From WordPress.com to WordPress.org: Pros, Cons, Costs and a Step-by-Step Tutorial
Last week I moved my blog from its happy but humble home since 2011 (WordPress.com) to its new self-hosted lot on Bluehost, running a WordPress.org install. For those who are not aware of the difference, WordPress is a publishing platform that powers millions of websites. It comes in two flavours: WordPress.com, and the self-hosted version available at WordPress.org. In this post I’ll share my the pros and cons of going self-hosted, the costs involved, and a step-by-step tutorial, should you be so bold to make the move.
The first question you might be asking is: Do Second Life bloggers self-host their websites? Yes, they do. High profile self-hosted Second Life blogs using WordPress.org include: Strawberry Singh, Ciaran Laval, Gwyneth Llewelyn, Nalates Urriah, MeshBodyAddicts, Tizzy Canucci, The Liaison Collaborative, SL12B, SL Relay for Life and now me, at Canary Beck.
Yes, many popular bloggers self-host – but then many do not. Is it necessary? Is this just a hosting decision, or a marketing decision? Is it worth the time and cost?
The decision to self-host depends primarily to your goals and means. If you feel the advantages outweigh the costs involved (in time and money) then it might be for you.
This post should help you decide if the move is right for you. First, let’s start with the advantages.
Seven reasons to self-host your blog on WordPress.org
There are many reasons why you might want to self-host your blog, especially if you’re a control freak. Here are my top seven reasons
- You have access to more themes. WordPress.com runs in a close system. They are very careful (and limited) about which themes you can use. At the moment, they offer 365 themes – most free, and 173 premium themes that start at $30 USD. This may sound like a lot, there are however thousands of themes for self-hosted WordPress.com installations (some free, some premium). I chose the Avada theme. It cost me $60, but it’s so customisable that it will likely be all I need for years. Now, I design my pages and posts anyway I like – and I hope the results speak for themselves.
- You can install third-party plugins. Plugins add functionality to your website. You can’t install them on WordPress.com. Here are some plugins I installed onto my site, some free, some premium, and the functionality they provide:
- All in One SEO Pack: (free) I installed this plugin to help me optimise my site for search engines. I can modify my page title, page description and page keywords for every post and page I write using this plugin so that I can rank higher on search engines than I did before. You all know how I feel about search engine traffic. Now, I’m able to maximise my audience by bringing my SEO to a professional standard.
- Scribe: ($97/month): Because I run a digital agency, I can use my company’s Scribe account for as many sites as I wish. I don’t recommend this for the casual user, but its worthwhile mentioning how powerful some plugins can be. I installed this plugin to help me conduct in-depth research that helps me quickly identify content marketing opportunities for search and social media traffic and leads. Once I’ve performed my research, Scribe’s Content Analysis provides a fast, yet intuitive way to check the alignment of my writing to the content on my site – helping me quickly ensure that my content and site are focused on the terms that make up my content marketing strategy. I can then optimize the elements of my on-page content for maximum relevance for search rankings.
- MailChimp Forms by MailMunch: (free, but needs a MailChimp account – which lets you send up to 12,000 emails to up to 2000 addresses for free) The MailChimp plugin allows you to quickly and easily add signup forms for your MailChimp lists. Popup, Embedded, Top Bar and a variety of different options available. This plugin will help me build my email list, without the need to rely on WordPress.com. Now, I can send targeted and automated email to my subscribers, on my own schedule.
- Paid Memberships Pro: (free) This plugin helps me make my site into a membership site. Most bloggers will never want to do this. However, because I’m marketing exclusive content to a limited group (e.g. Paradise Lost in Second Life), I need a way to host exclusive content behind a membership wall. I plan to host more exclusive content on my site in the future, including guides, books, and more video content, so this plugin is a must for me.
- VaultPress: ($29/month) VaultPress (and Akismet, which offers spam protection) helps me protect my content, themes, plugins, and settings with real time backup and automated security scanning. VaultPress is a subscription service. This used to be done by WordPress.com, but now it’s up to me.
- WP Super Cache (free): This plugin generates static html files from my dynamic WordPress blog. After an html file is generated, my webserver will serve that file instead of processing the comparatively heavier and more expensive WordPress PHP scripts. It lets me serve content at a rate that doesn’t slow down your browser (as much).
- Jetpack: (free) Jetpack adds powerful features to my site previously only available to WordPress.com users including customisation, traffic, mobile, content, and performance tools.
- You can tweak everything. This might not matter for some, but I love being able to get the exact look and feel I want, from something as simple as adjusting the spacing between my fonts (I have thousands I can choose from now), to changing every single element’s colours and size, to modifying CSS and PHP files.
- You can run advertising. WordPress.com runs ads on your site, which you can pay a fee to remove. Should I wish, I can now run my own ads on my site, which one can’t do within the bounds of the WordPress TOS.
