Reality check: The real cost of a WordPress website

Over the last couple of years enough entrepreneurs and small business owners discovered WordPress as a solution for their websites that most people who use the web at all have at least heard of it. Many, however, don’t fully understand the difference between using WordPress on WordPress.com versus using the WordPress software installed somewhere else. There are at least a couple of good articles (at WPBeginner and WordPress.com) explaining some key differences, and I encourage you to read them because I’ll only touch on these differences in the context of my observations, which may or may not encompass all the factors in your decision of which route to take.

The WPBeginner article focuses on the limitations of WordPress.com compared to what one can achieve by installing WordPress elsewhere – also called self-hosted WordPress. While it’s true that you have the freedom to do much more with WordPress outside the confines of WordPress.com, there are two points missing from the article that I think are crucial to consider.

The first is whether you must have that functionality to start your site, and the second is whether you understand – and can marshall the resources to handle – the threats and technical challenges that have the potential to cast your business in a negative light, or even destroy your site entirely. While WordPress itself is free, the real cost of a WordPress website in terms of time, money and security, may be more than you expect.

Below I’ll share some points you should consider when planning your new website. I’ll also tell you what I’ve seen over the last several years as I’ve watched people get in over their heads with a website they thought would demand little or nothing from them. While I do believe WordPress is the right solution most of the time, consider this post a reality check.

Two important questions

  1. Do you need any of the following to be part of your site from its very beginning?
    • Selling products
    • Selling ads
    • Taking payments
    • Design from your exact specifications
    • Advanced features (e.g., event listings, discussion forums, complex forms, random testimonials or quotes)
  2. Do you have the resources (time, knowledge or budget for a web developer) to manage the following?
    • Software updates – usually at least a few each month
    • Updates that “break” things
    • Backups
    • Hacking attempts
    • Computer viruses that can be transferred to your website
    • Comments by spammers attempting to post links

If your answer to the first question is no, you can choose either version of WordPress. If the answer to your first question is yes and you’re technically inclined and don’t mind devoting the time, self-hosted WordPress is powerful, flexible and fun. If your answer to the second question is no, you would be best served by either starting with a WordPress.com site or choosing managed WordPress hosting. More on managed WordPress in a moment…

Recipe for disaster

When I began offering WordPress websites three or four years ago, I think I overestimated the importance to clients of the items in the first group, and underestimated the rate at which the items in the second group would be ignored by too-busy/too-frugal small business owners and entrepreneurs. In training, I’d explain things the client needed to take care of, warn about what could happen if they didn’t, and offer maintenance plans if they didn’t want to handle it. Most of them said they could handle it. But what I saw when I logged in to their site admin areas – after they’d been forced by one problem or another to call me for help  – told me they almost never did site maintenance.

There are solutions to prevent or mitigate every problem on that second list, but in most cases you have to be willing to spend a little time and money getting them set up. Ignoring proper setup or software updates leaves a self-installed site vulnerable to hacking and viruses. Even small, low-traffic sites you might think no one would bother with are targets simply because hackers search for outdated, insecure software whose flaws they know well. Small businesses and entrepreneurs – the little guys who can often least afford downtime – are in my experience disproportionately affected because they tend to be more hopeful than realistic when allocating resources to prevention.

Let’s get real

If budget is tight and you simply need a good-looking website to act as your business’s virtual shingle, and you need none of the features or capabilities on the first list, you can choose a WordPress.com site – DIY or one of the packages I offer. If you later want more flexibility and power, it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to move your site off of WordPress.com, so you haven’t “wasted” anything by going the .com route.

If, on the other hand, you have a reasonably average (or higher) budget to work with and can devote a little more time or money each month for maintenance, having a custom WordPress site set up in your own hosting space enables features that can make it easier to do business, enhance professionalism, close the deal with customers, build a community around your website – the sky’s the limit.

Manageable management

Unlike most small business owners, I do have the technical ability to maintain my three self-hosted WordPress sites, and I do a fairly good job of staying on top of the software updates. But it’s not fun, it’s not the best use of my time, and it’s downright discouraging looking at my logs and seeing all the nasties that have tried to crack my site. I worry that one of them will get in and I really don’t have time for that. That’s why I’ve been looking at various managed hosting solutions. Not only do they offer nearly-impenetrable WordPress, but all that I’ve looked at so far also handle backups and offer incredibly quick page load times.

While I can run my sites on cheaper unmanaged hosting, the slightly higher cost for WP Engine, Page.ly, or Lightning Base seems a relatively small price to pay for being able to keep the powerful features offered by self-hosted WordPress while tapping into a managed environment similar to WordPress.com. When I’ve made the move and had some time to evaluate my choice, I’ll post again on the topic. If you have anything to say about self-hosted WordPress, WordPress.com or managed WordPress hosting, I’d love to hear it – please leave a comment below.

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