Ask the Expert – Using WordPress to Build Large Scale Websites with Derek Herman

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Ask the Expert is a weekly series here on Design Informer. Building large scale websites with WordPress is the theme for this week. Derek Herman of Envato is this week’s expert.

Derek Herman is a 28 year old web developer residing in Portland, Oregon. He started Valen Designs in 2006 while still in college and working as a graphic artist.He is an experienced UI designer and becoming more and more of an established backend developer with each day that passes. He is also a web developer at Envato and he was also in charge of building out the network of websites that we all visit daily, the Tuts+ Network.

Building Large Scale Sites with WordPress

Hello Derek, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you learned WordPress.

I have been working with WordPress since the early days of Strayhorn v1.5 when the UI was super ugly and there weren’t many themes out there, well good ones anyhow. I basically was self taught and learned how to code themes by taking them apart. I didn’t really use the codex for the first six months or so, but looking back I wish I had taken more time to study the functions and filters because it would have made my life a lot easier.

I guess it was really a trial by fire situation. I remember some of my earlier projects having no idea what I was doing and having to learn while I worked, it’s not the best way to build your skills but I eventually became competent in what I was doing and could code a WordPress theme without any copy and paste.

I really got into developing large scale sites about a year and a half ago which is close to the time I started working with Collis Ta’eed & all the great folks at Envato. One of the first projects Collis & I worked on was the Tuts+ network (Psdtuts+, Nettuts+, etc.), he designed the theme and I built it with five versions at the time, four of them for each of the existing sites and one for a new site we launched after the theme was done. You could say it was actually one of those moments in my career that if the job was done right it would potentially be the building blocks for a long and fruitful working relationship. If you have been following Envato at all this past year you probably know how that turned out. I fortunately have had my hand in building a bunch of the amazing sites many of you visit on a daily basis and working for the best startup and boss out there. Collis really makes work fun and exciting and everyday I get up and work on some crazy hard to build themes Collis has concocted. I can say that there is never a dull moment, and challenge is what really drives my motivation.

What large scale websites have you built using WordPress as the CMS?

PSD TUTS+

I have many other projects that I have done over the years but those are the largest ones I can think of. All of them in one way or another leverage WordPress and its tremendous flexibility to become whatever you need it to be. I don’t think there is anything you can’t do with WordPress if you really have the motivation to build it.

What are some plug-ins that you always use in these sites?

A lot of the time I or some third party ends up creating custom plugins for each project due to certain requests Collis makes where the functionality just doesn’t exist. But for the most part there are a few plugins that always make it in. For example, up until recently we would use WP-PageNavi for pagination and it works very well but as time passes we wanted to change the whole look and feel of pagination so I created a new plugin that is a bit different in its approach. I should be releasing it to the public under the GPL soon.

Akismet

I also use a ton of ther custom functions and plugins that are site specific.

Name a challenge that you encountered while building a large scale website with WordPress? How did you solve the problem?

Most of the really difficult issues come from building new updated version of a theme. If for whatever reason the design changed enough that you have to alter the way you post content to your site things can get tricky, and in some cases just tedious and time consuming going through each post/page making simple fixes. One of the issue with the Tuts+ network is that the original theme for psdtuts.com used the excerpt and a really odd way of separating content that as the site grew caused many interesting moments of frustration.

In the end I ended up having to do a lot of PHP if else blocks testing for legacy code and making adjustment to plugins that rely on filtering the_content. Basically, the legacy code didn’t play nice with any plugin that filters content and spits it back out, so I needed to run it though another filter to allow plugins access to the_content(). All in all a complex and necessary evil to get the old content to play nice with the new.

There’s going to be hurdles in every project, but you just find a way to make it work and move on. Regardless of how difficult or tedious things may get you just have to grow a pair and do your job.

What are some advantages of using WordPress to build a large scale website?

A mature, simple but robust CMS/Blogging platform with tons of documentation and resources available at your fingertips. You can usually find the answer to your seemingly original question with a little help from Google. If you’re having an issue, it’s likely someone else did too and told the world how to overcome it.

Venture Visuals

What are some disadvantages of WordPress when building a large scale website?

