Last week, I featured an insightful post from Ron Bueker that compared the pros and cons of WordPress and Squarespace.
I have long been devoted to WordPress, going back to 2006. My decade of experience has made me very comfortable building sites on it, plus it gives me an advantage in terms of cost. I’ve learned enough over the years to maintain my own sites, and to recognize when I should spend money for themes, plugins, or support.
But I am not a coder. I have never taken a coding class, and my coding knowledge primarily involves basic HTML and CSS, all self-taught. But I am comfortable enough to copy and paste code into the right places when given good directions.
I recognize that few authors are as comfortable as I am when it comes to WordPress. Still, I think it can be a very cost-effective option that becomes more powerful for your online presence, over time, if you’re willing to commit to learning it.
If you’re considering WordPress as your platform of choice, here’s what you should know as you prepare to build on it.
1. Use WordPress.com as a low-pressure, easy way to begin, with confidence in its long-term prospects.
It’s often hard to explain the difference between using WordPress.com and a self-hosted version of WordPress (sometimes referred to as “Wordpress.org”).
First and foremost, WordPress is a content management system that is free to use. It can be used as the basis of any website, and by anyone. Because it underpins about 20% of the world’s websites, it’s a very well-known technology. This is good for you as as site owner. As an analogy, think about the iPhone and how many apps are developed for that platform. Just about everyone is eager to have something that’s iPhone compatible. WordPress is similar.
WordPress.com is a place you can go to start a WordPress-based site, without the cost of hosting (or development), in a safe and secure environment that is run by the company who developed WordPress in the first place. They have lots of tutorials and support that are geared for beginners to website building.
However, because you’re building in their walled garden, there are certain limitations. You can’t choose any theme you want. You can’t totally customize the site without buying upgrades. And so on.
That doesn’t negate the fact that it’s still WordPress, and you’re learning a system that’s been around for 10+ years, and is very prevalent in the web development world.
If and when you decide to “graduate” to a self-hosted site (I outline this further here), the WordPress.com support team can help you make that transition successfully. They want you to keep using their technology, even if it’s not in their special walled garden.
This is one of the reasons that WordPress.com is so great for beginners. You get ease of use, but the ability to expand and add complexity if and when your growth demands it. Plus, you have a stable environment, with confidence that it will be a viable platform for years to come. (For example, users of Apple’s iWeb site building service know the pain of having to start their site from scratch when their platform goes the way of the dodo.)
As a WordPress user with a self-hosted site, I’ve never had to worry about what happens if my website platform goes out of business or changes hands.
2. Invest a lot of upfront time researching what theme or theme technology you want to use.
Whether you’re using WordPress.com or not, one of the keys to a good WordPress experience is your choice of theme.
Think of a theme as a skin for your website. It dictates the aesthetics—the colors, the layout, the fonts, the styles, and more. Some themes also come with some rather incredible customizations and additional functionality, while very simple themes might have little or no additional functionality at all. This is why your choice is so important—it affects your overall site design but also some of your capabilities to customize your website or push it further without knowing code.
Not all themes are created equal—they can be created by anyone, anywhere and made available with very little testing. Always check the ratings and reviews for each theme at WordPress, as well as if it has been recently updated or developed. You can also see how many people have downloaded the theme—and popularity works in your favor. The more people who are using a theme, the more likely the bugs are getting worked out and few conflicts exist with other third-party stuff you might use for your site. It’s also helpful if the theme has a support community where you can go to ask questions. Very new themes should generally be avoided by beginners unless it’s from a developer who has many other respected themes.
For WordPress.com users, you’ll be limited in your choice of theme—for good reason. You’ll be presented with well-tested and robust themes that are free or premium (premium themes cost you money). If you’re running a self-hosted site, then you can choose any theme you’re able to find in the WordPress universe, which can sometimes be paralyzing. I recommend researching as many author websites as you can, and when you find one you like, look for information about what theme they’re using. You can tell by looking at the source code. (In Chrome, go to View > Developer > View Source.) Look for the URL that indicates the theme name. For example, here’s a snippet of the source code for Bella Andre’s site:
This tells us that the WordPress theme is Divi.
Many people like the idea of drag-and-drop website builders, such as Squarespace. It is possible to have the same experience in WordPress if you choose a theme or plugin that offers that functionality. Just run a Google search for “page builder WordPress themes” or “drag-and-drop WordPress.” Here’s a recent roundup of such tools.
3. To add e-commerce functionality, invest in premium plugins or themes.
If you plan to accept payments directly through your site (known as e-commerce functionality), that’s when you should consider investing in premium plugins or themes, to help ensure a streamlined experience. WooThemes and WooCommerce are a popular choice for authors who want to accept or process payments through their site. I use Gravity Forms + Stripe because my needs are very simple right now.
(Keep in mind that, if you do accept payments directly, you need a secure site. Check with your site hosting company about how to do this.)
4. Cheap hosting is OK for low-traffic sites, but outages may be common, and support not so supportive.
Years ago, I started out my website on a very cheap hosting plan from GoDaddy. It worked fine and did the job for less than $100/year, but eventually I bought a better hosting plan from MediaTemple with additional functionality, such as site staging (so you can easily build a site without it being live), automated nightly backups, and improved caching to improve my site speed. I pay a baseline of $200/year to host several sites; my total traffic is about 200,000 visits per month.
With cheap (or cheaper) hosting, you might not find your site uptime as reliable, and the support might be lacking. With managed hosting plans—which tend to emphasize their service and support for site owners who aren’t techies or experienced web developers—the added expense can be worth it for peace of mind.
5. Only use plugins that you really need. Research them just as you would themes.
Plugins are bits of functionality that you add to your site. They may be extremely simple, such as a widget that shows the most popular blog posts at your site, or they can be very complex, such as message boards and forum systems.
Whatever functionality you’d like to add to your site, you can bet there’s a plugin that does it—probably a dozen plugins! And therein lies the challenge. It’s up to you to figure out which one might look best or work best on your site. Plugins may or may not work well with your theme, or they may cause your other plugins to be disrupted. You rarely know what the outcome will be until you try. That’s why it’s important to research your plugins just as you do your themes; especially if you’re a beginner to site building, choose plugins that are popular and regularly updated, and preferably offer some form of support.
6. Always login to your site at least once a week to check for updates and make sure everything looks as it should.
Some author websites don’t need to be updated that often—maybe not even once a month. With a self-hosted WordPress site, however, it’s important to check in at least once a week or so, to see if any new updates have been released for the WordPress core system, or any of the themes or plugins you’ve been using. These updates can be critical to your site security and are important to process around the time they release. Some managed hosting services will take care of such updates for you.
Aside from updates, it’s just a good idea to check in, especially if you have any comment areas open, and to see that everything looks just as you left it.
7. If you encounter roadblocks or problems, Google it first.
This is my No. 1 secret web development tip. I solve about 90% of my website problems or frustrations by searching for error codes, error phrases, or simplistic explanations of the problem I’m having, along with the keyword “WordPress.” More often than not, I find someone else who has encountered the same problem and solved it. If that doesn’t work, I resort to the support community provided by my WordPress theme developer.
If this post has created more doubts and anxieties about building or maintaining your own site, then you’re likely a very good prospect for WordPress.com, or a service like Squarespace, which can help make some of this tech headache go away.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.