Wordpreneur Notebook • June 12, 2020
WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com. Huh? What’s the difference?
There is indeed a difference between WordPress.org and WordPress.com, and it can be… confusing. And it isn’t just a technical newbie who can get thrown off by these, especially since both are pretty much about the same core product.
But not to worry. Let’s see if we can sort it all out for you below.
WordPress was originally software for creating and publishing blogs. That’s it. It would be silly to qualify that with “on the Internet,” because where else would a blog be? As you probably know, blog is just short for “Web log.” Yup, log. As in diary. That’s WordPress, software for creating and publishing a diary online.
It’s not just that anymore. Well, it wasn’t just that way back when either; many of us immediately saw that what its developers gave us was a tool for a heck of a whole lot more, which is why lots of us took to it very quickly and started seriously focusing on it.
What we saw is pretty much what it is today: one heck of a relatively easy and powerful all-around Web publishing tool and platform. Sure, it still does that “diary” thing as its functional core, but that cute little description doesn’t do justice to the fact that it’s really a powerful website development and management tool. You don’t agree? Go argue with all the folks behind a whopping 1/3rd of the Web’s top 10 million websites — they’re all built and running on WordPress. That’s a dominating share of the marketplace. It’s pretty clear the market itself has decided WordPress is indeed a Web development tool.
That huge count of WordPress-based sites does not, however, differentiate whether a site is using software from WordPress.org, or whether it’s a site built on the WordPress.com platform. “Wha?” you holler. “You mean there are different kinds of WordPress?”
Not really all that different, but yes, as far as website development goes, there is a slight difference that is somewhat helpful and important to know. I told you this is somewhat complicated. I’ll do my best to explain it as simply as I can below.
As mentioned above, WordPress is software. A program. An application (or app for short). Much like Microsoft Word and other programs you’ve got on your desktop computer or laptop. They’re all designed for you to use to do specific, specialized work.
But unlike your MS Word, WordPress is designed specifically for computers integrated with the Internet, computers that serve software to use and content to consume to visitors who drop by through the Net. Those computers are the servers you’ve likely heard about.
This part may blow your mind: WordPress itself is open source software, and always has been. That means it is free. Developed and continually improved upon by a team of volunteers, basically, and its community of users too. The whole WordPress “project” is overseen now by the WordPress Foundation, which operates the WordPress.org site. That’s where anyone and everyone can download and get copies of WordPress for building and running their own sites. And again, totally free!
The basic concept is if you have a server (which is like real estate on the Internet), and you want to run WordPress on it, all you have to do is get the software from WordPress.org, then install and run it on your server. No need to pay them anything for it. Or even register or ask for permission. Cool, huh?
Realize, however, that most people don’t really have their own physical servers and instead rent space on Web hosting services. These are like office suites or apartments in bigger buildings, each unit being logical or “virtual” servers on the Net. You can get a free copies of WordPress and install and run them on those too. In fact, if you’re a Web hosting user, you probably won’t even need to get your hands dirty getting a copy from WordPress.org and installing it yourself; many Web hosting services already do all that for you. It’s important to note, too, in this Web hosted scenario, you aren’t going to be running some less-capable, downsized version of WordPress; you’ll still be running the same full-powered, full-featured software from WordPress.org!
All these sites running the full-powered software from WordPress.org are essentially independent sites, and their owners have full control over whatever they want to do with the software. One term you may see being used to describe this kind of independent, full-control operation is that it’s self-hosted.
So, if you see something like “self-hosted WordPress,” you now know what that means: It’s the full-powered independent software from WordPress.org, installed, running and fully-controlled on one’s own server.
Maybe you’ve figured out from the above that if you’ve got a site running self-hosted WordPress, you can modify and enhance your WordPress installation in a whole bunch of ways. And that doesn’t necessarily mean heavy-duty techie level stuff either. WordPress, for instance, has two standard built-in features that make this kind of customization fairly easy, for laypeople too. Fun even! Good chance you’ve heard of these features already:
- themes (visual design templates, basically)
- and plugins (under the hood, engine-type stuff)
These are quite modular to implement, in a sense. Want to change your site’s looks? Add a new theme and activate it in just a few clicks. Voila, new look! Want some heavier duty modules to allow you to design and implement snazzy forms, or integrate your site with ecommerce payment gateways, or set up a full social media Facebook-like site, or do just about any task small and large, really, that WordPress doesn’t do standard? You can find a plugin that does what you want, and “plug it in” your WordPress site. Click! All under your control with self-hosted WordPress.
