WordPress vs WordPress.com

Quite often, I hear people asking whether they should choose WordPress.org or WordPress.com, or asking about the differences between them. What are the pros and cons? What are the costs involved? And, on occasion, I get asked why don’t I do some real website development work and not stay in the shallow end with the noobs who don’t know what they’re doing.

Well the thing is, Dave, WordPress is real website development. In fact, Dave, aside from the content management system, pretty much everything you see here was developed by me, Dave. I built this theme as I do any other theme for a client, so I’d say this is real web development, wouldn’t you, DAVE?

To the other questions, I think it’s time for a deep Dave … I mean, dive …

First of all, let’s clear something up: WordPress is not the same as WordPress.com. Well, it is, but it isn’t.

Wait, no, I can do better than that …

WordPress and WordPress.com are two different things, but they share a great number of similarities.  These similarities often get them confused with one another, but they are in fact two different entities.  So before I go into how they get confused and where they are different, let’s get into what they actually are.

WordPress

WordPress is an extensible, open-source content management system, created by members of the WordPress community.  It is available to download for free from wordpress.org, and you can install it on your own server and modify it as you wish with any themes and plugins of your choosing.  You have full control over the site because the software is fully flexible and customisable, and it is on your server.  The software is developed using PHP and MySQL, which means it can be installed on almost any web server with ease, even on a local installation for testing and development.

WordPress.com

WordPress.com is a freemium Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) provided by Automattic.  Their "freemium" service means there is a free tier, but to get extra features you will need to pay for them, usually as a monthly subscription.  For their free tier, you get a fully managed and maintained version of the WordPress software, a free subdomain (on the wordpress.com domain, so something like “mysite.wordpress.com”), you get access to all of their free themes, and you get 3GB of free storage space.  For a few quid a month, you get more space, premium themes, and the ability to add your own domain.  The free tier is also ad-supported, where the premium tiers are not.

WordPress was created in 2003, as a fork of the b2/cafelog project after development stopped about a year earlier.  Two years later, WordPress.com was created by Automattic as a way to help people without a technical background create a WordPress-powered website.  The former requires a more technical understanding to set it up and configure everything, but once it has been set up the two work almost the same.  The latter removes the need to have someone set everything up before you can use it, so it’s better if you aren’t confident or even familiar with the processes required to install and manage the software yourself.

So where's the confusion?

Put simply, they both use “WordPress” in their name, and they’re both used to manage blogs and websites in pretty much the exact same way.  WordPress.com uses the same WordPress software that you can download for free (specifically, WordPress.com works on WordPress Multisite, which you can enable with a setting in your wp-config.php file), but it has been modified to work with Automattic’s services.  These modifications allow for tiered services, as well as mapped domains for its premium tiers, and the Core software is maintained and patched as necessary even outside of the regular WordPress release schedule. 

What’s different is what they provide.  With WordPress, you get a free, open-source content management system that you can install anywhere you want and nothing more.  Through WordPress.com, Automattic offers a fully managed and maintained WordPress-powered website, with hosting and online access.  Paid tiers open up access to extra features, such as the ability to collect payments through your site, automated backups, the ability to host videos directly on your site, and even the ability to earn ad income through their advertising platform, all built directly into their service and maintained by them.  You can do this with the WordPress software, but you need to do this all yourself – choosing your payment platform, applying for advertising networks, connecting to a backup service, and so on.  WordPress.com does this for you as part of its service.

The fact they share the name “WordPress” creates the bulk of the confusion.  Let’s make it clear, though – “WordPress” is not a freely available trademark.  There are many WordPress-focussed services (I use a couple of them myself), but they are not allowed to use “WordPress” in their name because the WordPress Foundation that owns the trademark prohibits the use of it under certain circumstances.  Instead, they use “WP” in place of “WordPress”, as in WPBeginner (rather than “WordPress Beginner”) and ManageWP (rather than “Manage WordPress”).  The Foundation owns the trademark for “WordPress”, but you can use “WP” as freely as you wish, which is why they use it.

Something to remember ...

While the WordPress Foundation owns the "WordPress" trademark, it does not own or control the WordPress software.  The Foundation's aim is to ensure access to the WordPress software is free in perpetuity.  Because it looks to democratise publication through open source, GPL software, it can be assumed that "free" in this sense is "without restriction" rather than "without cost".

