Here are a few “truths” you should consider before using a free website publishing platform, sometimes referred to as a CMS, to build your new website.
The purpose of this post is to reveal the truth about free website publishing platforms, sometimes referred to as a CMS (content management system). As an example, and since it is the most popular platform, I will focus on WordPress, though many of the points presented will apply to other platforms as well.
1. It is FREE!
Unfortunately, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free ride, and WordPress is no exception. Yes, WordPress is a free, open source platform that anyone can download and use, but it also offers a variety of themes and plugins to help you customize the appearance and functionality of your website. However, as described below, all of this “freedom” can (and will) cause issues later. Issues that will most likely come with a price tag.
2. Customizable themes galore.
Themes are one-click templates that change the overall appearance of your site. They are easy to implement and offered for a minimal one-time fee (or often free). This sounds great on the surface, but once you dig deeper problems arise.
The sheer number of themes available can be daunting. Because of this fact, many choose to go with popular or recommended themes (often the free ones supplied directly by WordPress). The problem with this is that your site will then look just like multiple other sites that are already online. Also, there is nothing to stop someone from building a competitive site using the same theme, or purposefully spoofing your site to confuse or scam users. To fix this, you can customize your site. However, site customization leads to its own issues.
If you are not a developer, customizing a theme can prove very difficult, if not impossible, and hiring a developer to help you will cost money. Compound that by the fact that once you start customizing a theme the chances of your site breaking increase. Since many themes are developed by third-party suppliers, the quality control and degree of support can vary drastically. Many of these themes can break immediately when you start to customize or when WordPress is updated.
Fixing your site once broken may require changing themes, and ultimately, the entire look and feel of your site. It may also require you to hire an outside developer. Both have costs associated. Changing themes means users will no longer recognize your site, which may cause them to seek what they are looking for somewhere else, for instance, a competitor’s website, and again, hiring a developer will cost money.
3. There is a plugin for that.
Plugins are essential to a WordPress site’s functionality. Everyone uses them. And why not? They save time and money when developing, and most plugins are free. Great, right? Well, that all depends on the credibility of the developer and the compatibility of the plugin. Improperly coded plugins can take down your entire website, or conflict with other plugins that are already running, causing the loss of related functionality. There is also the potential (if minor) that a developer could even code a malicious plugin that purposefully wreaks havoc on your site, or secretly logs your email and login credentials.
On top of all that, installing too many plugins can affect the overall speed and performance of your website causing pages to load slowly as they wait for plugins to load. These issues can be overcome with proper testing and programming. This task will probably require a developer and, once again, costs money.
4. Built for SEO.
There is a popular misconception out there that WordPress was built with search engine optimization in mind and that it does it better than anyone else. While it does have some core functionalities that help in that regard (such as permalinks with consistent URLs), it also has some issues that are problematic for SEO. Many of these issues arise from the core blog functionality that are the backbone of the platform, redundant and unintuitive directory structures, for instance.
However, the biggest concern is that many of the key factors that Google uses for rankings are dependent on the theme developer rather than the platform, and there is no guarantee that a free theme has been properly optimized for SEO. Mobile friendliness, schema markup, user experience, and optimized images all fall in Google’s top 10 ranking factors, and all depend on how the theme is programmed, with mobile friendliness and schema markup being numbers two and three on the list, respectively.
There are, of course, plugins that can aid you with SEO, but choosing the wrong plugin could work against your efforts rather than help. Also, page speed is a key factor for Google and, as mentioned above, can easily become an issue with the addition of plugins.
The better alternative might be to hire an external SEO firm to evaluate your website and make recommendations on how to improve your rating. Many of these firms can also implement the changes themselves if granted admin access. But all of that of course costs money.
5. Open-source = widely supported.
When you’re having a problem, there are a variety of resources at your disposal, from the official forum, to the WordPress help site, but solving most issue will involve having a developer knowledge base in order to understand and implement fixes. The usefulness of these resources will vary by user. This holds true for other platforms as well, as there are online forums and communities for almost every platform or programming language.
Open-source also means open-season for hackers. If anyone can download WordPress for free, that means hackers can as well, which means once a vulnerability is discovered, every hacker can use it on every WordPress site, including yours. This is why WordPress continuously pushes updates to the platform, updates that often break themes and plugins (see above).
There are, of course, steps that can be taken to better secure your website, but they too will cost money, though it would be money well spent, and is highly recommended.
6. Easy to update and you can host it anywhere.
WordPress is so easy to update that it seems like you are constantly doing it, especially when you factor in plugin specific updates. You may feel you’re spending more time updating the core platform and plugins than you are updating your content.
Updating can cause its own issues though, from causing compatibility issues with plugins to breaking your sites theme. This is more likely to happen if you have made extensive changes to the underlying code of the theme. But if you don’t update, your website could become more vulnerable to hacks (see above).
Due, in part, to the security concerns expressed above, it is not recommended that you price shop for the cheapest hosting that money can buy. It may cost more money but host your website with a company that specializes in hosting WordPress and can back up that claim.
7. Everyone uses it, so it must be simple.
WordPress was not designed for consumers or businesspeople. It was designed for developers. Couple that with the fact that it is a blog engine with a website publishing platform added on after the fact, and you have a backend that tries to do everything at once and, as a result, becomes confusing. You may find the interface frustrating and may end up not being able to make edits on your own, and you wouldn’t be the only one. Why do you think there are so many WordPress developers out there? Developers you can easily hire if you are willing/able to spend the money.
8. Updated means up-to-date functionality.
The majority of the up-to-date functionality users rely on when browsing depends on the theme selected, not the WordPress platform. Cross-browser compatibility and responsive design are the results of the theme selected and will not be updated to the latest standards with your WordPress updates. While many themes try to meet the rigorous standards required for a modern website, many fall short of the mark. These shortcomings become more apparent as you add plugins or, even more so, if you attempt to make custom adjustments to the theme templates.
Fixing issues like these will usually require hiring a developer to restructure and reprogram core features of the theme. Which, once more, will cost money.
9. ADA, GDPR and CCPA.
That’s a lot of letters. Here’s what they all mean and why should you care:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. It was developed in 1990 and is meant to ensure that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else, including website accessibility.
- The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a regulation in EU law on data protection and privacy in the European Union and the European Economic Area. It also addresses the transfer of personal data outside the EU and EEA areas.
- The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is a state statute intended to enhance privacy rights and consumer protection. The CCPA applies to any business, including any for-profit entity, that collects consumers' personal data, which does business in California.
WordPress relies on third-party plugins to help ensure that a site is compliant with the rules and regulations prescribed by these statutes. These plugins have the same potential problems as any other plugin (see above). Also, due to the ever-changing “best practices” approach of compliance, relying on a plugin may not be the best way to avoid a potential lawsuit.
10. More than just a blog engine.
WordPress was originally developed to make blogs, and, at its core, that is what it still is. It was not designed to be a CMS platform. Even though, over the years, many web designers and developers have “hacked” it for other purposes and WordPress’ own developers have made great strides to accommodate. But, in the end, it works best for the primary purpose for which it was designed — building blogs.
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