The year was 2003. Apple had just launched iTunes, the first Harry Potter book came out, and two developers introduced the world to their free, open-source web app for creating blogs: WordPress.org.
Fast forward a few years, and WordPress has changed beyond recognition. You can now do a lot more than create blogs – in fact, the code that makes WordPress powers a whopping 41.0% of all websites on the Internet.
Meanwhile, the founders also launched a for-profit business using that code. This is where WordPress.com comes into the picture, and as you’ve guessed it, it’s not free (although there is a free version).
So is there an advantage for you in using WordPress.com’s paid plans? Or should you stick to using the free software yourself? Let’s break it down in detail below.
WordPress.com Review: What to Expect
WordPress.com is a hosted website builder that uses the free WordPress software. You can create blogs, websites and online stores without much technical knowledge. Hosting is included with the free version (with ads), and with the four paid plans ranging from $4 to $45 a month.
But now let's find out more about WordPress.com:
Create a site with limited templates and features, and host it on a predefined domain, like mywebsite.wordpress.com.
Connect your website to a custom domain and get 24/7 online support. 6GB of space. Ads are removed.
Same as above with more design tools, plugins and features like support for Google Analytics. 13GB of space.
Add custom plugins and access all available themes (free and paid). 200GB of storage and live support. Essential for SEO features.
Turn your website into an online store thanks to the powerful pre installed WooCommerce plugin.
We are showing monthly costs for yearly subscriptions. Compare all WordPress.com plans here.
Pros / Cons of WordPress.com
if you don’t mind ads and an assigned domain name, you can absolutely launch a basic site for free.
No installation or maintenance
everything is done automatically for you.
no phone, but email and live chat support is available.
you get the Premium version of WooCommerce, one of the strongest solutions for creating an online store.
Not the most intuitive
there is a steeper learning curve to understanding how WordPress works than with other website builders.
Poor price vs features ratio
Competitors offer similar or better features at a lower price point. For most advanced features you’ll need the pricey Business plan.
Few SEO options
unless you choose the Business plan, there’s not much you can do to optimize your site for search engines.
Can’t test the eCommerce plan for free
you have to start paying to give it a try.
Ease of use
Signing up is straightforward but even the new editor isn’t yet as intuitive as Weebly or Wix. There are certain WordPress specific quirks – like the complicated way menus are created – that take away from the user experience. It’s improving with every new version, though.
Choice and flexibility of design (templates)
Free themes are available. More of them can be unlocked in the Premium plan or higher. If you want to upload a custom theme, which are widely available online, you’ll need the Business plan. Overall, theme customization is harder than with a classic website builder.
|Users will see a WordPress.com banner in the header and a small text branding in the footer. Both can be removed with the Business plan or higher.|
The service is available in English. You can change your backend interface to another language. For a multilingual website, you’ll need a plugin like WPML. (Requires the expensive Business plan).
Your own domain name (e.g. .com or .net)
A free standard domain is offered in the first year. Renewal is about $18/year. Email hosting is not included. Requires an external service like Google Workspace or Namecheap.
Depth of navigation
In theory: no limitations. It only depends on your chosen theme.
Widgets (small tools to add extra functionality)
Some widgets are included (newsletter sign-up for Mailchimp etc.). Plugins are even more powerful but require the Business plan.
You can’t run ‘WordAds’ ads with the free plans, but anything from Business onwards is fine. WordAds is Automattic’s version of Adwords. But you are also free to add affiliate links or accept sponsored posts etc.
Uses WooCommerce. It can’t be tested in the free plan as it requires the eCommerce plan. If you want to learn more about WooCommerce, check out our detailed review.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Limited out of the box. You can’t edit the title and descriptions without a plugin like Yoast SEO to get full control. But plans under the Business plan don’t allow you to install that plugin.
Since WordPress has its origins in the blogosphere, there are basically no limitations.
Stats are included in the WordPress dashboard. Google Analytics will require a plugin.
Adding a standard form isn’t a problem. If you need more advanced features, you can install a plugin like Contact Form 7 (provided you have the Business plan).
Password protection & member areas
You can protect every page with a password. Also, WordPress is great to give users different roles with rights (subscriber, administrator, etc.). Plugins for membership areas can be added too, but you’ll need to upgrade to ‘Business’.
