Explainers > What's in a Website Series

WordPress.com Hosting

Thanks for checking out our explainer videos where we make complex web topics easy to understand. This video, which is part of our “What’s in a Website?” series, is a follow up to our video about options for creating the content of your site. This time we explain the somewhat confusing WordPress.com Hosting.

This is not to imply that WordPress.com Hosting is bad. But the fact that it shares a name with, but is not the same thing as, the WordPress CMS (or content management system) found at WordPress.org, can be hard to keep straight.

Confused yet? We understand. So, let’s get into it.

You probably remember from our video on the three parts of a website that every website has a hosting account, an address created with a domain, and some site contents.

When you hear people talking about WordPress, 99% of the time they’re talking about the free and open-source WordPress CMS. This CMS is the most popular content management system on the Web and powers almost 40% of the sites on the internet. WordPress.com use this same CMS with their hosting, but what’s different is that you also have a company using the name WordPress that controls the hosting and domain.

To explain how that works, I first have to explain a little about the WordPress organization. The WordPress CMS is open-source software. If you don’t know what that is, you can watch our video explaining open source in our “What’s in a Website” series.

Like many open-source projects, the WordPress software is managed by a non-profit foundation who doesn’t make any money off of developing the WordPress CMS. But software developers still have bills to pay, so like many open-source projects, the people who created WordPress also started a for-profit company that sells WordPress related services. The company is called Automattic (with two Ts). You don’t have to remember that name, just don’t be confused if you see it in WordPress related stuff.

Now, you don’t need anything from Automattic to be able to use the WordPress CMS. What they sell are simply tools and services that help you use WordPress.

One of these services is hosting servers specifically dedicated to WordPress sites. Now, to be clear, WordPress.com hosting is not at all the only option for WordPress hosting. Almost every major hosting company supports WordPress and there are some great dedicated WordPress hosting companies with some awesome features.

Automattic’s difference (which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage) is how tightly it integrates it’s hosting with the WordPress CMS. The WordPress software is distributed by the WordPress foundation using the site WordPress.org and Automattic markets their hosting services using the site WordPress.com. Confusingly similar, I know.

So that’s the key thing to remember – when you have a site with WordPress.com, your using the free WordPress software, but paying Automattic for hosting space and domain registration.

One big place where this matters is with the control panel (or panels) you use to manage your site. With most setups, your hosting provider gives you a control panel to change the settings on your hosting account, and then you use the WordPress control panel (called the “Dashboard”) to change things in WordPress.

But with WordPress.com hosting these things are part of the same account and are more intertwined. Let me show you what I mean.

Here I have the WordPress.com hosting control panel for a site I created a while back. And here I have the WordPress CMS Dashboard for that same site. Because of the tight integration with WordPress.com hosting if I click here in the Dashboard, it will take me to the hosting control panel and if I click here in the hosting control panel, it will take me to the dashboard.

Also, where with a normal hosting setup I would have two places to log in – one for the hosting control panel looking something like this, and one for the WordPress Dashboard looking something like this – with WordPress.com hosting both of those screens have been merged into one that looks like this.

So, again, this can be great, and it can also be terrible. One of the downsides of WordPress.com hosting is that Automattic controls a lot of the WordPress features that you would otherwise be able to control yourself. This blunts many of the advantages of WordPress’s open-source nature.

Another confusing thing is that in the WordPress.com hosting control panel, you will find places to change settings that are typically changed in the WordPress Dashboard. This means that with WordPress hosting there are actually two places to change the same setting.

One last overlap between the WordPress CMS and WordPress.com is Jetpack. Automattic wanted to make the tools it sells available to people who weren’t using WordPress.com hosting, so they developed a plug-in that could be added to any WordPress setup called Jetpack.

This is a popular plug-in which adds a number of helpful features and you’ll find it added to a lot of WordPress installations. I won’t say too much more about this except to remember that when you’re doing anything with Jetpack, you’re no longer dealing with the WordPress software installed on your server, you’re dealing with tools installed on the WordPress.com servers.

So, that’s a little breakdown of what WordPress.com hosting is and how it relates to the WordPress CMS. It’s probably still a little confusing, but hopefully we’ve made it clearer.

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