What is WordPress? And How does it Work? A Beginner’s Guide.

WordPress is free, open-source software for building a website. 43% of all the websites on the Internet are WordPress, making it the most popular website-building platform.

Table of Contents

What is WordPress?

WordPress is free, open-source software for building a website. Technically, WordPress is a Content Management System (CMS). A Content Management System is an application that lets you create a website without having to code it all from the start. It enables users to create, edit, publish, and manage content.

Typically, when you build a webpage from scratch, you need to code the pages in HTML, and then add CSS code for style and formatting.

You do not need to code or have technical skills to use WordPress. However, a person without coding skills can immediately use it and focus on the website design and content.

It is the most popular website-building software in the world. WordPress now accounts for 43.1% of websites, according to W3tech (Dec 2022). It has a 64% market share of known Content Management Systems.

The next closest are:

  • Shopify 5.9%
  • WIX 3.5%
  • Squarespace 2.9%
  • Joomla 2.6%
What is WordPress: - Infographic showing the CMS market share with WordPress at 64%.

What makes WordPress popular is that it is:

  1. Free
  2. Highly customisable and flexible
  3. Easy to learn and get started
  4. SEO (Search Engine Optimization) friendly
  5. Supported by a large community and a lot of information.
What is WordPress: - Infographic showing 5 reasons WordPress is popular.

It’s Free

The software is General Public License (GPL), meaning it’s free, and anyone can use it. You can download it from WordPress.org.

Highly Customisable and Flexible

One of the great strengths of WordPress is that it’s highly customisable and flexible. Other CMS and blog choices are often less flexible and designed for more specific uses. However, it is also flexible enough for web developers to customise and enhance.

WordPress uses a powerful template system and editing tools that allow you to customise and update your website and content. You can do this by using:

  • themes and
  • plugins.

Themes are style and layout templates that define a website’s appearance and functionality. Themes can be for a generic or multi-purpose website or designed for a particular niche.

Plugins are simply pieces of code uploaded to the website to provide additional functionality. Select and install Plugins from the Plugin Directory.

What is WordPress - WordPress Themes

Easy to Use

WordPress is easy for a beginner, especially if you choose a theme that provides an excellent pre-made layout. The editing areas are intuitive and well laid out. In most instances, you can get up and running relatively quickly if you stick to the basics.

The complexity is in the customisation and changing default settings. These take a while to learn and can be complex simply because of the power and flexibility of the software.
Several other areas are complex, such as:

  • Hosting and Registering Domain Name
  • Security
  • SEO

Support and Information

There is a lot of support and information available online to anyone starting:

  • A vast amount of information on every WordPress topic online.
  • WordPress has an extensive community and industry around it.
  • A large community of developers is involved in its releases.

The only drawback with the information available online is that many websites derive their income from affiliate marketing. So while specific WordPress advice and instruction may be correct, affiliate marketing drives most peripheral content, from hosting to plugins.

YouTube video: Welcome to WordPress 6.1 “Misha”

SEO friendly

WordPress is SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) friendly. As a result, search engines, such as Google, easily understand its design and structure and can navigate their way around the website.

What is WordPress used for?

While it started as a blogging tool, it is now a complete CMS and caters to many types of websites, including:

  • Blogging
  • Portfolios
  • Personal websites
  • Company websites
  • eCommerce stores for selling merchandise

Who uses WordPress?

Many well-known companies and brands use WordPress. Some notable examples are:

  • Rolling Stone
  • Sony Music
  • The Walt Disney Company
  • Vogue.

How does WordPress work in plain English?

At its most basic level, WordPress is software that produces webpages. There are two types:

  • Pages and
  • Posts.

You can then customise and edit the Layout, define Metadata, create Content and add Media.
The management and administration of the website are via the Dashboard.


Pages usually have static content, and Posts have dynamic content. There are also custom pages. Pages are the top structure of your website. While they regard pages as static, WordPress recreates them every time.

The different types of pages are:

  • Home Page
  • About Page
  • Contact Page
  • Blog Page or Post Page.

The Home page (or landing page) is the website’s primary page. It is the first page a visitor sees when they visit your site. So, setting first impressions and capturing the visitors’ interest is crucial.

The About page explains what person or company is behind the website and the purpose of the website.

The Contact page provides ways for visitors to get in touch and gives location details.

The Blog Page or Post Page is an empty page that displays posts in reverse chronological order, with the most recent post first.

You can access these pages in the header of a website.

Additional pages can provide specific information located in the footer, such as:

  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms and Conditions
  • Cookie Policy


Posts are dynamic web pages and are the primary mechanism for delivering content on the website. The blog page list all posts found on the website. Posts differentiate from Pages by displaying:

  • Date of publication and update
  • Classification
  • Author
  • Visitor Engagement

You can organise posts with the use of classifications (called taxonomy) :

  • Categories and
  • Tags.

