WordPress.org vs WordPress.com: A Definitive Guide For 2013

Today we’re going to tackle the age old question: WordPress.com or WordPress.org? If you’re new to the world of WordPress, you’ll need some information in order to get started with your own blog or website. Here’s what we’ll be covering in this comparison post:

  • Differentiate between WordPress.org and WordPress.com
  • Compare Differences in:
    • Cost
    • Freedoms and Limitations
    • Maintenance and Development
  • How to decide between WordPress.com and WordPress.org

What is WordPress.org?

WordPress.org – home of the open source WordPress software
WordPress is the open source software that powers millions of websites around the web, including this one. WordPress.org is the center of the WordPress community. This is the website where the core software is hosted, along with thousands of free themes and plugins, all of which are 100% free to use and modify. Isn’t open source software beautiful?

WordPress.org is where you can find WordPress news, documentation and community support forums. It’s also the place to go if you want to get involved with WordPress and contribute to the open source software.

What is WordPress.com?

WordPress.com – A hosted version of WordPress
WordPress.com is a commercial website where you can host a free site with some limitations or pay for upgrades. It runs on the exact same software offered at WordPress.org. However, WordPress.com relieves you of having to set up and maintain WordPress on your own server.

What’s the catch?

In return for the free hosting and maintenance, your site will be laden with restrictions and advertising. You can pay yearly in order to have these removed. That’s the basic tradeoff. You can pay for upgrades or you can figure out how to set up WordPress on your own server and commit the time to maintain your site.

Now let’s examine three of the most important considerations when deciding between WordPress.org and WordPress.com: Cost, Freedoms and Limitations, and Maintenance and Development.

Cost Comparison

Even though WordPress is open source software, hosting your own WordPress site is not free. You will need hosting and a domain. Hosting will run you anywhere from $7/month and up. Domains are around $10+ per year. Once you’ve acquired these, you can use any WordPress theme or plugins you like.

Here’s a breakdown of the cost comparison:

WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com Cost Comparison

WordPress.com can be the least expensive option if you don’t want a custom domain name and don’t mind using their free themes with no modifications. There are many free themes to choose from, although they are somewhat plain and generic for the most part.

If you want a full-featured website with your own domain name, the ability to post videos, unlimited storage and no forced advertising, WordPress.com can become quite expensive. If cost is your most important consideration then using the software from WordPress.org will be your most affordable option.

Freedoms and Limitations

WordPress.com:
The folks at WordPress.com are running a business. They provide the convenience of a WordPress environment all ready to go for you. They maintain the software so that you never have to touch the code. In return, you’ll pay for any kind of upgrade that you want and you’ll trade some freedom. Your blog will also be used for advertising unless you pay $30.00 per blog, per year in order to remove advertisements. The whole world is selling something and your blog will be too, unless you buy a year of no ads. If you’re serious about your content, then ads may be a little tacky.

Despite their compelling sales text:

“Start a blog or build a full-fledged website. The only limit is your imagination.”

The only limit is not, in fact, your imagination. There are many limitations to hosting with WordPress.com:

  • Limited to WordPress.com themes
  • No custom plugins
  • Storage Space limit: 3GB and no videos (unless you pay more)
  • Limited control of content – unless you pay to remove ads
  • You cannot use any custom plugins or custom themes
  • No FTP access to your files for security reasons

WordPress.org:
When you set up a WordPress site on your own server, you have the freedom to do whatever you want with it.

  • Use any free or commercial plugin you want
  • Add and edit files via FTP
  • Tweak WordPress and server settings to improve performance
  • Full control of your content – no ads

To quickly summarize the freedoms and limitations:

WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com Freedoms and Limitations

If having full control over your WordPress site is the most important factor in your decision, then you’ll want to set up your own site using software from WordPress.org.

Maintenance and Development

WordPress.org:

WordPress maintenance and development can be a lot of work.
With full control comes full responsibility. If you host your own WordPress site you will need to be prepared to commit to providing regular maintenance and updates. Whenever the WordPress core software comes out with a new release, you’ll need to upgrade your site to make sure it’s secure and less vulnerable to hacking. If you have a spam problem (and believe me, you will), you’ll have to find your own solutions. WordPress sites are a favorite target of spammers and hackers. If there are any sorts of problems with your server, you’ll need to be able to handle that with your host.

