What is a WordPress theme?

WordPress basicsSometimes those of us who are immersed everyday in WordPress, SEO and Online Marketing topics forget there is a whole world out there that has barely heard of WordPress. Or if they have heard of it, they think it is only used for blogs. So today I’m going to talk about WordPress themes and what they are.

Anatomy of WordPress

To understand WordPress themes, it helps to have a basic understanding of WordPress itself. I like to think about WordPress as different components working together that not only brings you an awesome website, but one that comes with an administrative interface you can use to create new pages on your site without needing any technical know-how. If you can do Word documents, you can write pages on a WordPress web site.

The WordPress components are:

  • The platform: WordPress is a collection of php (a programming language well suited to the web) files that power your site. These files determine what type of WordPress page (home page, category page) to show the user; whether to show a header, footer, sidebar; what widgets (little packaged containers of functionality such as a top posts widget) to show on the sidebar, and so on. WordPress is free software and will cost you nothing to install it on your web server.
  • The database: When you write the content for your WordPress site, whether it be posts or pages, that text is stored in a type of database called MySQL. The WordPress code takes care of retrieving your content from the database to show on your website. The cool thing about this is that this means your words are independent of the presentation of them. You can radically change how your WordPress site looks and not have to worry about porting your content to anything new.
  • The theme: The WordPress theme controls the “look” of your site. What colors are used, where things go, whether your website uses a 2 column or 3 column format. If you think of the WordPress platform as the engine of a car, the database the gas, the theme is the “skin” and “paint job” of the car, whether your care has a boxy rear end or not and whether it is red or blue.
  • Plugins: WordPress is open sourced software, which means programmers around the world can see how it works, and create new functionality that enhances WordPress. These are packaged into “plugins” that you can install into your WordPress site. You can think of plugins like embellishments on your car – like additional chrome or a spolier.

Sometimes you’ll hear people say WordPress is a dynamic content management system. This is just a fancy name for systems that keeps the informational content separate from the look of site so both can be managed separately.

WordPress themes

WordPress is famous for it’s “5 minute installation”, and it’s true; even if you are a complete newbie it will take you less than 15 minutes to install it. And WordPress comes with a default theme (currently the Twenty-Eleven theme) so you can get started writing your pages and posts right away. However if you want to customize your site with something other than the default look, choosing the right theme for your site can be a much longer and daunting process.

Part of the problem in choosing your theme is there are literally thousands to choose from. Keep in mind, despite my simple analogy above, is that a WordPress theme not only governs the look of your site, but also can determine what data is shown. For example, many themes do not show the category description field. So you have to evaluate a theme on just more on whether it pleases the eye, you have to look at what elements it shows and makes prominent – such as images. Because WordPress has evolved beyond just blogging software, many themes are now tailored for a particular use. For example:

  • Magazine themes
  • Gallery or Portfolio themes
  • Themes for business or corporate sites
  • Personal sites
  • eCommerce sites
  • Themes for video or photo blogging

Free vs. Premium Themes

You can find many WordPress themes for free but there are many for sale, often for less than $100. Themes that you purchase are called premium themes. The key difference with a premium theme is that you get support with your theme. And often a premium theme will offer features with the WordPress admin that make it easier to customize your theme. One place to start off looking is in the WordPress theme repository, these will be free themes, but many will offer an enhanced version for a price. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a theme if you are not sure, it’s easy to switch (“activate”) to another theme if you find that the theme is not for you.

If you can’t find exactly what you what and a little bit of coding doesn’t scare you, it’s easy to customize any theme further. Most people start off by adjusting the colors in the style.css file. However if you want to get into customization, read up on child themes and learn how to change both functionality and look without changing anything in the original theme so you can update it.

There are lots of lists of WordPress themes to look at. I have many lists collected and will be sharing them in another post but free feel to post your own favorite list!

About the Author Kathy Alice

Kathy Alice Brown is a traffic and conversion expert specializing in SEO, Copywriting and Facebook Ad Campaigns. In her spare time she loves to get outside.

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