Automattic Updates Press Page to Clarify Distinction between WordPress.org and WordPress.com

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.

14 responses to “Automattic Updates Press Page to Clarify Distinction between WordPress.org and WordPress.com”

  1. 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.

  2. The branding confusion kept me out of WordPress for a long time. Frankly, it needs to change, but it seems to be that capitalising on that confusion is part of their business model

  3. I am sorry to disagree but I maintain that the NY Times article was accurate. The future of WordPress is controlled by Matt and crew at Automattic. They are not simply contributors on par with other contributors. That’s communicated behaviorally consistently. It may not be an asset of the legally formed organization but in day-to-day practice, it is the reality. I find it unauthentic for Matt et.al to not own this.

  4. Sarah, thank you so much for picking up this story and telling it to the Tavern audience! I’m glad that a broader range of people is being made aware of it, and I’m grateful Monica and her team decided to take action so swiftly and gracefully after listening to my perspective.

    Obviously, some people will choose to disregard a positive change that happened thanks to no caring, effort, or diplomacy of their own, and they will feel the urge to turn even a happy occasion like this one into yet another bash fest.

    But I’m confident that the majority of WordPress community folks inside and outside of Automattic will see this signal as what it is: a small, yet important step in the right direction.

  5. Is there any debate that Automattic isn’t intentionally sowing this confusion and profiting from it? I mean, the hero section on the WordPress.com landing page is “37% of the web is built on WordPress. More bloggers, small businesses, and Fortune 500 companies use WordPress than all other options combined. Join the millions of people that call WordPress.com home.”

    Are people who are new to WordPress supposed to understand that this largely refers to the WordPress project and not WordPress.com? Doesn’t that “join…WordPress.com” at the end suggest that the 37% number applies to WordPress.com?

    • If I may expand:

      “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.”

      I respectfully disagree. If I may pick an example, the only one who has access to search data of w.org/plugins and w.org/themes is Automattic. These data are not available to “ecosystem” but they are available to Automattic and give a competitive advantage to Jetpack. Doesn’t this make Ohara’s statement false? On top of being a conflict of interests?

      If you visit https://wordpress.org/plugins, all of the “featured” plugins are Automattic properties. We follow WordPress.org plugin guidelines to the letter, like many others. Why is nobody from this wide “ecosystem” ever featured? You have to scroll all the way to the bottom to see “popular”. How is that helping all of us extending WordPress.org?

      Those are just 2 examples, feel free to bring up more or refute mine.

      There are undeniably great people and things surrounding WordPress, but I am getting sick of pretending this is not a cutthroat business. Everybody wants a piece, Automattic, GoDaddy, WP Engine — all acquiring WP products and developers left and right, everyone trying to make their own version of hosted WordPress SaaS.

      I still think that Automattic is the best of the bunch and will do the most to protect the w.org. I know and respect many people working on w.org. I believe many do have ecosystem interests in heart. However, my experience is that VC money rarely bring any good to the table.

  6. When you Google “WordPress”, the first result is WordPress.com. When you go to WordPress.com, you see “Welcome to the world’s most
    popular website builder.” People will still be confused even if every journalist in the world gets it right.

  7. Definitely agree that this is a step in the good direction. However I can understand the cynicism up to some level.

    WordPress is trademarked, right? The wordpress.org/about/domains page for example states to rather not use WordPress in the domain name because it can be confusing. At the same time in the footer of wordpress.org there is a prominent link to wordpress.com. This fuels confusion (and cynicism or even distrust by some people) and may get people to think it’s sort of the same thing.

    Well maybe now the time is right to get things in check.

  8. Definitely a great step in the right direction! At the same time I think a lot more should done if Automattic hopes to resolve this major conflict of interest.

  9. A friendly reminder that the author of this post, “Sarah Gooding[,] is an Editorial Ninja at Audrey Capital.” “Audrey Capital is an angel investment and research company created by Matt Mullenweg of WordPress to help innovative ideas grow.” Sarah is unfortunately not listed on Audrey Capital’s website under “Personnel”, but I’ll take her word for it.

