WordPress is a very popular CMS which powers hundreds of thousands of websites around the world. As well as the free version, which allows you to start blogging quickly and easily without any experience, there’s an ‘installed’ version which is hosted on a server of your choosing.
It’s important to understand this difference when you first begin blogging as it does confuse many people.
With the free version, you get:
- Free and premium themes
- The opportunity to buy your own domain name and have it hosted on the WordPress.com platform
- Basic analytics
- The ability to upgrade in order to slightly alter themes
This remains true even if you buy a domain and have it hosted on the platform. Whilst it’s easy to get started with this choice, lots of people confuse the two different platforms and this leads to frustration. This is especially true when it comes to plugins. I’ve lost count of the amount of people I’ve spoken to who have wasted days trying to install plugins on the free platform only to find that they can’t.
With the hosted/installed version of WordPress you have many more options than with the free and this is where it comes into its own as a powerful web tool.
The hosted version offers:
- Plugins – lots of them for everything you could possibly want to do with your site, from adding a chat feature, to playing YouTube videos and much more.
- Free and premium themes with much more choice on offer
- The freedom to choose a web host
- Depending on the web host, one-click installations
- Access to the .PHP code for full customisation
- Flexibility to allow you to create a site that’s unique
Of course, it’s a powerful content management system which also allows you to write and schedule posts for a blog. You’re not restricted to a blog though, you can create as many static pages as you like and have a blogroll set up on another page.
Ease of use
I find WordPress in both its incarnations very easy to use. However, beginners would be best placed to start with the free platform as many people that I’ve introduced to the hosted installation have found it difficult to use when starting from cold. I do think that if you can use complex software such as PhotoShop, then you’ll more than likely find your way around it quickly enough though.
With the free version, it’s just a case of registering on the WordPress.com site and to do this you will have to think of a name for your site. If you’re a beginner blogger, this can be your own name, that of your business (although I would strongly recommend that every business has a hosted installation), subject matter or whatever you like.
Your URL for the ‘site’ will then look like this: yoursitenamegoeshere.wordpress.com.
If you’re confident that you have the skills to choose a hosted installation, then firstly you will need to buy a domain name and choose a hosting company. Often, hosting firms offer a free domain name when you sign up with them, so research these first.
A note about hosting
Not all hosts are created equals and as such, you should have a good look around to see what people are recommending. Cheap and free hosting packages are available, but from experience I would say are rarely worth it. This is especially true if you have a business as the downtime tends to be more frequent and support is rarely good enough.
I recently was forced to move my site from a reasonably priced host as I kept getting issues that they couldn’t solve. In general, the support from the company was really very good, but I first had an issue with mail not coming through or being bounced back as spam. I took this up with the company but they ignored my mail and obviously couldn’t solve it. I moved my email boxes to hosted exchange and haven’t had any issues since.
The second problem was that the one-click install stopped working for WordPress. As I was setting up some subdomains this was an issue for me as I wanted to use the platform. I’m pretty techie and have been tinkering with websites for many years so uploading via FTP wasn’t too much of a bother for me but this kept timing out too. Eventually the company said it was upgrading its servers and the issue should soon be fixed, but it wasn’t. In the end they offered to upgrade my package so that I could use it – but I would have to pay more. Time to say goodbye.
So the moral of this tale is to be careful and don’t try to get the cheapest available. The time wasted in trying to sort things is a pest and moving a whole site without losing anything such as SEO and meta information can be a huge pain.
(At XEN we use WP Engine for our main hosting and have found them to be super reliable, and very fast.)
Choosing a theme
Themes differ in how much functionality they have on both platforms but do tend to be more powerful for hosted. You can edit and customise the theme on the latter, but there’s not much option to do that on the free version as you don’t have access to the code.
Are premium themes worth it on the free version? Yes, just ensure that you choose carefully and that the theme is updated often and that the designers offer support. The same can be said of premium themes on the hosted version too.
There are 1000s of themes to choose from so take your time and find one that suits you. Don’t just browse on WordPress either, there are plenty of excellent articles on themes and the best ones online so give it a quick Google and ensure that you are looking at themes for the right platform.
Some themes are very basic and offer limited customisation. Others have extensive features and you can really get in there and change everything to suit your site (on hosted).