A newsletter tool is not included. However, if you are with Mailchimp, you can add a sign-up form. Other providers can be linked via HTML or plugin.
Add HTML code
Not a problem. The HTML block allows you to add external code.
3 GB - 200 GB
Very generous! Standard projects won’t struggle with too little space. Another plus: no bandwidth limit for visitors or file transfers!
Backups & Restore
WordPress automatically saves 25 revisions of each post and page. Therefore restoring lost content isn’t an issue. If a plugin should crash your website, you can directly contact support.
One of the biggest advantages of WordPress.com is the direct support. In the free open-source version it’s not included. The live chat support could solve our issue very fast. Beginners should check out their helpful video library.
We have seen simpler web builders, but thanks to the new block editor, it has gotten much easier to use. Every new WordPress update seems to improve the overall experience.
WordPress.com is the easiest way to run a WordPress website. Unfortunately, a pretty expensive one as only the Business plan unlocks its full potential.
How does WordPress.com work?
You sign up for free, choose a theme, and start editing your website by adding pages and content. Then you can choose to stay on a free plan, or pay a monthly fee to use more features and connect the site to your own professional domain.
It’s worth noting at this point that WordPress is sometimes called a CMS or Content Management System. But because WordPress.com allows you to build and host entire websites, I’ll stick with the “website builder” name.
The main concept to understand is that WordPress was originally a blogging platform, and it still relies on the same format:
- Pages: usually static content like an About Us page
- Posts: blog posts, news or regular updates. You can use tags to group them, and they usually appear in reverse chronological order.
What’s the Difference Between WordPress.com and .org
Great question. We’ve written a complete guide on the differences between WordPress.com and WordPress.org here, and you can see an explainer video below:
But the main points to remember are:
|Hosting||Included in price||Need to buy it elsewhere|
|Domain name||Free the first year, you’ll need to renew it later ($18 – $65 a year)||Not included|
|Not included||Not included|
|Installation and updates||Automatic||Manual (or done by your third party hosting provider)|
|Pricing||A free plan and four paid monthly plans.||Completely free to download and install.|
|Features and plugins||Limited depending on the plan||All available|
|Website templates||Limited depending on the plan||All available|
|Support||Available depending on plan||None|
What About That New Editor?
As of late 2019, WordPress changed the way you add and create content on your site. It used to be through an editor called TinyMCE, a.k.a the Classic Editor. It was pretty much a text editor – great for writing posts, but not so great for complex pages (unless you knew how to code or relied on 3rd party plugins).
The new editor is called Gutenberg. It’s much more friendly to beginners as it uses blocks to add text, media or any other kind of content. It comes installed by default, but if you’re used to the Classic editor, you can still revert to it whenever you want.
Getting started with WordPress.com is as straightforward as it gets. You don’t need a credit card, and your whole basic website can be set up in 6 steps.
The steps are very broad (no design or SEO options yet), but it feels good to get something done in less than 10 mins.
Two major downsides: you can’t test the eCommerce option for free. They’re also a bit pushy about upgrading to a paid plan as soon as you login, but hey – can’t fault them for trying to make money.
Ease of Use and Getting Started
When you first create a site, you’ll be met with a page called Reader, where you can find news about other websites.
Okay – not the most useful thing to start with. I’d rather just dive into the editor, which you access by clicking My Site in the top left.
As noted earlier, the Gutenberg editor is automatically activated. It makes it easier than before to add content like text and media via what they call “blocks”. It’s really a beautiful editor with tons of space for text and images.
If you’ve used Squarespace before, it looks kinda similar. Adding more complicated elements like tables, buttons or signup forms is just as easy as text. No need for code or plugins (like with the old editor), and you can even edit the font colors without code.
One thing to note: you still need a basic understanding of how WordPress handles Pages and Posts (see all the way at the top of this review) to really feel at home here.
There can also be troubleshooting issues that will be baffling to complete beginners, for instance when the editor switches to HTML mode.
Designs, customization and Themes
WordPress.com has, at the time of writing, 293 themes, both free and paid. They are grouped in 28 categories such as Art, Blog, Fashion, Magazine or Photography. You can also search by feature, style, number of columns, and layout.
A few notes:
- You can’t create sitewide changes or add CSS with the free plan.
