How to Choose a Website Platform for First-Timers
The Wordpress Gutenberg editor

It's hard to choose a blogging platform these days, among the plethora of choices. Ask anyone and you'll get the popular ones - Squarespace, Wordpress.com, Wordpress self-hosted, Ghost, Shopify, Wix, Blogger, Google Sites and a few others. How are you supposed to choose? Then if you peel the onion a little further you'll find even more options. It's impossible.

I'll take you through our journey. It starts with asking the right questions, and then go over the most common options for first-timers.

The questions to ask when choosing a blogging platform.

How do you want to make money with your blog (if you do)?

And if so, how? The main way people make money with blogs is through

  • Advertising
  • Affiliate sales (getting commission for something you've recommended)
  • Selling a product
  • Selling a service (e.g. T-shirts or an hour of your consulting time)
  • Getting paid to write (e.g. sponsored posts)

You want to make money through advertising

If you want to advertise, you should choose a Wordpress self-hosted site.

Why? Two reasons:

  1. Your traffic has to be significant (> 100,000 per month) for this to work. If you choose self-hosted, you're going to be able to choose a faster server network.
  2. With Wordpress, you are not limited to who you can advertise with. If you choose other platforms, you are usually limited to Adsense. But you can make much more money from alternative networks like Mediavine.

Why self-hosted? It's easy to do, cheaper and gives you more flexibility with plug-ins like advertising and SEO-optimizing add-ons.

You want to make money through affiliate sales

You can do affiliate sales through most platforms, but watch out for a few restricted ones like LinkedIn's platform (or Quora, if you think of that as blogging). They take links and make them into whatever shape they like.

You want to sell physical products

This means you want Shopify.

Selling products is complicated. It means you have to do things like manage inventory, accounting, ordering, connecting to warehouses, refunds, customer service, reviews and many other add-ons that we take for granted. Shopify is great at all of them, and is a very easy-to-use platform, and also very easy to extend.

The main alternatives out there are Wordpress with Woocommerce plugin, Magento and Squarespace, which has impressive e-commerce options. However, Shopify gives you a ton of flexibility, and is super easy to set up for first timers, all the way through to shops selling hundreds of thousands a month (by which point, you can pay a developer to migrate you to whatever you want).

You want to sell a service

It's much easier to sell a service than a product. For this, I'd suggest Squarespace. More than any other platform, Squarespace has the fastest time from zero-to-beautiful. If every website were as beautiful as a bog-standard Squarespace website the internet would be a much more attractive place.

And because Squarespace has decent e-commerce options (just not anywhere as rich as Shopify), I'd say it's fine for selling services. It's easy for you to write all about yourself on it and let people start booking you.

It can do a few neat things too, like integrate with some scheduling tools to show your availability, easily start sending you emails, etc.

If you don't want to make money, do you want to just write?

If you want to just write, there are only two options I'd recommend.

The first one is Medium. It's extremely easy to start writing on Medium. You just get in there and start typing. It comes out beautifully with almost no effort.

The catch is that you don't fully own your own content on Medium. It's not in your hands, on your server. If you want to be in control of your own content (and layout), I'd choose Ghost.

Ghost is a blogging platform that's geared towards writers. I've written before about why I love Ghost, but the basic answer is that Ghost just gets out of the way and lets you write. It has a writing interface that's similar to Medium's (but better, and richer), and all the information is stored for you in your own database.

The reason I suggest you use managed hosting rather than self-hosted is that

  • Managed hosting with Ghost is a fully hosted experience. You can do whatever you like with Ghost that you can do when you install it on your own server.
  • Installing Ghost on your own server is difficult for first-timers and I definitely wouldn't recommend it. Any process that needs you to open a command line is too complex.

A couple of bonuses with Ghost

  • While the out-of-the-box experience is fine (and something like Medium), you can install themes to make your website look totally different very easily. (The themes all look pretty good.)
  • You can use your own domain name, like I do with hooshmand.net. This is no longer possible in Medium.

Do you want to promote your own content?

If you want to let you content just get magically found... use Medium or LinkedIn (I prefer Medium above the two).

Medium lets content get found if it's great. People 'clap' and leave comments, and you'll quickly build an audience just from writing regularly... your content will float to the top magically. You can even start making money through Medium quite quickly (I made $3.20 with my first decent, helpful article).

The social features of Medium are unparalleled. I love the way that you can highlight sections or comment on specific sections and share those.

LinkedIn comes second. You publish mainly to your audience. If they like it, they'll refer your content out elsewhere and more people will like it.

You also have a third option - use both those platforms! Publish on to Medium and LinkedIn. Normally people advise not to duplicate content, but if neither platform is yours, there's no harm. Why? Google promotes content that gets the most visibility, and de-ranks (or de-lists) duplicate content from search engines. You would never want your own website to be de-listed for anything. But if neither platform is yours, you have no reason to care.

Are you going to spend time on the layout of each article, or are they just words with headings?

How you actually create each article is an interesting topic that nobody thinks about until the first time they try it. I certainly didn't.

I downloaded and installed Wordpress, then installed a thee, and then when I went to write an article I thought... how the heck does this work? What are all these accessory things?

Turns out that the theme I was using used what's known as a "builder". There are five or six big builders out there, called Elementor, WP Bakery and a few others, that let you move around boxes on a page to build your layout. A photo here, a text box there, a heading here, a gallery there. They can make really nice web pages, but they're more tedious to use than just a blank screen you can type into.

If you want to create snazzy designs and layouts, use Wordpress and a "builder" like Elementor. I tried a few, and Elementor is the easiest to get rolling with.

If you just want to type... then you can use

  • Wordpress with Gutenberg, which is a preview of the next technology of how Wordpress documents will be written. It's super beautiful and easy to write with.
  • Ghost. This is my favorite self-hosted content to write with.
  • Medium. Ghost, and everyone else, is still catching up to Medium. The social features of Medium are incredible.
  • LinkedIn. Similar to Medium, but a bit more restricted, and bit less beautiful.

Do you want to control exactly what it looks like, or do you want a set it-and-forget it design?

Wordpress is one of the most easiest-to-customize platforms out there.

You can install themes from a ton of different marketplaces - ThemeForest is probably the biggest one. The themes let you customize so many aspects of how the website looks, from home page content down to fonts and colors (and of course images). If you ever look at a website and think "I want that element in my website", then short of getting a developer, Wordpress is what you want to use.

If you want to set it and forget it, then go with Squarespace or Wix. I've used both quite a bit, and prefer Squarespace for ease of use. So many beautiful websites have been done with Squarespace. It take just a few photos and words.

Is this website going to get really big one day?

Strange question to those who definitely want a huge website. But it comes back to what it's for, and if you're going to make money.

If it's going to be a huge website with hundreds of thousands of visitors... get anything self-hosted. This is mostly Wordpress or Ghost. I'd choose Wordpress, as it's easier to get something out-of-the-box set-up for you.

If it's a placeholder for your thoughts, or a place for a small number of consulting clients to fiind you... it doesn't need to be a 'huge' website. Small amounts of traffic will get you everything you need. In this case, you're not limited to platform.

Do you have no idea what you want?

Get Wordpress. Infinite flexibility and future-proofing. There's a reason that 25% of the world's top 1 million websites use Wordpress!