Can WordPress.com Still Cut It?
Oh for crying out loud, YES! Yes, it can. Oh, you want details? Let’s do details.
Okay, to properly answer that question, we have to answer another one first: Which version of WordPress?
You might have noticed that I referenced “WordPress.com” in the subheading. Don’t confuse it with “WordPress” (on the domain “WordPress.org”), which was originally launched as a standalone, self-hosted content management system (CMS) that you can install on your own hosting server for free, with no limits on functionality.
WordPress.com is a paid service where you can get a WordPress site without having to set it up yourself, manage servers, or do any of that other technical stuff.
While we might call WordPress.com a “website builder” — and it can sort of be used as one — that’s not quite what it is.
It’s still an old-school CMS. As such, it comes with a level of power and flexibility that Wix and other more traditional website builders may never achieve. For the purposes of this review, however, the Powers That Be have mandated that it be called a “website builder.” (I should have joined the Illuminati. They’re more pedantic, and they’d call it a CMS.)
WordPress.com is one massive installation of WordPress Multisite, a version of WordPress that lets you run (you guessed it!) multiple websites on one installation of the software. It’s been modified for monetization, and to make it easier for new users to make their own sites.
When WordPress.com launched in 2005, it was probably the best way to get a free blog up and running with minimal fuss. Since then, WordPress as a CMS has evolved, and it’s now used to build just about every kind of website you can imagine, including innocent mommy blogs, sophisticated e-commerce sites, complex social networks, and even the darkest and most horrifying bits of the dark web (I assume).
Therefore, WordPress.com, which is essentially the same software, can be used for just about any kind of site, too.
Combining the numbers for both WordPress.org and WordPress.com, you’ll see that this software runs over a third of the internet! Let that sink in, why don’t you? (And if you want to know about the other two-thirds of the internet, it’s pretty much run by Joomla, Drupal, and cat pictures.)
You can use WordPress (any version) to build a small, five-page brochure site with an add-on store. You could also theoretically use it to build the next Facebook. I mean, I wouldn’t; there are better options for that specific example, but that’s the volume of content it can handle if you do it right.
In 2018, WordPress.com hosted around 37.5 million websites, and that number is probably still growing. It’s available anywhere it hasn’t been blocked, and it supports dozens of languages (some of which I don’t even recognize). There’s a free plan, some cheap plans, and fairly affordable business and e-commerce plans.
But is WordPress.com right for you? Will it meet your specific needs? Are you among the one-third? Well, that’s the point of WordPress reviews, right? Let’s find out.
They Do Business Themes Too, Now
WordPress.com boasts over 250 themes (which other builders call “templates”), and it has more variety than ever. As WordPress started out as a blogging platform, the themes are mostly blog-focused, but more business-related themes have been added recently. Mind you, not all themes are available on the free plan.
How much you can customize is limited by two things: the customization options of the individual theme you use, and the amount of money you’re willing to part with.
“Advanced Design Customization” (which includes the ability to edit the CSS files directly) is available only from the Premium plan on up. Still, there’s a good chance that the base themes will be good enough for you, as they’re pretty high quality and almost all mobile-responsive.
Themes aren’t just for looking pretty, though. They can tap into the functionality of WordPress similar to the way plugins can, so there are themes out there that can offer pretty advanced features, including new ways of browsing through posts, site membership registration, contact forms, and all kinds of other things.
As mentioned, most of the templates (200+) are blog-focused, or at least have prominent blogging features. You’ll find 26 categories, which are called “Subjects” in the UI. Unsurprisingly, more generic categories like “Business” get you more results (100+) than specific categories like “Scrapbooking” (20+).
Here’s what one of the “Scrapbooking” templates looks like, in case you were curious.
Other filter options include theme features (such as author bios, post sliders, and breadcrumb navigation), different layouts, and styles (like artistic, minimalist, and colorful). Overall, it’s a solid selection, even if the theme library could use a few more non-blog options.
If you pay for the Business plan or higher, you can install third-party themes, like those from ThemeForest, TemplateMonster, or any number of other WordPress theme marketplaces. Frankly, this means that WordPress has more potential theme variety than any other CMS out there.
It’s About Growing an Audience
Again, this is a platform that started as a blog content management system (CMS). You’ve got posts (with a relatively new block-based editor, kind of like what you’d find on Medium), pages, tools for organizing those posts and pages, comments, multiple authors, and more.
You can build pretty much any sort of blog or simple business website you want with the default themes and functionality. And yes, you can add an existing domain to your site.
Then there are the plugins, which will allow you to transform your website in just about any way you can think of. For example, you can boost your SEO some more, and you can build an actual social networking site. And yes, you can upload and install third-party plugins, too.
Sadly, WordPress plugins are available only from the Business plan on up. Still, I think it’s worth the price for the extra functionality and flexibility they provide.
So, from a features standpoint, WordPress.com is up there with the best site builders.
