A Beginners Guide to WordPress Plugin Development

Over 50,000 custom WordPress plugins have been created, adding functions ranging from simple contact forms to fully configured e-commerce stores to WordPress sites of all kinds. Along with free WordPress themes and the software’s core code, plugins round out the list of the three essential components of the WordPress platform. 

These website tools are created by plugin developers all over the world to perform just about any function a Word Press site might need—but any user with a basic knowledge of code can design a plugin too. Whether you’re looking to fill a unique need on your own WordPress website or share a new plugin with the world, here’s an overview of custom WordPress plugin development for beginners.

What Is a WordPress Plugin?

The core WordPress code contains the basic elements for building a WordPress website, and its many theme options allow users to fine-tune a site’s appearance and layout. But those two components don’t provide the full range of functions a specific site might need. Plugins fill that gap, providing a way to extend the functionality of any WordPress site by adding additional bits of code designed to perform a single set of actions. While website builders can find thousands of useful WordPress plugins right on the WordPress plugin directory, sometimes they may have specific needs that can only be satisfied by creating a custom plugin.

Plugins are self-contained modules that exist outside the WordPress core code so that they can be modified and updated as needed without affecting the website’s overall structure and theme. This gives plugin developers virtually unlimited flexibility and control over the performance of a WordPress site while leaving the core code untouched—an important consideration since any updates or changes made to the WordPress core code overwrites any local changes a developer might make to an individual site. Plugins can be activated, deactivated, and deleted at will, although any other functions connected to the plugin might also be affected by a plugin’s removal.

Plugins consist of either a single file or multiple files written in the PHP programming language, which is also the language of the WordPress core code. A typical plugin contains four elements, including:

  • Actions, which describe specifically what action is to happen
  • Filters, which establish variables that can be modified when an action is triggered
  • Shortcodes, user-facing bits of code that are inserted into the site’s visual editor to insert a specific kind of action, such as a slideshow
  • Widgets, areas on the website home page that can be individually manipulated to get the desired plugin effects.

Depending on its purpose, a plugin might also contain images, style sheets, or bits of JavaScript.

Why Create a Plugin?

WordPress plugins range from the frivolous Hello Dolly plugin that often greets new users to fully functioning online shops and payment portals, but they all exist because someone had a need for a function that the basic elements of a WordPress install just couldn’t provide. A site builder might encounter a problem that could be solved with a new plugin, or a developer might have an idea for a new function. Because plugins are generally targeted to perform a certain action or set of actions, a complex site might use several compatible plugins.

Getting Started With Plugins

You don’t have to be a web developer to create a plugin for your own site or for public consumption, but you do need to be at least moderately familiar with the basic building blocks of WordPress sites: PHP, CSS (cascading style sheets), and HTML, the plain text language of the web. 

With a basic understanding of WordPress coding standards and how these systems work, you’ll be able to follow the many WordPress plugin development tutorial step by step guides that are available from the WordPress codex itself and from other online and offline courses and guides. If you have an idea for a plugin that would address a gap or solve a problem on your own website, or for the larger circle of WordPress users, it is possible to code it into being.

Installing a New Plugin

Some plugins are very simple: a page or two of written instructions. Others, though, can be far more complex. Whatever the size of your plugin file, it needs a home within your site’s WordPress directories. Within your site’s content directory, create a folder for the new plugin. Then, create a PHP file for the plugin code. Once the plugin file has been written, it can be activated and managed like any other installed plugin from the site’s WordPress plugin directory.

Going Public With Your Plugin

Some users might create a plugin for private use, only on their own sites, but you can also make it available to other WordPress users. If a plugin goes public, it needs to be licensed, which establishes the terms and conditions under which others in the WordPress community can use or modify it. A variety of licensing options are available, but the license you choose needs to be compatible with the GNU General Public License (GPL v2 or higher) that governs WordPress itself.

Learning Plugin Development

Because plugins play such an important role in WordPress site development and functioning, a long list of coding courses, WordPress plugin development tutorials, and books on website design are available to help beginners learn the building blocks of making whatever plugins they need. 

For example, WordPress.org, the source for the WordPress interface itself, offers a complete handbook for custom plugin development, and the WordPress community sponsors a variety of events such as WordPress boot camps, meetups, and workshops aimed at teaching new site owners how to build plugins, themes, and more. For users on a budget, many online learning portals also offer courses in basic coding and offer WordPress plugin development tutorial step by step guides to show beginners the basics of coding and website design.

Most custom WordPress plugin development tutorials assume a working knowledge of code, so if you’re planning to create your own plugin, you may need to learn or brush up on the basics of PHP, CSS, and HTML in order to correctly write the code that executes your plugin idea.A custom WordPress plugin represents an idea captured in code, designed to add specialized functions to any compatible WordPress site. Though WordPress site builders can choose from an ever-expanding list of plugins created by developers around the world, it’s possible for just about anyone with simple coding skills to create functional, efficient plugins that streamline the workflow and extend the functionality of any WordPress site.

Desiree Johnson
Desiree Johnson | Content Specialist
Desiree Johnson is a Content Specialist at Bluehost where she writes helpful guides and articles, teaches webinars and assists with other marketing and WordPress community work.

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