In this article we’ll answer the question “what is WordPress?”. We’ll also dive in a bit to explore what WordPress can be used for, as well as what it should not be used for.
Because WordPress is a fairly advanced system with many capabilities we will start will the simplest, core explanation and work outwards covering the numerous features of WordPress.
This article refers to the self-hosted version of WordPress, downloaded from WordPress.org. If your website was built by a developer then chances are this is the version of WordPress your are using.
For the most part this article does not refer to version of WordPress used by the hosting company, WordPress.com, however some parts of this article may hold true for this version of WordPress.
This article is part of a series on WordPress.
A quick definition of WordPress
Simply put, WordPress is a content management system (CMS). Of course this begs the question “what is a CMS?“.
At its most basic definition, WordPress – and other CMS platforms – are a way to add or edit web pages or posts on a website, and add or edit text and media content, such as images, audio, and video. It’s a bit like a word processor for the web.
WordPress is the world’s most popular CMS. At the time of writing (2021) WordPress is powering 37% of all websites, with 62% of the market share of all CMS platforms*.
* Source: Envisage Digital
But WordPress can do a lot more than just manage content.
What can WordPress do?
WordPress goes far beyond the strict definition of a CMS, which is to say WordPress stretches the definition of managing content all the way through to building many kinds of websites.
WordPress allows you to:
- Install it fairly easily.
- Create users for different roles, such as admins, authors, editors, and subscribers.
- Log into a secure, dashboard-type interface.
- Manage your personal user profile.
- Create blog posts and web pages.
- Add a title, text and image content, and a text excerpt (short summary of the post or page).
- Add a featured image, which is the main image representing the post.
- Categorise or tag posts, and manage categories and tags.
- Control the layout of the page using a block system called Gutenberg.
- Add many different types of content using the Gutenberg block system.
- Manage media – images, pdfs, docs, audio and video – via a gallery-based system.
- Create navigation menus containing posts, pages, category and tag archives, and external links.
- Create pages containing lists of posts according to criteria such as a specific category, tag, date or author.
- Use themes which control the layout and styling of posts and pages, and global elements such as headers and footers.
- Add plugins from a vast variety (over 50 000 in the WordPress.org free plugin repository) which extend the functionality of WordPress, sometimes in very significant ways.
Gutenberg block types
You can add and manage different types of content with the WordPress block editor, known as Gutenberg. Here is a complete list of Gutenberg block types.
- Custom HTML
- Page Break
- Media & Text
- Reusable block
The benefits of WordPress
WordPress is free
The WordPress software can be downloaded for free from WordPress.org. It is open source software, and you are free to view and modify the code. You will only need to pay a hosting company for a domain and hosting.
WordPress is easy to install
WordPress can be installed on a web server that supports PHP and MySQL in less than 5 minutes. Some hosting providers even provide “one click” WordPress installation services.
WordPress is easy to use
Creating pages and posts with WordPress is similar to using a word processor like MS Word. The WordPress dashboard is intuitive, and it can be simplified even further for different user roles, such as authors and editors.
WordPress is very flexible and highly extensible
With its vast free plugin repository and a similarly vast range of premium plugins and themes, WordPress can be turned into almost any kind of website.
In addition, WordPress is designed to be extended with code. WordPress has many built in functions, conditional tags, actions, filters and hooks which a web developer can utilise to tweak or extend WordPress in any direction.
WordPress is extremely well documented
The documentation for WordPress is one of the most comprehensive for any software. In addition to the official documentation, there are thousands of websites – including this one – covering every aspect of WordPress in great detail.
WordPress has a vast community
From forums to FaceBook groups to people you may meet in real life, everyone has encountered WordPress at some point. The friendly, helpful spirit of open source is truly on display when you meet fellow WordPress users and developers.
What can WordPress be used for?
When WordPress was launched in 2003 it was originally designed as blogging software. Incremental changes over the years quickly saw the platform being used for other types of websites.
Currently WordPress can be extended using plugins, themes, and custom code into almost any kind of website.
Should you use WordPress for any website? Technically-speaking, while you could adapt WordPress into almost anything, there are definitely case scenarios where WordPress is not ideal.
Types of websites you can build with WordPress
Short for “web log”, a blog is a type of website where articles are posted on a regular basis. Typically blog articles are considered to be time-relevant, such as news articles and events, but there are exceptions such as recipe websites, fashion websites, and review websites where other criteria may be of higher priority.
Posts are usually listed in reverse-chronological order, with the most recent post at the top. Posts can also be sorted by other criteria, such as category, tag, or author.
