WordPress is used by 43% of the top ten million websites on the internet. It is used by huge international entities such as Microsoft, Sony Music, PlayStation, Time Magazine, CNN, Disney, the White House, and many more. It is basically the engine that fuels a lot of the internet and keeps it ticking along. But what is WordPress exactly? How does it work, and should you use it for your website?
Read more: How to build a WordPress website
WordPress is a content management system (CMS) that runs websites and provides an administrative “backend” for the website. This backend is where blog posts can be written, pages can be designed, and changes made to the code. Themes and plugins can also be installed.
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What is WordPress?
WordPress is website software, known as a content management system (CMS). When someone visits a website, they only see the “frontend” of the site (the actual pages indexed on the internet). But those pages are set up, designed, and run on the “backend,” the administrative area only accessible to those with the correct login details. That backend is WordPress. It can also be another content management system such as Joomla or Drupal, although these are less common than WordPress, which is easier to use.
WordPress is split into two areas — WordPress.com and WordPress.org. WordPress.com is hosted by WordPress itself, and the free plan will give you a subdomain on WordPress (yourusername.wordpress.com). However, if you need more features, such as being able to point your WordPress towards your own domain name, you need to either pay for a WordPress.com plan, or you need to install the free WordPress.org software on your web hosting plan. The advantage to using WordPress.org is that you have a lot more control over the design of your site.
Many web hosting companies provide a one-click automated solution for installing WordPress.org on your web domain. Before, you had to manually install it yourself and set up databases, which was time-consuming and prone to the smallest error forcing you to start from scratch. Today, you can just click a button, and your web hosting company does it for you in a matter of a minute or two.
Now that we have established what WordPress is, let’s now look at the features which make it the go-to content management system for a large chunk of the internet. There are a lot of worthy features, so we can’t possibly cover each one. Instead, here are the biggest and the best features which make WordPress stand head and shoulders above the rest.
A vast theme library
When you’re building a website, you need to give it a structure, like a new house needs to have foundations to sit on. That’s why you need to have plenty of themes to choose from.
There are so many that you are spoiled for choice, but in reality, finding the one that exactly fits your needs is harder than it looks. That’s the pitfall of too many choices. There are filters where you can specify particular features you want to have, but even then, you’re likely going to encounter a theme that has everything you need — except for one important thing which will make you want to uninstall the whole theme.
The answer to that, of course, is to buy a paid theme, or pay a developer to make a custom-made theme for you. You can find many candidates on Upwork, Fiverr, and other similar websites. A cheaper alternative is to use Elementor, which is a drag-and-drop website builder plugin. The free version will be sufficient for most people, but the paid version will only set you back $49.
Plugins for every conceivable user need
Once you have the theme up, the next step is to start adding functionality to your site. This functionality comes in the form of plugins, of which there are a huge number of free ones and an even bigger number of paid ones.
Saying that, though, resist the urge to install too many plugins. The more you install, the more your site will slow down when someone visits it. This will, in turn, affect your Google search ranking, which these days heavily relies on page speed. I would say that, if you start going over 15 plugins, you should start seriously reviewing them to see if you can uninstall any. If you get to 20, then you really need to stop and be a bit more selective.
Lots of customization options
One of the great things about WordPress is how easy it is to customize your site, especially in real-time. Any changes you make are instantly seen on the page, and when you’re happy, you can click the button to make the changes live. You can click on the page, add blocks with text and images, and more.
Being a platform that powers a huge number of websites, hackers naturally target WordPress-powered websites. If a security vulnerability is discovered in the WordPress platform code, then a large number of sites can be hacked. This means you must develop a good habit of keeping your WordPress version, theme, and plugins up-to-date with the latest security patches. But it is normal to forget to do it.
WordPress now gives you the option of enabling auto-updates. After that, WordPress will automatically update things in the background, with minimal interaction needed from yourself.
If you want to rank high in search results, there are many things you need to remember. But one very important one is having an optimized URL structure. A URL that is descriptive, short, and indexable to Google.
In WordPress, you can specify which elements go into your links, as well as what structure you want to have.
User registration and permission levels
If you have a staff that needs to log into WordPress to do their work, or you have customers who need to set up user accounts, then WordPress makes it ridiculously easy. Under the Users tab, you can enable the ability for people to register on your site, and you can also specify the default role they should have. You can also manually add new users yourself and upgrade/downgrade their roles.
Essential WordPress plugins
After 15 years or so of using WordPress, I have developed a core list of the essential plugins that go on each of my sites. Here they are.
