Aleen is the Digital Heritage Specialist for Language in Lyrics.

Do bheatha gu #TechTuesday! Last time, we finished our survey of online Gaelic resources. But there was one particular one we purposely left out.

If we had used our own website for Language in Lyrics as an example in the previous posts, we would’ve had to have mentioned a certain system that powers roughly 34% of the internet, as well as our little site.

You may have heard of it: WordPress.

WordPress is one of the world’s most popular blogging platforms. It is also, as I mentioned, the structure behind about a third of the websites on the entire internet. According to Forbes, it is “the most popular CMS [Content Management System] in the world.” WordPress powers sites like BBC America, The New Yorker, Time Inc., Facebook Newsroom, Disney, Sony Music, The New York Times, Mozilla’s blog, and even Beyoncé’s official website. There are countless others.

WordPress.com vs WordPress.org

While many people have heard of WordPress, what many people don’t know is that there are actually two different categories of WordPress. (Oh, how we wished we realized this when we were starting out!)

WordPress.com is a web-based blogging platform.

WordPress.org is a self-hosted open source blogging platform and content management system (CMS).

WordPress themselves are, unsurprisingly, the best people to explain the difference. They do this very well here and here. There is also some great information from WebsiteSetup.org about the differences here. Here’s a summary we’ve created to help explain the differences between WordPress.com versus WordPress.org (and keep it straight in our own minds).

Let’s use the Language in Lyrics site as an example to explain the differences between WordPress.com versus WordPress.org. Early on, we began the site on WordPress.com, not realizing there was a choice. But our missteps are our collective learning opportunities! Here’s what we didn’t know when we started.

We had two needs when we first started Language in Lyrics. First, we needed to create a place online to collect information and connect with the public about the project. Second, we needed a home for the song database.

At first, we thought maybe we could do both on our WordPress site. But then we ran into some kinks. There was no problem at all with making simple information pages for our staff and events or writing blogposts. For a site like Language in Lyrics, which is hosted on WordPress.com, administrators have full freedom to create posts and pages. Those posts and pages, however, can only be comprised of the options that are available in the WordPress Block editor (photos, paragraph formatting, embedded videos, etc.).

What the WordPress Block editor looks like behind-the-scenes (recognize a familiar blogpost?)

It sometimes feels like working with the Block editor amounts to colouring within the lines of a box. You can’t control the overall look nor anything more complicated than adding photos or embedded internet content. You can’t really create the function and feel of the site just as you want it. You can’t build your own page. That’s great if you don’t have any coding knowledge and have no need of it. But it can be limiting.

Our Mac-Talla Adventure

We quickly learned this when we were building the sneak peek of the Mac-Talla database. At first, we did some research and thought we could add a new custom database to the backend database of our site. Then we had our “wait a minute” moment. Duh, we didn’t have a downloaded database, because we were on WordPress.com, not the self-hosted WordPress.org.

Then we thought we could do a table instead. Reality soon came calling again. Inserting a table required an HTML <frame>, which we couldn’t do without a plug-in. Which we couldn’t download, because of our plan on WordPress.com. Back to the drawing board.

Okay, not giving up yet. Then we tried coding the table with the HTML Editor view, staying within the boundaries of the “add new page” function. Which worked great! A little fiddly, but we can deal with that. That is, until we saved it and worked on another post with the Visual Editor. When we clicked back to the HTML Editor of the Mac-Talla post, all the custom code had been overwritten! Ouch, lesson learned.

Maybe it was a glitch? So again, we coded 100 entries of the table line by line. We tried much more carefully this time to stay only within the HTML Editor view while working on all the other posts. Open the Mac-Talla draft page, and all the custom HTML is overwritten AGAIN. While the basic entries remained, all the formatting had been erased. Double ouch, lesson really learned that time.

