Ghost CMS is a simple, modern, and fast platform for blogs and content membership websites.
In this article, you'll find what makes Ghost the best Substack alternative and a solid competitor to WordPress if you want fewer headaches.
Affiliate Disclaimer: Some links are affiliates. This means that if you buy after clicking on one of those, I get a commission at no additional cost for you.
What is Ghost CMS?
Ghost CMS is an open-source blogging platform belonging to the non-profit Ghost Foundation. This means Ghost CMS cannot be acquired or sold. The Ghost Foundation's primary source of income comes from selling Ghost (Pro).
John O'Nolan, the founder of Ghost, was a WordPress UI contributor who grew frustrated with WP's path and became complicated to use for blogging. Then he decided to launch Ghost in 2013 via a Kickstarter campaign named "Ghost: Just a Blogging Platform". Ghost is built using Node.JS, a more modern language than PHP.
Since Ghost's creation, they kept a relentless focus on blogging and publishing content, making Ghost a valuable platform for any creator wanting to monetize content via memberships.
Best uses for Ghost
Ghost's focus on content publishing makes it best suited for blogs, newsletters, or podcasts websites. Ghost is fantastic for monetizing with a content membership.
For a blog, Ghost is straightforward. You publish articles and decide to turn the membership or not. It's also possible to monetize blogs with affiliate marketing and advertisement, although it's hard to monetize with ad networks.
For newsletters, things are more fluid as you can:
- Use Ghost only for newsletters and decide to publish issues or not on the site as a public archive;
- Use Ghost as a hybrid of a blog with a newsletter. This way, you write articles and send some posts as a newsletter.
The second option is what I am doing with this site.
With podcasts, things are also fluid. You can use Ghost to have a membership and put the podcast behind a paywall or use the website as a public archive.
Because of Ghost's good SEO features, you can have success finding more readers and listeners for your podcast.
Ghost CMS main features
The main features of Ghost CMS are:
- Native memberships;
- Great SEO (I'll explain this in detail later);
- Native newsletter features;
- Hundreds of integrations;
- Team features have 4 role login levels (admin, editor, author, contributor);
- Use as a hybrid platform like a blog with a newsletter.
Differentiating between self and managed hosting
There is a lot of confusion about hosting on Ghost, and most people think that Ghost.org is the only place to host. That's not the case.
Ghost is open-source, meaning you can host a website on any server of your choice, as long as it supports Ghost. So, you can decide between self-hosting or managed hosting.
Ghost CMS hosting options
When it comes to self-hosting, the most popular options are:
- Github Pages;
Ghost strong points
Summary of strong points on Ghost:
- Memberships with 0% fees;
- Great SEO;
- Fast website;
- Safe websites
- Amazing text editor;
- Team features;
- Hybrid blog;
- No need to touch code with managed hosting;
Memberships with 0% fees
The current version of Ghost is the best for content membership websites, and that's one of its most attractive features because memberships are native. This means you don't need to install any plugin or make integrations for them to work.
Do you know what's better than having native memberships? Is that Ghost doesn't charge you fees! That's way better than Substack or any platform charging fees for memberships.
With Ghost, you keep more money from each subscriber, and you only get deducted Stripe fees, usually between 2% to 3,5%.
To enable memberships, you need a Stripe account and connect it with Ghost on the dashboard.
One possible negative of memberships on Ghost is that Stripe is a requirement, and it's not possible to use another payment provider as a membership method. Stripe is excellent but doesn't operate in all countries, so check if your country is on the list.
In terms of SEO, Ghost is solid. I'll divide this section into technical and "support" features. Don't worry, you don't need to be an SEO expert to understand this section.
First, the technical features Ghost has that make it optimized in the eyes of Google:
- Custom URLs: URLs should be short, clear, and easy to read. With Ghost, you can customize them;
- Robots.txt: this file tells search engines what pages they can and cannot crawl, which is very important. In Ghost, this file blocks the dashboard, and posts sent by email are blocked by default;
- XML sitemap: this file lists all posts and pages on your site. This helps search engines find pages faster;
- Social cards: you can optimize how the links appear on social media.
