Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Static Websites
Published: 24th of September 2019
As the internet has evolved, the technology that powers the websites we visit has changed. In the early days, the low processing power that the average web server had meant that people had to write every webpage as a static document.
Trends and an increase in web server processing power would lead to webmasters choosing easier to manage CMS engines, such as WordPress as a platform for their websites. The problems that came with using complex CMS engines on websites that did not require them would eventually become apparent and would lead to many of those webmasters choosing to migrate back to having a static website.
The Rise of the Internet and Static Websites (the early 1990s to around 2010)
The early days of the internet where a much simpler time. As even though someone could run a dynamic website (PHP was released in 1995) the limited resources you got with your web hosting package back then meant that very few people went this route. On top of this, it was very common for people to use free hosting services such as Geocities that only allowed the hosting of static content.
More technically minded people back than would write their web pages by manually writing the HTML by hand but most people writing web pages back then were not people who had any sort of coding knowledge. Many people during this time would create their websites using WYSIWYG, such as Microsoft FrontPage or Adobe Dreamweaver.
The Move to WordPress and Other dynamic PHP Engines (2010 to 2016)
The main problem with using either a WYSIWYG editor or manually coding HTML is that you have to manually make sure to link together every webpage manually. On top of this, if you wanted to make a design change, you had to modify every single page of your website which could take hours or even days to do.
As web hosting costs collapsed, there was less need for a website to use resources as efficiently as before. This would lead to more webmasters migrating their websites over to content management systems like WordPress. For a lot of webmasters, the convince of WordPress cannot be understated as the software gave them a way of being able to write content without having to worry about having to manually link stuff up. On top of this, WordPress could easier be themed whenever a web felt like their website needed a change in style, all without having to make any updates to existing pages.
WordPress was almost the perfect solution for any webmaster looking to be more productive but some downsides were often downplayed. We will get into the downsides in the next section.
Static Site Generators and the Return of Popularity for Static Websites (2016 to present)
Having a fancy CMS like WordPress would have seemed like a dream for content creators but complex dynamic web programs can have their own set of issues. The common problems that plagued WordPress were security vulnerabilities with its plugins.
The security vulnerabilities are due to a lot of free plugins being poorly coded and often not updated when a new vulnerability is found, meaning webmasters had to be careful of which vendor to download them from which rather takes away from the convenience factor of WordPress. With WordPress, articles and pages are compiled from a SQL database when a user requests them. This means the user has to wait for the page to compile and the server has to spend resources for the same thing over and over again. I know that there are several caching plugins available to help reduce the performance impact of this process but these often come with capability problems with certain themes and plugins and may even require extra stuff to be added to your web server configuration files.
This is where a Static site generator comes into its’ own. As they offer some of the advantages of CMS systems, like not having to manually keep links and having the style separate from the content. On top of having the advantage of not having to worry about badly written PHP as ultimately a static site generator produces static web pages.
Even though Jekyll has been around since 2008, the need to maintain a ruby-on-rails stack and its relatively slow export speed has been a turn off for some people. This has more recently changed with the more simple and faster Hugo offering an attractive to Jekyll, due to its fast HTML export and ease of install.
The improvements in the last couple of years to Hugo have finally brought the world a static site generator that is useful for both small and large websites. This is why you have seen so many articles being published of people moving from WordPress to Hugo and that is a massive positive for the whole of the internet.