What are Themes, Plugins & Widgets

WordPress has 3 main components that extend the functionality of the Content Management System (CMS).

  1. Themes
  2. Plugins
  3. Widgets

These components are what give WordPress its power. Think of WordPress as buying a vehicle and having the option to have extra bells and whistles added to the basic package to increase performance, and offer you unique features to your specific make and model. So let’s break down the 3 main components and then we’ll delve into what each of them can bring to the table in terms of making your WordPress website awesome.

Themes

A theme is essentially a skin that overlays your WordPress installation to make it look and feel very different to the front-end user. Themes come in a variety of forms, ranging from simple colour changes to the navigation menu (Simple and usually Free themes); to giving your WordPress installation the functionality to sell products (Advanced Premium Themes). Most bought themes come packaged with a multitude of plugins to extend the functionality of the Theme. And it’s at this point you’re probably already getting confused, but rest assured by the end of this lesson you will know the differences and have a very clear understanding of what powers WordPress and all the gadgets beneath the hood that give it all its’ grunt. With a click of a button, a WordPress theme can give the owner of their website 100’s of new features, layouts and styling options that they wouldn’t have access to with a standard basic WordPress installation. Think of a WordPress theme as giving our car a different colour of paint, and then swapping out the CD player with a DVD drive with an on dash monitor. So now we have a new colour car, and a DVD player, but want to install 2 more monitor screens in the back for our passengers later down the line, this is where a WordPress plugin would come into play. A plugin extends and adds functionality to a theme, which is why they are usually packaged within a theme already.

Plugins

As mentioned in the above Themes section, plugins usually come packaged into premium or bigger themes. Plugins allow a person to change how the default WordPress installation thinks and runs out of the box. Think of a plugin as a “Modification” to the aforementioned “vehicle” we discussed earlier. Just like you would buy an after-market turbo for a car, a plugin acts very much in the same way. Plugins range vastly in size and features, from providing a WordPress website with something as simple as changing the font style on a page; providing your WordPress website the ability to insert complicated subscription forms that insert and store information to the websites database all the way to creating elaborate membership sites that offer unique content based on specific payment plans. Below you will see a custom plugin in action and what a difference it can make to a WordPress website; in this case a WordPress content page:

A piece of code being displayed within a standard WordPress page:

<?php
// PHP code goes here
?>

And now with the use of a plugin

  • <?php
  • // PHP code goes here
  • ?>

You will notice the same two pieces of text (code) are identical in composition, but look very different. The first example would be how a standard “out the box” WordPress installation would present the content, whereas with the use of a custom plugin we wrote, we were able to display the code in a format that is easily recognizable to a developer who is able to reference, copy and understand the code more easily.

Widgets

Widgets are content blocks, that utilize features of certain plugins that perform a certain function, and are usually inserted into a WordPress installation as sidebars and footer areas. Most (not all) themes are “Widget Ready”, meaning they come packaged with the facility to insert widgets in certain places within your website. So what exactly is a widget and why are they important? Well let’s say you used a plugin to provide your users with a contact form, but want to show it on every page, that’s not too big that it takes up the whole page, yet small enough to still be noticed and sit somewhere on the page that’s not in the way of that pages main content. You could use the widget area to drop your contact form plugins’ widget version to show in the sidebar of every page, rather than having to insert that contact form of every single page one by one. Widgets are usually “Global” items, meaning they show somewhere on a every single page or section of your website.

Wrapping it all up

  1. Themes are a collection of files that work together to produce a graphical interface with an underlying design
  2. Plugins are packages of code that extend the core functionality of WordPress and provide unique features
  3. Widgets add content and features to your sidebars and footer areas, as well as providing design structure to your website
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