If I was better at saving money, there’s a dilemma I’d be happy to have: Should I buy a condo or a house? With a condo, everything’s all ready to go and there’s less maintenance. With no lawn to mow and no gutters to clean, it’s almost like a condo’s doing all of the work for you. At the same time, you do get charged weird fees that seem to come out of nowhere. Plus, you can’t just start making drastic modifications to a condo. A house, on the other hand, is yours. Want to paint the outside orange and blue? Go right ahead. Think the basement would make a great bowling alley? Have at it. Of course, all of the responsibility that goes with owning a house is yours as well (something you’ll realize after that first rainstorm washes all of the Crayola paint off of your roof and into your flooded bowling alley.)
If you’re like me and you’re not buying a condo or a house any time soon, you can nevertheless enjoy the similar dilemma of trying to decide between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. These are two similar, but totally different, versions of WordPress. Both allow you to choose a theme, add content and then publish it to the Internet. Both allow you to set things up as a blog or a regular website (or both.) Both are highly regarded in the world of online portfolios. Ultimately, the differences between WordPress.com and WordPress.org lie in the initial setup and the level of freedom/responsibility you’d like to have when it comes to aesthetics and maintenance.
Before moving on, I do have to address one thing: the address. A lot people initially think, “This must be a WordPress.com site because there’s a ‘.com’ in the address bar.” Likewise, a fair amount of people logically assume that a WordPress.org site must have “.org” in the URL. While the thought process behind both assumptions is certainly reasonable, neither is correct. As long as you own (or have access to) a domain name (“something.whatever”), you can use it as the web address for either a WordPress.com or WordPress.org site. Again, the differences between the two versions of WordPress are all in how you use them, so location isn’t key.
WordPress.com is free, easy to use, and it’s almost impossible to screw everything up and ruin your whole site. Setting up an account is just a matter of coming up with a username and password. After that, you can choose a theme and start creating Pages (like the “Tutorials” page on this site.) Or, you can get right into blogging your heart out with Posts. (Note: if you’re not looking to blog, you can run either version of WordPress as a dynamic website.)
With WordPress.com, you can upload images and integrate them into your site, but uploading other types of media will cost you money (the same goes for making changes to theme colors, fonts and code.) True, you can work around this by hosting your MP3s on SoundCloud, keeping your videos on YouTube, etc. However, WordPress.com is finicky about what kind of embed code can be copied and pasted into it. So, you may wind up with a boring URL pasted into your Post instead of a sweet-looking slide show right next to your text. (As a side note, WordPress.com does allow embeds from SoundCloud and YouTube.)
Recently, I set up a WordPress.com site for the JAMS Democracy In Action project. In the coming weeks, this project will become reliant on various types of digital media. Getting that information online quickly and easily will be of the utmost importance. For these reasons, we went with a WordPress.com Pro package. For about one hundred dollars a year, WordPress.com Pro includes:
- Free domain name
- Ability to tweak the design
- WordPress audio player
- WordPress video player
- More storage space than anyone could ever need
- No ads (with the free version, you may suddenly find ads on your site)
So far, most of my experience with the Democracy In Action WordPress.com site has involved laying a foundation and tweaking aesthetics. Believe it or not, the site’s appearance is actually based on a WordPress default theme (“Twenty Eleven”—the one with the streetcar and paper lantern pictures.) With a WordPress.com Pro account, you can make changes to most of the available themes. Our custom version of Twenty Eleven is basically two American flag scans, some creativity in Photoshop and a few minor CSS tweaks.
If that last part about CSS tweaks has you looking for the door, stay with me for a minute. In my opinion, the best part about a WordPress.com Pro account is the CSS Editor. Why? Because you get to learn how CSS works without knowing anything about Cascading Style Sheets (and without ruining your whole site.) In my case, I wanted to get rid of the extra top area in the original Twenty Eleven theme, so I Googled, “get rid of top area wordpress twenty eleven theme css.” I sifted through a few tech sites, found some code, copied and pasted it into the CSS Editor and then hit “Preview.” Some of my initial attempts didn’t work, but in less than five minutes, I found something that did. I got rid of the top part of the default header—making the stars flush with the red and white stripes.
At the end of the day, experience is the best way to up your tech game. Mess around with stuff. Get your hands dirty. Whatever it is you’re trying to do probably won’t work right away. Still, you’ll see what doesn’t work, and then you’ll figure out what does. Before you know it, all of this tech stuff will be second nature.
As the name implies, WordPress.org is a free program. With its thousands of free plugins, you can shnazz up your site and do some really amazing things (like embed audio and video, change the look of a theme, etc.) Of course, there’s a catch: in order to run this free version of WordPress, you have to have access to server space (which usually isn’t free.)
Thankfully, a lot of webhosting services (like Bluehost) now offer WordPress.org “One Click Installs.” Signing up with a webhosting service usually runs about one hundred dollars a year (this usually includes a “free” domain name as well.) In the case of Bluehost, after becoming a member, you simply click the handy “Install WordPress.org” button. Then, presto: you’ve got a WordPress.org site (without doing any technical heavy lifting on your own.) After that, the WordPress.org interface is pretty similar to WordPress.com. Choose a theme. Create Pages and Posts. Publish.
At this point, you may be wondering, “If a WordPress.com Pro account is a hundred bucks a year, why go with a webhosting service and WordPress.org?”
- Free domain name
- Plugins (see below)
- Integrate almost any type of digital media
- Greater aesthetic flexibility
- Improve your tech skills
- Ads only if you want to try to make some money
With WordPress.org (and only WordPress.org), you can use plugins to make awesome additions and alterations to your site. Need an .mp3 player embedded in a Post? Choose from any of the hundreds of .mp3 player plugins available for free. The same goes for video and photo slideshow players (not to mention countless other options and features.) There are people all over the world constantly creating and updating plugins that anyone can use with a WordPress.org site free of charge. To install a plugin, just upload it to your WordPress.org site and then click “Activate.” Don’t like a plugin? Deactivate it. If there’s something you’re hoping to do with a WordPress.org site, there’s probably a plugin that can help you do it.
At the beginning of the summer, I swore I’d learn everything I could about WordPress.org and create my own custom theme from the ground up. Since I had very little HTML, CSS, MySQL or PHP experience at that time, I knew that would mean living the life of a recluse through Labor Day. After going through tons of tutorials, trying to read a few books and bothering other tech people, I finally managed to finish the JAMSources theme being used on this site. Mind you, this isn’t a tweaked pre-fab theme. I made it from scratch. Plus, I learned about HTML, CSS, MySQL and PHP while making it. That type of freedom and opportunity for growth is why I chose to go with WordPress.org for this site.
If less than 10 dollars a month seems like a lot of money for either a WordPress .com or WordPress.org account, consider the cost of setting up and running your own website. A domain name from a reputable provider (in other words, not GoDaddy) runs about 50 dollars a year. Basic webspace packages usually total about 120 dollars per year. Backups and various other fees run at least 30 dollars a year. Of course, if your tech skills need work, you’ll have to pay someone to set everything up for you (and then you’ll have to pay them again when you want to make changes.)
Why spend that kind of money on website stuff when you could just as easily buy a house or a condo?