It’s ExpressionEngine, not “Expression Engine” and other things you didn’t know about this popular CMS

Posted on March 23, 2023

Caroline Blaker

It’s ExpressionEngine, not “Expression Engine” and other things you didn’t know about this popular CMS Image

Keywords can make decisions easier.

As a long time ExpressionEngine developer, I’ve learned that the capabilities and use cases for this content management system (CMS) often outshine what people know about it. As a newer SEO provider (2 years!) I find today’s keyword tracking tools to be endlessly interesting in their ability to provide answers to questions about what users are looking for and how - which accounts for so much of the answer to the questions around: “How do I say this?” “Why does this page get so much traffic?” “What do people actually need out of this?” and so much more. Getting data-driven answers to questions like this is imperative to conducting a service-focused business in almost any sector but especially in the areas of online marketing and e-commerce. Sometimes we as an agency even do our own keyword research. For instance - the title of this post - was a surprise that was striking even while not-really-researching:

Table showing that 700 people monthly search for “expression engine,” compared to 300 that search for “expressionengine” which is the correct spelling.

How do I know it’s thought of as "expression engine"? Take a look at this keyword data from ahrefs.

Setting up keywords to look at at a later date was what I was doing. So naturally, getting to know the approach people take to reach ExpressionEngine today, seeing it for the first time or coming back after a long hiatus; keyword data and patterns reveal the demand for information - without making unnecessary separations for experts, beginners, journalists - just plain asks.

Here’s what this table reveals to me:

  • ExpressionEngine is being talked about or loosely referenced, more than it is being sought as a reference topic from web pages or text.
  • People who don’t know about ExpressionEngine are looking for it at a rate of 233% more than folks who do.
  • The high Global Volume (GV) may be revealing a strong contingency of non-native English speakers. This is true for both keywords.

Take a peek at what else I found:

It is possible to upgrade your ExpressionEngine 2 and ExpressionEngine 3 websites

The dark side of having software as stable as ExpressionEngine running your website is that it out-lives normal release and upgrade cycles, so - when the server force-updates your PHP from 5, to 7, to 8, and these same services aren’t available to purchase anywhere - it can be catastrophic, or at least the last thing you expected. It can also be problematic when needing to add features. What I believe this graphic reveals is that searches for ExpressionEngine 3 are exploratory but don’t go past that. Notice the drop to nearly zero around related keywords:

A table showing the keyword “expressionengine 3” as having 70 US volume and 100 global volume and the second ranking related keyword to “expressionengine 3” having no more than 10 volume worldwide.

Hereby illustrating that searches for identification of ExpressionEngine 3 happen, but related terms around upgrading and development drop off quickly

What are users doing at this juncture?

  • Starting from scratch with no website or walking away.
  • Going to “expressionengine upgrades” or similar keyword that doesn’t include their version number.
  • Being satisified with whatever information they find. Yay!

A quick search for this term reveals a few old pages but a lot of agency advertising. An upgrade from ExpressionEngine 2 or ExpressionEngine 3 might need the help of a skilled developer especially with the restrictions around PHP versions.

Aside: Yes, there are ExpressionEngine 2 sites in active development

“expressionengine 2” keyword table showing related keywords.

Where "add plugin to expressionengine 2" is the fifth top keyword for the version - this counts as interest in active development!

If this is you - please know that it’s possible, but complicated, to upgrade these websites. Your best bet for free help might be the ExpressionEngine Slack Channel. You can also buy support hours from us and other developers, which may be a good way to fill in any knowledge gaps.

Unsure if your version of ExpressionEngine is current? Check this resource.

ExpressionEngine is no longer owned by Ellislab

ExpressionEngine was the flagship product of a group called Ellislab. ExpressionEngine began there as pMachine Pro, which was discontinued around 2005. Ellislab continued with ExpressionEngine and added CodeIgniter and MojoMotor, ending up with ExpressionEngine solely when acquired by Digital Locations in 2018.

Packet Tide acquired ExpressionEngine in 2019. Name not familiar? They were developers of popular add-ons (and acquired popular Pixel & Tonic ExpressionEngine Add-ons) before acquiring ExpressionEngine.

This one was driven solely from the occurrence of “expressionengine ellislabs” in the lists.

Nobody is comparing ExpressionEngine to Craft CMS anymore

“expressionengine vs wordpress” is showing 300 global volume while “expressionengine vs craft” is showing a max of 20.

ExpressionEngine’s comparison to WordPress (and as an alternative to WordPress) is showing life.

As someone who has covered both of these keywords and seen the resulting traffic, I believe it. Furthermore, I think it’s a good thing. The comparison of expressionengine to wordpress is apt considering how they are both implemented as software, carry nearly identical server requirements, and serve such similar service purposes. They are made of roughly the same stuff, come with similar capabilities and selling points- WordPress is mostly set up already where as ExpressionEngine needs the developer to set up posts and categories and such. ExpressionEngine doesn’t come with the security vulnerabilities of WordPress. For more details see our pieces on ExpressionEngine vs WordPress and ExpressionEngine as a WordPress Alternative.

There’s no such thing as a web design for ExpressionEngine

Table showing "expression engine" keyword, showing "web designs for expression engine"

6th most popular keyword by folks who don’t know ExpressionEngine (”expression engine”) is the search for designs for it.

ExpressionEngine CMS comes with no design upon install, or any content features. All of these are set up from the point of install, with choices made by the humans setting it up or the project spec. This said, no two sites are set up the same. Even if you set up a blog, for example, it won’t match the blog set up by another developer, ever. Namespacing? Out the window. The process called theming that would allow EE to have designs made for just it relies on things being named the same thing every single time, so the code matches and talks appropriately, yada yada. With names never matching (set up by individual human developers,) there is no way to make a design just for ExpressionEngine.

Instead, set up your design in HTML, CSS, and Javascript, then add ExpressionEngine. ExpressionEngine has a templating system and an easy proprietary templating language, which is plugged into the design via template tags. Tell your developer that with the addition of “coilpack”, they can use Twig for improved performance.

How is this a benefit? Go ahead and port your design from WordPress (rendered on the front of the site, without all the PHP) or any other website or concept project - you don't need to do anything special to make it work with ExpressionEngine. You just need to add EE tags to your design once it has been copied in. We love that EE is such an easy move from WordPress. TL;DR: With ExpressionEngine, you can’t install a front-end look and feel without dealing with a little bit of well-documented code. On the flip side, any HTML-CSS-JS web page build is ready for ExpressionEngine.

Keywords are honest reporting

Keyword data is so often a window into what we, as developers, are accustomed to guessing at and predicting based off what we have observed in the past, sometimes with only our biases to lean on. Using time-based keyword activity data we can at least renew our biases to include present facts that might support a helpful shift in perspective; if not just dumping our biases as stale projects. When we’re distracted by things we think we know, we miss out on what’s out there to find out. Then again, we don’t all have to be the look-outs. I hope you found this content helpful, of course. If you’re using it for anything specific, let me know in the comments -

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