Below is an all-out walk through of WordPress from behind-the-scenes. I’m offering it to you here at my site because I honestly believe that anyone who owns a WordPress website should understand this knowledge. It’s all yours, have at it!
This information first ran as a “Hey Girl Hey” column, and I wrote it for more than 400 entrepreneurs and sassy women in business who all belong to the same UF Girlfriends Facebook group that I do—one of the hands-down BEST GROUPS TO JOIN if gaining business savviness is your goal—hosted and advised by Ash Ambirge. If you haven’t heard of Ash or her “middle finger project” empire, I’d advise you to “Buckle Up, Buttercup”! You’re in for a furious learning curve and an amazing group of business-minded women (and a few brave men, too).
Hope to see you in the group if it’s your thing, and enjoy the WordPress knowledge!
One Sentence Summary
I’m going to walk through all the confusing WordPress jargon you may have heard and teach you how to discuss each concept clearly and confidently.
Picture the scene: You’re talking to your web designer, your site is going to be on WordPress (which is easy to use, you hear) and then it happens. A word you don’t quite follow, but it sounds simple enough so whatever. Theme, like party theme, right? Wait, whoa, plugin? Tags? This was meant to be simple! Am I just that dense?
Scene two: You’re a designer, you’re chattering on about the design you’ve drawn up for a client and you think they’re following when it happens. The questions: But wasn’t the theme just the colors? I thought the posts are displaying in the blog, categories? And you realize they’ve not quite followed. Uh oh, did you not explain it right?
In any field with a lot of jargon and “unusual” or “technical” concepts, the above scenarios are pretty common. But not today—today we dispel that aura of mystique. I’m going to walk through all of the confusing WordPress jargon you may have heard, and I’m going to teach you how to discuss each concept clearly and confidently.
First off, here’s what you need to know to get through the design phase.
Before we get into your day-to-day WordPress use, let’s look at the words and phrases you’ll come across when setting up your website. You probably won’t have to play with these too often, but if you’re talking to a designer or developer (or you are the one trying to explain the jargon to your clients)—these are the words you’ll want to understand.
Really quickly, the Dashboard is the term for the page that appears after you log in to your WordPress Admin Area. From here you can access any of your other settings pages, posts, site pages, comments, whatever; it’s your main hub.
At their simplest, a theme is the decoration and style you add to a website. When you install one, it dictates the way all the different parts and pages and pieces of content are displayed. Color, layout, fonts, background images, menu styles; basically anything that brands and represents you beautifully. When you want your site to LOOK a certain way, you need a theme.
You can find these either by going to Appearance > Themes > Add New and browsing from within your WordPress dashboard, or by looking online and installing via a zip file. Some good places to look for these are ThemeForest, Themify, StudioPress, and MOJO Themes.
If a theme is all about appearance and style, then a plugin is about function and tools. Any time you add a plugin, you’re allowing your website to do something it wouldn’t normally be able to do. Some examples include: adding contact forms, a store, a gallery that behaves in a different way to the default, subscription forms for newsletters, and so on. When you need the site to DO something new, then chances are you need a plugin.
Similar to Themes, you can find these from your WordPress Dashboard by going to Appearance > Plugins > Add New and searching or by finding them online and installing through a zip file. Depending on what you’re looking for, a Google search may yield the best results, but it’s worth checking out CodeCanyon, WordPress Eden, and WPMU Dev.
Themes Vs Plugins
To recap quickly, a Theme is how your site LOOKS and a Plugin is how your site ACTS. When you need it to appear a certain way, that’s theme-based. When you need it to do a certain thing, that’s plugin-based.
Widgets are odd creatures. They’re not entirely about appearance (like Themes) or about functionality (like Plugins), and they share a close relationship with both. Basically, widgets are objects you can add to certain areas on your site (widget areas) that display something a little extra. Probably the easiest way to explain it is to talk about how they’re used. If you’ve been on a blog where they have two columns, one of which has posts and the other one has something like a subscription box or a list of recent articles, then you’ve seen widgets in a sidebar.
WordPress has a number of widgets available by default for displaying different content queries (five most recent posts, recent comments, featured content, text, images, etc.), but some themes and plugins add additional widgets to help you customize your site further.
You can find them under Appearance > Widgets. At first glance it can look intimidating, but it’s as simple as dragging whatever you want to display from the list on the left to the ‘area’ you want it to appear in on the right and filling in any of the options boxes that appear (click save on the box if you change these). Typically you can’t add just a widget to WordPress without coding, but a plugin will likely have what you need.
