Introduction

My profession has been described as a cat herder.  I started out as a technical writer because of my legal education and technical background.  I have a Red Hat Linux certification, among a few others (Avaya, Cisco, Microsoft) under my belt.  I became the webmaster for a large organization that has over a million website visits per year.   My communications role is to make the complicated simple.  If I don’t know something, it’s my job to find the answer, or find people who know the answer.  I am one of my organizations creative problem solvers for technical issues, a troubleshooter of code and machines, expected to think quickly on my feet and provide direction or focus as needed, when needed.  I straddle the worlds of public relations, mass communications, and information resources.  I have to be aware and fluent in every sphere of operations.  I have to be a generalist and a specialist – aware and informed – and able to decode complex concepts.  A dual existence.  I recommend, advise, and assist decision makers, general users and members of the public everyday.  I have done so for over a decade. 

Today – I am advising you.   I must state that the advise I offer here is my own and not that of my employer.   I am, however, going to try to help you understand some of the decisions that you’ll have to make when choosing to use a content management system for your personal use.  An added bonus?    I’m not going to charge you a consultation fee of $250.

I am going to make some general assumptions.   You are not a large organization or technical expert – else you would not have need of my advise.

You are likely an entrepreneur or someone who works from home.   You need a website.   You don’t want to pay someone to develop a website – you just need a vehicle to communicate, introduce yourself, and build an online audience.   You have a limited budget to fund your website.  You know how to program your DVR, but have few technical skills.  You’re willing to try and learn in order to save money.   It’s important to you, however, that the end product be professional in appearance, easy to update and manage content. 

Basically, you want to be your own webmaster.  This is confined to a WebCMS – with an ancillary concern for social media integration and strategy.   If this is you – keep reading.   

CMS Selection

A content management system is simply an application that manages content and wraps the content in a common shell of usable modules and or components.  The content is treated separately from the wrapping mechanism that provides the branding and functions.

What Content Management System should you use?    You’re on a budget and you need a well supported, flexible, and intuitive CMS – you logically have three choices.    There are many other choices available – but you should consider these three simply because of market penetration and user base.    All three are open source projects (free as in beer), and all have various hosting options.

  1. WordPress
  2. Drupal
  3. Joomla

WordPress powers 25% of the information available on the internet.  It is well written, is constantly updated, and has a vibrant and strong community with thousands of themes and plugins available.    Drupal is more technical and requires greater effort for initial setup, but is a very robust and flexible CMS with superior SEO and plugin capabilities.  Joomla’s history is complicated – but it is a modularized CMS that is used by many because it is very easily understood and intuitive to administer.

My suggestion and recommendation is to use WordPress for the budding entrepreneur.   I say this because not only it is easy to use and access, but it scalable as your needs grow. 

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Hosting

If you have zero budget to setup a blog site, my suggestion is to visit wordpress.com, create a free account and start blogging.   Your options will not be as robust as a paid site, but you can get started quickly and begin to learn how to use the WordPress CMS.   Take full advantage of the online training, videos, and documentation provided by the WordPress project.   For as little as $25/yr, you can get a premium WordPress site at the same location – which will give you many more options (themes and plugins).   The nice thing about running a site on the wordpress.com website is that backend maintenance and security is handled by WordPress.

Your next option for hosting is to purchase a shared hosting site.   I recommend that you consider bluehost.com or ipower.com for your shared hosting needs.   Both companies will charge you about $7 a month for an annual hosting contract, which also includes a free domain name and free domain email.   The downside of a hosted website, whether it’s running wordpress or something else, is that you’re likely sharing your server with thousands of other websites.   You have no control over the traffic or the number of sites assigned to a shared host – so you might experience slow page rendering if your site is located on an overloaded server.   In this regard, bluehost.com has a better reputation than most other shared hosting companies and is a good choice.    Shared hosting companies, including bluehost.com, offer a convenient and easily managed control panel in which you can automatically install WordPress.   Some, such as bluehost.com, also provide ssh terminal access to your shared host so you an configure wordpress via the command line.  This is a good tradeoff.

Your last hosting option is also the most expensive, but provides you with the greatest flexibility – both in terms of performance and scalability.   This might be critical at some point in the future when you have thousands of people reading a blog post.   Need more power?  Just pay more and get more.   For $20 a month, you can create and use a virtual machine host with decent hardware.  I don’t recommend this option, however, unless you have the technical skill, or know someone who will do it for you, like a spouse or business partner. 

The downside of using a virtual machine is that you have to install the operating system remotely via a terminal and configure everything on the machine yourself, including future operating system updates.  You’re paying for the virtual hardware.   

