Which One Should You Use in 2021?

Trying to understand the difference between WordPress.com vs WordPress.org and which one is a better place for your website?

Despite sharing the same name, these are two different tools with different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to making a website.

So — how can you pick?

Well, that’s what I’m here to help with in this post!

I’ll explain the basic difference between WordPress.com vs WordPress.org so that you understand what’s happening.

Then, I’ll highlight some meaningful differences between the two and help you pick the right option for your needs.

Before we go deeper into the comparison, let’s first see how each tool works and the basic differences between the two.

Let’s start with WordPress.org.

WordPress.org is the home of the non-profit, open-source WordPress content management system. Anyone can go to WordPress.org, download the open-source software for free, and use it to create a website by installing it on their own web hosting. This is why you’ll also see WordPress.org called “self-hosted WordPress”. Self-hosted WordPress and WordPress.org are the exact same thing.

The WordPress.org software is maintained by a huge group of contributors. If you have the skills, you can even become a contributor yourself to participate in the open-source project.

WordPress.com homepage

WordPress.com is one specific way of using the WordPress.org software from a for-profit company called Automattic. It offers a simplified way to create a site powered by the WordPress.org software, but at the expense of some flexibility. In a way, WordPress.com acts like a hosting service, though it builds its own custom experience that’s different from other hosts. It offers a free plan for simple blogs or websites and paid plans for people who need more flexibility.

WordPress.com is similar to a premium type of WordPress hosting called “managed WordPress hosting“, which will make more sense as you continue reading this post.

Another way to think of it is like this:

All WordPress.com sites use the WordPress.org software, but not all sites that use the WordPress.org software are built on WordPress.com. In fact, most sites that use the WordPress.org software are not on WordPress.com. Here’s a “fancy” diagram (not to scale):

WordPress.com vs WordPress.org usage

When most people say “WordPress”, they mean the open-source WordPress.org software. 

Similarly, when you see stats like “WordPress powers 42% of all websites on the Internet“, it refers to all sites using the open-source WordPress.org software, not only WordPress.com sites.

The Philosophical Difference between WordPress.com vs WordPress.org

I’ll get into some more nitty-gritty differences below, but I would sum up the basic idea as follows:

  • WordPress.org emphasizes flexibility and self-ownership/control, at the expense of some simplicity.
  • WordPress.com emphasizes simplicity, at the expense of some flexibility and self-ownership/control.

This doesn’t mean that WordPress.org isn’t simple (it’s still pretty easy to use) or that WordPress.com isn’t flexible (it’s still flexible enough for a lot of people). 

It just means that the primary emphases of these two platforms lean in those directions. You’ll see how this difference plays out in meaningful ways further on in this post.

Why Do They Have the Same Name? That’s Confusing!

If you’re confused by the fact that WordPress.org and WordPress.com have the same name, you’re definitely not alone. 

This has been a longstanding source of confusion for many WordPress newbies, and it’s something that a lot of people wish were changed.

To understand why they share the name, we first need to cover a quick history of the WordPress project.

The open-source WordPress project (WordPress.org) was launched back in 2003 by two co-founders, Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little.

The open-source software is free by its nature, so there wasn’t a way to directly monetize it.

To create an option for monetization, Matt Mullenweg launched Automattic and WordPress.com in 2005. Because Matt was a founder of both projects (and because of the way that the WordPress trademark is set up), he was able to use “WordPress” in both names.

Despite that, WordPress.com and WordPress.org are 100% separate projects. But because the same people are involved in both, there’s a lot of overlap, hence the confusion.

How to Create a Site with WordPress.org vs WordPress.com

Next, let’s look at the basic process of creating a website with WordPress.org and WordPress.com, as this will help you better understand the high-level differences.

WordPress.org

Creating a website with WordPress.org is a little more complex because you need to set up the WordPress software on your own hosting.

First, you’ll choose a web hosting service — we collected the fastest options here. Then, you’ll need to install the WordPress software on that hosting.

While this might sound technical, it’s really not. Because WordPress is so popular, most web hosts offer beginner-friendly tools to install WordPress.

For example, to install WordPress on Kinsta web hosting (our review), you need to fill out a simple form like this:

Install the open-source WordPress software at Kinsta

From there, you can manage everything related to your site from your WordPress dashboard:

WordPress.org dashboard

From the dashboard, you can choose a theme to control your site’s design, install plugins to add new features, and create content using the post editor:

Install WordPress themes

Basically, you really don’t need any special technical knowledge to make a site with WordPress.org.

WordPress.com

Creating a website with WordPress.com is super simple — you head to WordPress.com and register for an account. By following the simple setup wizard, you can have a working site within minutes.

First, you’ll choose a name:

WordPress.com setup

Then, you can pick a design:

WordPress.com choose theme

Once you launch your site, you can manage it from a simple dashboard.