- You can sell things on your site. I know that most people won’t ever want to do this, but I am planning to sell exclusive content on my site soon, so having the ability to take payments is essential.
- If you really want to build a following, WordPress.com has its limits. Yes, there are some massive WordPress.com blogs that enjoy huge followings, but they are the exception to the rule. I knew I’d eventually want more from my site, so everyday I stayed on WordPress.com was another day they controlled my audience. The only way I could “own” my list, was to build and maintain it myself. Email is one of the most powerful internet marketing tools out there, and I can’t use it while on WordPress.com.
- You can use Google Analytics. If you really want to how your site is accessed and used, Google Analytics is the de-facto standard and goes miles beyond the free Stats offered by WordPress.com. I know how to use Google Analytics to grow and improve websites, so this is something I’ve long wished for. If you don’t already look at your Stats yearning for more, then this won’t be important to you. For a stats junkie like me though, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. I now have access to audience, acquisition, behavior and conversion data that I never had before.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Not so fast, there are drawbacks.
Five ‘drawbacks’ of self-hosting your blog
There are several tasks I now have to do that I didn’t need to do before when I was letting WordPress.com do much of the work. Most of these things are easy if you know how.
If you’re technically squeamish, on a budget or have little available time to maintain your website, you’ll either want to have good help on hand, or stay with WordPress.com
- You’ll need your own domain name. I got my own domain name through WordPress ages ago, but most bloggers don’t have one. They don’t cost much, but as you can see, it’s all adding up. A new hosting package with Bluehost provides a free domain name you can choose. Alternatively, you’ll need to buy one for about $10/year through a company like Low Cost Names.
- You’ll need to host your site. Or more commonly, pay a professional web host to do it for you. I chose Bluehost, who offers Optimized WordPress Hosting for $24/month. Bluehost is one of the three hosts that WordPress. Again, because I do this professionally, I’m able to piggyback on my company’s account, which keeps a Business Server that has more than enough space and speed for 20 professional websites.
- You’ll have to backup your site. WordPress.com not only hosts all your content for free, it backs it up regularly. Now that I’ve moved to self-hosted, I have to do that myself. This comes at a cost of $29/month for my real-time security scan bundle, which unfortunately is per site, so I can’t get around it. Should my site ever fail however, I can restore it with the click of a button, which helps a lot with peace of mind. If you just want daily backups and no security scanning, you can get a plan for as low as $9/month.
- You’ll have to maintain and update your site’s functionality. Because WordPress.org is constantly being updated, I have to update it on my site too. I have update all my plugins as well, because they are updated even more routinely than WordPress’s Core. I also have to update my theme, whenever updates are available for it. Again, because I have people that work for me that can do this on a routine basis, I don’t have to worry. If you don’t have that luxury, you’ll need to conduct the updates yourself. It’s easy when it all goes routinely, but solving plugin conflicts can be a real PITA, and without the technical knowledge to troubleshoot it yourself, you may need to hire someone to sort it out for you.
- You’ll have to rebuild your email list because your followers on WordPress.com will no longer get your posts by email. Yep, all the followers I’ve built up over nearly 4 years of blogging will no longer get my posts by email. That sucks, and I had to seriously weigh this con against all the advantages I listed above. To decide, I studied my stats to see how many people came to my content via that source, versus other channels, like social media, referral links, and search. It turned out that this was a minority of my traffic, so I decided that it was worth the move. It would have been far worse for me to wait until my following grew even bigger. Now I can build an email list that I’ll be able to leverage in the future, without ever having to worry that I’ll not be able to export it in the future.
Make WordPress your bitch in 10 steps
Step 1: Get a domain name and a choose a host
Like I said, I had a domain name (www.canarybeck.com) and had a hosting provider (and space) lined up. Through Bluehost, I set up an add-on domain to my company’s hosting account for free. If you already have a custom domain name, you can easily point the nameservers to your webhost from your domain control panel. Because I was ready with everything, this step took me just a few minutes. A few companies I recommend for inexpensive domain names are LCN, 123-Reg, and GoDaddy.
Step 2: Export your data from WordPress.com
This is simple to do. In your WordPress dashboard of your old blog, go to Tools, and then choose Export.
Clicking on the Export tool will take you to a new page where you will be asked to choose between the Guide Transfer or free Export. I chose the free Export and downloaded my XML file.
When you choose Export, the page will give you the option to export “All content”, or posts, pages, or feedback. Choose “All content”, and you’ll download the XML file. It will have everything in there: your posts, pages, images, comments, custom fields, categories, tags, navigation menus and other information. If your file is really big, like mine was, WordPress.com will email you the file.
Step 3: Setup WordPress on your host.
