WordPress.org is the official website for WordPress, the most popular blogging and content management system in the world. Since WordPress is free and open-source software, anyone is free to download it from WordPress.org and use the software to power their website. However, some technical knowledge is required to properly and securely install WordPress and maintain it on an ongoing basis. Some users of WordPress either do not have the technical skills or the time to maintain a WordPress instance.

WordPress.com is a freemium service that installs and maintains a WordPress-powered blog on behalf of its users. No technical skills are required, nor do the users have to worry about the infrastructure (an Internet-connected server with the requisite software) required to host their website. Behind the scenes, WordPress.com also uses the WordPress software. So for content authors and editors, the user experience is nearly identical whether they are using WordPress.com or a self-hosted instance of WordPress.

WordPress.com's service aims to be a no-fuss content management solution that requires very little maintenance. The free, basic service from WordPress.com includes advertising, and users are not able to upload custom themes or plugins. On the other hand, self-hosting WordPress software (from WordPress.org) gives users an advertising-free solution, with unlimited customization options. The user has complete control of content but also needs to own responsibility for all security, maintenance, and backup.

Although WordPress.com's hosted solutions are powerful — with both the BBC and CNN among the service's marquee users (who have access to special customization features) — it can require a lot of money to achieve what is possible by self-managing an installation of WordPress downloaded free from WordPress.org. The customizable nature of WordPress (the content management system software) essentially provides infinite possibilities. For users who want an "in-between" solution — more features and customization, but little to no maintenance required — managed WordPress hosting solutions, which outsource the technical aspects of self-hosting, are also available.

Comparison chart

WordPress.com versus WordPress.org comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartWordPress.comWordPress.org
Introduction WordPress.com is a blogging service that uses the open-source WordPress script to power users' blogs. Hosted blogs are placed on a wordpress.com subdomain unless users pay for domain registration. WordPress.org hosts the free-to-download WordPress script, which is a fully-customizable content management and blogging solution. It is meant to be self-hosted on one's own server.
Website http://wordpress.com http://wordpress.org
Developer(s) Automattic Automattic
Site Registration Not required to read most blogs. Free registration for commenting or blogging. Not required to download WordPress script. Site owners can change site settings either to be more open or more restricted (e.g., require registration for reading or commenting).
Custom Domain Name Users must pay for their own domain name ''and'' pay for a plan to add it to a blog. Must buy own domain and connect to hosting servers.
Monetization Not allowed for most all blogs. Affiliate links are permissible. Blogs with lots of traffic can request an invitation to WordAds. As this is a self-hosted solution, users can monetize their website(s) however they see fit.
Themes/Design Design can be customized with free, WordPress.com-provided themes or premium themes bought through WordPress.com. Users have many theme customization options but cannot edit HTML or CSS without upgrading. Thousands of free and premium themes available around the web. Themes can be created from scratch using HTML, CSS, and basic PHP.
Storage Space Unlimited number of blogs with unlimited number of writers. Free plan has 3GB of space for images/files. Users can upgrade storage or buy a better overall plan. Based on hosting provider, but can be little/limited or unlimited.
Mobile Blogging Yes. Support for Android, iOS, Blackberry, Windows Phone, and Nokia. Yes. Official, open-source app exists for self-hosted WordPress uses. Support for Android and iOS users only.
Image Galleries Extensive gallery support. Extensive gallery support, but can be very theme dependent.
Video and Audio Upload Users can embed videos from other sites, like Vimeo and YouTube. Premium plans allow users to upload directly to WordPress.com's servers. Support for MP3, M4A, WAV, and OGG audio files. Users can embed videos from other sites or upload them to their servers. Numerous audio and video gallery plugins exist to enhance uploading and organization.
Organization Support for categories and tags. Vary by theme, but most carry support for categories, tags, and post formats. Some also carry support for post types, custom fields, and many other features.
Anti-Spam Automattic owns Akismet, a popular spam prevention script, which it implements on all WordPress.com blogs. Akismet keeps most spam from ever being posted. Some anti-spam options included by default (e.g. comment moderation), but plugins may be needed for extra protection/security.
Analytics Has "Stats" tool. Less in-depth than Google Analytics, which cannot be added to WordPress.com blogs. No built-in stats tools. Must either manually add analytics support or make use of one of the numerous free stats plugins, such as Jetpack or WP Slimstat.
Plugins No support. Self-hosted version of WordPress — WordPress.org — has vast plugin library. Full support. Any plugin can be used, whether it comes from the WordPress Plugins repository or not.
Pricing Various options: free for Basic; $99/yr for Premium; $299/yr for Business. Free. Users required to pay for hosting and domain name registration/renewal costs. Custom-built themes and plugins may require hiring designers and developers.
Self-Hosting Yes. Users can download the open-source WordPress script and host it on their own server. Must self-host the script.

