I love WordPress – I really do. There’s a reason it’s currently the most popular website platform out there. It allows you to build an amazing website (including a blog, if you want one) filled with great functionality that’s friendly to search engines and easy to use. This site is built in WordPress.
But the people behind WordPress made a mistake when it came to making sure people understand the difference between their two primary offerings, and you need to understand what that difference is:
- WordPress (often referred to as WordPress.org) is a content management system platform that is installed and runs on your own web hosting server (via SiteGround or some other hosting service provider).
- WordPress.com is a network of blogs/websites using the WordPress platform that runs WordPress.com’s own web hosting server(s).
Even that explanation is confusing if you don’t know what I’m talking about. So let me break it down for you…
Let’s start with WordPress.com
- Like Blogger or Tumblr, WordPress.com allows you to create a blog-based website very quickly. By default, it will “live” at [name-you-choose].wordpress.com — but the people behind WordPress have kindly added a bonus add-on feature that allows you to get a domain name from them, and point it to your WordPress.com site. That means that you can get a domain name like, “thisismydomainname.com” and connect it up to your WordPress.com site and that is where your site will now “live.”
- WordPress.com allows you to use a bunch of templates/themes that they make available to change the way your site looks and those templates allow you to do things like add your own logo to the top of the page and make other basic changes to personalize your site. And for a little extra money, you can get in there and make some additional customizations if you know what you’re doing (ie: you’re comfortable with making code changes). But it doesn’t let you do whatever you want to your site. You can’t add functionality like plugins to the site, or change the functionality that comes with it, or completely customize the layout. They intentionally limit what’s possible to keep it simple and easy-to-use. This means that aside from the small changes you can make, your website might look very similar to many other websites out there. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to consider.
- WordPress.com is primarily for blog-based websites. Yes, you can add static pages, and tailor your site to be a portfolio-site or a news-based site, but primarily it’s optimized for people who plan to generate content via a blogging model. And they make it easy for you to connect your WordPress.com blog to your social media profiles, which is nice.
- To edit your site and add blog posts, you’ll login to your account at WordPress.com where you’ll have access to an administrative dashboard that allows you to see some statistics about your site in addition to creating and editing content for the blog and website pages.
- To sum up: if you’re looking for a quick, easy and inexpensive way to create a website yourself in which the blog will be an important feature, and customization isn’t that important to you, WordPress.com is a great option for you.
So, what’s different about WordPress.org?
- You can install the same software that runs all WordPress.com sites on a web hosting server that you pay to use. You will either download it from WordPress.org and follow their installation directions, or, even better almost all web hosts provide a button when logged into your web hosting account that handles the install for you in a single click. I use and recommend SiteGround for web hosting. They’re competitively priced, have great customer service, and allow you to do everything you could possibly need to do to administer your website online.
- Once WordPress is installed, you will access it via your own domain name at an address like: mydomainname.com/wp-admin — there you will have access to an administrative dashboard where you can control absolutely everything about how the site looks and behaves.
- Because WordPress is open-source software, there’s a huge community of people designing templates/themes for it and creating special functionality you can add to it, called plugins. You can use freely available themes, you can purchase “premium” themes, or you can build yourself (or hire someone to build you) a custom theme. Plugins are also freely available, or you can purchase premium plugins.
- Often, free and premium themes allow you to tailor your site to make it look and behave differently than anything you could do with a WordPress.com site. Some even allow you to easily turn your site into an e-commerce site or a learning management system (for example). And while they often allow you to make some customizations to the themes (add your own logo, choose a color palette, turn on/off different areas of the site), you’ll still be somewhat limited by the theme you use when it comes to what you can make your site look like & do. This isn’t necessarily bad because there are some *great* premium (and free!) themes out there that will make a wonderful site — so if you do your research to find one that does everything that you need and you love the way that it looks, it can be a great way to get a site up and running pretty quickly.
- If you choose to build a custom theme, or hire someone to do this for you (this is the majority of the work that I do) the sky is the limit. With a custom theme you can make the site behave the way that you want, look exactly how you want, and you are in complete control of the code behind it.
- Plugins are little pieces of software you can add to WordPress to add functionality easily. For example, there are plugins that enhance the security of your site, or make social media sharing easy, or enhance your SEO, or to integrate something like Twitter or Instagram into your site. Not all plugins are 100% awesome, however, nor do they all work together perfectly with all themes, so proceed with caution.
- Both the WordPress software and the plugins that you install will be updated regularly — just like you update the OS & apps on your phone as updates become available. You’ll be notified when new updates are available from your dashboard & it’s easy to install the updates there too. The updates are primarily to fix bugs and add new features. Many web hosts now automate updates for you too.
- To sum up: If you want more flexibility when it comes to your website in terms of the way it looks and the way it behaves you need WordPress installed on your own web hosting server. Premium themes are a great option if you’re on a limited budget and you find one that looks and behaves the way that you want. Custom themes, while more expensive, are the way to go if you want to really be in control of the way your site looks to make it truly uniquely branded, and to be able to control what functionality it provides.
You may be wondering why you would choose WordPress.com over WordPress installed, in that the installed version gives you so many more options. Something to consider is that it might give you too many options, and therefore create unnecessary complexity for you in terms of managing your site. It’s important to balance the desire you have for freedom of choice with a realistic assessment of your time, skill and budget when it comes to deciding what’s right for you.
And remember, no matter which option you choose, neither will help you figure out the best content or functionality to put on your site to make it a success. So make sure you do your research (or hire someone to help you) before you get started!