Welcome to the wonderful world of WordPress! The goal of this particular guide is to help would-be WordPress users make sense of what WordPress really is, what it does, and what it can be used for (note: for more guides in the same series, take a look at the WinningWP Guides page).
When trying to figure out what in the world WordPress actually is, you'll almost certainly come across explanations along the lines of:
If you're just starting out however, terms like 'open source' and 'content management system' probably won't mean much to you.
So, here's a much more beginner-friendly run through of what WordPress really is — one that will hopefully make a lot more sense.
As already mentioned, WordPress is a content management system (or CMS, for short). To explain what this really means however, we first need to touch on what websites really are and how they work.
When you type the address of a website (for example, winningwp.com) into a web browser (such as Internet Explorer, Chrome or Safari) your computer connects (via the internet) to another computer (called a server), and asks to see the code stored on that computer in the location (i.e. the web address) you've specified. The browser then loads this code and shows you the corresponding webpage the code was created to display.
What's important here is how this code came to be stored in a particular location on the server in the first place: someone — or something — put it there. There are two ways this could have been done: a) somebody wrote the code by hand and uploaded it to the server manually, or b) it was done using a Content Management System (CMS). A CMS, you see, is a piece of software that allows someone to quickly and easily manage all the different code on a server that goes together to display web pages — all via an easy-to-understand human-friendly interface that creates and edits the code on their behalf.
As a CMS, WordPress will write — and manage — all of this complicated code for you, thereby enabling you to publish whatever content you please without having to concern yourself with what's happening in the background (i.e. on the server).
WordPress, then, is an application (i.e. a piece of software) that allows regular people to create, edit and manage their own websites via an easy-to-use (some may even say intuitive) interface.
The goal of WordPress is to empower people, no matter where or who they are, to publish content online in whatever form they like. Want a simple website that displays a collection of blog posts next to a sidebar showing an author bio and a few pictures from your Instagram feed? No problem! Or maybe you need a more complicated state-of-the-art eCommerce store selling homemade handbags with a payment solution that allows people to buy your products from anywhere in the world? No problem! Or perhaps you're after a website for a service-based business, with a way for customers to make restaurant or hotel bookings online. Again, no problem! With WordPress, you can put together almost any type of website you like!
Best of all, WordPress gives you the means to do all of this on your own: without having to hire a professional — and potentially very expensive — web designer.
Believe it or not, you've almost certainly come across the power of WordPress many times already. How can I be so sure? Because WordPress is currently used to create and manage more than 25% of all websites.
WordPress isn't just for the do-it-yourself types — far from it, in fact. WordPress-powered websites span a range of sizes, from personal blogs that get just a few hundred visitors a week to multinational corporations boasting weekly traffic in the tens of millions.
The popularity of WordPress comes, in part, from how user-friendly it is — enabling everyday people to create their own websites. Once installed (something that, in itself, is easy to do), you'll find a dashboard that's not only beautifully designed but also straightforward to use. However, the real power of WordPress isn't its ease-of-use — indeed, its real power isn't actually within it at all. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the true power of WordPress is in its incredible extendability. You see, WordPress isn't something that's limited by being stuck in its ways: it's a system that's been built to have all kinds of additional functionality added to it via themes and plugins.
As a CMS, WordPress will allow you to add or change your website's content whenever you please — but without detailed instructions on how to arrange this content on a web page, it won't be able to display any of it. A WordPress theme, then, is this entirely necessary set of instructions. When you install WordPress, it comes with a default theme — a very simple set of instructions on how to display your content that lets you view a version of your website straight away. This is just the beginning, though, because by separating your site's content from the instructions on how to display it (i.e. the specific theme you're using), WordPress is saying it doesn't mind how you choose to display the content you're using it to manage. As long as your theme meets a requisite set of conditions, you can use any one you like. You could, of course, set about making your own theme (or commission a web design agency to make one for you), but one of the real beauties of WordPress is that there are tens of thousands of themes already available for you to choose from.
Themes are all about displaying content, but what if you want more features than just those that WordPress comes out of the box with? Whether you're looking for a fancy image slider, a contact form or perhaps something more complicated, such as an eCommerce shopping cart, WordPress opens the door via plugins.
Plugins are sets of instructions that define additional features and functions. They are essentially code files that can be uploaded to the server via the WordPress dashboard, but, like themes, they can be used to make WordPress do just about anything. And, like themes, there are thousands of them already available.
The possibilities are almost endless — limited only by what others have already created (and made available to use).
When it was created in 2003, WordPress was a simple affair — focused almost entirely on just one type of website: blogs (if you're interested in the history of WordPress, here's a brief introduction). Everything has to start somewhere, but it wasn't long before its horizons began to broaden. Nowadays, WordPress is far from just a blogging platform — indeed, combined with the added power of plugins, it's now an extremely flexible piece of software that's capable of powering almost any type of website.
Because of how easily it can be extended, many would argue it has become one of the most flexible content management systems ever created.
The widespread use of WordPress has resulted in a huge user base, which, in turn, has resulted in an abundance of WordPress-focused developers keen to make their mark (and sometimes money) by creating all manner of different themes and plugins. What's more, this thriving community is very welcoming and almost always happy to help out. Around the world (did we mention WordPress comes in more than 50 different languages?) there are user-groups, Facebook groups, forums, meet-ups, and more than 100 WordPress-focused conferences called 'WordCamps' — not to mention a diverse range of WordPress-centric blogs. All of this means support is easy to come by, which is a real plus for new users.
By now, you're perhaps wondering who makes WordPress. Is WordPress a company? To explain, we need to cover the term 'open source'. When it comes to software, open source refers to a type of licence in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone for any purpose (read more on Wikipedia). This means nobody really 'owns' WordPress — instead, it's developed and maintained by a number of volunteers, many of whom are sponsored to work on WordPress by companies with vested interests in seeing it continue to grow. What's more, because of its open source nature, thousands of people contribute to it every day, in all manner of ways.
Being open source and having so many people working to make it better not only raises the WordPress experience of people across the board, it also makes it a high-quality piece of software.
Here are some of the benefits that stem from having such a strong community:
Because of its open source nature, WordPress itself, the software, is free to use.
However, there are other costs associated with creating a website that you should consider before starting. That server we mentioned earlier, for example, has to be paid for (not the whole thing, of course, but you'll need to pay for some space on one). Services that provide this space are called 'website hosting services' — here's a handy guide on how to choose the best one. Similarly, the address for your website, known as the domain name (such as winningwp.com), will also need to be paid for — these usually cost about $10 a year. Great places to buy these include Namecheap and GoDaddy, or, better still, whichever web host you choose should be able to sell you one in addition to the necessary server space.
You may choose to buy a premium WordPress theme, which will cost around $50 to $70 (usually a one-off cost).
(find out more on getting started with WordPress and the various costs involved here)
It's no exaggeration to say that WordPress is an extremely powerful platform to launch almost any website with. It can be used to power both small and large websites, it's easy to use, and, with the added power of themes and plugins, it's easily one of the most flexible systems available. What's more, it has a thriving community and is both free and open source.
Whatever your gender, social background, race, financial position, orientation or level of experience on the web, WordPress wants to help you be heard. Essentially, WordPress is all about putting the power to publish things online in the hands of the people — something it does extremely darn well!
There's more to us than just WordPress guides. Here's a few favorites:
When you're just getting started with something new, there's all kinds of things that are bound to take some time to get to grips with. So often the key to success is not giving up too soon!