Blogging and Managing Content

Though both the hosted and self-hosted versions of WordPress enable content management, WordPress.com caters to those who are less tech- and web-savvy. Recently, WordPress.com has taken a different approach to the design of its administration pages, greatly simplifying pages users encounter most often — and arguably distancing itself from the self-hosted software. (Note, however, that it is still possible to use the more "advanced" admin area on WordPress.com, which looks nearly identical to the traditional WordPress software's admin area. The more complex design just isn't shown as the default anymore.)

Click to enlarge. A side-by-side comparison of WordPress.com's new, default administrative interface (left) vs. an example of the traditional WordPress admin area (right).
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Click to enlarge. A side-by-side comparison of WordPress.com's new, default administrative interface (left) vs. an example of the traditional WordPress admin area (right).

Calypso

In November 2015, Automattic (the company behind WordPress) launched Calypso, a new admin interface for WordPress.com websites and blogs. Since it is not part of the WordPress [.org ] software, it is only available to WordPress.com users. Calypso not only powers the web interface for admin tasks, it is also available as a downloadable desktop app for Mac and Windows.

WordPress.com vs. WordPress.org Features

Themes/Design

A blog or website built using the self-hosted version of WordPress has very few, if any, limitations when it comes to design, and many well-known companies and people make use of the software. However, building a custom theme from scratch has a relatively steep learning curve, with the need to know HTML/CSS and, in some cases, have a basic or advanced understanding of JavaScript, PHP, MySQL, and other advanced concepts, tools, or plugins. As such, many choose to use the free or premium themes that are already available around the web, even though using these often comes with some drawbacks when they fail to include desired features or make potentially risky security mistakes.

WordPress.com has nearly 200 free themes and over 150 premium themes.[1] Users with a paid WordPress.com plan have advanced customization options with full capability to edit CSS and fonts, and WordPress.com's Business plan tier includes over 50 premium themes as well as e-commerce capabilities. Users without knowledge of HTML/CSS and PHP benefit from the functionality and security of paid premium themes, while having access to professional and knowledgeable support services. Choosing a premium theme allows users a far more unique site design with access to customization tools and developer-provided updates.

It is important to note that custom themes can never be uploaded to the WordPress.com service, even with a premium or business plan.[2] When it comes to design, there is a trade-off in using WordPress.com's service: less customization rights for an easier, more straightforward user experience.

Advanced Customization and Plugins

For a price, users gain the ability to edit their WordPress.com HTML/CSS and some JavaScript, but they don't get FTP access or the ability to edit more advanced programming (i.e., PHP, MySQL). When the WordPress software is self-hosted, it can be edited to fit a site owner's needs and use any custom theme or plugin. New or edited files can be uploaded via FTP, cPanel, or whatever a user's web host allows. Self-hosting a website comes with the additional advantage of being able to configure the web server to meet certain specifications for high performance, integration with a content delivery network (CDN).

Plugins allow users to extend WordPress functionality with customized coding or features. Users with the relevant knowledge are also able to create and customize plugins for the WordPress software, but plugin use with WordPress.com's service is wholly restricted. Some of the top plugins for self-hosted WordPress include Advanced Custom Fields, which facilitates data management; Yoast SEO, a search engine optimization tool that helps to increase traffic to a user’s site; and W3 Total Cache, which betters a WordPress site's overall performance and speed.