- Canonical tags: this tag tells search engines to avoid showing duplicate pages on the search results, which is very important;
- Schema markup: this helps search engines understand the type of content on the page. In Ghost, Article schema is enabled by default;
- Redirects: sometimes, you might delete pages or change the URL. When you do, consider using a redirect to keep the value from existing links;
- Meta description: this is the text that appears on the Google search results. In Ghost, you can customize this text and optimize it to make it more relevant;
- Image alt text: this text is used by screen readers for users with imparities. Describe what is each image on your site using the alt text field.
The "support" features mentioned next might be Google ranking factors or not, but they are stuff that website owners should consider for getting optimal results.
Let me start by saying that Ghost allows the usage of SSL certificates. This is an essential feature and a Google ranking factor.
Next comes the custom domain. This isn't a ranking factor, but you should always use a custom domain for building authority for your "brand", especially as they are allowed by Ghost.
It's also possible to enable search on your Ghost website. This will help visitors search for more information using your site. Search on the site isn't a ranking factor but can increase your pages per session which is good.
To finish, I'll talk about an ignored factor by several website builders: Google requires publishers to disclose relationships when there is a monetary incentive for linking from one website to another. This is particularly important if you use affiliate links, as these links must use a sponsored tag.
This section will be as fast as Ghost.
Ghost websites are fast, allowing you to use a CDN and make your site even faster. Speed is a Google ranking factor, and almost all Ghost website passes Core Web Vitals.
The best part is that you don't need to spend 1 second worrying about making your site faster. Especially when you use managed hosting for Ghost with a CDN enabled.
Ghost websites are secure even without 2-factor authentication.
There's barely any record of Ghost websites being hacked. The last major incident happened in May 2020. A contrast to constant WordPress vulnerabilities that occur almost weekly.
However, even when there are security vulnerabilities with Ghost, it doesn't affect everyone and not at the same time, which gives time for updates and fixes. This happens mainly because Ghost uses VPS for the installation of the website. A contrast with WordPress, which can be installed on almost any server that supports PHP.
On top of that, there aren't plugins on Ghost with potential backdoors to millions of websites. So yes, plugins aren't only potentially annoying, they also could be dangerous for your website or computer.
If you have ever used and struggled with plugins, let me assure you that you won't miss them much, as Ghost has integrations. And they're safer as well!
The bottom line is, Ghost websites barely have security problems. So this won't be a common concern for you.
Amazing text editor;
Ghost also has the best text editor I've tried. The only one that comes close to being as good and a joy to use is blogstatic.
The editor has the right balance between being clean, providing a distraction-free environment, and having all the features one expects from a great text editor. Also, optimizing posts metadata is easy.
Another lovely thing with Ghost is the ability to save most used links or text as a snippet. Ghost keeps them inside the editor, and this is a big time saver as I don't have to remember or be always copying and pasting stuff!
For example, I use this for my affiliate disclaimer, most used HTML for affiliate links, and farewell text of the newsletter.
The features on the editor are called cards.
Here is a list of the existing cards on Ghost:
- Image: for adding single images;
- Markdown: for pasting markdown into the post, which is then converted into HTML;
- HTML: for writing code for your use cases;
- Gallery: for displaying images close together in a gallery;
- Divider: for adding space between paragraphs;
- Bookmark: for embedding links with metadata;
- Email content: content that will only show on email;
- Email call to action: a button when posts are sent by email;
- Public preview: text above this card is public for everyone, and below is only for members;
- Button: for putting buttons on the body of the post;
- Callout: put a box with style around your text;
distractentertain users when they are reading;
- Toggle: for collapsible text, useful for FAQs;
- Video: for uploading videos directly from your device;
- Audio: upload an audio file from your device;
- File: a downloadable file for visitors;
- Product: for reviews and recommendations with style;
- Header: put more style into your post headers;
- YouTube: for embedding videos;
- Twitter: for embedding tweets;
- Vimeo: for embedding videos;
- Codepen: embed code snippets;
- Spotify: give music to visitors;
- SoundCloud: yes, some people still use it;
- NFT: show your artistic monkeys;
- Other: for general URL embedding.