    To quote their Wikipedia article, “On September 19, 2019 Automattic announced a Series D funding round of $300 million from Salesforce, bringing the post-money valuation of the company to $3B.” And, to continue avoiding linking anything in case that would get me stuck in a moderation queue, Automattic is “a distributed company with 1,245 Automatticians in 77 countries speaking 93 different languages” (according to their own website).

    I don’t have anything against Matt Mullenweg, Audrey Capital, nor Automattic. I barely know them. But I do take issue with this article being written from a seemingly neutral and third-party perspective, when it is fact written by someone working for someone who is the founder and CEO of one of the parties being discussed.

    The “About” page of WordPress Tavern tells us that it is owned by Mullenweg, but they don’t seem proud of it when that information is in the second-to-last paragraph of said page. Maybe Matt is a shy guy. I can understand it being uncomfortable to put your stamp on things. But I think there should be a disclaimer on this article, given it being about the exact subject of confusion between Automattic and WordPress. Because it seems like an open secret, after reading the article, that there is a very strong tie between the author (Sarah) and Automattic (who Monica Ohara represents via WordPress.com).

    Man, that was tiring with max-height: 230px;. To conclude, kudos to Monica & Automattic for making one small step for a company that I hope will end up being one giant leap for the community. And, of course, thank you to Caspar Hübinger for fighting for this. I respectfully reserve my right to be a cynic, though 😉

    • Julian, if you have followed this website through the years, you will have noticed that Sarah’s journalism has been flawless and never in favour of any of the parties mentioned.

      If you read the article, you will further have noticed that this particular initiative around Automattic’s press page began with a conversation between Monica Ohara and myself. I have no professional ties to Automattic and never had. I @-mentioned Monica on LinkedIn because I had looked up who might me in charge of marketing at Automattic. Sarah wasn’t part of the conversation at that point. Once Monica had informed me about the new press page, I notified Sarah about what had happened because I thought it might be newsworthy, and she was kind enough to break the story to the Tavern audience – seeking comments from both, myself and Monica, as any self-respecting journalist would do.

      Personally, I think your comment is completely pointless and your speculations about a conflict of interest on Sarah’s end not only lack any evidence whatsoever, but are mindblowingly inappropriate given her immaculate, years-long record as a WordPress journalist.

      Be a cynic as much as you like, but please don’t expect me to tolerate you trying to drag the reputation of one of the most accomplished writers this community is lucky to have through the mud.

  10. Caspar, I would like to apologize for not making it clearer in my comment that my ire does not lie with Sarah. I have not followed this website for as long as you have, so I hope you can excuse the fact that I do not know the quality of her journalism from a long experience. Only a short one; all the articles I’ve read here have been wonderful. It was absolutely not my intention to “drag the reputation of [Sarah] through the mud”.

    I am not a journalist, and I do not read much journalism, but my experience with capitalism and what little I have read about it has told me that those who pay for actions are those finally responsible. There is no such thing as true journalistic independence. When you are an employee of someone you naturally, whether by conscious intention or not, write in favor of them. I experience the same with my employer.

    I’m not sure what indicated to you that I ever thought you had professional ties to Automattic. I read the article, I am aware of the ties involved. The conflict of interest lies between Automattic deciding what WordPress.com is called, and Automattic paying Sarah to write articles for WP Tavern. Having a conflict of interest does not mean that an article is bad. But it is a bias. And it should be pointed out, as all large publications do. Whenever the Washington Post writes about Amazon, for example, they note “([Jeff] Bezos owns The Washington Post.)” Jeff Bezos being the founder and CEO of Amazon, Inc.

    That there is a conflict of interest when a journalist is “working for someone who is the founder and CEO of one of the parties being discussed” is undeniable. This is simply a fact of life. A conflict of interest does not imply unfair treatment, it simply means that there is a risk.

    I hope you can assume that my intentions are pure. I mean no harm. My aim is to encourage more transparency.

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