Without plugin support, WordPress.com is severely restricted in this area. However, a range of advanced features, such as ecommerce support, exist for premium users.

Storage Space

When it comes to self-hosting WordPress, storage space is limited only by one's (Internet server) hosting service provider. WordPress.com's service starts users at 3GB for free, thereafter charging for different storage space packages.

Unless the site has a lot of video content to be hosted, 3 GB storage space is generally more than enough. With self-managed WordPress, storage space is almost never a constraint because web hosting providers offer fairly generous storage plans (far greater than 3 GB).

Multimedia

WordPress users who self-manage their instance provide their own storage, meaning uploading large photos, audio, or video content is only a matter of how much space their host provides. WordPress.com service users can upload images and documents (e.g., Word files) for free, so long as they remain under their allotted 3GB. Premium and Business plan users are given greater freedom and are allowed to upload audio and video content directly.

Social Community

While both WordPress.com and self-managed WordPress support comments on blog posts and pages, WordPress.com already has a large and active community that can comment on all blogs on their platform. The WordPress.com service is also well integrated with social networking services and provides polling functions.

Users of self-hosted WordPress can make use of the built-in commenting feature or third-party plugins like Disqus for commenting.

Mobile Blogging

Whether one is using WordPress.com's services or is self-hosting the WordPress software, it is equally easy to blog and manage content on the go via a phone or tablet. Users of both versions of the software actually use the same app, which can be downloaded here. Currently, there is only support for Android and iOS platforms.

Screenshots of the official WordPress apps for Android (left) and iOS (right).
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Screenshots of the official WordPress apps for Android (left) and iOS (right).

Security and Maintenance

WordPress core

With WordPress.com, site owners do not have to worry about updating the WordPress software when a new version is released. Whether it is a security update or a general update, it is automatically and immediately applied to all websites on the WordPress.com platform.

When you download WordPress from wordpress.org and self-host or manage it, you are responsible for updating the software when new versions are released. In the past, this was a cumbersome process and many site owners neglected to do this, leaving their website vulnerable to security attacks and compromises. The upgrade process for WordPress has now become much simpler, with updates now requiring only a single click. More tech-savvy users can also choose to configure automatic background updates for WordPress.

Themes and Plugins

Custom themes and plugins are the biggest security threat to a WordPress instance. The core software is generally battle-tested; security vulnerabilities in WordPress core are rare. Most of the security vulnerabilities affecting WordPress sites use plugins or themes as the attack vector. Sometimes hackers find vulnerabilities and loopholes in popular plugins, and sometimes malicious software is bundled with "free" themes or plugins available online.

Self-hosting WordPress also allows you to download and install any plugin or theme you choose, or even develop your own plugins and themes. Consequently, security risks of a vulnerability being introduced in the system are higher with self-managed sites.

WordPress.com locks down the number of available themes and plugins, thereby minimizing the surface area for attacks.

Like with the core software, WordPress plugins and themes are also continually updated. When site owners choose to self-manage a WordPress instance, they are responsible for these updates. It is not uncommon for sites to be compromised because they fail to upgrade a vulnerable plugin even weeks after the vulnerability was made public and patched by a newer version of the plugin.

WordPress.com manages updates on behalf of site owners so security risks are lower.

For self-managed WordPress instances, it is highly recommended that security plugins like Theme Authenticity Checker, WordFence and Exploit Scanner be used for ongoing security monitoring.

Comment Spam

WordPress offers a built-in commenting system but it is vulnerable to spam. Site owners must configure their commenting system to combat comment spam. They can disable comments altogether, use a third-party commenting plugin, or use Akismet, a bundled anti-spam plugin. However, they need to register for an Akismet key.

With WordPress.com, this is automatically handled for every site on the platform.

Backups

With WordPress.com, backups are handled automatically for users on a paid plan.

With self-managed WordPress, users are required to manage their own backups. There are plugins available — like UpdraftPlus — that run automatic, scheduled backups and saves them online to storage services like Dropbox and Google Drive.