But wait, there’s more.   For even more money, linode.com will setup a machine for you, but prepare to hand over your credit card.    

JeffWSpencer.com is running on a virtual machine by linode.com in the Dallas Texas data center.   

Bottom line, I suggest that you either get a wordpress,com account if you have no budget, purchase a wordpress.com premium account if you have a small budget, or review the terms of bluehost.com and engage a shared hosting service for approximately $100 a year. 

Geeks like me will opt for a virtual machine.

WordPress Theme

Before you install wordpress on your host – it’s also prudent to think about a budget for a theme.  

First, because of recent changes by Google (and other search engines), any theme you choose should be a “responsive design.”  That is to say, the theme should automatically resize and present different versions of itself if accessed by a desktop, tablet, or phone.   This website is responsive.   If you’re running an established business, you may think about engaging a WordPress theme developer or graphics designer to create a custom theme for more money.   My suggestion for a personal blog, or a start-up – start small – scale and spend money later as business grows, but think about your core branding now (colors, logo, etc) and integrate those elements into your theme and website.

If on a budget, consider a one time capital acquisition cost of $100 for a theme that you can customize yourself.   I suggest taking a look at theme.co/x/ and their excellent X theme, which this site is using. You might also consider the Divi theme by elegantthemes.com.   There are literally thousands of themes to choose from on WordPress.org to suit your individual taste and branding idea – but it’s important that you think in terms of maintainability and accessibility (as in screen reading compliance for the blind) as well as device responsiveness.   Also consider that not all themes are equal in terms of support.

Installing WordPress

The method of installing wordpress will vary with your host selection.  The folks at wordpress.com will take care of the wordpress setup for you, whether free or premium.   If you opt for a shared host, you can use the automatic configuration method available in the site control panel.   Advanced users, who want total control over their installation, can follow the instructions at https://codex.wordpress.org/Installing_WordPress for all of the host options listed here, as well as some others.

I use a linode.com virtual host.   I downloaded the latest wordpress version from wordpress.org and followed the instructions.   

Plugins

After you have WordPress configured, there are some additional considerations to keep in mind – namely what plugins should you use.    Yes, I have some suggestions. 

  1. Yoast SEO plugin (simply the best search optimization tool available for wordpress)
  2. Google Analytics by Yoast plugin (for google’s new universal analytics – which is also something you should setup and utilize.)
  3. Use a 3rd party solution for comments   I use disqus, but there are additional solutions, including;
  4. Jetpack Plugin, made available by wordpress.com, which will allow you to integrate Facebook comments into your site, but also some additional features such as sharing buttons and . 
  5. Twitter Cards Meta (for automatically adding metadata to posts for twitter)

There are many plugins available, but the few listed above should be installed and utilized.   Their use is dependent upon your needs of course, but the only advice I can offer is to use as few as possible to minimize their impact on server resources required to render a page.   There are pros and cons of each solution – and no solution is “right”   

Security

The last topic is site security.   There are plugin solutions for this as well – some better than others.    One of the reasons why I highly suggest using a 3rd party comment solution is to disallow anyone except the site owner from logging into the site.   Using the built-in commenting solution requires that anybody be able to create an account and login.   This is a bad thing, in my mind, as this opens up additional vectors of attack by bad and evil people – and they do exist. 

I disallow people from logging into my WordPress site by adding a file called .htaccess in the wp-admin directory of the WordPress site.

Order Deny,Allow
Allow from 192.168.
Deny from all

The IP address above is for a private network.   The ip address range should be the first two blocks of the public IP address of your cable or DSL modem.   You can add as many ip addresses as necessary.  We also need to turn off the capability of someone logging in and changing files on the site via the XMLRPC protocol (eXtensible Markup Language – Remote Procedure Call).

XMLRPC is a cool feature that allows you to install, for example, an extension in a word processor, and then automatically post a file to your blog via the file menu in the word processor.  This capability is provided by a file titled xmlrpc.php.  We turn this off by editing the wp-config.php file in the root directory and adding the following line.

add_filter('xmlrpc_enabled', ‘__return_false');

Final Thoughts

Writing a blog is a good exercise in self-exploration, self-improvement, and learning.  It requires discipline to install and configure WordPress, as well as patience and perseverance.  If you read the free documentation on installing WordPress, you shouldn’t have any problem installing this very robust and easy to use Content Management System.   WordPress was born in Texas and that’s good enough for me.

If anyone is interested, I’m going to extend this post and create a youtube video of installing and configuring WordPress in my virtual host environment.   That will be my task tomorrow.   

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