The Foundation doesn’t want the WordPress brand to be diluted or associated with something that isn’t the WordPress software.  That said, they will allow you to use “WordPress” in your name under the following rules, and you must abide by all of the criteria to have the rights to use it as part of your brand:

  • The primary purpose of your project is to promote the spread and improvement of the WordPress software.
  • Your project is non-commercial in nature (it can make money to cover its costs or contribute to non-profit entities, but it cannot be run as a for-profit project or business).
  • Your project neither promotes nor is associated with entities that currently fail to comply with the GPL license under which WordPress is distributed.

If your project meets these three criteria, you can use the WordPress name and logo to promote your project in almost any way you wish.

Almost.  There is one exception: Even if your project meets these criteria, you cannot use the trademark as part of your domain.  It doesn’t matter who you are, the WordPress Foundation will not let you use “WordPress” in your domain.

So what is it that Automattic has done to give them preferential treatment when it comes to using the WordPress brand?  Surely they need to abide by the same rules we do.  Well, let’s look at the rules:

There is little debate that Automattic’s service promotes the spread and improvement of the WordPress software, and they clearly contribute massively to the development of the software.  One could argue, then, that they have the first point covered outright.  Score one for Automattic.

As a rule, Automattic doesn’t associate with or promote entities that fail to comply with the GPL license, at least when it comes to WordPress.  Much of their work is released under the GPL from the start, and they don’t do much to promote non-Automattic products within the WordPress ecosystem.  Two-nil to Automattic.

The middle one is the sticking point: WordPress.com is wholly commercial in nature, and Automattic was recently valued at $7.5 billion after a recent private stock buyback.  They are a business run for profit and incorporated as such.  There’s no way they could argue they weren’t commercial.  Two-one it is then.

And that does nothing to mention the fact that “WordPress” is used in their domain, which is a violation of this agreement anyway.  So what gives?

Well, it turns out that Automattic has an exclusive license with the WordPress Foundation to use “WordPress” as part of the WordPress.com brand.  This agreement allows them to own the “wordpress.com” domain and to promote their service under the WordPress.com banner, which means that they don’t need to comply with those requirements that we do, and they can ignore the rule about using WordPress as part of their domain.  Because of this agreement, it is an all too regular occurrence for me to have to explain that WordPress.com is not the same as the WordPress software.

Why do they get an exclusive license?

Ultimately, because of this guy:

Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com

Matt Mullenweg is the founder of Automattic, and the ultimate creator of the WordPress software.  He’s also on the board of directors for the WordPress Foundation, because why not.  The more cynical among us may – and do – suggest that Matt is somehow fiddling with the trademark rules for his own nefarious gains because he’s a failed Batman villain of some sort, but it’s far more likely that Automattic was granted the license on the basis that they are one of the biggest single contributors to the WordPress Core software, both financially and practically.  They are supporters of the WordPress conventions and exhibitions, and they contribute to the general maintenance and upkeep of the WordPress marketing materials as well.

There is another thing to remember ...

Automattic bought the trademark back in 2006 and donated it to the Foundation in 2010, as well as the "WordCamp" trademark.  One could argue that Automattic made it a condition that they were granted the ability to continue to run WordPress.com, but the Foundation's status would be called into question if it were being used as a way to circumvent any laws.  Because of that, I will not entertain any allegations of wrongdoing or subterfuge or nefarious gains.  The Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public charity organisation, there are rules about this.

It makes sense then for the Foundation to grant Automattic this license because it ensures the longevity of the software and the ecosystem.  While the software is open-source and can be developed and contributed to by anyone, Automattic has been a constant presence with WordPress.  Makes this a no-brainer.  At the very least, it is very difficult to make a case that Matt is breaking trademark rules for selfish or dastardly means without launching into damaging conspiracy theories and unfounded allegations, given everything he has done thus far has helped to improve WordPress in one way or another.  Believe me, many have tried.

