WordPress.com vs. Self-Hosted WordPress – What You Need To Know

WordPress.com vs. Self-Hosted WordPress - What You Need To KnowWhen I was first starting out with WordPress, I was rather confused by the fact that there seemed to be two versions. I had previously built websites from scratch with Notepad and a FTP client, so the world of content management systems was new to me. And before I had even started – before I even had a particularly good understanding of what WordPress actually was – I had to make a choice.

If I am honest with you, I don’t think there is a particularly good comparison piece between WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress out there. In fact, I don’t think that even WordPress.com does a particularly fair job of comparing the two options (we’ll get into why later). So I thought I would take this opportunity to give you my opinion on the differences between WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress, so that you can make a more informed decision as to which option to take.

What Is The Difference?

In my opinion, the main issue when deciding whether to choose WordPress.com or self-hosted WordPress is having a true understanding of the structural difference.

The best analogy I can think of to make clear the differences between WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress is that of computers. Self-hosted WordPress is the equivalent of buying your own PC. It is yours to do with as you wish – you can add components, install software, browse the internet unrestricted – the world is your oyster. Meanwhile, WordPress.com is the equivalent of using a library computer. You’re operating within a controlled environment. You do not have the same freedom as you would have with your own PC.

That, in a nutshell, is the main difference. WordPress.com is restricted – self-hosted WordPress is not.

So Why Bother With WordPress.com?

If you are happy to work within the restrictions, you can have a site up and running at no cost – the same cannot be said for self-hosted WordPress. But that’s not all – WordPress.com offers some additional features that do not come as standard with self-hosted WordPress. For someone who only has a very casual or tentative interest in web publishing, WordPress is a great starting ground. Sign up, log in, and get posting.

But in this author’s humble opinion, WordPress.com is not a viable long-term solution for most people looking to take anything more than a casual interest in blogging.

Pros and Cons

At this stage it would be pertinent to take a closer look at how WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress differ. First of all, it is important to note that on a macro level, they are one and the same. They are based upon the same piece of software. But whilst self-hosted WordPress just hands over the keys and lets you drive, WordPress.com packages the software up in a somewhat restrictive way, then gives you control of what is left.

Here is a rundown of what WordPress.com has to offer over self-hosted WordPress, straight out of the box:

  • Free hosting (up to 3gb)
  • Automatic backups
  • Automatic upgrades
And here are some of the restrictions of the WordPress.com platform:
  • No custom themes or plugins
  • No PHP/CSS customization
  • Monetization (through advertising, affiliate links, etc) is not allowed
  • WordPress.com will run their own advertising on your site
  • No custom analytics

Here is a rundown of what self-hosted WordPress has to offer over WordPress.com:

  • Unrestricted theme and plugin uploads
  • Complete control over your site
And the downsides of self-hosted WordPress:
  • You will need to pay for a domain and hosting

Myths Dispelled

There seem to be certain false preconceptions about both WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress, and I would like to take this opportunity to dispel them.

1. WordPress.com is a Charity

WordPress.com is a commercial enterprise like any other. They offer a free service in the hope that you will eventually pay for premium features.

You could spend $17 on domain mapping, $20 on extra hosting, $30 on basic design customization, and $30 to remove advertisements. Before you know it you’ve forked out close to $100, and you’ve just done a bad job of emulating a self-hosted WordPress installation that would have cost you about $70 (for a year).

2. Using Self-Hosted WordPress Requires Mad Skills

You do not need to be a technical genius to use self-hosted WordPress. Here’s what the two interfaces look like:

WordPress.com
WordPress.com
Self-hosted WordPress
Self-hosted WordPress

In what way is self-hosted WordPress supposed to be more complicated?

The fact is, it is barely any more difficult to set up a self-hosted WordPress site than it is one on WordPress.com. Buy a domain and hosting, install WordPress with the one click install process found on any reputable hosting provider. A quick search on Google will tell you everything you need to know. Yes, one could argue that WordPress.com is more straightforward for the completely uninitiated, but the gap is not nearly as wide as some make it out to be.

My favorite way of proving the simplicity of getting started with self-hosted WordPress is this four minute video from Pat Flynn of Smart Passive Income. It takes him a total of four minutes to purchase a domain and hosting, install WordPress, and write a post.

3. Self-Hosted WordPress Costs Money

Self-hosted WordPress is open source and completely free. It is the domain name and hosting that costs you money. That’s $10 for the domain for a year from GoDaddy or NameCheap, and $5 per month for hosting from BlueHost or HostGator. So an outlay of around $70 for a year. Even if blogging is just a hobby, that’s the cheapest damn hobby I can think of.

Which Is For You?

