WordPress Basics for Small Business – Plugins and Widgets and Themes? Oh, my!

Ok. So you’ve discovered WordPress, the most popular software for managing a website. You’ve heard it’s easy to pretty easy to install. You’ve heard it makes managing your website super easy. True. If you can use web-based email like Yahoo!Mail or GMail, you’ll be comfortable with using WordPress … but that’s not the whole story. To get the most out of WordPress you need to extend and personalize it so that it’ll do all of the things you want in the way that you want. Wha…?!? Let’s take a closer look.

The Basics

WordPress is a Content Management System. It’s an application that sits on your web server and manages all of the pages, images, links, blog posts, photo albums, and everything else that go into making your web site. Instead of simply having HTML pages with Javascript and CSS that load pictures, WordPress breaks your website up into three functional areas or layers that make it easier to maintain by adding content and to modify by changing the look, feel, and functionality.

WordPress Layers:

* Data stores, which contain all of the content on your site (images, pages, etc.,) and are a combination of the file system (hard disks) of the server on which WordPress is running, a MySQL database, and n some cases other web servers
* Business logic that is program “instructions” that make up the actual WordPress application
* Display logic that controls what you see displayed in Firefox, Internet Explorer, or whatever web browser you use

Business logic, by the way is the glue that ties the data stores and display logic together in a meaningful way so that you actually have a website. It’s helpful to know the preceding is because it will eventually enable you to better manage your website — using plugins, widgets, and themes! Yipee!!!

Plugins: Optional WordPress Extensions

So then, what is a WordPress plugin? Simply put, a WordPress plugin optionally extends the functionality of the WordPress application in some way. It is enables WordPress to work slightly differently.  To use an analogy, think of WordPress plugins as being like optional accessories on your car — like a CD changer instead of a radio, or maybe maybe 4 wheel drive and a towing package. It changes the basic car in some way. That’s it.

There are literally a bazillion plugins that extend WordPress in all kinds of useful ways. For example, if you want to integrate your blog with FaceBook, there are several plugins for that. If you want to optimize your blog for search-engines, there are several plugins for that. Let’s say you want to add an image gallery (you guessed it!), there are several plugins for that. The list of plugins is literally endless (there are new plugins created daily), and what you can accomplish with them is pretty amazing.

If plugins extend WordPress, Themes and Widget are the other side of the coin — they personalize it.

Themes Personalize WordPress

Themes control the way your site is displayed. They are the display logic that WordPress uses. So, for example, the look and feel of this site, the two-column layout, the fonts, font sizes and colours, the way the menus and navigation are set up, and and pretty much everything that you see right now is all controlled by a theme. To use an analogy, think of a theme as being an outfit, a suit of clothing. You could have a casual outfit that’s a pair of  jeans and a t-shirt, or perhaps a business suit — it all depends on the image you want to project. Once of the nice things about WordPress is that since all of your sites content in saved in a data store, changing the look and feel of you site is a snap! Pick a new theme.

Themes themselves are composed of page templates — think of it as a different shirt or pants that go with an outfit. Templates subtly alter a “look” or in this case page layout. Templates determine the way your page is arranged: one, two, three or more columns, the types of pages (e.g. blog, slide show, etc.), which side of the page the columns is located, font, font sizes, colours, images, the list goes on.

Some themes are pretty simple. What you see is pretty much what you get. There isn’t much that you can do with them. Other themes are actually much more complex — they are actually frameworks that you can use to build your own theme with your own page templates, etc. Pretty slick, but this can become very challenging very quickly for a novice.

Widgets to Accessorize Themes

Widgets are theme independent accessories that enhance your theme: a calendar showing your blog posts, a Tag Cloud, or customizable text box into which you can load other stuff. Think of widgets being as earrings or a tie that finish off your outfit — bling for your theme, in other words. That’s it.

Putting It All Together

WordPress is incredibly easy for novices to use and maintain, hence it’s popularity. If you are a novice or are not very tech savvy and are contemplating installing and configuring your own WordPress site expect it to take some time. There is a learning curve, and it helps to understand the way WordPress is organized: data store vs. actual application vs. display. Understanding this the basic organization will help you isolate the elements that you need to change in order to take a basic WordPress site, and make it you very own, just the way you want it.

If all of this is very confusing, check out my article on Managing Your Own Website for more of an introduction.