The dashboard is mostly the same as WordPress.org, but it does include modifications in a few areas. You’ll also get a nice getting started guide to help you configure important basics:

WordPress.com dashboard

So while WordPress.org is still something a non-technical person can handle, WordPress.com is undoubtedly simpler because it’s as easy as registering for an account.

Pricing is tricky to compare between WordPress.com vs WordPress.org because there are a lot of variables.

However, in general, WordPress.org offers a cheaper way to access the full flexibility of the WordPress software.

Why is it tricky to compare? Well, WordPress.com has fixed prices, while the cost to run a WordPress.org site depends on the hosting that you choose.

Cheap WordPress hosting for low-traffic sites can cost as little as ~$5 per month, while premium hosting can easily run $30+ per month.

Here’s how that compares to WordPress.com’s pricing. The image below shows the monthly prices at WordPress.com — you’ll also get a discount if you pay annually:

WordPress.com pricing vs WordPress.org

In addition to these paid plans, WordPress.com also offers a limited free plan (though it doesn’t make this obvious).

One very important distinction to understand when it comes to pricing is the difference between WordPress.com’s free or cheap plans and its Business and eCommerce plans.

These plans are radically different. In fact, I’d say they’re almost like completely different services.

The free plan, Personal plan, and Premium plan are all very limited. You do not get access to the full flexibility of the WordPress.org software because you can’t install your own WordPress extensions.

On the other hand, the Business and eCommerce plans are a lot closer to WordPress.org in terms of flexibility. But the downside is that they’re more expensive. You’ll pay a minimum of $30 per month, while you could run a simple WordPress.org site on $5 per month hosting.

More on this below.

Now that you have some background, let’s talk about some of the meaningful differences that you’ll encounter between using WordPress.com vs WordPress.org. These are the differences that should shape your decision.

1. Third-Party Extensions (WordPress Themes and Plugins)

WordPress themes and plugins are one of the best things about using WordPress:

  • Themes – these control how your website looks. I always call them a website’s “clothing”.
  • Plugins – these add new features to your site. They can be small features such as a contact form or big features such as a full-service eCommerce store, online courses, a visual drag-and-drop page builder, and more.

With the self-hosted WordPress.org software, you can always install any theme or plugin, no matter where it comes from.

With WordPress.com, you will not be allowed to install your own plugins and themes unless you’re on the more expensive plans.

On the free and cheap plans, you cannot install WordPress plugins or themes, which means you’re pretty much limited to basic blogging or simple portfolio sites. This is a huge restriction as it’s not really “WordPress” if you can’t install plugins and themes (at least in my opinion).

However, if you pay for WordPress.com’s pricier Business or eCommerce plans, you will be able to install custom themes and plugins, which gets you pretty much equal to the flexibility of self-hosted WordPress.

I say “pretty much equal” because there are still a few issues, such as WordPress.com’s banned plugins list and the fact that some plugins aren’t compatible with WordPress.com’s dashboard (especially plugins that affect media/the Media Library, because WordPress.com uses a custom Media Library interface).

2. Monetization

If you want to monetize your site, there are some important limitations with WordPress.com that you need to understand.

With WordPress.org, there are zero limits on how you make money from your site. You can use affiliate links as much as you want, display ads, sell sponsored posts, and more.

That’s not the case with WordPress.com, though the restrictions vary depending on which WordPress.com plan you have. For example, on the free or Personal plan, you cannot display ads. You need to upgrade to at least the Premium plan to be able to earn ad revenue from your site.

In terms of other popular monetization strategies such as affiliate links and sponsored posts, WordPress.com does allow them — but with some caveats.

For example, with affiliate links, WordPress.com says that “We…do not allow sites that exist primarily to drive traffic to affiliate links.”

So including some affiliate links in your otherwise unique content is fine. But building a site specifically to monetize with affiliate links isn’t allowed. The same idea applies to sponsored content.

You can view all the WordPress.com restrictions here.

Basically, if your goal is to make money from your site, especially with affiliate marketing, you probably want to go with WordPress.org just to avoid any issues or ambiguities. 

3. Security and Maintenance

One big advantage of WordPress.com is that it greatly simplifies the process of creating and managing a WordPress website. I already touched on this a bit above when I talked about how you can create a site with both platforms, but this simplicity doesn’t stop once you’ve launched your site.

With WordPress.com, the WordPress.com team will also handle maintaining, updating, and securing your website so that it keeps functioning. You basically never need to think about these issues — you can focus on creating content and growing your site.

However, with WordPress.org, you will be responsible for basic security and maintenance because you’re self-hosting the software on your own web server.

Is it a big deal? Not really – it’s something most non-technical users can handle. However, it is undoubtedly some extra responsibility compared to using WordPress.com.