WordPress was originally designed as a blogging platform, so WordPress is almost always the first choice when it comes to blogging websites.
Brochure and business websites
In contrast to a blog, a brochure website is a website where the information presented is static. Pages such as Home, About Us, and Our Services don’t change much over time, but editing them occasionally should still be an option for business owners.
WordPress allows for the easy creation and editing of pages, and a wide variety of themes and page layout tools make WordPress an excellent option for this simple type of website.
A portfolio website might be considered to be somewhere between a blog and a static website. Portfolio items are not necessarily time-based, but users will add new items frequently.
WordPress allows for the creation of custom post types, such as a “Portfolio Items” post type, and numerous themes and page layout tools exist to display your portfolio attractively on the front end of the website.
Directory and listing websites
Online shops aka ecommerce websites
WooCommerce is a plugin which turns a WordPress website into an online shop.
By installing a plugin, for example The Events Calendar, WordPress can be turned into an events listing, booking, and ticketing system.
Minimum Viable Product (MVP) websites
If you have an idea for an app, in some cases you might want to test the water to see how high demand is, and how users are using your website before making it into a dedicated custom app.
By using out-of-the-box solutions, such as WooCommerce or a listing theme, WordPress can be turned into something approaching an app, and may be a viable cheap option to test your idea before deciding to build a dedicated custom website or app.
Types of websites you should probably not use WordPress for
Although WordPress can be used to create almost any kind of website, certain very specialist websites, websites with very unique custom functionality, and very large scale websites might be better-suited to a custom website or web app.
For example a very large online shop or online marketplace could, in theory, be built with WordPress and the WooCommerce plugin. But because WooCommerce comes with many features that may not be needed, it might not be the most efficient platform for your needs.
There would be costs involved in removing certain features, and the platform would not be ideally optimised since you’d be starting with something already too bloated for your specific needs.
WooCommerce may be lacking in certain required functionality on the other hand, and much inefficient modification would be required to add the features you require.
A custom website built from scratch would be leaner and therefore more efficient when very large numbers of users access the website at the same time, so it would be much faster than a WordPress website.
Additionally, although WordPress is certainly secure enough for most purposes, because it is a widely used system it is potentially an easier target for very dedicated hackers to break into. A custom-built website is therefore secure enough for large-scale use.
What is the difference between WordPress.org and WordPress.com?
WordPress.org is a website which provides the free WordPress software. WordPress.com is a hosting company which uses the WordPress software.
Does WordPress have a specific look and feel?
There is a misconception that WordPress has an identifiable look and feel. This is most likely due to the fact that several pre-designed themes have predominated. In fact WordPress can have any design applied to it.
Do I need WordPress or would a custom website be better?
Although WordPress is a relatively inexpensive and quick way to build websites we always evaluate your needs very carefully before advising on whether a WordPress website or a custom website is more suitable. Get in touch to tell us about your requirements.
Other content management systems and website builders
In some cases another platform may be suitable for your needs. Although we don’t support these systems we do recommend you give them a try. Read more about Do you need a web developer?
Craft empowers the entire creative process.
The site you want — without the dev time.
Turn your audience into a business.
The modern way to build Websites and Apps that delivers better performance.
Wix.com is the comprehensive platform that gives you total creative freedom online.
Squarespace is the all-in-one solution for anyone looking to create a beautiful website.
Sell anywhere, to anyone, with Shopify’s ecommerce platform and point of sale features.
What is a content management system (CMS)?
At its core, a CMS is a way to manage the content – text and images – on a website. The main capabilities of a CMS are to add new content, and edit existing content. WordPress certainly fulfils these functions, and a whole lot more.
How would you manage content without WordPress? (or without another CMS?)
Perhaps the best way of describing a content management system is by describing what managing a website would be like without one. In fact in the early days of the world wide web this was the way things were done.
Without a CMS you would be forced to manually edit the code of each file for each page of your website. Although a knowledge of HTML code is useful, managing all your content by editing files at this level is simply not practical, and it would be very error-prone.
The code above would also result in a pretty boring web page. Creating a well-styled page would take a lot more code, so it would be much more difficult to edit in a code editor.
There would be numerous additional issues caused by manually editing each HTML file for each page on your website. To name a few:
- You would have to log in via FTP and view all the files on your server, then choose the correct file to edit.
- You would have difficulty controlling the content and style global elements, such as the header and footer of the website.
- You would have difficulty controlling the global styling of the website: fonts, colours, spacing, animation etc.
- You would have difficulty tagging and categorising articles, then displaying them on an archive page.