offering a limited feature set (TypePad, n.d.).
As mentioned earlier, WordPress.Com utilises a load-balanced grid, or in other words, a cloud of servers to manage their hosting and ensure cost-effective scalability for all their hosted blogs. In comparison, TypePad describe their hosting as being provided in a tier 1 data centre (TypePad, n.d.), but little more information is provided. No information is provided about exactly where or how Blogger websites are hosted, except that they are now run from Google servers (Klau, 2010).
It appears from browsing through the features, product information, pricing structures and tutorials for each of these services, that Blogger is targeted towards personal users with only minimal support for large customers. WordPress.com and TypePad however, appear to be designed to cater for enterprise grade customers, with support for individual or personal users as well. TypePad boasts large corporate clients such as ABC, MSNBC, CBC, BBC and Sky News (TypePad, n.d.) whilst WordPress.com claims large clients such as the Dow Jones “AllThingsD”, the CNN “Political Ticker”, the official NFL blog, the official Flickr blog, and more (WordPress.com, n.d.). High profile, high traffic clients such as these demonstrate that the WordPress.com grid is capable of scaling to handle very high traffic on client websites whilst remaining cost effective.
Section B – Case Study Part 2
1. Users Create Value – Build on Collective User Value
Users create substantial value for WordPress.com as they generate vast amounts of content as discussed in Section A – Part 2. This data enables targeted advertising to be used to generate revenue for WordPress.com. It also assists in creating a network effect as discussed in the next section.
As users generate more content doing what they want to do, writing about a topic of their interest, they use more space and may begin to desire more features, such as a custom domain name. This is where user retention comes into play and adds more value to the user. As discussed later in Section B – Part 4, WordPress.com creates trust and competence by giving users the option to export their data, so if the service is no longer right for them, they can leave with their data intact and ready to be imported into another system. This trust is a factor that is vital to customer retention and can be the deciding factor between choosing to go elsewhere or choosing to upgrade their WordPress.com account with premium, paid features. The implications of this trust ensure that the customer is an even more valuable asset to the company.
WordPress.com gives it’s users instant gratification with the ability to create a blog in under a minute, and upgrade it to premium features instantly as desired. Users are instantly joined to a community of thousands of other bloggers (WordPress.com, n.d.) where they are immediately able to comment, vote on polls, subscribe to blogs, and build their own community network. A further set of instantly available features are blog statistics, and integration into the WordPress.com tag cloud. This gives users further value when compared to the self-hosted WordPress platform as they are automatically plugged into this community and cloud that gives them the ability to generate readers via avenues that are not available in the self-hosted version.
2. Networks Multiply Effects – Activate Network Effects
WordPress.com utilises network effects very well in the close competition between itself, Blogger and TypePad. Blogger certainly has the advantage of being the first to the game, but WordPress.com has currently come out well ahead primarily due to the multiplication of network effects right from the start.
Initially, WordPress.com was invite only, which created a perception of exclusivity and generated a buzz around it. During this initial period, they were able to give fantastic service to those initial customers who in turn told their friends about the fantastic service they got, which generated more hype around the platform (Mullenweg, 2009). As Matt Mullenweg points out in 2010 in his essay on www.ma.tt, “1.0 is the loneliest number”, the following year, 2006, they were starting to get high-profile blogs switching over. This meant that new developers were being attracted to the open source project, thus resulting in a rapid speed-up in feature development and bug fixing.
As a result of more users and developers switching their focus, it has brought WordPress.com into the spotlight more than ever (Mullenweg, 2010), thus encouraging even more users onto their platform. These network effects have been vital in the success of WordPress.com breaking into a market dominated by competitors.
3. People Build Connections – Work Through Social Networks
A large part of the success of the WordPress.com community is due to the extensive use of social networking by the development team and WordPress.com users. Matt Mullenweg, the creator of WordPress (Mullenweg, 2003) has a number of his own blogs as well as Twitter and Facebook, all of which he publicly shares on his websites so that interested people can find him easily. This allows interested people and parties to receive updates from him both on a personal level and on a business level, so as soon as a new product or feature is rolled out, or a new blog post is written by him on one of his numerous blogs, the 30,000+ users on Twitter that follow him (n.d.) and 44,000+ users on Facebook that like him (n.d.) get updated on it immediately. This has developed into an extensive network and is in addition to social sharing by users and other developers of WordPress.com. This allows Mullenweg and other developers to directly interact with end users and increase the prominence of their products.
At WordPress.com the value of social media has been realized, and as discussed in Section A – Part 3, a Twitter style API has been developed to allow users to read, comment on and share blogs the same way they would on Twitter. Similarly, a theme was developed for WordPress and is available on WordPress.com called Prologue (Mullenweg, 2008). This theme was developed to allow their internal team, as well as other users to communicate directly and show exactly what was going on in a conversation style, somewhat reminiscent of a private version of Twitter. This was later updated with live updates and renamed as P2. P2 became the basis for an internal social network that allows real time, transparent updates on what is going on at Automattic and enables individual users or other companies to do the same thing (Mullenweg, 2009).
4. Companies Capitalise Competence – Dynamically Syndicate Competence
The key strengths or competencies of WordPress.com lie in its open source core, and it’s blogging capabilities. WordPress.com has been described as the most popular blogging platform (Marcus, 2010) and on a poll by Mashable was rated as being a better platform than TypePad by 78% of voters out of 3103 votes (Dybwad, 2009). This shows that their core competency, blogging, is proving to be the driving force that is setting them apart. The statistics from BuiltWith and WordPress.com that were discussed in Section A – Part 3 confirm this with WordPress.com being used on far more websites than their competitors combined.