- To purchase their official premium themes, you’ll need the Premium plan at least.
- You can unlock more custom themes (from third party places) with the Business plan.
Then the amount of customization options is completely dependent on the theme itself. In fact, popular themes like Avada or BeTheme act as “modular theme builders”, so you can create many variations with the pre-selected elements.
Final point: if you want to code (or hire someone to code) a unique theme, it’s possible. Be prepared to spend a lot of time (or money).
Plugins and Add-ons
One of the greatest joys of playing around with a WordPress site is the ability to customize it with plugins. As I write this, there are 56,777 free and premium plugins available.
Now not all of them are top-notch. Anyone can upload a plugin to the store so it’s always important to read the reviews and check compatibility because they might crash your site. But still, there’s so much you can do with plugins:
- Create a multilingual website
- Control your SEO options
- Use exit-intent popups
- Add beautiful contact forms
- Integrate newsletters
- Transform your theme
- And much, much more…
But here’s the catch….
You can only install some of them – and only with the Business and eCommerce plan.
The idea is that the company will preselect plugins based on your plan. So, for instance, blogs will come with Advanced Commenting and social media integrations. An online store, as you’ll see below, will come with the Premium WooCommerce.
It’s all designed so your site only has the strict minimum amount of plugins needed. It will help it run smoothly, but at the cost of flexibility – and in my opinion, it puts a damper on the fun of experimenting with website features.
The E-Commerce plan for online stores
As noted above, one of the biggest drawbacks of the ecommerce plan is that you can’t test it for free. And at $45 a month, it can be an expensive test run. You could use the same WooCommerce plugin on a site of your own for around $12 a month, for instance with Siteground instead.
On the plus side, the version of WooCommerce you get here comes with all the bells and whistles:
- Sell unlimited physical and digital products
- Supports appointments or subscriptions too
- Embed products anywhere on your site
- Product reviews and ratings
- Loads of payment options (PayPal, Stripe, Credit cards, direct bank transfers, cash on delivery)
- Free or Real time shipping rates
- Geo-location support
- Automatic tax calculator
- Customers accounts, guest checkout
- Email templates
- One-click refunds
- And much, much more…
Plus you get free support for your store.
Marketing and SEO options
Generally speaking, with WordPress, if the feature you need isn’t already included with your theme, it comes in the form of a plugin. There is a nice out-of-the-box integration with Mailchimp so visitors can sign-up for a newsletter, but if you want to use another service, you’ll need to install a plugin.
This is also true of other email marketing integrations, popups and discount offers, or specific analytics tools. Once again, in order to do install these plugins, you’ll need the Business plan or higher.
On the one hand it means you can have complete control over marketing. On the other hand, I really wish some of the basic features came with all plans. This is especially true of…
The SEO Options
While you can index your site (or choose not to) with any plan, the ability to optimize the SEO-title or descriptions is also limited to Business plans or higher – even for a must-have plugin like Yoast SEO.
Optimize your title and description with the Yoast SEO plugin.
This is a huge drawback of using the Personal or Premium plans for a blog, portfolio or small business. I find it particularly hurtful because WordPress, as a whole, is probably the best tool to use for SEO options in general.
Getting data about your visitors and site performance is another feature I believe anyone should be able to get. With WordPress.com it only comes with the Premium plan or higher.
I’ve already covered the ecommerce plan, but sometimes you just want to receive single payments. This is an option if you have the Premium plan or higher. You can add a block to accept one-time payments via PayPal for physical or digital goods, services and donations.
It’s great for nonprofits and creatives. Also much easier and cheaper than setting up an entire WooCommerce store.
You can also charge recurring payments for memberships, subscription offers or Patreon style sponsorships. Weirdly enough, it’s available on all plans.
Not to be confused with Google’s famous AdWords program (which you can also enable), the one for WordPress is called WordAds. It’s available immediately for Premium plans or higher, and sometimes also with a Free or Personal plan if you have “moderate to high traffic”.
There are a few ad placement options, but unlike AdWords, it’s not always targeted stuff related to your website’s content. You do not have the option to vet advertisers either. In short, it’s not as sophisticated or flexible as Google’s ad programme, but at least it’s very easy to enable it.