WordPress is very easy to install, and some hosts (like Bluehost) let you install it with a few clicks when you setup your hosting account. Here’s a video that shows how to do it in 5 minutes:
Step 4: Design your WordPress.org website
Once you’ve installed WordPress, you’ll notice the default theme will be 2015. If you want you can either customise that theme to suit your purposes or find a free or premium theme to install on your site. There are several premium WordPress Premium Theme providers out there, and I advise you to spend time reading reviews and looking at options to find the theme that suits you best. Bluehost themselves is partnered with Mojo Themes, but there is also Elegant Themes, Woo Themes, Theme Forest, and many more. You can even choose a theme from the WordPress.org Theme Gallery (which includes thousands to choose from) by going to Appearance > Themes in your new site (see below), similar to the way you used to select them from WordPress.com.
Most importantly, you’re looking for a premium theme that not only looks like what you’re going for, but that is also fast, responsive, and frequently updated.
I tend to shop for my themes at ThemeForest, where I bought my Avada theme. It’s one of the bestselling themes in the world, with over 150,000 purchases. Remember, themes for WordPress.org are much, much, much more customisable than themes for WordPress.com, so I can do a lot with what comes out of the box.
Once you’ve decided on your theme, download the install file, and upload it to your WordPress.org install by going to Appearance, then Themes, and choose “Add New Theme”:
Once you click “Add New Theme”, you’ll see a button at top right that says “Upload Theme”. Upload the theme install file you downloaded when you purchased the theme. Activate it, and then customise it to suit you.
The customisation process might take a few minutes, or it might take a few weeks, as you customise your new theme to suit your wants and needs. I spent about a week’s worth of evenings customising my theme, writing new content for my pages, and creating new images and sliders.
Step 5: Import your content into your self-hosted WordPress site
On your self-hosted WordPress install, go to Tools and choose Import. There you’ll need to choose your content format (i.e. WordPress). Choosing this format will require you to install the WordPress Importer plugin. Once you’ve installed it, activate it, and run the importer. It will take you to a screen where you can upload your WordPress.com XML file that you downloaded in Step 2.
If your file size is over 2MB, which is very likely, then you’ll either need to ask your webhost to temporarily increase the upload limit.
As you begin importing, a screen will ask you to assign your content to a current user or new user of your new WordPress site. It doesn’t really matter what you choose, so go ahead and choose the option that is appropriate.
Importantly, you’ll want to check the box that asks you to import your attachments. If you don’t do this, the importer will not import your images. Missing this step will open up a world of hurt.
Note: The WordPress Importer is notoriously fallible, and the process does not always work. If it doesn’t, you have two options:
- You can upload your XML to your server’s public HTML folder for them to see if they can import it for you (you’ll need to really layer on the sweet talk for this to happen by the way), or
- If all else fails, you can abort the whole process at this stage and opt for a Guided Transfer. A Guided Transfer will cost you over $129, but the Migration Team at WordPress.com will take care of everything for you.
Once the content is imported, update your Permalinks to mirror your WordPress.com URL format so that your content will easily be redirected.
Step 6: Publish a migration post on WordPress.com blog
Email subscribers will continue to receive email notifications when you post something new, but folks who have only followed you on WordPress.com will now only see new posts in their Readers. They won’t receive email notifications unless they also subscribe to your new self-hosted site. You may want to make a last post on your WordPress.com blog that lets them know this. Here is a link to my migration post that spells out what my readers should do if they want to keep getting my blog in their email. If you want to get my future blog posts in your email, please sign up!
Also note that your follower count on your self-hosted site won’t include the Twitter and Facebook followers that may have been included in your follower tally on WordPress.com. However, if you connect your social media profiles via Publicize (under Settings > Sharing), you’ll still reach the same audience.
Step 7: Redirect your visitors (if you domain name has changed) and set your WordPress.com blog to private
So your search engine rankings don’t get a penalty for having duplicate content on the web, I recommend that you do one of the following with your old WordPress.com site:
- Purchase the Site Redirect upgrade to seamlessly redirect traffic from yoursite.wordpress.com to your new site (replace “yoursite” with your site): https://yoursite.wordpress.com/wp-admin/paid-upgrades.php. If you choose this option, I recommend paying for the redirection upgrade for 2 years maximum.
- Make your old site private to avoid confusing people and search engines. Just click the button next to “I would like my site to be private, visible only to users I choose”, under Site Visibility: https://yoursite.wordpress.com/wp-admin/options-reading.php. Like so:
If you’re changing custom URLs, then I suggest you use a plugin called Velvet Blues to rewrite every URL on your new blog to match your old one.
Step 8: Point your domain name (if you have a custom domain) to your new webhost
Your domain still needs to be pointed to your new site. If your domain is hosted by WordPress.com, then you’ll need to go into your Domain Control panel and change the nameservers to the following, to something like this (e.g. Bluehost)
If you registered your domain elsewhere, go to that control panel and do the same.