A year ago I would say you need to extend WordPress by building your own custom functionality but as the platform has matured so has all the available plugins. You don’t need to write as much original code as you once use to, not to say I don’t, I just know that if you are a beginner it would be nice to have such a large volume of available free code at your disposal.

So i guess WordPress is the way to go when bulding large scale websites. Can you tell us a little bit about your process when building these type of sites?

I start every large project with a discussion about how it is going to work and how we are going to accomplish some of the parts that aren’t clear yet. The projects that I work with Collis begin with a build brief and a bunch of psd files. I get some high level instruction on what Collis has envisioned for the site and I reply with any questions about the project. After we have discussed everything that feels important, I build the whole thing in HTML/CSS.

Once I have a good static version working I spend many long nights coding it into a fully functioning WordPress theme on my development server. If there are plugins that don’t exist I build them and write any custom functions and admin option pages that I need for the project. Then when we feel it’s ready we put the site in Maintenance Mode and start the process of switching everything from feeds to random fixes in the database. It’s usually a huge undertaking and in some cases takes hours. For example, we spent 17 hours switching over FreelanceSwitch and was by far the most painful update I have ever been a part of, but we got it working eventually and it turned out to be a really well received upgrade.

I strongly believe that these kinds of site are a test of endurance and you should never jump into them thinking it’s going to be a foot race.

Take your time and make sure you did it right or in the end you’ll have to fix it while it’s live.

The Swish Life

What are some features of WordPress that make building large scale websites easier?

The plugin API & documentation are by far the most important parts of extending WordPress. Once you have mastered building plugins you’ll be able to find work all day every day.

What advice would you give someone who wants to start building larger scale sites with WordPress?

Work Awesome

I would first learn to code HTML/CSS & basic WordPress themes really well then move on to large scale sites once you have a good grasp on how functions and filters work in WordPress.

In your web development career there will be a natural progression of your abilities if you have the motivation and drive to learn and master your craft. Take the time to really learn those basic building blocks and when the time is right and the opportunity presents itself you’ll be ready to take on a project that’s over your head but not out of your reach.

Once you have successfully completely your most challenging project to date, find the next one and never stop learning or pushing yourself to build better more complex and creative web site.

Conclusion

I just want to thank Derek for doing this interview. I really appreciate the fact that he took time from his busy schedule to give detailed, well thought out answers to the interview questions.

The next topic will be another interesting and helpful one. We have a very talented web designer for the next interview. I don’t want to give out too much details yet, so please stay tuned. You can follow me on Twitter and subscribe to the RSS feed here.

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Former editor in chief of Designinformer.

  1. 1

    Great interview! I visit the Tuts+ Network pretty frequently, so this post was particularly interesting to me.
    .-= Bluefaqs´s latest Blog Entry – 30 Awesome Examples Of Typography Animation =-.

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  2. 2

    Great interview! I’ve been working with wordpress for about a year now and I have to say it is great. I love the diversity of wordpress and think it is one of the best CMS/blogging platforms out there.
    .-= Marcell Purham´s latest Blog Entry – PSD to WordPress Series Part 3: Final Tutorial =-.

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  3. 3
  4. 4

    @Bluefaqs – Yes, that’s why I chose the best of the best. I believe Derek is one of the best at what he does.

    @Marcell – Agreed! WordPress is awesome, and it is limitless. Just look at all the examples that Derek has built.

    @Twe4ked – :)

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  5. 5

    Jad, I must say that you are creating one totally awesome blog, and this article is an example of that. What an awesome interview!
    .-= Brandon Cox´s latest Blog Entry – Six Questions for Processing Those Cool New Ideas =-.

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  6. 6

    @Brandon – Thank you for the compliment. I didn’t do much for this article, Derek Herman did all the work. He’s the expert. :)

    Keep up the great work with WeBlogBetter. I enjoy reading your thoughts on that blog.

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  7. 7

    Derek is the freaking man. love his work!
    .-= John (Human3rror)´s latest Blog Entry – Desktop Background December 2009 – What Are You Wearing? =-.

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  8. 8

    Hey great Interview and nice to know about other designers work.

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  9. 9

    I’m a beginner using WordPress and I’m always looking for articles like this. I’m also a big fan of tuts+ so I really enjoyed the interview. Great work.

