The Cost of WordPress (Part 1): WordPress is Free

A WordPress Logo Overlaid on Dollar BillsThis is the first of a three-part series on The Cost of WordPress. I will post Parts 2 and 3 in the coming weeks.

I’m writing this post in my favorite local coffeeshop.

On a previous trip, I started up a conversation with a guy at the table next to me. He had just concluded a rather loud Skype call about some websites he was working on, so I asked him what he did and how he built his websites. We pleasantly chatted until I mentioned I used WordPress.

“I don’t use WordPress,” he said. “People say, ‘WordPress is free,’ but then you have to pay for someone to help you change this and that.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. His comments stung a bit, but it made me realize that it’s important for everyone to understand how WordPress is “free” and how it isn’t. Coffee shop guy wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t right either.

In this first of three posts, I’ll cover what’s free about WordPress, why my acquaintance thought it was expensive, and why WordPress is cheap (in the good way).

WordPress is Free

If you’ve ever learned about open source software, you may be familiar with the two meanings of “free” that exist in the open source movement:

  1. “Free” as in “free beer.”
  2. “Free” as in “free speech.”

The first meaning is what we normally think of. The product’s cost is $0.00. To get your very own copy of WordPress, you can just go to WordPress.org and download a copy. That’s it. No registration; no payment. You just downloaded a piece of really great software for free.

The second meaning describes the availability of the code. The guts of WordPress are open for all to see on the web. If you have the time, skills, and desire to change some part of how the core WordPress software works, you can write a “patch” to have included in the next version of WordPress. Good luck doing that with Microsoft Word.

Free Hosting!?

Most hosting will cost you. I’ll cover that more in Part 2. But there are some limited free options.

First, if all you need is a 5 page “brochure” website (“Home,” “About,” “Services,” “Contact,” etc.), you can probably host your site on WordPress.com for free! You’ll be limited to a small fraction of the possible themes and plugins, but for small sites, that doesn’t matter. For about the cost of a domain, you can pay WordPress.com to display your site on a custom domain. Also, know WordPress can do this for free because, besides the paid upgrades, they occasionally put ads on your site.

Second, if you’re a 501(C)(3) nonprofit, look at Dreamhost’s free hosting for nonprofits or Grassroots.org’s free nonprofit hosting. Neither is the best possible hosting, but I know multiple organizations that haven’t had a problem with either.

Building Up Your WordPress Site for Free

Once you have your copy of WordPress, you still need to fill it with content to entice users, plugins to add useful features, and a theme to make it look great.

The content is free beyond the price of your time.

There are some “premium” plugins that cost money, but a majority of plugins are free and available for download in the WordPress.org Plugin Repository.

Free themes aren’t as common as free plugins, but they exist. You can find free plugins in the WordPress.org Theme Repository, and some “theme shops” like Press75, blogs like Smashing Magazine, and other nice people put free themes online.

One word of caution about free themes: If you find a “free” version of a theme online that costs money somewhere else, that theme is almost guaranteed to include malware or links that violate Google’s Terms of Service. Infecting your visitors with malware or getting your site banned by Google are not worth saving $75 on a theme.

Free Help

If you’re not a WordPress expert yet ((By the way, almost nobody is a WordPress expert.)), you can get a lot of help for free. Plenty of WordPress users, myself included, offer free support in the official WordPress.org Forums (for basic questions, you’ll probably post in the How-To and Troubleshooting forum). You can find more help from sites like WordPress Answers on StackExchange or in forums for specific plugins.

And don’t forget about good ol’ Google. Searching for “WordPress”—maybe tack-on “How To”—and the problem or feature involved often turns up multiple tutorials and blog posts describing your exact issue. If you’re a more visual learner, try the same search on YouTube. ((I’d recommend limiting what you read and watch to things published in the past year.))

Finally, there are tons of vibrant WordPress meetups across the country. I’m lucky to live near possibly the most active, Seattle WordPress Meetup, but see if there’s a meetup near you. You can get free advice  and make good contacts with other people who are passionate about WordPress in your local community.

Tradeoffs. There’s No Such Thing as a Free Website.

So that’s a lot of free stuff! Added up, between WordPress, free plugins, free themes, free documentation, and free support you can easily get thousands of hours of free labor for your benefit. ((You can begin to see why some enterprise web systems cost so much.))

The trade-offs for this “freeness”—in both meanings—is not just your time spent building and learning the system. Some themes and plugins have bugs that lead to a lot of lost time and frustration.

Not everything about WordPress is free, though, and in Part 2 of this series, I’ll cover the parts of WordPress you do have to pay for.

Talk Back

What’s your favorite “free” part of WordPress? Did I miss any?

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