What is WordPress and How Does it Work? – A Complete Guide for Beginners

Wondering what WordPress is and how it works? In one sentence – WordPress is free open-source software used to build websites, blogs, and apps.

Keep reading to find out more.

In the web design industry, WordPress is what’s known as a content management system (CMS), and to give you an indication of its popularity, it powers 42% of all websites online.

In the backend, WordPress uses a coding language called PHP to build pages and manage files, but don’t worry, you don’t need to know anything about PHP to use WordPress to build your own website.

On the front-end, which you access through a browser or app, WordPress uses plain language and a visual interface similar to programs you’re already used to. This makes it quite easy to build out a full-blown website or blog.

Why do people like WordPress so much?

All of this means you can use WordPress to build and manage websites and blogs with hundreds or thousands of pages using nothing more than a smartphone, tablet, or laptop/computer and an internet connection.

You don’t have to understand code, you don’t need other software (although you might need an FTP program at some point) and you can create great-looking websites in a very short time with little to no knowledge of web or graphic design.

How is this possible if you have no design or coding skills?

Simple…

WordPress is the framework to which you attach more components; namely themes and plugins.

Themes create the design and add some functionality while plugins add even more features: contact forms, social sharing buttons, shopping carts, to name just a few.

You’ll need at least one theme and a number of plugins to turn your basic install into a working WordPress website worth shouting about.

A lot of themes and plugins are free to download and use. And, if you don’t mind paying, there are a lot of premium WordPress themes and plugins available to buy. More on these later.

Open Source and the WordPress community

WordPress is open-source software. It relies on a community of people to code, build, and market products to make the platform do the kind of things you expect from a fully functional website.

The community of plugin developers, theme designers, and coders take WordPress to the next level, where anyone who wants to can benefit from the skills and ability of others.

In the early days of WordPress, all the addons were free. This isn’t the case anymore. ‘Premium’ products such as themes and plugins are increasingly popular in the WordPress space.

What you should remember is this – ‘premium’ equals money. But that’s usually a good thing because you get a better product and support because the creator has a financial incentive.

That’s not the case when everything is free. People can abandon their creations and leave users stranded.

Prices vary for premium products but they’re typically affordable. A theme might cost $30-$50 while a plugin might set you back anything from $10-$100.

There are still plenty of free products around, and there always will be, but the WordPress marketplace is littered with premium products too, which is no bad thing.

What does WordPress look like?

When you log into a WordPress website, you enter an area called Dashboard

From here, you can see a summary of what’s happening on your website and access the various admin and management tools.

Here’s a screenshot of the Dashboard area for this site. The Dashboard area is what you see when you first log in.

From here you navigate to different areas of your website.

WordPress has evolved far beyond its roots as a blogging platform

WordPress started life as a blogging platform in 2003 and now powers 42% of the internet.

Millions of people still use WordPress for blogging, while millions more use it to build and run websites because it’s easy to set up, manage and update.

Even if you’re not technical or into coding.

In fact, its ease of use is one of its most appealing factors.

Which version of WordPress is right for your project?

WordPress comes in two versions – hosted and self-hosted.

The hosted version is available on WordPress.com.

WordPress – The hosted version

It’s free to register and create a blog, but the free version has many limitations:

  • You must use a WordPress.com subdomain (eg http://myblog.wordpress.com rather than http://myblog.com)
  • You only have access to free themes
  • 3GB of storage space (no good if you’re a photographer or you like posting lots of images)
  • No email or chat support
  • You may see ads on your site but you won’t earn any money from them

If you upgrade from a free account to one of the paid options, some of these features become available.

While this lack of features might put you off using WordPress.com, it enables people to get a feel for the system without spending any money. The two versions of WordPress differ slightly but not so much that you’d have to learn a whole new way of working if you switched from one to the other.

WordPress – The self-hosted version

The self-hosted version is widely available through web hosts around the world and can be installed on any server. Usually with the click of a button.

You can also download it from WordPress.org and install it on your computer. To run it locally, you’ll need additional software.

To run the self-hosted version on the internet you’ll need to buy a domain name (Namecheap is a great service for this) and web hosting from a company like Bluehost.

We’ve put together an easy-to-follow tutorial for you on how to do that: How to Set Up a Self-Hosted WordPress Website.

