WordPress comes in two flavors: wordpress.com and wordpress.org. Before we dive into their differences, a brief side trip to themes and plugins. For a more detailed explanation about WordPress, check out this basic tutorial on WordPress themes.
Themes and plugins
Both flavors of WordPress use “themes” that are built by programmers. Themes sit on top of WordPress. The themes control the appearance – colors, fonts, layout (how many columns, if a sidebar and which side) and also the functionality. Many themes allow the user to customize various parts of the theme. Some of the customization is easy, some takes some level of coding skills. There are thousands of free and premium (paid) themes available.
Think of WordPress as your cell phone and the theme is the skin – the colors, appearance of the screen icons and so on.
Plugins – programs that work with WordPress themes – extend the theme’s features to do something that the WordPress core doesn’t do. Need a way to easily share content on social media? Find a plugin. Want to display a photo album in a certain way? Find a plugin. Many plugins are free, many are premium (not free). Many work well, some are not well designed and may not work well or might have security “holes” that unethical programmers can exploit without your knowledge.
This can easily turn into a long discussion, but not now. That’s enough for the basics of themes and plugins. You have many choices in both areas.
WordPress.com is a site that has thousands of blogs (sites devoted to blogging) and web sites. It is mostly free; for certain features there is a charge. Some important points on the free version
- Your site’s name will end in “.wordpress.com” – for example, mysite.wordpress.com. (this is not a registered domain name, you just sign up with WordPress
- You are limited to choosing from the available themes (there are many)
- It doesn’t allow third party plugins – the free wordpress.com may or may not include the functionality you need
- It may include advertising
Think of WordPress.com;s free version as a “walled garden”. There is good soil and a limited variety of seeds and limited number of and tools available. You cannot bring in any seeds or tools from the outside, you can only use what is provided. There are two other important points to remember:
- Your site name (not a registered domain name) will include the “.wordpress.com” – not very professional.
- You are “renting” space (without a financial charge). WordPress controls the available themes and their features. If they decide to make a change that you don’t like, you have no control over that. This is true for other sites where you may have a “rented” web presence, such as Facebook.You don’t own your space (and may not own your content – read the company’s user agreement carefully).
All that being said, the free WordPress.com is a good place if you want to experiment with a site and learn how WordPress works. There are many sites and videos on YouTube and elsewhere with tutorials on WordPress.
If you want to register your domain name and have a site built that lives on (is hosted by) a computer at a web hosting company, you’ll want the WordPress.org flavor. It is also free, and is fully open to being customized. Many web hosting companies offer an easy install of this version of WordPress. Once installed, the designer can easily update to the current version, select and customize a theme, add plugins as needed for additional features, then the content can be added.
Sound easy? There is a lot to know and to consider when choosing a theme. Then how to customize it – what changes need to be made? How to make them? What are the plugins needed for the extra features? this can include “behind the curtain” features such as improved security, making backups of the site, analytics (tracking site visitors – how long they stay, which pages they view) and more, as well as more obvious features such as a special type of image or video viewer.