If you’ve been using WordPress.com for very long, you’ve likely run into some variation of the grand “com v. org” debate. And it’s possible that any explanation you received raised more questions than it answered. So, what’s the deal with the two WordPresses? What are the advantages of one over the other?
To explain this clearly, it helps if we go into a bit of history, so gather round children, and I shall tell you the tale of WordPress.
WordPress and WordPress.com: A Brief History
WordPress is an open source content management system. That is, it is software that anyone can download and use for free to build a website without having to code that website by hand. “Open source” means that the code behind the software is openly shared and available to anyone to work with, so WordPress is developed, supported, and maintained by the community at large, and not by any one company.
A couple of years after WordPress came on the scene, Matt Mullenweg (co-founder of WordPress) noticed that a lot of people were saying “I really love WordPress, but I don’t want to bother with keeping my WordPress site updated myself, or worry about backups or security. I wish all that was managed for me, so I could just focus on blogging.”
To meet this demand, Matt created WordPress.com, which is a managed, shared hosting platform that uses WordPress, and that handles all of the updates, backups, and security for its users. Unlike WordPress itself, WordPress.com is a company with employees whose job it is to develop, maintain, and support the WordPress.com platform.
With WordPress.com, you can start as many WordPress blogs and websites as you like, and they’re all hosted and supported for free by the team here at WordPress.com.
So now that you know the history of the two flavors of WordPress, let’s get into how the experience of having a self-hosted WordPress site differs from having a WordPress.com site.
Having a blog or website here on WordPress.com is a bit like renting an apartment in a complex. You don’t have to worry about the pipes freezing in winter, you don’t have to mow the backyard, and you don’t have to fix the dishwasher if it breaks — all of that is your landlord’s job.
But on the other hand, you can’t install skylights, knock down a wall to combine two rooms, or rent out your spare bedroom without the landlord’s permission.
Similarly, here at WordPress.com, we support your site, and we take care of all the updates, the backups, and the security. But since all of our users share this platform, we don’t permit you to use plugins (since they can introduce security risks) or outside themes, and there are a few Terms of Service that we require our bloggers to follow to keep WordPress.com nice for everybody.
When you move to a self-hosted WordPress site, it’s like buying your own house: you can knock down the walls or build an extension, you can rent out your garage for practice space to a local band, you can keep a lion in the backyard. But if your heat goes out in the middle of winter, you have to fix it (or hire someone who can).
If you self-host, you can install all the plugins you want, but if one of them breaks your site, you have to figure out how to fix it (luckily, WordPress.org has a great support forum with many knowledgeable and helpful volunteers). You’re also responsible for performing routine updates and backing up your content, but the only rules you’re bound by are your own.
Rent or Buy?
There are a lot of rumors flying around about how WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress differ. One of the most prevalent is that self-hosted WordPress is for “professional” bloggers or for people who want to have a business website. That’s not true — you can have a perfectly professional blog or website on WordPress.com and a lot of big companies host their sites here.
But there are some reasons why self-hosted WordPress might be a better fit. Maybe you want to build your own theme from scratch, or there’s some functionality you need for your site that isn’t available on WordPress.com, such as discussion forums.
Or maybe you want to build an ecommerce site with shopping cart checkout. While you are welcome to sell your own work on WordPress.com and install a PayPal button, a self-hosted WordPress site is a much better fit for storefront-type sites that are primarily for selling.*
Essentially, if there’s something specific that you really want to do with your website that you have found you cannot do here at WordPress.com, then it’s time to look into whether you could do it with a self-hosted WordPress site. (If you aren’t sure if you can do something here, though, don’t assume you can’t — go ahead and ask us!)
How to Learn More About WordPress
If you’re interested in self-hosted WordPress but you’re not sure you have the technical chops to host your own site, there are lots of ways to learn more about it. The WordPress.org support forums (the primary source of support for self-hosted WordPress users) are full of good advice from active volunteers, and the WordPress Codex has documentation on how to get started.
Many cities have monthly WordPress meetups where users at all experience levels come together to talk about how they’re using WordPress, share tips and tricks, and help each other with their sites.
Cities with big WordPress communities also host a yearly WordCamp, which is a one to three day event with sessions on all things WordPress. WordCamps have talks for everyone from rank beginners to power users, so if there’s one near you, go!
Finally, the best way to see what a self-hosted WordPress site is like is to just go ahead and get some affordable monthly hosting, install WordPress, and play around with it. You might fall in love, or you might decide it’s more than you want to bother with, but in the meantime, you can continue to host your active site here at WordPress.com — no harm, no foul.
If you do decide you want to move your site, WordPress makes it a snap to move all of your content without losing your traffic. You can even move your followers! Stay tuned for an upcoming post that will guide you through how to move your site from WordPress.com to your own hosting.