WordPress is one of the most frequently used platforms for website creation. There are two ways to use the WordPress platform: building a free website via WordPress.com or installing the WordPress software on web hosting servers. This article will focus on the latter version of WordPress as it is the more popular choice and offers a higher degree of functionality and personalization.

Instant website – just add content

At its core, WordPress is blogging software. However, it’s often used to build fully functional personal and business websites. WordPress is very user-friendly and websites can be created using ready built themes (templates) and modified by installing a variety of widgets and plugins.

It’s perfectly feasible for someone with no programming knowledge to create a WordPress website using the free themes, widgets, plugins and built-in content editor to add content to the website. However, some programming skills can come in handy.

Building a better WordPress website

As regards WordPress, there are two good reasons for learning website programming languages, namely, the ability to better modify appearance/content and to become more efficient at troubleshooting any issues.

Modifying a WordPress website could be as simple as tweaking colors or font sizes in a theme, or as major as creating an entire WordPress theme from scratch. As for troubleshooting, an understanding of the core programming language makes it much easier to ascertain why and where a problem has occurred. The first, and easiest, web programming language to learn is HTML.

HTML – the language of the web

HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language. HTML is used to instruct a web browser (e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome) what website content it should display. Whenever a person makes a HTTP request for a web page in a browser, the browser will retrieve the relevant data from a web server and use the HTML instructions to display the content.

HTML basics

HTML is probably the easiest coding language to learn and works by enclosing content within beginning and end ‘tags’. Each tag is made up of two opposing angle brackets with a specific HTML operator in between. The end tag, commonly referred to as the ‘closing’ tag, has a forward slash before the HTML operator to indicate the end of the HTML segment.
For example, the HTML tags for displaying content as a new paragraph are <p></p> and the actual content to display goes between the opening and closing tag, like so:

<p>Here is some content text</p>

Explaining the intricacies of HTML is beyond the scope of this article. However, the HTML code for any web page can be seen by viewing the page source in a web browser (right-click on web page and select ‘View page source’ in Firefox and Chrome).

Why learn HTML for WordPress?

Even though WordPress websites are created using two or more web programming languages, HTML is a crucial one. Granted, WordPress has a WISYWIG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) content editor that provides users with various customization options. But there is the option to input content directly as HTML code. Using HTML can offer better granular control over some aspects of content output.

Learning HTML not only allows for a better understanding of a website, it also allows for the possibility of creating a WordPress theme, although creating a theme from scratch would require knowledge of CSS, PHP, and possibly JavaScript, on top of HTML, but HTML is the best place to begin. With just HTML skills, it will be possible to modify themes and improve coding semantics.

Beautifying WordPress themes with CSS

HTML and CSS go hand-in-hand. CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheets and while HTML tells a web browser what content to display, CSS is in charge of how the content is displayed. Like HTML, CSS is easy to learn and anyone learning CSS will be able to produce great results in no time.

CSS can be used to tell a browser what font properties to use, where to place navigation, sidebars, images, etc. Some display control is possible using HTML, but without CSS a website would look very basic indeed. CSS instructions can be added directly into HTML code or placed in a separate document called a stylesheet which has a .css extension. The style sheet is then ‘called’ by the HTML.

Adding flexibility with JavaScript

JavaScript is another coding language used for web applications. JavaScript has seen a rise in popularity since the arrival of the new HTML standard, HTML5. A lot of JavaScript’s power lies in popular libraries available for enhancing what JavaScript can do, for example JQuery.

JavaScript is often used to provide visual effects on a website, such as an image carousel or slideshow, although the latest version of CSS, CSS3, has the ability to perform image transitions (CSS3 is not compatible with some older browsers so JavaScript is sometimes preferred). Many of the visual effects in WordPress themes, plugins, and widgets are constructed using JavaScript.

Making WordPress dynamic with PHP

The backbone of WordPress is PHP. PHP is a server-side language that is never seen when viewing a web page’s source code – unlike HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. When a browser requests a webpage (via HTTP or HTTPS,) the request is sent to a web server. If the requested page contains PHP code, the server will perform the require actions required by PHP before sending the web page to the browser, hence the term ‘server-side’ language.

PHP makes WordPress websites dynamic. For example, rather than writing the code for the website header onto every web page for the site, the header code can be placed in a separate file and then ‘called’ on each page using the built-in WordPress PHP function ‘get_header’. This means less code repetition for the coder and smaller file sizes for the website. The one drawback is that WordPress has its own PHP language that needs to be learnt on top of standard PHP.

Better management of a WordPress website with HTML

As mentioned, it’s not essential to know HTML to create a WordPress website, but it does not hurt to learn. A knowledge of the basics of HTML can provide a website owner with valuable troubleshooting skills and the confidence to modify standard WordPress themes. The right modifications can improve appearance, functionality, and user experience.