What's the deal with WordPress?

If you're on the point of building your own website, you've certainly heard about WordPress, and perhaps you've even decided already, without knowing too much about it, that WordPress is definitely for you.  Everyone's talking about it – but what is it, and why might you choose it to create your website? WordPress is a free software that anyone can use.  It's the most-used CMS that there is at the moment - this means a "content management system" - a "platform", or system that you can use to put your content online, without literally building it in code.  20% of all websites in existence are, apparently, built on WordPress.  You simply install it on your website, usually with just one or two clicks depending on your host, wait for the email confirming your installation, and you’re ready to start.

To install the full version of WordPress, you do need your own domain name and your own hosting, and you might want to buy a premium template as well, so it would be wrong to say that it’s completely free.  But building your site on WordPress will reduce your costs dramatically, compared to getting a web designer to design and programme your site from scratch.

Let’s get something straight first – there are actually two versions of WordPress.  There is a version that is known as “WordPress.com” that is hosted for you, meaning you don’t have to purchase and manage your own hosting setup.  This is a kind of “lite” version of WordPress and it’s brilliant for bloggers.

However, if you want to develop your site further than just creating a blog – for example, if you want to accept payments for products or services or list events on your website, you’ll find WordPress.com is not for you.  Or simply, if you want to remain in control of your own website and not have it hosted by another company, then you’ll want to go for the second version, the “full” version, that is known as “self-hosted” WordPress or “WordPress.org.”  The self-hosted version of WordPress is the one we are talking about here.  To use self-hosted WordPress, you’ll need your own domain and your own hosting, and you’ll have to install WordPress yourself, but none of this is difficult to do.  After that, how far you want to go in the development of your site is up to you.

WordPress runs on templates, which are known as “themes.”  There are a vast range of themes available, designed and created by independent designers and programmers all over the world.  Some of these are free, and some you have to pay for.  Until quite recently, free themes were overwhelmingly for blogging sites and there wasn’t a great range available for other kinds of site.  Now you’ll find a selection of free themes you can use if you’re setting up a business site rather than simply a blog, and some of these are good.  But for the majority of people setting up a WordPress site, you’ll want to choose and invest in a premium theme because they look much more professional and offer you more customization.  Buying a theme is a one-off payment (usually around $50) – once you’ve bought it you can use it indefinitely, and to my mind this is one of the best investments you’ll make as it will mean your website looks as good as it possibly can.

Customization is an issue I want to touch on at this point.  Someone who has used a website creator such as Wix may be surprised that you can’t drag and drop elements around your site in the way you can if you were creating with Wix.  The reason for this is that the coding behind a WordPress site is much more sophisticated than that behind a Wix site and your WordPress site can be made to do things on a far more complex level, if you want it to.  So, you don't actually design your own site if you use WordPress - you run on a theme that has made most of the design and layout decisions for you.  If you want a site that you can customize to a large extent, for example change the colours and fonts and maybe decide on your own layouts, you’ll need to choose a very recent theme and check the small print as to exactly what you can do with it – you’ll find that not all themes allow you to change colours and fonts and layout the way you might expect at the outset.  The answer to this is to choose a theme that looks as nearly as possible the way you actually want your site to look.  There are so many hundreds of beautiful themes available that you’re sure to be able to find something that’s already exactly as you want it, and it will most likely be completely unrecognisable once you've got your own images and wording in there.  (See here for some of my tips on choosing a WordPress theme.)

A WordPress site can be made to do almost anything you want it to.  It can work as a “brochure” style website for a small business,  or as a portfolio.  You can set it up to take payments online, to create a membership site, to list event dates.  This is thanks to a vast number of “plugins” available – most of them free – created again by independent programmers all around the world.  (A plugin is an "extra" that makes WordPress do something it doesn't already do all by itself.)  Every WordPress site has an integrated blog right within it and can be connected to your social media as well in a variety of ways – to display your Facebook stream, your Pinterest boards or your Instagram pictures, and it can even show your products listed on Etsy that people can choose right from your site.

How far you want to go depends on you – if you’re not very technical, you may find that your needs are met by using a fairly basic theme, but if you enjoy experimenting, you’ll certainly want to develop your site further once you start to see what you can do with WordPress.

I’m not a blind advocate for WordPress in all cases (I write more about this here).  It may be that if you want an online store, it may be easier and more appropriate for you to set up a webstore using Shopify.  And as I said, if you simply want to blog in a very light-hearted way, it could be that a ready-hosted blog at WordPress.com or Typepad might fit your needs perfectly.  But for most types of websites, a self-hosted WordPress site, as simple or as complex as you need it to be, will be a very good solution.

If you’re undecided, here are some of the reasons why you might want to use WordPress.

  • It gives the power to the you as the website owner.  You don’t need to rely on your webmaster to make updates so you can easily keep your website up to date.
  • It has a fairly user-friendly interface, especially compared with some of the other complex systems out there.  Most people find it easy to work with, once they've browsed around a little, and having got the hang of it, you’ll be able to make updates easily.
  • Once the site is built, it’s an enormous time saver – you can add pages, images and blog posts extremely quickly.
  • It’s free – or should we say, extremely low cost, compared to getting a website built from scratch, and there are no monthly fees apart from your hosting.
  • You're in charge of hosting it, which means you have entire control.
  • It can be made to do pretty much anything you want it to – thousands of developers worldwide work on plugins to make it more and more flexible.
  • Because so many people use it, there is a huge support network for users and developers.
  • You can easily find a developer to work on your site as so many programmers build with WordPress.
  • Even getting a site built by a professional with WordPress will be much less expensive than hiring them to build it from scratch.
  • It's robust and reliable, and secure – any security holes are fixed with frequent updates to the system.  (You must make sure you keep everything updated.)

Now, having praised WordPress and told you what a great system it is, I do have to repeat that it isn't for everyone.   Most people who I help set up websites are really pleased with what they can achieve, and very much enjoy the creation process and the fact that they can now add to their website themselves and make changes as they please.  However I must say that some people I work with do find it a headache, and they'd be much better off either hiring a professional, or using a simpler system to get an uncomplicated "brochure" website up and in place.  See here to read more about whether WordPress is for you - you really want to make the right decision before you start.