WordPress’s hidden hazards for do-it-yourselfers, Part 1

Planning to create your own WordPress site and just rarin’ to have at it? Or already in hip deep and dealing with alligators lurking all around? Slow down there just a minute, podner. There are some things you should know that the “experts” may have forgotten to tell you. Consider these words from someone who doesn’t have their identity tied up in cheerleading for the platform, with a realistic view about what to watch out for.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Although I am not a WordPress guru, it seems to me for that very reason it would be worth offering my perspective on WordPress’s numerous “gotchas” and unseen hazards for first-timers. Because until recently I, too, was a first-time WordPress do-it-yourselfer — having put together my own site here in the nooks and crannies of spare time I was able to carve out over the last year and a half.

Although I had prior experience hand-coding a couple of previous (small) websites, combined with 30 years under my belt as a typographer and graphic designer, plus an all-around career background in various forms of publishing, there was still a significant learning curve of hard-won trial and error I was forced to go through with WordPress before arriving where I’d been aiming in the first place.

Such a vantage point has given me more of a skeptical eye toward the supposed straightforwardness of the process that I believe most WordPress “experts” may not really appreciate. If they ever truly had to go through it, they have long since passed this learning stage, and often seem to forget what it can be like for lesser mortals in the beginning before you have your bearings, but still need to make decisions about what to do.

Experts giving advice are often coders. Most do-it-yourselfers aren’t. Experts on WordPress tend to have significant blind spots, in my opinion, because of how “close” they are to the guts of how the platform works. Not only that, due to what is often a lack of background in design and editorial matters (WordPress gurus tend to be most comfortable with coding, site function, and site architecture considerations), they often overlook addressing important but unspoken questions everyday users have when it comes to wrestling with WordPress.

With a career rooted in design and editorial concerns, I have expectations for how good publishing tools should behave and what they should offer that may be somewhat different than what’s typically covered on the topic by the mainstream WordPress community of experts. After having built out my site here and finally getting it running on a more or less even keel by this point, I have been struck both by WordPress’s many positive aspects but also its numerous, often unremarked-on limitations, at least when initially used straight “out of the box.”

Do-it-yourselfers need general counsel, not just technical pointers. Many of WordPress’s shortcomings, in my opinion, are not sufficiently emphasized by experts. The experts tend to be people who don’t think coding or ad-hoc modifications to PHP files are that difficult (but in fact they are if you’re not a coder), and are so wrapped up in the internals of WordPress they have lost perspective about what it is like for the person who just wants to get to the business at hand of blogging or publishing.

I could fill several posts with all the frustrations with WordPress I’ve encountered along the way, and the incredible amounts of trial-and-error and time wasted to get to the point where I now feel like I have a decent overall view of the landscape. If someone had told me a year and a half ago what I know now, it would have saved me a lot of headaches, exasperation, and even anger.

Needed: a wider perspective on typical problems encountered. WordPress gets a lot of positive press, much of it well-deserved, but the so-called “WordPress community” of experts and enthusiasts too often are unstinting cheerleaders for the platform. However, when you’re putting together a WordPress site on your own, and you want it to be more than just a plain-vanilla, ho-hum-looking site, you will run into problems. Plenty of them. Yes, you can find specific answers for them, but they may be much more technical than they should be, and written over your head.

When it comes to the overall process one goes through, and what is normal to have to deal with or not, it can be difficult to find helpful general guidance or an “okay, here’s the deal, let me break it to you gently” wider perspective on what you should be thinking about and how you might go about it. Without that, you can flounder around a tremendous amount before learning the ropes and beginning to get a sense of the overall strategies you need to adopt when solving or routing around the problems you’ll encounter. That’s what I’ll cover here.

Turnkey WordPress.com site or go-it-alone self-hosting?

WordPress.com vs. WordPress.org

So let’s say that due to WordPress’s widespread user base, its growth into a leading market standard, and its customizability, you’ve decided to start blogging or otherwise use WordPress as the basis for building your website. The first decision to be made is whether to take the truly easy route and utilize WordPress.com’s completely turnkey hosting service for your blog/site, or whether to go it on your own with a self-hosted site. This is often referred to as the “WordPress.com vs. WordPress.org” question. This terminology in and of itself can be a bit confusing for a first-timer, though.

WordPress the application vs. WordPress.com the web host. To explain: WordPress as an application is an open-source content management system (CMS), the software on which your website is built. WordPress.com, however — the website and WordPress hosting service — is a separate entity, started by the original founders of the WordPress CMS, as a platform for hosting WordPress blogs and websites, offering both free and paid plans.

WordPress.com is what would be referred to in the business world as a “turnkey” solution, meaning it’s an all-in-one package where everything is taken care of for you to make it work. All you have to do is sign up, choose a domain name for your site or blog, select various options you want to use, or in which way, and you can immediately start writing and publishing.

Self-hosting and WordPress.org. But the WordPress.com approach comes with important limitations compared to the alternative, which is hosting your own site on a web domain that you administer yourself. The latter is called “self-hosting” and is often termed the WordPress.org route (as opposed to WordPress.com). With a self-hosted site you may be responsible for installing the “core” WordPress application on your own web domain yourself, though more and more hosts these days will do that for you as part of your initial sign-up package.

