WordPress is the ice-cream of website development software with two different flavours to choose from. The vanilla, if you like is the free and hosted version you’ll find at wordpress.com (like this particular blog); the strawberry is the self hosted version you download and host yourself that you can pick up for … well … nothing … at wordpress.org.
Over the last couple of months I’ve noticed a number of my compatriots with popular blogs moving away from WordPress.com in order to have more ‘freedom’ on their self hosted WordPress website. And, I’ve wanted to scream … “NOOOOOOO, stop and think about this first”.
Are they really getting any benefits?
The reality is that mostly all they are going to get is a whole host of additional headaches – believe me I know, I host enough websites to know the issues that come up time and again. The thing is that for the most part what they want to do on their brand new piece of online real estate hasn’t really changed from what they were doing on their free wordpress.com blog.
Let’s have a look at the evidence and explore a few of the ‘myths’ that surround what you can and can’t do with a free site hosted here.
Myth No 1 – WordPress.com is just for blogging and I need a ‘proper’ website
OK, I have just three words for you. Get Over It. The software you find on WordPress.com is just as functional as the software you will download from WordPress.org. In fact, out of the box it is more functional and easier to set up. Your ‘blog’ can be a proper website in minutes – just change the Reading Settings to show a page as your home page. Choosing the right sort of template will give you all the sliders and widget areas you need and bingo – it’s as functional as 99% of ‘proper’ websites.
Myth No 2 – WordPress.com doesn’t allow my type of website
Actually, the folks over at Automattic who own wordpress.com are pretty keen for almost anyone to use their service and they have very few restrictions over what you can and can’t do. They welcome businesses, schools, individuals, politicians (I know, someone had to) and more.
What they don’t like are the ones which are, to all intents and purposes illegal; like copyright infringement on sites which copy the content from other websites, blogs which can’t be read by a human bean, blogs which point people to other websites that will download all sorts of nasty’s onto your computer and generally make your life hell. They also don’t like blogs that are used only for the purposes of building an affiliate income. I know that last one isn’t actually illegal, but it is on the only one on the list of ‘those we don’t like‘ which isn’t’.
For the full terms and conditions of using the service and what they do and don’t love click here: http://en.wordpress.com/tos/
Myth No 3 – I want people to sign up for my Mailchimp newsletter
It is true that you can’t host a script on a wordpress.com blog whilst you can host a script on your strawberry flavour. However, there are always ways around every problem. I use Mailchimp a lot for myself and for clients and they (along with most of the other big email marketing systems) offer you the opportunity to have your sign up form appear in a pop-up window.
If you click here – GET MY NEWSLETTER – you’ll see what I mean. This form pops up in a new tab and I’ve customised it with colours that match my blog and with some introductory text suggesting why it might be a brilliant idea to get it; that’s pretty much all you’ll do on a page on your self-hosted website. I could customise this even more by adding the same sort of menu links to the form that you’ll find on the website so that people don’t notice too much that they’ve moved away from the blog.
Myth No 4 – I want to sell stuff from my website
Once again most people are missing the point. We need to think laterally around the problem and not expect it to be solved in a simple ‘click here to install’ method.
Amongst other things I’m an author and of course I want to encourage people to buy my books, so like every good e-commerce system I have a separate page for each ‘product’ together with buy now links which take the visitor to the various places they can buy the books. If I wanted to I could strip out the script from a PayPal button leaving me with just the URL and add in a nice little link that takes people to my PayPal account. Granted this isn’t perfect, but most people aren’t looking for something all singing and dancing and if they were, they’d be using Big Commerce instead 🙂
Myth No 5 – I want to have a unique design for my website
If you have ever set up a self hosted WordPress website you will know that it works with themes which you then customise. If you are like me, you’ll take it apart and rebuild it exactly as you want; but most people aren’t like me and they’ll stick with the basic theme or download another and change the logo and their background colour; exactly what you can do here.