Sometimes, changes to domain names can take a while to update across the Internet (a process called “propagation”), but it usually doesn’t take more than a few hours. Get in touch with your domain registrar if more than 72 hours passes and you’re still not seeing your new site at your domain. Once the domain change has updated, you can access your new self-hosted WordPress Dashboard at http://yourdomain.com/wp-admin using the credentials you get when you installed WordPress.
Note that you will experience an error logging in if you try to do so before your domain has been fully changed over to the new site. Again, this usually takes at least a few hours after the nameservers have been updated.
Step 9: Adjust some settings and add some vital plugins
If you had your social media networks connected the Publicize feature, you’ll need to reconnect those on your Settings > Sharing page in your Dashboard.
You may also notice prompts asking for an Akismet Key. WordPress.com uses Akismet to stop spam, and I recommend that you install it and use it on your new site as well. You’ll also want to immediately back up your site (i.e. using VaultPress backup services), especially during your first month when you may be doing a lot of editing. VaultPress makes it easy to recover from any mistakes and other issues, and now that you’re self-hosted, you’ll be the one responsible for making sure your site is backed up.
Step 10: Import your subscribers and merge your WordPress Stats
WordPress allows you to migrate your subscribers if you install, activate and configure the Jetpack plugin. This free plugin adds the subscriber functionality that you had on WordPress.com. Once you activate it, you will need to contact the WordPress.com Jetpack Team to ask them to migrate your subscribers for you. Ask nicely, and they will merge your stats from your WordPress.com site to your new stats as well.
And that’s it!
It sounds relatively straightforward, but I’ll be honest, there are pitfalls and unexpected snags along the way. You’ll need patience, a little blind faith and someone you can turn to if you really need help along the way.
If you try this and want to contact me for help, send me an email to canarybeckATgmail.com.
Do everything as I suggest above and you should have a hiccup-free install. Most importantly, unless you depend entirely on people visiting your site because they saw your post in an email, your traffic shouldn’t be adversely affected. It’s been nearly a week since I pointed my domain to my new self-hosted site (on August 20th), and the traffic (while a bit lower) is relative unchanged. Importantly, I’ve been busy this past week and haven’t published as much new content either – and I’m grabbing this screenshot midday of on August 26th. I trust my traffic will be fine.
What does self-hosting cost?
I’ve laid out 3 scenarios in a table below, from Minimum – which includes the bare basics, Recommended – which includes a site redirect and the best backup and security package available, and Optional – which includes everything in recommended plus a Premium theme and a Guided Transfer. Depending on what you might already have in place, your costs may vary. I won’t include the Scribe SEO plugin because that’s an amortised cost that I’d not choose for this site if I didn’t have access to it already.
|Site Redirect (if you have a custom domain on your WordPress.com site already)||$18/year|
|Premium WP Theme||$50**|
|Backup and Security||$9/month||$29/month|
|Totals first-year cost||$406||$664||$851|
|Yearly costs after first-year||$406||$664||$672|
As you can see, migrating to self-hosted comes with a price tag which is between $33 to $56/month, depending on your set up. However, when you compare this to a Second Life region that costs $300/month, it’s actually not so bad.
It’s much more expensive than WordPress.com Premium, which gave me my domain, no ads, CSS customisation options, audio-visual hosting and more space at a cost of $99, but the that’s like comparing bananas to passionfruit.
* Private registration keeps your real name and address details private
** Approximate price
The bottom line: Do I recommend migrating from WordPress.com to WordPress.org?
In rare cases, yes. In most cases, I do not recommend it.
There are many advantages to self-hosted – which are ideal for me – but there is also considerable time and cost involved. Before starting down this path, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I want total control of my website’s design and functionality?
- Do I want to run advertising on my website?
- Do I want to sell anything through my website?
- Do you want to market your website any way you wish?
If you said “yes” to any of the above questions, then you’ll want to consider the time, costs and drawbacks I’ve shared with you in this post. A few caveats:
- If you don’t have the budget to do this – don’t self-host
- If you scarcely have time for blogging as it is – don’t self-host
- If you don’t have the know-how to design your own site, and keep it backed up and maintained (and are not interested in learning how to do it) – don’t self-host
- If the technical hurdles I’ve explained above frighten you (and I’ve limited the discussion to the absolute basics assuming nothing goes wrong) – don’t self-host
- If most of your visitors come from links they receive in their email (not social media, search or referral links) and you don’t want to take a big traffic hit – don’t self host
Only you can decide if it’s worth the time and effort to self-host. I took the plunge, and am happy I did it. No regrets. If you choose to make the move, good luck with your migration – I’d love to hear how it goes!