Decisions, Decisions, Decisions – or where to host my site.

It was about a year ago that I moved my site from a wordpress domain, simonhawketts.wordpress.com to my own domain simonhawketts.com but at the time I made that move I kept the site hosting at wordpress.com. The payment for the hosting is due for renewal in a few weeks time and I’ve been deciding if I should keep the site within workpress or if I should move to a self hosted arrangement.

The driver for this is not really cost – it will cost about the same to host the site on a virtual server environment (I’m looking at DigitalOcean), but more to do with the control and flexibility of running my own wordpress install instead of living within the controlled environment wordpress.com offers.

So in order to see how my site would feel in a self hosted environment, I set up a virtual wordpress server on DigitalOcean and imported all the data from my site to see how it performs and to gauge the increase in configurability and control. This is actually quite a simple and cheap operation, because it only costs $5 (about £3.40) to run a server for a month whilst I try it out.

The biggest positive I see from moving to self hosting is the ability to add some quite useful plugins. For example the editor within wordpress is quite nice, but it’s a very cut down version compared to the full MCE editor. With the full editor it’s possible to add tables, which are nice when you have tabular data to display, carry out find & replace on text and lots of other nice features including a lot of configurability which is missing in the .com environment.¬†Another plus, again provided by a plugin, is the ability to create post templates. A lot of my posts are vintage camera posts and there is a lot of similarity in the formatting and placement of picture galleries. With a template this is much easier to achieve but again it’s an option not available on my current site.

Of course there are also downsides. For a start, since I run a photo site I’m interested in the number of views any individual pictures may get in a gallery, since this is an indication of which pictures are considered best. I found on my trial self-hosted site, that this information isn’t available in the standard wordpress stats module. This isn’t the end of the world, but I would rather track that information, so I started looking at alternatives for better tracking and found a system called piwik which is an open source equivalent to google analytics (I looked at google analytics but found it to be just too complex for my needs). Although piwik also doesn’t track individual picture views, I found I could write my own wordpress plugin which added that functionality in a couple of hours.

Another downside is that any site followers who have signed up via the wordpress ‘follow’ button possibly won’t transfer if I go down the self hosted route. If that happens I’ll probably just ask anyone who is interested to re-subscribe via email although that also means I would need to run an email server as well.

Probably the biggest downside to self hosting is the amount of time which will be spent on system admin when running your own server rather than relying on a hosted service. The big advantage of wordpress.com is the fact that system & wordpress updates are installed automatically without the site going off-line while they are applied, backups are taken and the site is basically guaranteed to be available all the time.

So – it’s a case of deciding which way to go. I have a month or so to make the decision so I don’t feel pressured at the moment but I’d be interested in the opinion of anyone who was faced with the same options – feel free to comment below.

 

 

 



Categories: IT, opinion

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8 replies

  1. Interesting points… I don’t want to spend too much time at the computer so I can go out and make photos. That’s why I prefer wordpress. com

  2. Hi Simon. I have been following your Photo Blog for quite sometime now albeit as/in two different ID’s.
    My only observation – without getting into the technicalities of each – Word Press is relatively easy to sign-up for and follow,there are other sites that use Word Press too.
    Why mend something that isn’t busted ?

    • That’s true – the current site works and doesn’t take any effort to keep going. Even if I moved to self hosted I would still use WordPress so to the reader it would be exactly the same – it just comes down to whether the advantages I think I’d get are worth the effort of maintaining the site myself. Thanks for the comment by the way

  3. I used to use WordPress.com and set up my own self hosted blog a few years back. There are pros and cons to both, which you allude to. From my perspective:

    Pros:
    – More control. A huge range of plugins, themes and tweaks to choose from to make it your own.
    – You won’t inadvertently breach WP terms and conditions, and your photos are under your control. I suggest going so far as to host in your own country. According to a recent article I read, even though it’s never been an issue, technically if your photos are hosted in a country other than your own, your rights are harder to defend should you ever need to.

    Cons:
    – More control can equal more problems. It certainly takes more time ! Updates are not automated in the same way, and updates also fail. This has been happening to me and I have had to comb through my plugins to try and determine the problem. Looks like it is a caching plugin to speed up the site, but updates still fail from time to time. I also had some malware installed along with a third party plugin which I was unaware of until a visitor told me. I finally got rid of it.
    – You will need to grow your followers almost from scratch. Even though you get the Follow button along with the Jetpack plugin to mimic WP.com, none of your posts will appear in the WP Reader, meaning that reaching out to people is not easy. An email list from the beginning is the way to go, and I suggest a combination of Mailpoet and Mandrill. But again, no guarantee you’ll grow followers easily.

    Lately I have even been thinking about opening a new WP.com page just to reach out to more people! That part of it is tough.

    Anyway, you can see how it works here: http://www.sjp.id.au

    Steve

    • Thanks for the detailed response Steve, it’s good to hear from someone who has moved their site to self-hosted. Do you find you are having to apply updates frequently? On digital ocean it’s possible to use a copy of the live wordpress install and apply updates etc with it ‘off-line’ and only switch it over when everything is tested and working, but I wouldn’t want to do that every week.
      Thanks for the mention of mailpoet – I’d not seen that but it looks good.
      I’m concerned about the possibility of loosing followers, but to be honest one of the problems with wordpress.com is that it’s difficult to get much information about the site demographic from the stats module so I’m not sure how much traffic comes from the wordpress reader. I’m assuming it’s the ‘syndicated views’ portion of the stats, in which case it’s quite low. Certainly in terms of referrers the biggest in my stats are search, google+ and facebook.
      Thanks again.

      • No problem Simon. The frequency of updates essentially depends on how many plugins you have installed. I generally find that there are at least a few daily plugins updates. These usually go smoothly enough, but like I said, I have run into problems recently. Using a copy is not a bad idea. The site goes into a temporary maintenance mode when applying updates before switching to the new installation, but I have had to go into cpanel at least once to manually delete the maintenance file myself because the site was stuck on an update. I’m hoping that has now been resolved with the deletion of the Zencache plugin.
        Mailpoet is quite solid. The stats in the free version are basic enough but handy. Combined with Mandrill, it represents a good way to handle bulk email to followers.
        Of course, as I mentioned, retaining and attracting followers is the toughest aspect of self hosting. There’s more marketing involved, and the WP Reader won’t work as a way to attract discussions. This has to be balanced with the freedom you have ultimately. If you want stats, self hosting is definitely the way to go, as free plugins like Slimstat provide more info than even the rudimentary ones in WP.com. It’s also possible to install a Google Analytics dashboard panel and see at a glance more detailed information, as long as you link it to your Google account.

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