Entering the world of WordPress for the first time, you may feel like Dorothy walking through the farmhouse door into the colorful world of Oz. Full of exciting options and eye-candy, the experience can become more than a little overwhelming. But with a little understanding of how it works, you can create a beautiful, easily updatable website at a very affordable price.
It’s easy to see why small businesses love WordPress. With free themes, an incredibly user-friendly interface and a seemingly endless list of plugins for customizing, designers and business owners all over the world find lots to love. The statistics show it, too.
WordPress boasts more than sixty-eight million WordPress sites, with notable users including companies like CNN, Ted and UPS. In 2011, WordPress posted stats indicating almost fifteen percent of sites worldwide were hosted by WordPress, and twenty-two percent of active new U.S. sites used WordPress. Although WordPress began as a tool for bloggers, it has now expanded to include a sophisticated content management system.
To get the most out of WordPress, it's important to have a basic understanding of the system and options available to you.
WordPress.com versus WordPress.org
WordPress.com is a publishing site offering hosting services and full access to a variety of features and customer support. At WordPress.org (hosted and sponsored by WordPress.com), you can download WordPress and a variety of free themes. In this case, you will have to find your own hosting and do a lot of the work yourself. WordPress has a concise summary of the differences between the two.
Because WordPress is open source (meaning developers can access and use the code), developers wishing to promote their skills will often create and post free themes. As a result, a search for free WordPress themes yields a multitude of sites offering free themes. However, as with all things free, caution is well warranted. Like a field of beautiful red poppies, free sites, while lovely, can be a minefield of potential problems. Many free themes offered by such sites are either buggy (mostly due to their code being outdated) or worse, contain wicked encrypted code.
If you are looking for free themes, WordPress.org offers a variety of themes, all of which are reliably safe to use. While a free theme offers the obvious upside of being free, one potential downside is the lack of exclusivity. Chances are, if you find a great free theme, many others have found it too, making your site a little less unique.
Businesses intent on creating a purely custom look or needing specific functionality can always hire a designer or design team to create a custom WordPress theme. The result will largely depend on the abilities of the designer(s). While this can result in a unique look, custom themes have their own potential downsides.
Depending on how the coding is built, companies may have to hire a designer to implement changes. Plus, prices for custom themes may total up to thousands of dollars. In many cases, the smoke and mirrors are unnecessary and, as with Dorothy and her ruby slippers, a happier solution may be more accessible than you think.
Premium themes generally run between $50 and $100, with some designers charging an annual fee. The extra cost affords you such benefits as access to customer support forums, exclusivity and a whole host of perks like better functionality, frequent updates and improved customer support. Companies needing to construct multiple websites can also purchase theme packages. Premium themes will be more current than their free counterparts, and often come with regular free updates. Single-use themes are also available to give your site a unique design.
No, child themes are not themes designed for children. Customizing an existing theme is a great way to save money, but if the theme is updated, these changes will be lost. Site owners wishing to avoid this risk can customize safely by creating a child theme. A child theme is a customized copy of a parent (i.e, original) theme. Child themes are a great option for site owners who wish to save money while still creating a unique style, as well as new, self-taught developers who want to practice customizations without doing real damage to an existing site.
Widgets, Plugins and Skins, Oh My!
Plugins are small, often single-purpose software applications with limited functionality that can be integrated into your website. Like themes, plugins can come with or without a price tag. Widgets are easy-to-use, push-button plugins that add a visible feature to your site. Examples of widgets include the little boxes that display the last five blog topics or the most recent blog comments.
Another term thrown around when talking about WordPress is “skin.” While “skin” and “theme” are often used interchangeably, a skin is the component of the theme code controlling the images and general stylistic appearance of the theme. The theme itself includes other functionality, such as the layout and the logic behind the visuals. Once you get to know them, widgets, plugins and skins can become your best friends as you travel down the path of website development.
Making the Switch
Here's where the Wizard of Oz analogy breaks down. But as unromantic as it may sound, if you have an existing site and intend to switch themes, you must backup. Backing up will save you costly time and energy rebuilding functionality and content lost in translation. And if this sounds like healthy advice from your Aunty you are prone to ignore, don’t. Talk to your host about automatic backups, and you can go on pretending you are far too carefree to worry about backing up your data. We won’t tell.
Calling in The Good Witch
To return to our movie reference, what should you do when you get down that yellow brick road and run into an unpleasant surprise? Consider Fantastik to be the good witch who will come to save you if you get into trouble. While sites like Odesk gives webmasters access to a variety of developers, their quality and reliability can vary. Fantasktic may be the first company to offer quick fixes as a direct and featured service.
No Place Like Home
Fantasktic offers distinct advantages over going it alone, including an almost magically fast turnover time and a money-back guarantee. And what can they really do for $99? Well, just about anything. In fact, they stake their reputation on being able to complete "over 95% of WordPress technical support issues, updates, and basic feature requests for $99 including most host migrations, errors, and theme updates." These fixes include such things as site migrations, 404 "not found" notifications, login issues, and plugin problems. And if they can't fix your problem within their $99 rate, they'll offer you a custom package within hours of your request. No, they don't have a shimmering bubble to fly around in, but click your ruby slippers (not really) and they do have a plugin that allows you to submit a request directly from your admin screen.
WordPress may seem at first like a strange and foreign land. However, with an intelligent backup plan and a little help from plugins, widgets and other tools, you can create and maintain a website that fits your needs and budget. And if you need a little help dealing with “the man behind the curtain,” services are there to help you make quick fixes and smart choices that will let you get back on the yellow brick road to online success.