WordPress.org is where you obtain the WordPress installation package, as well as third-party plug-ins to extend the capabilities of the core WordPress application itself. WordPress.org is basically a clearinghouse or directory, not just for the WordPress core package, but also serves as the largest source listing the third-party themes and plug-ins available to extend its functionality. (CodeCanyon is another well-known source.)

The pros and cons to each approach

With a blog or site hosted on WordPress.com, all of the “under-the-hood” stuff is taken care of for you. In today’s jargon, it’s what is called a completely “managed” hosting solution: software updates, security against hackers, website caching to speed delivery of your pages, maintaining a backup of your site, and handling anything else related to the software and hardware “infrastructure” — all of it is taken care of for you behind the scenes with no extra effort or even awareness of it on your part. You don’t have to worry about any of it. You’re spared the headaches, and can focus on blogging or whatever your site is for.

There are tradeoffs with WordPress.com, though, the two major ones being:

  • You’re limited to a relatively small selection of “themes,” i.e., the design of your site, and
  • You can’t use any third-party plug-ins to extend what your site can do.

You pick and choose among a number of options that you can turn on or off, or set options for, but you can’t go out into the broader market of WordPress plug-ins and add those to your site.

On the other hand, if you go the self-hosting route by downloading software from WordPress.org and installing it yourself on your own domain, you can:

  • Add as much functionality as you want with third-party plug-ins, and
  • Implement any theme for your site’s design that you want.

But the tradeoffs are:

  • You’re responsible for ensuring that all of it actually works as advertised, and for troubleshooting problems when it doesn’t.
  • You are also responsible for securing your site against hackers, which can be a lot easier said than done. If your site gets hacked, it will be blacklisted by Google and McAfee and other vendors and organizations who take notice of your website’s security. Security is no laughing matter, because if your site gets hacked and infested by malware, visitors to your site could then become targets of malicious downloads of viruses installed from your hacked site to their computers.
  • If other things go wrong, you also have the headache of filing tech support requests with the web hosting service where your site resides.

Shared vs. managed web hosting. With a self-hosted site, there are a couple of different routes to go when it comes to signing up with a web host: shared hosting vs. managed hosting. Shared hosting is cheaper and means that your domain along with many others (typically in the hundreds, possibly even more) are all located (shared) on a single server, with all these domains sharing the same bandwidth and CPU. On unscrupulous hosting services who “oversubscribe” shared accounts, the speed and responsiveness of your site may be dragged down significantly by too many other sites sharing the same server.

Managed hosting, on the other hand, typically means your site resides on a dedicated server all to itself, plus things like security, caching, backups, and WordPress core updates are all taken care of for you. In recent years the landscape has been shifting somewhat, and these types of “managed” hosting services may also be available to domains on shared servers, depending on what you pay.

Are your needs simple, or more complex? The above are the basic pros/cons of a turnkey WordPress site at WordPress.com vs. hosting your own. If you go the WordPress.com route, most of the rest of this post won’t have much relevance unless you eventually become dissatisfied with the limitations of living inside the sandbox provided for you at WordPress.com. However, if all you are really interested in is blogging, you just want to write and communicate with your audience, and particularly if you have either little aptitude for, or interest in, getting involved with under-the-hood maintenance and upkeep and at least a modest amount of coding, it may well be the best route to go.

Initial hurdles with self-hosting

But let’s say you want more control over your site — its looks and its functionality — and you decide to go the self-hosting route.

Better get used to the extra costs. With self-hosting, there are two initial cost hurdles to clear, the first one more of a mental adjustment. My first observation is that if you want to “do it right,” self-hosting your own site will cost a lot more per year than you initially think it will, even if, like me, you are someone who tends to pad your budget with an extra safety margin for unanticipated overages. There will be a lot of unforeseen expenses that come up as you experience more of the “gotchas” with WordPress and realize you need to do something about them.

There are free solutions for many of these issues and deficiencies, to be sure, but as you typically get what you pay for, you may find like I have that it’s worth it to pay for some of them. These expenses typically come in the form of yearly subscription fees for either additional hosting-related services, or plug-ins, so the costs are rarely a one-time item — they are recurring and never go away. They are more or less like “utility bills” for your website that are required to keep it running properly. Later, in Part 4, I provide some cost estimates to give a general idea of what to expect.

Web hosting: look beyond the initial price tag and evaluate long-term value. The second hurdle is choosing a web hosting service, and my advice here is not to “cheap out” too much. You don’t have to pay a huge amount, but stay away from hosting services offering rock-bottom prices. Unless you get lucky, in most cases they’re just not worth it. That’s not just based on my own (admittedly limited) experience, but based on wide reading on the topic, looking into forum conversations where people have shared their experiences, and so on. A good web host is the “bedrock” on which your site rests, and it’s very important that your hosting be reliable, not just in terms of up-time, but in server response times and technical support.