I’d like to go off on a tangent though because having a free blog doesn’t excuse you from creating a poor design. I see so many blogs which are badly laid out in the first place, with no thought for what a visitor might want to do or see. Instead take a bit of time to think about the navigation and the imagery you use and you’ll start to create a more ‘professional’ looking space in no time. In fact this blog is due for a revamp very soon indeed.
If you grab the CSS upgrade you can have even more control over how your blog looks and make it truly stand out.
Myth No 6 – I don’t feel like it ‘belongs’ to me
So go and buy a domain name and fork out the tiny $13.00 per year and make your website your own. Incidentally, it’s worth doing this anyway because if you do decide you want to do much more than add pages, posts, a sign up form and a buy now button, then you won’t have lost all the precious ‘search engine optimisation’ you will have gained from the free blog when you move to your self-hosted version.
Myth No 7 – Hosting my own website is easy
No it isn’t.
As a WordPress developer the most common problem I’m faced with is being asked to take over the running of a WordPress site that has not had the software updated in years, that is full of plugins and themes that are out of date and don’t work (because the developer went and got a job) and worse, are full of security holes. I see websites which have been hacked because full security hasn’t been applied and which look dated.
Remember, when you host yourself, not only are you now paying for hosting but you are your own IT department too.
At the very least you will click the ‘update now’ button every time it appears; you will find a new plugin from wordpress.org/extend/ to replace the one which has just stopped working because it hasn’t been updated to the latest version of WordPress; you will not go and get plugins or themes from shared sites (because you don’t know what’s in them) and you will secure your site so the hackers have a hard time getting in. Incidentally, this is the primary reason Automattic don’t allow scripts to be used in a free blog.
The Number One Reason to Carry on Using Your Hosted Blog
But for me, despite all the above the number one reason to carry on using my hosted blog is the community that surrounds it.
If I leave a comment on someone else’s wordpress.com blog I get a little notification in the top right hand corner the next time I login that tells me when they reply. This simple little system is the basis of the most powerful force in online marketing – the conversation.
When I start a conversation with someone it’s great if they reply. If they are hosting their own website then in order to be told when they reply I have to sign up to receive their comments by email. Now, I don’t know about you but I get an avalanche of email every day and I’ve been busily removing myself from various mailing lists I’ve found myself on; the last thing I want is yet another whole load of email simply because I chose to start a conversation with someone (I start a lot of conversations with an awful lot of people!) so therefore I don’t subscribe to comments.
Not only do I get to see when people reply, I have notifications that tell me about who’s following the blog and how many people like a particular post; and all from its own dashboard. I can click on their names and web addresses and very quickly find out more about them, perhaps reciprocating with a comment, a follow or a like.
This conversation is also made up of the tags we add to our posts. These tags are broadcast across the whole of the wordpress.com community and act as a little signpost for anyone interested in the same subject to come and find a brand new voice.
When you self host – you remove yourself from this entire community and if you don’t have a strong enough pitch to start with you may lose whatever influence you had.
Let’s say I haven’t convinced you and you still want to go ahead and start your own self-hosted website, using the WordPress software of course. Can I suggest that you follow this recipe for success?
- Keep your blog where it is
- Buy a domain name
- Split the domain name with sub-domains
- Call one sub-domain ‘blog’ and point it at your wordpress.com blog
- Keep the rest of the website for everything else you want to do
It’s simple really; you just have to think a little laterally 🙂
Update: 25/07/12 – The good folk at Automattic got in touch to let me know that I’d used the wrong logo for WordPress.com in the image I added above. I should have known better, I go on about it all the time myself and get in a right old tizz when someone else does, so thanks MT for reminding to be more careful next time 🙂
Update: 14/08/2012 – About a week ago I was contacted by Matt Lakey from freestyleinteractive.co.uk who told me about an infographic he had created which he thought might be perfect for this particular post, especially after he’d enjoyed reading what I’d written so much. I thought so too when I read it and have added it to the post for the benefit of everyone else too. Hope you enjoy it and find it useful.