Wordfence Free vs Premium: Is It Worth The Upgrade?
Wordfence is one the biggest names amongst WordPress security plugins, with a great free version that can mostly protect a website from malware. It isn’t perfect though, so a question arises: will Wordfence premium do a better job?
If you are contemplating Wordfence free vs premium, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve tested out the features of each version of the security plugin, throwing malware, attacks, and much more at them. We have seen what works, and more importantly what doesn’t, when it comes to Wordfence security.
TL;DR In a battle between Wordfence free vs premium, the free version actually wins. The only significant improvement Wordfence premium has over free is an improved firewall. Other than that, Wordfence does a reasonable job of protecting your site in any case, and you may as well use the free version. However, if you do want better security for your website, install MalCare instead. For the same price, you get far superior WordPress security.
Wordfence is one of the best free WordPress security plugins available. It includes a malware scanner, a firewall, and a certain level of automated malware cleaning. Additionally, it has two-factor authentication, login protection, and password management for users.
Having said that, Wordfence security is not without its issues. That’s why people ask whether it makes sense to upgrade to premium, wondering if the security gets better. It does; but not significantly better.
Wordfence free vs premium in a nutshell
Our criteria for a strong security plugin boils down to 3 essential features: malware scanner, malware cleaner, and WordPress firewall.
As you can see, all 3 features are in Wordfence free, with real-time updates added for the scanner and firewall in the premium version. The other premium features, like geoblocking and reputation checks, aren’t hugely useful from a security plugin perspective, because they can be done just as easily with another plugin.
|Security feature||Wordfence Free||Wordfence Premium|
|Malware scanner||Basic||Real-time updates|
Therefore, in our opinion, Wordfence is a great option for a free plugin, because premium doesn’t add that much value over and above the free version.
In fact, Wordfence free vs paid is not even the real question to ask here. It is the one-time malware cleanup fee, which is the real clincher for this decision. It is $490 over and above the annual $99 subscription fee, and is guaranteed only if the admin follows all the instructions given by the Wordfence team. Once malware is on the site—and rest assured, no firewall keeps out 100% of malware—malware removal is top priority. And that’s where Wordfence becomes prohibitively expensive.
MalCare, on the other hand, includes all the important security features of Wordfence premium in addition to unlimited malware removal requests at the same annual subscription price.
Feature comparison for Wordfence free vs Premium
Wordfence premium talks about implementing real-time threat intelligence to your website. What does that actually mean though?
Essentially, some of the security features get real-time updates, like the scanner and the firewall. While this sounds great, it is important to understand how the updates affect the feature in real terms.
When we tested Wordfence’s malware scanner, we threw a lot of malware at the plugin. Our test websites had a lot of file-based malware in the core files at first, which Wordfence was able to detect easily. Then we tried adding redirect malware and Japanese keyword malware to the database and ran the scanner again. Wordfence was only able to detect some of the malware. Similarly, when we tried scanning for malware in premium themes and plugins, Wordfence didn’t detect any of it. Overall, the malware scanner is decent, but by no means great.
The malware scanner on Wordfence premium has 3 differences from the free version:
- Premium scan signatures
- Real-time signature updates
- Reputation checks
Let’s break down each of these in turn.
Premium scan signatures
On the dashboard, Wordfence says that the free scanner is at 60% efficiency. The premium version adds premium scan signatures and reputation checks. Therefore, theoretically, upgrading to Wordfence premium should enable malware detection in premium themes and plugins.
However, in our tests, that didn’t happen. The upgraded scanner didn’t find all the malware in premium themes and plugins, although the percentage was better than the free version. The premium scanner was still unable to detect all the database-based malware though.
Real-time signature updates
The premium version also promises to have real-time updates to malware signatures. To understand this, you need to understand the mechanism Wordfence uses to detect malware: signature-matching.
Signature-matching compares the code on your website to a database of malware signatures. If there are matches, the code is flagged as malware. There are two problems with this system: first of all, malware is constantly evolving as hackers find more creative ways to camouflage it; second, the Wordfence team needs to have seen the malware to add it to their database. Even if they are incredibly efficient, there is no way they have seen all the code ever. Therefore, the Wordfence scanner is going to miss some malware for sure. Hopefully not on your website, but definitely somewhere.
Real-time signature updates are an attempt to mitigate the effects of both these issues. If the malware signature database gets updated more frequently, it can detect more malware. Theoretically. That being said, we came across a report that said the free scanner gets updates 30 days after the premium scanner, which is a long time in WordPress security.
