WordPress.com is best known as a reliable place to set up a simple and free website. You have limited control over its customization, but it works reliably. Your readers will see some ads, but they aren't too annoying. It's one of the biggest blogging sites in the world, perhaps the biggest.
What's less well known is that the service offers three paid plans which get rid of the ads and give you more control. If you're willing to pay enough, you can hold nearly unrestricted control over your hosted site.
Let's start by clarifying the difference between a WordPress site and a WordPress.com site. A WordPress site can run on any server that allows it.
You download the software from WordPress.org and install it, or the hosting site does that for you. WordPress plays no role in the hosting. If you deploy it on your own computer, you can use it any way you want. If you deploy it on a hosted site, the host sets the rules.
WordPress.com uses the same software, but it provides the hosting. What you can do depends on the plan you choose.
Vast numbers of developers have created add-ons for WordPress, called themes and plugins. Some are free, and others require payment. If you own your site, you can install any of them without restriction. Many hosts give you the same freedom. In WordPress.com, your selection is restricted unless you choose the high-end Business plan.
WordPress, under the corporate name of Automattic, first appeared in 2005. The software platform dates from 2003. It started out as a blogging platform, but software enhancements made it suitable for many kinds of websites. The platform has become the world's most popular website engine.
The Free plan lets you start up a blog or simple website with no cost and hardly any effort. There are catches, of course. Ads will appear on your site. CSS customization is limited to inline styles, which affect only one element. Support is minimal. You get 3 GB of storage. The domain will be [yourname].wordpress.com. On the positive side, you can start as many blogs as you like, all under the same account.
If you want a bit more dignity, the Personal plan is reasonably priced. You get to use your own domain, and your site won't display any ads from WordPress. You have access to email and live chat support. The available storage is doubled to 6 GB.
Power users might want the Premium plan. A big benefit is a complete control over CSS for the site, along with extended color schemes and backgrounds for themes. You're allowed to monetize your site through WordAds. VideoPress is included, letting you include videos with more freedom than YouTube or Vimeo. The storage limit goes up to 13 GB.
The Business plan is a major price jump but gives you nearly full control over your site. You get unlimited storage, and all WordPress.com branding is removed. On top of that, you can install any themes and plugins you choose.
Extras with all plans
A few nice things come with all the plans. Akismet comment spam protection is standard. Spam comments not only are annoying to your readers but can link to scam or malware sites. Akismet catches the large majority of spam and lets you review it privately in case it makes a mistake.
The Jetpack plugin is another helpful standard feature. It provides site analytics and lets you share posts on social media sites. A particularly nice aspect of Jetpack is that it lets you unify your logins. If you have a WordPress site on another host, you can link it to your WordPress.com account. Then you can log in without having to give a password, provided you're already logged in to WordPress.com.
Lots of widgets are available to decorate your sidebars. A widget is a type of plugin that can show a history of your posts, invite people to follow your site, show items from social media sites, provide an RSS feed, show custom HTML, and much more.
A low-key social media system lets you follow other WordPress.com blogs. You can view them in an aggregator and display a widget listing the blogs you follow.
What you can't do
You can't modify your themes. With most hosted sites, you can create a “child theme” which inherits everything from its parent except what you change. On WordPress.com, you can't.
You can't completely erase WordPress's presence from your site. The “Blog at WordPress.com” notification isn't obtrusive, but it's always there.
You don't get an email account, though you can set one up with the same domain on someone else's service.
You can't run third-party ads. The only ads allowed are promotions of your own products and services and ones you get through WordPress.
The Business plan eliminates most of these restrictions, but you still don't get to use email, access files directly, or can't run third-party ads.
Management and migration
You manage everything from the wp-admin section of your site. This is where you create pages posts, moderate comments, upload graphics, view statistics, and add new sites and users.
You can collaborate with others on a site, as long as they have WordPress accounts. It isn't necessary to give them full admin control; you can assign them roles as editors, authors, contributors, and subscribers. If you just want to let someone submit blog posts, you can give them that authority without worrying about what else they could mess up.
If you outgrow the restrictions of WordPress.com, you aren't stuck there. It's easy to export your entire site and put it on any site where you can run the WordPress software. However, you might have to purchase a theme or plugins that were included for free before migrating.
The Free plan really is free, no tricks. The other plans quote monthly rates, but you pay in advance for a year's service. Some themes cost extra unless you have the Premium plan or higher. You can pay with a credit or debit card or by PayPal. You have 30 days to cancel a plan and get a refund, and 48 hours to cancel a domain registration.
You can register your domain through WordPress or use a domain you've registered yourself. If you use WordPress, the domain name will auto-renew along with the site.
Site subscriptions auto-renew, and you get charged a month before the renewal date. If you don't want to renew, you have to drop your subscription before that. Your site will stay up until its expiration date.
Is WordPress for you?
WordPress.com is an excellent platform for trying out a site or just getting experience in WordPress. Everything is set up for you, and you don't have to pay anything to get started. You can run it by yourself or bring a team in. If it's worth keeping, you can upgrade to Personal or Premium without disrupting the existing content. You can also take the whole site and move it to someone else's WordPress hosting.
The paid plans provide an easy way to add a blog to an existing website. You can put the WordPress site in a subdomain (e.g., blog.mydomain.com) and link to it from your own site.
If you're aiming high, keep eventual migration in mind. The business plan is expensive for what it offers, and you can get full WordPress hosting for less elsewhere. You aren't locked in, though your site's appearance and features may have to change when you migrate. If you're considering this path, register your own domain rather than having WordPress do it for you.
If you want to write your own plugins or other back-end code, if you want to carry ads, or if you object to having any branding on your site, this isn't the place to look. But if you want to take a safe, low-priced step into WordPress site management, it's a good choice.
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