Once WordPress is installed on a server and your website is set up, you manage your site through a standard web browser like Chrome, Firefox, or Safari.

If you prefer using mobile devices, you can download an official WordPress app to manage your website:

Read more about the differences between WordPress.com and WordPress.org.

What is a WordPress theme?

Think of a WordPress theme as a layer over the software’s framework.

The theme is the thing that gives your site its looks and some functionality; change the theme and you change the look and feel of your site.

Which is both a good and a bad thing.

It’s good because you can change the look of your site with the click of a mouse. It’s bad because changing the look of your site with the click of a mouse can make it look terrible – depending upon the structure of the original and new theme.

Luckily, you can trial a new theme before activating it. And, if you accidentally activate a theme and it looks like a mess, all you have to do is revert to the original theme and everything should be back to normal.

Within WordPress, you can store as many themes as you like.

Choosing a WordPress Theme

There are two types of themes; free and premium.

If you are setting up or running a personal site, then a free theme is fine. If you use WordPress for a business site, you might want to look at some of the various premium theme providers to see what’s on offer.

Why premium? Premium themes tend to look better and usually have a lot more functionality. There is usually a better support system too, which is handy if you run into problems.

With that said, some of the modern free themes, like Kadence, Astra and GeneratePress can look good with some customization.

Before choosing a theme, consider how you are going to use it. Here are a few factors to take into consideration before making a decision:

  • Personal or business – are you using WordPress for a personal or business site?
  • Layout options – does the theme offer different layout options? Can you move sidebars? Can you change the layout on a page-by-page basis? How many sidebars do you want?
  • Extra functionality – what other functions, if any, does the theme offer?
  • Who else is using the theme? – Google the theme’s name to see who else is using it and what they are saying about it
  • No code required – can you make changes to the site without hacking code?
  • Developer support – does the developer of the theme offer any type of support?
  • Mobile responsive – a big thing at the moment is mobile responsive themes, they’re designed to make a site look good on small devices such as smartphones and tablets – you need one if you are running WordPress for business.

Premium themes vary in price (starting at around $20 or so), but they cost a lot less than having a site designed from scratch.

Pre-installed free WordPress themes

WordPress comes with a few free themes pre-installed. There are literally thousands more available for free through WordPress or third-party websites. There is also a wide selection of premium WordPress themes.

When you first set up your site you will probably download a few free themes to try out. Doing this makes a lot of sense. All the themes are installed into the Themes section (Appearance > Themes>, so you can swop and change as often as you like.

To fully appreciate how a theme looks, you should create a few test posts and pages, add images, headlines and lists, so you can see how the various formatting styles look.

There is no point in creating genuine content at the testing stage, so generate some Lorem Ipsum (dummy text used by the printing and typesetting industries) and paste it into your posts and pages.

What is a WordPress plugin?

Think of a plugin as a small program – a script you add to your site that adds more functionality. Out of the box, WordPress is quite a basic system so you’ll need to install and setup plugins to do the things in the list below.

  • Add a form so people can contact you through your website
  • Add social sharing buttons so people can share your articles on social media
  • Create a membership area (paid or unpaid)
  • Create an eCommerce store
  • Manage multiple users and place restrictions on what they can and cannot do
  • Back up your website
  • Stop comment and contact form spam
  • Get people to sign up to your mailing list
  • Increase security and avoid hacking attempts
  • And a whole load of other things too…

Okay, so now you know the basic definition of a WordPress plugin, you’re probably asking yourself how to add one to your site.

There are a few ways to do it:

  1. By navigating to the official WordPress plugin repository through the admin area of your website, searching for a suitable plugin, then installing and activating it. I’ve published a more in-depth guide here – how to install a WordPress plugin.
  2. By uploading the zipped file via a built-in feature you’ll find in the admin area.
  3. By uploading the unzipped files via FTP to the Plugins folder on your website’s server.
  4. By uploading the unzipped files via cPanel or your host’s file management system.

What happens after you install the plugin?

It depends. Some are more complicated than others. For example, a premium plugin powering a shopping cart takes a lot of time to configure, whereas a simple plugin for converting a post to a page requires no additional work.

Don’t worry, most basic plugins are free and available from the WordPress plugin directory or through the admin area of your WordPress site (the easiest route).

