WordPress logoIf you are a blogger or even a regular reader of blogs, you are probably familiar with WordPress even if you’ve never used it. Since its release in 2003 it has evolved from a basic blogging platform to a flexible yet easy-to-use content management system, thanks to the efforts of many developers and users. It is currently the most popular blogging platform on the internet.

Aside from the ability to post writing, images, or other media, one can also create and edit regular web pages – sometimes referred to as static content, in that it is information that is not time-sensitive as blog posts often are. Non-bloggers can forego the blog posting function altogether, resulting in what might be considered a more “traditional” website.

WordPress users have the option of changing the overall look and feel of their sites via the selection of a theme, which is essentially a series of templates dictating various elements such as layout, colour, typographical detail, and sometimes other special features. Additional functionality can be enabled with the integration of various plugins, chunks of pre-written code offering a wide range of special virtual gadgetry. The degree to which one can use these features to customize a WordPress site depends on whether the site is hosted at WordPress.com or self-hosted.

WordPress.com versus WordPress.org

There are two primary ways of using WordPress as a platform for a single-user blog (there are also ways to use it for various other purposes, but we won’t get into that in this post). The first way, which is a terrific introduction to the platform, is simply to visit WordPress.com and sign up for a free account. This is fast and easy, and you’ll have your own blog within minutes, hosted for free for as long as you like.

There are many good reasons to use the above method, the main one being that you don’t have to worry about technical stuff like database setup, server maintenance, or security. No platform is 100% secure, but as far as I know there has only been one major security breach on the WordPress.com servers in recent years.

The second, more advanced method is to go to WordPress.org, download the actual WordPress software, and install it in your own web hosting account – or, have someone do this for you. For those of you who are using a blog to promote yourselves as writers, book authors, journalists, entrepreneurs or experts on virtually any topic, this is preferable for a variety of reasons.

Before outlining those reasons, however, it is important to point out that you can always start a blog at WordPress.com, and once you’ve built a library of content, import it into a self-hosted installation of WordPress. Although there can sometimes be complications with this process, for most blog sites it is straightforward.

If you’ve started out using the platform at WordPress.com, the first thing you’ll notice when signing up is that you do not get a proper domain name like allenzuk.com or allenzuk.ca. Your domain name will be something like allenzuk.wordpress.com – this is called a subdomain – and like any domain name, you will be limited to subdomains that haven’t already been claimed. However, if this is your only issue with the WordPress.com platform, you can pay $13 USD per year to get a custom domain associated with your account. If you are happy with the platform otherwise, this is probably the best choice for you.

But even then, you may eventually notice that the WordPress.com platform is limited in many ways that a self-hosted WordPress installation is not.

The benefits of using a self-hosted WordPress installation

Although a free account at WordPress.com offers several built-in features, such as the ability to add polls, integrate with social media like Facebook and Twitter, and interlink with other WordPress sites or blogs on other platforms such as Tumblr, a self-hosted WordPress site offers access to hundreds of additional plugins, most of which are free and can be added with a single click in the WordPress administration area.

These plugins can be very simple; one might want to add a signup form for an email newsletter, or incorporate custom typefaces from a free library such as Google Web Fonts, or have blog posts appear simultaneously in your social media accounts, or add a message board for site visitors to converse with one another online.

On the other end of the scale, plugins can be used to convert your WordPress site into a Facebook-like social network, or sell products through an e-commerce platform, or turn it into an image gallery for your visual art. Some plugins add powerful, advanced editing functions to your WordPress site, and others can optimize your blog posts for search engine listings if your primary goal is to generate search traffic.

If you are craving custom design, there is a much wider variety of themes available for your self-hosted WordPress site – again, most being free – which allow you to make you site look and function in ways that are more in line with your overall purpose, be it as an author site, a company portal, a design portfolio, or just about any other type of website you can think of. Some of these allow for a much greater degree of tweaking and customization than the default WordPress installation.

