My Website has a Secret

I need to tell you a secret about my website.

I don’t pay for hosting (Instead, I pay $12 per year to redirect my domain name).  If I have technical difficulties or, God forbid, the site gets hacked, really smart web professionals work on fixing it immediately–sometimes before I realize there is a problem.  Those same people work year around to make sure the security of my site is such that downtime is very, very rare.

I pay these people nothing for their work.

While I have quite a lot of say over the format of my site, it is virtually impossible for me to break it because the “look & feel” elements that I want to control are totally separate from the part of the site’s installation that makes it go.

My site’s back-ups are done automatically by someone who isn’t me, and when WordPress sends out an update my site gets the upgrade while I sleep.

If I ever decide to move my website somewhere else, I can export everything at a moment’s notice.

How is this possible?  My site is hosted at WordPress.com.

If you are one of my nonprofit readers, this “confession” likely means almost nothing, but trust me– readers from  the internet marketing corners of the web are deeply embarrassed on my behalf.  In those circles, everyone knows real website professionals have self-hosted sites.

This strong bias influenced me to stay quiet on the subject for a long time, but because I’ve had such a good experience on WordPress.com, I don’t want to do that anymore–especially since such set-up  may be exactly what many small nonprofit organizations are looking for.

WordPress for Nonprofits

First, the non-controversial part of my advice:  If your nonprofit organization has (or needs) a simple, mostly static website that looks modern, is easy for staff and volunteers to update, and do not require the site to also manage your database or process payments, A site built on WordPress is likely your best option.*

There are two different types of WordPress sites:  Those hosted at WordPress.com and self-hosted sites that run on the software available at WordPress.org.  The WordPress team wrote a great post about the general differences between .org and .com so check that out before you continue.

The Downsides of WordPress.com

I’ve pretty much covered all the things I love about WordPress.com, but before you create your own site, there are some potential downsides to consider.

Not (completely) Free

A basic wordpress.com account is free, but if you plan to host your nonprofit’s website there you will need to buy some upgrades.  You will absolutely need to use your own domain name ($12.00 per year) and will likely want to turn off ads ($29.00 per year).  If you need any thing else, you could end up spending as much in upgrades as you would for hosting.  What you won’t have to spend money on is someone to fix the site if it breaks (because it won’t).

No Fancy Code

Some websites,  generate pieces of code for you to put on your website to display dynamic content.  (Boxes displaying content from an organization’s Facebook Page, for example.)  While such boxes are cool, they can also pose a security threat, so WordPress.com doesn’t allow them.  If your organization’s communication plan depends on an ability to integrate your website with content generated on other websites (and you have the tech support to do it) you may be better off with WordPress.org.

No Plugins

In addition to the base software, self-hosted WordPress users have the option of adding plugins to their site to extend its functionality.  Wordpress.com has integrated many of the most popular (and most secure) plugins into the platform offered to it’s users, but if your site is hosted on WordPress.com you won’t be able to download any custom plugins to use on your site.

In my experience, by the time I need a plug-in bad enough to start considering moving my site to a self-hosted platform, WordPress.com makes it available–but your mileage may vary.

Advertising Restrictions

This limit is not likely to be a big problem for nonprofits–but is still worth mentioning.  Your organization will not be allowed to run Google AdWords on a website hosted at WordPress.com and there are some limits on other forms of advertising and selling.  Soliciting donations and selling your own products should be fine, but if your organization wants to raise money through your site, be sure to check out the advertising policy first.

NO GOOGLE ANALYTICS

This is the downside that causes me the most strife.**  If your organization needs detailed, geographically based information about who visits your site, WordPress.com may not work for you.  The dashboard does include a pretty good stats feature–but it’s definitely doesn’t count as real analytics.

The Verdict

If flexibility is more important to your organization than ease of use, and you have  either dedicated IT staff to maintain the site, or the financial resources to hire someone to keep your site safe and take care of the technical details, a self-hosted site may be a good option.

If however, you don’t have those resources, and the downsides listed above aren’t deal breakers for you consider joining me on WordPress.com.  You will not be sorry.

Your Turn

Did I miss something?  Do you have questions?  If so, let’s continue the conversation in the comments!

*Not sure what you need?  Andy Giesler at Blazingmoon.org has a great series covering all your nonprofit website options.

**I would pay for a Google Analytics upgrade in a heart beat–in case anyone at Automattic happens to read this. . . .

15 thoughts on “My Website has a Secret

  1. Maureen, I have read a lot about the WordPress vs. self-hosting debate, and I work primarily with nonprofits, so I was very interested in this post. I think WordPress is really valuable for smaller nonprofits (and businesses) because it offers them control over their content. I remember being frustrated as a nonprofit communications director because any little change to the website required the attention of the overworked IT dept. and they never got around to changes in a timely manner. You’ve provided some excellent and fair commentary but I’m curious about two other points: SEO, and WordPress updates. Many people say that you don’t get as much traffic if you host on wordpress.com. Also, you say WP updates happen automatically for your site, and some of the recent updates have caused a lot of problems for people. Have you experienced anything breaking after an update? Thanks again for writing!

    • Hi Claire, thanks for the great questions!

      I’ve heard similar things about the SEO for WordPress.com sites–my sense is that’s mostly a problem for sites that don’t buy the redirect upgrade. I also think it might be a bit of a red herring for small nonprofits who aren’t likely generating a ton of search engine traffic anyway. Most small nonprofit need a good looking site that people can find by goggling the nonprofit’s name–and a site hosted on WordPress.com will do that.

