WordPress is the most popular content management system (CMS) in the world. It is used by nearly half (about 43%) of all websites published worldwide.
For anyone involved in publishing content online, understanding what WordPress is and how it works is highly beneficial.
WordPress is used by 64.2% of all the websites whose content management system we know. This is 43.0% of all websites.W3Techs.com: Usage share and market share of WordPress
What is WordPress?
WordPress consists of PHP files (with extensions that end in .php), along with some other supporting files. Here is a list of the types of files included with the WordPress software package:
- PHP Files (.php extension): This is the core WordPress functionality.
- Stylesheets (.css extension): These are cascading style sheets, which are used to provide styling information for HTML pages.
- Fonts (.woff2 extension): These are font files in the Web Open Font Format. WordPress includes some default fonts with the core download.
- Images (.png extension): WordPress uses several images with its default themes as well as for using graphics on some of its default pages.
- Data structure definitions (.json extension): These files include code block definitions for efficient use of the core code.
WordPress is open-source software, meaning that it’s not owned by a for-profit company that’s using it to make money while keeping proprietary source code hidden. Instead, the WordPress code is owned by the WordPress Foundation, a non-profit that was set up to manage the development of the WordPress project.
Contributing to WordPress
Anyone who is interested in helping with the project can contribute to the development of WordPress. WordPress is kept in a repository called Subversion, which you can browse on the Make WordPress Core section of WordPress.
There are other ways to contribute to WordPress besides writing PHP code. WordPress actively solicits help from people who are interested in helping with anything from design to documentation to translation WordPress into other languages.
Downloading and Installing WordPress
Automated WordPress Installation by a Web Host
In years past, installing WordPress required a user to download the WordPress software files, upload them to a web server, set up a database to use with WordPress, and run the install manually, as described below. Because of how popular WordPress has become, going through this process manually is not necessary, as many web hosts have dedicated resources to make it easier for their customers to use WordPress.
To make WordPress more accessible to the average, non-technical person needing a website up and going quickly, many hosts have one-click WordPress installs. Many web hosts have also created specific WordPress hosting packages that can be purchased, where a WordPress system (often available with the choice of a few professional-looking themes ready to go) is built-in to the hosting platform.
The WordPress installation files can be downloaded directly from the WordPress download page. The WordPress installation file comes packaged in a .zip file that is around 20MB in size. You also have the option to download the WordPress installation files in a compressed .tar.gz file that takes up about 18MB.
Once you’ve downloaded the WordPress files, you’ll need to upload them to your web host using a file manager application. Then you’ll unpack the WordPress files on your host.
Setting up a Database (MySQL) for WordPress
You’ll need to create a database (most often MySQL is used) for your WordPress instance to use, and give your WordPress instance access rights to the database. This is often done using PHPMyAdmin, which is much easier to use than having to remember the MySQL commands for creating a database, setting up a new user with a password, and giving that user access rights to the database.
Running the WordPress Install
After you’ve unpacked the WordPress files and put them in the directory on your web host where you want them, and after you’ve got a database setup that WordPress can login to and use, you’re ready to run the installation, which is straight forward.
Setting the WordPress Root Directory
By default, the WordPress files are kept in a directory named wordpress. Most people move the WordPress files into their root directory so that their WordPress website is served from the root folder on their host (for example, https://mywebsite.com/ versus https://mywebsite.com/wordpress/)
Uses for WordPress
WordPress has many different uses. The initial purpose of WordPress was to create a blogging platform back in the early 2000’s when blogging was just becoming popular and people were looking for dynamic ways to publish web pages. WordPress was originally used to publish blog posts in a chronological order, with features for having people subscribe to your blog.
WordPress has carefully and intentionally evolved to be a popular content management system for creating almost any kind of website, including:
- personal blogs
- informational websites with blogging components
- small business websites with just a few pages
- online retail stores (using the WooCommerce plugin) for small and large businesses
- enterprise content management systems
Something that makes WordPress attractive is the flexibility that exists with the design of a blog, website, store, or whatever it is that you’re intending to use WordPress for. There are nearly 5,000 different themes to choose from in the WordPress theme catalog. Installing a theme can be done quickly and easily within the WordPress admin.