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  10. 10

    Thanks for this post! I really like the idea of using WordPress for bigger websites. I still used WordPress only for smaller ones but I’m looking forward that my next big project will be based on a WP install.
    .-= Ben´s latest Blog Entry – Die Wochenend-Sünde =-.

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  11. 11

    Very informative article.. Most people don’t agree on using WordPress for large-scale websites.. But this article well explains why we should.. Thanks..

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  12. 12

    Very informative! Great read… I have a project that is going to be very large that im going to use WP for.. this gives me confidence that it will be up to the job
    .-= Acuity Designs´s latest Blog Entry – General Rules For Doing Free Freelance Work =-.

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  13. 13

    This one is really great post! Very informative interview! Thanks for posting!
    .-= Dainis Graveris´s latest Blog Entry – 100 Premium Like But Free, Fresh WordPress Themes: Year 2009 =-.

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  14. 14

    Interesting interview, looks like with WordPress you can create everything. Thanks Jad.

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  15. 15

    Cool interview. WP rocks indeed! What bothers me is when you tell your clients your working in wordpress sometimes they are likely to think that there isn’t any coding involved (as if wordpress is a wysiwyg-html/php editor). Or sometimes clients ask if it’s possible to use such or such plugin, while a lot of functions are custom made plugins that might not work along with their suggested plugins. How do other designers handle such requests?

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  16. 16

    Very useful stuff good to hear how WP is used by such popular sites. Need to take the time soon to learn more about plugin development, but I’m also tempted by the new Expression Engine… anyway, thanks for the interview :)

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  17. 17

    Fantastic!
    Thank you for sharing this with us.
    I t is great to hear from someone who is actively involved in such great websites.

    Thanks again!

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  18. 18

    Thank you everyone for the awesome feedback. I hope that at least a few people walk away with the understanding that WordPress isn’t just for blogs, the sky is the limit!

    @Leon Tell your clients that there is a lot involved in creating a one of a kind theme for WordPress and that custom functionality is not as simple as drag and drop or upload and activate. Let them know that you are doing all the heavy lifting, so when you hand it off to them it will work like it’s meant to. The point is that if you build it correctly you’ll never need to explain how to add content more than once.

    If they need plugins make sure the functionality they are adding is necessary and useful and if it is make sure there isn’t a better way before you build it the way they want it. I don’t know how many times I have been asked to add plugins that were useless. If there is a conflict, fix it. If you can’t fix it, find another plugin that can replace it, there’s probably one available.
    .-= Derek Herman´s latest Blog Entry – Envato Marketplace Items =-.

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  19. 19

    I really enjoyed this interview – thank you.
    I too am using WordPress to build various sites that I never thought would be possible using WP, but as each obstacle comes up, the WP community steps up and helps me out with a solution.

    I do think that you need a competent developer on board to push WP to new levels – and combined with a great designer, well, we’ve all seen the proof already.

    Now to convince my boss that we need a developer…

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  20. 20

    Nice interview! Always nice to peek into the minds of people who are great at what the do.

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  21. 21

    Great interview!! Thanks for teh share

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  22. 22

    Great interview guys! I recently hired Derek to build my new website (as shown in the picture above) http://www.venturevisuals.com. His skills are above and beyond that of most WordPress jockeys I’ve seen out there. Basically, any hair-brained functionality idea I dreamt up, Derek could build over night. For a really cool example of this, check out our image gallery plugin he build at http://www.venturevisuals.com/still.

    Cheers!

    -1
  23. 23

    Thank you for this interview! I’m new to WordPress, and I’m really interested in the seemingly infinite functionality that it offers as a CMS. This post gave me some GREAT insight, and the motivation to really get started!

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  24. 24

    Great interview!!
    .-= Soh Tanaka´s latest Blog Entry – Facebook Style Footer Admin Panel Part 1 =-.

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  25. 25

    I hadn’t realized the Tuts network is based on WP; I’m definitely going to look into using it for bigger projects. Thanks for the great interview.

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  26. 26

    I was very intrigued by the title but unfortunately there’s nothing here that refers particularly to building “large-scale” sites. You could replace “large-scale website” with “website” throughout the post and it would read the same.

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  27. 27

    Wow, FreelanceSwitch is powered by WordPress. That’s crazy huh? I thought it used another Forum platform. You posted an awesome article, Jad! Thanks!
    .-= Lam Nguyen´s latest Blog Entry – 10 Useful Code Snippets And Plugins To Spice Up WordPress Avatar =-.