I am clearly an exponent of self-hosted WordPress, but that does not mean I have anything against WordPress.com. I just feel that there is a far better solution for the vast majority of people.

And of course, we are huge fans of custom themes and plugins here at WPMU.org – which are not allowed by WordPress.com. If you are new to the world of WordPress, you probably do not yet understand the sheer scope of what you would be missing out on by going with WordPress.com.

But ultimately it is up to you. If you want a simple, free and limited service to build your own basic blog, WordPress.com is arguably the best service of its type. You get free hosting, free backups, and a user-friendly interface with which you can start blogging in minutes. But if you want to unleash the full power of WordPress, there really is only one option.

Creative Commons image courtesy of TheBusyBrain

47 Responses

    George Angus

    I think another consideration is the poor reader who would like to leave a comment and subscribe to the comments for a post. A self hosted site is easy. Name, email, website if there is one. Done. If someone comments I get notified. WordPress.com is typically a pain in the hiney. If I want to see comments, I get an email I have to respond to (sometimes two) and overall it is just an un-user-friendly process.

    George

    Josh Robbs

    Great post! Comparing those 2 isn’t as simple as many would believe. 1 thing I would add is using a desktop server (ServerPress has a free one) that would let you learn self-hosted WordPress at WordPress.com prices (free!). Not a hosting solution, but a great training solution. You can play all you want and no one will see your mistakes.

    Thanks for the post,

    Josh

    aman_jain

    Hello,
    I manage 14 SelfHosted WordPress Blogs (some are my own and some of others)
    And I use Jetpack and I wanted to add a follow Button on my blog just as it appears on WordPress.Com Blogs
    Please Help

      Tom Ewer

      Hi Aman,

      I’m afraid I don’t know what a WordPress.com follow button looks like, but there are an enormous number of social media plugins for self-hosted WordPress (like Digg Digg, for instance). I’m sure you can get the look you desire.

      Cheers,

      Tom

      illuminea

      Aman, the Follow button on WordPress.com is kind of like the follow functionality on Tumblr – when you “follow” a WordPress.com blog, it gets added to a kind of reader that you can access when logged in to WordPress.com at this URL: http://wordpress.com/#!/read/. Adding a Follow button like this to a self-hosted blog doesn’t really have a point since it can’t be added to the WordPress.com network.

      Which, by the way Tom, is one of the features that WordPress.com offers that self-hosted doesn’t – an opportunity to be part of a network and have your posts featured in various places: Freshly Pressed, in users’ Follow list, and as part of tags – in WP.com tags are network wide, not blog-specific.

      I tell people who are just getting started in blogging to start with WP.com and see how it goes. If they see they’re into it, and/or their blog starts to gain traction, then they should consider moving to self-hosted. There’s less risk that way, and it’s less scary for newbies.

          illuminea

          No, it’s kind of like getting featured on the front page of Digg (in days past) or trending on Twitter: it’s rare, but worth a lot if it happens. I just mentioned it as another feature that could be advantageous, that is not available on self-hosted WP sites.

    Marge Dovichak Burkell

    Good article. It was very confusing to me when I first started using WordPress two years ago. Ultimately the ability to monetize led me to self-hosted. I also subscribed to WordPress Direct at that time but am now questioning that cost. I am not quite sure what advantage that service even gives me and was just following given advice at the time. An article outlining using WPD vs. no WPD in conjunction with self-hosted sites would be great! In the meantime, thanks for this concise article!

      Tom Ewer

      Hi Marge,

      Can’t say that I’ve heard of WordPress Direct, but having just briefly checked it out, it looks a bit suspect to me…they put content on your blog for you? Rather defeats the object, doesn’t it?

      Anyway, thank you!

      Tom

    Corrinda Campbell

    Those are all good points. In point 2 you mention the 1-click install, which is easy but not at all secure. The 1-click install has gotten several clients in trouble with hacked sites. There is a difference between 1-click installing a site and putting up a post just to show you can in 4 minutes. It is another task to setup a professional, secure, converting website.

    Jim Kitzmiller

    There is also the issue of dealing with hackers. WordPress.com handles that for you.

    Repairing hacked sites can be overwhelming to a newbie self-hosted user. Do you know a simple solution?

      Tom Ewer

      To be honest Jim, I don’t know. I have started around 20 blogs and none of them have had any problems with hackers. There are of course security plugins available if you have this kind of concern – just search the WPMU archives and you will find plenty of information :-)

        Sandy M

        This is a very current topic for me – considering how/where to move a one-year-old blog off of blah.wordpress.com so that it’s at our business URL. When I saw the headline, I was really quick to click through. I’m in the position of knowing lots about technology, but very little about these 2 wordpress options in particular.

        Does anyone provide something very similar to wordpress.com, but for a reasonable fee, fewer restrictions, and they administer the wp software for you? That’s what I want.

