Understanding wordpress and its structure

You may be aware that your website is built on the WordPress platform but what does that actually mean? Understanding WordPress can empower you to make the most of your website’s untapped potential…

What we will cover

What is WordPress exactly?

When it was founded in 2003, WordPress was a simple platform for creating self-hosted blogs. In the years since, it has developed into something much more powerful. It is sometimes described as a content management system (CMS) and sometimes a website builder. In reality, it shares both functions.

Before going any further, it is worth clarifying a common misunderstanding. When professional website developers talk about building a WordPress site, they mean downloading core files containing the WordPress source code from www.wordpress.org

WordPress also provides a limited blog hosting and web builder service on www.wordpress.com which is something completely different.

The WordPress core files are ‘open source’ which means they are free of copyright and TradeMark restrictions, having been released on a general public licence. In layman’s terms, anyone can download and modify them for free. But where do the WordPress core files go? This next section explains where WordPress fits in your website architecture to help you with understanding wordpress.

Where WordPress sits in your website’s structure

Like all websites, a WordPress site requires a hosting environment. In other words, the files need to be stored on a computer called a web server. Unless you are self-hosting your website, this will have been set up by your web developer. 

Although WordPress core files can be uploaded to a web host in a standard way (through FTP to those with some experience of web hosting), those hosts running the cPanel platform (and several others) can install WordPress in seconds via their dashboard.

Once the files are in place, the power of WordPress can be unleashed. One of the main advantages with this website builder is how the pages are dynamically created rather than having to be built individually. This is largely down to the code in which much of WordPress is written in: PHP.

PHP and dynamic page creation

PHP stands for Hypertext Preprocessor and was created in 1994 by Rasmus Lerdorf, don’t worry understanding WordPress doesn’t mean learning to write code, but the structure can be useful. If your WordPress website can be thought of as a library, PHP functions as the librarian, scurrying between the WordPress files and database and the web server to deliver your pages and posts to the end user. When you create new pages and posts, you are really just issuing a new set of instructions.

Vu Online have run bespoke PHP Training Courses in the past, so please make sure you stay in touch if this is something you might be interested in learning more about.

MySQL – how the magic happens

Another important part of the WordPress system is MySQL, a database management system based on SQL, another coding language. Much of the content and structure of your website is stored in a WordPress website in tables. The information is then extracted when needed using automated SQL queries.

While most website owners won’t need to know the details of understanding WordPress to the nth degree, those with access to their web host dashboard (e.g. cPanel) can use the PHPMyAdmin function to edit their database information directly. This is not generally recommended for the novice but it can sometimes help you to get out of a pickle. For example, you might use MySQL to recover login credentials in an emergency.

Otherwise, the WordPress dashboard will be sufficient for managing your website, providing you have adequate admin access to it (ask your web developer if you feel your access is too restricted).

The WordPress dashboard

The WordPress dashboard is the hub through which website owners or admin staff can control their websites with zero coding knowledge. It is accessed via a web portal and gives you the ability to add content, organize menus, adjust settings and find and install themes and plugins (more on these in the next section).

Since the dashboard covers both admin and content management functions it can look a bit daunting at first sight. However, once you have learnt the fundamentals (e.g. by attending a Vu Online WordPress Training Course), you will soon find that it is actually dead simple to use.

WordPress is regularly updated with help from a huge community of enthusiastic developers. In 2019, WordPress controversially replaced its familiar word processing style editor with the new ‘Gutenberg’ block-based content editor. This has made adding and editing content even more intuitive for content creators.

Themes and plugins

Themes and plugins are pieces of software that empower you to fully customise your WordPress website. Although there is some overlap, a basic distinction between them is that themes alter how your website looks in terms of its style and structure (using HTML and CSS markup languages) whereas plugins add extra functions (using JavaScript scripting language). 

There is a lot of variety between themes. Some are very basic but provide plenty of options for customisation while others are heavily styled for a specific purpose and may be harder to tweak.

Plugins are also very varied. Some provide a single function (e.g. contact form, image gallery, social media buttons, etc.) while others deliver a host of features and can transform how your website works. The Woocommerce plugin is a perfect example of the latter as this converts WordPress into an ecommerce site and contains additional plugins to help you customise your store. In fact, if you were to define Woocommerce as a CMS in its own right, with over 3% market share it would be WordPress’s biggest competitor!

Themes and plugins require no coding knowledge to install and activate but if you also have access to a local development team with expertise in PHP and MySQL, there are really few limits to what is possible with your WordPress website.

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