Do you feel as though blogging is more complex than it’s been made out to be? When you’re new to blogging, choosing a blogging service or software is overwhelming. Many people never even learn that there’s a version of WordPress you can put on your own domain. The dot com version of WordPress is the first thing they encounter and off they go. If you are aware there are two versions of the world’s most popular blogging software, you’re now faced with a decision–one you don’t feel qualified to make.
You feel there’s a lot riding on this decision, and you don’t want to screw it up. Let me put your mind at ease by telling you that you aredefinitely going to screw things up. There’s another word for this: learning. I’m only partly kidding. Seriously: doing things is better than not doing anything. Movement is progress. But we like to learn quickly, rather than slowly. We like to avoid mistakes made by others if we can. I hope this post helps you in that regard.
Be aware, however, that I focus on business owners, and I treat blogging as marketing for a business. I’m going to cover this from that angle. I’m not a “problogger,” and it’s likely you aren’t either. We’re marketing a business, and our long-term goal is sales.
Your One-Sentence Answer: For business marketing, you want to use WordPress on your own server, which means WordPress.org.
For the longer answer, I’m going to break it down for you by listing out the major differences along a few major broad categories.
Hosting: Self or Other
A lot of webmasters get their start building practice websites on free hosting providers such as Blogger, WordPress, or free website builder, such as http://www.intuit.com/free-website-builder/. However, over time, WordPress has gained a large following. The biggest major difference between the two WordPresses is that the dot com version is hosted for you for free on Automattic’s servers, while the dot org version is software you install on your own web server. Automattic is the parent company of WordPress. Hosting with WordPress.com means you save a lot of money, because it’s free, and you never have to worry about your server crashing. You never have to worry about upgrades, because they’re automatic. Everything just works.
To receive those benefits requires you to give up something very important to a business: sovereignty. You don’t control the software or the server. There are incredible extras and freedoms unavailable to you if you go with the dot com version of WordPress. If you install WordPress on your own web server, we call that self-hosted WordPress to quickly tell which flavor of WordPress we’re talking about.
Self-hosted is a double-edged sword. With great freedom comes great responsibility. You have access to scads of themes and plugins that will let you do amazing things with WordPress that you can’t do on the dot com version—it’s like getting the keys to the kingdom. But you’re responsible for managing everything and keeping it updated. Plugins, themes, and WordPress itself require constant upgrading and backing up. Sometimes there are glitches that can only be solved by people who really know what they’re doing. If that’s not you, then you must have access to a qualified person.
Domains: My Place or Yours
One area beginners almost never know anything about is how search engines work and how to optimize site content to be easily found in search (which is called search engine optimization, or SEO). If you get a blog with WordPress.com, your domain name will be http://yourblogname.wordpress.com. This is because your site lives on WordPress’s servers, not yours. If your blog begins to rank highly in search results, and you later decide to move to your own server, it will be extremely difficult to keep your search rankings. You will have become dependent on search traffic because it brings you customers and sales.
You can have your own domain “mapped” to WordPress.com for a small fee, so that your domain will be http://yourblogname.com. This makes it much easier to migrate to your own server later. So, if you’re going to use WordPress.com for now, at least map your own domain name to it and choose standard date-based permalinks (the permanent addresses for each post on the blog, usually in a year/month/day format).
If you self-host WordPress on your own domain, you can do whatever you want with it. You can make the entire domain use WordPress like a content management system (CMS), or you can place the blog in a subfolder, so the address becomes http://yoursitename/blog. This is important if your site already has other components, such as ecommerce catalog, client login areas, training, employee admin areas, or forums.
Using your own domain and hosting WordPress on your own server means any search rank authority your content accrues belongs to you, not to WordPress. This is highly desirable, because blogs (especially when I’m helping you with them) can become crazy search magnets and attract a lot of highly-relevant traffic.
Plugins and Themes: Power to the People
A plugin is a little program you add on to a self-hosted WordPress blog that provide additional capabilities. With plugins, you can do cool and highly beneficial stuff like:
- Incorporate contact and other kinds of forms into your site
- Have related post links show up below a post
- Use Google Analytics to measure your web traffic
- Improve your SEO even more
- Allow commenters to subscribe to future comments by email
- Create an ecommerce catalog right in your blog
- Turn your blog into a social network
- And much, much more.
On WordPress.com, however, you have no choice but to use what’s made available to you through the service. Their functionality is good and they cover a wide range of needs, from related post links to video embedding. But the price you pay for free and easy is that you get what they give you and that’s that. If that’s acceptable to you, then the dot com version of WordPress might be what you need.
Themes are the how your blog looks: the design. With WordPress.com, you can choose a theme from the list they give you. If you don’t like any of ‘em, you can pay a small fee for the ability to customize the CSS file for your blog. If you don’t know CSS, you have to hire that out. If you have to hire it out, you may as well go self-hosted and get absolutely everything about it just the way you want.
If your blog is self-hosted, you can add any theme you like, or commission your own from a professional WordPress theme designer. Your options are wide open.
Code and Customization: Yes and No
Migrating from Dot Com to Self-Hosted
If you’ve already got a WordPress.com blog and you want to migrate to a self-hosted WordPress blog, don’t worry: you can do that. You can export all your posts, pages, comments, and other content out of WordPress.com and then import that into a new blog you install on your own server. This post is not the place to go into details about it: you can Google it or talk to your (hopefully) blog-savvy webmaster.
A Final Word and Your Thoughts
Like I said at the beginning, I’m writing this for businesspeople. I’ve listed what I feel is important for that audience, based on my experience working with many blog consulting clients over the years. If you’ve got something to add I didn’t think of, please help make this post more useful to everyone by adding your comments below.