WordPress.org VS WordPress.com: 2019 Edition

The difference between WordPress.org and WordPress.com couldn’t be any more confusing. This is your complete & comprehensive guide to learn about the two!

Jump to a Section

  1. WordPress, WordPress.org, WordPress.com Defined
  2. Getting Started — WordPress.org
    1. Using the WordPress Terminology Correctly
    2. Choosing a Hosting Provider
    3. Installing WordPress
    4. Selecting a Theme + Setting it Up
    5. Adding Functionality (Plugins)
  3. Getting Started — WordPress.com
    1. Appreciating What’s Free on WordPress.com
    2. Signing Up for a WordPress.com Account
    3. Paid Plans on WordPress.com
    4. Themes on WordPress.com
    5. Plugins on WordPress.com
  4. Conclusion

WordPress, WordPress.org, WordPress.com Defined

WordPress wallpaper created by Nick Hamze and Dave Whitley
Created by Nick Hamze & Dave Whitley

WordPress is the name of the open source software for building websites. It is specifically known for what’s called a CMS (content management system). WordPress alone is just that — you’ll still need to find web hosting and a domain provider if you want to use it on the web.

PRO TIP #1: Occupying space on the web is NOT FREE.

WordPress.org is the website where the open source software known as WordPress can be downloaded. Typically, once you have a copy of WordPress, you would then install it onto a web hosting provider of your choice in order to use it. Ideally, you would also need to register a domain name to be associated with your WordPress site.

PRO-TIP #2: There is a place called WordPress.com, where you can get a taste of what WordPress is all about. On the web. FOR FREE.

WordPress.com is a managed platform that runs a custom version of WordPress. It provides free hosting to users, and anyone can get started in minutes. There are tiered paid plans that add additional functionality to your site. For example, to install custom themes and plugins, your site would need to be subscribed to a “Business Plan” at WordPress.com.

Now, why is WordPress such a big deal?

Many moons ago, building full-fledged websites was not something common folk could just get up and start doing. Building websites would require some deep developer knowledge and skills, most specifically in HTML (at the very least). You would need to build a website, from scratch, ‘coding’ every single line of text in HTML.

Then, after that you would need to have CSS knowledge to add styling to the site, because without that, then you’d just a have a bare bones site with just text all over the place. And if you wanted to get fancy with it, you’d better know some JavaScript, which adds animations and other cool functionality to the site.

You can now imagine how much time this would take if you had to build your site that way.

Come the year 2003, WordPress was created by co-founder & lead developer Matt Mullenweg (also CEO of Automattic, parent company of WordPress.com). WordPress gives us an already coded template for building a website, minus all the coding. It’s goal — democratize publishing.

If you think about it, why do you think websites exists to begin with. What is its purpose? Basically, websites provide information, to summarize quite simply. The purpose of a website is to provide a platform for publishing content for others to consume. That content could literally be anything a person wants.

Going back to pre-WordPress days, if a person had something to say, would they be able to do it easily on the web? Probably not, right?

They’d probably have to first spend all their time learning how to code, then after learning, go through the trial and error of building the actual website, then after building the website, they’d need to go through the hoops of finding a host for the site and….. basically nope. NOPE.

Fast forward to the year 2019 — WordPress now powers 34% of ALL websites in the world. That’s a pretty big chunk. If you’re curious about the next biggest chunk, 44% of other websites are powered by, well, nothing i.e. these would be the custom hand-coded proprietary sites.

And as for the rest of all the other single digit percentages making up the rest of the internet, those would be sites built off of other CMS software.

As you can now tell, there should be no shred of doubt as to who’s coming out on top here.

You have something to say? And you want your OWN platform to say it on — no bars held? WordPress has got your back! Now, the million dollar question, WordPress.org or WordPress.com?

Getting Started — WordPress.org

WordPress wallpaper created by Topher
Created by Topher
  1. Using the WordPress Terminology Correctly
  2. Choosing a Hosting Provider
  3. Installing WordPress
  4. Selecting a Theme + Setting It Up
  5. Adding Functionality (Plugins)

1. Using the WordPress Terminology Correctly

Before moving forward, I would just like to emphasize and correct the often misused terminology that I hear when folks refer to building websites with WordPress.

“I’m building my site on WordPress.org”

“Which is better, WordPress.org or WordPress.com?”