A snapshot of the HTML code that was used to make a table for the Mac-Talla Sneak Peek

Lessons Learned

This sad tale shows the differences between WordPress.com and WordPress.org clearly, and also demonstrates what hitting the limitations of one feels like. We hit the limit of the capabilities of trying to fit a database project within WordPress.com. But there are many other tech ceilings you can hit when working with WordPress.com. If a site were hosted on WordPress.org, administrators would have options for custom databases, plugins, SEO optimization, more themes to choose from – all of which either don’t exist or exist in much-diminished form on WordPress.com.

A simple way to explain the differences: the features and functionality you get by default on WordPress.org are only available as premium plans on WordPress.com – but in return, you’re handed the reins of the whole thing with WordPress.org. You have to organize your own domain, your own hosting, your own maintenance. Some people don’t want the reins, for good reason.

Ultimately, it’s a trade-off. To paraphrase everyone from the Apostle Luke to Spider-Man: with more freedom comes more responsibility. You have to know very clearly what the aim of your project is, and how that might grow over time.

If you just need to blog, and you need a simple, low-stress option, plus you have minimal interest or knowledge of IT, WordPress.com is a great solution. If you need to build a fully functioning website that’s more than a blog, plus you’re good with technology and/or eager to learn, WordPress.org may be your ticket.

One final note. If you realize mid-way through your WordPress experience that your needs are different than you thought they’d be, like we did, it’s not the end of the world. It is possible to migrate from one to the other if, for example, you start on WordPress.com but realize you need the capabilities of WordPress.org. Basically, it involves:

(1) getting a domain name and setting up website hosting,
(2) exporting and downloading your data (blogposts, pages) from your existing site,
(3) downloading the WordPress.org software, and
(4) importing the downloaded data using WordPress.org’s Importer tool.

If you’re interested in the above, you can read detailed instructions here.

Hopefully you’ll enter the WordPress world better informed than us, and learn from our mistakes!

The possibilities WordPress presents are boundless. This blogpost is meant as just a short introduction to the software that powers so much of the internet behind the scenes.

Le beannachd,

Aleen


Glossary of Selected Terms

Domain – If you’re using WordPress.org, you need a domain name. A domain name is a website’s address or identifier, e.g. example.com. A domain name is necessary on WordPress.org. On WordPress.com, it’s an optional paid-for extra, for example, languageinlyrics.com instead of languageinlyrics.wordpress.com.

Hosting – In addition to a domain name, WordPress.org requires a hosting platform. Together, the domain name and the hosting platform form the site’s home. If the domain name is the site’s home address, the hosting is the brick and mortar house. For a monthly or yearly fee, companies rent space on their servers to others who have a website that needs a home. With hosting, the website is accessible on the internet.

Plugin – A plugin is a package that is available on both WordPress.com (their paid plans) and WordPress.org. Plugins are little bits of extra programming, extra code, that allows extra functionality or more features on WordPress. For example, one of the most popular plugins is Yoast SEO, with more than five million downloads (see explanation of SEOs below). Plugins can be developed by companies, private citizens, or even WordPress themselves (e.g. the Classic Editor plugin). The WordPress Plugin Directory [https://wordpress.org/plugins/] has almost 55,000 plugins to choose from.

SEO – SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. Search Engine Optimization allows sites to improve their performance on search engines like Google. It’s not a trick, it simply helps sites be able to be “read” more easily by search engines. If they are read more easily, then they show up when people search for relevant terms. Basically, Search Engine Optimization helps people find your website and can help fuel more traffic to your site. On WordPress.com, essentially SEO comes automatically with JetPack, a bundled basic toolkit.

Theme – Themes control what the WordPress site looks like – its style and design. Just as with plugins, WordPress has a directory of themes on its site [https://wordpress.org/themes/browse/featured/]. Some themes are available on WordPress.com (paid plans unlock more themes to choose from), but even more are available when using WordPress.org.

WordPress.com – WordPress.com is a web-based blogging platform.

WordPress.org – WordPress.org is a self-hosted open source blogging platform and content management system (CMS).

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