Powerful stuff, this! Must cost a bit. Again, not necessarily! Although there are a lot of commercial WordPress themes and plugins out there (you’ll need to buy them to use them), WordPress.org itself provides a huge collection of themes and plugins on its site for the WordPress community to get and use… themes and plugins created by the community itself, even by companies who’ve figured giving some good, useful stuff away through WordPress.org is a smart business thing to do. Because like the main WordPress software itself, these themes and plugins for download from the WordPress.org site are all free! Not crapola freebies either; WordPress.org is very selective, and “cleans house” regularly, making sure that what it has available for free download on the site is really top quality useful stuff.
Frankly, WordPress.org is an impressive operation, and as you can imagine, guys like me absolutely enjoy visiting the site and poking around there regularly.
Understandably, there are users who don’t particularly care to have all that power, control, and responsibility. They just want WordPress. There’s an alternative they can check out then: WordPress.com.
From the above you’ll learn the WordPress software itself is totally free. As is the case with everything else in life, the folks behind all that free WordPress goodness, well, they have to eat too. So no surprise the guy who first developed WordPress also owns and runs his own company — commercial and separate, but very much related to WordPress.
He figured a lot of people just wanted to use WordPress to build and run their own websites, but had zero clue and/or interest about techie things like software, servers, hosting, yada yada. So he started providing a service that gave everyone just that: a place to create WordPress-based websites with little to no worries about all the techie mess. A WordPress-hosting service, in essence. And, consistent with the WordPress open source philosophy, he made the basic service fairly powerful and useful, and also totally free.
That company’s service is WordPress.com.
What WordPress.com basically does is provide you with free WordPress hosting services for your site(s). It does it with a modified version of the self-hosted WordPress software, mainly to integrate it with its operations and impose some controls and limitations. The bottom line though is that it’s still WordPress, and it’s free.
But, you may be wondering, I did indicate it was a business, so how does it make any money if it’s free? Well, there’s advertising, for one. WordPress.com will occasionally run advertising on the sites it’s hosting for free. But considering the cost, that doesn’t even get on my “stuff to be overly concerned about” radar. What does is how it really generates a significant amount of its income: For its basic free accounts, WordPress.com takes away a few features and benefits that are standard on self-hosted WordPress, and then charges you money if you want them.
That income formula may appear mercenary when described that plainly. But it’s totally fair. Maybe even better than fair, depending on your specific needs and situation. A lot of their free-level users probably don’t even notice anything missing. For example, WordPress.com provides very robust collections of themes and plugins that its free users can install and use, just like self-hosted WordPress. (Whenever I find myself working on a WordPress.com site, I’m often impressed by what I do actually find available for sites to use for free.) If, however, the theme or plugin you want to use isn’t already in their ample collection, you can’t just upload and add it to your site like you can with self-hosted WordPress; to do that on WordPress.com, you’ll need to upgrade to an account level that permits you to do that. That also means you’ll be leaving the land of the free; they’ll start charging you a fee to upgrade your account. Not huge or unreasonable, but a fee nevertheless.
Another limitation with a free WordPress.com account is the use of a domain name for your site. It’s simple: You can’t. Not with a free basic account. You’ll have to use the subdomain URL the service uses for all its free accounts, which looks something like the following:
Here, example is the free account holder’s username, and it’s used as a subdomain in the URL visitors use to get to user example‘s WordPress website. I actually created an actual site on WordPress.com years ago, when I first tried out the service (after using self-hosted WordPress for years) and wanted to see how much differed, what I could and couldn’t do on it, etc. Here’s that site:
I used one of the many free themes WordPress.com has available for use. The info it contains is still good (I still have that collection), so I’ve kept that site up, untouched, for quite a number of years now. It’s been way over a year, in fact, since I last took a look at it. But I still remember the URL without breaking a sweat. That’s the nice thing about WordPress.com’s basic subdomain links: Get a decent, meaningful username, and they’re not difficult to remember.
