One of the most common questions we get in our WordPress webinars is ‘What’s the difference between wordpress.org and wordpress.com?’ Not unreasonably, most people assume ‘WordPress’ is a single thing but in fact there are two different ‘flavours’ of WordPress and they are very different. In order to understand the differences it’s worth knowing a little bit about the history of WordPress and how it developed. I’ll then go on to explain the key differences between wordpress.org and wordpress.com.
The history of WordPress
In the beginning was WordPress, an open source blogging platform based on some earlier blogging software called b2. This was back in 2003 and the people who wrote the WordPress software released it to the world as open source (as it remains to this day).
Open source means that the software is freely available for others to use and exploit within reason. The code is publicly accessible and people can modify and share it. There are many different interpretations of open source and if you’re interested there is more information here.
Releasing WordPress as open source meant that they were not able to make money from the software that they had created. So, a few years after the launch of WordPress the original authors launched wordpress.com, a blogging platform which allowed registered users to create and publish blogs without having to download the software or host the site themselves. It was based on the WordPress software and looked very similar to anyone who had used the original blogging code.
What are the differences between wordpress.com and wordpress.org?
Strictly speaking, wordpress.org is a website where you can download the WordPress software into your own hosting environment and wordpress.com is a site where you can run a blog. However, when people ask about the differences between wordpress.com and wordpress.org what they really want to know is what the difference is between setting up a website using WordPress (open source software downloaded into your own hosting environment) and wordpress.com (a hosted blogging environment).
Behind the scenes there is a lot of shared code between WordPress and the wordpress.com site, but in practical terms for end users like you and me, they are worlds apart. Both have their pros and cons.
WordPress is free whilst wordpress.com is a commercial site
The first and most important difference is that WordPress is free to use whilst wordpress.com is a commercial website which you generally need to pay to use. All the other differences really stem from this key difference. You do not have to pay to use WordPress software to build your website. That doesn’t mean that using WordPress to build your site is completely free – you will still need to pay a hosting company to host the site for you, but you do not need to pay anything to WordPress for the use of its software. In contrast, wordpress.com is a commercial site – users pay a monthly subscription in order to use the service. You can set up a very basic site within the wordpress.com environment for free but if you want any bells and whistles at all on your site you will have to pay.
Setting up your website
As I’ve already touched on, one of the key differences is how you go about setting up your website. If you opt to use WordPress you will need to buy a domain name and arrange some hosting. You then install the WordPress software on the hosting company’s servers. Most hosting companies have made this process super-easy to do. Many have a WordPress hosting package, where everything is already set up for you and all you have to do is log in and start using it.
WordPress.com is like many other online publishing platforms in that you create an account with it and then choose from one of its plans. These start at free and can go up to as much as you’re willing to pay. If you have a large site then this can be very expensive month on month.
Building and maintaining your site
Both WordPress and wordpress.com use themes to manage the look and feel of your site as well as plugins to add functionality to the site. One of the key differences between the two is that your options are much more restricted on wordpress.com. It has a much more limited set of themes and plugins available to users. Indeed, it used to be the case that users on the free plan could not install any plugins at all. That’s not the case now but you can still only choose from a tightly curated list.
There’s a good practical reason for this. wordpress.com is home to many thousands of websites and they all need to work quickly and effectively. Some plugins need more power to run and some might not play nicely with others. Hence wordpress.com restricts the options.
By contrast with WordPress there are many thousands of themes and plugins that you can install. You can try things out and be adventurous with how your site runs and what it does. With wordpress.com on the other hand you have to stick to the path you’re given.
Interacting with other users and blogs
WordPress.com is really optimised for blogging. It is very good at letting people subscribe to blogs that they’re interested in. Once you’ve got an account you can subscribe to other blogs, have a reading list and be notified when new posts appear. If you only want a website for blogging then this can be a very useful feature as it makes it easier for people who are interested in your topic to find your blog.
On a WordPress site, you have to either install a plugin that lets people be notified, or rely on them using a service that checks for changes on a site. This is done using RSS which has been around for decades, so there are lots of tools for doing it, but you’re relying on your visitors knowing what to look for.
People often say that WordPress is free and wordpress.com is not but the reality is that it is not quite as straightforward as that.
