As a web developer and trainer people ask me this question all the time. Here’s a quick explanation that will hopefully save you time, money and stress as you plan and create your site.
WordPress.com (pictured above) is a site where you can create a blog or website about whatever subject you want using an easy and intuitive interface. All you have to do is sign up for an account and follow some basic steps. It’s not designed to allow you to run a bunch of supplemental programs, advertising, or other big drains on its bandwidth. Your options in terms of themes, plugins,widgets and level of storage space that you can use are limited to the ones approved by WordPress.com.
You can sign up for a free blog or pay for extra features and varying levels of support by selecting one of their other packages. If you’re using the free site, your domain name will end with .wordpress.com (e.g. myblog.wordpress.com) unless you pay extra, you won’t have any control over advertising that shows on your site, be able to use Google Adsense to reach potential customers, track your site’s performance with Google Analytics, or access and manage your site using FTP. WordPress.com will, however, backup your site and upgrade the WordPress version whenever a new one is available.
WordPress.org is an information site about self-hosted WordPress sites. Self-hosted means that its files reside on a server that you pay for.
If you pay a fee to a company like Bluehost, HostGator, or Godaddy for web hosting, have registered a domain name and have a WordPress program installed on your server, you have a self-hosted WordPress site and that you have control over what themes, plugins, advertising, and other programs you use. With a self hosted site, you can change settings on your WordPress setup to improve performance, use whatever themes and plugins you want, access and manage your site using FTP, and pretty much customize it however you see fit.
The tradeoff is that you are also responsible for your own maintenance. You’ll need to backup your site periodically, upgrade the WordPress version and any plugins that you’re using in order to keep your site safe from security flaws, etc.
In conclusion, which one you go with will depend on how much control you want over your site, how much you’re willing to pay to get it, and how comfortable you are with taking care of it.