What’s the Difference?
One of the principles of writing for business is to write what your customers want to know. I often draw from my consulting experiences when I’m looking for topics. This particular topic is one of the most frequent questions from clients.
First, let’s explore the two versions’ commonalities. Both are web-based software packages. This means that, unlike an app you download to your computer, like a word processor for example, the WordPress software runs on a web server rather than on your own computer.
The interface is mostly very similar in WordPress.com and WordPress.org. Both versions have the capability to build static pages, and both allow you to create blog posts, which are by default arranged in reverse chronological order. Both make use of the Gutenberg block editor.
How WordPress.com Works
WordPress.com is hosted entirely on WordPress’ servers. That means you don’t have to worry about buying web hosting packages, you just sign up and set up an account.
In fact, you can use WordPress without paying a cent if you don’t want to use your own domain name. The tiered pricing structure allows you to choose how much you want to spend on extras.
All you have to do is go to WordPress.com and sign up for an account. Then create your site and you’re ready to start blogging.
How WordPress.org Works
WordPress.org is a bit more complicated to set up, but still not particularly difficult. It’s called self-hosted WordPress because you must provide your own hosting solution.
The first step is to buy a domain name from a domain registrar. This is simply a company that sells domain names. You can buy your domain name from the same company you use for hosting, or not. I use NameCheap* to buy domains.
Then you’ll set up an account with a web hosting company such as Dreamhost, SiteGround or any other of the numerous hosting services. I cite Dreamhost and SiteGround because I’ve used them both and have had good results*.
The setup isn’t difficult at all; your domain registrar will give you your nameservers, which associate your domain name with its Internet address. That’s a simple copy/paste and you’re done.
WordPress.com and WordPress.org Differences
I often liken the difference to that of renting vs. buying a home. If you live in a rental property, you cannot tear down walls, rip up floors, or remodel the bathroom. You might be able to paint, but you’ll probably be limited by the landlord’s taste in the colors you can choose.
You wouldn’t build a pool in the back yard or make major improvements in a rental home. In fact, about the only modifications you can make are to the contents of the home: drapes, furniture, lamps, wall decorations.
If you own your own home, you’re free to make any modifications you wish — limited only by your own budget, practicality, and tolerance for upheaval in your life.
You cannot install third-party plugins. This limits the functionality you can add. On this website I use an appointment calendar plugin that allows clients to make appointments for consulting and other services. That wouldn’t be possible on a WordPress.com site.
You’re free to install whatever — and however many — plugins you wish. This is quite helpful for search engine optimization (SEO) as there are popular plugins that help tremendously with search engine placement.
WordPress.com offers limited customization based on the theme you choose. You cannot create your own theme, you must choose from the themes in the WordPress repository.
On a self-hosted site, you can build your own theme or customize a free or commercial theme to your liking. You can use CSS, or, if you’re a developer, you can create custom page templates, custom queries, and custom post types. Unlike WordPress.com, you can edit theme files if you have the expertise, although WordPress does not recommend that you edit core files. The possibilities are endless for customization, both in appearance and functionality of your site.
You can’t create an online store, or a membership site with WordPress.com.
If you sell products or services on your site, you’ll need the self-hosted version of WordPress. You can use WooCommerce (a plugin owned and maintained by the company that created WordPress) to set up and customize your store as you please.
You can set up online courses on your self-hosted site, offer gated content, and sell both digital and physical products.
One major advantage of WordPress.com is that you have virtually no maintenance. WordPress is responsible for updates for both the WordPress software and themes, so no worries for the user.
It’s also regularly and automatically backed up, so you don’t have to worry about losing your content if something goes wrong.
Regular maintenance is important, both for peak performance and security. You’ll be responsible for keeping theme and plugins updated and for keeping your WordPress version up to date. Sometimes, updates can break things, and you’ll need to either fix it or hire someone to do so if you don’t have the time or ability.
You’re also responsible for your own backup and there are some excellent backup plugins.
Who Should Use Which?
If you just want to blog and you don’t want to monetize your site, WordPress.com may be the better solution. You won’t have to worry about hosting, updating themes and plugins, or other maintenance. If all you want to do is write with no complications, WordPress.com is for you.
If you’re running a business, your best bet is to start from the beginning on the self-hosted platform. You’ll need to be able to customize your site to help you stand out — you don’t want to look like every other competitor.
Most businesses need features like appointment calendars, events calendars, search engine optimization, specialized landing pages for online marketing and other custom features.
You’ll probably want to hire a web designer or developer to help you think about how to best present your business and the unique properties that differentiate you from the rest. Just like other professional services, be sure that you’re spending your time wisely and on tasks that only you can do in your business.
*These are not affiliate links — I don’t get compensated in any way for the mention, just like these companies’ services.