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  28. 28

    Awesome interview, good insite as to where to take myself!

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  29. 29

    good to know that wordpress is recognized as a CMS and not only a blogging platform .. i have been copy pasting and making themes but .. its really simple to learn the wordpress core and custom functions .. i feel wordpress is a great boon to bloggers … cheers to wordpress

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  30. 30

    My basic question that my have been addressed somewhere along the way;

    1000+ posts How do you manage these and what plugins are avaible to manage them in the admin interface or optionally via a client

    -Thanks for the great info

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  31. 31

    @David I’m not sure what you mean by “manage” can you be more specific?

    Correct me if I’m wrong but if I had to guess you’re asking about the pagination in the WordPress Admin area for posts? If so, you can use the filters to search for the post you’re looking for and quickly find it among all the 1000+ entries.

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  32. 32

    The power of WordPress really shine and this interview really makes it clear why it is so powerful. The Tuts+ websites are a great example of the flexibility of he platform. I could not see myself using any platform other than wordpress especially as a very, very novice web designer, who knows about 1% coding ok, about 2%. Very nice interview Jad, keep up the good work!
    .-= loswl´s latest Blog Entry – The Sweetest Name I Know… =-.

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  33. 33

    Maybe wordpress is suitable for blog than using it as a cms like joomla or drupal because we must use hacking to wordpress themes to control it’s function :)
    .-= viettel adsl´s latest Blog Entry – Viettel bắt đầu cung cấp thử nghiệm dịch vụ 3G tại Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh =-.

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  34. 34

    Sweet interview, Derek seriously has one of the most impressive portfolios i’ve ever seen. The guy is a genius!
    .-= Phil D.´s latest Blog Entry – Phillysoul11: How a web design goes straight to hell http://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell #puregenius =-.

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  35. 35

    Sorry for the delay – I was traveling..

    What I mean is from a organizational perspective if I have 1000+ posts (and x comments) I can imagine that it could be a bit challenging based upon the default admin interface. I’m thinking of sort of like pagemash for posts with physical and virtual, collapsible categorize so that you can organize your posts for long term management.

    -David

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  36. 36

    As a separate question but has simular challenges:

    I’m also thinking about how to have hidden pages/posts exposed to search engines only via my site map so that these hidden pages are crawled by search engines for indexing but not actually accessible in their entirety through my site viewable pages or via say a Google search (it would bring the user to the excerpt only). The purpose is to expose excerpts only on my site as sort of ad’s where the excerpts would have a that would link to the external website for the full content/reading (think white papers or external posts). The reason I would want the entire say white paper under the covers is to have the full content exposed to the search engine to point to my site and to avoid (hopefully) any legal issues. Do you have thoughts/comments on this? I’m thinking that these post/pages, if maintained internally (wordpress/mysql), would need to be hidden– perhaps have a publish date of 2050? Or are there other strategies to accomplish this?

    Thanks,

    -David

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  37. 37

    The example for my prior post is like the ads/drill through on the right of this page – “take a peak around the community” Not sure if the full content is found via the search engine which would point to your site if googled or just the “excerpt” would be all that would bring it up.

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  38. 38

    Thanks for a great interview. Whenever any of our clients ask for a CMS solution for their website, I immediately recommend WordPress. The ease of use, the relatively simple learning curve and the tons of available online resources make WP an incredibly powerful free tool. I know that the application is not the answer to every CMS solution, but I have yet to hit a wall with it.
    .-= Erik Ford´s latest Blog Entry – Simple CSS Code Snippets for Coda =-.

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  39. 39

    Very cool :)
    and very interesting from the perspective that I help manage a site that runs on WordPress as well (not the one linked to in my name). It was setup as a full website with a blog – all on a WordPress Theme, by a guru of note.
    By the way tks for the reference to the Maintenance mode plug in – just what I need when I migrate my blog to be self hosted – finally :)

    Phill
    .-= Phillip Gibb´s latest Blog Entry – Blogging Goals for 2010 =-.

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  40. 40

    Great interview!
    .-= Franky´s latest Blog Entry – WordPress 2.9 To Be Released Before The End of 2009? =-.