“I’d like to move my site to WordPress.org”

Remember, WordPress.org is not a hosting service — it does not host the 34% of WordPress websites people are using all over of the world. It is simply the website where you can download the free WordPress software to use on an actual hosting service. What are these actual hosting services that I am referring to? I will get to that in a bit!

The proper term, “self-hosted” or “self-hosted website”, should be used instead to explain a WordPress site that’s built on a hosting service of your choice.

No one can literally move or host their site on WordPress.org. Instead, you might say, “I’m building a self-hosted WordPress site.”

Or, if you’re comparing .ORG with .COM, what you really should be looking to compare is an actual hosting service with .COM i.e. “Which is better, Bluehost or WordPress.com? Dreamhost or WordPress.com? etc.”

Because at the end of the day, if you’re building a self-hosted WordPress website, you will not be doing it at WordPress.org — it will be with a hosting provider. You may visit WordPress.org to perhaps get a copy of the WordPress software, maybe even some plugins or themes, but that’s it.

In fact, it’s not even really necessary to visit WordPress.org to get started with WordPress. Most hosting providers already support WordPress as a default option to get started with a website. What you’ll often find is a sort of “one-click” install option, then BOOM — you’ve got yourself a WordPress site in minutes.

Hopefully, you can sort see the point I’m trying to drive home here.

WordPress.org ≠ hosting service.

2. Choosing a Hosting Provider

The first step in your journey to getting your brand new shiny WordPress site up and running is to choose a fast and reliable hosting provider. WordPress.org specifically recommends a few, which I’ve mentioned a couple already, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll be using Bluehost as the example for this article, as it’s one of the hosting providers WordPress.org recommends on its hosting page.

Bluehost pricing page. Bluehost has 4 plans: basic, plus, choice plus, pro

Get Started With Bluehost

Bluehost offers different hosting plans for folks with different needs. But you can get started for less than $100/year. There is a small caveat to their initial pricing points though. The cheapest monthly rate is applied when you sign up for a longer initial subscription.

For example, their cheapest monthly rate of $3.95/month is only applied when signing up for 3 years. Additionally, do note that you are not billed monthly — it’s a once a year payment billed annually.

Once you have your plan sorted, you’ll go through the process of signing up for a domain name, and finally setting up your website.

3. Installing WordPress

Back in the days, installing WordPress onto a hosting server was a bit of a pain.

You’d need to download WordPress from WordPress.org. Then, you’d need to download what’s called an FTP client, which then you’d need to connect to your server so that you could upload WordPress, and then finally configure it to work with your server.

Lucky for you, times have changed! You’re able to install WordPress with Bluehost’s ‘one-click’ WordPress installer. So go ahead and ONE-CLICK THAT!

Once the installation is finished firing up, the real fun begins.

4. Selecting a Theme + Setting It Up

The theme is what gives your WordPress site its appearance. It’s the suit and tie of your website. Choosing the right one will determine the kind of vibes your site will have.

Image of the WordPress.org theme directory

There are literally thousands of themes to choose from! Don’t spend too much time trying to think about your design. We want to get straight to publishing content.

I recommend just starting out with the default Twenty Nineteen theme to get your blog or professional website rolling. Not only has this theme been developed and optimized for the most recent version of WordPress, but is also extremely easy to use right out the box!

I’ll be showing how you can get a professional looking website or blog up and running within minutes. Once again, lucky you!

WordPress Theme Setup: Modern Business

Theme layout for "Modern Business", a theme found on WordPress.com

For this tutorial, the are a couple prerequisites I recommend doing:

  1. Download and install the Jetpack plugin. After installation, follow the steps to setup Jetpack, which will basically take you through setting up a WordPress.com account (since Jetpack is developed by the same company that runs WordPress.com).
  2. Download the Modern Business theme. This will be accessible after having installed Jetpack. You’d go to Appearance -> Themes -> Browse Jetpack Themes.

TIP: Modern Business is a “child theme” of the Twenty Nineteen “parent” theme. In short, a “child theme” is a modified version of the original theme it came from. So it might be using all the same functionalities of the original theme, but its appearance may look different in style.

Step 1: Uploading and activating the theme

  • From your dashboard, go to Appearance -> Themes -> Add New.
  • Upload Theme -> Browse -> Select your downloaded theme file (.zip). In this case, we are selecting our previously downloaded Modern Business theme.

