WordPress is free software that lets you create a website using pre-made templates and plugins, and it allows you to update content by logging into the site and typing in a text editor. This allows you to create professional-looking sites and update the content yourself, without writing code (as long as the features you need are not too specialized).
In technical terms, WordPress is a “content management system” (CMS).
WordPress started out as blogging software but is now used in many other kinds of websites. It is the most widely-used website content management system in the world. It has been estimated (as of 2017) that WordPress powers 20% of the websites in existence.
WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com
Before I go any further, I want to sort out one of the most confusing things about WordPress: the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org.
WordPress.org is where you can get the free WordPress software, but you need to have a place to put it, namely, web hosting from a provider such as WP Engine, SiteGround, Namecheap, or many others. You’ll need to get a domain name (URL) as well.
WordPress.com is a fully hosted service. You can sign up for a WordPress site there, and you don’t need to worry about hosting it or getting a domain name (you can get one in the “wordpress.com” domain). It’s kinda like Squarespace or Wix, where you just sign up and instantly you have a live website. The downside is that your choices of themes are limited, and there are many other limitations to what you can do on your site. If you’re doing a personal blog though, it’s probably fine.
On this site, when I say “WordPress”, I’m usually referring to the first case, namely, WordPress software hosted on your hosting provider, not on WordPress.com. When most people talk about WordPress, that’s usually what they are talking about, not the hosting service.
The Benefits of Using WordPress
OK, back to the fun stuff. Here are some of the reasons why so many people, companies, and organizations use WordPress for their sites:
- Tons of themes available. Themes determine the “look” of your site. There are themes specifically for restaurants, churches, photographers, design firms, corporations, and many other niches.
- Tons of plugins available. Plugins add functionality to your site, such as e-commerce, photo galleries, events management, forums, membership, and much more.
- Ability to edit without writing or understanding HTML code. Text editor is similar to Microsoft Word. No need to hire a programmer every time you want to change the content of your site.
- Huge installed base means lots of support in the form of online help (just Google the problem you’re having), meetup groups, freelance contractors, training programs and annual WordPress gatherings called Word Camps.
- It’s a mature, stable, platform that is constantly being updated with new features and security fixes.
- It’s flexible, enabling programmers to create custom themes and plugins suited to your specific needs.
The Downsides of WordPress
No content management system is perfect for all applications. Here are some of the downsides of WordPress:
- Because WordPress is so popular means it’s a target of hackers and bots.
- It requires maintenance. The WordPress core, themes, and plugins require regular updates for security fixes.
- You need to have a backup strategy, in the form of manual backups, an automatic backup plugin, or automatic server backups provided by your host. Otherwise, if your site is hacked or your server drive dies, your site could be lost forever.
- The fact that there is a database means that a WordPress site will load slightly slower than a pure HTML site (but there are some things you can do to mitigate this issue, like installing a caching plugin).
There are many other pros and cons which require a greater understanding of how websites work, but I believe these are the biggest issues.
What WordPress Is Good For
WordPress can be used to create almost any kind of site. Here are a few categories that it is especially well suited for:
- Corporate or nonprofit informational sites
- Portfolio sites
- e-Commerce sites
- Events management sites
- Membership sites
- Sites that store information in the form of custom post types and taxonomies (for example, if you have an dog rescue service and you want to display the name, breed, color, age, etc. for a large number of dogs).
WordPress can be used for many other types of sites!
What WordPress Isn’t Good For
- Super high-security websites like banking sites
- Super high-performance websites, where there are extremely high numbers of visitors at the same time (i.e., like the NFL website during the Superbowl).
- “One page websites”, i.e., web apps where the whole site loads at once instead of having individual pages loaded from the server as they are visited.
I hope this short introduction has helped you understand what WordPress is, and its strengths and weaknesses. Please leave any questions in the comments! – Brian