(This is a guest post written by my good friend, Guilherme. In this post, he gives an in-depth analysis of WordPress and provides advice to anyone who cannot choose between self-hosted WordPress and WordPress.com. By the way, if you don’t even understand the difference between self-hosted WP and WordPress.com, then this post is definitely for you)
Among the several serious blogging platforms around, it jumps to the eyes that WordPress is a major favorite with bloggers, but a bit of confusion may arise when you are confronted with the expression “Self Hosted WordPress Vs. WordPress.com“. What does this mean? I’ll explain!
Self Hosted WordPress
WordPress is a free blogging software developed in PHP. You can download it from www.wordpress.org/download, install it on your server, configure it and start blogging within minutes.
WordPress is extremely user friendly. It requires almost no previous technical knowledge other than general web culture that; if you intend to become a blogger, you probably already have it.
Blogging today is a very serious thing and you will need much more than a text box to drop your text. WordPress is out of the box equipped with most of the things you’ll need to blog right away. Not only you’ll have the text box to write your posts, but you can categorize them, tag them, add images that are managed within a rather well done attachment management area.
But the blogging is only a part of your site, you might as well need to display static pages. Wouldn’t you want to have a page about your blog and the author? Wouldn’t you have the need to publish things that won’t fit the chronological structure of a blog every once in a while? Yes you will!
Pages in WordPress are just like that; they are like posts but don’t follow the chronology. One thing though… they can’t be added to post categories because… well, because they are not posts. But worry not, because equivalent features are given to pages in the form of parenting. A page can have a parent that works as a category.
Say you have a downloads section and you are giving away several goodies. You can create a page for each one of them and make them all have a parent page called ‘downloads’. Very appropriate, don’t you think?
Also, pages can have different layout templates. Different from posts, a page might look as different from the other as you want. And why would you want to do that? Of course is not a good idea that you change the look and feel of your pages just because you can, because that will hurt the visual identity of your blog, but how about functionality?
Take the example of the downloads page. You can offer a cool download in www.yourblog.com/downloads/yourcooldownload but wouldn’t you like to have in www.yourblog.com/downloads a list of all your possible downloads? You can create that list by hand, but you can also have a page layout that creates the list for you so you don’t have to create it or update it manually.
Just like that, every time you need a page with a different structure, or a page that automates a feature, you can create a page template that does just that.
So far so good, but what if you are not a coder and you can’t (or don’t want to) create page templates? Well, one of the nice things about WordPress is that it has a great community support and there are plenty of Themes available that you can use.
A Theme is, roughly speaking, a layout system for your blog. WordPress takes care of the blog functionality (dealing with the database, adding comments, managing users, etc) while your Theme determines how the information is displayed on your blog.
In WordPress you can change theme as easily as changing your clothes. You simply download, install and change theme with a few clicks. There is a huge database of themes where you can download for free, and if you can’t find the one you like, there are also plenty of freelance web designers that design WP themes at an affordable rate.
Most themes are equal in the basic features. They will show your posts on reverse chronological order, a list of your pages, the categories, etc. And most of them will come with a page template or two besides the basic page layout. If you need a special layout, you can go hunting a theme that has such a feature and use it, or adapt it to your own theme if you don’t want to change it (for instance I’ve written a tutorial to create Powerful Archives).
Although WP out of the box features are quite extensive, what if you need something else? WordPress has a very powerful plugin system that allows you to add almost any functionality you want.
And because plugins are, well… pluggable, you can update your basic WordPress installation and the plugins separately with very little or no fuzz at all. So using plugins is much better for maintenance than making changes right into WordPress.
All that is good and well, but what if you are not a tech oriented person and don’t want to interact with a server at all or perform upgrades but still you need a professional solution to blogging. Couldn’t you have a WordPress blog with as little fuzz as Blogger.com?
Yes you can, this is called WordPress.com!
WordPress.com is a site maintained by the people who developed the WordPress software and is an online community just like Blogger, but with a much more powerful engine. Best of all, subscription is free.
You can subscribe to WordPress.com just to become an user, if you want, even if you are not a blogger. By being a member, WordPress.com will remember you whenever you visit a WordPress.com blog and you won’t have to fill your data to leave a comment.
Because WordPress.com is an online community you have a lot of benefits for groups of bloggers. For instance, if you are going to blog or guest-blog in several blogs, you can simply have one user and have it accepted as an author role on these blogs.
The blogs will still belong to other people and you can’t admin it, but you’ll have the possibility to publish by yourself. You can also have your user upgraded to admin, if that’s the case and co-admin the blog.
Let’s say, for instance, you and your fiends or coworkers decided to blog about several subjects that don’t fit into one blog. You can have multi-author blogs in self-hosted WP, no problem, but if three people want to blog on three different blogs you will end up with a total of 9 users to admin: one for each person on each blog. In WordPress.com each one has one user that can use throughout the blogs and even on other blogs, for guest-posting and commenting. Way neater.
Besides all that, because WordPress.com accounts are free, you save the hosting fees, so it is quite convenient in many ways.
However, not everything is free.
Domains on WordPress.com
If you are even only half-serious about your site or blog, you’ll want a domain for it. Domains today can be registered starting from about $10 a year and you definitely, absolutely, with-no-shadow-of-doubt should have one for your blog.
WordPress.com allows you to have your own domain, but you have to pay them an yearly fee for that benefit. The price is about the same amount that the domain registration itself, so it is still cheaper than self-hosting in most cases.
By having a domain you can keep your own identity and move away from the service (not only WordPress.com, any service or host at all) whenever you please and your visitors wouldn’t even notice.
Limited Layouts and plugins in WordPress.com
As you probably know by now, WordPress themes and plugins are quite powerful, but WordPress.com don’t allow you to install your own Themes or Plugins. They do have a vast collection of them for you to use and they update the list often, but if something you want is not on the list, you just have to make do without it, period.
One exception though is that you can change the visual aspect (but not the functionality) of your theme of choice by uploading a CSS file. This will, however cost you a couple of dollars. It is still a cheaper choice than self hosting, though.
A nice feature, however, is that you can preview a layout change for free. This means you can change your layout as much as you want, for your eyes only, as if you had paid the service, but you won’t be able to publish it. You can only spend the money when you are already happy with the results.
Which one is for you?
There is no straight answer for this question, but if you can live with the fact that you can’t install plugins or custom themes and you can’t modify them or add features (like installing your own stats tracker, for instance) then there is no reason why you can’t start blogging on WordPress.com. If you have your own domain, you can always move to self hosted transparently.
On the other hand, if you’ve already fell inclined to put your nose either on installing and testing or developing plugins and themes, it might not even be worthy to start in WordPress.com, since you’ll be bored to death with the lack of hacking possibilities.
In any case, any responsible WordPress users (self-hosted or not) do has a WordPress.com account, because, for technical reasons, that is needed to be able to use Akismet, the most popular Anti-Spam plugin for WP. So, why not get started by opening this account on the first place?
Guilherme is a Web Designer and works freelance in northern Italy. His past work life includes also developing software prototypes for Sony Ericsson mobiles, teaching Photoshop, compiler design and photography. In his free time he enjoys cinema, traveling, cooking and eating and blogs about food on Mediterrasian Cooking.