7 Reasons Why Novices Should Not Self-Host WordPress

WordPress 3.7 is out today and with each release this blogging platform becomes more capable and more sophisticated and that barrier to entry rises just a little bit.

All those little rises now represent a significant hurdle. So much so, that if a non-technical friend of mine asked me whether they should self-host their own WordPress site, I’d say no.

And here’s seven reasons why.

Illustration of the white rabbit from an ealrly copy of Alice In Wonderland
Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit valued his time too much to self-host WordPress

1. It’s difficult: there’s a lot to learn

It’s probably true that with a bit of luck a novice could stumble through the setting up of a self-hosted WordPress site but a little knowledge goes a long way in making sure that an installation is secure and stable.

The problem is that that little knowledge goes across a plethora of subjects including, but probably not limited to, domains, DNS, mail, databases, web servers, htaccess, security, CPanel, bandwidth, etc.

And once that’s learned, there’s WordPress itself. Again it’s possible to just jump in and start publishing but to really use WordPress properly, even for a simple blog, time needs to be spent gaining even a basic understanding of the content model, the publishing workflow, plugins and themes.

That’s not an insignificant learning curve and whilst it may be shallower than say Drupal, it’s a learning curve just the same.

2. There’s too much choice: analysis paralysis is always hovering

If ever there was an example of too much choice being a bad thing, then WordPress themes is it. Choosing a theme is nothing short of a bewildering nightmare.

There are 2,097 themes in the WordPress Theme library; TemplateMonster claims to have 1,800 plus themes; ThemeForest trumps them both with 3,477 themes and templates.

Putting aside the obvious question of why are there so many themes, how does a self-hoster choose a theme from such a massive selection?

Perhaps that’s why the theme-seller memberships work: it cuts down the choice to a manageable number.

3. It’s not the cheapest option: free can be so expensive

Free is such an alluring proposition. Free software, free themes, free plugins, even free hosting, what’s not to like? As most of us know the only truly free component of self-hosting is the WordPress app everything else is going to have a cost that we might not want to pay.

Self-hosting with any confidence requires the use of quality components and that quality, along with support and continued development, quite rightly does not come for free.

A back of the envelope calculation for a domain name, reliable hosting, a decent theme, and a couple of premium plugins comes out at anything between $250 and $450 for that first year. An equivalent site on WordPress.com would cost between $150 and $250 for a Pro site with a premium theme whilst SquareSpace costs $250 for unlimited storage, bandwidth and a custom domain.

4. It’s time-consuming: self-hosting properly takes up your most valuable asset

Proper, and that’s the key, self-hosting takes up plenty of time. There’s regular updates to the WordPress core that, ideally, should be tested before being applied to self-hosted site. Then there’s updates to themes and plugins, again that should be tested first.

That also means maintaining a test environment somewhere and regularly updating it with the live data and configuration. Not difficult once the live site is created but it all takes time.

For most people, time is their most valuable asset so why spend it on maintaining the environment when it could be spent on the far more productive activity of creating content?

5. It’s not worth the risk: there’s just too much that can go wrong

Many self-hosters get away with a lax approach simply because there is safety in numbers. There are so many WordPress sites out there that it takes time for the hack-bots to find them but it is only a matter of time.

Even conscientious owners who do put the time and effort into maintaining their environments can find they get into difficulties sometimes not of their own making. Hosting downtime, server disk failure, targeted attacks on a particular host and vulnerabilities introduced in an updated plugin all real possibilities and all can have a significant impact.

6. Starting from scratch is hard and unnecessary

Self-hosted sites start with an audience of one, no page ranking, no indexed content in any search engine and no mailing list. All of these essential facets of a successful site take time to build and grow.

Sure, it’s possible for the self-hoster to kick-start their site to a certain extent if they already have a significant social media presence but it’s still going to be a hard slog.

7. Flexibility is overrated

Many defences of self-hosting will mention flexibility: the ability to pick the theme and that unique collection of plugins that are needed to create the user experience that the site owner is looking for.

That might be true for commercial or niche sites but not for a blog. If there is anything that the likes of WordPress.com, Blogger, Medium and even Twitter have taught us, it is that simple is better.

There Are Better Options

Simply put there are services out there that will enable a novice to get a better looking, easier to operate site up and running in far less time and for less cost than is possible with self-hosting.

Services take all the worry out of hosting and often provide extra functionality. One the key advantages these services provide, not obvious at first glance, is that they dramatically reduce choice both in plugins (generally reduced to an absolute minimum) and themes. All of which, maximises the time that can be spent on content creation.

And if that wasn’t enough, some of them will also give you a leg-up when it comes to putting you in front of an audience.

So my advice to my non-technical friend would be to think hard about what they really and truly need and make a list. Then check that list against the likes of WordPress.com, SquareSpace, Medium (when it opens up) and any number of hosted WordPress solutions.

My hunch would be that at least one will provide all the functionality for less cost and far less hassle. And my friend can focus all their attention on creating killer content.

What would you recommend to your hypothetical non-techie friend?


11 Responses

  • The Bug Hunter

    The allure of free is very strong. People act irrationally when presented with free option. A good book on the subject is ‘predictably irrational’.

    If I recall, In one study people were offered a choice of free hershey chocolate, worth 5 cents, or to buy a roche chocolate worth 90 cents for just 2 cents. People overwhelmingly took the free yet would have been better off paying 2 cents.

    I have to agree that people under estimate the cost of ownership of a WordPress site as it is free, and people often forget to value their time.

    For people like us (professional suppliers of WordPress sites) we have to keep up with the technology, but that is a full time job, however we split that over many sites, so get economies of scale.