Categories are the primary way to organise content on your website. It is essential in SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) as it explains the type of Post and the nature of the content on the entire website.

Tags help organise content on your website. They allow visitors to your site to find other posts on the same subject. Tags do not help with SEO, but they may help the user stay longer on your site, which helps.

Posts are now essential tools for delivering information and recommending and reviewing online products and services. In addition, visitors can interact with posts by adding comments or sharing on social media.


Pages or Posts get arranged in a set layout when customising. You edit each of these separately:

  • Header
  • Body
  • Footer and
  • Sidebar (optional in most themes)


Metadata is the administrative information added to a post, such as:

  • Author
  • Date
  • Categories
  • Tags


Media is the term given to images, videos and files that you add to your content. They form an integral part of a post and enhance the user experience. Upload photos and videos to the media library and then attach them to a post.

WordPress Administration – Dashboard

All administration and management of your website are via the Dashboard. Log into your site URL https://yoursitename.com with /wp-admin added.

The default interface provides some overview information about the website, which includes:

  • At a glance,
  • Activity,
  • WordPress Events & News and
  • Quick Draft.

On the left, in the sidebar, is a menu where you can find all the main features of the dashboard. Here you can edit:

  • Posts
  • Media
  • Pages
  • Comments
  • Appearance
  • Plugins
  • Users
  • Tools
  • Settings

Posts give you a listing of all posts and allow you to create new posts, edit existing posts and define high-level attributes. Additional quality attributes will show here if you add an SEO plugin.

Media allows you to view all currently uploaded media, such as images.

Pages display all existing pages on the site, including unused ones.

Comments provide you with high-level management of comments.

Appearance is where you select and install Themes and is one of the first areas you use.

Plugins are where you manage and update your plugins.

Users let you define users, assign them roles and how they get seen on the website.

Tools and Settings allow the configuring of various administrative settings.

Photo: Codethemes.co


A theme is a collection of files that create your website’s overall design, look and feel by defining the layout, styles, colours and fonts.

Choosing a Theme is one of the first significant choices your make when starting your website. You can select a Theme from the Appearance menu in the sidebar.

You can choose from an extensive Themes repository, including free and paid versions. Many theme providers offer demonstration views of their themes, so familiarise yourself with some of the different selections available.

The installation of a Theme is straightforward and uncomplicated. You can select one of the displayed themes or enter the name of your chosen one. The Theme is installed and then activated.


Plugins are small software apps installed into a WordPress Website to add additional functions such as SEO, security, forms, e-commerce and analytics. You can select and manage Plugins from the Plugin menu in the sidebar. Their installation is easy and fast. Anyone can create a plugin, so consider researching and reading reviews. Only use well-known plugins used by many people and have good reviews. Before selecting a plugin, check the following:

  • the reviews, especially the negative ones, to identify red flags and whether there are responses
  • the ratings
  • how many installations
  • the last update date to confirm it is current.

Previously if there was any problem with a website, the solution was to add a plugin. Now that performance and the page loading speed are paramount, limit the installation of plugins to essential only. Some typical plugin functions are:

  • Security
  • SEO
  • e-Commerce
  • Performance and Caching
  • Analytics
  • Forms and Marketing
  • Social Media Integration

Some plugins can cause issues that can negatively impact a website, such as:

  • Performance: Poorly coded or designed plugins can slow down your website
  • Security risks: Hackers will target plugins that may contain vulnerabilities they can exploit
  • Compatibility: Some plugins may not be compatible and break your website.

Creating a Post

To get started on a website’s primary purpose, providing users with content and information.

Go to “Posts” in the sidebar menu and select ‘Add New’.

You will get taken to the WordPress Block Editor. In the Block Editor, you will see three areas:

  • top toolbar
  • sidebar to define settings
  • content area.

You will find a default ‘add title’ in the Content area.

Here add the title for the post and then begin typing text in the ‘type / to choose a block space. Alternatively, you can create a block for adding images, videos, and other media.

You can preview the post any time with the ‘Preview’ button in the top toolbar.

When you are ready to publish the post, click the “Publish” button in the top toolbar.

How does WordPress work in Technical terms?

Languages and Databases

PHP is the scripting language used in WordPress, connected to a database that is MySQL or MariaDB. PHP queries deliver pages to a website front-end to be viewed by a user. Content, including images and videos, stored in the database gets populated onto the requested page. In addition, the database stores further administration information for managing users and access.

WordPress uses:

  • PHP is the server-side programming language. (77.4% of websites use PHP). PHP(Hypertext Preprocessor) is what runs WordPress on your server.
  • JavaScript is the client-side (or Browser) programming language. (98% of websites use JavaScript)
  • MySQL or MariaDB database

The user looks at a WordPress web page constructed with HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets).

  • The HTML controls the structure of the page, and the content presented.
  • CSS style the page by defining the colours, fonts and spacing.