But more than that, WordPress.com wants you to stick around and build your business with its service. That’s why it offers these flagship features (and anything WordPress.com doesn’t do, plugins can):
As long as you’re in the U.S. or Canada, and on a Business Plan or higher, you can set up a store to work with your WordPress.com site. Taxes are calculated automatically, and you can accept payments via PayPal or Stripe, and offline by check or cash-on-delivery. Coupons and product reviews are supported as well.
If you live in a different country, you can always install any e-commerce plugin you like, though of course you’ll have to set up things like payments for yourself.
Marketing and Analytics Tools
WordPress provides a number of tools for boosting your SEO, establishing your branding, measuring your traffic, and sharing your blog posts on social media. They’re not all that advanced if you’re on the free plan, but hey, you have somewhere to start.
You also get free integration with Mailchimp, if you want to let users sign up for your newsletter straight from your website.
From the Personal plan on up, you can accept recurring subscription payments for your content. It’s a simple thing, but it’s easier than setting up a Patreon account. If you upgrade to the Premium plan or higher, you can start putting ads on your site with minimal fuss.
WordPress.com supports third-party integration with a number of services, with particular emphasis on Google Analytics and GSuite. WordPress seems to be partnered with Google, as far as I can tell. But when you bring plugins into the mix, that’s when things get wild, because there are WordPress plugins for integrating your site with almost any service that has an API.
Ease of use
There's a Bit of a Learning Curve
This is where we really get into WordPress pros and cons. WordPress has always been designed to be easy to use — so long as you already know a little bit about running a website.
If you’ve never built a website before, then there may be a learning curve. And if you’re going to go editing your CSS and installing all sorts of third-party plugins, it’s going to get more complex.
Frankly, if all you want is that five-page brochure site, one of the many other website builders may be better for you. But if you’re going to need something more complex, the learning curve is absolutely worth it.
Fortunately, the most important things are the easiest to learn:
WordPress used to have a simple type-and-hit-publish sort of text editor, and that was good for its time.
Nowadays — and after lots of drama shortly following its initial public release (more on this later) — WordPress’ new editor has its own name: “Gutenberg” (pictured above).
It’s a content editor that treats every paragraph, every heading, every image — everything! — like an individual “block.” It’s sort of like a page builder, but for content.
This allows you to make block-specific changes to your content. For example, you can change the text size for a specific paragraph, create multiple columns for text and/or images, add background images to specific sections, and more.
Gutenberg’s default functionality also lets you embed videos from a wide variety of platforms, Tweets, Reddit posts, Instagram photos that feature your pets and your food — anything you can think of.
Oh, and because everything is treated as a “block,” you can drag and drop any image, paragraph, or other piece of content around the page or post to reorder things easily.
(Google Docs could learn a thing or two from this.)
It’s very easy to use overall, and it gives you lots of flexibility in terms of art direction (and by “art direction,” I mean making your posts and pages look fancy, and different from one another).
Now back to the gossip: Gutenberg’s release stirred up drama because, while its initial public announcement gave WordPress users plenty of time to prepare for the change, users still found themselves frighteningly unprepared when it finally arrived.
Gutenberg was vastly different from the old content editor, and it had the potential to break older WordPress sites, depending on the themes and plugins they used. Early testing versions of Gutenberg released with numerous bugs, and plenty of people thought it was grossly unready when the “full” version was first released.
Luckily, I’ve never had trouble with it, and as long as you’re starting “from scratch” with a brand new site, you shouldn’t either. Gutenberg has had plenty of updates to stabilize it, and it keeps getting better with every version of WordPress.
And if you like, you can always disable it via a plugin if you want to go back to just typing and hitting “publish.” (Just assume I put in a reminder about having to pay to access plugins here. Business plan on up.)
While WordPress doesn’t provide drag-and-drop design like other builders such as Wix, it does allow you to preview customizations to your theme in real time.
Again, what you can customize depends on the theme you’re using, but if you change a link color, move a widget around, or choose an entirely different kind of layout, you can always see what it will look like before you commit. It’s just too bad you can’t write your blog posts this way.
If you want a drag-and-drop design experience with WordPress, you can always install a plugin like Elementor (that is, of course, if you upgrade to the Business plan or higher). Elementor is a plugin that, when partnered with compatible themes, makes WordPress work like a classic drag-and-drop website builder.
Organization and Publishing Tools
The tools for scheduling when to publish, categorizing and organizing your posts, and putting your pages in a hierarchy are all fairly intuitive, once you know where to find them.
WordPress is a system designed for dealing with lots of content at once, so what it lacks in drag-and-drop capability, it makes up for in organization. I can tell you from experience that when you publish lots of sonnets about your adorable fluffy kitty content regularly, that’s a blessing.
Overall, despite the learning curve, using WordPress.com isn’t hard. If you’re a new user, there are plenty of tutorial messages and pop-up tips to help you get started with the essentials.