Affiliate marketing and referrals
Supported on all plans. There is even a WordPress.com guide on how to get started with Amazon Affiliate links.
The WordPress App
If you feel more comfortable working with apps rather than websites, you can download the WordPress Desktop app, available for Win7+, Mac OS 10.9+ and Linux. There are also iOS and Android versions.
How does it work? It creates a local copy of the site on your computer and lets you edit, update, and upload things from there.
But…. it doesn’t work offline or as a staging environment. So forget about writing a post on the train or holiday and pushing it live when you reconnect to the modern world. The company sells it as a “distraction-free” way to work, but I don’t really see the point – until they start offering offline or staging option.
Support and Troubleshooting
Usually, if you install WordPress by yourself, you’re on your own. There is no official support, and you have to find answers in community forums. It can be tedious, slow, and frustrating. And trust me, things will break, especially when third-party plugins and software updates are involved.
So one of the biggest advantages of paying for a WordPress.com plan is that dedicated support is included. Best of all, in my own experience, the live chat response was fast and helpful. And best of all, they even tried to help with help for 3rd party plugins, which is unheard of with support for other website builders.
Here’s what you get:
- Good video tutorials
- 24/7 email and live chat with all plans
- No phone support
Note that support speed doesn’t increase with higher plans.
Hosting, Storage and Security
WordPress.com is very generous when it comes to storage and bandwidth. The latter is completely illimited on all plans, which is great.
For storage, you get 3GB with a free plan, and up to 200GB with paid options. That’s a big amount of data, so probably good enough for websites who want to host their own videos instead of streaming them from YouTube or other platforms (with the Premium plan minimum).
SSL and Firewalls
Security encryption is enabled by default on all pages, at no extra cost. You also get a built-in firewall to fight account takeovers (when fraudsters try to log into your account), and 2FA option (2 factor authentication) to increase security.
Interesting fact: white hat hackers (the good guys), can look for bugs or vulnerabilities in the WordPress code and be rewarded with a bounty thanks to the HackerOne program.
Backup and Recovery
There is a useful autosave function for when you work on posts, which lets you restore previous content as needed. For site-wide backup and recovery, it’s best to use a plugin like the WordPress Backup plugin or BackupBuddy. As you’ve guessed by now, it’s only possible with the higher plans.
But you can also contact support and they might be able to help you there.
Staging is an advanced feature that lets you run an offline version of your site. It lets you make changes to test, for instance, if anything breaks when you add a new plugin. When you’re happy with the results, you can push the changes to the live version.
It’s a really useful feature with the more advanced WordPress hosts, where one small change in the theme code or plugin update can completely break your website.
But… it’s unavailable here, sadly.
If you like what you’ve read about WordPress.com, maybe you’d like to import a site from another platform? It’s possible thanks to the Import / Export function for:
- WordPress.org sites
- And more…
These tools can save you time, but they never make for completely smooth sailing. When I imported a test site from Wix, it was broken beyond recognition, so I still had to manually edit a lot of the content to fit it in my theme. I imagine the same problems might arise when exporting the site to another platform.
In fact, that little experiment made me realize how much easier Wix is to deal with. If you’re considering both options, don’t forget to check out our in-depth Wix vs. WordPress test.
Review Conclusion – Is WordPress.com Worth It?
I’ll start by answering the original question posed in the title of this review: what are you paying for exactly with WordPress.com? Essentially, this:
- Ease of installation
- Quick start
- Peace of mind for security and maintenance
- Quality support
The block editor and pre-selected plugins also all offer a smooth user experience that finally makes the WordPress software more accessible than ever.
Now I know I’ve mentioned it a few times in this piece, but it’s bugging me enough that I will repeat it: I’m disappointed that features are so limited based on your plan. This is particularly true of the Free and Personal plans, with their:
- Poor SEO options
- Inability to add plugins
- Limited themes and design choices
You’ll have to go up to $45 a month for a Business plan to really enjoy the full benefits of the WordPress platform, and even then you don’t have staging or email hosting. Not the best bang you can get for your buck.
But still, I can absolutely see how WordPress.com make a lot of sense if you’ve always wanted to try this powerful platform, but weren’t ready to dive into the technical details and possible headaches of self-hosting.
Latest Review Updates
22 Oct 2020 - Alternatives added
25 Nov 2019 - Review release