WordPress has taken the modern internet by storm. It’s estimated that the platform now powers 35% of the world’s websites. And that includes those belonging to many household-name companies and government departments.
But what IS WordPress?
That’s what this article is all about. We cover the history of this hugely successful technology, look at how it all works, and discuss how you can use it as the foundation for your own online businesses.
What is WordPress?
WordPress is an open-source content management system (CMS). Using basic building blocks of themes, pages and posts, it allows you to set up highly professional websites with little or no knowledge of code and programming.
But that only really scratches the surface. Over the years, WordPress has evolved from a relatively straightforward blogging platform into a system that can incorporate and support a huge range of functionality.
An enormous range of plug-ins (over 50,000), both free and commercial, allow you to add almost every imaginable feature to a WordPress website.
On a simple level, this can mean things like weather widgets, contact forms and social network sharing buttons. At the other end of the scale, you can incorporate advanced features like member login areas, full online eCommerce stores, and payment processing.
Whatever website project you have in your head, it’s almost certain you could implement it using WordPress. And some of the high-profile websites we look at later in this article go to prove just how much is possible.
Who Made WordPress?
WordPress was released in 2003 by two software developers, Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little. It evolved from some software called b2/cafelog, which had been used to power around 2000 early blogs.
As an open source project, WordPress is developed and added to by a large global community. However, it is also closely associated with Automattic, a company founded in 2005 by Matt Mullenweg.
Automattic is effectively the commercial arm of WordPress, and was valued at US$3 Billion in late 2019. Automattic sells various commercial plugins for WordPress. These include VaultPress, a backup tool, and Jetpack, a suite of utilities for performance enhancements and statistics.
Automattic is also involved in various other high-profile projects. The company owns Tumblr, another popular blogging platform, and also the eCommerce system WooCommerce.
What can WordPress Do?
It perhaps sounds a little hyperbolic to say WordPress can do anything! But when it comes to websites it’s barely an exaggeration. Thanks to an open ecosystem that supports all kinds of plugins, it’s very easy to bend a WordPress site to your will.
WordPress was originally a platform designed for blogs. However, over the years the boundaries have blurred. The definition of “blog” is much less clear nowadays, and can mean various things, such as:
- A personal online journal.
- A blog on a company website.
- An “authority” site selling products or promoting affiliate offers.
Similarly, WordPress is now viewed more as a multi-purpose platform for creating websites than a blogging system. It’s just as commonly used to build brochure sites or online stores as it is for those traditional blogs – the ones with posts displayed “most recent first.”
How Does WordPress Work?
The beauty of WordPress is that it keeps its complexity fairly well hidden.
On a technical level, the system is coded in PHP, and holds its data in MySQL databases. Developers can use PHP, HTML and CSS to code “themes” for WordPress websites. These dictate the look and feel of each site.
From a user perspective, it’s possible to make use of WordPress without really understanding any of that stuff. Once WordPress is set up, you log on to a “Dashboard” interface to add and edit content.
Website hosting companies make WordPress readily available and easy to install. You can obtain themes for free, or pay a small amount for a commercial theme with lots more functionality.
Even though WordPress makes it possible to create websites without knowing your PHP from your SQL, it does help is to understand the system’s basic concepts. Here are some of the key terms:
Posts are individual pieces of content, often displayed – blog style – in reverse chronological order. If you’re writing a new article for a WordPress website, this would usually be a post.
Pages are similar, but usually used more for static content – things like “Services” and “About Us” pages.
Categories allow you to organise your WordPress content into manageable sections.
Widgets allow you to add extra features to the site in set areas, typically the sidebar and in headers and footers. Examples of widgets include lists of recent posts, blocks of links to your social media sites, or email signup forms.
Plugins add extra functionality to your WordPress site. This could mean anything from automatically inserting adverts or photo galleries into posts, to incorporating a whole online store. Most WordPress sites use several plugins to perform all their functions.
Themes dictate the look and feel of the site, right down to how it displays on different devices such as mobile phones.