Ghost is suitable for team collaboration. It has 4 levels of user role-based permissions:
- Administrator: staff user that can manage all the content, settings, and options of the site;
- Editor: can publish and edit any posts on the site, as well inviting Authors and Contributors;
- Author: a user who can create, edit and publish their own posts, but can’t modify others;
- Contributor: a user who can create and edit their own posts but cannot publish them. An Editor needs to approve and publish for them.
These user permissions remove the need to share passwords while helping editors and admins publish posts faster. News websites and other big media entities benefit a lot from this.
A hybrid blog is a fancy term for using a blog as a public archive for a newsletter. Or using the same platform for blogging and sending newsletters.
I'm in the second group that uses Ghost for blogging and sends the newsletters through it. An example of Ghost as a public archive for the newsletter is Obsidian Roundup.
You can see this in the same way Substack operates as you send newsletters and have them displayed on the site. Yet, on Ghost, you can decide not to show some newsletter posts on the site.
It is debatable that open-source software is an advantage, but its flexibility makes it more appealing.
In the case of Ghost CMS, the software is free. This means everyone can make a copy of the source code and use it without paying anything to the Ghost Foundation. So, in essence, Ghost is free to use.
It's also possible to make a copy of Ghost and modify its core to add or modify features. This is called forking and is like creating an alternate version of the software not related to the original anymore. Forking Ghost isn't recommended and would take a lot of work to maintain if you were to do it, but it's possible if you are interested.
However, making a Ghost website available online can be free or paid for, depending on the hosting you pick. Also, worth mentioning that because Ghost is open-source, you can decide between self-hosting or managed hosting.
An essential distinction I shared in this video is that there is no difference between the open-source Ghost and the Ghost used by other hosting companies.
Another reason open-source software is viewed as an advantage is because of transparency. This means people can look at the code to inspect and make sure you can trust it.
There's also a community aspect to open-source software. This is especially true regarding the development as almost anyone with the knowledge can volunteer to help fix bugs and work on new versions.
Volunteers helping with development are essential for the long-term development of open-source software. Even in the worst scenario, if the Ghost Foundation stops developing Ghost, someone might keep working on it or fork Ghost as a base for another software.
Ghost is great, but it isn't perfect. Some of its limitations are:
- Theme customization;
- Self-hosting isn't intuitive;
- Extreme focus on publishing.
There are beautiful Ghost themes available. Unfortunately, Ghost isn't a website builder, nor does it offer easy modifications. Unfortunately, theme customization on Ghost is only possible with code (HTML, CSS, and Handlebars)
This is a shame because you have to know how to code or pay a developer even if you want to make minor customizations to a theme layout.
For these reasons, I don't recommend Ghost to you if you want to make regular customizations to the website.
Self-hosting isn't intuitive
If you have ever used a WordPress self-hosted website, let me tell you that Ghost is different because things are divided between the command line and dashboard to manage it.
Using Ghost CLI (CLI = Command Line Interface) is required for installing and updating the site via the command line. There is a significant difference to WP as updates aren't accessible with a button.
So, if you venture into self-hosting, be ready to use the command line a lot. Probably a lot more than you expect or would like if you aren't a developer. If that's the case, be ready to watch many tutorials.
Talking about the dashboard, it is used for managing the content of the site, themes, members, and everything else. The dashboard is the same for the self-hosting and managed hosting versions.
Extreme focus on publishing
Ghost is only focused on content publishing as a blog, newsletter, or podcast. So, if you try to use it for other purposes, you might not have a good time.
WordPress will be a better use case of your time and efforts for a more complex website structure.
Here I would like to address minor limitations on Ghost:
- No comments: you need to use integrations to enable comments on your Ghost posts;
- No click tracking: if you send emails on Ghost, you don't have access to click tracking;
- No post version history: the text editor doesn't have version history, so it's better you do backups before any change;
- No welcome emails: after members sign up, Ghost doesn't send welcome emails;
- Hard to do nofollow links: this is important for SEO, and to do I have to write HTML code;
Most of the things on this list have solutions when using other tools, but it's annoying for a great software like Ghost to have these little things, as they can cost a lot of money to fix using the other tools I mention.
