The open source version of WordPress, available for download on WordPress.org, is the world’s most popular online publishing tool, used for approx. 30% of the available content on the web. To reach an even larger audience, a so-called ‘hosted version’ of the open source version of WordPress, labeled WordPress.com, was launched in 2005. This hosted version doesn’t require any technical background: users can immediately start building a blog or website with the WordPress website builder.
While the free version of WordPress.com sets you on your way to a full website by offering users a choice from dozens of themes, basic design customization, community support, and a custom WordPress subdomain, it is also possible to purchase a premium plan. Premium plans offer more advanced features as well as a wide range of plugins and customization capabilities that most small business owners seek when building their website or blog.
Before you can start building your WordPress.com site, you go through a short process in which you define the purpose of your site and the line of business it acts in. This is standard procedure and it does not in any way limit you later, so you can keep things pretty general.
The last step in the 3-step process offers you the option to move to a paid plan. Three optional plans are available in addition to the free plan.
To change the default theme that WordPress.com selects when setting up the basic, yet to be dressed up version of our site, we click the ‘Themes’ button, located next to the Customize option in the main dashboard menu on the left.
WordPress.com currently offers a total of 363 themes. WordPress.com chooses a default theme for your site, which you can start customizing instantly using the appropriate option in the menu on the left or all the way at the top of the themes view.
Templates that are by definition good to use for users with little to no experience are conveniently marked “beginner”. For our test, we randomly chose the Shoreditch theme. After selecting the template, we’re automatically being redirected to the editor where we can start customizing our site.
The first thing we notice is how much the WordPress.com editor resembles the editing options in WordPress. Obviously, it’s not really surprising to find out the systems resemble each other and function, up to a certain extent at least, in similar ways.
The first thing we notice when looking at the template and the customizable options is the prominently placed “need help setting up your site?” link. Clicking this link leads us to some useful information on how to start customizing the basic template in a sensible way. While we go through all the available options in the customizing menu, we soon realize that the editor is not really a drag & drop editor. The customizing menu offers a set of features that can be edited, from site title and tagline to the color palette of the site, the header image, fonts and font sizes, et cetera.
The only drag & drop functionality can be found in the Widgets feature. The dragging and dropping does not happen inside the template though, so it is not really the drag & drop functionality that we usually describe, such as the easy to use drag & drop editor of Wix. We’re able to drag & drop in the widgets customizing menu on the left. These widgets we can use in three separate widget areas: in the sidebar, in the top footer and in the bottom footer. Dragging and dropping of widgets is only possible with widgets that are located in the same widget area. For example, we cannot move a widget from the bottom footer menu to the top footer menu. The drag & drop options are very limited and not very flexible. But, at the same time we do have to emphasize that the editor is not built on a drag & drop principle, so expecting too much in that area is not realistic and it would be unfair to judge the WordPress.com platform on its drag & drop merits.
The free account option does not let us make any adjustments to the CSS setup of our site. For many users, this is not a problem at all, because it requires expert knowledge to make the proper adjustments to this type of file. But, it limits the options of customizing the site if you do have the skills to edit CSS files. You need to upgrade your account to one of the premium plans to use this option.
Editing our site is pretty easy and there are plenty of options available in the customization menu. Conveniently, these options function in a simple, intuitive manner. However, editing options as a whole are still rather limited. Only with a premium plan, a considerable technical background, and a lot of free time are we able to make more advanced changes in the look of the site.
Responsive Website Builder
WordPress.com themes are responsive. The customization menu offers the option to check the look & feel of a site under construction for mobile devices (tablets and smartphones). The customization options do not include features that users can explore to optimize the way the site displays on mobile devices, but in that sense, it is not much different than most other platforms that offer responsive themes. The option to change from one view to the next is located at the bottom of the customization menu on the left.
Social Media Integration
WordPress.com offers several widgets that can be used to include social media links to a site. The Social Icons widget provides users the option to add a wide variety of icons to a site, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Bandcamp, and many more. The ideal option to link to your social media channels.
There is also a dedicated Facebook Page Plugin that is customizable and fits well in a sidebar. Dedicated widgets are also available for Instagram (latest Instagram photos), Twitter (timeline), and Flickr (recent photos).
With the Sharing feature, which can be found in the main menu in the WordPress.com dashboard, users are able to connect their WordPress.com site to a range of social media sites to promote their posts. Additionally, integrations with EventBrite and Google Photos are optional.
