WordPress is the most popular way to publish a web site.
Some people call it a content management system. It can be that. You might also describe it as website building software. It’s a great option if you want to run a blog like the one you are reading now.
There are two ways you can use WordPress. Both approaches have free options. Although is likely you will end up paying for extras.
WordPress.org is the core software. It is free. To run it you need to set up a server. That’s not hard, WordPress will walk you through the process.
If you have a technical bent, a spare computer handy and a good internet connection you can run it on your own hardware. There are people who do this.
Realistically you will run it from the cloud or use a third-party hosting company. Both options cost money. If you shop around you can get cheap hosting. That might work if you run a low-traffic web site. Otherwise, it is better to spend more with a cloud computing company or a higher quality hosting operation. We’ll come back to this later.
The easiest way to get a site running is to use WordPress.com. It uses the same underlying software, but is provided as a service in much the same way as Gmail or Xero.
All the code is hidden from sight, Automattic, the commercial business behind WordPress runs this on your behalf. It looks after all the housekeeping and backend functions.
This option is so simple you can have a site online minutes after signing up. Anyone can use the service, it requires little technical knowledge. All the hard work is done for you.
All you need to do is write, find pictures, do a little designing and find your audience.
While WordPress.com is still free in its most basic form, there are now charges for anything more than a simple no-frills website. And if you take the free option, your site will show advertising to your readers.
That’s the deal, it is like using Gmail but these advertisements will be shown to your readers and they may see them as part of your brand. If you’re not happy with that, you can go back to WordPress.org or you can move to a paid plan.
Self-hosting gives you far more flexibility over the look of your site and the way it functions. It needs spelling out that in the WordPress world self-hosting refers to any site that is not hosted by Automattic.
There are thousands of plug-ins and themes — some free, some paid-for, to spruce-up your site. In effect you can make it look like anything. If you self host you can find them at WordPress or from hundreds of other sources. If you use the hosted service you have a limited range of options. There are more options on the paid plans, but not as many as if you self-host.
Plug-ins can add functionality. You might, say, want to run a newsletter or an online shop. There are plug-ins for both.
Aside from cash, there is another price you pay for the extra flexibility of self-hosting: complexity.
While WordPress.org can be straightforward, it can get as technical as you want. If you like, you can dig around in the code to your heart’s content.
WordPress.com is as solid as a rock. I used it for a few years and kept this screenshot to show how reliable it was. Over a year it went offline 11 times, but was only out of action for one hour and 25 minutes, that’s 99.98 percent uptime. You can’t argue with that.
Compare those figures with those from the last twelve months of my first self-hosted site.
WordPress.com was also far faster that my first self-hosted site.
Switching from self-hosted to WordPress.com saw the average page download speed drop from 2200 milliseconds to 400 milliseconds. The graph shows how much page speed improved when I moved to .com.
Using the Automattic service had many advantages, it meant I could focus on writing, but I wanted to use PressPatron. You can see the banner at the top of this page. That means running some code, at the time WordPress.com wouldn’t allow this so I looked for a better option.
A managed host
Today I use, Pressable, a managed WordPress host. Managed hosting sits somewhere between using the software as a service option and self-hosting. It has all the flexibility of self-hosting, but the ‘managed’ part of managed hosting means someone else does much of the hard word keeping the site running.
Since I started using Pressable about three years ago the downtime has been less than on WordPress.com. The speed is about the same.
Self-hosting can cost next to nothing. It can even be free. The problem with low cost hosting is that your site is on shared storage. If the other sites staring with you are busy, your speed will drop. That’s fine for low traffic site, if you want more readers it is not a good idea to keep them waiting. By all means go down this path if you run a hobby blog.
Spend more and you can get better performance – although that is not guaranteed.
WordPress.com can be free. You can’t argue with that price — the downside is WordPress will sometimes insert ads on your site. Free doesn’t buy much.
Recently WordPress reorganised its priced tiers. The first step up from Free is the US$15 a month WordPress Pro. It includes a domain name and the ability to use plug-ins. Your readers don’t have to see ads, although you can serve them and earn money – don’t expect to get much.
With Pro you get more storage along with a wider range of themes that determine how your site looks. You also get support – there is now limited help with the free version.
My Pressable WordPress managed host costs considerably more than the WordPress Pro price at around US$300 a year. Yet that is for five sites and considerably more support – the online support is excellent and responsive. On a number of occasions I’ve got the site into a mess and had an expert bail me out.
Today I run two active sites on the Pressable account and use a third site as a staging site so I can try out new things without breaking the working site. Running three sites to the same level on WordPress.com would cost more. In that way the managed host option is decent value.