Back in the day, websites were “web sites” created using basic HTML.
Then came WordPress. Now, “websites” do not require coding knowledge to add and modify your content and media.
My clients love WordPress because they can find a premium theme and tweak their site to look like they want without being a professional coder. They can just log in and change content and images without knowing a lick of code.
With the Gutenberg editor, you don’t need to know the handful of basic HTML snippets previously necessary to format your posts and widgets either. Full site editing is here.
However, there may be situations where specific WordPress files need to be tweaked. So, I’ll help you understand what is where and why you may need to access these files — if at all.
Where do I change WordPress files?
First, we need to ask, “which files and why”? Rarely, if ever, as a website owner, would you need to modify the WordPress core files.
Some folks jump over to Appearance > Editor and modify the .php files by following some online “how to.” Unfortunately, they end up with a broken site.
Stay out of the Editor unless you know what you are doing.
Many hosts have that area “turned off” by default. So, if you don’t understand the layout and syntax of .php, don’t mess around in the file editor area.
Below is an overview of WordPress’s file structure, including the commonly modified files (with great care).
WordPress File Locations
Depending on your hosting setup, you may have a File Manager interface in your cPanel or hosting dashboard where you can access your files. Or you have the option of “FTPing” into your server.
For FTP (File Transfer Protocol), I use and recommend Filezilla, a free FTP software program. You input your FTP settings, as provided by your host, and you can view your server’s directory tree. They’ll be similar to the images in this post.
You can find your website files in the root directory of your server, which is in the “public,” “public_html,” or just the “html” directory. What this directory is called varies by web host.
All the core WordPress files are in that root directory. That’s where you’ll also find the wp-admin, wp-content, and wp-includes directories.
If you are confident that you know what you are doing, the only files you may need to modify in the root would be:
Website owners use the /robots.txt file to give instructions about their site to web robots, known as The Robots Exclusion Protocol. Robots.txt starts with:
The “User-agent: *” means this section applies to all robots. The “Disallow: /” tells the robot that it should not visit any pages on the site.
You can read more here: Robots.txt Introduction and Guide.
The .htaccess file is used to alter the Apache Web Server software configuration to enable/disable additional functionality and features that the Apache Web Server software offers.
You can read more here: Apache HTTP Server Tutorial: .htaccess files
One of the most critical files in your WordPress installation is the wp-config.php file. This file is located in the root of your WordPress file directory and contains your website’s base configuration details, such as database connection information.
You can read more here: Editing wp-config.php
Now, let’s cover the various WordPress directories.
The wp-admin directory is where all the backend WordPress Dashboard files are located. There is no reason for you to change any files there.
Your plugin, theme files, and uploads are in the wp-content directory.
The plugin’s directory will have all your plugin files. Rarely will you need to modify files within, if at all. You may need to rename a specific plugin’s folder if you are troubleshooting a potential conflict. More on that here.
The themes directory is where your theme files are located. The style.css file is the file most size owners will want to modify, as this file contains the global font sizes, colors, and spacing for your theme. However, accessing this file may not be necessary.
Did you know you have an option not to modify that file to make CSS changes? Just go to Appearance > Customize > Additional CSS.
There, you can add modified snippets that will override your theme’s CSS file without having to access or modify the theme’s original CSS file.
If your theme doesn’t offer this option, it’s time to get on a current theme.
Do you still want to modify the style.css file?
The uploads directory will have all the graphics and files you have uploaded for your pages and posts. By default, uploads are organized by year/month.
A NOTE ABOUT THEMES: Quality themes, such as Kadence, which I use and highly recommend, negate the need to touch any files or the style.css. You can customize colors, fonts, sizes, padding, and margins in Appearance > Customize. In addition, you can make these adjustments and add custom CSS on the block level.
Unless you are a skilled developer, there will never be a reason to change files in the wp-includes directory. This directory includes the packages part of the core maintained by the WordPress core team. Therefore, your themes and plugins can rely on these packages to be available for any given version of WordPress.
Before Modifying Any File…
Before modifying files, you should always copy the original and save it on your hard drive. If you do not like the results, you can quickly restore the original file and code and then go back to the drawing board.
At your service,