TIP: If you already installed the Jetpack plugin, you can actually just go to Browse Jetpack Themes, then install and activate any theme directly from there without downloading anything.

  • Install Now -> Activate

Step 2: Creating Your Basic Page Stack + Navigation Menu + Homepage Settings

Basic Page Stack

Whenever I create a new website with WordPress, I always create what I like to call the “basic page stack” as my first order of business. What that is are 4 basic pages I think every website should have: Home, About, Blog, Contact. Let me break it down for you why these are all important.

The ‘Home’ page is pretty self-explanatory. If there’s at least one page your site needs, then this would be it. This is the page that visitors first see when landing on your site.

For the ‘About’ page, this is where you would literally talk about what your company, brand, blog, team, etc. is all about. You could kind of consider it as a short bio or an introduction.

Probably the next most important page is the ‘Blog’ page. One thing I find most folks get mixed up about are the differences between a blog and a website. Technically, a blog is a style of website. Or, if you want to get even more technical, it’s actually just an added functionality, a feature if you will, of a website.

In other words, you’ll always have a website no matter what. And on your website, you could choose to either have a ‘blog functionality’ added to it, or not. With WordPress websites, it’s your choice.

It just so happens that WordPress originated as a platform that focused mainly on blogging, so naturally many folks who may have stumbled across the name before might have this initial impression that “blogs” are separate from “websites”.

Finally, we have the ‘Contact’ page. This is also quite straightforward. If you would like to establish a way for your visitors to contact you, then you would typically do that by providing them your contact information on this page.

Additionally, it’s pretty standard to also have what’s called a contact form, which basically lets your visitors fill our their name, email, and message to be sent to you via the connected email address attached to the form.

  • From your dashboard, go to Pages -> Add New.
  • Click on Add Title -> type “Home” -> Publish.
  • Rinse & Repeat for “About”, “Blog”, and “Contact”.

Navigation Menu

One thing to take note of is that when creating pages, they won’t get automatically added to your site — you’ll need to add them manually, and usually the links to your pages are added in the navigation menu area of a site.

  • We’ll start by going to Appearance -> Customize. This will take you to what’s called the “Customizer“. This is where you would change anything related to the appearance of your site. In other words, this is where you’d modify any theme specific settings.
  • Next, go to Menus -> Main -> Add Items.

TIP: You’ll notice that this ‘Main’ menu was created by default. Additionally, it’s been assigned to the “Primary” menu location, which usually means it’s the menu that appears at the top of the site. Depending on the theme, there could also be other menu locations to choose from.

  • Under ‘Pages’, select the items to add to your menu. In this case, those items would be ‘Home’, ‘About’, ‘Blog’, and ‘Contact’.

Homepage Settings

The Homepage Settings is also another critical setting to be aware of, and one that I always address first when creating new site. This will sort of go back to the previous conversation regarding the difference between a blog and a website.

By default, the homepage settings of a WordPress site will be set to display blog posts on the homepage. Some folks will start freaking out when they first discover this.

I thought I was creating a website, not a blog…

Remember, you DO have a website. It’s only simply showing your blog posts on the homepage because, 1) the blog functionality is ‘enabled’, and 2) WordPress’ default setting is to display blog posts on the homepage.

The good news is you can change your site from being a “blog” to a “website” from the Homepage Settings. You don’t want a blog? Don’t worry, you don’t even need to use it! Just select ‘Static page’ under Homepage Settings, and don’t assign any page to ‘Posts page’, and you’re set!

  • Once again, start by going to Appearance -> Customize -> Homepage Settings.
  • Under ‘Your homepage displays’, you’ll notice that the default option ‘Your latest posts’ is checked. We want to select ‘A static page’ instead.
  • When selecting that option, 2 dropdowns will appear. One for ‘Homepage’, and the other for ‘Posts page’ respectively.

TIP: The ‘Add New Page’ link seen below the dropdowns will allow you to conveniently publish a new page with a title directly from the Customizer. This is so that you could quickly add a page to ‘Homepage’ or ‘Posts page’ if you didn’t have any previously published pages available to choose from.