As far as reputation checks go, this is not a significant part of WordPress security in any case. Wordfence checks to see if your website is listed on 3 blacklists, which is something you can check easily on your own. The more important point is to make sure that the malware that probably caused your website to land on the blacklists in the first place needs to be addressed on priority. We’ll talk more about that aspect in the malware cleaning section.
Malware detection is not significantly better on Wordfence premium when compared to Wordfence free. Premium malware signatures, real-time signature updates, and reputation checks ultimately add little to the efficacy of the malware scanner, because the underlying mechanism is flawed. Wordfence uses signature-matching to detect malware, which means that there is always malware that will pass the scanner undetected.
In the case of Wordfence’s malware cleaner, there is no difference between the free and premium versions. During our tests, once we finished scanning the website for malware, the scan results had two options for auto-clean: delete all deletable files and repair all repairable files.
We tried both options, however, Wordfence warned us that our site could break as a result of the cleaning. We had backups of our test sites, in any case, so we went forward. The automated options got rid of the malware that the scanner detected without a problem. Obviously, the cleaner couldn’t do anything about the malware that hadn’t been detected in the first place.
Wordfence is right to warn people about their auto-clean options. For instance, if a plugin or theme adds custom code, it could be erroneously flagged as malware, and then the auto-clean option would delete it. That would cause some functionality on the site to break for sure. This is because of the inherently flawed signature-matching malware detection system Wordfence uses.
Premium malware removal
The premium version of the plugin has the same auto-clean system. However, Wordfence does provide a malware removal service for an additional fee to their premium subscribers. So, if you do discover malware on your website, and the free version is too worrisome to try out, then you can upgrade to the premium subscription and pay a one-time fee for malware removal.
This is actually where it gets fairly steep. Wordfence offers malware cleaning and blacklist removal assistance for $490 over and above the premium subscription. The cleanup is guaranteed for a year, if and only if you follow all their post-hack measures to the letter. That means, if your site gets reinfected in less than 12 months, Wordfence will not charge you again, unless the reinfection is your fault.
Automatic malware removal on the free and premium versions of the plugin are exactly the same, and do not inspire confidence. Wordfence’s malware removal service is over and above the premium subscription, and is expensive at $490 a pop.
Wordfence’s firewall kept out most major threats. A web application firewall for WordPress websites means that it needs to protect the website from brute force attacks, other bad bots, SQL injection attacks, cross-site scripting attacks, and so on. The firewall prevents hackers from exploiting vulnerabilities on the website, in addition to filtering away bad traffic so it cannot overwhelm the website with bad requests.
The Wordfence firewall does all of these things reasonably well, on both the free and premium versions of the plugin. However, there are 2 significant differences between the two versions:
- Premium rules
- Real-time updates to the blocklist
When we installed the free version first, the dashboard clearly said it is only 64% effective. Both these factors would have taken the efficacy to 100%. But what do they mean?
Firewalls are filters for traffic on your website, and to work, they require rules. The firewall checks the traffic for threats using the rules, and only lets the good traffic pass through to the website. Since threats evolve over time, rules need to be updated to block new threats.
Therefore, Wordfence has made their free firewall much less effective by delaying rule updates.
Real-time updates to the blocklist
Another way a firewall protects a website is by filtering out traffic from bad IPs. It does this by maintaining a blocklist of IP addresses.
Firewalls learn which IPs belong on the blocklist through global IP protection. Because firewalls are installed on many websites globally, they can learn this information from all the websites on their network. For instance, if a website in a different part of the world experiences an attack from an IP, the Wordfence firewall learns that the IP is bad and adds it to that website’s blocklist. It then updates the same information on all the other Wordfence firewalls installed on all other websites. MalCare’s firewall also works in the same way.
However, the key difference between the free and premium Wordfence firewall is that the updates for the premium version occur in real-time. Evidently, this is the ideal scenario. On the other hand, the free version receives updates later. We were not able to find out the time delay, but it could be anything from a few days to a few weeks. In that time, your website is vulnerable to attacks from those bad IPs.
The firewall is the single significant difference between Wordfence free and premium. Getting rules and blocklist updates on a time delay is scary, because that leaves the site vulnerable to currently active hackers and threats. In this one case only, the premium version is definitely the better option.
Wordfence recently made their two-factor authentication feature free for all users. There is no difference between the free and premium versions.
