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Ask a group of bloggers if you should start a free WordPress blog or a self-hosted one and the majority will loudly and proudly tout the benefits of WordPress.org while slipping you an affiliate link to their host of choice. (insert said obligatory affiliate link here*).
Just a few years ago I would have been right there with them. Because the truth is, free WordPress blogs left a lot to the imagination in those days. But as the years have gone by, WordPress.com has slowly upped its game and having a free WordPress blog is no longer the faux pas it once was.
Is a self-hosted or free WordPress blog right for you?
There are many pros and cons to starting a free WordPress blog over a self-hosted one and vice versa. Which one is right for you will depend on your needs, means and goals. And making that decision should take more time and research than reading through a few responses to your question in a Facebook group and clicking on an affiliate link.
For this discussion we’ll compare WordPress.com and WordPress.org based on price, hosting/maintenance/support, ease of setup, customizability/design control and monetization since these are the 5 main categories that tend to come up when bloggers start touting one over the other.
WordPress.com is free for up to 3GB with a .wordpress.com subdomain. If you need more space, or want to use your own domain, you can upgrade to one of their paid plans. These include the Personal plan for $3.99/month (6GB), the Premium plan for $10.75/month (13GB) or the Business plan for $32.42/month (unlimited storage). Just note that using a custom domain means paying the yearly fee for the domain itself, in addition to the upgrade.
For a self-hosted WordPress site, the minimum amount of money you spend will vary depending on your hosting package (more on that below) and the cost of your domain name.
Hosting, Maintenance and Support
One of the biggest selling points for a free WordPress blog – apart from being free – is the managed hosting. All plans, including the free one, come with premium hosting, complete with security and backups. The free plan doesn’t come with any special support other than the WordPress.com forums but paid plans include email and live chat support from WordPress.com experts.
For self-hosted WordPress, you will have to purchase your own hosting and handle things like backups and security yourself, unless they’re included in your package. Shared hosting, which is what most bloggers use, starts from about $5 – $10 a month but the price goes up as you start looking at managed WordPress or cloud hosting packages. Hosting companies usually provide support on hosting issues but unless you have a managed WordPress hosting package, you’ll need to use the WordPress.org forums or hire someone to assist.
Ease of Setup
Setting up a free WordPress blog is fairly simple. All you need to do is register for an account, choose a free .wordpress.com domain or use a custom one, select a theme and start publishing.
Self-hosted WordPress is a little more complex but not by much. It involves registering a domain name, purchasing hosting, then installing WordPress, your chosen theme and any necessary plugins. However, things can get a bit more complicated if you plan to customize your theme or build your own.
Design and Development Control
As easy as WordPress.com is to use, there are quite a few limitations when it comes to customizing your blog. For starters, you’re limited to the pre-approved WordPress.com themes and cannot install your own. There is an option to customize your selected theme slightly with the free and personal plans, but only using pre-set colour schemes, background designs, and font styles.
The Premium and Business plans, however, go a step further and give you complete control over your site CSS which allows for more front-end customization.
With WordPress.org, on the other hand, you can install custom themes* and customize them or build your own using CSS and PHP. You can also install plugins to extend your blog’s functionality, which isn’t the case with a free WordPress blog. Basically, the sky is limit in terms of development and design if you have the knowledge or can hire a developer to do it for you.
With WordPress.org, you can monetize your blog in any number of ways, including but not limited to inserting ads onto your site, sharing sponsored content, using affiliate links, selling your own products and more.
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to monetize a WordPress.com blog. Most of these options mentioned above are also available to you on WordPress.com but there are some restrictions.
While affiliate links are allowed, you can’t promote get rich schemes, MLMs or a few other programs. Additionally, third party ad networks like Google AdSense or GourmetAds are not permitted. However, WordPress.com offers their own ad service, WordAds, which is automatically accessible with Premium and Business plans. Other high traffic sites with appropriate content may also be eligible to apply.
So, which one should you choose?
Like I said before, that’s a decision only you can make. But I do have some suggestions.
If you’re a hobby blogger who doesn’t need a tonne of functionality or customization and you don’t expect to go over 3 – 6 GB of space, I’d recommend going with a free WordPress blog or even upgrading to the Personal plan. You’ll still be able to do all the basic blogging tasks and even make money from your site, without the hassle of dealing with hosting and maintenance.
What I wouldn’t recommend are the Premium or Business plans. They’re way too expensive for what they offer and you can get a self-hosted site with much more functionality for the same price or less.
If you’re looking to upgrade from a free WordPress blog or plan to stick with blogging for the long haul and possibly make a career out of it, self-hosted WordPress is the way to go. It takes a bit more technical knowhow, or a willingness to outsource but the level of flexibility available to you will definitely be worth it.
What about you?
- What blogging platform did you use when you first started blogging?
- Did I miss any key features that made you choose one over the other?
- What features do you look for in a blogging platform?