If you’re new to WordPress or switching over from a static website, you might want to know exactly how WordPress works.
WordPress is a content management system, or CMS. It works by combining some core files, a database, files that you add or install, and a dashboard to let you manage the whole thing.
In this article, I’ll show you exactly how WordPress works and what that means for your new WordPress website.
The Components of WordPress
WordPress consists of the following components:
- WordPress Core: the core files that make up the WordPress installation. You need to install these before you can do anything else, as they make WordPress work.
- The database: this is where all of your content and settings are stored. Again, WordPress can’t work without a database. If you install WordPress manually, you’ll also need to create a database. But if you use an auto-installer, that will do the job for you.
- Extra files: on top of the WordPress core files, you can install extra files for themes, plugins, and uploads. These will make your site run better as well as making it unique to you. I’ll explain how each of these works shortly.
- The admin screens: the admin screens, or dashboard, make it possible for you to interact with your WordPress installation. That means you can manage your site without having to write code.
Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.
The foundation on which your WordPress site is built is a set of files that makes up WordPress core. When you install WordPress, what you are doing is adding a set of files to your website. These files contain the code that runs WordPress itself.
You can install WordPress in one of two ways:
- Using an auto-installer provided by your hosting company. This is the easiest way.
- Downloading the files from WordPress.org and uploading them to your site. This is the most reliable method.
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You don’t need to worry about these files or what they contain. And you should never edit or delete any of them. If you do this, your website might break. Even if it doesn’t break, any changes you make will be lost next time you update WordPress. That’s why you use plugins to make modifications to a WordPress site, instead of editing the core files.
As well as WordPress core, your site will need a database for it to work.
This is where all of your content and settings are stored. The WordPress database consists of 12 tables. There are separate ones for things like posts, taxonomies, metadata, and settings.
Again, you don’t need to worry about these database tables. WordPress will automatically save data to them and update that data whenever you use the admin screens to work on your site.
Don’t try to manually edit the database, even if your hosting provider gives you access to it. Doing this carries a very real risk that you will break your site. It’s also something that’s very difficult to undo.
Note: If you create a network on your WordPress installation by running WordPress Multisite, WordPress adds some extra tables to run the network and the sites in it. Again, you can access everything you need from the admin screens and don’t need to access the database directly.
Additional Files: Themes, Plugins, and Uploads
I already mentioned that WordPress core includes a set of files that contain the code that makes WordPress run. I also mentioned that if you want to modify your WordPress site, you’ll need to install a plugin.
That’s where files come in.
As well as the files that make up WordPress core itself, you’ll be adding extra files to your site. Just like with everything else, you probably won’t be manually adding these files. You don’t need to upload them to your hosting provider or anything like that. Instead, use the WordPress dashboard to install files and to upload them from your computer.
The extra files used by WordPress include:
- theme files
- plugin files
You’ll find all of these files in the wp-content folder in your WordPress installation (although you don’t need to access that to work with them; you can do it all via the admin screens). Let’s look at what each of these are for.
These are the files that make your theme work. Your theme will dictate how your site looks and how it displays content. Each site will normally only run one theme, and that will include template files that WordPress uses to grab content from the database and output it on the page. Your theme will also include a stylesheet that dictates how the site looks.
It’s important to take the time to choose the right theme for your site, as this will dictate exactly how your site appears to visitors and how it reflects your brands. You’ll find that you can customize lots of themes using the Customizer.
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You’ll only need more than one theme installed if you use a child theme. This is when you install a theme to modify another theme, referred to as the parent theme. This way, you can make changes to a theme without editing it directly. If you were to edit it directly, you would lose all of your edits next time you update the theme, but changes you make to your child theme aren’t lost.
You’ll find your theme files in the wp-content/themes directory, where each theme will have its own folder. Again, you don’t really need to worry about this. The most important thing is that you work with themes by going to Appearance > Themes in the admin screens, or by using the Customizer.
If you want to make modifications or additions to your site’s functionality (rather than the way it looks), you install a plugin.
Plugins add extra functionality. This can mean anything from a simple message in the footer to a full-blown SEO or performance plugin.
There are certain plugins that it’s a good idea for every site manager to install. These include backup plugins, security plugins, performance plugins, and SEO plugins. All of these will make your site run more smoothly or be more effective. There’s a wide range of free plugins for all of these functions that you can find in the WordPress plugin directory.
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Uploads will include any media that you add to your site.
So if you upload an image to a post, it will be stored in the uploads folder. Just like your themes and plugins, this is found in the wp-content folder. Uploads can include other types of media, including PDF files, video, and anything else you want to upload.
Some plugins also add files to the uploads directory, in their own folder. This might include backup files or other media.
The WordPress Admin Screens
The WordPress admin screens (or dashboard) pull it all together.
Instead of directly accessing your database or the files that are used to make your site work, you’ll use the WordPress admin screens to manage your site. Let’s take a look at the WordPress admin screens in a bit more detail.
The WordPress Admin Screens in Depth
The WordPress admin includes a range of screens you can use to manage your site, install themes and plugins, and configure the way everything looks and works.
The admin screens include:
- Dashboard: The home screen for your site admin—this includes a summary of what’s going on elsewhere.
- Posts: The section of the admin where you add and edit posts and create categories and tags for them.
- Media: All of the media you upload is stored in the media library. You can upload media here or directly to posts or pages.
- Pages: Use these screens to create static pages for your site for things like information about you and your contact details.
- Comments: Here you can manage and respond to comments that are left on your posts.
- Appearance: Use these screens to manage your theme, customize the way your site looks, add widgets to your sidebar and footer, and create a navigation menu.
- Plugins: This is where you install plugins.
- Users: Manage your site users and add new ones here.
- Tools: Extra tools like importing and exporting.
- Settings: Configure settings for your site including its name and tagline, the type of home page you’ll use, and what the reading experience will be like.
When you first set up your WordPress site, it’s worth spending some time exploring the admin screens, experimenting with them, and getting to grips with how they work.
Sometimes you’ll find there’s more than one way to do the same thing. For example, you can add widgets or change your theme either in the Widgets or Theme screens, or in the Customizer. Which you choose to use will depend on your own preference, although it’s likely that some of those more static admin screens will eventually be completely replaced by the Customizer.
WordPress works quite differently from static websites or website builders.
It’s a content management system that uses a combination of some core files, a database, and some extra files that you add for themes, plugins, and uploads. And the WordPress admin screens make it possible for you to access all of this without having to write any code or explore the files on your server.
Take some time to explore the dashboard and get to know how your site works, and then you’ll be able to get the most from it.