  • Under ‘Homepage’, select your ‘Home’ page.
  • Under Posts page’, select your ‘Blog’ page. Alternatively, you could leave this blank if you don’t intend on using a blog.
  • Don’t forget to hit ‘Publish’ to save your settings.

Step 3: Site Tagline + Social Menu

Site Tagline

The site tagline of your site can be optional. It’s an area that’s usually placed under or near your site title, and it serves as a way to write a phrase or one-liner message your visitors can remember your site by.

  • Appearance -> Customize -> Site Identity.
  • Under ‘Tagline’, give your site a one-liner phrase visitors will remember.

Social Menu

You’ll more than likely want to include links on your site to your social media profiles if you have them. Most themes will have a dedicated space for displaying your social media links, so take advantage of that.

  • Appearance -> Customize -> Menus
  • Create New Menu
  • Under ‘Menu Name’, give your menu a name (ideally “Social Menu” since that’s what it’s going to be)
  • Add Items -> Custom Links
  • Type the URL of your social media profile page. WordPress is smart enough to detect what social media platform is being used, so when you type it in, the associated social media icon will appear.
  • For ‘Link Text’, you’ll also want to fill that in. Sometimes a theme may not have supported icons, in which case it’s good to have a text description of the social media profile as well.

Step 4: Adding the main blocks

One of the great things about WordPress in recent days is that it has completely redesigned it’s editing experience.

The editor works quite literally like building blocks, except you would be composing your page or post from top to bottom. As you go through the rest of this tutorial, you’ll start to see what I mean by this.

When composing content, you can choose from a variety of different ‘blocks’ that allow various types of media or formatting to be used on your page or post. To go over all of these would be best saved for a separate post, so for now, I’ll just be going over what’s used for this theme.

I think once you see how it works, you’ll quickly pick up how the editing system works in no time!

The basic work flow for composing this part of the theme would go something like this:

  • Pages -> select ‘Home’ page -> Click ‘+’ -> then add…
    • ‘Cover’ block -> Add image -> Add text
    • ‘Heading’ block -> Add text
    • ‘Media & Text’ block -> Add image -> Add text
    • ‘Media & Text’ block -> Switch image alignment -> Add Image -> Add text
    • ‘Separator’ block
    • ‘Heading’ block -> Add text
    • ‘Media & Text’ block -> Add image -> Add text
    • ‘Media & Text’ block -> Switch image alignment -> Add Image -> Add text

Step 5: Contact Info + Contact Form

Continuing on to the last bits of setting up the theme, we have contact info and a form to add. Woo, you’re almost done!

  • Pages -> select ‘Home’ page -> Click ‘+’ -> then add…
    • Separator’ block
    • ‘Paragraph’ block
    • Separator’ block
    • ‘Heading’ block
    • ‘Paragraph’ block
    • ‘Jetpack Form’ block
    • ‘Separator’ block
    • ‘Paragraph’ block

TIP: By default, hitting ‘enter/return’ on your keyboard will start you off on a new ‘Paragraph’ block. Additionally, in order to keep writing text within the same block, hit ‘shift + enter/return’.

BONUS: CSS Modification

There will be times when you’re working with a theme, and you come across a certain element you want to change, but it falls outside the scope of its default customization options.

You don’t want to just throw in the towel completely. You can use CSS to make minor appearance changes to your theme. This isn’t something I’ll go over in detail here, but just to show you how that works, I found a perfect example on my site that I wanted to change.

I noticed that the page title ‘Home’ is appearing on the homepage, and I don’t really like that. I could technically just delete the title altogether from the editor, but doing that would give my page a weird ‘Untitled’ title and I don’t want that. It’s not good for internal linking either. Geez, what to do?

The solution — HIDE the title with CSS!

5. Adding Functionality (Plugins)

Let’s talk about plugins! What are they? Why do I need them? Do I even need them? I’ll be going over the answers to all these questions in the following section.

Apps are to smartphones, as plugins are to WordPress sites

The best way I could describe plugins would be to compare them to “apps”.

When you buy a new smartphone, whether it be an Apple or Android device, it’ll work and function right out of the box perfectly fine.

But let’s say you wanted to find the location of that chic cafe you heard about the other day, what do you do? You might download the Google Maps app on your phone and search for it that way.

Or, if you wanted to head out on your daily run but needed a way to track your steps or jogging path, you might download a fitness tracking app — perhaps something like Nike Run.