- Sidebars, headers and footers
- Sliders (for images)
Figures from 2013 suggest that the platform powers 18.9% of the entire web – that’s huge market share over any other CMS. It’s been downloaded more than 46 million times and continues to grow quickly. The figures are based on a survey which was carried out last year and of those who responded to the survey, 69% said that they use it for content management and 20% use it for a full, hybrid site with static pages and a blog.
Its power means that it’s increasing in popularity all the time and whilst this can mean that some sites end up looking a little generic, this is something that can be addressed by editing the PHP and adding your own stylesheets and so on.
The ease of use of the free platform is also a contributing factor to its popularity. Whilst of course there are others out there, such as blogger.com, WordPress is in my belief the simplest and most powerful of them all.
One very good reason for getting a WordPress site is that business owners and admins can easily update the site themselves and are not reliant on their web designer for everything. It’s so simple to post blogs, add images and video and make minor changes to pages that anybody can do it. In the past, we’ve been sometimes held to ransom a little by our designers as every change had to be made within the HTML. Of course, this wasn’t always the case, many designers could and did (and still do) build sites with a good backend that’s simple for admins to use. However, a WordPress site does give a certain ownership that a business may not have had in the past.
One of the best things about the hosted version of WordPress is plugins (here’s a few popular ones). These are small bits of software that you can search and install to add functionality to your site. However, it’s not all about that, you can get plugins for security, performance, spam, SEO and much more.
Choosing plugins isn’t that difficult, it’s just a case of searching for them within the backend of the site, having a look at the details to check reviews and screenshots etc., then hitting install.
Sometimes, plugins can cause compatibility issues, so you should really only ever install one at a time because of this. Lots of webmasters and WordPress users can tell you how one plugin can cause issues that mean deactivating all of them and reinstalling one-by-one to see which is causing problems. WordPress updates can also make this occur (I once was faced with a completely blank site following an update) so you should always make a backup before carrying out any updates, for WordPress itself, and for themes and plugins.
Sidebars, widgets and layout
WordPress makes it simple to layout your blog on the Appearance tab using sidebars and widgets. The amount of customisation for sidebars depends on your theme, but you can generally have sidebars on each side or one, and a header and footer area too.
Sidebars are simple to use with widgets. These are usually how you get certain plugins, such as social feed, to work and to do this, it’s simply a case of dragging and dropping the widgets into the sidebar in the Appearance – Widgets menu.
As with any popular platform, WordPress sites do come under attack from cybercriminals and hackers at times. There are plenty of great plugins that you can get to help you with this though and the beauty of its popularity is that there will always be someone writing about it if there’s a serious spate of attacks going on.
With a hosted installation, you should immediately change the default admin login to your own name and choose a strong, secure password to deter attackers. Whilst many believe that small businesses are not worth the bother for attackers, this isn’t the case as SMBs are a major target. With this in mind it pays to ensure that you’ve done everything you can to keep your installation secure or you may find yourself accidentally hosting malware, or worse.
Blogging with WordPress
Of course, for many the main thing they want to do with WordPress is create a blog, on either the hosted or free platform. There’s no hard and fast rules as to how you should layout your blog, but a few quick tips below.
- Use headers and subheaders such as H1, H2 etc.
- Keep sentences and paragraphs short and snappy to encourage engagement
- Use social sharing plugins to get your blog out there
- Allow comments and install Askimet to pick up spam – remember to reply and interact with anyone who leaves a comment to further increase engagement
I find spam alternatively amusing and irritating. Some spam comments are so badly written by a bot that they can be slightly hilarious. However, others are becoming more sophisticated and come across as reasonably genuine. In order to avoid approving spam comments, keep a sharp eye out for URLs in the comments and website fields. Of course, these are often to knock-off designer wear and pharmaceuticals, but can be for a variety of things. Popular spam comments include the idea that your site doesn’t display in certain browsers and that they have bookmarked your site. You’ll soon get used to seeing the same or similar comments and learn to pick up on what’s spam and what’s not.
WordPress is ideal for site owners of every ability and allows anybody the opportunity to start their own blog. Of course, if you’re choosing the free platform then it’s advisable to ensure that you read other WP blogs in order to drive traffic to yours. I would recommend it over any of the other CMSs such as Drupal or Joomla as it’s so much easier to use and you can ‘practice’ to some extent with the free platform before committing to a full, hosted installation.