You can probably tell what I see wrong with them though: one look and I know it’s a free account. It oozes “free, non-serious hobbyist here, just playing around with this free account.” Not exactly an image you want to portray if you want a professional one, like, say, for an author website (especially since a lot of folks know by now, those domain names aren’t really expensive). Or a business. Perfectly fine for a tiny, personal presence online (like my Principe Collection site), but for a professional image? Not so much.
This is very easily overcome by just getting and using your own domain name for the account, of course, raising it instantly from its “cheap non-serious hobbyist” look to a professional one. To get that set up properly on WordPress.com minimally, though (with no other technical feature additions beyond what you already have with a free account), well, that will require an upgrade to a Personal account. You’ll need to pay them a recurring fee. It’s inexpensive, but it is a monthly expenditure. Now do you see how they make money?
(Note too that the fee you pay WordPress.com for this does not include the annual cost of a domain name registration itself. You’ll likely be dealing with a separate company for that. That’s not expensive either, and a cost you’ll be taking on anyway if you want a domain name, regardless of which service provider you end up getting for your website.)
At any rate, I think you get the picture and know how WordPress.com works and how it differs from the self-hosted full-powered software you get from WordPress.org.
It’s a sure bet that I, of course, given a choice, will always take the self-hosted WordPress.org full-powered software route. But whether that’s the best option for you, at this juncture and stage of our relationship (me yakking, you reading, and not much else), there’s just no way for me to know.
I do know a few things for sure, though. or at least can conclude with high likelihood based on heavily experienced conjecture. From what I like to call ground zero (in this case, that’s someone starting with little to no knowledge), the things I know are:
- It will likely be easier, and hence faster, to get a WordPress site up-and-running and adequately working by taking the WordPress.com route.
- To achieve a “professional” site image using your own domain name, the monthly cost difference between using regular Web hosting and self-hosted WordPress vs. WordPress.com is practically negligible. But you’ll get a lot more (significantly so) in technical features and benefits with the self-hosted route. Whether you’ll know what to do with all that is an entirely different matter. In both cases, you still have to spend money getting a domain name.
- A head-to-head pricing comparison between self-hosted WordPress and WordPress.com isn’t really sensible, since they’re really two different types of hosting. Going by technical features alone, WordPress.com is significantly more expensive (not to mention that even though they price their offerings by the month, they do require you to pay for a whole year at a time). But WordPress.com is something like what is called “managed hosting,” freeing you from the worry and hassle of installing WordPress, keeping it maintained and updated, etc. It’s that “management” and the resulting ease-of-use (if all you really want is to use WordPress) that you’re paying extra for with WordPress.com.
- If your objective is to “learn WordPress,” where you can log on to pretty much any WordPress installation worldwide and be able to figure your way through, install and use themes and plugins, etc., self-hosted WordPress is better. The disadvantage of being a novice and starting off with WordPress.com is that you’ll be learning WordPress the WordPress.com way (with its slightly modified software and interface, limitations and inability to install and use 3rd party themes and plugins on anything less than a Business account, etc.). It’s like folks who drive cars with manual transmissions can easily figure out how to drive automatics, but going from automatic cars to ones with stick-shifts and clutches doesn’t work quite so well without more training and practice. The difference isn’t quite that technically dramatic, but you get the analogy.
- This also means that one of the biggest learning risks with starting off with WordPress.com is that, depending on your technical acumen, your knowledge will tend to get locked in to the way WordPress.com does things. Their way is a very focused, maybe even myopic, approach to putting these “tools” to work for you online. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! But just be aware that if you go with them from the start, be prepared for the likelihood that you’ll be sticking with them and “their way” for the long haul.
- Probably one of the biggest negatives of going the WordPress.com route is the likelihood of not being able to implement or even try out many of the technical ideas from me (and other online sources, for that matter) that I’ll be sharing and mapping out here on Wordpreneur, cool ideas and stuff you can use for your book marketing, freelancing, online publishing, etc. This is where many of WordPress.com’s restrictions, meant of course to protect you from complexity, will tend to get in the way. C’est la vie; there always seem to be trade-offs. I guess you’ll just have to weigh what matters the most to you and go with it.
I’m not sure if that really cleared anything up for you. But armed with more knowledge, that should eventually help you make the best decision for your needs and goals. Good luck!