The same concept goes for your WordPress website. Just like the way there are thousands of apps you can download on your phone, there are thousands of plugins you can download and use on your site.

Plugins essentially allow your WordPress site to do things that it normally wouldn’t be able to do when using it straight out of the box.

The Jetpack plugin, for example, allowed us earlier to connect our site to WordPress.com services, and utilize their resources to do a few things with our site. Just to name a few features among many others, Jetpack allowed us to:

  • Improve our site security
  • Improve our site performance
  • Access WordPress.com themes (Modern Business is a WordPress.com theme)

With plugins, the sky is the limit for what you can do with your website!

You want to add a store to your site? Use the WooCommerce plugin!

Need a contact form so your visitors can reach you? How about trying Contact Form 7?

Or, how about upping your SEO game so that your website ranks higher in search engine results — Yoast has got you covered.

For self-hosted WordPress sites, plugins are available from the WordPress.org plugin directory, whereas on WordPress.com plugins are restricted to site subscribed to a Business plan.

In short, while plugins aren’t necessary for getting started with your website, they are incredibly powerful and will become essential add-ons when you start looking to do things outside the realm of just blogging.

Getting Started — WordPress.com

WordPress wallpaper created by Automattic
Created by Automattic
  1. Appreciating What’s Free on WordPress.com
  2. Signing Up for a WordPress.com Account
  3. Paid Plans on WordPress.com
  4. Themes on WordPress.com
  5. Plugins on WordPress.com

1. Appreciating What’s Free on WordPress.com

If you’ve read any article on the differences of WordPress.org and WordPress.com, you’ve surely come across the section where WordPress.com is explained. And more than likely you were introduced to a laundry list of things of what it can’t do and its limitations…

Well, I’m here to play devil’s advocate for a short while and explain to you what it can do. What I will agree with on the majority of articles out there is that there are of its course pros and cons. But at the end of the day, whether you decide to go with .ORG or .COM will depend on where your personal website goals align with most.

WordPress.com has evolved A LOT over the years and is no longer just a “blogging platform” as many have suggested it to be. It’s become a full fledged content management platform where you can manage both your WordPress website and custom domain name.

Now, let’s just stop and take a moment to appreciate why a free version of WordPress even exists for you all to use at your heart’s content. Let me emphasize the keyword here again, FREE.

The mission of WordPress is to democratize publishing. That is deep.

We want to provide equality of opportunity for anyone in the world, regardless of what language they speak, what country they live in, or how much money they have, to have a voice online, to be able to publish.

Matt Mullenweg, Co-founder of WordPress & CEO of WordPress.com

Sure you might not be able to install plugins or custom themes using WordPress.com’s free version of WordPress. Yes, your WordPress.com URL will be a subdomain of WordPress.com (i.e. mysite.wordpress.com). And yes, there will be occasional ads displayed on your free site.

However, if you think about it, how often are things in this world truly free? Someone puts in the wrench time and money somewhere at the end of the day to make something free. It’s these very limitations that keep free features free. Ads and paid plans pay for what keeps free versions of WordPress sites available to people.

To have a voice online — this is a privilege that many other people in this world don’t have. Remember, you are paying $0 to have your words published on the world wide web. Just put that into perspective and let it sit for a while…

2. Signing Up for a WordPress.com account

Getting a WordPress.com account, username, and your first website up and running couldn’t be any more simple. It takes literally a few minutes to get started!

NOTE: The only thing you might want to watch out for during the signup process is the step when you’re asked to “Give Your Site an Address.”

During this step, if you try typing out a custom domain name, you’ll be presented with available options to pay for that domain.

However, if you’re only looking to start with a free site, you’ll need to select the free WordPress.com URL address to move forward.

Get Started With WordPress.com

3. Paid Plans on WordPress.com

Free ($0/Forever)

Alright, with this plan you get a website which uses a free WordPress.com URL, 3GB of storage space, access to WordPress.com’s curated list of free themes, and not to mention the freedom to publish. You also get forum support, which by the way is not that bad. You can expect responses to come in a timely manner. Not a bad deal for $0.00.

Blogger ($36/year)

The Blogger plan is one of WordPress.com’s newer plans. It promotes mainly the use of the “.blog” domain and it’s targeted audience is geared towards, well, bloggers.

