Last week, Automattic’s marketing team made a positive step towards curbing the perennial branding confusion between WordPress.org and WordPress.com. The company’s press page was updated with a notice to journalists who are writing about Automattic:
Automattic owns and operates WordPress.com, which is a hosted version of the open source WordPress software with added features for security, speed and support. Please append “.com” when referencing our product name.
WordPress is open source software, which is written, maintained, and supported by thousands of independent contributors worldwide. Automattic is a major contributor to the WordPress open source project. If you would like to contribute to the WordPress open source project, learn more at make.wordpress.org.
This update was prompted by a recent conversation on LinkedIn between Caspar Hübinger, who works as a digital marketer at Human Made, and WordPress.com CMO Monica Ohara. Hübinger had posted regarding an inaccuracy in a recent New York Times article featuring Matt Mullenweg as an evangelist for remote work at Automattic. The article, which has since been corrected, misattributed Automattic as the company that “runs the digital publishing platform WordPress.”
These kinds of mistakes are quite frequent, yet understandable, in publications that are not as familiar with the WordPress ecosystem. Yet, these errors often evoke a strong reaction from the project’s community whenever they pop up in the media.
Ohara commented on Hübinger’s post and exchanged direct messages where he made a case for clarifying the branding on Automattic’s website. Ohara was amenable and the notice appeared shortly after the exchange.
Several years ago Hübinger created a website to clarify the confusion between WordPress, the open source project, and WordPress.com. Post Status also has a resource page that explains the difference between WordPress.org and Automattic’s products, but these kinds of external resources never seemed to make much of a difference.
In 2018, Hübinger prevailed upon the author of a TechCrunch article who referenced WordPress.com as “WordPress” and worked with her on getting the difference documented in TechCrunch’s internal editorial guidelines. After he had explained the problem, she replied: “We had no policy on this. We’re going to change it to .com (or make references to Automattic as needed), and note in our style guide.”
When asked why he finds himself a champion of this particular cause, he said he often found himself angry when the name of the open source project he has dedicated most of his digital career to was confused with a commercial service built on top of it.
“It’s a distortion of reality and I always felt sort of betrayed when it happened,” Hübinger said.
“I know that many of my community peers feel hurt to this day, even if some of them would probably shrug it off when asked. The word for it is resignation, and to me, it is poison to the human soul. From my perspective, Automattic’s passiveness actively fed the narrative that they were profiting from the naming confusion, and that narrative – true or not – it keeps poisoning WordPress’ open source community.”
Although many times articles with errors confusing WordPress and .com were corrected afterwards, it can take a few days after the initial rush of traffic hits.
“So the message that ‘Automattic runs/owns WordPress’ keeps being established for the public,” Hübinger contended when making his case to Ohara. “Worse, the burden of flagging miscommunication when it happens and having it corrected in many cases is left to those who are harmed by it, i.e. open source contributors.”
For years people have speculated whether Automattic might rename WordPress.com to avoid the longstanding confusion. Many believe it will never happen, since the company undoubtedly benefits from tightly coupling its products to WordPress’ name recognition. Ohara declined to comment on whether any major branding changes are on the horizon.
“I will say that we’re not trying to compete with the WordPress ecosystem,” Ohara said. “We want to help the overall ecosystem grow and I look forward to working closely with the community.”
This small yet important change to Automattic’s press page is the direct result of Hübinger’s persistent advocacy effort. It may not eliminate all future media errors, but it is a positive development that demonstrates someone is listening.
“While a dedicated press page will not be able to prevent future confusion of WordPress and WordPress.com altogether (because it simply isn’t possible), my hope is that it will be seen as a first practical step to help heal the relationship between Automattic and parts of WordPress’ open source community, which so many Automatticians have made such incredible amounts of contributions to ever since the company existed, and that is another thing that is too easy to forget,” Hübinger said.
The confusion will continue to exist as they use the WordPress.com domain to regret that the WordPress Foundation statutes expressly prohibit using the expression in the domain, also for commercial purposes.
Automatic takes many years of benefit from this confusion and the ignorance of new users who want to build their site using WordPress software and the search engine takes them to their page (because, in addition, they pay advertising to appear in the featured results) .
Unfortunately, basic users do not enter to read the press page, so this correction will not affect their benefits in the least.
And, of course, Automatic is never going to free the WordPress.com domain because it would end the confusion and therefore your business.