If the available plugins or themes do not suit you, the self-hosted version of WordPress can be modified and repurposed to do whatever you want it to do. This does not have to be done in the beginning – customization of virtually any degree can be implemented well after your site has been populated with content. Existing themes can be customized with a basic knowledge of HTML and CSS, and new functions can be built into the existing WordPress installation if you know how to write PHP code. If you can’t do this yourself, you can always hire someone to do it for you.

What you’ll need to set up your own self-hosted WordPress site

The first and most urgent consideration is your domain name – you’ll need to find a domain name registrar, and you should look for a balance between reliable support and a reasonable price – this should not cost you more than about $12 per year. I use Netfirms (disclosure: this is an affiliate link) for all of my domain name registrations, because they are reasonably priced and licensed to provide .ca domains, which can only be obtained if you are a Canadian citizen or a company registered in Canada.

If you are operating under a company name, then you’ll want to search for a domain name that is similar. This can be discouraging, as it is often difficult to find .com addresses based around common words or phrases that haven’t already been snapped up by unscrupulous hoarders who later try to sell or auction them off at inflated prices. Similarly, finding a domain name that matches your own name (like allenzuk.com) can be tough if you’ve got a common name. Try adding a middle initial. Don’t forget, as a Canadian – or as the owner of a Canadian company – you have access to .ca names that many others don’t.

Don’t get caught up in trying to choose an overly descriptive domain name that will “trick” people into finding you in web searches. While that might have worked for a short time in the late 1990s, it doesn’t work anymore.

Next, you’ll need a web host. Not just any host will do. There are many large companies out there offering dirt-cheap hosting, and even if they claim to be WordPress-compatible, they might not allocate enough server resources to your account to allow advanced WordPress features to run reliably. I’ve encountered this once or twice in the past, but fortunately most web hosts are now set up to run WordPress very well for normal to medium volumes of web traffic. Some offer single-click or otherwise automated WordPress installation, which can allow you to install WordPress with a minimum of fuss, but if you seek to customize your installation beyond adding plugins and themes, you should install it yourself as this allows for a maximum of flexibility. If you’re planning to hire someone to customize your WordPress installation, let them install it for you.

Another consideration for some will be the issues that can arise if your site suddenly gets a lot of traffic. For example, if you’re about to appear in any kind of mainstream media, you’ll want to plug your website. Before that happens, you’ll need to talk to your web host to ensure that your site will be able to handle the surge of traffic – possibly several hits per second. Most inexpensive hosting plans (around $10/month) do not account for this, and a big spike in traffic may bring down your website, and probably your email, as well as any other sites that are on the same shared server.

You can opt to spend $200/month or so for dedicated hosting (i.e. your own server), but aside from the high price, this generally requires a certain amount of knowledge with regards to server configuration and maintenance on your part or on the part of someone you pay to set up and maintain it.

I have had excellent results with cloud hosting, which is a service whereby your site uses the small amount of resources it needs most of the time, but in times of very heavy traffic, resources are spread out over an entire network of servers to ensure that a single server will not be overwhelmed by trying to serve your site to thousands or millions of users per hour. (Yes, this is a horrendous oversimplification, but that is it in a nutshell.)

There are many pricing models, but you’ll likely pay a set fee with small additional charges if you go over a set limit of server resources, often measured in the amount of data transferred from the site (bandwidth), the amount of space you use on the server (data storage), and/or the amount of work the server must do to present your website features to visitors (compute cycles). If you are a self-published author or small business, you probably won’t have to worry about going over a set limit for quite some time. But if you do, cloud hosting helps to prevent your site from going down when you need the publicity most.

Shameless plug: Clamour offers cloud-based hosting through Rackspace, our official hosting partner. If you’re a self-published author or small business, you may be able to take advantage of our cloud hosting services for as little as $99 per year plus tax – this includes email hosting and it is guaranteed to be fully WordPress-compatible. Feel free to email me if you’re curious, but I suggest you shop around with a few Google searches first.

Once you’ve registered a domain name and chosen a web host, you’ll need to install WordPress. If you’re impatient, feel free to try it out using the instructions provided in the WordPress Codex. Or, you can wait for my next blog post, where I’ll tell you how to set up a customization-ready WordPress installation that allows you to experiment and tweak to your heart’s content.