The features of this plan don’t change that much compared to Free. Storage space is upped to 6GB, and the level of support is upgraded to direct email support from WordPress.com staff. Additionally, the removal of ads from your website is introduced at this tier.

One thing to note here is that only “.blog” domains can be used on this plan. If you want to use any other type of domain like “.com”, “.net”, etc. you’ll need at least a Personal plan or above.

This plan would be for folks who mainly do just blogging, and wouldn’t want to use WordPress.com’s free URL to promote themselves, but at the same time might not have enough money to spend on a Personal plan. And you wouldn’t mind using a “.blog” custom domain name. This plan would be for you.

UPDATE: This plan has been discontinued.

Personal ($60/year)

Personal plan features are nearly the same as Blogger, but only now you have the choice to register any domain name you like (whereas the Blogger plan is limited to only “.blog” domains)

Additionally, support is upgraded to both email and live chat support. Live chat support is available 24/5 (i.e. Monday – Friday) for Personal & Premium plan subscribers.

Premium ($96/year)

At this tier, things start to get interesting, which is no wonder why Premium is WordPress.com’s “popular” plan.

Here is what you can expect with features that are introduced starting from this plan:

  • Increased storage now at 13GB
  • Access to all WordPress.com’s curated themes
  • CSS modification. This is labeled as “Advanced Design Customization” on the pricing page.
  • Simple Payments. This allows you to set up a payment method (via PayPal) to sell things on your site. Please note that that’s all it is, a payment method. You would still need to manage on your own how to distribute and or ship your product to your customers.
  • Site Monetization. You can now use WordAds, which is the in-house ad program to earn money by displaying ads on your site.
  • VideoPress Support. Here’s another big one, which is the feature to upload videos to your site.

Business ($300/year)

Okay, the explanation of the plan everyone’s been waiting for — Business plan!

Let’s start with the obvious. With the Business plan, you now have access to the coveted features of plugin and custom theme installation. On this plan, your site is pretty much the equivalent to a self-hosted WordPress site.

The difference in this case is that you don’t need to manage your own servers, you don’t need to use FTP, and no need to manage site security or backups. The latter two features are covered by the Jetpack plugin that’s already preinstalled and manged on all sites.

Other features include…

  • Unlimited storage.
  • SEO tools + Google Analytics integration
  • 24/7 dedicated live support with WordPress.com staff
  • 2 Free “Concierge Support Sessions”, which are 1:1 live screen share sessions with WordPress.com staff who will help you learn the ins and outs of the platform, in addition to addressing any of your own questions.

eCommerce ($540/year)

The eCommerce plan is WordPress.com’s newest edition to their paid plans, as it launched sometime earlier this year.

This plan would be for folks looking for a relatively quick and painless way for setting up an eCommerce website.

It comes with everything you might need to get started, but you will need some prior WooCommerce know-how to make the most of this plan. What I mean by that is, while you have all the “parts”, the site itself will involve much “assembly”.

Don’t worry! If you don’t know what you’re doing, you have a team of WooCommerce experts ready to assist with any questions. The same support features apply — 24/7 email, live chat, and your 2 concierge sessions.

Here are the features and paid extensions that come with this plan:

  • Access to premium Storefront child themes:
    • Bookshop ($39)
    • Galleria ($39)
    • Homestore ($39)
  • Premium WooCommerce extensions:
    • Storefront Powerpack ($59)
    • Product Add-Ons ($49)
  • Integrations with top shipping carriers:
    • UPS ($79)
    • USPS ($79)
    • Canada Post ($79)
    • Royal Mail ($79)
    • Australia Post ($79)
  • The ability to accept payments in 60+ countries via the following available integrations:
    • Stripe
    • PayPal Checkout
    • Square
    • Klarna Payments
    • Klarna Checkout
    • EWay
    • PayFast

So if you do the math, the cost of the paid plugins alone already amount to $620. I think it’s safe to say that you’d be more than equipped to take on the world with this beast of a plan.

4. Themes on WordPress.com

Themes come in three flavors:

  • Free
  • Premium
  • Custom (i.e. themes not included in WordPress.com’s curated theme list — Business plan or above required). Okay, so technically custom themes don’t come with WordPress.com, but they of course CAN be used if a site is upgraded to the appropriate plan.

