Today is part 2 in my mini-series on “Anatomy of a Blog Design.” Yesterday I covered the essential four P’s you must know before launching your blog: people, purpose, payoff and platform. Today I’ll delve more into that fourth P: platform. I’ve been waiting to do this one for a while. The social media geek in me is excited to share my enthusiasm for my platform of choice, WordPress.com. I bet you have a cursory understanding of what you get with WordPress.com. I’m hoping that after today you’ll have a whole new appreciation for the free service.
As I mentioned yesterday, there are a plethora of blogging platforms one could choose. The more popular ones (besides WordPress) are TypePad, Blogger, Tumblr and Squarespace. First let me say that these are all great companies with really good products. Some I like better than others. Some I don’t really like at all (Achoo! Blogger). But this post is not meant to be an in-depth look into the pros and cons of each. Instead, I want to discuss why I chose WordPress.com.
When I first started blogging five years ago, I started on TypePad. After about a year I switched to WordPress (a self-hosted site) and haven’t looked back since. Why? Because it’s freaking AWESOME! But don’t take my word for it. Just look at what’s the platform of choice for most of the heavy-hitters in the social media and blogging world (people and companies who have of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions of unique visitors every month). People like Chris Brogan, Robert Scoble, Michael Hyatt, Scott Bourne, The Bui Brothers and Philip Bloom. Sites like Planet5D, CNN, TED, E Online, TechCrunch, and many, many, MANY more. I would hazard to guess that WordPress is THE most common blogging platform, bar none. If that is not a good enough argument for you, I don’t know what is.
Two Flavors of WordPress
If you’ve done any kind of research into WordPress, you may know that there are two “flavors” of the platform. You can have a WordPress.com blog (where you register your blog and host it on WordPress’s servers). Or you can have a self-hosted WordPress blog, in which you download the WordPress software from WordPress.org and install it onto your hosting service. Technically, both are free. However, with a self-hosted WordPress blog, you need to have a hosting package that you will most likely be paying for. Also, you most likely would not have to install the WordPress software yourself. Just about all major web hosting companies have WordPress installation wizards that can walk you through the process.
So, what are the pros and cons of each? Well, I’m glad you asked. If I may use an editing software analogy, think of it like this. Blogger, WordPress.com and a self-hosted WordPress site are to blogging what iMovie, FCPX and Avid’s Media Composer are to editing software, respectively. WordPress.com blogs are very powerful, extremely elegant, and very easy to use. A self hosted WordPress blog is elegant and relatively easy to use (once you get the hang of installing plugins, CSS, etc.) WordPress.com will limit what you can do in terms of design, embedding media, and SEO tracking. With a self-hosted WordPress site, the sky’s the limit (and so is the amount you could spend. Some self-hosted WordPress sites in our industry pay hundreds of dollars/month due to traffic, hosting fees, etc.) Rather than try to cover everything, I’ll cover some of the more significant issues you may want to consider when choosing between WordPress.com and a self-hosted WordPress site.
This is by far the #1 reason I decided to switch from a self-hosted site. It was not in my budget to use one of the über hosting services like RackSpace. (My company’s main website is on ShowIt). So, the web hosting services I was using were relatively well-known, but much less expensive. I had the budget for shared server services (usually just a few hundred dollars for a couple of years) vs. a dedicated server. Not too bad. But with the last three companies I used, I ran into server issues. The first web hosting company I was using was located in New Orleans. When Katrina hit, they lost most of their servers and didn’t have adequate back up and redundancy. My sites were down for like a week (or more). The next two companies I used frequently had downed servers, especially if my traffic hit high spikes. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is when you have a blog post that hits it big traffic-wise, then goes down throughout the day.
WordPress.com is hosted by people who are Jedi Masters at up time. They have to be. Some of the largest companies in the world use them. I knew with a WordPress.com blog, my blogs would be up 99.999% of the time. Another reason I switched was because my friend and photography industry giant Scott Bourne (who has oodles of cash at his disposal and could’ve put his blog anywhere he liked) did extensive research on where to host his popular PhotoFocus blog and he chose WordPress.com for pretty much the same reason.
WordPress.com is just easy. You don’t have to worry about installing plugins. All those cool plugin features you see on my blog are just buttons I turn on or off, or icons I drag to a screen. Adding all those side panels is as easy as dragging a widget. Now, much of a self-hosted WordPress blog is also like that, but much of it isn’t. At some point you’ll need to futz with CSS code, or FTPing files to a particular folder in order to get the blog to look and act the way you want.
