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Customizing WordPress: Make a Start

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Miraz Jordan

Creating your own blog is easy—millions have already done it using online blogging tools that make creating a blog as easy as typing an email. Customizing your blog, however, is an entirely different beast. This series explores everything you need to do to customize your WordPress blog. Along the way, we'll look at plugins, widgets, pages, and posts; how to integrate your blog with other applications such as photo albums; and how to customize themes. But first, you need to make sure you have the necessary tools to get started.

WordPress.com vs. WordPress

Free WordPress.com blogs are all set up ready for you: plug in a name and password to start blogging straight away. You can change a few settings here and there, but your options for customizing are limited.

More adventurous bloggers may prefer to download WordPress for themselves and either run it on their own computer or install it on a hosted server. Once it’s installed on your own server you can customize WordPress almost infinitely.

Tools for Customizing WordPress

  • WordPress: installed on your own server, and working.
  • FTP software
  • Text editor
  • Modern web browser(s)

These articles refer to WordPress version 2.2, installed on a server where you have access to adding, editing, and removing files. FTP software and a text editor allow you to edit those files.

The WordPress Codex provides helpful information on FTP software, and suggestions for text editors.

Also crucial is a modern web browser—preferably several, for testing purposes. If you have only one web browser then Firefox is probably the best choice.

Knowledge You Need

For basic customizing, you may simply activate a plugin or theme, but for more advanced topics, it's useful to be familiar with XHTML and CSS. It’s also handy to know enough about PHP so as not to break things. I’ll mention what you need to know when it comes up.

For this series, I’ve created a temporary blog called Always the Future, on a server at http://miraz.info. I use that blog for the examples.

Locate the Plugins and Themes Directories

Figure 1

Figure 1: A typical fresh install of WordPress. The wp-content directory is where you will focus your attention.

The WordPress directory on your server contains a couple of dozen files and three sub-directories:

  1. wp-admin
  2. wp-includes
  3. wp-content.

After installation, you will usually work only with files within the wp-content directory.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The wp-content directory includes a "plugins" directory and a "themes" directory, with a couple of items in each. We’ll explore plugins and themes later in the series.

The wp-content directory in a freshly installed WordPress contains two important sub-directories: plugins and themes, each containing a couple of files or subdirectories:

  1. plugins
    1. akismet
    2. hello.php
  2. themes
    1. classic
    2. default

Since these directories are of such importance when we customize a WordPress blog, add a bookmark in your FTP client for both plugins and themes.

Initial Customization

The default install of a WordPress blog is very plain and simple. There are some settings you should tune up straight away, before getting more deeply into customization.

Figure 3

Figure 3: My freshly installed blog uses all the defaults, including the default theme and the tagline: Just another WordPress weblog.

Log in to the Dashboard by adding "/wp-admin" to the end of your blog’s address, or use the Login link on the Home Page. For my blog, that address is http://miraz.info/wp-admin.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Work through each section of the Dashboard to set behaviors and the tagline for your blog.

Go to the Blogroll section to edit the Links that appear on the Home Page, and the Options section to set behaviors for your blog. Work through each of the Options subsections: General, Writing, Reading, Discussion, Privacy, Permalinks, and Miscellaneous. Most are straightforward, but I’ll explain a couple here.

Essential Options

1] Prevent Spam

Your blog will quickly drown in spam unless you activate the Akismet plugin. Visit the Plugins section of the Dashboard and click the Activate link beside Akismet. You’ll need a free WordPress.com API key, so click on the link in the Description column and follow the instructions.

2] Customize the Tagline

The tagline appears just below the name of your blog in or near the header on all pages. Make sure you change it under General Options, to personalize your blog.

3] Set Reading Options

The front page of your blog can show either your regular posts or one specific, static page. Most bloggers will probably prefer the front page to show the latest posts, but we’ll come back here later in the series.

4] Customize Permalinks

Permalinks refer to the address for any given post or page on your blog. For example, the first post on my Always the Future blog has the address: http://miraz.info/?p=1. That is neither memorable nor meaningful.

An address like http://miraz.info/blog/hello-world would certainly have more meaning if it were mentioned in an article or email elsewhere.

WordPress defaults to using post numbers (?p=1) as that is known to work across all servers. You may be able to use a much more descriptive version with real words instead. If you haven’t yet started blogging it’s certainly worth a try to set up descriptive permalinks.

Read the documentation at the Codex before making any changes, as it provides full instructions on possible issues and problems that can arise.

Figure 5

Figure 5: The Address Bar reflects a custom permalink structure of /%year%/%postname%/.

I favor a custom permalink structure of /%year%/%postname%/ so I enter that in the Custom structure section and click Update Permalink Structure.

OK. If you've done all of this, you should have a basic blog that you can begin posting to immediately. Go ahead, get writing. If you're looking for ideas on what to write about, check out Margaret Mason's awesome book:No One Cares What You Had for Lunch: 100 Ideas for Your Blog. In my next column, I'll discuss some plugins you might want to consider to make your blog more usable.