I started greentreeonline in January 2019 with one of my intentions being to democratise web design. I’m an early adopter of all things digital, and these things tend to come relatively easily to me…. and I wanted to share that with others.
I’m convinced that we are moving towards a world where access to making spaces on the web, and understanding of how to create online, will be in everyone’s grasp… and, part of what I want to do is help people who don’t necessarily have the technical skills at the beginning (I mostly work with micro startups and community groups), to set up websites where they have control.
More controversially, I’ve felt for a while that there’s something broken in the current culture of web design. I’ve found I inherit as website clients lots of people running micro businesses who are locked out of their own websites, or can’t access the back end, or find themselves without full admin access, or don’t own their domain, or whose websites have been written in such a way that they can’t edit them.
For instance, not using widgets and using bespoke code for widget areas, meaning that they can only be edited by modifying the code directly. Or to give another example: WordPress web designers who don’t like the Customiser or Gutenberg (the WordPress native website building software), for which they may well have their own good reasons, often build a site bypassing these. The issue is that they leave a customer (with low technical instincts or experience) with something that is unwieldy and unintuitive when it comes to changing anything.
(I’ve had issues like this with customers whose WordPress sites are built using a sitebuilder like Divi or WPBakery. It’s a system on top of a system with a whole separate set of rules – my preference, for my less technically savvy customers, is to strip things back and use WordPress’s native editors. It’s one less thing to learn, and you can see what you’re doing.)
Of course there’s a balance to be struck… allowing a client with poor technical skills to be in charge of updating plugins or managing the cache can be dangerous for their site. And of course, all of us who run businessses need to outsource that which we’re not good at. But that doesn’t have to mean keeping control paternalistically, or locking knowledge away. I consider that practice unethical when it’s done without the customer’s understanding or knowledge – not that this is always deliberate on the part of web designers, who usually believe they’re being helpful – only the most unscrupulous would do this for profit (to keep the monthly retainer).
I believe a customer should choose, only once fully informed, what they outsource in their business, and to whom. As another way of looking at this, I think there’s sometimes a disconnect between what the customer actually needs and what the web designer thinks is best for them.
Here’s where WordPress dot com and dot org come in. I like to explain the difference in terms of a ‘body’ metaphor. If you’re Dr Frankenstein and you want to create a person, “WordPress” is a skeleton. The same skeleton is inside both types of bodies.
You can have the skeleton on its own – that’s WordPress dot org. It’s completely free and open source software that everybody can download. Then, however, it’s up to you to fill it with muscles, connect the muscles and tendons to each other (plugins), make sure the circulation is working, add a skin and make sure all the senses function properly (the theme and widgets), and feed it regularly… (the hosting package).
If you’re inexperienced, this can easily turn into Frankenstein’s monster indeed… bloated with poorly configured plugins or loaded down with unnecessary functionality.
Or, you can get a person that’s already set up, with the same skeleton inside, but with muscles, tendons, circulation and skin all provided and connected. That’s WordPress dot com. You can choose which muscles and skin, and what they do and most of what they look like, but it comes as a whole package (with full private health insurance in case anything goes wrong…).
Why traditional web designers tend to prefer ‘dot org’ is that they like full control. It’s being able to get under the surface and connect the knee bone to the thigh bone yourself. Also, there are still some limitations to ‘dot com’, even with the Business Plan (where you can have full freedom to use any plugins you like). You don’t have ftp access, and you can’t edit the server settings yourself (such as the php settings). Although, there are workarounds for these concerns.
But for people who’d like the security of the ‘whole system’ being looked after all in one place, WordPress dot com business plan or ecommerce plan mitigates most of those concerns… you can still have plugins, an online shop, Google Analytics, and other types of ‘manual’ control, while still having the whole package taken care of ‘under one roof’. Admittedly, on the cheaper plans, you lose control of elements such as customisability, or bespoke SEO management. But that’s up to each customer to decide their needs and price point.
The clincher of the business plan for me is the support package infrastructure that comes with it. As of January 2020 you spend £20 per month on a business plan including hosting, domain and premium theme, which, compared with commercial hosting plans starting around £5, might seem like a lot. But included in the £20 per month is 24 hour live chat support from WordPress staff all year round (which you also get on the £4 per month package), and one to one setup over Skype… so there’s the equivalent of paying a web designer a ‘retainer’, but here it’s all included. Backups, spam, and security are all looked after for you. It suddenly starts looking a lot like a bargain.
For WordPress.org users, what you’ve gained in control and flexibility you lose in support if you don’t have a web designer on your books. There are support forums, but no one-to-one live problem solving.
I do make and edit WordPress dot org websites for customers and I also provide and look after independent hosting (through a partnership with a locally based, independent hosting company that offers excellent quality and value). But I always weigh up for each client which of the two options would be best for them. (Sometimes, that involves referring them to another web designer, if it’s something particularly complex or bespoke that they need – personally, I work with the Genesis Framework and the StudioPress themes and I don’t usually customise beyond this). It’s never a given that one solution is better than another.
I believe that it’s to respect your customer to do everything you can to give them a full understanding of what their choices mean and what they are buying. I’m trying in my own way to contribute to this bigger goal – democratising and demystifying the internet and opening up all things digital to everyone.