Power Your Small Business Website with WordPress

A lot of business owners look at managing a website as a chore. If you’ve tried to wrangle a site with Microsoft Frontpage or static HTML, it’s no surprise that it seems like a hassle. WordPress, on the other hand, is a lightweight, open source content management system (CMS) that makes it as easy to update a site as it is to write a letter in Microsoft Word.

You develop posts and pages in a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) environment. Even better, the WordPress editor keeps a history of revisions — so it’s easy to compare pages over time and even make changes if you need to. With WordPress, the days of needing a Web developer just to update the contact page on your site are long over.

Why WordPress?

Aside from ease of use, WordPress also has the advantage of being open source, with a massive community of developers and users working to improve it. WordPress is released under the GNU General Public License, and you can deploy it at no cost – except for whatever hosting costs you’ll incur, of course. It’s the most popular open source CMS you’ll find, so if you do want paid support for WordPress you’ll have no trouble finding plenty of folks who can lend a hand.

WordPress is not the only powerful open source CMS on the market. Drupal and Joomla are preferred by many organizations, though WordPress also has been used for large-scale sites like ZDnet and others. What it offers over Drupal and Joomla is simplicity. WordPress is ridiculously easy to set up and maintain, and is ideal for a small business where the site will be maintained by less experienced users.

Originally, WordPress was touted as a “personal publishing” system, but as it gained popularity it also grew in functionality and scalability. With the 3.0 release, WordPress is now designed to be capable of supporting fairly large multi-user installations. As your business grows, WordPress will grow with you.

WordPress is usually deployed for a Weblog-type site that features regular (or semi-regular) updates in a chronological order. Don’t worry if that doesn’t sound like a fit for your business; WordPress can also be used to create pages without any “posts” as you might want for a small business site. It’s almost infinitely flexible, especially when you take plug-ins into account.

Simplest Option

If you need a Web presence only to provide information for your customers, like contact information, store hours, and so forth, then you might be best off with WordPress.com hosting. Automattic, the company behind WordPress, offers free or very cheap hosting on WordPress.com.

The trade-off for using WordPress.com is that you’re relatively limited in what you can do on the site. You can pay to direct one (or more) domains to your site on WordPress.com, so your site will seem more professional. However, you won’t be able to run many WordPress plugins on the site and the selection of themes is limited. The company does offer premium features, like extra storage, video hosting, and the capability to install custom stylesheets (CSS) at relatively low prices compared to paying for hosting elsewhere.

If you won’t be doing a lot of customization and don’t need plugins, starting with WordPress.com is a very good idea. Because WordPress.com and the WordPress project share the same codebase, you’ll be able to move away from WordPress.com easily if the limitations prove a problem.

The upside to WordPress.com is that the infrastructure is maintained for you. WordPress has frequent security updates, and for many organizations without an IT or Web staff, that’s a headache waiting to happen if you’re maintaining your own installation and forget to update. WordPress.com is updated automatically so you don’t need to hassle with it.

And there’s no need to worry about downtime, traffic spikes and so on. The WordPress.com infrastructure is pretty hearty, the traffic to the average small business site is not going to affect performance at all. If you do see enough traffic for the powers that be at WordPress.com to take notice, odds are you’ve moved past the small business stage and are ready to look at self-hosting. In that case, they offer “VIP” hosting that might be just what you need.

Self-Hosting WordPress

The other option is to self-host with WordPress. All you need is a hosting provider that supports the standard LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) stack. You can find shared Web hosting providers that specifically offer WordPress support, and just about any hosting package should be able to handle WordPress so long as it offers PHP and MySQL support.

Installing WordPress is dead easy. You’ll need to grab the latest release from the download page and then walk through the “5-minute installation.” To install WordPress you just need to upload the zipfile or tarball to your site, and have a MySQL database ready for WordPress. The install is (naturally) Web-based and if you meet the dependencies should consist of clicking “next” a few times and entering a few pieces of information.

Once you install WordPress, you’ll have a GUI dashboard with sections for posts, pages, appearance, users, tools and settings. By default you’ll have a fairly plain theme and settings. You’ll probably want to customize it slightly and add a new theme and plugins.

Plugins and Themes

What’s a plugin, you ask? WordPress focuses on the standard features you need for a blog or basic publication online: Posts, pages, comments, and administrative features to manage the site. Additional features are left to plugins, so that it can be extended without having to hack on the core WordPress code.

he advantage to this is that developers can add features to WordPress that many users want, but don’t belong in the core package. It helps keep WordPress relatively slim while still allowing for a wide range of features. It also means that developers who want to extend WordPress will be able to do so without having to change the base code — so extensions won’t interfere with updating WordPress.

At a bare minimum, you’ll want to install and enable plugins for Web analytics and to prevent comment spam if you allow comments on the site at all. Comments can be turned off or moderated under Settings > Discussion. The default is to allow unmoderated comments on posts.

I recommend turning on moderation and installing the Bad Behavior and Akismet plugins. To use Akismet you’ll need a key that’s provided by WordPress.com when you sign up. You don’t need to use WordPress.com — but you’ll need an account. The service is free, but paid accounts get top priority for processing spam. This usually isn’t an issue, but if you’re using the free service some spam might slip through if the load on the service is unusually high.

For more plugins, see the directory and also the theme directory. Odds are, if there’s something you want to do with your site or a general look and feel you want, you’ll be able to find plugins and themes to meet your needs.

There’s too much about WordPress to cover effectively in a single column, but don’t worry — if you have any experience at all with working with Websites, you’ll find WordPress easy to get started with. A good way to get started testing WordPress is to try the BitNami WordPress stack that includes a pre-configured WordPress setup and LAMP stack.

For most small businesses, WordPress is all you need to build a professional and easy-to-update website.

Joe ‘Zonker’ Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. Brockmeier is also a FLOSS advocate and participates in several projects, including GNOME as the PR team lead. You can reach Zonker at jzb@zonker.net and follow him on Twitter.

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