Maintenance essentially translates into a time investment, unless you hire someone else to take care of it for you. If you are not comfortable with FTP and are not tech savvy then the maintenance factor will end up spilling over into your costs consideration.

WordPress.com:

With WordPress.com you won’t be up late at night with your hosting company, trying to fix this or that, you won’t be pulling your hair out because some of your key plugins broke with a WordPress upgrade. You won’t have to stay up-to-date with WordPress news or the software at all if you don’t want to. This is all taken care of for you by the WordPress.com support and development team, whether you host a free blog or one with paid upgrades. If you’re a casual blogger who occasionally likes to put few thoughts online, then the free WordPress.com account may be just the ticket for you.

The consideration of maintenance and development depends entirely on your skills and how much time and effort you want to put into maintaining your WordPress site.

If not having to tackle anything technical is your most important priority, then WordPress.com would be the best option for you.

The ultimate question – Which one should I use?

If you’re creating a website for a business, no matter how small, you must retain that flexibility to add plugins and extra functionality, custom themes. Even if you think you don’t need it right now, you may expand later and wish that you had an installation ready for you to expand more speedily.

Of course, you can always export your site from WordPress.com, but you’ll then have a whole list of things to handle before being up and running on your own self-hosted installation, ie. selecting hosting, migrating your current site, purchasing or designing your own theme, adding all the necessary plugins.

When choosing between WordPress.com and WordPress.org there are many factors to consider that could be important tipping points. Let’s examine some common use cases.

Common Use Cases:

These are, of course, some broadly generalized scenarios, as most people have a number of important factors at play when deciding where to host a blog. However, this chart should help to answer a few basic questions:

Consideration in choosing between WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com

Still can’t decide?

If you’re more of an audio or visual learner, then check out our WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com summary video from the WPMU DEV Video library. It provides a quick overview of everything you’ll want to consider when making your decision between the two:

Check Out the WordPress.org vs WordPress.com Infographic

WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com Infographic

We’ve also prepared a detailed infographic to summarize all of the major differences.

Since WordPress.com vs. WordPress.org is a common question among people who are new to WordPress, we’ve made it so that you can actually embed the graphic on your site as a point of reference.

Copy the embed code below and paste it onto your site:

Our Recommendation: WordPress.org

WordPress.org wins on two out of three of the main comparison points: Cost and Freedom. WordPress.com wins on the Maintenance factor. If you have the time and a little patience, it’s easy to set up your own WordPress installation. Most hosts even have 1-click installation for WordPress and other common applications. If you’re at all hoping for your site to grow, gain traffic and eventually require more complex functionality, then setting up your own WordPress site is the way to go.

Comments (17)

  1. It’s an interesting comparison, but not entirely apples to apples.

    If you want to compare on the basis of cost, a standalone WordPress site can easily reach $100/year. That’s about the same cost as the Pro bundle currently available on WordPress.com. The Pro bundle includes domain registration and mapping, the “no ads” upgrade +10GB additional storage+video and audio uploads+advanced customization. In other words, a number of the limitations you mentioned disappear at that level.

    More importantly, WordPress.com, being a commercial venture, is actively marketing their own verticals (Pro, Business, Enterprise and VIP tiers). Interestingly, this puts them in direct competition to standalone WP developers/designers. If the numbers are correct, WordPress.com hosts 50% of all WordPress sites on the web. So, apparently, not everyone is concerned about those limitations.

  2. Interesting, but like all comparisons and statistics, you can get the result you like :)
    Although I agree, but for another reason: developing sites is more fun than updating existing sites.

    What I really would like to see is another article: WPMU vs WordPress.org, but I guess we might have to read that somewhere else :)

  3. I would like to add that if you would like to make money with your blog, then WordPress.ORG is the one.

    Also, WordPress.COM is not accessible in CHINA. If you write Chinese or want to have Chinese visitors, WordPress.ORG again.

  4. Great post Sarah. I get this question a lot from clients who are trying to save money. WordPress.com is great for getting started blogging, but there is the added benefit of the built in readers on WordPress.com. Might even get a little bump in membership from the pending demise of Google Reader.

  5. An additional consideration: WordPress.com does not currently allow one to use Google Analytics for site stats (see http://en.support.wordpress.com/stats/ ).

