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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

Multiple usage reports point to WordPress being the internet's most popular content management system, being used by 28.7 percent of CMS powered websites, according to W3 Techs. WordPress is known for its ease of use, thousands of different plug-ins and how affordable it is.

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."

If you're interested in using WordPress for your website, you may have noticed that it comes in two varieties: WordPress.com and WordPress.org. Your needs and the presentation of your website will determine which option is best for you.

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 for 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 $5 in their marketplace. 

WordPress.com may be a good solution for individuals just stepping into the world of internet marketing. In addition, a paid WordPress.com business upgrade allows you to upload third-party themes and has ecommerce functionality through plug-ins that work with Ecwid, Shopify and ShopLocket.

"WordPress.com is built with simplicity in mind and, as such, allows even nontechnical 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."

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 upfront expense is greater, custom installation lets companies offer their visitors a distinct brand experience, including a unique design, ecommerce 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.  

"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 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.

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 prebuilt themes on both WordPress.org 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 start with WordPress.com and move 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.

While WordPress is popular and well supported, developers advise businesses seeking custom solutions to explore all their options. Drupal, Joomla and Expression Engine are all well-established content management systems with distinct target audiences. 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.

Editor's Note: Considering creating a website? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that's right for you, use the questionnaire below to get information from a variety of vendors for free:

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Additional reporting by Katherine Arline.

Andreas Rivera

Andreas Rivera graduated from the University of Utah with a B.A. in Mass Communication and is now a staff writer for Business.com and Business News Daily. His background in journalism brings a critical eye to his reviews and features, helping business leaders make the best decisions for their companies.