        As a small-business owner, I don’t want to spend even one hour a month looking for and installing security “thingies” on a self-hosted wp site. I want to spend that hour writing more content in my blog. I would prefer to pay someone else to host it AND take care of the wordpress software itself. And definitely I do not want to have to repair a hacked or broken site.

        As for the danger of hackers hitting WordPress – I ended up on this site in order to read “Infected WordPress Sites Connected to Trojans on Approx. 700,000 Macs”. Somehow your 20 unhacked blogs does not make me feel safe in contrast with that headline :(

        Again, this is a great article, Tom, it’s quite helpful. Thanks for sharing it.

    Patty J. Ayers

    Good article. If you’re only talking to fairly technical people, it’s 100% right. No, it’s not rocket science to set up a self-hosted WP site, but for someone who has just a non-web-professional’s knowledge, it’s definitely challenging. That’s where WordPress.com comes in, I think.

      Angela Anderson

      I would definitely agree with Patty’s point. I’m having difficulty figuring out what’s what in the process, between GoDaddy and WP. I really don’t know where to start, and it can be a bit nerve-wracking. Any suggestions for helpful resources?

    George Mendelson

    I think WordPress.org is way better, with it you can practically build a website in 3 easy steps, as a home-user and beginner, without bothering about money (only for hosting, but that’s such a small price), webdesigners or programmers… Yes, it might be challenging, but if you have the right tools at your hand (plugins, easy-to-use theme generators, like Lubith, online tutorials, coding tweaks), it’s definitely approachable and it’s worth more than WordPress.com in the end.

    Chilton Tippin

    Hi Tom,

    WordPress Support says that with WordPress.org self-hosted sites the user is “responsible for stopping spam, creating and maintaining backups of their site, updating the WordPress software when new versions are released, and managing spikes in traffic.” As a beginning blogger, should I concern myself with these things, which all seem quite technical to me, or is WordPress making it sound more technical than it truly is? Could you possibly explain how I would know when WordPress software is updating so my blog isn’t one day obsolete? Or what I would do to maintain backups of my site?

      Tom Ewer

      Hi Chilton,

      Yes – it sounds far more technical than it is. Install the Akismet plugin to stop spam. Download any number of backup plugins for automated backups (just search here on WPMU for multiple suggestions). When WordPress displays a big sign saying “Click here to update”, click it ;-) and finally, don’t worry about spikes in traffic for the time being. It’ll be a happy issue when it occurs (which probably won’t be for a while).

      Cheers,

      Tom

    Verushka Ga Nun

    Nice comparison! You didn’t mention anything about speed so I’m curious: is WordPress.com generally faster than WordPress.org? I’m blogging for fun using a self-hosted blog. I find it very slow (much slower than everything else I do on my PC; I have a high speed internet connection) – I’m guessing I need something installed to speed things up (or else something uninstalled)? I’m considering switching to .com because with this issue I’ve lost interest in posting regularly. My webhosting help desk says it has to do with WordPress.org and how they maintain their stuff.

      Tom Ewer

      Hello Verushka,

      I’m afraid that there is no simple answer – there are too many variables at play. There is no reason however why self-hosted WordPress on a decent hosting platform should not perform well.

      Cheers,

      Tom

    Charles Stevenson

    Thanks for the post. I have a blog on wordpress.com which I set up parallel to another website I own and am now looking to move the blog part off so as to link adwords and have it indexed in google. You offered wise and concise words. Very helpful.

    Charles

    kiran

    Thanks for the post. I have a blog on wordpress.com (free version) wherein I have loads of songs with lyrics, which was really painful in collecting all of those. Now I sometimes fear would they archive my blog and really its started to bug me a lot. Sometimes even thinking of moving to blogger. Kindly suggest…”Do I need to worry?”

      Tom Ewer

      Hi Kiran,

      First of all, what makes you think they are going to “archive” your blog?

      Secondly, if you value your content and want control over it, get yourself set up with a self-hosted blog.

      Cheers,

      Tom

    jeff_williams

    If i would have known what life was like before I went to fully managed hosting I would have done it sooner. I signed up for pressracks.net and wpengine, I eventually put all my sites on pressracks.net. Unreal support, they fix anything even if I break my site! I will never host my own site again.

    David Stembridge

    Hi Tom,
    Do you lose anything moving over to self hosted?
    I’d like to move a wordpress.com blog over to join my other self hosted; but the author has a number of followers, and connections via wordpress.com
    Great article, thanks!

      Tom Ewer

      Hi David,

      I’m not an authority on switching, but you could set up a 301 redirect so that visitors to the old WordPress.com site are immediately directed to the new self-hosted site.