    For instance when I tested 3.7 against our multi-site and plugins it was at least a days work, but the ‘cost’ was shared across hundreds of sites, so minimal in terms of the impact to teh site owners.

    So I would recommend to your ‘novice’ leave it to a multi-site specialist (like us) and get the economies of scale and let the experts take the strain.

  • New Recruit

    This is a great article .. I could not agree more! It’s hard to convince people to go with something like WP Engine even when I tell them they are paying me more over the corse of a year to do software updates and backups.

    I think that some people just have to learn the hard way. I’m considering only offering people WP Engine or WP.com as options. But it seems like everyone wants self-hosted with cheap shared hosting.

    For now I’m just continuing to do the updating and backing up, but I don’t like it.. too much responsibility. I’m wondering how all this will change over the next year or two since it’s such an issue for the typical small biz designer/developer.

  • The Incredible Code Injector

    I’d recommend to my friend to sign up for an account at Leet Link, with a site as low as free for a 1000 post max blog (that’s like 3 years at 3 posts/week) before you need to start paying. During that time, you get full support, a community of fellow users, and don’t have to worry about updates. Plus you can earn credit towards a free upgrade to boot.

  • New Recruit

    While I often recommend that people get their feet wet with a free wordpress.com account before doing their own self-hosting, it often makes more sense for them to use a one-click WordPress installer on their self-hosting package, with the promise to themselves that this is just a test system, and the real one will be installed, by hand, properly once they have wet feet.

    But the crucial piece to me is selling them on trying to live with one of the fairly recent default WordPress Themes, even as far back as Twenty Eleven. At least until they know what they are doing. And stick to changing the Theme Options provided — no diddling with .css files or Child Themes until they learn CSS, PHP and Cross-Browser Testing.

    Likewise, how to choose Plugins, and keep them to an absolute minimum.

    So much depends on the person and their background.

  • Flash Drive

    If everyone followed this advice, there would be far fewer WP developers in the world.

    How many of us got our start in WP because we one day set up a self-hosted site with no clue of how difficult or time-consuming it would be? Many present-day professionals probably recall the first time they opened the vast library of free themes and plugins, and the hours they then spent learning how to actually make them work. And how many fatal PHP errors have you scrambled to fix on a production server during your lifetime?

    Yes, it’s probably a good idea to warn novices of how difficult and time-consuming a self-hosted site will be. But rather than tell them to “leave it to the pros,” I’d tell them to give it a shot. A little insight into how web-developers work will probably benefit amateurs and business leaders alike, and they might even have fun with it.

    • “Us” is but a fraction of WP users out there; “us” got our hands dirty because that’s what we like doing (some of “us” even get to write about it!); “us” probably know our limitations.

      But for “them”, the small business owners, the publishers, the non-profit orgs, the sporting clubs, the churches, the schools, the 19.99% of the internet that uses WP, it’s a tool, a means to an end and time spent trying to self-host is, I believe, time wasted.

  • New Recruit

    A big issue with novices, especially those with some technical skills and understanding is that they can at this point do a lot on their own. This creates a bit of an issue with over confidence. They keep on adding to the site and they don’t worry about it because the person on the phone where they host the site for $5 a month told them there are daily backups. However these backups don’t include the database, which is a painful discovery for the novice who overwrites, gets hacked or otherwise screws things up. Just one example of course. A live commercial site is not the place to learn WP or web tech! (did I mention I love this post : > )

  • New Recruit

    I would definitively recommend him to go the hard way, and learn the very basics of self hosting.

    Of course, not the hardest way… on a shared server.

    So what does he really has to learn ? Use ftp upload, and fill up the form with his credentials (database login, etc) which he had already received from the host. Just copy and paste.

    Another copy and paste for launching the install, and that’s it, he has his brave new blog.

    What are the advantages ?
    – flexibilty, indeed. Not that you don’t have a little flexibility on most platforms, but it’s generally expensive
    – no risk of unwanted advertisements
    – no mix with the other blogs of the platform
    – future is open, many platforms are quite conservative when you decide to leave them and start on a self hosting plan. Even at WordPress, you can’t get some of the themes or plugins, your stats history, and you also have to reupload your media
    – own domain name (sorry, I’m a SEO and it hurts me each time I see someone starting a blog with a sub-domain), at lower cost (even WordPress.com is quite expensive when you want your own domain)

    the small business owners, the publishers, the non-profit orgs

    these people need traffic, and traffic comes with SEO. Though WordPress is quite good, it’s not perfect.
    I do always modify standard themes for SEO. And just for that, it’s worth it.

    When you ask a small business owner “do you want a website that is just a business card, or would you like also to get some customers with it ? knowing that the second option will cost you money”, the answer, in 99,9% of the cases is “I want to get customers”.

    There is no activity on the net without competitors. There is always some competition to reach the golden triangle on top of the search engine result. And that needs some work that can’t be done on a platform.

    So my friend would not be able to do it ? Well, either he would learn, or ask someone to do it.

    I had enough customers who had a free blog and were nearly crying when they realized they would have to start anew building their traffic stream when they wanted to leave the platform for a reason or another, after three or four years of good work.

    So I don’t think the right question is “techie or non-techie”, the right question is “what do you want to do with your blog ? Do you think one day it might transform into a business in a way or another ? And do you think you have a techie friend to help you at the beginning ? “

  • Flash Drive

    Got to say that I agree with Marie. Although I was skeptical at first, I know “novices” who are doing just fine with self-hosted WordPress. Not everybody has that “time is money” factor in his or her life — for some, there *is* time to take it slowly, learn and do it right.

    Meanwhile, the WordPress developers seem to be determined to pave the way for more novices to self-host WordPress.

    I think there’s only one *real* reason they shouldn’t — because it takes work from web developers. :-)

Comments are closed.