When browsing the theme directory, you’ll see two tabs available to click on, Free and Premium.

theme directory page for WordPress.com displays 2 tabs: free and premium

If your site is subscribed to a Personal plan or below, you could still use Premium themes, but each theme will have a price tag on it. However, once you buy the theme, it’s yours to use on WordPress.com forever.

Sites subscribed to a Premium plan or above will have unlimited access to try and use any Premium theme found in the directory.

In the WordPress.com context, when mentioning “custom themes”, we would be referring to any third-party theme that is found elsewhere, whether it be a theme from the WordPress.org directory, a theme developer agency, or even a theme marketplace.

Themes on WordPress.com will all have a specific set of setup instructions found on their theme information page. What I’ve noticed when working extensively with many of these themes is that they’ll have very similar setup patterns or layouts, which you’ll see being referred to again and again.

Here are the 3 big ones:

  • Static Homepage — Almost all themes on WordPress.com will NOT be set to a static homepage. By default, blog posts are displayed on the homepage. This is why it’s important to get familiar with this concept quickly, because this will determine whether you want your site to be “blog-centric“, or “website-centric“. Learn more, https://en.support.wordpress.com/pages/front-page/
  • Featured Content — A lot of themes, whether it’s a blog or website theme, will have some sort of “featured content” area implemented in their homepage design. Featured content would basically be blog posts you want to highlight or feature in that area. Learn more, https://en.support.wordpress.com/featured-content/
  • Theme Options — Themes that are designed with a one-page layout style in mind will usually have customizable sections. These sections would typically be dependent on already published pages, portfolio projects, testimonials, etc. And would be configured in the Customizer. So be sure to be check the theme info page to make sure what you need to have published first, in order to fill out these sections.

WordPress Free Theme Setup: Illustratr (Minimalist Portfolio Site)

Just to give ya’ll a quick look at what sort of site you could create on WordPress.com, I selected a minimalist portfolio theme as an example.

This theme is free to use on WordPress.com, and it’s designed with folks who might be into photography, or those who just simply want to put emphasis on images for their site.

The Illustratr theme uses a ‘custom post type’ known as the ‘portfolio’ post type. This would need to be enabled first from your general settings, Manage -> Settings -> Writing -> Content types -> toggle ‘Portfolio Projects’

5. Plugins on WordPress.com

If you haven’t realized this by now, then you should know that plugins are not available to use unless your WordPress.com site is subscribed to a Business plan or above. Plain and simple.

Now with that said, there are some plugins that don’t play well with WordPress.com’s platform, and it is worth noting. I would recommend checking out their support guide on which types of plugins you won’t be able to use — https://en.support.wordpress.com/incompatible-plugins/

You’ll find that the list contains mostly plugins for modifying backend functionalities, or plugins that have to do with caching.


At the end of the day, there is no which is better, WordPress.org or WordPress.com? Instead, you should think of choosing one over the other based on which suits your personal needs best.

Here’s some food for thought if you’re a beginner with WordPress…

Learning how to use WordPress and understanding all of its basic functionalities will take time.

Customizing a custom WordPress theme will take time.

Configuring specific plugins and learning how they work WILL TAKE TIME.

Not to mention all the things you need know about hosting and maintaining your site… guess what? That will take time too.

The WordPress software, themes, and plugins will all have their separate learning curves.

Do you have the time to learn? Or, are you willing to put in the time to learn?

Imagine if you have a business to run, ask yourself which is more of a priority — spending time running your actual business OR spending time learning how to build and run your website?

You can rest assured that at WordPress.com you’ll be backed by a 24/7 team of WordPress experts to help you out at any time (assuming you have a paid plan and need assistance with one their products i.e. WP.com themes, WooCommerce, Jetpack, etc.). This support would be invaluable to a new website owner who really just needs to get a website up and running on their own, but wouldn’t necessarily want to go at it without backup.

On the flip side, if you’re already a seasoned website designer, have the capacity to learn quickly, or just simply have the time & patience to learn all the WordPress things, you may find that venturing out into the self-hosted wild, if you will, might be for you! Web hosting providers will have support, but it may usually just be for hosting-related issues, not necessarily WordPress-specific support.

Each person will have their own preferred style of learning and goals for building a website or blog. So it’s up to you to decide where your priorities lie. Align your time, resources, and technical skill with the path that would suit you best!


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