Under the Hood with WordPress


By Bonnie Koenig

Terror strikes into the heart of the blogger.  You go to your blog, expecting to find it but instead the page is blank. Worse, you might get an error saying the link is not found. There is nothing at all at your website.  What to do?!

It gets worse. You contact your host and they unhelpfully tell you, “It’s a WordPress error.”  What do you do?

If you have a basic understanding of how WordPress works, it will help you work through any error messages you may get.  First, I need to apologize to any other WordPress experts out there. This is about 700 words on how a program works, so it is necessarily limited.

Let’s look at how WordPress is set up.  WordPress is based on a database program called MySql*.  MySql is open source, which means the code is readily available to anyone who wants to look at it and program it.  Open source is also free.  MySql  stores the data.  If you want to retrieve the data more elegantly than by going to the databases, you use a program called PHP to tell the database which data you want where. Like MySql, PHP is also open source.

PHP is an active program. This means that it tells the computer what to do, but how it looks depends upon another program. Online, this program is typically html, the code programmers use to design a website.  I’m using the term html broadly here as most people are using CSS with html.

The combination of these three things is what allows WordPress website designers to create powerful websites (not just blogs) that look very different from one another. They are limited only by their abilities to design a site and their creativity in how to tell the database they want certain types of information in one place but not another.

Many people using WordPress use plugins and/or widgets of one sort or another. Plugins and widgets basically create new code to add to certain parts of the website (or the entire website).  These may require that new tables be added to the database so that users can create even more ways to sort their data or create new relationships between different types of data.

If a WordPress site crashes, there are several things to consider. If you have just changed something, it’s important to see what you just changed. For instance, adding a new plugin may cause problems depending upon the site configuration. If you can’t access your administration panel, go into the domain Cpanel and delete the plugin folder from there and see what happens. In many cases this will solve the problem.

Another common issue is a problem with the host.  Don’t hesitate to contact your host.  I love Hostgator  because often even if I think the problem is a WordPress issue, they can help me troubleshoot it. This is wonderful as I’ve had issues with other hosts that blame WordPress for things it’s not doing.

If your host can’t help, you haven’t installed or updated anything, you can always contact the WordPress Forum.  The forum has a lot of people who live and breathe WordPress. They are great at troubleshooting or talking a less technical person through the steps to fix a problem. You may not get immediate help but someone will answer.

If you need someone faster and don’t have a webmaster around who can answer your questions, go online and do a search.  I’m finding more and more small businesses which specialize in helping WordPress users when they run into trouble on a case by case basis.

WordPress doesn’t crash easily and it rarely causes problems on its own. However, now and again someone runs into trouble. Understanding the internal workings is a big help. Knowing there are places to go if you can’t get an answer on your own is huge.

The problem I described up above?  It happened to me when I was moving servers.  I had updated the database but I hadn’t installed the themes. The themes I used had certain codes that were required and the database didn’t find these, so everything remained blank. It took me two hours and lots of reinstalls to figure that one out.

*MySql= often read as the individual letters but also read as “My Sequel” as it’s an open source competitor to Microsoft’s SQL server, which is pronounced “Sequel Server.”


Bonnie Koenig is a web consultant and WordPress web designer.  Bonnie loves to educate people about what to look for when designing a website.    In her spare time, she designs marketing materials for acupuncturists.  She and her cat, Cheysuli, have been blogging together since 2006.  Find Chey and Bonnie at the revamped http://www.mysiamese.com.


7 Responses to “Under the Hood with WordPress”

  1. Janiss

    I use WordPress for Sparkle’s blog and swear by it! I am fairly well-versed in html and css, but php and mysql have always eluded me, so I hire someone to handle any major changes on the backend of the blog – or just to be there when I am updating a plug-in, in case something goes wrong. This is probably the best solution for most bloggers with WordPress – once it is installed, you do not need to be a coder (or semi-coder) like me to keep it running… but you do want someone who’s got your back, just in case.

