For those who are new to WordPress, every instruction page or download option can seem like an indecipherable string of strange words and idiosyncratic phrases that can leave you with more questions than answers.
What does a plugin plug into? Is a slider something I can have for lunch? Is “widget” a real thing?
Don’t worry if you’re scratching your head. Once you get a handle on the basic terminology, everything will start making a lot more sense. You’ll find it’s much easier and simpler than you think to use WordPress and all it’s features.
“Themes” and “templates,” two of the most important WordPress terms, are also among the most confusing to the uninitiated. Although in normal language they’re almost synonyms, in WordPress they refer to two very specific aspects of site building. Since themes and templates are the foundation of your site, let’s take a look at what these words mean and what you need to know about them to get started.
In this article, I’ll also introduce you to some of the most necessary terms on concepts for working effectively on WordPress.
What are WordPress Themes?
A theme on WordPress is a complete collection of everything that goes into your website’s design. Basically, it is the structure through which the content and data of your site, stored on WordPress, is displayed to the user.
A theme dictates everything about the site’s appearance, including:
- Color selection
- Headers, footers and sidebar positioning
- Page layouts
- Font selection and typography
- Navigation features
- Location of widgets, images and video
Many themes are designed for a specific niche. They will have a structure and features that certain types of websites need, as well as aesthetics that work well with those websites.
Whether you’re designing an image-based photography portfolio or a text-heavy blog, a down-to-business corporate website or a whimsical site for a local bakery, an education porthole for a university or a profile page for a freelancer, chances are you can find a specialized theme for your needs.
There are also multipurpose themes that are highly customizable and can fit many different types of websites. (If this is what you want, have a look through this collection of the best multipurpose WordPress themes.)
Some themes are free, while premium themes will generally cost between $50-200. Premium themes (or premium versions) contain more features and customization options, and they usually look more unique. However, they are sometimes burdened with too many features, which will slow down your website, and some contain poor code.
Counterintuitively, free themes are held to stricter standards than premium, so they often have better security and privacy.
You can find themes to download in the official WordPress directory, or on a site like Themeforest or Ocean Web Themes. Themeforest is one of the largest theme sites, with a huge catalog. While Ocean Web Themes offers a smaller selection, their themes are generally high quality, with sleek modern designs and easy setup, and all of them are fully responsive.
What are WordPress Templates?
The words “template” and “theme” are often used interchangeably outside of WordPress terminology. To make it more confusing, some other website design platforms refer to the overall site design as a template, while in WordPress this is a theme.
In short: a theme is the design for the entire website. A template is the layout of a single page on your site.
These are modular, reusable files, chunks of code that generate certain parts of the website.
If you are wondering, as many people do, how to choose the best WordPress template, you should actually be looking for the right theme: it will include all the templates you need.
Most WordPress themes come with default templates. Some are standard, coming as part of almost every theme. For example, index.php to display the main page of the website, header.php for the header section or sidebar.php to show the sidebars.
Others might have specialized templates, like for a contact page.
You can also create custom templates, if you have a strong understanding of CSS, HTML and PHP, and the WordPress template hierarchy (the index used to determine which template displays on any given page).
Other important terms to know…
Themes and templates are the framework and building blocks of WordPress sites. Along with these, here are some other important terms you’re likely to run across.
The theme that you download to use on your site is the main or parent theme. If you want to modify it, it’s recommended that you create a child theme, which inherits the style and functionality of the parent, and make all your changes there. It’s a safer way to work, because:
- If something goes wrong or you don’t like how the modifications work out, you can always revert to the parent theme.
- If your theme puts out an update, any changes made to the child theme will be saved and automatically applied to the new version. (If you work only in the main theme, they will be lost whenever you update.)
A plugin is a program that can add new features or expand your site’s functionality. It’s kind of like an app for smart phones, and like apps, there’s one for just about everything. There are plugins for everything from making popups to making your site do a barrel roll.
Some of the most popular and universally useful plugins are:
- Yoast SEO (tools for improving your site’s SEO)
- Akismet (screening comments for spam)
- WooCommerce (everything you need for an online store)
- Slider Revolution (making sliders – see below)
Widgets add content and features to your site’s sidebars. Widgets for archives, post categories, search bar, tag cloud, and navigation menu come by default with WordPress, allowing you to easily add, move or remove these features. Additional widgets downloaded with plugins allow for even more tools.
When you go to the Appearance>Widgets panel of your site, you will see all your available widgets on the left and all the places you can put them (widget-ready areas) on the right. Simply drag your desired widget to its location.
Available locations might be in the header, footer, sidebar or below content, depending on the theme. If you don’t see any widget-ready areas in the Appearance>Widgets panel, it means your theme doesn’t support widgets.
Visual elements – sliders, lightboxes, galleries:
There are many ways to display images on your site.
A slider is a slideshow added into a webpage, like you might see at the top of a business site or in a portfolio. They will often run automatically, or viewers can click through them. They’re an attractive way to show viewers a lot of information and different aspects of your site at once.
On some websites, when you click on a picture, it will expand to an overlay or popup, while the rest of the screen goes dim. This is called a lightbox.
When you want to display several pictures at the same time, make a gallery. This will allow you to show your images in a grid. Viewers can click on them to see the full image.
WordPress actually has its own gallery feature to add sets of pictures to blog posts. If you want something more elaborate, you can download a gallery plugin.
For sliders and lightboxes, if your theme doesn’t come with them, there are hundreds of plugins available to set them up.
These are coding shortcuts, specific to WordPress, that allow you to create objects, embed images or video, or add other common features without working with long codes. Many themes will come with their own set of shortcodes for you to use.
A responsive design or theme automatically adjusts itself to the screen it’s displayed on, so it looks equally great on every device. Otherwise, when the site is loaded on a cell phone or the browser is resized, images might be too large for the layout, text might be out of place or part of the page might not be visible.
Since over 50% of your visitors are likely to view that site on a phone or tablet, it’s essential that your theme is mobile responsive.