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 physical 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 free 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.
Many clients come to me having already set up self-hosting accounts and purchased premium themes, when WordPress.com would probably have been a better match for their needs. Either they weren’t aware of the WordPress.com option, or overly simplistic articles or irresponsible web designers did not inform them of the ongoing investments of time and money self-hosting would require.
The WordPress software for self-hosters is free, but you will have to pay a web host for server space to install it into. Most web hosts offer a script installer with their cPanel accounts, such as Softaculous or Installatron, which makes it easy to install WordPress. Some hosts offer “managed WordPress” accounts, which make it even easier to install WordPress, but watch out for these, as they typically cost more and offer fewer features than cPanel accounts.
When you self-host, you are responsible for site maintenance. This includes updates to the WordPress core, which are released several times a year, along with updates to any plugins and themes you might install. It is very important to keep everything on your site updated to the latest version, as older versions often contain security vulnerabilities that become apparent to hackers the minute a fix is released. When I hear from clients who had a site set up two or three years ago and never did any updating (because the original designers didn’t explain they needed to), about 85% of the time their sites have been hacked due to security vulnerabilities in old versions.
Self-hosters are also responsible for backing up their site. Web hosts may have their own server backup systems, but with a thousand clients on a server, and dozens or hundreds of servers, preserving the content you worked so hard on in your one little $80/year account will never be as important to them as it is to you. If you read the fine print, you will see they accept no responsibility for backing up your data.
Last, but not least, security against common forms of hacker attack is the responsibility of the self-hoster.
All of these things can be managed with plugins, and most of them can be automated. However, this takes some research and effort (or investment in professional assistance like mine to set it up for you). In addition to maintenance, you will have to do all of your own promotion when you self-host. Depending on the type and purpose of your site, this may be the overriding consideration – read on.
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 (along with all but the costliest of their paid plans) does not support plugins. Plugins are extras that you can add to self-hosted WordPress, and are a big reason why WordPress is so popular. 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, integrating mailing lists and social media streams, and much, much more.
You can get some of these features with a paid WordPress.com plan, while others are only available with self-hosted WordPress. Where extra features are available on both platforms, they may cost more on WordPress.com. On the other hand, you will not need to perform site maintenance with WordPress.com as you would with a self-hosted WordPress installation.
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. The last time I checked, internet stores and third party ads were prohibited, but a PayPal button for a product you make yourself or a link to your own ebook on Amazon is OK.
Never Underestimate the Power of Bloggers
There is one benefit to WordPress.com for certain types of sites that self-hosting simply can’t compete with. Posts to WordPress.com sites are automatically promoted to the WordPress.com network, which is heavily populated by bloggers on certain topics, such as education, technology, politics, culture, spirituality, health, self-help, food, arts, family, relationships and travel. These people are also readers who understand the importance of supporting good content (and WordPress.com has built-in tools for them to easily like, share and follow your posts).
In a WordPress.com account, you (and everyone else on WordPress.com) can set up feeds on topics of interest, so that you see the latest posts from other bloggers every time you log in. A large percentage of WordPress.com bloggers spend a lot of time reading other blogs, for inspiration, and to find guest authors, as they may maintain a regular publishing schedule. WordPress.com also crosslinks your comments on other WordPress.com blogs so people who like your comments can click on your name and visit your blog.
It is hard to overstate the value of these features for building an audience. If generating traffic is a primary goal for your site, and you are posting on one of the topics mentioned, you should seriously consider WordPress.com even if you have to make design compromises. You can always transition your site to self-hosting later, but self-hosting will never give you the kind of automatic exposure to your target audience with no effort on your part that you will receive on WordPress.com.
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 start building your site can save you a lot of headaches and unpleasant surprises down the road.
WordPress.com is a better choice for you if:
- You find technology difficult, or just don’t like it
- You do not have the time or interest to maintain your website
- You are flexible about how your website looks and don’t need every detail to be exactly the way you want it
- You do not need any plugin functionalities
- Your website is primarily a blog, or an online pamphlet for a locally-offered offline service
- You are posting on one of the topics listed above, and building traffic is a primary goal of your site
The cheapest “Personal” WordPress.com paid plan is $60/year as of this writing (but last week it was $36/year, and the week before – and for most of 2018 – it was $48/year). 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. However, it’s a very good idea to back up your content no matter what platform you are on.
You may prefer self-hosting if:
- You enjoy tinkering and have time to invest in learning something new
- You want to expand your technology skills
- You can keep track of multiple accounts for site-related products and services
- You need plugin functionalities
- Generating income via e-commerce or ads is a primary goal of your site
- You have strong preferences about the details of your site’s appearance
- You are willing to do your own site promotion or hire someone to help you
Read this article before you choose a web host. The vast majority of well-known web hosts are actually owned by one company, which is notorious for high prices, poor reliability, and dreadful customer service. GoDaddy is independently owned, but it is also at the top of my list of hosts to avoid for charging extra for things that other hosts include for free (like email accounts), exceedingly deceitful advertising, constantly changing and intentionally confusing hosting panels, and interfering with the freedom to change domain registrars (and if you care about animals, you should know that GoDaddy’s founder, former CEO, and largest shareholder is a big game hunter. But that’s another post).
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.
And of course, I would be happy to discuss your plans with you.
In the excitement of building their first website, or as an expression of resolve, new site owners often overspend on products or services that turn out not to be a good match for their needs. Some of the largest and best-promoted web hosts, like Bluehost and GoDaddy, exploit the financial opportunity of enthusiasm + inexperience by displacing WordPress’s built-in interface to the free themes and plugins on WordPress.org with their own interfaces that divert customers to their paid products.
A modest investment in consulting before you choose your platform, host, or theme, can reduce your risk of buyer’s remorse, and set you on the best path for your particular needs and goals going forward.