Hosted WordPress comes with costs, the most obvious being the cost of hosting. Hosting can be very cheap, but it often comes at the expense of performance. If you have a small audience, if you’re just starting out or if you have users who are happy to put up with a slow site, then cheap hosting will be sufficient however if the site’s performance is critical to your business then you may need to pay more for your hosting (we have blogged before about why cheap hosting isn’t necessarily the best). As your site grows you’ll need to improve the hosting and start pulling in other services such as content delivery and caching. Some of this comes with costs and those costs can start to add up.
On the other hand, wordpress.com starts out with a free tier so you can indeed get up and running with a very simple site for free. However as soon as you want to do anything that looks more professional then you have to pay. If you are running a website for your business you will almost certainly find that you need to start using paid features pretty quickly. For example, you will start paying a monthly charge if you want to use your own domain on your site and then more as you want to start using things such as Google Analytics to track your visits or CSS to tweak the look and feel of your site. All these things get more expensive as you want to do more with your website.
If you’re choosing between using hosted WordPress or wordpress.com then you will have to look at what you want to do now and also how you see your site growing. If you think that you’ll start using more functionality, more tinkering of the layout and perhaps introducing e-commerce then the costs start to shoot up. You may decide that a hosted solution gives you the freedom that you want.
A massive amount of the internet runs using WordPress software, either hosted or at wordpress.com. Some estimates have it at 41% of sites use WordPress. This attracts the attention of people with malicious intent. They may want to get to some of your data, or they may want to use your site to direct people to theirs. Either way, you need to be aware of the security risks associated with WordPress.
Hosted WordPress is getting much better at managing these risks, especially with plugins such as WordFence which will keep an eye on your site and send you an email when things need updating or there is something suspicious going on. However, it’s something that you need to keep an eye on.
If you’re using wordpress.com, then you’re on a shared platform with many others. This is maintained centrally and updates are managed for you so the security of the site is not your responsibility. The fact that your options are so restricted means that wordpress.com can manage more sites more easily and keep tight control over those sites. However, that does severely restrict what you can do.
From time to time, wordpress.com is blocked by different countries. China for instance will block wordpress.com if it’s unhappy with content on any of the sites. Turkey also blocked wordpress.com back in the early days of the site. The founders say that they are committed to the platform being used for free speech, however they have also been accused of taking down posts that may offend authoritarian regimes.
If you are using wordpress.com and aim to target users in highly authoritarian countries then you need to be aware that they might not be able to see your content because someone else with another wordpress.com site has published something that offends, leading to the whole of wordpress.com being blocked in that country. It’s a small risk, but is a legitimate problem. If you have a site that might be considered very offensive for whatever reason, then you also run the risk that someone may choose to remove your posts.
Hosting your own WordPress site doesn’t necessarily make things easier in this regard, but it gives you options where you have very few with wordpress.com. With self-hosted, you’re not at risk of others publishing and causing your site to be blocked, but you may still be blocked if you post something offensive yourself. A country might block the domain, or a hosting company might kick you off. However, if you have hosted WordPress, then you can take a backup and restore the site somewhere else and resume talking to your audience.
Moving from wordpress.com to WordPress and vice versa
Finally, it’s worth noting that you can move from one to the other. If you choose one and find that it doesn’t suit then you can export your site and import it into the other. Moving from wordpress.com to hosted WordPress is easy because you’re moving from a limited service to one with many more options. Moving the other way back to wordpress.com can be tricky if you’re using options, themes or plugins that aren’t allowed. You’ll have a lot of work trimming things back to get the site back to something you can use. Either way, if you’re choosing between the two then you’re not locked in to one system or the other.
Which is better – wordpress.com or WordPress?
This has only scratched the surface of some of the differences between hosted WordPress (wordpress.org) and wordpress.com, but hopefully you can see that they’re very different beasts. There isn’t really a right answer to the question of which is better – it really depends on what you plan to use your website for and how you see it developing. However, as a general rule we would probably say that if your website is for your business then you’re going to be better off using WordPress rather than wordpress.com as most people generally find wordpress.com too restrictive. If you just want a personal website or a hosted blog then wordpress.com might be the better option.
If you’re not sure which is best for you or you’d like to explore moving from one to the other just let us know and we can help.