An important point is that you can change your theme without losing any of your site content. This is a considerable benefit when compared to sites that are built from scratch.
Who Uses WordPress?
WordPress is used by everyone from hobby bloggers to huge global companies. Here are a few examples:
Yes, that’s right. Time Magazine uses WordPress.
In fact, the magazine format is a very simple undertaking for the WordPress platform. The site is refined, fast and slick, and a natural fit for WordPress’ posts, pages and categories model.
An example of a much more sophisticated site, BBC America is far more than just a magazine site. It’s also used to play TV and movie content directly to signed-in members.
There’s an online store built in too, selling everything from BBC merchandise to English tea!
The White House has used WordPress since 2017, after switching from Drupal, another content management system.
The website handles everything from the live streaming of US government events to job listings for the current administration.
It would be possible to continue listing other high-profile examples of WordPress sites all day. Others include Marks and Spencer, Walt Disney and Mercedes Benz.
A fun tool to play with is IsItWP? This free site allows you to paste in any web address, and it will tell you whether a specific site runs WordPress. Given that that applies to 35% of sites, the answer is often “yes.”
How to Get Started with WordPress
So, you’re convinced WordPress is the right platform for your next website project. How do you get started?
We shall run through the basic steps in a moment, but first we need to explain something important – the difference between WordPress.COM and WordPress.ORG.
WordPress.COM vs WordPress.org
One thing that often confuses people is the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org.
They both use all the same WordPress technology we’ve already discussed. The key difference is that all the sites we’ve mentioned as examples, and the vast majority of business sites, all use WordPress.ORG.
WordPress.org is the self-hosted variant of the WordPress platform. This means you typically invest in some web hosting, and then install the WordPress framework on that hosting. (This is usually MUCH simpler than it sounds, with pre-installs and “one click” installs widely available).
WordPress.COM is a hosted platform operated by Automattic. It allows you to build a free personal WordPress website hosted on Automattic’s servers. Or you can pay for various business packages, ranging from £7-36 per month at the time of writing.
Generally speaking, most solopreneurs opt for their own web hosting, along with an installation of WordPress.ORG.
Going down the WordPress.com route goes some way to smoothing the learning curve. Furthermore, if you want to start to play with WordPress with zero outlay, it gives you a way to do so. However, various restrictions and limitations tend to quickly move professionals onto platforms they have more control of.
The Initial Steps
So how do you actually begin? How do you get to a point where you’re typing In your first post?
Well, as already discussed, if you’re only testing the water or setting up a hobby blog, you can just set up a free website on WordPress.com, and be navigating the WordPress admin dashboard in a matter of minutes.
But if you’re taking our recommended route, and getting set up with your own hosting, these are the key steps you need to take:
- Choose your domain name.
- Select and order a suitable hosting package (we have a detailed guide to how to do that here).
- Once your domain registration and hosting order is processed, you should be given access to a control panel interface.
- Install WordPress on your hosting package. Usually there is a clearly sign-posted “one click install” or similar within your control panel.
- Once the installation is complete, you receive an email prompting you to log on for the first time.
- You are now ready to start adding content to your WordPress site, and deciding the structure of your categories and menus. However…
- You will probably want to select a theme first, as this will likely affect exactly how you decide to lay out your site. There are both free and chargeable themes available, and thousands to choose from.
- Select and install any plugins you require, to add necessary functionality to your site.
Obviously the list of steps above is vastly simplified. However, it does give you a general idea of what’s involved in getting a WordPress website off the ground.
While the process may seem daunting, it’s important to remember that you only have to go through one step at a time. Thanks to the immense popularity of WordPress, there are limitless how-tos, video tutorials, books and courses to help you learn the intricacies.
WordPress already powers over a third of the internet. It seems more than likely that in years to come its domination will only grow.
The platform’s ubiquity is a great thing for users. Knowledge of WordPress is widespread, and development of new plugins and enhancements is constant, with endless innovation.
WordPress is definitely a platform it pays to know in depth.