The feature works very well out of the box, and can be configured easily to include a reCaptcha on the login page.
Same on free and premium versions of the plugin.
The Wordfence scanner does a good job of detecting out-of-date and vulnerable plugins and themes. Any detected vulnerabilities are flagged as critical threats, and should be dealt with on priority. In fact, if you are able to update vulnerable themes and plugins as they are discovered, it will go a long way in protecting your website from threats.
Same on free and premium versions of the plugin.
Geoblocking or country blocking is only available on Wordfence premium. Even though MalCare also has this option, we typically do not recommend geoblocking for security. This is for two reasons:
- Firstly, geoblocking uses IP ranges to block out visitors from a specific country. IPs are dynamic and keep changing, plus they are not always accurate. Supposing you wanted to block out visitors from one country, but not from a neighbouring one. Anyone living close to the border would have a reasonable chance of being blocked inadvertently.
- Secondly, geoblocking can keep out good bots as well. Not all bots are good, but you definitely want bots like googlebot or uptime monitoring ones to have access to your website at all times.
If you do want to implement geoblocking, Wordfence makes it very easy to do from their dashboard. Otherwise, you would need a separate plugin, or would need to modify the .htaccess file to do it.
Premium feature only, and can be achieved through other means.
Wordfence premium users get priority support, whereas free users need to find their answers in their support forum. The forum is actively maintained by the Wordfence team, so free users aren’t left to fend for themselves.
Premium feature only, however, the support forum is also a good option for free users.
If you are considering upgrading to Wordfence premium, the $99 price tag per year shouldn’t be a sticking point. In fact, the more sites you add, the more economical the pricing becomes. However, after thorough testing, we have found that the price tag is essentially for a better version of the firewall—which frankly is still worth it from a security perspective.
The biggest feature of WordPress security is malware cleaning, because let’s face it, security comes to the forefront only when something goes horribly wrong. And that’s where Wordfence is exorbitantly priced. $490 per cleanup, on top of the annual subscription fee, is a tad too much to take. Of course, malware will cost you a lot more in the long run too.
The most economical option is to install MalCare. For $99 per site per year, you get everything Wordfence offers, on top of unlimited malware removal. The math is conclusive.
Better alternative to Wordfence premium
After breaking down Wordfence premium feature by feature, it became patently obvious that MalCare was the better option. Not only is the malware scanner orders of magnitude better, MalCare’s auto-clean surgically removes malware in minutes. There is no fear of breaking the site, because MalCare’s malware detection doesn’t rely on just signature-matching.
MalCare also includes unlimited malware removal by WordPress security experts with every subscription, and you can reach out to support for any help whatsoever.
We keep saying this, but it bears repeating: Wordfence free is a superb security plugin. It has all the necessary components of a WordPress security plugin, and the premium subscription is an enhancement of those features. In fact, if we were to recommend a security plugin for websites without a security budget, Wordfence gets our unequivocal vote.
However, if you are looking for a premium WordPress security plugin that will really protect your website, then Wordfence shouldn’t be your pick. MalCare has all the important security features of Wordfence, and they are implemented much better as well. MalCare will not only protect your website better, but will make it easier for you as well.
What is the difference between Wordfence free and premium?
There are 6 differences between Wordfence free and premium, which essentially come down to how quickly the free version receives updates to its features.
- Real-time firewall updates
- Real-time IP blacklist
- Real-time scanner updates
- Reputation checks
- Premium support
Malware removal services and blocklist removal assistance is not included in the premium subscription, and has to be purchased separately.
What is Wordfence premium?
Wordfence premium is the subscription service to access their premium features on their WordPress security plugin.
What does Wordfence premium cost?
Wordfence premium starts at $99 per site per year, with a sliding scale for more sites.
Is Wordfence premium worth it?
No, Wordfence premium doesn’t significantly add value to their free version, which is already a pretty good security plugin. The only real difference is the real-time updates to the premium plugin, which take time to come to the free version. However, this doesn’t justify an upgrade.
Is Wordfence free good enough?
Yes, Wordfence free is a good, free security plugin. However, it doesn’t protect WordPress sites completely. We recommend using Wordfence free for websites without a budget for security, but to adjust their expectations accordingly. It is far better than the alternatives.
Karishma was an engineer in a former life, and so she specialises in making tech more accessible through communication. When she isn't writing, Karishma spends her time tinkering in the innards of WordPress websites