      As for WP updates, I’ve never had a problem–or even heard of people on WordPress.com talking about problems (I have heard of updates for self-hosted WordPress sites going very badly) The only WordPress.com update issue I can think of was a theme change–when the PressRow theme was replaced with Pillcrow that did cause people some problems, but that was a pretty limited case. . .

  2. Maureen,
    Great post. I just convinced a client to switch over this month and it has worked great for her. She had a tech person who committed to ‘donating’ time to the organization. Needless to say content changes never got done quickly which really hurt the organizations ability to market their work on the Internet.

    If folks do not have their domain name purchased/hosted, I have been recommending Bluehost because converting to WordPress is a one step process.

    My site is also hosted by WordPress.org. I love it! Even though I spend more time on Facebook and Twitter, I am able to make my site look and feel how I want it to. I did invest in having someone professionally design my template with my logo and color scheme but otherwise my site is maintained by me.

    Claire, I have had the same experience as Maureen. No problems with updates to the software.

    Kelli

    • Hi Kelli–thanks for weighing in. Just to clarify for readers (and everyone really, because it’s a little complicated) My site is not only a wordpress site, it’s a wordpress site hosted at WordPress.com. Your WordPress set-up is referred to at “self hosted” because you chose your webhost (bluehost) and you or someone you hire is responsible for doing your updates, keeping the site secure, etc.

      I agree that either WordPress set-up is better for nonprofit’s than having someone build a site from scratch. The question orgs need to ask what is more important to them: flexibility and control or ease of use and site security.

      For flexibility and control use self hosted software from WordPress.org

      For ease of use and site security use WordPress.com

      (Note: If your org has a tech support budget you can get the best of both worlds by setting up a WordPress.org site and paying someone to monitor it’s security and fixing things when they go wrong–but you have to be willing and able to pay for it.)

  3. So I’m a new consulting trep using WordPress/ Pilcrow with limited html (um, what is CSS?) skills. Any suggestions for a different theme? I want each page to be different but not sure how to make it happen on the back end. Don’t even know if I need my own domain name yet.
    take a look at lejohnsonconsulting.wordpress.com
    Thanks for any feedback!

    • I’m afraid your question is probably a little more complicated than I can cover in a comment, but I’d start with a theme that has several page templates and supports featured images. Then, you could make the format of the pages different than the format of your homepage, and have different header images on each one. Remember though, having every page look totally different is not usually a good design move–you want the whole site to have a cohesive look. I’m using the theme Coraline and my suggestions work in that theme–if memory serves they work in Pilcrow as well.

  4. Maureen, I’m a member of that secret club too. Someday I will get a “big girl” site but for now, wp.com does the trick for me.

    It’s a good starter site that would I also recommend for local association chapters that are “staffed” by volunteers. I’m glad to see you come out of the closet on this one!

    • Thanks Deirdre! It’s really good to meet another club-member! Great idea re: all volunteer groups of all kinds. Since WordPress allows multiple accounts on each site, such groups could give full administrator access to a tech-savvy group leader and then other more restricted accounts to people who needed to be able to post content. A very elegant solution!

  5. Thanks Maureen for your post. I spend some time trying to convince nonprofit organizations about the benefits of switching from wordpress.com over to self hosted wordpress. This is mainly due to the analytics advantage and the greater theme availability. I also love the greater creative control and functionality I get from wordpress.org. You raise some interesting points that smaller nonprofit organizations can reflect upon while deciding on an appropriate CMS.

    • Thanks Calvin– WordPress.org is the industry standard for good reason–it’s super powerful, good looking and much easier than Joomla or Drupal. I can understand why you’d encourage larger organizations with IT staff people and the resources to maintain their own site to stretch their wings. On the other hand for organizations with no website (or a website created by a volunteer in 1996) WordPress.com with the right upgrades is a great, and often overlooked, option.

      Also, If you’ve not been to the theme gallery for a while you might want to go check it out–the choices are much more impressive than they once were–and now include premium themes as well!

  6. Hello Maureen, and thank you for such insightful information.

    I am a Website Development intern with the a Rwandan community based organization, and I’ve been struggling with the decision of whether or not to switch from wp.com to wp.org. Between your post and the WordPress support suggestions I know where the true issue for the Uyisenga N’Manzi website lies: Soliciting Donations.

    You said in your post, “Soliciting donations and selling your own products should be fine, but if your organization wants to raise money through your site, be sure to check out the advertising policy first.”

    I’m curious how you advise nonprofits to solicit donations using wordpress.com sites, without overstepping the advertising policy? The organizations staff and I are leaning towards switching to wordpress.com so we may use a PayPal or other fundraising plugin. What would you advise, keeping in mind the limited IT knowledge and staff of this Kigali based non-profit?

    Thank you.

    • If you are using paypal, the easiest thing to do is follow the instructions for adding paypal that WordPress.com provides here: http://en.support.wordpress.com/paypal/

      As for the rest, my read of the advertising policy is that it’s purpose is to keep people from hosting blogs with “get rich quick” intentions. So long as your site is obviously for a real nonprofit cause, you have the authority to raise money in the country where you are located, and your website has content besides a “please donate” page, you should fall on the right side of the line. Also note “nonprofits” are specifically listed as allowed to raise money on this page: http://en.wordpress.com/types-of-blogs/

      As a final check, it may also be a good idea to check with support@wordpress.com directly.

      Good luck!

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