Support

WordPress.com offers varying levels of support, starting from free support with their basic plan, to live chat support with their business plan. The community support and forums are available to all WordPress.com users, and tutorials available online provide valuable assistance.

Users self-hosting WordPress can use WordPress.org's Codex and forums, as well as countless third-party communities and tutorials around the web. Since the WordPress software is open-source, there is a vibrant community that surrounds it and tends to support its users. Special, one-on-one support, however, will likely come at a cost and require one to seek out web designers and developers.

SEO

WordPress has a lot of advantages over its competitors, like Blogger, when it comes to search engine optimization. Out of the box, the WordPress software makes it easy to customize page titles, page URLs (a.k.a., permalinks), and more. These features are found by default in both the hosted and self-hosted versions of WordPress and provide a strong foundation on which to drive traffic to a website.

For greater control, however, a site owner will want to self-host WordPress, as advanced SEO plugins, such as WordPress SEO by Yoast and All-in-One SEO Pack, are only available to those hosting the WordPress software themselves.

Monetization

Users of the self-hosted WordPress software are able to use advertising and affiliate programs on their site, including options such as Google AdSense and Amazon's affiliate program, to generate income. They are also able to use plugins, such as WooCommerce, to sell goods to users directly. Users are responsible for installing and maintaining all moneymaking efforts and have to abide by any specific terms and conditions of advertising programs, though there are many plugins available to help, with most associated plugins and ad services making it as easy as possible for WordPress software users to host the ads.

While WordPress.com does allow affiliate links and sponsored posts, it does not allow third-party advertising or image ads. Moreover, WordPress.com advertises itself on free accounts, displaying a small, unobtrusive WordPress "watermark"/branding link in the footer. WordPress.com service users with a large amount of site traffic per month (thousands of pageviews) can apply for the WordAds service, which splits advertising proceeds in half with WordPress.com. For very high-traffic, enterprise websites, there is WordPress Enterprise ($500/mo) and WordPress VIP ($5,000/mo), neither of which restricts advertising of any sort and come with a plethora of extra customization features.

Pricing and Hosting

The WordPress software provided by WordPress.org is free of charge, but users must pay for their own domains and web hosting. While the self-hosted option will incur costs, the choices on offer are far broader, and users wanting much of the functionality the WordPress software offers are likely to find self-hosted WordPress the cheaper option. For a list of web hosts that WordPress.org recommends, see here.

Although the basic WordPress.com plan is free, it comes with several restrictions. e.g. the site needs to be hosted on a wordpress.com subdomain and cannot use a custom domain name, only 3GB of storage space is available, the site will show ads and the site author does not get any revenue from these ads.

Premium WordPress.com plans start at $36 per year and go all the way up to $299 per year. The features and restrictions of all Wordpress.com plans are listed in the chart below:

Current WordPress.com plans. Source.
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Current WordPress.com plans. Source.

Domain Name

WordPress.com offers users a free subdomain name with .wordpress.com in the URL (e.g., http://sitename.wordpress.com). Users do not have the option to use their own domain with WordPress.com (e.g., http://yoursite.com), unless they pay for a premium plan. To use the WordPress software successfully on a self-hosted website, a user must purchase a domain from the start.

Managed Hosting

Several web hosts specialize in WordPress and offer managed WordPress hosting solutions. These services manage most of the technical aspects of the WordPress software, such as security, backups, updates, and performance quality; they also offer premium support. These managed services do, of course, come at a cost, with base plans usually starting around $29 per month, as opposed to shared hosting plans — i.e., those without support that users manage themselves — of approximately $4 per month.

While managed hosting does provide users with various web development tools, some providers limit users to running only WordPress-based sites (making a switch from WordPress to another system impossible), and users cannot run all WordPress plugins, as plugins which slow a site's performance may be blocked. Users thus have less control with the technical management of their site outsourced.

Beginners are unlikely to need managed WordPress hosting, as most hosting services make setting up WordPress easy through one-click installation interfaces. Businesses, on the other hand, may not want to bother with any of the technical aspects, even when simple. In this case, there are numerous managed WordPress hosting providers to choose from, including Pagely, SiteGround, and WP Engine, to name a few.

References

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