How Your Wordpress Website Actually Works
One of the things I love about being a freelancer, is working with other solo entrepreneurs. We all tend to have similar attributes: creativity and an openness to trying new things, a respect for the skills and hard work of others (since we know exactly how much we put into our own particular niches) and a certain DIY, “make it happen” attitude. After all, when your business is based on nobody but your own sweet self, that self has to be capable of a lot of different things: admin, accounting, marketing, copywriting, analysis, strategy, sales, customer service – even web design.
Now I’m definitely not suggesting that every entrepreneur has to teach themselves how to build a website before they can start a successful online business – that would be crazy. If you have the resources, by all means hire a qualified web professional to handle the technical side of things for you, and at a certain point in your business you’ll find that outsourcing your website tasks isn’t just helpful, it’s practically a necessity.
But I know a lot of us start by setting up our own Wordpress blogs or websites, essentially just hacking our way through this technically demanding minefield until we have a website we can start our business with.
(In my case, I kept on hacking until I’d made an entire career out it. But that’s another story.)
I’m always surprised then, when I meet these hands-on, technologically capable entrepreneurs, to find just how much confusion and misunderstandings there are when it comes to how their website actually works – how all the component parts come together to create the pages that visitors can see on their screen.
Why Understanding Your Website Matters
Your website is the home of your online business, and can be the arbiter of your success. So even if you’re a complete technophobe, and have no intention of going near any of this website setup business yourself, you can’t afford to simply forget about your website altogether.
Simply handing your brief off to a web designer is fine – if the web designer knows what they’re doing. Unfortunately this isn’t always guaranteed, and even if they’re brilliant coders, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve thought about your business needs and how your website needs to grow in future.
There are a thousand and one ways to build a website these days, and how it’s put together will have a HUGE impact on how easily you and your customers can use the website, how much control you have over certain features, and how complex (read: expensive) it is to make changes to your website.
That’s why no matter what stage your business is at, taking the time to learn just a little bit about how your Wordpress website hangs together, will really help you understand how different decisions will impact your business.
The Anatomy of a Wordpress Website
CMS’s, themes, frameworks and plugins – it seems as soon as you start exploring your options for websites today, the internet starts trying to bamboozle you with a bunch of terms and concepts you can barely get your head around.
So let’s break it down as simply as possible.
All hosting is, is an online space for your site. Hosting companies quite literally “host” your website, i.e. they are the landlord, renting you a “room” for your website. But let’s be clear, all you are buying from a hosting company is the space – they are usually not responsible for what you choose to do with that space!
Choosing a good hosting solution is key in ensuring your website is able to load quickly, and doesn’t have too much downtime (i.e. times when visitors are unable to access your website). However, don’t rush into buying this before you’ve decided on your CMS – some hosts and CMS’s are bundled together, as you’ll see.
DOMAINS, DOMAIN NAMES, AND URLS
Firstly, you’ll be happy to hear that these are all pretty much the same thing: the www.mywebsite.com part that you would type into a browser. After all, there’s no point having a space for your website if no one can find it! So domain names are basically like a digital address – Namecheap is a great place to purchase domain names, but most hosts also offer domain registration services.
CONTENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
A CMS stands for Content Management System, and – bear with me here – is the System you use to Manage your website Content. Instead of you writing out a bunch of code each time you want to make a change to your site, you’ll just login and use your CMS’s page editor instead (so if you’ve used Microsoft Word, you’ll be able to use this!)
There are a wide variety of different CMS's out there, and depending on what functionality you want your website to have some CMS's are definitely going to be better than others for your purposes. Some for example, like Shopify, have been built from the ground up with ecommerce in mind; others (like Wordpress) started out as blogging CMS's and gradually evolved into something far more complex.
Just as with Wordpress, some CMS's are free for you to install and use for your website, while others you have to pay for. Where this gets even more confusing is that some Hosts are bundled together with CMS’s, and vice versa. For example Squarespace is a “fully hosted” CMS, meaning that if you want to use their platform (CMS) to create your website, then you have to have your website hosted by them too.
Now that you have your hosting, domain and CMS set up, it’s time to start actually building your website, and you’ll probably start with a theme, also commonly referred to as a “template” or “skin”. This is simply a set of code files you install within your CMS, that control the overall look of your site: your page layouts, website colors and fonts will all be set by your theme.
Every CMS has its own range of themes that can be installed, and these can range wildly in both price, functionality, stability, and security, so this is another of those crucial website decisions you’ll want to consider carefully. You can also opt to have your own theme custom-designed and built for you on most CMS's.
You’ll notice in that last paragraph I mentioned “functionality” – this is something I wanted to highlight because a lot of Wordpress themes in particular bundle CMS functionality (like a portfolio builder or booking system) into the theme itself.
This can seem like a fantastic, cost-effective solution for you DIY website builders in particular, but be warned: tying your website content and functionality into your theme like that can be extremely problematic. A website redesign becomes an incredibly expensive undertaking if once you change your theme, you lose all the content it controlled as well. That’s why best practices dictate that themes should be for website appearance only – the functionality is much better handled by plugins.
This is where things get really interesting – themes are basically just window dressing, but plugins are where the magic happens. Much like themes, plugins are a collection of code files you’ll install in your CMS – except that plugins are all about adding extra functionality to your website.
Probably one of the most famous plugins today is Woocommerce, an add-on built for Wordpress that transforms this simple blogging CMS into a fully-fledged ecommerce platform. But plugins can do all kinds of things – some are designed to operate “behind the scenes”, allowing you to better control your SEO performance or optimising your website images for you.
Depending on the CMS, plugins can pretty much do anything you can think of. The huge range of available plugins is one of the main reasons why Wordpress is such a popular CMS, because all those plugins make it a very flexible platform. With the right addon you can transform your Wordpress website into a forum, a store, a member’s only site, or even a holiday bookings site.
Putting It All Together: How Your Website Works
Hopefully now you can see how all the component parts of your website – the host, domain, CMS, theme and plugins – come together to create what your visitors will see when they arrive to your website.
If they’ve been chosen well, the result will be a fast-loading, beautifully designed, easy to use website; both for your visitors as they browse the site, and for you, who will probably be working with the website’s CMS pretty regularly, updating pages and other content like products or blog posts.
So, whether or not you’re working with a web designer or still hacking your way through the early DIY days of your business, make sure you know how these points are managed. Of course, if you’re setting up your own website, you’ll simply have to do your research on all these points, or risk finding yourself stuck with a system that hinders you in future. If you’ve hired a web designer, ask them which CMS they plan to build on, and which themes and plugins they will be using.
(And if they point you towards an Envato theme for a site intended to be anything longterm, run like hell.)