Ghost CMS alternatives
In this section, I'll approach alternatives to Ghost CMS with a summary of the comparison article for each platform.
Ghost vs Substack
Picking between Ghost or Substack is a debate several creators make for their content membership. Both platforms are some of the best platforms for writers. However, they have massive differences between them.
Substack is a hosted platform with content guideline rules that can result in bans. Ghost doesn't have any of that.
Ghost has excellent SEO features, and Substack is awful.
Substack has limited layout options and customization, making every newsletter on the platform look the same. Ghost has several themes and allows customization with code if you don't want a regular theme.
Writing on Ghost is satisfying, and the editor has lots of features. On the other hand, Substack's editor is simple and lacks the depth of what you can do with it.
Substack is free to use, and you only pay when charging memberships. In that case, they will take a 10% commission. Ghost hosting prices vary a lot.
Read the full Ghost vs Substack comparison guide to learn the differences in detail.
Ghost vs WordPress
Comparing Ghost to WordPress is tricky. Their origins are in content publishing, but the way they work are almost opposites.
Both platforms are open-source and allow picking hosting from different vendors.
WordPress is the most used CMS globally by a large margin and has a big community. In contrast, the Ghost community is small, friendly, and has high technical knowledge.
WordPress can be whatever you want it to be. A CMS, a website builder, a Learning Management Software, a newsletter platform, it can do it all. However, it doesn't mean WP is good at all of those things or that I recommend you to use it for any of them.
I lean towards the people who don't like WordPress and avoid it because of its complexity and security risks.
Ghost vs ConvertKit
ConvertKit can be used as a Ghost alternative, but most times, these 2 are used as complementary tools.
ConvertKit focus is on newsletters, and they excel at it. Their analytics and email sequences are stand-out points!
However, if you plan to blog or have a website, ConvertKit isn't a good fit for a CMS. As you saw above, Ghost is excellent for websites where content is supposed to shine.
Their overlapping features are on the newsletters. ConvertKit is undeniably better. Maybe that's why several people use Ghost in combination with it.
Using Ghost for blogging and ConvertKit for newsletters is a powerful combination where you pick the best of both tools!
Best Ghost CMS resources
Here I'll mention the known communities, Ghost developers, and content creators.
The forum is a lot more active and the #1 place to post questions and have any discussion about Ghost. You can also make feature requests in the forum and upvote existing requests.
Ghost content creators
A shortlist of best content creators talking about Ghost:
- The Stack Junction (Me): I have this blog and YouTube channel with lots of videos about Ghost;
- Ghost for beginners: an OG website dedicated to Ghost (don't be scared if you get a warning when clicking on the link. This website currently doesn't have HTTPS, but it's OK to read stuff)
- Tools for Ghost: a website with resources related to Ghost, this website was made by Dan Rowden.
- Biron Themes blog: Norbert makes not only cool themes for Ghost but also has excellent tutorials there;
- David Utke (YouTube channel): there are some cool tutorials here about Ghost;
- David Ramos (YouTube channel): in the past, David created several videos Ghost related;
- A Better Computer (YouTube channel): Matt was one of the first Ghost videos I remember watching.
Ghost developers and software for integrations
Here I want to focus on developers, agencies, and companies with products specific to Ghost:
- Aspire Themes (themes);
- Biron themes (themes);
- Vision (themes):
- Super Themes Co (themes);
- WowThemes (themes);
- Stylesheet.dev (themes);
- Newsletterkit (SaaS): add welcome emails to Ghost and other small automations with this product;
- Ghostboard (SaaS): analytics for Ghost websites;
- Cove (SaaS): add comments to your Ghost website;
- Commento (SaaS): add comments to your Ghost website;
- Hyvor Talk (SaaS): add comments to your website;
- Commentbox (SaaS): add comments to your website, they have a free plan;
My experience using Ghost
I've been using Ghost since June 2021, and my experience has been super positive after transitioning from WordPress. However, I also picked Ghost because of some of its limitations.
