WordPress, the world’s leading content management system, is loved for its flexibility and customization capabilities. But how does WordPress know exactly what content to display and in what format? Enter the concept of the WordPress template hierarchy. It’s a system that provides a clear structure, defining how different templates interact and prioritize within your WordPress theme.

Whether you’re a beginner looking to grasp the basics or a seasoned developer aiming to deepen your understanding, this guide will unravel what is template hierarchy in WordPress. Follow along as we delve into its components, how it functions, and why it’s an essential part of designing any WordPress site.

What is template hierarchy in WordPress?

Template hierarchy is the systematic way in which WordPress selects and loads the appropriate templates to display your website’s content. When a visitor accesses a specific page on your site, WordPress follows a predefined set of rules to determine which template file to use. This includes considering factors like page type, category, custom post types, and more.

Template hierarchy forms the backbone of WordPress’ theme system, providing developers and designers with a fundamental tool to craft dynamic and flexible themes. It enables the construction of theme files that automatically adjust to the content being presented, resulting in an optimized and visually engaging website.

Why is template hierarchy important?

Understanding template hierarchy is essential because it grants you tremendous control over the appearance of your WordPress website. By knowing which template files are used to display specific content, you can customize each aspect of your site to meet your preferences and needs.

Imagine you want to have a different layout for your blog posts than your regular pages. Template hierarchy makes this possible by automatically selecting the appropriate template file based on the content type. Without this system, managing different page designs would be cumbersome and time-consuming.

How the WordPress template hierarchy works

Now that you know what is template hierarchy in WordPress, it’s time to break down how it works.

First, a grand overview of the entire WordPress template hierarchy (click to enlarge):

WordPress template hierarchy

Here’s how the individual components of the template hierarchy work:


front page template example

When a user visits your website’s homepage, WordPress looks for the ‘front-page.php’ file first. This template is specifically designed to create a custom layout for your front page. If ‘front-page.php’ doesn’t exist in your theme, WordPress falls back to the more generic ‘home.php’ template. If ‘home.php’ is also missing, WordPress finally defaults to the most basic template, which is ‘index.php.’

Single posts

single post template example

For individual posts, WordPress follows a similar pattern. It first looks for the ‘single-post.php’ template or custom post templates, like ‘single-portfolio.php’ or ‘single-product.php.’ If these templates are absent, the system defaults to ‘single.php’ and then ‘index.php.’


When displaying pages, WordPress first searches for templates based on the page slug and page ID. It looks for ‘page-{slug}.php’ and ‘page-{id}.php.’ For instance, if you have a page with the slug “contact-us,” WordPress will look for ‘page-contact-us.php.’ If there’s no specific template based on the slug or ID, it falls back to ‘page.php’ and then ‘index.php.’

Category archives

For category archives, WordPress again looks for specific templates such as ‘category-{slug}.php’ and ‘category-{id}.php.’ If none of these category-specific templates exist, WordPress falls back to ‘category.php.’ If this template is also unavailable, WordPress finally defaults to ‘archive.php’ or ‘index.php.’

Custom post types

For custom post types, WordPress searches for ‘single-{post-type}.php’ for displaying individual custom post type entries and ‘archive-{post-type}.php’ for displaying the archive of custom post type entries. If these aren’t present, WordPress defaults to ‘single.php’ and ‘archive.php,’ respectively.

Search results

When users perform a search on your website, WordPress uses the ‘search.php’ template to display the search results. If ‘search.php’ is not available, it defaults to ‘index.php.’

404 error page

404 page template example

If a page is not found, WordPress displays the ‘404.php’ template. This template is crucial for guiding users back to your site’s content or homepage.


Understanding template hierarchy is a critical aspect of WordPress theme development and customization. With this systematic approach, you can create visually stunning and user-friendly websites while maintaining an organized and scalable theme structure.

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