Basically, anyone that has access to your site via a login is a user of some sort. By default you have an admin account created when you set up WordPress, and with this account you are permitted to perform any task: posting, creating pages, deleting things, changing themes, adding and removing plugins, messing with settings.
What you might not know is that there are more than one type of user, and you can have as many as you like.
In addition to Admin accounts, you can have (by default – it’s also possible to add custom user roles with different permissions) Editors, Authors, Contributors, and Subscribers. Each has a different level of permission, with subscribers only being allowed to alter their own account page and read the site at the low end and Editors being allowed to view, edit, delete, schedule and generally handle any of your posts and pages. The reason for this is so that when you have different people contributing to your website, your site can remain secure. You won’t be giving out your own password, so it’d be very difficult for anyone else to lock you out.
Permalinks are the permanent links to your blog posts, pages and archives. Generally, when we talk about them in WordPress, we’re talking about the way the url/web address is structured when you’re creating and handling content.
By default, they give you something like http://sitename.com/p=234
This, by the way, isn’t very pretty or useful, so one of the first things people do on their site is change the structure to something a little nicer. Generally speaking, category name then post name.
So the resultant link looks something like this instead: http://sitename.com/categoryname/post-title-goes-here
The settings for this can be found under Settings > Permalinks and there are directions on the page for how to change this. (Alhough if you’re changing a site that has been active for awhile, you’re going to want to redirect your old links to the new ones. A plugin can handle this; I like “Redirection” personally).
Menus and Navigation
Exactly as it sounds, these terms relate to the way people access different pages on your site which is usually though a menu bar at the top of your page listing out the various important pages. However, it’s not always the only navigation on your site. You can have a main menu as well as a social links menu (with all your FB, Twitter, Instagram, etc. links), or a menu for a specific page (a list of services on your services page for example), or any one of a number of other configurations.
You can find these under Appearance > Menu, and it’s a simple case of selecting the Menu you want to alter (or creating and saving one) and then using the column on the left to add any links you’d like. You can click and drag those links into the order you desire, including adding sub menus if you want.
Once you’re set up, this is the bit you’ll want a working knowledge of.
Now that we’ve covered some general site setup terms, we’ll talk about the foundation of WordPress. Posts, Pages, and places you add content. Once your designer has finished creating your site, this is the part that you’ll use the most often and a firm grasp on this stuff lets you be at your most effective.
Quick note for Designers and Developers: This section here? This is exactly the section I include training for with every client. It really empowers them to use their own site and make changes as they need to, so it’s well worth running through it.
These are your bread and butter. Your bagel and cream cheese. Your maple syrup and pancakes. (I might be hungry)
These are articles that you write and they live on your site forever, but they’re replaced by more recent content in terms of importance. When you’re blogging, these are typically what you’re talking about when we start talking about post schedules, content marketing, editorial calendars, and all those other fun things. They can be as frivolous or important as you (or your marketing strategy) wants, and as time goes on they’ll disappear further back into the dusty corners of your blog archive.
Pages, unlike posts, stick around your site for the long haul. Where posts might be delightfully delicious morsels and satisfying meals, these are the table, chairs, and place settings that you sit down at to devour them.
Most of the time, you reach these through your main navigation. Pages are how you’d create your About, Contact, and Services pages, etc.
Obviously, these are important. Get your pages right, and your site is generally going to be pretty solid; these are the main places each visitor looks at and one of the best ways to start showing your brand and personality. Once they’ve been written you can still update them, but the understanding is they’re going to stay relatively untouched over the long haul. It’s best to use pages for long-lasting or necessary information.
Categories impose structure on your posts.
Say you write about a couple of different topics. You could just write them all under a default category and leave them all jumbled together. As a designer, that could mean posts about case studies mixed in with design tips mixed in with day-in-the-life stuff. One of the ways we make it easier for the people reading our sites is by grouping alike posts together. Categories allow you to do this. You can split our examples into three separate categories of: Case Studies, Design Tips, and Day-in-the-Life.
You can also have sub-categories to split things down further when categories become larger. So you could have Design Tips, then underneath Branding, Coding, Quick Tips. Posts can belong to more than one category where it makes sense, whatever makes them easiest to find for your readers.
Tags are a lot like Categories, except that they are all equal and you can’t have sub-tags. Because of that, they’re used in quite different ways.
The easiest way I can describe it is that where categories impose order, and slot posts into one or two specific subjects, tags pull in everything relevant across the whole of your site and present them in one specific, chaotic, jumble.