Also, WordPress enforces a standard for developing a theme and having it published and available for installation via the WordPress theme interface. This makes it so that each of the themes available has a core set of similar functionality and common configuration options. Switching between themes or altering a theme to better suit a user’s needs is predictable and not difficult to learn.
Because of how ubiquitous WordPress is, there are thousands of potential contractors who can help WordPress users set up a theme and modify it to their liking. Hiring one of these WordPress design contractors usually involves going to a freelancer website such as UpWork or Fiverr and choosing from the many experts who advertise themselves for hire there.
WordPress’ plugin catalog offers powerful add-on tools so that WordPress can be adapted to whatever is needed. For instance, using WooCommerce (one of WordPress’ most popular plugins), you can turn your WordPress system into an online retail store. If you have a publishing site and want to have paywall content (pages and information that can only be accessed by people who have paid subscriptions), you can set that up using one of several different plugins in the WordPress directory that are designed specifically for that.
There are over 50,000 WordPress plugins that can be installed directly from the WordPress Plugins page inside the admin section of the CMS. These plugins include everything from mortgage calculators to contact forms to performance tools that help a WordPress website run more efficiently.
In addition to the 50,000+ plugins that currently exist in the WordPress automatic install directory, it is not hard to create a new plugin to serve a particular purpose. The popularity of WordPress as a publishing platform has created a large need for WordPress plugin developers, so if you can’t find what you need out of the box in the WordPress plugin directory, you can always hire someone to build a plugin that has what you need.
Most Popular WordPress Plugins
To give you an idea of what you can do with WordPress plugins, I’m going to introduce you to some of the most popular WordPress plugins. Each of these plugins has been installed by millions of users. Their popularity is a clear indicator of how useful they are.
Contact Form 7: A simple, flexible contact form
Yoast SEO: A powerful tool for optimizing content for search engines
Elementor Website Builder: A drag and drop page builder
Akismet Spam Protection: A spam blocker for comments on blog posts and contact forms.
WordFence Security: A firewall and malware scanner
MonsterInsights: An automated integration with Google Analytics
As with any type of content management system, WordPress takes some time and effort to become fluent enough to make the most effective use of it. Most people who use WordPress don’t have to understand how to write code in PHP or understand the technical details of how things work. However, depending upon your role (if you’re just writing and publishing without regard for what else is happening inside your organization’s WordPress CMS, you likely don’t need much of any training), spending 10-40 hours ensuring that you understand how to publish posts and pages, how to add and use new plugins, how to install and set up themes, and developing a few other useful basic and intermediate WordPress skills.
There are plenty of WordPress courses available from the popular online course platforms, including:
- LinkedIn Learning
Alternatives to WordPress
While WordPress is hands down the most popular content management system on the internet, there are some popular alternatives that you can use if you decide there is something about WordPress that makes you want to keep shopping for something else. Depending upon what you intend to do with online publishing, the size of your organization, and other specific needs, here are some alternative platforms for publishing content online.
BlogSpot: This is one of the original blogging platforms. Google purchased BlogSpot several years ago and has made improvements to it over the years. BlogSpot is free (both the hosting and the blogging platform) and very popular for casual and serious bloggers.
HubSpot: HubSpot is a marketing platform. They have a robust CMS that they offer for companies and individuals who want to integrate calls-to-action into their published content.
Joomla: Joomla is comparable to WordPress. It can be downloaded and installed on your own web host. Although not as popular as WordPress, there are lots of hosts who have 1-click Joomla installs available.
Drupal: Drupal is yet another flavor of content management. Deciding between Joomla and Drupal as alternatives to WordPress is mostly a matter of preference.
Ghost: Ghost is popular among developers and other technical types for publishing content. Publishing with Ghost involves learning how to us the Markdown syntax as opposed to a standard text editor like WordPress.
Magento: Magento is normally used by larger companies and enterprises because of how complicated it is to set up and manage. Similar to WordPress, Magento has a streamlined shopping cart system that sits alongside its publishing tools.