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  41. 41

    Thank you so much for sharing this..

    I have been using WordPress for almost all my projects. The only issue I have faced is that as the Website grows WordPress is not able to handle the server load. Caching does help, however there are still issue with the huge number of queries that it makes.

    I hope that WordPress will improve and grow further..
    .-= CLAT Guru´s latest Blog Entry – CLAT 2010 Syllabus: LLB Admission =-.

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  42. 42

    Great post, love your work Derek. I love WP and use it for many sites, but for larger sites where I need custom “templates” for my content (more choices than just a post or a page), I use Drupal because of the “Custom Content Type” feature where I can basically design a customized post with whatever fields I need and save it as a template. So if I’m doing a record review, I have a nice template with the fields I need (Artist, CD, Date Released, URL, Review, etc.) ready to use.

    I’ve tried to use some plugins and other small bits of PHP code, but nothing works well or is clean enough from a usability perspective. A lot of the sites I hand off to clients and i want the content creation and editing as easy as possible. That said, how do you handle custom posts/templates? Your sites are large and I imagine you had to tackle this. Thanks!

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  43. 43

    Great Info & Interview! Thanks for posting…

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  44. 44

    Excelent interview!, any tips on how or what to use for a Members powered wordpress site? (did u use the plugins out there? some cost like $99), or you created that part from scratch :D.

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  45. 45

    @Jeff & @Dien – Thanks for the questions. I will contact Derek and ask him.

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  46. 46

    This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title Ask the Expert – Using WordPress to Build Large Scale Websites with Derek Herman | Design Informer. Thanks for informative article

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  47. 48

    I’ve been developing all my freelance sites on WP for a year now. It’s an amazing tool for independent designer/developers. Such a robust product. Love the ease of management and content creation on the client’s end. Truly an amazing tool. Thanks for the article.

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  48. 49

    Great post, thanks for the information. I run all of my sites on WP.

    http://www.thevisualscience.com

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  49. 50

    Hello, my name is Sabrina and while I was looking online, it was then that I found your blog, which I liked very much, and it is quite pleasant to read. I will definitely be a regular reader of your blog.

    Greetings, Sabrina

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  50. 51

    Updating an existing custom wordpress theme and making all the legacy code work after updating the theme can really be a pain. I can truly relate to that setting up of numerous conditional tags (“if” statements)
    .-= archondigital´s latest Blog Entry – My Twitter Followers Were Abducted by Aliens =-.

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  51. 53

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for resource! Sorry for my bad english….

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  52. 54

    Nice article. Would think the designs would be someone limited but they are obviously not. Great work and interesting interview.
    .-= Amanda Eyer´s latest Blog Entry – Sarasota and Her Islands Grabs Adrian =-.

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  53. 55

    Simply Awesome!
    .-= Mahmud Ahsan´s latest Blog Entry – Encrypt MySQL data using AES techniques =-.

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  54. 57

    Thanks for posting this interview.

    It’s always inspiring and interesting to see how the pros work. Mr. Derek Herman, your work rocks! I wish you all the best in continues success in 2010.

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  55. 59

    Very interesting to hear how a “big” web site developer works. Thanks for this interview.
    .-= Alt Design Blog´s latest Blog Entry – I vantaggi di un blog interno ad un sito di e-commerce =-.

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  56. 60

    Great tips, I do think its also important to note that large scale implementation will more than likely require a very robust server :-)
    .-= Alex Sysoef´s latest Blog Entry – 5 Stats Tracking Plugins For Your WordPress Blog =-.

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  57. 61

    Thanks , I’ve recently been looking for info about this subject for ages and yours is the greatest I have discovered so far. But, what about the conclusion? Are you sure about the source?

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  58. 62

    I would use WordPress for many sites because of the perfekt backend usability.

    The only big issue is that I need a media control center, where I can upload files, rename them, put them into an order and so on.

    Or is there any plugin available?

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  59. 63

    Very nice article .. thank you

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  60. 64

    Would’ve preferred to hear a bit more on the technical aspects of large scale WP sites such as caching methods and hardware etc. but great interview nonetheless.

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  61. 65

    They are definitely not limited. As long as you master XHTML/CSS/PHP/Javascript, then the sky is the limit to what you can do with WordPress.

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