There are two different ways you can do WordPress: having a plan with WordPress.com (and they host your blog) or being self-hosted and using the WordPress.org software. What’s the difference, and which is better? Let’s chat about that.
Note that your domain name is unrelated to this; hosting is about the servers where your blog lives. My URL is mentalhealthathome.org, but my blog is hosted on WordPress.com.
If you have a free, personal, premium, business, or pro plan, that’s through WordPress.com. WordPress.com provides the blogging framework as well as hosting. That means that your blog lives on their servers, and they also take care of updates, backups, security, and other behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts. They put your site together all in one piece, and you can only do so much to change it.
If you want to be able to do more to customize your site, you need to pay for a higher-level plan. With a premium plan, you can use CSS (cascading style sheets) to customize your design. Business and Pro plan blogs have some differences behind the scenes, although I’m not sure entirely what those differences are. I do know the comment form is somehow different. With the business or pro plan, you still can’t change your site’s code, but you can use plugins (although there are some that WordPress.com won’t allow you to install).
Self-hosted (using WordPress.org)
Self-hosted means that your site doesn’t live on WordPress.com’s servers; instead, you find your own place to host it. Examples include Lyrical Host and Bluehost. You then use the software available through WordPress.org to build your site.
WordPress.com and .org use the same basic framework, but .com assembles it for you, whereas with .org, it’s up to you and your host to put your site together as you see fit. You can change the code, you can install plugins… really, you can do whatever you want. You can also break it as much as you want, and that’s your problem to ask your host for help with; the Happiness Engineers only serve as tech support for blogs hosted on WordPress.com. I’m sure different hosts vary widely in how helpful they are, and the amount of support you have available will depend on your hosting plan.
Jetpack and WordPress.com interactivity
Jetpack is a plugin that comes built into WordPress.com sites. It does a variety of different things, one of which is facilitating your interactions with other WordPress sites.
My knowledge of this is limited, because I’ve always been with WordPress.com, and Jetpack is part of the package deal. But my impression is that the interactivity with people that you get in the WordPress Reader all comes down to Jetpack. For sites that are self-hosted, depending on how they’ve got their site set up, you may not be able to interact with them the way you do other blogs. For example, there may not be the option to like or comment within the WP Reader.
My friends Caz at Invisibly Me and Ami at Undercover Superhero are both self-hosted, but their sites handle comments differently. When Ami responds to a comment that I leave, I get a notification within WordPress, and I can see her response without my Reader notifications list. WordPress doesn’t notify me of responses from Caz. To see her responses, I have to either go visit her site to check, or I have to subscribe by email to the comments on her post, which would email me about every comment left by anyone.
Issues within WordPress.com
If a site isn’t recognizing you as being logged in to WordPress.com, one potential issue is your browser settings. You need to have third-party cookies and cross-site tracking enabled.
I’ve also noticed lately that some sites won’t recognize me as logged in when I first open a page, but they will recognize me after I refresh the page.
Blogs on the WordPress.com business plan don’t have the little button in the bottom right corner that lets you follow the blog or view it in the Reader. I have no idea why this is.
Pros and Cons
There is no right or wrong way to do it; what’s right for you comes down to what your individual preferences and needs are.
One big benefit of WordPress.com is that you can be sure that the behind-the-scenes technical stuff (security, backups) won’t be an issue for you at all; they will deal with that.
If you want a free plan, I would guess that WordPress.com is a lot more reliable than any of the various other sites that offer free WordPress hosting. I would also guess that if you’re not technically adept, the chances of you completely breaking your site are high if you’ve got free hosting where no one is going to help you with anything.
Bugs aside, if you like the WordPress Reader following/liking/commenting experience, at least that’s something that’s built into WordPress.com and you don’t have to fight with getting Jetpack working the way you want it to.
The major downside is limited customizability. There’s greater customizability with the WP.com business or plan, but that’s also pricey. Even with that, you don’t have the same level of customizability as a self-hosted blog.
It’s hard for me to speak to this, because I’ve never gone self-hosted. It sounds like one of the biggest pros is customizability. You can change your site’s code, use CSS, and install whatever plugins you want.
The cost can vary quite a bit depending on your host. For example, Lyrical Host is about $200 US per year, but other sites have cheap plans for only a few dollars a month. What you pay depends on how much you want your host to do for you, and that will impact how much you’ll have to be responsible for yourself.
A downside is that WordPress.com connectivity can be problematic. Also, the flip side of customizability is breakability. I would guess that the more you’re prepared to pay for a hosting plan, the more likely they are to help fix things that you’ve broken.
What I’m considering
I’ve been with WordPress.com since I started, first with the free plan, then the personal plan, and now the business plan. The business plan made sense when I was trying to monetize my site, but I’m not really doing that anymore, so it’s probably not worth the money I’m spending. I like being able to use plugins, though, primarily for SEO (search engine optimization) purposes; it really does make a big difference in the search engine traffic you can bring to your site. (Since originally writing this, WordPress has created the pro plan, which is cheaper).
The next time my plan is up for renewal, I’m thinking of going self-hosted, with a hosting provider that takes care of a lot of the nuts and bolts that I don’t want to have to deal with myself. One issue of concern is the WordPress.com interactivity, because that’s really important to me. I like that I’m able to interact with Ami’s blog the same way I can with WP.com blogs, and I wouldn’t want to lose that part of the blogging experience (although I don’t actually know how much difference the choice of host makes in that)
I know it would involve a learning curve having to get used to something different, and it’s hard to know how different it would actually be. That’s the main factor that held me back when my WP.com plan last came up for renewal a few months ago.
For people who want the classic experience
I don’t think that things like the classic editor plugin and the classic widgets exist because WordPress.com wanted you to pay for the business or pro plan to get them; I think that they exist because people who code use WordPress.org, and they build plugins so they can have the experience they want to have.
If you want access to these classic experience kinds of plugins, I’m inclined to think that you’re better off going self-hosted than upgrading to an expensive WordPress.com plan. Whether you want the extra fuss of being responsible for your own site is another question, though.
So now it’s over to you. If your blog is self-hosted, what has that experience been like for you? Was there a lot of fuss and bother involved, or was it pretty smooth sailing? And if you’re on WordPress.com, have you ever thought about going self-hosted? Did you even know it was an option?