Plugins, as WordPress users know, are a great way to expand the site’s capabilities – both front-end and back-end. The free version comes with only one pre-installed plugin, which is JetPack. JetPack itself is a great plugin, actually a bundle of plugins combined. But in this case, the available features (which are included in the main menu of the dashboard) are limited to the Stats & Activity features (which is why WordPress.com labeled it JetPack Essential Features) – which we’ll come back to later on in the review.
When you upgrade to one of the premium plans, you can add plugins without limitations. Be aware of the fact that plugins are not necessarily safe or free of malware. Plugins can potentially cause damage to your site or to the functionality of other plugins, so it is very important to research a plugin before installing it. It is not uncommon for companies working with WordPress or WordPress.com to limit the options of installing plugins to keep their WordPress sites safe, or at least as safe as possible.
Reaching the SEO part of the review, we start looking for options to set up at the very least a few basic SEO parameters. The only thing we are able to set, is the meta title of the site, which is copied from the site title in the customization setup.
A little additional research into the, obviously important, SEO part of WordPress.com sites gives us a more defined insight. One particular blogpost on the WordPress.com blog addresses common misconceptions about SEO and how to go about setting things up the proper way. According to this article, WordPress.com has “great SEO right out of the box” and there is no need to do anything extra or to use a plugin to take care of all the SEO related tasks of setting up and maintaining our site.
WordPress.com assures you, evidently backed up by Google’s Matt Cutts, that it automatically takes care of 80 to 90 percent of the necessary SEO settings. More than that even: apparently, the available themes on WordPress.com are not just responsive, but also SEO proof – meaning they are optimized for Google and other search engines to easily crawl the available content. The 10 to 20 percent that users have to do themselves, is basically providing fresh, on-topic, content on a regular basis.
WordPress.com offers the much desired Google Analytics plugin on all premium plans. In terms of built-in analytics features, users can check their site statistics with the Stats feature, supplied by the JetPack plugin, that is part of the available options in WordPress.com’s dashboard. The Traffic tab shows the following numbers:
And gives users information about the following variables:
- Posts & pages
- Search terms
The Insights tab provides users additional information about the performance of their site, using the following variables:
- Posting activity
- All time views
- Latest post summary (views, likes, comments)
- All time posts, views, visitors
- Follower totals
- Most popular day and hour
- Tags & Categories
- Annual site stats
The JetPack plugin also shows a chronological overview of dashboard actions. For free accounts, the Activity feature is limited to displaying the twenty latest actions, but with a premium account, it is possible to view the actions of the last thirty days.
The WordPress.com platform offers support in several different ways. All users have access to ‘Community Support’ – which contains expert forums as well as documentation in the shape of FAQs, tutorials and user guides. All premium accounts come with the option to email and chat with the WordPress.com Customer Support team.
While in the dashboard, you can access the support menu by clicking the question mark symbol in the lower right corner. This will open a small pop up that will show the most asked questions relevant for the section of the dashboard you are in at the time. In the example, we are in the themes section, and the pop up shows several questions that refer to the themes subject. You can search for help on any topic by typing a question or keyword in the search field.
The pop up offers two more ways that lead to additional support channels. The ‘Contact Us’ option promises us to talk to a support team of some sort, but instead we are offered to ask a question to a designated WordPress.com expert. Helpful, although not exactly what we expected of this feature. The ‘More help’ link opens a new page that lists common issues and an overview of subjects people often need help with and – the so-called ‘Most helpful articles – and several extra help categories: all support articles, quick help video tutorials, self-guided email courses, and self-guided online tutorials.
Your WordPress.com site is automatically hosted. With a free account, your site will not be fully customizable. It will show a WordPress.com logo in the footer, for example. Also, the free domain name will always be a subdomain of the WordPress.com domain (for example, [yourcompany name].wordpress.com).
If you opt for one of the premium plans, you can choose a dedicated domain name, not related to WordPress.com. And you are also free to host your site somewhere else, even if you purchased your domain name with WordPress.com. Even when you host your site elsewhere, you can leave your domain name registered at WordPress.com, but you can also decide to move your domain name to another registrar, for which WordPress.com gives you the proper instructions.
Besides the free account option, WordPress.com offers three different premium plans: Personal ($4 per month), Premium ($8 per month), and Business ($25 per month). You sign up for a year, with an option to cancel your registration and receive a full refund only within the first 30 days.
An overview of the available features per plan: