WordPress plugins vs themes

Wondering what’s the difference between WordPress plugins vs themes?

In general, you use a WordPress theme to change how your site looks and a plugin to add or change functionality on your site.

However, in real life, the lines can get kind of blurred, which is why we think it’s helpful to spend some time covering the differences between WordPress plugins vs themes.

Keep reading to learn more about the similarities and differences, as well as when you should use a plugin vs a theme.

An introduction to WordPress plugins vs themes

As a platform, WordPress is designed to be incredibly flexible. It’s used to create all types of websites, such as small one-page landing sites, large e-commerce stores, and everything in between.

However, if the platform’s software included everything needed to build any kind of website you could imagine, it would be bloated and confusing. Therefore, WordPress’ ‘core’ is kept deliberately streamlined. It includes only features useful to the vast majority of users.

To shape your WordPress starter site into the website you want, you can install a unique collection of themes and plugins. These are add-ons to the platform – small pieces of software that can be downloaded and installed on your WordPress site. They include new features and functionality, ranging from the simple to the complex:

The WordPress Plugin Directory.

In other words, you can think of WordPress as a modular system. You start with a basic foundation, and add on only the elements you need. This is an excellent way to build a website, as it means you have a lot of control over its look and function.

The key differences between WordPress plugins vs themes

So far, we’ve talked about what these two types of add-ons have in common. However, they come in two ‘flavors’ for a reason. Let’s cover the key differences between WordPress plugins vs themes…

WordPress themes

WordPress themes are designed to make large-scale changes to your website’s appearance. This includes its design, layout, colors, navigation, and everything else involved in its overall look.

Your WordPress site can only have one theme active at a time, while you can use as many plugins as you want.

Most WordPress sites start out with a default theme installed, which is serviceable but looks very basic:

A demo site running the Twenty Seventeen theme.

However, by installing another theme, you can radically transform the way your site is laid out. For instance, here’s the same site pictured above, using the Hestia theme instead of the default Twenty Seventeen theme:

A demo site running the Hestia theme.

Some themes, like Hestia, are ‘multipurpose’ in nature. This means they include customizations and options for a wide range of site types. Others are ‘niche’ themes, designed for a specific purpose (such as business themes or photography themes). Either way, you can almost always customize aspects of your chosen theme, such as its color scheme and even sidebar placements.

WordPress plugins

While themes alter your website’s design, plugins are meant to add new features and functionalities. In simpler terms, themes affect what your site looks like, and plugins affect what it can do. This means plugins can’t be as easily summarized, since there are solutions for just about any functionality you can imagine.

Some plugins focus on adding one specific feature to your site. Contact Form 7 is a perfect example, letting you build customizable forms and embed them on your pages.

Other plugins, such as Jetpack or Wordfence, provide a variety of helpful tools and functionalities. No matter what you’d like your site to do, there’s a plugin to help get the job done.

The overlap between WordPress plugins vs themes

So far, the distinction between WordPress plugins vs themes seems pretty clear. In theory, they’re two different types of add-ons with unique purposes. However, in practice, there is some overlap.

The most common example is themes that do more than just alter your site’s appearance. Although visual style is still the focus of almost any theme, some will also include the types of features that could be added by a plugin instead.

For instance, many themes include ‘page builders’ – drag-and-drop editors that help you design more complex content. At the same time, you can also get a page builder in plugin form, such as Elementor or Beaver Builder, and use it with any theme you like:

The Elementor page editor.

This is also an issue you’ll encounter when looking to build a very specific type of website. For instance, let’s say you want to create an online knowledge base. You could use a theme like KnowAll or a plugin such as Knowledge Base for Documents and FAQs, and either would provide you with the features you’ll need.

How to decide whether you need a theme or a plugin

In most cases, it’s easy to figure out whether you should go looking for a theme or a plugin. If you want to change your site’s look and layout, a new theme is what you want. On the other hand, if you’re in need of a specific feature, plugins are typically your best bet.

However, what should you do when you find yourself in a situation like those we described above? If what you need could conceivably be provided by either a theme or a plugin, you have a choice to make.

Fortunately, in most cases this choice is also pretty simple. Themes have a larger overall effect on your site, and changing your site’s theme can be a hassle you won’t want to go through very often. Therefore, it’s best to select your theme primarily based on the look and layout you want, rather than the features it includes. Then, you can add whatever additional functionality you require using plugins.

The exception would be if you need to transform your site into something a little more out of the ordinary. For example, if you want to create a wiki, forum, or knowledge base, your job may be easier if you can find a theme providing both the overall look you want and the elements needed to make your site function correctly.

The best way to determine what kind of tools you need is to spend some time exploring what’s available. As such, we’ll wrap up by pointing you towards the WordPress Plugin Directory and the WordPress Theme Directory:

The WordPress Theme directory.

Both contain thousands of diverse and vetted add-ons for your site. If you’re looking for something special, you may also want to take a look at the premium options on ThemeForest and CodeCanyon, and those in our own directory.

Conclusion

In most cases, the difference between WordPress plugins vs themes is pretty clear. Themes alter your site’s layout and visual style, while plugins add all kinds of features and functionality. While there’s some overlap in those definitions, it’s best to choose a theme based on how you want your site to look, and then add on features via plugins as needed.

Do you have any questions about WordPress plugins vs themes we haven’t answered here? Ask us anything in the comments section below!
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