Starting a Website: Free or Self-Hosted WordPress?

Getting Started

This is the first part in a series on setting up a WordPress website. I am going to lay out everything that you need to know to determine if you should use free or self-hosted WordPress for your new website.

For additional information, wp beginner also has a great post about this topic here. They are a great resource for anyone starting out using WordPress. Although they recommend self-hosted WordPress for all applications, I don’t think that is the best solution for every website. My goal is to provide the data you need to determine which solution is best for you.

What Is WordPress?

Manage your WordPress site from any type of device

WordPress is a content management system. For anyone looking at starting their own website, whether it is a blog, a marketing site, or a storefront, a CMS makes managing the site easier.

Before there were CMSs, if you wanted to create a website, you either needed to learn code or hire a website designer to build it. Early blog creators had to know some combination of HTML, CSS, PHP, and JavaScript. In addition to having to know web programming, there was still the need to create optimized images for the web, as well as have some sort of knowledge in layout design. That is a lot of technical knowledge to invest before ever creating the first shred of content.

Today, CMSs take care of the bulk of the technical heavy lifting. They provide a framework for delivering content so that content creators can focus on what really matters: content creation. WordPress powers a quarter of the websites on the Internet.

Where to Get Started, Free or Self-hosted WordPress?

The first thing to decide when setting up a WordPress site is if you want to use WordPress.com (free WordPress) or WordPress.org (self-hosted WordPress). Even though they share the same name, they are two very different platforms. It is up to you to decide which platform you prefer to use, as they both have benefits and drawbacks. The rest of this post will help you decide which platform you should use, free or self-hosted WordPress.

Theme Support

Free WordPress only allows the use of themes that are available in their repository. You cannot customize these themes other than options that are available in the appearance editor. Though you get a limited theme selection, this does help prevent issues caused by themes that are not properly coded.

Self-hosted WordPress allows you to use any theme you want. Also, you can customize your theme to your heart’s content. Be warned though, that this flexibility also increases the chance that themes and customizations could break WordPress functionality.

Plugin Support

Free WordPress does not allow you to use any plugins. However, they do offer built-in features that contain that function like some common plugins. Again, you are trading customizability for site stability.

Self-hosted WordPress allows you to use any plugins that are available, including free, paid, and even custom plugins. These can add a lot of additional functionality to your site, with the cost of code complexity.

Hosting Fees

Web hosting doesn’t always come cheap

Free WordPress is totally free for up to three gigabytes of server space. This is more than enough to suit the needs of most personal blogs or other sites that don’t use a lot of space with multimedia files.

Self-hosted WordPress requires choosing a hosting service with a web hosting provider. Costs vary from provider to provider, with a lot of providers offering deep discounts for a long-term, pay upfront contract.

Domain Registration

While we are on the topic of hosting fees, let’s talk about domain registration. If you go with free WordPress, your website will have an address like mysuperawesomesite.wordpress.com. Your site is a sub-domain of WordPress.com. There are no fees for this, but, you also could have a really long address for your website.

Self-hosted WordPress sites require you to register a domain. This requires an annual fee, but there is the upside that you can get a much shorter address.

Website Monetization

If you want to monetize your website, you need strongly consider self-hosting

Free WordPress does not allow you to sell advertising on sites that they host. So, if you were planning on setting up a site to bring in ad revenue, this is not the place to go.

Self-hosted WordPress sites can sell all of the ad space that they want.

Site Branding

Free WordPress forces you to not only keep a “Powered by WordPress” logo on your site, but they also insert their own ads into your site, effectively making them money from content that you create.

Self-hosted WordPress does not insert any unwanted ads into your site. There is a “Powered by WordPress” logo, however, it is easily removed.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Features

For those new to internet marketing, SEO is basically the current buzz word for catering your website’s content to search engines to try to achieve higher search engine rankings.

Free WordPress does not have any built-in features for SEO.

Self-hosted WordPress has many options for SEO, as there are several plugins available. The most popular of these is Yoast SEO.

Website Analytics

Tracking and analyzing visitor metrics

Free WordPress contains a simple analytics engine. There are no options to upgrade to anything more advanced.

Self-hosted WordPress can connect with many analytics engines due to access to plugins that add functionality for sites such as Google Analytics.

E-commerce and Membership Sites

Free WordPress does not give you the tools you need to set up a storefront. They actually recommend that you use a self-hosted WordPress site if you plan on setting up any type of e-commerce website

Maintenance

It all needs regular maintenance.

Free WordPress is maintenance free. Their staff handles everything.

The level of maintenance required for self-hosted WordPress solutions will vary between host companies and even between different plans that each company offers. The point is, either you will have to maintain it yourself, or you will have to pay up for it.

Anonymity

This is a topic that I’ve not seen on any other blog posts about this topic, so I wanted to bring it up, as it is something that impacts some people. Domain registration requires WHOIS record creation with ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). A WHOIS record lists personal information about the owner of a domain. This includes items such as name, email address, physical address, and telephone number. This requires filling out personal information accurately and completely. This information is easily searchable by anyone with an internet connection.

There is an option to make your personal WHOIS data private. However, most registrars do charge extra for this service. Also, any time you move your domain registration to another provider, you will need to temporarily remove the privacy protection from your WHOIS record during the transfer.

If you want to create a website and maintain anonymity, then free WordPress is a viable option since it only grants you a sub-domain on WordPress.com.

Weigh Your Own Pros and Cons

Depending upon your own needs, the cons of one platform may far outweigh its pros. If you want to start an e-commerce site or use your site to directly generate revenue in any way, self-hosted is the only way to go. However, if you just want a low-cost creative outlet, then consider using free WordPress. There are many factors to consider when deciding if you want to go with a free site on WordPress.com or a self-hosted WordPress solution.

Coming Up…

In the next part of this series on setting up a WordPress site, I’ll discuss what to do after you’ve decided between WordPress.com or a hosted WordPress solution.

Wayne Cochran

Database Administrator, writer, social media evangelist, and occasional traveler, Wayne writes whatever comes into his head or touches his heart. His interests vary from IT to matters of the heart to the dream of a future beach life.

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