It's only 17 years old, but WordPress is now the power behind more than 36% of the internet, covering everything from simple blogs and media galleries to top quality, full-featured web stores.
WordPress is open source, so getting hold of a copy is free and easy. Most web hosting accounts now include a '1-click installer' which will set up WordPress for you in seconds, while you sit back and watch.
Learning how to use WordPress is more difficult. It's a hugely powerful and configurable product, with a vast ecosystem of add-ons and extensions, so there's a lot to learn. And although a web host might have a few WordPress-related articles on its support site, don't expect any significant help. Run into real difficulties, and you'll be on your own.
WordPress.com makes life easier by handling all the technicalities for you. There's no hosting to buy, no installation to worry about, no updates to manage, no security issues – signing up with WordPress.com gets you a ready-to-go WordPress setup that you can use right away.
- Want to try WordPress.com's website builder? Check out the website here
A free-for-life plan makes it easy to try the service out. Your site will have WordPress.com ads, just 3GB of storage space, and only access to basic themes and design options. It also restricts you to a WordPress subdomain (yourname.wordpress.blog), and comes with basic community support. Still, it's a decent system which is perfectly adequate for personal blogs, simple family sites, or just building up your WordPress skills.
For $4 (£3) a month, the Personal plan removes the ads, lifts your storage space to 6GB, allows the use of a custom domain, and gets you live chat and email support.
The $8 (£7) a month Premium plan offers 13GB of storage, unlimited Premium themes, more advanced design tools, and allows you to earn cash from your site by signing up for an ads program.
Upgrading to the Business plan for $25 (£20) a month gets you 200GB of storage, the ability to extend your site with thousands of powerful plugins, along with SEO tools, Google Analytics integration and more.
Laslty, the $45 (£36) a month eCommerce plan adds the ability to set up an online store to all of the above.
After login in with your chosen username and password, WordPress.com tries to find an ideal domain name based on your interests. This would involve you shelling out money for a custom URL, or opting for one of the paid-for plans.
This is despite having gone to the ‘Plans & Pricing’ page and clicking on the ‘Start with Free’ Option.
If you just want to check out Wordpress for free, they’re certainly not making it as easy as they used to. There’s no option but to type in a few keywords and then be offered a selection of domain names.
There’s a helpful “You can claim your free custom domain later if you aren't ready yet. Review our plans to get started”, but clicking on that link sends you to a page with no free plan available.
By luck, reloading that page made a “not sure yet? Start with a free site” button, although it must be noted that we tried this with three accounts and the reload trick only worked with two, and in one of those two, clicking on that link sent us back to having to choose (and pay for) a domain name.
Times must be tough for such a well known company to partake in such deceitful practices.
If you’ve managed to bypass this pretty major hurdle, your free website will be activated moments later, and you're redirected to the WordPress dashboard.
If you've ever used WordPress before, you'll recognise the interface as a simplified version of the regular dashboard, with a left-hand sidebar giving you access to site settings, page and media management tools, a preview option and more.
If you're a newcomer, all you have to do for the moment is focus on the body of the page, where a WordPress 'setup list' highlights the steps you still need to complete (give your site a name, update your homepage, confirm your email address, launch your site, get the WordPress app).
If you've any experience with using a PC at all, you'll complete the setup parts of the checklist within a few minutes.
When you follow the checklist and ‘update your homepage’, you’ll find yourself in front of the WordPress editor.
It feels more like you’re working with a word processor than a web-based website editor. Just highlight the sample text and start typing to replace it (no need to click on an edit button for instance).
There's media support for images, documents, audio and video files. Images can be added from your computer, your Google account, via a URL, or by searching the excellent Pexels library of free stock images. Audio and video files can be linked from elsewhere, or hosted locally if you buy a commercial WordPress account.
The options offered to you are very straightforward.
Choose a gallery, for instance, and once you’ve added your images, you can select how many columns you need, or even alter the way the photos are presented with the click of a button.
Adding a single image offers you a few basic options. You can’t apply a filter or a drop shadow for instance, but you can include a caption directly under the image, type in some alt text in the sidebar on the right, or alter the image’s size.
The basic WordPress.com editor doesn't have many components to directly integrate with many other web services, but simple embedding of content is usually very easy. Simply paste in a URL from YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Twitter and more directly onto the page, and the editor will generally display the linked content.
Writing a blog post, the interface feels clean and uncluttered. Usual keyboard shortcuts, like those to bold or italicise a word work. You can forget about all the complexities if you want to, and just focus on what you want to convey.
If you’re interested in adding widgets to your site - small components which you can typically add to sidebars, headers, footers, and other widget-enabled areas of your chosen theme - you can access them via the Design > Customise menu in your left sidebar. These can't compete with the best of the website builder competition, but among the dozens of available widgets, useful integrations include simple audio and video embedding, Twitter timelines, Facebook pages, iCal-compatible calendars, Flickr and Instagram feeds.
If any of this doesn't work as it should, experts can instantly switch to an HTML view of the current page, and edit the code as required. That gives you far more control than the usual 'custom HTML' widgets that you'll get with some website builders, although it will take some knowledge and experience to deliver good results without messing up the rest of the page. This is something we only advise advanced users to explore.
Standalone WordPress gives you free access to a huge library of themes, but only 91 are accessible on the Free and Personal plans.
Should you fancy one of the ‘premium’ themes, you can usually get one for around $43 (£33) to $87 (£67). Upgrading to the Premium or above plans will get you free access to everything.
It's much the same story with plugins. Install regular WordPress on a standard hosting package and you're able to extend your setup with thousands of amazing add-ons, covering everything from convenient operational tweaks (redirect every '404 not found' error to your home page) to major packages in their own right (the WordPress-based WooCommerce is one of the best e-commerce packages around). But although you can see all available plugins from the library, even when trying the free Plan on WordPress.com, the service won’t allow you to install any of them unless you purchase the top-of-the-range Business plan.
While these could be major issues for some, there are always restrictions with free accounts, and WordPress.com does still have some interesting advanced features of its own.
A lengthy list of import tools enables importing posts, pages, comments and other content from Wix, WordPress, Medium, Blogger, Tumblr and other sites.
Blogging support tramples all other website builder blogs into the dust. Take just one example: blog comments which has a huge number of valuable features. You can control whether commenters must provide a name and email address; decide when and if you're emailed about new comments; intelligently allow comments from trusted posters, and block them when they look suspect; display comments according to your own rules (nesting levels, the number of comments to display per page); and moderate dubious comments yourself before they're published.
Capable Jetpack-powered analytics tell you all about how your website is performing. You're able to view numbers of visitors, page views, likes and comments, along with stats on referrers, countries, search terms and more, while an Insights area covers your posting activity, historical views, follower totals and assorted other interesting figures.
Perhaps best of all, WordPress.com's Free plan supports hosting as many sites as you like. If your whole family wants to get online, for instance, you don't have to do this via the same website: every family member can have their own blog, all managed from a single account. Costs begin to apply as you upgrade – if two of you decide you need a Business account, that will require two subscriptions – but if you're happy with the WordPress.com basics, a free account should serve you very well.
WordPress.com's free plan is great for simple websites, as long as their advertised link to a free plan actually takes you there, but for serious projects, installing full WordPress on a regular hosting account gets you more features for a lower price.