However, there’s a growing market of premium plugins – these are the ones you pay for. More on these in a moment or two.

It’s not all roses in the world of WordPress plugins. For every excellent plugin, there are a few bad ones. Ones that are badly coded or under-supported. At best, they don’t work properly and at worst, they can break your site.

Free WordPress plugins

At the time of writing this post there are 50,891 updating this post there are 58,922 plugins in the official WordPress plugins directory, and the amount increases every day.

As you can imagine, thousands of these plugins get lost in the noise, but there are some most WordPress users consider ‘essential’.

They perform tasks every site needs, such as:

  • Catching spam comments
  • Helping with SEO
  • Creating contact forms
  • Backing up the database
  • Social sharing
  • Displaying Google Analytics data without logging into Google
  • Managing multiple authors

After that, your essential list depends upon the goals of your blog and what you use it for.

If you’re a photographer you might want a plugin to display your best work in a portfolio style.

If you run a video site you might need a plugin that seamlessly interacts with YouTube to download videos to your site.

If you want to add a slider to your front page or inner pages, you’ll need a plugin for that.

Premium WordPress plugins

A ‘premium’ plugin is one you buy. Some are cheap, some are expensive.

Before you dismiss the idea of paying for a plugin, consider how much extra it brings to your site and how much time it saves you.

In the past I’ve wasted hours trying to find a free plugin for a particular task, only to eventually end up paying a few dollars for one that was quick and easy to set up.

The main advantages of buying a plugin is support and quality.

Because you’ve paid for it, you can pretty much guarantee there will be at least a good level of support should things go wrong.

And because you’ve paid for it, you can usually expect a high standard of coding and ease of setup.

Issues you may have with WordPress plugins

A word of warning: sometimes plugins break. They just stop working for no clear reason.

Why would a plugin suddenly stop working? The most likely cause is an update in WordPress (which typically happens every three months or so) that conflicts with the plugin’s code.

If it happens to a plugin you use and the author’s abandoned the project, you could ask somebody to try to fix it for you (try the WordPress forum) or look for an alternative.

Managing and updating WordPress

WordPress changes all the time. Every three months or so there’s a major update. In between the major updates, there are minor updates, usually to shore up security issues and vulnerabilities.

As a website owner, it’s important to stay on top of these updates to reduce the risk of somebody hacking your website or it breaking because a plugin or theme’s code becomes incompatible with your setup.

Updating is as easy as pressing the Update button, but you should always have a backup of your site in case something goes wrong. Your host might backup your site on your behalf. If they don’t, you can use a backup plugin instead.

I can’t stress highly enough how important this is. You don’t want to lose months or years of work because you failed to backup your site.

WordPress is search engine friendly

WordPress has a reputation for being very search engine friendly. This is absolutely true – as long as it’s set up correctly.

Your theme might have SEO settings built-in. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to install and set up one of the popular plugins like Yoast or All in One SEO Pack.

Easy to update and customise

The WordPress dashboard (the admin area) is very easy to understand and creating new posts/pages and uploading images is simple.

You use a browser to manage WordPress, so you can log in to your site from anywhere in the world. You can also create more accounts for members of your team, and give them different privileges depending on the part you want them to play in the running of the site – administrator, editor, author, contributor, or subscriber.

WordPress grows with you. If you want, you can create thousands of pages without ever having to pay a web designer to do it for you.

It’s free!

One last thing to mention again…

The core WordPress files are free. Most of the basic plugins are free. And there are tons of WordPress themes available for free too.

The only thing you have to pay for (if hosting WordPress on your own server) is the hosting and the domain name.

So you can set up a fully working website for just a few bucks per month.

However, if you want WordPress to work for you, you should at least consider buying decent website hosting and a good premium theme. And even these won’t cost you a fortune.

Your Call

I’ve used WordPress since 2006 and tend to stick to using the plugins I know and trust. I don’t see the point in looking for an alternative when something is working well.

That said, there are two types of plugin that I’ve swapped and changed. The first is for social sharing and the second is for backing up my sites and my client’s sites.

I still haven’t found the perfect social sharing plugin (although Social Warfare comes close) and these days I use ManageWP for backups.

Which ones you choose to use depends upon what you want to do, but I hope this post has given you enough insight into what a plugin is and what it does for a WordPress site.