When I tell prospective clients that I build all sites with WordPress, a fair number of them go to WordPress.com to research, which is smart! Research is good. Except . . . WordPress.com is not what I use.
There are two different flavors of WordPress — they are both similar, created by the same people, and the way the back end works is largely the same. But in practice, they serve very different purposes.
WordPress.COM is a commercial blogging platform, where they will host your website for “free” (if you only need the most basic site and don’t care about customization or ads). This is not what I use.
What I use is the WordPress Open Source Content Management System software (downloaded from WordPress.ORG) to set up your website. I will call this the WordPress CMS.
So what’s the difference?
WordPress.com sites are hosted on WordPress’s servers. You do not have access to the files on the server at all.
WordPress CMS sites are hosted on your own hosting account. You have access to all files on the server and they can be customized in any way you like.
On the free version of WordPress.com, you cannot use your own domain name. Your site would be at something like yourname.wordpress.com. You must pay extra to use your own domain name.
On WordPress CMS sites, you can use any domain name you own.
WordPress.com provides a limited number of free themes you can choose from, or others that you can pay for. But you cannot upload your own custom theme or any theme that is not offered by WordPress.com. You can do some very limited customizations of their themes by upgrading to a paid plan.
On WordPress CMS sites, you can use any theme, including one built for you by a designer (like me!). That theme can be customized to look and do anything you like, at any time. I create WordPress themes from scratch, creating the design specifically for the needs of my client.
Plugins are tools that you can add to your site to add some extra functionality and features. They are really the key to the awesomeness that is WordPress.
On WordPress.com sites, they provide a very limited number of plugins that you can use. You cannot add or create any custom plugins.
On WordPress CMS sites, there are thousands and thousands of plugins available, both free and paid, that you can add to your site. Because the software is open source, developers all over the world are able to create plugins to add custom functionality to WordPress sites.
On WordPress.com sites, you can only have ecommerce (a real store with a shopping cart built in) if you upgrade to their eCommerce plan ($45 per month).
On WordPress CMS sites, there is a huge variety of different ecommerce options you can implement and customize to meet your needs. I typically use WooCommerce.
WordPress.com sites have ads on them — this is one of the ways they make money, being a commercial enterprise. You can’t control what ads show up on your site, and you don’t earn any revenue from them. You must have at least a personal Plan ($60 per year) to remove the ads.
You cannot place your own ads on the site, not even Google Adsense.
WordPress CMS sites do not have any ads on them unless you add them yourself, in which case you earn the revenue from them. If you like, you can have affiliate ads, paid ads, Google Adsense, anything you like to bring in some revenue, or have no ads at all.
Unless you upgrade to at least their Business plan ($25 per month), you will have the WordPress.com branded bar at the top of a WordPress.com website, which makes a site look less like a professional site and more like a personal one. On a self-hosted site, there is no WordPress branding visible to the public.
Who should use which?
In my opinion, WordPress.com sites should only be used by casual bloggers. If you just want to share photos of your family, talk about your latest vacation, etc, have no plans to monetize the site, and are not picky about how the site looks, then WordPress.com is a quick and really easy way to get rolling.
If you need your site to promote you, your brand, and/or your business, then you should really go with a WordPress CMS site. It will allow you the freedom and flexibility to make your site everything you need it to be.
Contact me if you are ready to get started!