My own short story with web hosts

I’ll give the example of my own learning curve here. I had been with GoDaddy, perhaps the most well-known cheap web hosting service, for a while with my other website, LeewardPro.com, which at the time of this writing is still a hand-coded, flat HTML site. (It’s slated for eventual conversion to WordPress, however, over the next year or two.) With this particular hand-coded HTML site, the server requirements are very modest, and even on a shared server the page-load speed is lightning-fast. I had seen no particular need for a more robust server or web host.

When I first began building WardNicholson.com here with WordPress, I set it up on GoDaddy shared hosting as well. However, I noticed two things. One, the page-load times were not as fast as I thought they should have been — especially compared to LeewardPro.com — so I upped the server resources I was paying for from Level 1 to Level 2, and eventually from Level 2 to Level 3, which helped a bit, but I still wasn’t all that happy.

More importantly at the time, though — this still being the initial development phase, speed was not a huge concern just yet — I began having trouble with scheduled site backups, using iThemes’ BackupBuddy plug-in, timing out and failing to complete. At first I thought it was a plug-in configuration issue, but after banging my head against that wall a few times troubleshooting, began to suspect it was a configuration problem on GoDaddy’s end.

After researching the issue, and confirming that GoDaddy’s server configurations had a reputation in the WordPress community for being somewhat squirrelly compared to how other hosting companies did things, and specifically when it came to BackupBuddy problems, I began shopping around for another web host. I eventually settled on Site5, which at that time was among the very highest-ranked hosting services, and sure enough, bingo, BackupBuddy began operating fine.

Note, though, that I was now paying a higher monthly fee for hosting. Still reasonable, and I had no problem with that given the improved functioning because it was a modest extra amount, but I did have to pay somewhat more. The technical support at Site5 was also quite astonishing compared to GoDaddy. I mean, these guys were all over any support ticket I filed like a ferocious swarm of piranhas. I had never experienced anything like that kind of support before and it was truly amazing.

EIG: a cancer upon the hosting industry

One thing I had discovered when researching web hosts, though, was the corrosive and mounting influence on the web hosting industry of a conglomerate called Endurance International Group, more commonly known among industry cognoscenti as EIG. EIG’s business model is one of gobbling up other hosting companies who have built up superior reputations for reliable, robust operations and customer service, along with high customer ratings and loyalty, then migrating their customer accounts to EIG servers while stripping the former companies’ levels of hardware and customer support to bare-bones levels.

Over the course of the first year after a formerly independent web hosting company is acquired by EIG, as new management and hardware take over, server performance and customer support typically experience a progressive erosion till they hit bottom at a much-reduced level, and the once-raved-about company becomes a hollowed-out shell of its former self. For EIG, web hosting is just a cold numbers game. And all of this is done on the “QT.” EIG continues using the previous company’s name for what is thereafter actually an eviscerated EIG subsidiary, so few realize that the cannibalized company has actually been stripped down and skeletonized. Over the years, EIG has disemboweled scores of previously independent hosting companies in this fashion.

For more info about Endurance International Group, see this entertaining EIG “origin story.” (Note: Since the linked article was written, EIG later bought out Site5, mentioned in the article as one of the better independent hosting companies at that time — and thought likely to remain independent.) Also, there is at least one watchdog site keeping tabs on EIG with an expanding list of the increasing number of web hosting companies the leviathan continues to engulf like the cancer upon the industry it is.

At any rate, it turned out, unbeknownst to me, that EIG had gobbled up Site5 within just a few months after I had signed up for an account. I had been noticing more frequent server glitches some months after that, but hadn’t worried too much about it. But then one day, Site5 accounts like mine started receiving notices that our domains would be migrated to new, faster servers. On the face of it, it sounded like a good thing, until I noticed and was taken aback by the signature line at the bottom of the email, “Site5, an Endurance International Group Company.” Only then did I realize another great hosting firm had bitten the dust and was destined for eventual gutting courtesy of the behemoth EIG.

A new host, a little higher cost yet, but worth it

I gave the server transition time to go through, and since I had recently released WardNicholson.com to Google for indexing, and was trying to concentrate on writing and putting up the first batch of posts for the site, I thought I would stay the course for a while before moving on to another host. However, after I had to file four support tickets within the first month after the server transition, I realized it was time to leave.

After that (this was just a couple of months ago), I moved the website to SiteGround, and so far things have gone well. Once again, the service tier I subscribe to carries with it a modestly higher monthly rate than at Site5, but I am also getting more, and the company is independent of EIG and (hopefully!) much more likely to stay that way based on what I’ve read.

Good tech support: you can’t live without it

A concluding word about web hosting: If you are running a WordPress site, don’t try to gloss over the reality — you will need technical support periodically. Choose a web hosting firm with a good reputation for it.

My own site doesn’t seem to go more than a few months at a time without some snafu or the other cropping up. Whether a reader of the site finds the server won’t let them make a comment to a post, or I suddenly can’t log in to the WordPress admin interface to manage the site, email problems crop up, backups fail, overzealous firewall rules or incorrect file permissions block certain functions from taking place, server response times become inexplicably slow, plug-ins on rare occasion stop functioning properly and need to be reinstalled, etc. — you will need to get to the bottom of it, and a good tech support department is often required to help you do so.

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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