I was frustrated with WP because I spent too much time "developing" the site and doing maintenance. So I picked managed hosting with Ghost and don't have to do any of that. That's why the limitation of not being able to customize everything like on Ghost without code.
Even though I would like to make tweaks to my site, this limitation helps me keep focused on writing on this blog. Focusing on writing is a priority for me.
The release of Ghost V4 and Ghost (Pro) price drop to $9 per month made me try it, and I never looked back!
Ghost websites are fast. I never had to spend a second improving the speed of my website or thinking of reducing the number of plugins... Ghost is fast and remains fast. Simple as that.
I picked managed hosting for my Ghost website to outsource management, like security, backups, and updates. This means I never have to worry about any of this. Instead, I contact customer support from my hosting company if there is a problem.
The editor on Ghost. It's amazing and the best text editor of any CMS I've used so far.
I like the absence of plugins. This means there aren't complications with security or performance. I struggled with them on WordPress, so I'm happy Ghost uses integrations as they are usually less complicated.
My struggles with Ghost have revolved around the lack of welcome emails, no click tracking, and no email automation.
Also, I still feel that I haven't found a "perfect" theme for me. I like how most themes look, but it lacks that extra bit to fit what I want to build.
So, how do I rate my experience using Ghost? I rate it as a 9/10.
Even if I "complained" about needing to use code to customize themes, that's not a negative. On the contrary, that limitation helps keep my focus and over-optimizing bug under control. I also knew that Ghost doesn't have plugins, that's another thing I accepted, and integrations are a superior option, IMO.
Also, I struggled a bit with tutorials at the start because most content was made for developers, so if there were tutorials for non-technical people, that would have helped me.
In the future, I plan to have a custom theme made for my website to realize my vision while enjoying Ghost's capabilities.
To finish, let me tell you that I 1 000% recommend using managed hosting with Ghost. I cannot overstate how peaceful it is to run a website this way.
Even if you hear that managed hosting is "risky" because you don't have access to files, that's not a problem. The people who say that are developers wanting to make customizations for their use cases.
With Ghost, you will rarely need access to the files to make changes. So you should consider the tradeoff of having to maintain the website in exchange for "small" customizations.
I don't regret moving from WordPress to Ghost! WP has its uses, but it's a hassle for the type of project I want. So, today I would pick Ghost again without hesitation.
Is Ghost a website builder?
No. Ghost is a CMS. A website builder is different than a CMS. On Ghost, you have the freedom to pick your vendors for hosting, themes and integrations. You would have to buy it all in one package with a website builder from the same vendor.
Does Ghost have plugins?
No. Ghost CMS has integrations. In practice, integrations do most of the things a plugin does. However, they are different as you don't need to install anything for these integrations to work. Also, integrations usually have fewer security issues and don't negatively impact speed, so that's a bonus.
How to enable payments on Ghost?
- Go to settings;
- Click on "Connect to Stripe";
- Create/ connect your Stripe account;
- Define the prices and tiers;
Is ghost good for blogging?
Ghost CMS's sole focus is on blogging, and they're excellent at it! By default, all sites are fast, safe, and have good SEO out of the box. As a result, they work pretty well and don't require technical configuration when using managed hosting.
Is Ghost better than WordPress?
Making a content membership Ghost is better because it is simpler and more focused on that. WordPress offers more flexibility, but that opens the door to the complexity and potential security risks. So, Ghost is a simpler and better place to blog.
Is Ghost better than Substack?
Yes, Ghost is far superior in technical terms to Substack. With Ghost, you don't have the risk of bans, get better SEO, a better editor, lots of integrations, and they don't take 10% in fees. The part where Ghost lags is on community features like comments.
Can you run ads on Ghost?
Yes, Adsense and Carbon Ads. Ad networks like Ezoic don't allow Ghost.
How to know if Ghost is good for you?
Watch my video about the 4 questions you need to answer before starting a blog to see if Ghost is a good fit for you.