This is one area that kept me from using WordPress.com in the beginning. One of the ways they achieve such high up-time is that they don’t allow any embed codes or java script. These kind of web codes can allow hackers to attack and manipulate servers. However, because WordPress.com is so popular, just about all the major video sharing sites have ways in which you can embed videos. The three I was most concerned about were YouTube, Vimeo and blip.tv.
In truth, embedding videos on a WordPress.com site is way easier than on a self-hosted site. For instance, if I want to embed the Vimeo version of my 48 Hour Film Project film “The Last Author” into a self-hosted site, this is the Vimeo code I’d have to use
To embed this same video on a WordPress.com site, all I need is the videos’s Vimeo URL
Or I can use just the 8-digit code like this
That’s it. Either of these codes will result in the video looking like this
If I want to specify width and height, I do it like this
And the resulting video is this
YouTube works the same way (the only difference being that with YouTube, if you add width and height parameters, you must add an “&” between the URL and the “w” as opposed to just a space.) As of this writing, WordPress.com has similar video embed procedures for many of the major video sharing services including blip.tv, Flickr, Google Video, Daily Motion, TED talks, and more.
The other area I was worried about when switching to WordPress.com was my commenting platform. I was using the popular commenting plugin Disqus. It’s terrific for being able to have great interactivity and makes it easy to reply to comments from your email. Well, guess what. You can do all of that with WordPress.com too. And you don’t have to install any plugins. Also, as you can see, you can even allow your commenters to sign in with their Facebook or Twitter ID if they want to use those IDs to comment. Comments are nested and I can reply to them via email. WordPress.com also has the popular comment spam filter Akismet built right in.
SEO and Site Statistics
Another thing I love about WordPress.com is that the people behind it add all the stuff behind the scenes to make their blogs SEO rich. I’ve heard some people say that if you use WordPress.com, because it’s hosted on THEIR servers vs. yours, you lose SEO “points.” Not sure what that means. All I know is that I haven’t had an issue. Just Google Ron Dawson or FCPX and see what comes up in the first few major links.
When you register a WordPress.com site, you get the URL http://blogname.wordpress.com. For $12 to $17 a year you can map a domain name to this so that you can use a vanity URL, e.g. http://bladeronner.com. Both URLs work (Try it. Type http://bladeronner.wordpress.com and see what happens. But, wait til you finish reading this article. Alternatively, you could just forward a domain to your WordPress.com site like this: http://thelastauthor.net. The resulting URL will be http://thelastauthor.wordpress.com. But in terms of sharing the URL with others, you can use the vanity one.
Another downside if you have a heavily trafficked site is that technically, advertising is not allowed on WordPress.com sites. You are not allowed to have ad banners or links in the side bars, etc. For visitors to your site who are not WordPress.com users and/or not logged in to their WordPress.com site, when they visit your site they may see ads at the bottom of your post (you may be seeing one on this). For $29.97/year you can turn that off. If you’re big enough to qualify for one of their VIP hosted sites, you can add advertising.
I’m not minding this issue so much because I don’t have ads on this site. For now, I want to keep the user experience ad free (as much as possible. I obviously can’t control the random ones and it’s not currently worth it to me to fork over the $30 to turn them off.). My thinking is kind of like what Mark Zuckerberg wanted for Facebook in the movie “The Social Network.” I want to keep my site “cool”. (You’ll also notice that my site is just bladeronner.com vs. THE bladeronner.com.
From one main WordPress.com user name you can create an unlimited number of blogs. What’s nice is that once you’re logged in, if you’re on any WordPress.com site (yours or someone elses) you have easy access to all your blogs from the top menu.
Last but not least, WordPress.com comes with over 100 themes you can use. They’re not as flexible as customized templates you can install on self-hosted sites, but they’re flexible enough. And now WordPress.com has Premium themes which offer greater flexibility and a more sophisticated look. On average they cost about $45 to $70 (one time fee). It is a premium theme that I am currently looking into switching this blog to. Stay tuned.
Way More Than This
This blog post is already almost 2,000 words, but there is much more I could write. This should arm you with enough knowledge though to make an informed decision. If you have any questions, leave them in the comment section below and I’ll quickly reply (via my email of course) to your comment. As you can see, another cool feature with WordPress.com commenting is that you can subscribe to individual comment threads so you can be notified when I reply. How cool is that?!