Review: WordPress 3.0 Adds Better Customization and Multisite Networks

Artwork: Chip Taylor
The open-source content management system WordPress turned seven years old last month. In its lifetime, it has attracted a devout following: More than 28,000 people download WordPress every day, with over 11.4 million active installations, including news outlets and corporate sites.

To commemorate the anniversary, WordPress is leaping forward this month with the release of Version 3.0, nearly five years after the debut of 2.0. The biggest change is integration with the previously separate WordPress MU (Multi-User) variation, which allows multiple blogs to be operated from a single WordPress installation and database.

The new version abounds in other new features while retaining the user-friendliness that has set WordPress apart from open-source alternatives Drupal and Joomla. (This review is based on the WordPress 3.0-RC3-15257 prerelease version, which came out a few days before Version 3.0; as far as I know, there are no significant differences.)

Installation

WordPress offers a Web-based interface for writing, publishing and consuming content, primarily text- and image-based content. It can be installed on any computer or server with at least PHP 4.3 and MySQL 4.1.2. Many hosting companies offer one-click installations of WordPress, though these packages are often a version or two behind the latest release.

Some basic configuration occurs during the installation, including naming the blog. Previous versions of WordPress automatically created an administrator account named "admin" with a randomly generated password. As a security measure, users were encouraged to create a new administrative account and delete the default one; otherwise, hackers would already know the username half of your log-in credentials. This security flaw has been rectified by allowing an administrator username and password to be manually defined during installation.

Incidentally, if you're already running WordPress 2.7 or later, upgrading to 3.0 is as easy as clicking the "Update Automatically" button -- but make a full backup of your current WordPress files and MySQL database first, just in case.

Multisite Networks

The most dramatic change in WordPress 3.0 is the ability to host multiple sites. Using one installation of WordPress 3.0, thousands of users can each have their own blogs under a common domain name.

Most users of this configuration are large-scale entities that have previously relied on WordPress MU. For example, Best Buy uses such a setup to give each of its retail stores its own blog and event calendar. WordPress divides The New York Times beats across multiple blogs. And Harvard Law School uses WordPress to offer a free blogging platform to any of its faculty, staff and students.

WordPress 3.0 comes with support for these blogs to exist as either subdirectories (example.com/blog) or subdomains (blog.example.com). Unofficially, it also supports multiple domains via a domain-mapping plug-in.

Since one blog is enough for many WordPress users, the default installation supports only one site. Enabling the multisite function requires users to manually edit the wp-config.php file, activate a WordPress network and then follow on-screen instructions to apply further changes to both the wp-config.php and .htaccess files. It's not as tedious as it sounds, but these steps constitute a sufficient enough barrier to prevent unsuspecting users from stumbling across the multisite feature.

When I updated my testbed from WordPress 2.9.2 to 3.0, I was told that the subdirectory option was only available to new installs. Unfortunately, my hosting plan was not set up to use subdomains, which requires adding a wildcard subdomain to your DNS records. The choice between subdirectories and subdomains is given only once, and there's no easy way to switch between them afterward.

Once your network is enabled, a new menu of "Super Admin" options becomes available. Here, some general configuration of each site in the network is possible: name, URL, users, etc. Which themes and plug-ins are available for these other sites' admins can also be selected on a global scale. Using these simple but powerful options, it's easy to create multiple blogs -- or to create a gateway through which users can register their own blogs, thus creating a dynamic network that grows as your audience does.

A blog network is best suited for multiple sites run by multiple users. For a single person or entity who wants to oversee multiple blogs without delegation, it does not work so well. There is no global dashboard where themes and plug-ins can be configured for each site; instead, the network's super admin decides which options to make available to the individual sites. The ability to enable and configure the sites is done from each site's own dashboard. A super admin can log into each blog and individually configure it, but the larger the network, the more cumbersome this becomes.

Plug-ins and Themes

WordPress 3.0 supports importing from an expandable set of other blog formats.
If you're just getting started with WordPress, Version 3.0 makes it easy to bring your old blog with you from another platform. Although it might look like the number of formats WordPress' importer supports has diminished, that's because the importer has been spun out into a modular system that allows the installation of just the formats needed for your situation. Compatibility with the most common blogging services, including Blogger and LiveJournal, come preinstalled; others, such as Posterous and Vox.com, are just a click away.

WordPress' plug-in repository offers almost 10,000 ways to modify how your blog works and looks. If you're a WordPress user, you've probably installed several dozen such plug-ins already -- and if you're upgrading an existing blog, expect several of those plug-ins to break. Although any core update can introduce a change that an outdated plug-in doesn't expect, this is especially true for an upgrade as significant as WordPress 3.0. (That said, every plug-in I tried proved compatible with the default installation.)

Bulk updating of plug-ins was introduced in a previous version of WordPress but was squirreled away under the misleading "Upgrade WordPress" menu item. Now plug-ins can be updated en masse from both the plug-ins page and the renamed "WordPress Updates" page, which lists available theme upgrades as well.

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