If you want to simplify things with self-hosted WordPress, you can use a type of hosting called managed WordPress hosting or pay for a WordPress maintenance service — but you’ll need to pay extra for them, which negates some of the cost savings of using WordPress.org.

4. Platform Ownership

This is one that won’t affect all sites, but it might affect you if you value self-ownership and control.

With WordPress.com, you don’t have full self-determination because you need to abide by the WordPress.com terms of service (ToS). If you don’t follow the ToS, WordPress.com can suspend your site.

For example, in November 2020, WordPress.com suspended a website called The Conservative Treehouse for ToS violations.

I’m not trying to debate the morality of WordPress.com making these types of choices. I’m just saying that WordPress.com does have the power to make these types of choices because it’s their platform. 

With WordPress.org, you control the platform, so no one can just turn off your site. If you’re the type of person who puts a value on having 100% control over your platform, you should go with WordPress.org.

5. No Access to Hosting Configuration or Advanced Tech

This one won’t have any effect on most casual users, but I’m still putting it here because it might be something more advanced users will care about, and it also might affect your choice if you’re planning to hire a developer at some point.

In general, WordPress.com gives you much less access to your underlying hosting/configuration than you’d get with self-hosted WordPress.org. This is the trade-off for WordPress.com being so simple when it comes to setup, maintenance, and security.

With the WordPress.com Business or eCommerce plans, you can connect to your site via SFTP and access your database via phpMyAdmin (you can’t on the cheaper plans, though). But there are still some other limitations advanced users might care about.

WordPress.com does not support the following:

  • Staging sites.
  • SSH access.
  • wp-cli (WordPress command-line interface).
  • Hosting environment customizations — e.g. installing a certain package on your web server.
  • Multiple databases — you can’t create additional databases for other tools you might want to use.

With WordPress.org, you can get access to everything above, as long as you choose a good WordPress hosting provider.

Now, for the most important question: which approach should you use to launch a WordPress website?

In general, I think that most people will be better off with WordPress.org/self-hosted WordPress. However, I don’t think all people will, and there are definitely some people that will be better off with WordPress.com.

So, let’s talk about when you should use each platform.

When You Should Use WordPress.com

I think there are two main reasons to consider WordPress.com.

The first would be if you’re a blogger creating a simple hobby blog that you have no plans to monetize or grow into something serious. In that case, I think the WordPress.com free plan is a great choice. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else because it’s so limited. But for this specific use case, it’s great.

The second reason would be if you’re willing to pay a slight premium and sacrifice a little flexibility in exchange for having to never think about the technical details of your site, such as security, maintenance, etc. In that case, the WordPress.com Business plan can be a great place to host a WordPress site.

I think non-technical users can handle self-hosted WordPress.org, but if the idea of having to click an update button or think about security best practices sounds horrible to you, then the WordPress.com Business plan is a solid alternative that will get you almost all of the flexibility of the self-hosted WordPress.org software in a totally hands-off package — it just might cost a little extra.

When You Should Use WordPress.org

Basically, I think that if you don’t fall into the situations that I outlined above, you should probably use WordPress.org.

WordPress.org is not quite as simple as WordPress.com, but it’s still definitely something non-technical users can handle.

In exchange for putting up with a slightly bigger learning curve, you get the following benefits:

  • Flexibility – you get to unlock the full flexibility of the WordPress software. You can install all the plugins, monetize your site however you want, create whatever content you want, etc.
  • Control – you control your own website, which is important if you’re growing a serious business.
  • Price – for many sites (especially those with low traffic), WordPress.org will be cheaper than WordPress.com for full-featured WordPress (e.g. being able to install themes/plugins). Instead of paying $30 per month for the WordPress.com Business plan, most sites will be totally fine with WordPress.org hosting that costs around $10 per month.

If you want to get started with self-hosted WordPress, choose a hosting company from our list of the fastest WordPress hosting providers and launch your site today.

Can You Change from WordPress.com to WordPress.org?

Yes! If you start out on WordPress.com but decide that you want to switch to self-hosted WordPress.org, you can migrate your site and its content in the future. It will take some work on your part, but it’s not too painful or technical.

With that being said, there might be some costs. For example, if you use a WordPress.com subdomain and want to redirect it to your new self-hosted domain, you’ll need to pay a recurring $13/year fee.

If you already use a custom domain name, you won’t need to pay the extra fee. This only applies to redirecting WordPress.com subdomains.

Conclusion

In my opinion, WordPress is the best way to make a website. And the fact that 42%+ of all the websites on the Internet use WordPress means that a lot of other people agree with me.

Whether you use WordPress.com or self-hosted WordPress.org, you’ll still be able to benefit from WordPress.

Choose the approach that works best for your needs and budget, and you can be confident that your site will be set up for success.

Still have any questions about WordPress.com vs WordPress.org? Let us know in the comments!

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Colin Newcomer