WordPress.com is extending its core competencies by incorporating a range of premium features that can be purchased ad-hoc to upgrade a WordPress.com website, including VideoPress (VideoPress, n.d.), custom domain names and more (WordPress, n.d.). WordPress.com and parent company Automattic have been building on this over the last few years to mix in further competencies, making the system more flexible, as well as more dynamic; capable of mixing and matching the appropriate combination of competencies. These other competencies include: dynamic, globally recognised, email address based, avatar management through Gravatar (Gravatar, n.d.); anti-spam tools through Akismet (Akismet, n.d.); more powerful comment systems utilizing various login methods such as Twitter, Facebook and OpenID through Intense Debate (Automattic, n.d.); surveys, polls and quizzes that can be incorporated with any website through PollDaddy (Automattic, n.d.); and a forum system based on the WordPress source, bbPress (bbPress, n.d.). Many of these are incorporated into WordPress.com as standard and can be enabled or disabled.
These further competencies allow mix and matching not only within WordPress.com, but also across other platforms with many of them working within competitors systems. These additional competencies provide for both additional revenue and additional user attraction and retention. It is possible that users could be utilising TypePad with Gravatar, Akismet and Intense Debate. Upon finding out more about these tools it would become obvious that they are all developed by WordPress.com and Automattic. These additional, mix and match features could easily draw in new users from competitors.
5. New Recombines with Old – Recombine Innovations
WordPress.com has in the past combined new with old in two key ways: initially it was a fork of b2/cafelog (Marcus, 2010) that Matt Mullenweg added his own innovations to; and later merged the traditional open source development and self-hosted deployment system with modern cloud computing technology to create the hosted WordPress.com platform. Today as portable devices are fast becoming one of the most popular ways of accessing the internet, WordPress.com is again recombining the new with the old through mobile friendly web interfaces and applications available for most mobile platforms.
WordPress.com has managed to stay on top of the changes that need to be made through the large community it has developed and the subsequent consultation with that community. Through this community, WordPress.com has been developed alongside the self-hosted WordPress system and rather than cutting out features from the self-hosted version, the decision has been made to incorporate the features across both platforms wherever possible, keeping them consistent so that neither misses out (Mullenweg, 2011). This has allowed WordPress to flourish as it gives users the options to maintain their website traditionally, hosted themselves; or to utilise the power of the scalable WordPress.com cloud without missing out on any features.
WordPress.com has done an excellent job at covering all aspects of the Web 2.0 patterns outlined by O’Reilly (2005). The main gap in coverage is in how they leverage the long tail. There is however a fine line on how much they can truly leverage it without alienating their users.
Potential Legal and Ethical issues
The main issue relating to WordPress.com is content and intellectual property ownership. Who owns the content that a user publishes on WordPress.com? In their support section, WordPress.com makes it clear the users retain ownership of their data and provides suggestions on how to license their data or ensure their data is adequately protected by copyright laws, including suggested copyright notices and the ability to select Creative Commons licenses for content (WordPress.com, n.d.).
Another issue is with their hosted solutions. This is that if a significant amount of downtime was had, it could cause substantial losses for their customers. While this might not present such an issue with free customers, paying customers, especially those of VIP hosting, could have the potential for legal action if the problem is not solved satisfactorily and promptly.
What are the Implications?
The implications of a system as robust as WordPress.com that is regularly updated, improved and capable of withstanding an entire data centre outage (WordPress.com, n.d.), is high uptime with an easy to use system that is constantly improving. This type of system ensures that individuals as well as companies are able to quickly and easily create content for the internet in a way that is capable of both becoming extremely popular and withstanding that popularity without downtime; most pages being available in under a tenth of a second (WordPress.com, n.d.). This gives individuals the ability to have a voice and be heard, or to simply write about anything they want to share.
WordPress.com is a large part of what Web 2.0 is all about, user generated content in a social context. The implication here is that WordPress.com and it’s self-hosted counterpart, WordPress could be perceived as a large part of the driving force behind what the internet is today. The question is, how will it fit in with the internet of the future?
The future directions taken by WordPress.com will be dictated by the need for continued growth and success as the web changes towards a portable network. Already, access is available from numerous non-traditional devices. WordPress.com already supports mobile blogging, including iPhones, iPads, Blackberry’s, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and other mobile platforms, with both admin and user themes that are optimised for mobile readers. It makes sense though that their future focus should be on greater interoperability between systems. For example, users that maintain a cooking blog and have an internet connected fridge may find it convenient to simply send a recipe straight from their fridge to their blog based on the ingredients in their fridge, rather than having to write out an entire blog post on their computer and manually input all of the ingredients.
It also makes sense that the future of WordPress.com should be continued scalability and lightweight operation. Doing this allows continued innovation in assembly and rich user experiences, whilst continuing to maintain a perpetual beta above the level of a single device.
As it becomes accessed from more and more devices, this means greater loads and greater need to scale easily and quickly. Operating as light as possible means that more features can be made available for cheap, or for free. As users want to pay as little as possible, this combined with the reliability and scalability of the WordPress.com platform could be key in drawing potential paying customers away from competing platforms.
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