WordPress.com or WordPress.org: What’s the Difference?
For many people, WordPress is synonymous with the internet. The open-source software has been around for nearly two decades and its popularity has risen in near lockstep with the web. In fact, according to Hosting Tribunal, it hosts just a smidge under 40 percent of all websites on the internet.
Despite its popularity, there’s still some confusion for people looking to leverage WordPress for their websites. If you Google “WordPress,” you get WordPress.com in the number one spot and WordPress.org right beneath it. What are the differences and which one should you choose?
The confusion is understandable. Both products are created and maintained by the same company: Automattic. They also both use what’s essentially the same software at their core. But there are some very real differences between the two that affects what kind of website you can build with them. Let’s take a look at those differences.
What’s in a Content Management System
Before jumping right into to the distinctions between the two systems, it’s helpful to understand what WordPress actually is.
The WordPress software is what’s known as a Content Management System, or CMS for short. Put simply, it’s a program that runs online that allows you to publish content. Put a little less simply, it’s a web application comprised of three components:
- The front end, which is what your visitors see and interact with
- The back end, where you create content, add plugins and change your theme
- The core code and database that WordPress runs on
WordPress—or any other CMS—allow non-programmers to create, customize and maintain all kinds of websites, from blogs to media sites to ecommerce shops. It provides the core code and database in an easy-to-use package so that an author, publisher or business owner can log in, create content and publish it online.
That said, all websites on the internet require web hosting. For your website to exist, you need it placed on a server somewhere so that it can be broadcasted online and people can visit it. And that’s where the key differences between WordPress.com and WordPress.org come in.
WordPress.com versus WordPress.org
WordPress.org is a product. It’s the software created and maintained by Automattic and provided to anyone—free of charge. The software itself is created from various web technologies and packaged for download, but it’s not like a typical program: It requires a web server to run. This server also requires a pre-configured database for WordPress to connect to and store all of its settings and content.
WordPress.com, on the other hand, is a service. It’s essentially the same software that you can download for free from WordPress.org, except it’s already set up and hosted for you. This means you don’t need to do any of the downloading or installing nor any of the web server and database configuration. Everything is ready to go for you. But that’s not without a few critical caveats.
At first glance, WordPress.com might seem like the better choice, especially for the non-tech folks who just want to set up a site for their business or blog. But the service’s free tier offers quite a few limitations:
- Your site exists under the WordPress subdomain, meaning you can’t have a site pointing to your-name.com
- You can’t remove WordPress ads or branding from your site
- You can’t monetize your site with ads
- You have limited disk space
- You can’t use any of the thousands of available WordPress plugins or themes
Of course, WordPress.com does offer higher tier services that give you the ability to overcome these limitations, but the prices are fairly steep, starting at $4 per month. If you want to do something as basic as use your own plugins—arguably the biggest benefit of WordPress—you’ll need to pay $25 per month, billed on a yearly basis.
The core WordPress software, on the other hand, is completely free. You can install it on your own web server and host it via a web host and get full access to all of WordPress’s features, including the thousands of free and premium plugins and themes. You also don’t have any kind of ads or branding on your website. If you want to put your own ads on it, you can potentially monetize your blog that way.
That said, hosting WordPress yourself does mean you’re responsible for the hosting, initial setup and maintenance of your website. You’ll also need to register your own domain and point it to your web host and worry about renewing that every year.
Given WordPress’s popularity, however, there are numerous high-quality web hosts that offer automated setup. Any one of these hosts—many of which offer dedicated WordPress hosting—offer one-click installations of WordPress that handle all the back end database configuration. They present you with a fresh WordPress install as though you’d started an account on WordPress.com. The difference is that you have complete freedom and control of your site.
Another consideration with self-hosting is maintenance. WordPress is complex software that requires frequent updates and security measures to ensure the best possible performance for your site and experience for your visitors. The WordPress software, as well as the plugins and themes you use, receive regular updates. Keeping them all updated is something you need to consider when self-hosting. Fortunately, a managed service provider can help you do all of that.
Despite the extra headway necessary to host your own WordPress software, with affordable hosting and managed WordPress maintenance, you can accomplish the same thing that WordPress.com does at similar price points. The key difference is that you get a lot more freedom with your own solution. You could even fork your software later on down the road and build out your own solutions if your business calls for it. That’s something you simply can’t do with WordPress.com.
So, Which One to Choose?
For those that need a simple website to publish blog posts to, WordPress.com’s free tier is a good option. It has everything you need to carve out your own little corner on the web. It’s an especially good option if you’re a technophobe, and you just don’t want to deal with any jargon or cruft.
For those that want a serious web presence, however, there’s really no competition: A self-hosted version of WordPress is the way to go. At similar price points, there’s simply no reason to hamstring your business’s online presence with any sort of limitations. Even if you don’t require the extra capabilities now, there’s a good chance you will.
WordPress is excellent software. Half of the internet wouldn’t be running it if it weren’t. Regardless of the option you choose, you’re getting an incredibly stable, fast, secure, and great-looking website that’s attractive and easy to use.
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