    This might be a concern if you were using a WordPress.com blog on a subdomain (like blog.example.com ) and had a commerce site (say at commerce.example.com ): if you wanted to organize and analyze your site stats collectively, the WordPress.com blog would not be included in Google Analytics.

    If you only needed a blog, then the WordPress.com stats are very usable.

  6. Nice comparison

    I think WordPress.com is great, if you want a no frills very basic website with ads you receive no money from. If you want any kind of control, more space, use your own ads, edit your theme, or even if you’re considering purchasing a premium theme, I see absolutely no reason to use WordPress.com other than it’s maintenance free (which my self hosted site has been pretty much)

    Here’s one thing I noticed, I like Ememin theme by themeify, which is a premium theme. It costs $115 on WordPress.com and you never really own it (stays on WordPress.com).
    I purchased it from themeify, 2 themes for $39 at the time, it’s $39 right now. The extra $76 would pay for hosting for a year plus a domain and still have a few bucks left over.

    I understand themes need to be edited to be used on WordPress.com servers, but that’s almost 3 times the normal price of the theme. Bit high for me, okay for a beginner that has never created a website I guess.

    $30 just to remove the ads? no thanks

  7. Hi Sarah, Totally agree with you. WordPress.org is the best solution for businesses and Professionals, where you hold all the control at your own server. And WordPress.com is more suitable for bloggers who don’t need to customize the theme neither required to sell products or need multisite setup.

  8. This article really glosses over a lot of details if it is to be considered a “definitive guide for 2013″. One of the details that is completely glossed over is maintenance and making sure your site can scale with the amount of users you have visiting your site. Sure shared hosting plans are cheap (I assume this factors in to the cost comparisons here) but they all have deep limitations. “Unlimited bandwidth”, etc. mean nothing when your MySQL or PostgreSQL database is causing excessive throttling of your account (or worse causes it to be suspended).

    Self-hosted sites with really good performance also require installing and maintaining a caching system. Sure there are several good ones available as plugins but again this is not “normal user” territory.

    Running a successful self-hosted account requires a lot of work if you want to “Tweak WordPress and server settings to improve performance”. That is no small matter for someone to learn so it’s kind of silly to gloss over it that way.

    When using WordPress.com you don’t have to worry about any of that. Professionals who know what they’re doing are worrying about performance details and scaling, the user never has to. They never have to worry about performance problems if their site gets linked to from a huge traffic generator (like DaringFireball.net for the Apple community). Having run (and running) sites on both platforms I can say that most plugins needs most users are going to have are either covered by features built in to the WP.com codebase (code highlighting for example…..or sharing buttons) or are provided by their hosting servers (scaling and performance).

    So if you need ultimate control over your WordPress install by all means go with WordPress.org. Just realize you have quite a learning curve ahead of you and a higher monetary cost. If you do go this route install the Automattic Jetpack plugin. It will give you a lot of features that are provided by WP.com for your self-hosted blog.

  9. This is a useful article but I think you understate the value of not having to worry about site maintenance. My current wordpress.org site has just been hacked (probably through my hosting company) and wordpress.com is suddenly looking much more attractive. I’ve also had problems when upgrading WP in the past, despite deactivating plugins etc. These are not minor issues and can cause a lot of stress.

  10. Best article I have read in a long time, so impressed by how well it was written, answered all my questions, gave another method of learning- video and simple compare list, had to share it with my friends.
    Thank you!

  11. Liz: There’s never too much security layers for a web application. But since WP is very popular blogging app, it’s also a very tasty morsel for every sort of scumbags willing to do some harm (harvest data, infect website and so on). Unfortunately many plugins are leaky, thus I suggest to not install every single one. You can also try to block the traffic coming from abroad if you are not willing to get international visitors. A good and reliable web hosting should allow to do it [ I'm currently using services of http://www.webserwer.pl ] and I’m very pleased of the security level of this company. Not only security as they told me once why my website slowed down, and what can I do with that :)

    Nevertheless I wanted to point out that “Common Use Cases” lack one of the most important thing. On a self hosted WP blog/website, we have full control over the content we share. There are dozen ways we can make income. It doesn’t have to be high at the beginning. But placing some non intrusive ads, may be sufficient to pay the cost of own domain and web hosting account. But something like a “Guide to Website Monetization” is a thread for another post.

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