Expanding on our Design theme, let’s say you had a tag for “WordPress”. If you clicked to view all posts with that tag, you could have Case Studies involving WordPress, Design Tips talking about various aspects of WordPress, Day-in-the-Life posts where WordPress is mentioned (and tagged) as an important feature. Tags don’t discriminate, they just present the options.
Done right, they’re a fantastic tool for helping your readers find the things they’re most interested in.
Images; Featured vs Standard
WordPress lets you add images to your posts and pages in a couple of different ways. The most common (and the one that people are most likely to intuitively understand) is the standard ‘add Media’ type image. The one where you just choose the image you want and add it to your post while you’re typing away and tweak it to show what side of the post you want it to display on. It’s a part of the content and you can have as many or as few images as you want this way.
There’s a second type of image that most coders and theme developers LOVE to work with.
The featured image is one single image that you add to your post that acts as your post’s thumbnail. When viewing a list of posts, this is the image that appears alongside your blurb and link. This is the image that can be styled to act in all sorts of cool ways on the post page itself. Examples include stretching across the entire page or appearing above the post title itself, under the post title, in a separate column to your text, whatever. It’s not part of the post content so it can be styled individually.
If you’re only going to have one image per post, make it the featured one. To add it, scroll down the right column until you see the “Set Featured Post” link, click, then add using the media library as normal.
You’ll probably hear this term first from your designer or in the context of a ‘landing page template’. Either of these things can make it sound complicated, but the reality is that they’re one of the easiest things to use once they’re set up.
Basically, a template is a blueprint that you can use to alter the way a page is structured and styled. They typically add or remove sidebars, extra menus, headers, footers, custom areas that pull in different types of content (sliders, a selection of posts, a store, newsletter subscription, etc). They’ve been coded ahead of time either by a developer or as part of your theme, and all you need to do to use them is select the one you want from the drop down menu when creating your page.
Normally templates are used to create specialized pages like landing pages, sales/squeeze pages, portfolios—anything that’s a little out of the norm for the rest of your content.
Formats, on the surface, are pretty similar to templates. They’re just as easy to use and have been coded ahead of time. You select them via a bullet point list. They also alter the structure/style of your content.
But where Templates work on Pages, Formats work on Posts.
WordPress, by default, has a number of different formats for things like Text posts, quotations, images, videos, gallery, and so on. Themes may or may not utilize these, but if they do it’s a quick and easy way for displaying different types of post in a cohesive, attractive way.
These are summaries for your posts or pages. They’re often displayed on your main blog page and in your Google Search results, anywhere your theme calls for it.
There are two main ways they’re created. First, by taking a pre-determined amount of words or characters from the start of your content and tacking a “Read More” on the end. Second, you can write a custom description for yourself that will over-write that automatic ‘shortened-content’ option.
This is worth doing for a few reasons, but the main one is usability. When you craft your own short summary you can make sure a compelling and clear message is presented to your visitors and they’re more likely to click through to read the rest.
Comments, Trackbacks and Pingbacks
Since you’re in at least one Facebook Group and are on social media, I’ll skip the part where I tell you what a comment is from scratch. It’s exactly what it sounds like—people can comment on your site’s posts while on your site, not just through social media.
These are handled a few different ways. WordPress has a system you can use as a default, or there are options to use Facebook Comments or Disqus instead (which allow visitors to sign in on other places and keep track of responses).
Trackbacks and Pingbacks, however, you may not have heard of.
WordPress has this fun feature where, if you link to another article in your post it sends a little message to that link if it can in the form of an automatically generated comment, just letting them know their piece has been linked to. These are called Pingbacks whether you’re sending or receiving, and they work between WordPress blogs and installations.
Trackbacks are the same general idea except that you send and receive them manually. These are for non-WordPress blogs and involve going to the article you’re linking to, copying the Trackback URI found above the comments section and pasting it into the Trackbacks section on your post screen in WordPress before you click Publish.
They’re both worth keeping tabs on because it’ll let you know who’s talking about you online (so you can hop in and say thanks/comment on their article), but it’s a more personal choice whether you decide to display them. I’ve seen it handled on sites where they’re not displayed at all, where Trackbacks and Pingbacks have an individual section above or below the user generated comments, and where they’re just mixed through the regular comments.
Aside from being a slightly slimy gardening menace that keeps the birds and hedgehogs happy, a Slug in the context of WordPress is the part of your post or page’s web address that identifies it.
Remember we talked about Permalinks earlier? They set out the structure of URLs for the site as a whole. On the Post Editor Page you get the chance to alter it further to make it easier to use and remember.
The most common reason for altering this is if you have your settings customized to show the post name by default, and you are writing a post with a long title. It can be beneficial to alter it to have just a couple of words that convey the meaning of your post, or at least to remove the little and, or, if, he, she, it, type words.
