Concepts & Goals
WordPress is the name of a piece of software that can “power” your website on a server. So instead of uploading files to a server to create a website, you can use WordPress to create a “backend” where you can login to your website to create, edit and manage webpages, blog posts, images – any sort of content.
It’s a “content management system” in web development jargon. WordPress is also “open-source” – which means that a community maintains it. A for-profit corporation does not own it.
The software & open-source community live & function at WordPress.org – where anyone can grab a copy of the software. It’s also known as “self-hosted WordPress” because you have to provide the server for the software to live on.
WordPress.com is a service (not just the actual software & community) that offers websites/blogs powered by their install of WordPress. You own the content of your website, but you don’t actually own your actual website.
The renting vs. buying in real estate works well as an analogy.
WordPress.com = Renting a building for your living space (aka your website). You can pay for upgrades, but ultimately everything is up to your landlord (WordPress.com). That said – your landlord also has to pay to keep everything in working order.
WordPress.org = Owning a building for your living space. You own everything on your own hosting space. You do whatever you want. That said – you are responsible for everything.
So what does this difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org mean for your project?
Pricing / Goals
Many people researching WordPress see the “free website at WordPress.com” – and think that’s the end of the issue.
But here’s the catch – it’s “free” for a WordPress.com subdomain (e.g., yourdomain.wordpress.com) with no upgrades and with WordPress.com’s rights to run ads on your work.
WordPress.com operates on a system of paid upgrades for specific features. If you want a custom domain instead of a yourdomain.wordpress.com domain – it costs $18/year to register and point it to your website. If you already own a domain somewhere, it costs $13/yr to point it to your WordPress.com website.
They offer the same types of one-time upgrades for custom design, etc. WordPress.com also packages these upgrades into a couple plans – Pro and Business.
Long story short though – WordPress.com’s paid upgrades are expensive compared to the self-hosting route. Everything – from domains to hosting space to serving video – can be done more cheaply than using WordPress.com’s plans.
You can get a self-hosted WordPress website set up from scratch for less than $100/year – that’s with domain, quality hosting and unlimited options.
But getting nitty-gritty about pricing is not the point. The point on pricing is about what your goals are and what you value. If you want to publish, could care less about specific functionality, and have budget – WordPress.com is amazing. It’s fast, sleek, and well-run.
If you want to build out a website where publishing is only part of your goals (ie, you want to run ads, customize your design, etc), then self-hosting makes a lot more sense.
Think of it like selling food – if your goal is to just sell food, then a stall at a farmer’s market is all you need. If your goal is to sell food within an experience, you really need a restaurant.
Pricing & goals aside, here are a couple of considerations that I tell people to look at.
Design / Themes
If you are running your own copy of WordPress on your own server, you can do anything you want with your design. WordPress(.org) still runs off “Themes” – so you can use free themes from WordPress.org, premium off-the-shelf themes for your industry, or use a theme framework to add tons of design features to your website.
And either way, you can always directly access your theme and edit it in any way you want.
With WordPress.com – you do not have direct access to your site or your theme. Instead, you have to choose among the choice of themes that WordPress.com provides (currently at 373 themes and 182 premium themes).
WordPress.com provides some customization, but it’s limited to what you can do through their customizer tool. If you upgrade, you have full CSS editing, but you can’t add elements to your design.
Functionality / Plugins
Plugins are a large part of the reason self-hosted WordPress is as popular as it is. Plugins allow you to add additional functionality to your website like full ecommerce functionality, social networking capabilities and membership roles.
Plugins also allow you to customize your site exactly to your liking. You can get deep in the weeds of SEO with Yoast SEO; you can customize your Analytics with Google Analytics plugins. You can run better advertisements – or Unicornify your website.
On the flip-side, WordPress.com users also don’t have to worry about security or speed plugins. You don’t have to worry about keeping plugins updated – or with hackers targeting your installation.
Other Notes & Considerations
One great thing about self-hosted WordPress and WordPress.com is that they are both WordPress-based.
That means that you can migrate content much more easily that you can coming from Blogger, Weebly, Wix or any of the other hosted website builder services. If you have no money but lots of ideas, starting with a free* WordPress.com account is not a bad choice at all.
If you take that route, just keep your long-term goals close at hand. If you want to build something that you own – you need a custom domain first and foremost. Any links, shares, etc – or “brand equity” that you get for a yourdomain.wordpress.com goes to WordPress.com – not you.
When you do migrate your content, make sure that you keep the same URLs or implement redirects to help Googlebot find and re-index your content.
On the flipside – if you are on WordPress.org but find yourself jealous of WordPress.com’s services and community, you can look into installing the JetPack plugin.
JetPack is a free plugin for self-hosted WordPress websites that pulls in lots of features normally meant exclusively for WordPress.com users. It’s a great way to get the best of both worlds, though JetPack isn’t for everyone.
If you are truly investing in a project – personal, business or otherwise, you should just set up your own self-hosted website with WordPress. You’ll get more flexibility at lower costs (even if you pay a bit more for backups and security checks). I wrote a guide to set up WordPress from scratch.
If you are focused solely on publishing, and want the versatility of WordPress but need everything else handled for you – then go with WordPress.com. Note – that’s why many big brands run their blog.brandname.com subdomain on WordPress.com. Either way – be sure to pay for a custom domain.
If you are running a hobby or small personal project with zero budget, then by all means get started with WordPress.com. Look into adding a custom domain and migrating to a self-hosted site as it grows.