      Cheers,

      Tom

    Priscilla Marie, RD

    Great article! Now, is using WordPress through MAMP considered self-hosting? When doing it this way do you have to pay the monthly hosting site?? Thanks for your help!

      Tom Ewer

      Hi Priscilla,

      If you are running a local version of WP (i.e. on your computer) using MAMP, you are using your own computer as the hosting provider, so there are no fees to pay. But no one will be able to access your site. Am I interpreting your question correctly?

      Cheers,

      Tom

    Celeste Anton

    Thanks for this helpful article! I have some followup questions though. 1) Is it possible to use our own domain and not one that ends “wordpress.com”? 2) Are there example pages you know of where we can see what the ads on pages look like? And do we have any control over what kinds of ads show? 3) Is Akismet free with free WordPress? 4) Is it easy to switch to self-hosted later? and finally 5) I know I can’t edit the CSS, but can we change anything on the theme. For example, have our own background image?

    Thanks for any help you can offer!

      Tom Ewer

      Hi Celeste,

      1. Yes
      2. I’m not sure what ads you’re referring to…
      3. Free for personal blogs, although it runs on a trust system really…
      4. In theory it should be relatively simple — I’ve never tried it.
      5. You have limited customization options with WordPress.com.

      Cheers,

      Tom

    Marta Eleniak

    So glad to have found this article. I have two health food blogs. One is wp.com and the other more recent one a self-hosted blog. my biggest issue with the wp.com one is I am in the UK giving advice about where to eat healthily here but it is seen by Google as a US site because it is hosted by wp.com which means I don’t show up in UK search results. However on the wp hosted one there is heaps of functionality I don’t get with the WP install that I am really missing.

    I would be ever so grateful if someone could advise me how I get my self-hosted WP install to have:
    -URLs not based on page/post ID numbers but useful words for SEO
    -A prompt I can custom in the comments field
    -Usage stats like the wp.com one gives
    -Same widget choice the wp.com one offers and widgets to stay in right hand column of pages too
    -Option to use feed burner so that if people sign up to new posts, they come via a HTML email with pictures (actually that may have nothing to do with wp but I like these best from the blogs that I follow)

    I am on brink of giving up on new self-hosted blog and making it a wp.com one as everything I want is there ready for me. Are these things plugins and do I need to pay to have them? Any pointers appreciated as I would love all the functionality in my self-hosted that wp.com offers.

    Kathy

    As someone who started with wordpress.com but wanted to do affiliate links (not a lot, just some), I ended up jumping to wordpress.org. While I really like not having oversight, there are some things with self-hosted that can be extremely frustrating.
    1. People seem to think everyone is a bloody genious when it comes to customization and being able to fix things. Ask one simple question and people will start spouting off things that make zero sense to the average user and make you spend 12 hours scouring websites for an answer only to come out more confused.
    2. If you break it, you fix it.
    3. Traffic can be higher on the wordpress.com side and with self-hosted you have to go find your own traffic or buy plugins/etc to get the ranking and help to get your site found by people.
    4. Themes…you have lots of options, but again, as a novice user, if you install the wrong theme, good luck trying to fix it.

    Final note: I recently broke my own website trying to fix a problem. I used to know how to build websites from scratch back in the 90’s, but have no clue how to do modern website building. Do I recommend self-hosted? Sure, but be aware that if you don’t have much knowledge with modern website design, you will run into some crazy roadblocks and there are many money grubbing nasty websites out there too happy to reach into your pocket. A lot of wordpress help websites out there is half-baked in an effort to get you to buy things. Just do your research before giving money out and only get themes from trusted sources.

    Why can’t wordpress be more like tumblr..nice and easy to setup and fix.

    Rich Assaf

    Thanks for the clarifying article – We’re considering moving our small-business blog to self-hosted (website is at Network Solutions), but I’m interested if this will increase SEO or offer other advantages in bringing additional traffic to the main web site. Can anyone shed light on this?

    celia_jane

    I just started blogging on WordPress.com and would like to try wordpress.org but cannot figure out how to get it up and running. Is there some place I can learn about this. I had to go to my iYogi support to get the damn files unzipped. Then I had to go back and get FreeFileViewer to open the PHP files. None of this tells me how to get wordpress.org up and running.

    I don’t know anything about programming and don’t have time to learn. I need something in plain English. Is there such a thing or do I continue to limp along with WordPress.com?

      Tiyo Kamtiyono

      Oh my, zip package is a native package on windows, don’t know if you’re on a mac, but it suppose to be the same. To open PHP file you can even using notepad, but I prefer Programmers Notepad or Sublime Text.

      WordPress Codex is always good reference about installing WordPress codex.wordpress.org/Installing_WordPress

      Just use Google if you still have question.