Building a website or web application on a content management system (CMS) platform can have big advantages: you have visibility over your site’s content and how often it’s updated; a wide array of widgets and plugins; excellent SEO built in; huge communities for support and improvement; the ability to access and update your site from anywhere; and, endlessly customizable WordPress themes to make your site look and function any way you like.
With that level of customization, though, comes a complex setup, build, and installation process. Before you create a WordPress-powered website or web application (or convert your current site to WordPress), it’s important to know what you can get out of the platform.
From themes and widgets to dashboards and CSS styling, read on to learn more about the WordPress platform’s capabilities and what to look for when hiring a WordPress developer.
An Introduction to WordPress
WordPress is the leading CMS for creating customizable, easy-to-maintain websites, blogs, and e-commerce sites. It’s free and open-source, written in the PHP programming language, and has excellent built-in SEO.
WordPress’ popularity and functionality hinge on two main features. First, it has a very intuitive administrative dashboard. From there, you can maintain, update, and publish new content with multiple admin accounts. The dashboard interface can be edited as well, so you can add in new custom fields for total control over your content. The key to the dashboard is that it lets anyone update a website without “breaking” anything or disrupting the design—no coding experience required.
Second, and central to WordPress’ customization capabilities, is WordPress Themes. A developer can make your WordPress site look any way you want, and can customize it with editable templates, premium themes, theme frameworks, and custom widgets and plugins. And, because WordPress themes are kept in a separate file from all of the content (which is in a database), they can be updated easily, whenever you want, without disrupting a site or affecting any content. Also, themes can be used on multiple websites—just by linking them to the style sheet.
Before we go deeper into how themes work, here’s a quick breakdown of how the parts of a WordPress site are broken out:
Content: always kept separate from the theme and stored on your database. This gets pulled via the Loop based on what content the theme requests.
Dashboard: gives you access to your content from anywhere with a login. From there, you can upload and publish new media, content, pages, and more.
Theme: filed under wp-content/themes, this contains the Stylesheet (a style.css file) that dictates how all of the content in a site will look, the Template Files (including index.php, page.php, comment.php, and all the other files that make your site run), and the optional Functions file.
Developing & Customizing WordPress Themes: Template Files, Stylesheets & the WordPress Loop
Everything with WordPress hinges on customization, and themes give you plenty of opportunities to make your site look exactly the way you want. Your theme will drive your site’s content, what it contains, what it looks like, and how it functions.
WordPress themes comprise a number of PHP source files that control the content like posts, pages, and comments; the style.css style sheet, an optional Functions file, and perhaps the most important part of a WordPress theme, the Loop.
The parts of a theme include:
Template files: PHP source files—like index.php and home.php— generate pages, posts, archives, categories, or any other content a user requests, which will be output as HTML files. Template tags also add another layer of customization to your content.
Stylesheet: The style.css file controls how everything on your site looks, from colors and backgrounds to fonts and borders. It’s separate from the content, so either file can be updated without affecting the other.
Functions file: This optional file acts like a plugin by adding more features to your site on top of template files—things like menus, thumbnails, custom headers, and more.
The Loop: The most important part of a theme, the WordPress Loop calls up content from the database and pushes it to your site. It works by initiating a query to the database. From there, the query pulls that content, and then the Loop outputs it to the website in the form of a post or a page.
How can a theme be customized? There are a few different approaches. Your designer can:
Build a theme from scratch
Edit an existing one
Make a “child” theme from an existing one
Customize a premium theme
Use the “theme customizer,” an interface that lets you edit a theme without any code
Utilize a theme framework, like the Genesis framework
All the Extras: WordPress Plugins, Widgets, and Custom Fields
Beyond themes, WordPress offers more ways to customize and extend your site’s functionality with plugins. There are thousands of plugins—many free—that are designed to make things easier for developers on the back end and to improve user experience. These software modules can be easily installed into your site or written from scratch. Be careful not to have too many plugins, or to forget to update plugins, as this could cause security vulnerabilities or performance issues.
Use plugins to:
Add forms, like the Ninja Forms WordPress plugin
Add e-commerce and payment functionality
Protect your site’s content with backup assistant plugins
Enhance security and block your site from spam
Optimize your site for search engines with SEO plugins
Improve your site’s speed and load times with cache plugins
Make it easy for users to like and share your content with their networks with social sharing plugins
Track your site’s monetization efforts with advertising and affiliate program plugins
Widgets are PHP objects that add content and features to the sidebar of your WordPress theme. They pipe in content from other sites (e.g., a Twitter feed), call out contact forms, or add navigational features. No coding experience is needed—just drag and drop them within the dashboard.
Some widgets offer customization and can be bundled with plugins. Default WordPress widgets include categories, tags, navigation, search functions, and RSS feeds.
Next, we’ll look at some of the skills and technologies to look for when hiring a WordPress developer.
Hiring a WordPress Developer
Knowing how to customize the back end of a WordPress site is complicated, and you may want an expert who can stay on top of updating it once it’s up and running. The more customized your WordPress site is, the more experience a developer needs to have with its intricacies.
WordPress professionals can seamlessly handle the complicated aspects of installing, customizing, and maintaining the back end of your site’s platform. Their services include launching WordPress sites, authoring custom plugins, and writing innovative, bug-free WordPress code. If you’re hiring a developer to help you get the most out of this powerful platform, here are a few related skills to look for:
PHP programming language
CSS3 (and the Sass precompiler)
Experience launching WordPress sites and creating, customizing, and developing themes
Custom plugin and widget authoring experience
Want to write a custom WordPress widget, update your WordPress theme, or build a WordPress-powered site today? Browse Upwork’s freelance marketplace for skilled WordPress developers today.
by Carey Wodehouse