  2. Penelope

    I use both WordPress and Blogger. And both versions of WordPress. I much prefer WordPress. I don’t really do a lot of the programming in WordPress (no time) but I am lucky in that I work in Software development and one of our guys (he lives in France) can help me with any issues I have in either.
    A back end person, when you want to more than the basics, is a necessity!
    (Penelope the CatFromHell)’s Mom

  3. Bonnie (and Chey)

    What I think is interesting is how fast WordPress has grown. Back in the day, you had the forum. Now there are books and tons of small businesses that help people out with WordPress when they have a problem. I tend to be a database person so those are my favorite problems to solve but others love to program in php and do more design type stuff.

  4. JaneA

    Like the author, I actually do have a Disappearing Website story. I couldn’t even log into the admin back-end to see what was going on. I was lucky I could get into phpMyAdmin and download my databases.
    I ended up switching hosting services (from GoDaddy to HostGator, for the record), because I’d planned on leaving GoDaddy anyway and this disaster was just the motivation I needed. Hostgator support was totally awesome–I still couldn’t see the site after I’d uploaded all my databases, and the guy I was on the chat with was able to determine that the core problem was an issue with the theme I’d been using. Once he scrapped the problem theme, I was able to log in, download a new theme, and rebuild my site.
    I have a few take-aways from this experience:
    1. Sometimes it pays to actually buy a theme. Even the free versions of paid themes may not have all the coding “dots” properly connected, so to speak, and this can cause site performance issues and occasionally even epic disasters. After I changed hosts, I bought a theme for something like $39 and it comes with full tech support, is easy to customize, and has all the features I really wanted for my site.
    2. As a corollary to item #1, do carefully read the reviews and forums for any theme or widget you want to download and install on your site. Also, read the developer’s notes–some will specifically say “this plug-in will not work with Theme A or Widget B.” Some require PHP 5+ in order to function properly. Some poorly coded themes and widgets can cause code conflicts or loops which can result in performance issues or, in the worst case, crashes.
    2. Hosting companies that actually have experience with WordPress hosting, tech support staff who actually know something about WordPress, and good customer service are key! I never realized how bad the service I got with my previous hosting provider was until I switched; I thought waiting on hold for 20 minutes — on a toll call! — was par for the course for major hosting companies!
    3. Sometimes it pays to wait a little while before upgrading to the next version of WordPress. Some upgrades can be a little bit buggy, and this can be bad for your site’s performance and your experience as a site administrator.
    This may all sound pretty gnarly to people who are considering WordPress, but I will say that in my five years of running Paws and EFfect on a WordPress platform, the disaster I mentioned was the only one I’ve had. I’ve also used a number of other content management systems including Joomla, Drupal, and DotNetNuke … and WordPress is a dream compared to DNN or, worse yet, trying to maintain a 500-page, dynamically updated site with old-school HTML.

  5. Bonnie (and Chey)

    I love love love Hostgator! They really are super with WordPress. I hope that as they continue to grow as a hosting company that they don’t change–which I’ve seen.
    Right now I’m using Studio Press themes and if anyone is thinking of purchasing a theme I highly recommend them. Brian has his own forum and there are a lot of people there who can really help out as well.

  6. Cleo Parker

    I have to put in a plug for the Detroit area Ferndale WordPress Meetup – a wonderful resource for people who use WordPress at any level. If you’re in a different area, I’d encourage you to check and see if there’s a similar group in your are. Forums are good, but live people are even better!

  7. Bonnie (and Chey)

    For social people in small cities and suburbs that’s great. WordCamp is also great if you aren’t in an area that has a meet up. WordCamp is typically a weekend seminar that allows those who aren’t in a metro area to learn with people.
    For others who are like me who are neither social nor in a metro area (well we sort of are but traffic means it will take more than an hour to get some place and there is NOTHING local) forums are incredibly helpful and you really can learn everything you need to