If you’re planning to start your own e-commerce business, but you don’t want to pay for Shopify, then the next best solution is to use WooCommerce. Granted, it’s not as good as Shopify, but if you’re a bootstrapped business just starting out and needing to cut operating costs, WooCommerce can start you off till you get some revenue coming in. There are also lots of WooCommerce plugins available in the WordPress directory. You need to have a WooCommerce-compatible theme, though.
Everybody wants to be on page one of Google. Otherwise, what’s the point? The best way to get there is to use a dedicated plugin that will tell you what you’re doing right and wrong SEO-wise on your site. The industry leader, by far, is Yoast.
The free version is more than enough for casual users, but if you’re a business, you should pay the $99 a year to upgrade to the premium plugin. They also have other premium plugins for WooCommerce shops, local businesses, video SEO, and getting into Google News.
As previously mentioned, speed is the name of the game when building a website. You can improve greatly on that by installing NitroPack, which gives you a cache and various site element optimization modes.
The free version only gives you one gigabyte a month and 5,000 page views. After that, the plugin tells you to either upgrade (which is expensive), or it shuts down till the next billing period. So you need to calculate how many monthly page views you’re likely to get. But after installing this, I noticed a big speed bump with my site.
Spam is the bane of every website owner’s life. How many times have you written a long thoughtful blog post, and then 30 seconds later, a viagra salesman from Canada leaves a comment on your post offering a special deal?
Askimet is the gold standard of spam destroyers. Every comment that gets left on your site gets run through Askimet, and it deletes the ones it believes to be spam, based on certain keywords and other criteria.
Broken Link Checker
Links break all the time, as sites take down pages or change the URL of pages. Not everyone has the presence of mind to set up an automatic redirect to the new link. So if you link to a page, and that link suddenly disappears, your visitor will end up looking at the dreaded 404 page not found message. Broken links can also negatively affect your search rankings.
Broken Link Checker sits on your WordPress dashboard and flags any links it believes to be broken. You also get an email notifying you. You can then check the link, and if it is indeed broken, the plugin can remove the link for you.
You’d be stunned at how many brute-force attacks a brand-new WordPress site can suffer daily by hackers. Since the WordPress login page is rarely changed by the site owner, it’s easy to go there, enter the default username, and try out various passwords.
Using Login Lockdown, you can specify how many login attempts a person can make before they are locked out. You can specify the time period they are locked out for, and you can blacklist certain IP addresses. The default username of “admin” can also be blocked.
Many people dispute whether or not JetPack is actually worth installing, but I personally like it. Even the free version has a lot to recommend it. You can get email warnings if your site goes down, sharing tools for your pages and posts, and you can even set your images to “lazy load” to improve page loading times.
Of course, if you upgrade to a paid plan, you get much more such as video hosting and site backups. But for useful tools and site widgets, the free plan will have you covered.
WordPress inexplicably doesn’t have a built-in backup function, but you nevertheless need one in case you’re hacked. JetPack is probably the easiest “set it and forget it” option, but another possibility is UpdraftPlus, which puts your backups in your Google Drive folder.
As you can see from the screenshot above, restoring a version of your site is as simple as clicking a button. You can delete unneeded backups and download backups to your computer. You can schedule new backups daily.
Using WordPress on a local computer
If you want to test any WordPress themes, plugins, or other tweaks, but don’t want to do it on a live site, then the best option is to make a local installation on your computer. The best software app for this is definitely Local. It sets up a site and opens it in your browser. When you close down the site, it disappears again.
This is invaluable if you are not sure about a plugin and want to test it first before putting it on a live site. Or if you want to mess around with different themes.
Should you use WordPress?
Hopefully, this article has given you a good overview of WordPress and its features. You should now be able to make a judgment call on whether it suits your needs. The good thing about WordPress is that your site can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. Many WordPress sites have just one page to advertise someone’s services, whereas others have hundreds of pages and subdomains. The sky is the limit depending on what you want and your time and budget for building it.
WordPress.org is free. However, WordPress.com has various payment options, depending on what features you need. WordPress.com does have a free plan, though, if you don’t mind adverts and don’t have a domain of your own.
WordPress.org is the free version that you must download and install onto your own web server. WordPress.com is the version hosted by WordPress, which you can pay for.
These days, most web hosting companies provide a one-click installation solution for WordPress.org. So it’s very easy to install it. Installing a theme and plugins is also very easy. How complicated you find it depends on how complex you want the site design to be.
WordPress.org is installed with a default free theme, and every year, they bring out a new default free theme. You can also search the WordPress directory and the internet for other free themes. You’re spoilt for choice, but the quality greatly varies.
A multisite is a WordPress feature that enables you to create a network of smaller subsites within a single instance of WordPress. So this can be, for example, a subdomain, such as https://site.domain.com. A multisite saves having to log in and out of each WordPress installation.