JavaScript provides dynamic and interactive functionality to the webpage in the browser.

Directory Structure

When you install WordPress, a set of standard folders and files get stored on the server where you host your site. A file manager application or an FTP client like FileZilla allows viewing or access. The three default folders are:

  • wp-admin
  • wp-content
  • wp-includes.

The wp-admin folder contains the files that make the admin dashboard work.

The wp-content folder stores themes, plugins and uploaded files. There are three default folders for each of these:

  • themes,
  • plugins and
  • uploads

The default files are:

  • index.php
  • license.txt
  • readme.html
  • wp-activate.php
  • wp-blog-header.php
  • wp-comments-post.php
  • wp-config-sample.php
  • wp-cron.php
  • wp-links-opml.php
  • wp-load.php
  • wp-login.php
  • wp-mail.php
  • wp-settings.php
  • wp-signup.php
  • wp-trackback.php
  • xmlrpc.php

The wp-includes contains all the WordPress source code.

Database Structure

When you install WordPress, it will create a database that will store everything on your website.

The Database contains the following tables:

  • wp_options
  • wp_users
  • wp_usermeta
  • wp_posts
  • wp_postmeta
  • wp_terms
  • wp_term_relationships
  • wp_term_taxonomy
  • wp_comments
  • wp_commentmeta
  • wp_links

How did WordPress start?

The story begins with Michel Valdrighi, a French, self-taught programmer who developed the blogging platform b2/cafelog in 2001 while learning PHP.

Michel Valdrighi stopped updating b2/cafelog in 2002.

What is WordPress? - Michel Valdrighi with Friends.
Photo: (of Michel Valdrighi) Matt [email protected]

It created a dilemma for an aspiring 18 years old blogger and programmer, Matt Mullenweg, who had started to blog and post photos. He had a passion for photography. His website, Photomatt.net (now called Ma.tt), used this platform. He wrote about this in 2003. But he couldn’t get a response from Michel Valdrighi.

WordPress - A Young Matt Mullenweg at a conference.
Photo: Sebastian Wallroth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The software was General Public License (GPL), so Matt Mullenweg created a fork that he uploaded to SourceForge. A fork is a copy of the software that heads in a different direction. Matt then asks for help. He gets a response from Mike Little, an experienced web developer from Stockport, Greater Manchester, United Kingdom.

Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little began programming updates to the software and tables. From the start, they were committed to Standards Compliance and quality, which set the foundation for success.

What is WordPress? Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little sitting at a table at a restaurant.
Photo: 3wmag

Christine Selleck Tremoulet, a Houston photographer, blogger and branding coach, came up with the WordPress name.

Matt Mullenweg’s role is central to the WordPress story. He was born in Houston, Texas, on 11 January 1984 and studied Political Science at the University of Houston but dropped out and went to work for CNET in San Francisco.

He then establishes the company Automattic, with the spelling including his first name.
In April 2003, Matt launched WordPress.org. They released the first version of WordPress on 27 May 2003, version 0.7. The team of developers grew, and a community of users and interested people began to use the support forum.

Around this time, the biggest blogging platform was Movable Type, a blog publishing system developed by Six Apart. In 2004, it implemented a change that significantly restricted its use without paying a licensing fee. This event caused many Movable Type users to leave and migrate to WordPress. They regard it as a pivotal moment in WordPress, gaining a market share.

What is WordPress? - Matt Mullenweg doing a podcast on YouTube
Photo: Matt Mullenweg podcast YouTube

What’s the difference between WordPress.org and WordPress.com?

The WordPress Foundation owns and manages the WordPress software with documentation, support and downloads found at WordPress.org. Software downloaded from WordPress.org needs to be self-hosted. Most sites are self-hosted.

There are regular update releases named after well-known jazz musicians.

Automattic is the company that runs WordPress.com and provides a packaged service of WordPress that includes hosting and other relevant services.

Automattic has the popular plugins:

  • Jetpack and
  • Akismet.

They acquired:

  • WooCommerce in 2015,
  • Gravatar in 2007 and
  • Tumblr in 2019.

WordPress Glossary

Apache is web-server software. (used by 34.3%)

Categories are classifications (called taxonomy) used on posts to organise your content.

Content Management System (CMS) is an application that allows a user to create and manage content and build a website.

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is code used to define the styles on web pages, including colors, layout, and fonts.

General Public License (GPL) is a series of free software licenses that guarantee end users the right to be able to run, study, share, and modify the software.

HTML or HyperText Markup Language is code that is the basic building block of a Web Page. It is used to structure a web page and its content.

Plugins are pieces of code that provide specific additional functionality to a website.

Post Slug are meaningful words used in a URL that describe the post.

Nginx is web-server software like Apache (used by 31.5%).

Tags are additional classifications (called taxonomy) used on posts that group your content for visitors.

Themes are templates that define a website’s style and layout.

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