Once you know where everything is on the navigation menu, tasks like adding new pages, customizing your theme, and so on are fairly easy. Just be sure to read the instructions, as building a website on WordPress.com is less intuitive than it could be.
Lastly, setting up a shop is pretty easy. But again, the easy option works only if you live in the U.S. or Canada. Third-party plugins like WooCommerce aren’t much more complicated, but again, if you’ve never built a website or run an online store, there will definitely be a learning curve.
Prompt and Helpful Service
Here’s something you won’t find in many WordPress.com reviews: actual interactions with customer service agents to see how good the support is. Well, that’s what I wanted to test, and I was quite pleased.
But before we get into the specifics, WordPress.com has quite a few support options. For every user — including those on the free plan — there‘s a knowledge base full of articles, and even video tutorials to help you get started. If you can’t find what you need there, check out the support forum.
The Blogger plan also gives you access to email support, and every plan above that gives you 24/7 live chat as well.
My only criticism is that if you’re on a plan that offers both email support and live chat, the “Contact Us” page in the help section won’t give you both options. You’ll be funneled straight to the live chat, and you won’t find the help desk email address. I had to ask for it in my live chat session. I literally had to contact support so I could contact support.
The forum is minimalist, but functional. Overall, it looks like people get responses quickly enough, usually within an hour or so.
Most replies seem to come from the community, not the devs, which is understandable (they probably have lots to do). A moderator answered my question in about an hour, and the answer was helpful.
Please ignore the ancient username from my teenage years.
I asked a question at 10:45pm Mexico City time, and received a response in minutes. The answer to my question was a little vague, but I didn’t pursue the details.
I’m unsure if there’s a specific policy on bandwidth at all. “As such there is no limitation” sounds real good, but since I’m not nearly as famous as a man with my chiseled ears should be, and thus don’t draw the website traffic that my ears so clearly deserve, I can’t test that claim. (I’m kidding, my ears are just okay. The natural eye shadow effect I get from sleep deprivation, on the other hand…)
One cool thing is that you get transcripts of your chat convo emailed to you when you finish. It’s always good to have records.
The email support was helpful. I asked if there was a way to create a store even though I’m outside of the U.S. and Canada. A support rep responded with a simple workaround that would allow me to set up a very basic store. Now she did try to upsell me a little, but the upgraded plan would have made the workaround easier, so I can’t blame her for trying.
I sent the email rather late at night (for me), and I got the reply around three hours later. This suggests that email support is also available 24/7. I couldn’t find a specific schedule of hours anywhere, but they do try to answer all emails within 24 hours.
Pricing plans on WordPress.com range from free to “eCommerce” (everyone has a different way of capitalizing that term), and honestly… all of the plans are pretty affordable. Of course, you’ll be a lot happier with the price of the eCommerce plan if you’re actually selling merchandise.
Overall, I’d say that compared with other website builders out there, WordPress offers pricing options that offer a lot for very little money.
Acceptable payment options include:
- American Express
The free plan is simple enough: You get a functional blog. It comes with 3GB of storage space, access to a decent number of free themes, and support via the community. WordPress will place ads on your site, but they’re just a text link in the footer that basically says, “This is a WordPress.com site.”
You can’t upload your own themes or install plugins, though. And you can’t monetize your site, at least not in any way that’s supported by the platform.
Now, what do you get for upgrading? The cheapest plans offer extra support and a domain name. Oh, and the WordPress.com ads are removed, and you can monetize your site a little with subscriptions.
If you go up to WordPress VIP pricing, it’s a whole different story. You get access to plugins, more themes (and third-party themes), far more advanced customization, the ability to put WordPress.com-supported ads on your site, and a lot more personal attention. You can also get more SEO tools, more ways to monetize your site, the ability to accept payments from over 60 countries, and more.
So, should you upgrade? When should you do it?
Here’s my honest advice: Build your site first and see if you like the platform! The learning curve I mentioned can discourage some people.
Once you’re happy with your basic site, buy a plan that gives you more support and a domain name. Upgrading is dead simple, and it happens quickly. Just be aware that even though prices are listed in a monthly format, you can’t pay monthly. A year is the minimum amount of time you can pay for at once.
Cancellations & Refunds
You can cancel any plan within 30 days for a full refund, with one small exception: domains. If you buy a domain, you can cancel your subscription, but you have to do so within 48 hours. As policies go, it’s much more generous than some others I’ve seen.
The cancellation process is automated, so you don’t (as far as I know) have to wait for a human to approve your refund. And better yet, you never have to talk to a human, which is always the most awkward part of breaking up with canceling a service. You’ll be asked a few questions via a form to see if you’ll change your mind, but it’s not too bad.
I received my refund in minutes. As long as you cancel within the correct time period, you should get your refund pretty quickly and smoothly, too.
Just hit the button, basically.