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Grow Your Business Technology

Wordpress.com vs. Wordpress.org: Which Is Right for You?

Wordpress.com vs. Wordpress.org: Which Is Right for You?
Is Squarespace easier than WordPress for building a business website? / Credit: Website image via Shutterstock

A content management system (CMS) gives website owners a way to easily create and update their webpages. In 2014, more than 22 percent of all websites run on the CMS called Wordpress, making it one of the Internet's most significant technologies. Wordpress' ubiquity results from its ease of use as well as the large network of designers and developers who create free or low-cost plugins and themes to expand the system's functionality.

Ilona Filipi, project manager at London-based agency Moove, said Wordpress' popularity is well deserved. "I can't think of any better solution to develop a business website than using WordPress," Filipi said. "It truly is a fantastic and powerful tool that can support any business, large or small."

While both Wordpress.com-hosted sites and the downloadable software available on Wordpress.org offer the same primary functionality, the two services have some important differences.

Wordpress.com allows individuals and companies to get started with a new website for free. Users who sign up at Wordpress.com can select a domain name of the format "your-business.wordpress.com" or pay to choose a custom domain such as "your-business.com." Basic themes, which control the website’s appearance, are included. Users can purchase additional themes starting at $20. 

Wordpress.com may be a good solution for individuals just stepping into the world of Internet marketing. "WordPress.com is built with simplicity in mind and, as such, allows even non-technical people to have their website up and running in a matter of minutes," Filipi said. "They don't need to worry about purchasing a domain or the choice of a hosting solution ... It's an 'off-the-shelf,' ready-made solution." In addition, a paid Wordpress.com business upgrade recently added e-commerce functionality through plugins that work with Ecwid, Shopify, and ShopLocket.

However, while the low cost appeals to many users, Tim Ware, principal at San Francisco-based HyperArts, cautions that customers may discover hidden fees. "The lower cost of Wordpress.com is misleading. You have to pay extra to have no ads on your site, or to have a custom domain name (instead of your-business.wordpress.com), or more disk space," Ware said. 

In contrast, the open-source software available at Wordpress.org is installed under a custom domain name on a website hosted by a Web services provider. While the software is free to download, you will need the assistance of a Web design and development company to set up and customize the CMS. 

Though the up-front expense is greater, a custom installation lets companies offer their visitors a distinct brand experience, including a unique design, e-commerce functionality and interactive features. Mike Garrett, developer with Washington, D.C.-based Web Development Group said a custom site helps companies fully realize their vision. 

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"When a client hires us, we start from the very beginning, including a discovery process during which we talk about your needs, goals and competitors. During development, we can build custom systems that extend Wordpress. For example, we can leverage systems like Facebook or Twitter to pull in custom content," Garrett said.

Filipi added that a custom installation provides significant benefits for larger companies. "An established business with a developed brand identity, product offerings and customer base needs a bespoke CMS. We would recommend building a custom [site] not only to strengthen brand consistency and trust in your website, but also to improve sales and develop a lead generation tool," Filipi said.

A middle road

For many businesses, a completely custom site may be too expensive, while Wordpress.com has too many restrictions. Fortunately, a middle ground exists.

You'll find pre-built themes on both the Wordpress.org site and on third-party sites such as ThemeForest.net. A business owner can select a free or low-cost theme and pay a development company or freelancer to set up the site for less than the price of a comparable fully custom Wordpress site.

Though the temptation to try any theme that looks appealing can be high, Garrett cautions that not all themes are created equal. "There can be a lot of variability in how themes are coded and in how well they handle updates. Using a well-documented theme framework such as Thematic offers some assurance that a theme has been built well and guarantees some sustainability," Garrett said. Theme frameworks resemble architectural frameworks; you can install many different exteriors on a strong foundation. 

"In contrast, one-off themes may have issues where Wordpress revisions break the theme and the builder may be unable or unwilling to fix it," Garrett added.

Alternatively, because Wordpress.com content can be exported and uploaded to a custom installation, businesses can also consider starting with Wordpress.com and moving to a custom site as the business grows. "Once you understand the limitations of Wordpress.com, you can identify requirements for a bespoke solution, and can then prepare a detailed brief and spend as much money as your budget allows," Filipi said.

Other solutions

While Wordpress is popular and well-supported, developers advise businesses seeking custom solutions to explore all of their options. Drupal, Joomla and Expression Engine are all well-established content management systems with distinct target audiences. In particular, Drupal may be well suited for a company that needs to provide multiple types of content to its users.

Garrett advises companies to keep an open mind. "We constantly have clients coming to us saying they want a particular CMS. A better solution is to come to us and say, 'We are having this problem or need this solution.' A lot of times, when you have a problem with a CMS it has to do with how it was set up by the developers, not with the CMS," Garrett said.

"It helps to come to an agency and say, 'Here's all the research I've done, give me recommendations about which CMS will help me reach my customers,'" Garrett added.

Whatever your budget or requirements, getting started with a CMS-based website will help your company maintain a fresh online presence. "Websites are the best salespeople for your organization in today's business world. They will work for you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," Filipi said.

Originally published on Business News Daily.