WordPress 101

WordPress started life as a blogging platform. With a rapidly increasing number of bloggers, a platform was needed that would allow easy and quick editing for non-technical users. WordPress became the go-to answer to this need.

wordpress-logo-notext-rgbBut as is common in rapidly growing fields, some people saw an opportunity to use WordPress in a new and different way: Web developers began to use WordPress as a platform for websites. They had to make some philosophic changes – most of WordPress was devoted to posts and comments, but each blog had a regular web page on which the author could describe him- or herself. The developers expanded that page capability to allow them to build entire websites.

Soon, of course, other developers jumped in, developing added code, called themes and plug-ins, that would do new and exciting things. Want a calendar? There’s a plug-in for it. Same for contact forms, video support, search routines, etc. The list is still growing.

But the really great part about WordPress as a web platform is that it allows the site owner to edit the site without needing to contact the web developer for every word change. My clients have been asking for that ability for some years. I accommodated with some very clever and efficient programming, but it was always a lot of work, sometimes more work than the client was willing to pay for.

WordPress solved that, because all the programming to make an editable website has already been done by WordPress itself. It has a user interface a lot like Microsoft Word. And the rest of its functions – such as adding pages, fitting them into menus, adding images – all work easily enough for a non-technical user to understand.

Themes

The next big WordPress feature was the theme. A WordPress theme is similar to what others call a template. Except that a WordPress theme is much more than a template – in addition to providing the look and feel of the site, the theme contains a lot of the “back-end” functionality. So, for example, you can find themes aimed at artists and photographers, which arrive complete with a portfolio subsystem to display their work.

Plug-ins

And finally there is the plug-in. Finding a theme that not only has a design you like but also has all the features you want is an impossible task. But what if you could take a theme that had the design features you like and plug in the additional functional features you want? That’s exactly what a plug-in does.There are thousands of WordPress plug-ins providing all sorts of features. Many are constructed by experienced developers and work well, but a few are less reliable. Fortunately, WordPress records and tracks comments by plug-in users, so each plug-in has a track record you can review before you try to use it.

Despite the lack of central control, most plug-ins work with most themes and, even more remarkably, most plug-ins don’t conflict with other plug-ins. But please note and heed the word “most.” When conflicts do arise, a calm and resourceful web developer is your best friend.

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)

There’s one other control mechanism in WordPress: CSS (otherwise known as Cascading Style Sheets). CSS is not restricted to WordPress. It is, in fact, part of the language that your browser speaks, so it is used in all web development systems.

CSS, as its name implies, is a system for describing and enforcing styling rules on a web page. It is a cascading system in that styles defined for an over-arching system (the page, for example) can be overridden by more localized styling (say, a paragraph). There are many clever ways to use CSS, but inherent in that is also the possibility of seeing unintended effects. It is not always easy to track down exactly why one particular word is being rendered in bright red, bold, 24-point type. Another reason to keep your web developer handy.

So why hire a web developer?

Theoretically, you could build a WordPress site without the aid of a web developer. Just purchase a WordPress theme and off you go. The real world, of course, is never that simple. For example, there are good and bad themes.The good ones are stable, predictable, and work as intended despite WordPress, theme, and plug-in updates. The bad ones break easily and can be exceedingly difficult to fix. The same is true of plug-ins.

Over time we have rounded up a group of solid themes and plug-ins that work well and are supported well. We have also been burned by components that break at inopportune moments. If you hire a web developer to help you build your site, you will be repaid in years of reliable website performance.