WordPress is one of many popular platforms for blogs, and its support site confidently says that it’s one of the easiest to set up and run. If that’s really the case, is there any need for a book to explain how it works? The editors at Wiley think so. Let’s see whether WordPress for Dummies is a book a blogger needs to read.
Getting started with WordPress
Author Lisa Sabin-Wilson says that WordPress for Dummies is designed for new users of the two most popular versions of WordPress—blogs that are hosted on WordPress.com, and blogs hosted on individual domains with software supplied by WordPress.org (there is another version of WordPress that is designed for multiple users, but that’s not covered in this book). There are differences between the two most common platforms, which the book makes clear. As with all For Dummies books, this one can be read in any order, and the reader can skip over the parts that don’t apply to his or her version of WordPress. The author says she assumes that the reader knows how to work a computer and connect to the Internet, and she also assumes that the reader knows what a blog is, and the basics of email. This lets her cut out a lot of basic-skills information and get right down to business. (For basic-skills information for Windows 7, you can’t beat the tutorials on this web site!) The first chapter serves as a basic introduction to WordPress, and explains the differences between the two versions. It explains what you’ll need to know to get set up on either the WordPress.com site, or on your own web site, and explains the advantages of each. It also gives a basic overview of blogging and talks about common problems like spam. NOTE: WordPress is updated at very regular intervals. Because of this, any book about WordPress will be slightly out of date by the time it’s published. However, as the book makes clear, the basic information you’ll need to set up a blog either on WordPress.com or on your own web site won’t change.
The pros and cons of WordPress.com
Setting up a blog on a blog-hosting site is usually a matter of just a few clicks, so after the introduction, WordPress for Dummies begins with a thorough, well-illustrated guide to starting one’s own blog on WordPress.com. Newcomers to blogging will find a wealth of information and excellent instructions on how to choose the best URL, how to decide which blog suffix to use (some are free, and some require a yearly payment) and how to choose your username. The overview of the Dashboard is also comprehensive and easy to understand. Since the Dashboard can be somewhat confusing to beginners, reading this section would be a good way to gain confidence. The chapter called “Writing and Managing Your Blog” is where this section really shines. Besides good, common sense advice on writing, the reader gets instructions on how to format posts, how to organize posts into categories, and how to manage posts once they’re published. There’s a good explanation of how to deal with spam (which is much more straightforward on WordPress.com than on self-hosted blogs) and instructions for dealing with other people’s posts. While WordPress.com’s selection of add-ons isn’t as extensive as what’s available for self-hosted WordPress blogs, there are still plenty of themes, widgets and other interesting features, and WordPress for Dummies explains everything in clear, well-illustrated detail.
There’s a brief section on the ways one can upgrade a WordPress.com blog from their free service to a paid service on the WordPress.com site (which has more options available). Even though the free service has fewer options than a paid WordPress.com blog or a self-hosted blog, it’s feature-rich and easy enough that it may be all a blogger needs, and WordPress for Dummies explains it all clearly and completely. (And truthfully, if one’s going to be paying for a blog host, I think it’d be far better to get one’s own domain.)
The pros and cons of self-hosted blogs
I started my first WordPress blogs back in 2007 on my own domain. In those days, the process of setting up the blog was a lot more complicated than it is today, and honestly, I found the whole thing a little scary. One of the really great things about the regular updates to WordPress is the immense improvements in the interface and the ease of setting up your own blog. While it is still not as simple as it is on WordPress.com, setting WordPress up on your own domain is nowhere near as scary as it once was. Even so, having good solid instructions in front of you as you work your way through the process is a great confidence-builder, and WordPress for Dummies really shines. There’s a brief explanation of how to get your own domain, and some suggestions for domain registration sites. I think this section could have been better, since the newcomer might not know the difference between simply registering a domain name and choosing a full-service internet host that will not only take care of the domain registration but provide a home for the blog (and anything else one wants to put on the domain). There’s an important warning that one really needs to do research before making a choice, since web hosts differ in their expectations and what they allow one to do with a domain name once established. This also could have been expanded a bit. To get started with your own WordPress installation you need to have FTP (file transfer protocol) software and be familiar with how it works. WordPress for Dummies provides a short list of popular FTP software and an abbreviated explanation of how the transfer works. This also could have been a little more comprehensive, since a lot of people won’t be at all familiar with FTP.
Some web hosts provide a service called SimpleScripts which will install WordPress for you. For the rest of us, there’s the manual installation method and WordPress for Dummies explains how that works. I wish I’d had this explanation before I threw myself into WordPress installation for the first time! You need to create a database on your domain, insert the database’s location information into WordPress’s configuration file, and then FTP the WordPress files to their new location. Then you run the installation script. That’s what wordpress.org calls their “famous five minute installation.” While the process is simple and straightforward, it might take the newcomer more than five minutes. (You can take that from someone who knows.) WordPress for Dummies provides a very helpful chart of common error messages, and what to do to fix the errors. As with the WordPress.com section, there’s a chapter that explains the Dashboard and the wealth of information you’ll find there. The self-hosted Dashboard has more options and can be changed to suit your own preferences. Since there are so many things one can personalize through the Dashboard, reading this section carefully is just about essential. There are illustrations and tables that cover every configuration. Even though I’ve been working with WordPress for years, I found plenty of new information in this chapter, and put it to good use. The chapter called “Establishing Your Blog Routine” isn’t so much about establishing a routine as it is about personalizing your blog with your own categories, links, blogroll, permalinks, posts and pages (and if some of those terms are unfamiliar to you, after reading WordPress for Dummies you’ll understand them just fine). It explains how to deal with comments (and comment spam) and how to set up your RSS feed. There are chapters on media management (images, audio, and video) and on finding and making the most of plugins and themes (including a couple of chapters on how to change themes to suit one’s own needs). All are filled with clear instructions and illustrations. Not everyone will want to monkey around with the inner workings of their blog’s theme (the CSS templates) but using the instructions in the book should provide a good education in how it’s done (although I think there should have been a bold-type warning that one should never attempt to make changes if one doesn’t know what one’s doing, and even if one does know, one should make a backup first!)
The final chapters
As with most For Dummies books, WordPress for Dummies concludes with a “Part of Tens” chapter that talks about popular plugins and themes. There’s a chapter on backing up, upgrading and migrating WordPress blogs, which should be required reading (blogs should be backed up just as often as computers should, at the very least!) and if you read the Table of Contents you’ll see a link to even more bonus chapters on the For Dummies web site. Those talk about advanced topics such as using WordPress as a content management system and using the multi-user version of WordPress, plus a selection of sites that use WordPress for content management so the reader can see how it looks.
WordPress for Dummies is an excellent instruction manual for WordPress, regardless of whether you use their site or your own. It explains everything anyone would need to know about setting up and maintaining a blog, and provides lots of clear illustrations and real-world examples. The author is clearly an expert and even people who are not WordPress newcomers can find plenty of useful explanations of features they might not have known were there, or might not have known how to use to the fullest. Even with several years of self-hosted WordPress experience, I discovered I hadn’t been using (or fully using) many features and I’ve already started making improvements. For me, this book’s a keeper.