Extra little terms that represent big, fun ideas.
Outside of the more common terms for day-to-day usage and basic setup, there are a bunch of more advanced concepts that are really freaking useful to know. In this section I’ll touch on some of the more pertinent ones just so you know what’s possible, and how to explain it if you need to.
Custom Post Types
Not to be confused with page templates or post formats, custom post types add an entirely new hierarchy of posts to your site. (And I can see your eyes glazing over so we’ll pull out an example.)
Have you ever seen/used a website where they have a Portfolio or Testimonials that seem to be displayed just a little differently to normal posts? Maybe you’ve had a theme before that added a separate little menu to your Dashboard for adding those items, and it takes you to a post editor but that might look a little different as well?
Those, right there, are custom post types.
With them you create an entirely new object on your site (I’m going with Testimonials here). You can add different pieces of Data to these testimonials, such as who they were written by or what work you carried out for them. You can format them in a way that makes sense, uses those new little details, and keeps every single one looking the same from a style standpoint, with minimal work for the end user.
These are plugins that allow you to create more complex pages without knowing much about code or hand-coding each individual page as a template. The main ones I’m aware of are Visual Composer and Divi Builder, but there are many others too.
Typically, they work by allowing you to add Modules or Blocks that show different types of content pre-styled in any order you choose, click and drag. Some of them need you to manually enter the content each time, others pull in content on the fly from posts, custom post types, pages, galleries, rss feeds, plugin integrations (thinking, here, about things like WooCommerce and Newsletter Subscription Boxes). They can be a quick and simple way of getting pages running, beautifully, and achieving a style you love.
When you use certain themes and plugins, they’ll sometimes have ‘shortcodes’ that you can copy and paste into your posts and pages to display different types of content. These appear in square brackets and can look a little like this [insert_fantastic_code_here]. They’re basically little phrases that act as a substitute for more complex lines of code, so your website reaches this phrase and then knows to look for the actual code to display your slider/store/caption/fun and unusual thing.
You’d use a Shortcode or two instead of building a custom template where you want the entire rest of the page layout to remain the same or it’s just one minor change only used once on your site. They’re handy, and many plugin creators use these to help the end user (you, dear GF) access their plugin’s features without the hassle.
Some web designers (*raises hand* I have a tendency to do this) will even add any pieces of custom code they know their clients are going to want to use on future pages to a shortcode so they can then create those pages easily without having to call in a specialist each time.
These are the names of the coding languages WordPress uses most often. I’m not going to go into what each acronym stands for, all you need to know is what each does on a basic level.
CSS is the language that controls how your page appears. Think colors, fonts, headings, or how your website dresses and accessorizes.
HTML adds structure to your website and its usually what the CSS is linked to. Think of this one as the flesh and bones of your website; layout, the order items appear, and how each piece of content or copy is treated. It’s how your browser knows whether something is text or an image or video and where to put it.
PHP is a little more complex. It uses programming logic to dynamically add content that your HTML can display. Put more simply, it grabs pieces from your website’s database and displays it—posts, featured images, lists of pages, sidebar widgets, and on. If CSS is your website’s clothes and HTML is it’s body, then this language here is the tablet or phone your website is holding to look up interesting information.
Visual Editor and Code Editor
When you add a new post/page or edit an existing one the space you type into is typically the Visual editor. It has your formatting buttons similar to what you’d see in other Word processing programs and you can just type away with minimal problems.
Alongside that editor, in a tab you may have noticed but ignored, there is the Code Editor. It has a different set of buttons, and looks a bit more technical since it has bits and pieces of code written in there too (typically HTML actually). When you add content to this editor you don’t add formatting automatically, you have to code it in otherwise any text you enter remains plain.
Most of the time you can just use the Visual editor and it’ll work fine, but if you find the layout of your post isn’t quite working the way you expect the first place to look is the Code editor. Because in there, if you know basic HTML, you can often spot and correct any layout problems.
It’s also used when you want to directly add code to your post or page without using a shortcode (usually used for embedding forms or maps etc), since pasting code into the visual editor prompts WordPress to add paragraph formatting and not run the code itself.
That’s it, you’re ready to converse!
So there we have it, a rundown of the main terms you’ll come across in WordPress as a non-developer (or that you’ll have to explain to your non-developer clients while building their site). Now that you know this, you can cut down on your communication misses, jargon can’t be used to bamboozle you (accidentally or on purpose), and you’re in a better position to chime in when the conversation turns to websites and WordPress at your next cocktail party.
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