Because of his involvement in both WordPress and Automattic, Matt has been able to allow the use of the brand without any real detriment to the open-source project.  The agreement is simple and limited: Automattic’s WordPress-powered Software-as-a-Service can be called WordPress.com and promoted as a “WordPress-powered Software-as-a-Service”.  It must be promoted as “WordPress.com” and not “WordPress”, Automattic must make it clear that it is a separate entity to the WordPress software, and the agreement only extends to the Service and not any other Automattic product.  Automattic owns WooCommerce and Crowdsignal (formally Polldaddy) for example, but they are not allowed to be called “WordPress Store” and “WordPress Polls” under the current agreement.

Which is better?

I hate this question.

The two ecosystems are different because they are very much aimed at two different markets.  Truth is, there is no single “better” system.  They are two systems, each with their own pros and cons, and the “better” system is the one that you’re willing to use.  So let’s take each one individually and compare them:

WordPress

Pros

  • You own the site in its entirety

    No need to worry about any third party outages or service suspension if Automattic doesn't like what you write. Third-party services also cannot access information on your site without your explicit consent.

  • You can make the site your own

    Since the software is installed on your server, you can download and install any theme or plugin that you wish. You can also develop your own themes and plugins, or hire a company to create a custom theme for you. If you wish to, you can even add custom code or create child themes to modify any existing themes.

  • Hosting is easy to find

    Given that WordPress powers one in three websites on the web (and half of all content management websites run on WordPress), you would expect that most hosting providers cater for WordPress. It uses PHP and MySQL, which most every server can handle anyway. Hosting can cost as little as £5 per month, including taxes.

Cons

  • You take care of the hosting

    WordPress can’t run without some kind of hosting and a domain. You can get these for next to nothing, but they are still a necessary expense if you want to run your own WordPress installation.

  • You need to take care of the bugs

    If you are developing your own theme, you will also need to make sure all of your bugs are taken care of. You’ll need to make sure any and all plugins play nice with each other and with your theme. Any plugins you install need to be checked regularly too to make sure they are the most up to date and some can be subject to explore, so make sure to use the right tools.

  • Actually, you take care of it all

    Since you will be hosting the site on your own server, you are the person who is in charge of making sure your site is working and complies with any and all legislation, such as GDPR. Everything is on you, and probably all on your own dime. If you don’t keep everything up to date, your site will be more susceptible to being hacked.

WordPress.com

Pros

  • Everything is maintained for you

    Automattic make sure that your hosting is active and your site is up, your version of WordPress is patched and up to date, as are the plugins they have installed, and that the themes from their repositories are also up to date.

  • Quick setup

    WordPress is famous for its five-minute install time (can be anything up to ten minutes with an average connection and hosting package), but WordPress.com can have your blog up and running even quicker.

  • You can’t edit Core files and break your site

    If you, a co-worker, or a client is prone to go tinkering with files, using WordPress.com eliminates that possibility entirely – you do not get access to the server itself via FTP or any other method, and thus cannot break the site.

Cons

  • You have to keep their branding

    Most, if not all, of the themes available on WordPress.com have the WordPress.com branding. If you decide to use their free blogging package, you cannot even attach a domain to your site so you are forced to use a subdomain on wordpress.com (eg myblog.wordpress.com)

  • It can cost more

    In order to have almost full access to the system to add your own themes and plugins, you would need to pay £20 per month, plus your domain costs. For some businesses, it would be cheaper to manage the site on their own server, and deal with the hassle of maintaining the site themselves.

  • Backups are expensive too

    Restoring a site can be a lifesaver if you screw things up, and most hosting providers have some kind of “Backup and Restore” option available. However, WordPress.com makes this available to users only on their Business or eCommerce tiers, which cost £20 (£36 for eCommerce) each month.

So, which one is better?

Effectively, it comes down to “Which one do you want to use?”  As a developer, I find using the software itself is better, because it offers me a greater level of flexibility.  But for some people, they want the convenience of having their site managed and maintained for no extra charge by someone who knows what they are doing, and that’s fine too.  What is important is that you understand what each provision allows you and you make your decisions accordingly.

But if you had to choose ...

Oh, shut up, Dave.

So what do you think?  Are you a WordPress user or a WordPress.com user?  Do you think Automattic should get an exclusive license to use the WordPress trademark?  Or do you think Automattic should stay out of WordPress development altogether?  Head on down to the comments and let’s discuss.

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