WordPress.com vs. WordPress.org

For today’s discussion of the two faces of WordPress, you will need to understand what a website is, what a server is, and what WordPress is. If you’re unsure about any of those, please check out the two linked articles (they’re short!) and then come back to this one.

Location, Location, Location

The biggest difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org is where the WordPress software files are hosted. If you “self-host” a WordPress website, first you rent space on an internet server from a company called a “web host.” Then you set up the WordPress software in your rented server space, along with all of the other files related to your website, such as themes, plugins, and media files (e.g., graphics or photos). The website where you can learn about the WordPress software and download free WordPress themes and plugins is WordPress.org, which is why self-hosting is sometimes referred to as “WordPress.org.” However, WordPress.org is really the name of a nonprofit organization and its website, not the software itself, which makes “self-hosting” a more accurate description.

The price of free at WordPress.com

WordPress.com is a for-profit entity that “hosts” WordPress software for free. It is similar to other hosted sitebuilder services such as Wix, Weebly and Squarespace. You do not need a separate web hosting account or domain registrar, nor do you have to install WordPress yourself. Installing WordPress is not very difficult on most web hosts, but with WordPress.com, you don’t need to know anything about installation options such as installation directories, database prefixes, or other settings you may be asked about during the installation process. You can create a WordPress.com account and have a functioning website in 5 minutes.

While the basic WordPress.com account is free, there is a trade-off. The free version of WordPress.com does not support plugins. Plugins are extras that you can add to self-hosted WordPress, and are a big reason why WordPress is so widely used. They add a dazzling range of functionalities to self-hosted WordPress websites, turning them into membership sites, discussion forums, or online stores, adding bells & whistles to make sites more interesting or interactive, monitoring security, making back ups or improving SEO, integrating mailing lists and social media streams, providing additional widgets or shortcodes, and much, much more.

The free version of WordPress.com also has more limited design options than self-hosted WordPress. There are quite a few free themes to choose from, but if you want to use custom CSS to tweak one of those themes, you will have to upgrade to a “Premium” level paid WordPress.com account (at a cost comparable to self-hosting).

The URL for your free WordPress.com website will be yourwebsitename.wordpress.com. To get wordpress.com out of your domain name requires a paid account.

Another consideration is that WordPress.com can place ads on your site that you have no control over and get no revenue from. These used to be small text ads, but WordPress.com is showing symptoms of CMD (creeping monetization disease), and the ads have become a lot larger, and now include graphics. If you don’t want these ads on your site, you guessed it, you must sign up for a paid account.

There are also limitations on using WordPress.com for commercial websites. The details of these limitations can be hard to find, and seem to change every year or two. As of the date of this post, you may not have an internet store on a WordPress.com site, and you can’t place third party ads on your site.

Which WordPress is best for me?

WordPress.com would have been a better fit for quite a few of my clients who were already self-hosting by the time we met. Many of them had websites built by fly-by-night substandard developers who did not inform them about the ongoing maintenance and costs of self-hosting. Taking the time to consider both options before you choose can save you a lot of headaches and unpleasant surprises down the road.

WordPress.com is a better choice for you if:

  1. You find technology difficult, or just don’t like it
  2. You do not have the time or interest to maintain your website
  3. You are flexible about how your website looks and do not need to have every detail exactly the way you want it
  4. You do not need any plugin functionalities
  5. Your website is primarily a blog, or a small business website for a locally-offered service

The entry-level “Personal” WordPress.com paid plan is inexpensive ($48/year as of this writing). That gets you an ad-free site, and your own domain (without wordpress.com in it). Paid accounts also receive support directly from WordPress.com in addition to the volunteer support that is provided for free accounts in the community forums. You do not have to worry about site security or software updates, which are a major consideration if you are self-hosting.

Posts to WordPress.com sites are automatically promoted to the network of millions of other WordPress.com sites, which is a huge advantage if you are posting on certain topics – education, psychology, technology, politics, food, arts, and travel are a few of the topics that are especially popular among WordPress.com bloggers and readers.

You may prefer self-hosting if:

  1. You enjoy tinkering and have time to invest in learning something new
  2. You want to expand your technology skills
  3. You can keep track of multiple accounts for site-related products and services
  4. You need plugin functionalities
  5. Generating income via e-commerce or ads is a primary goal of your site
  6. You have strong preferences about the details of your site’s appearance
  7. You are willing to do your own site promotion or hire someone to help you

Still undecided?

Like any new skill, learning WordPress (either kind) takes patience and perseverance. Self-hosting adds additional learning curves (such as managing hosting and domains, selecting and configuring themes, plugins, and third-party services, managing updates, and monitoring security alerts). If you have reservations about self-hosting, start out with a WordPress.com site, and see how that goes. You can always migrate your content to a self-hosted site down the line. That’s how I started out!