One aspect of WordPress rarely discussed is FTP.
FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol. It was developed as long ago as the 1970s as a quick way to move files between computers — particularly useful for uploading files from a personal computer to a web server’s computer.
Now, back in the early days of web design, FTP was essential: developers would work on a file, upload it to their server via FTP, and visitors to their website could view it. But this wasn’t just necessary for designing the look and layout of a site: every new page added to a website would have to be coded and then uploaded this way.
Today, the importance of FTP has greatly diminished, in part due to the development of Content Management Systems (CMS), such as WordPress.
WordPress has massively simplified the process of setting up and managing a website: it has made adding pages and editing content as simple as clicking a button. You no longer need to mess around with text files and FTP as a result – everything is done from the intuitive, user-friendly WordPress interface.
The evolution of CMS like WordPress has led to a new generation of webmasters – ones who aren’t necessarily trained programmers. Anyone able to use a computer can now set up a nice looking website with relative ease.
With this in mind, is FTP now effectively redundant, and should we be consigning it to the scrap heap?
Well, yes and no.
WordPress and FTP
FTP is one of the many methods available for installing WordPress on your website. You can download the core WordPress files, then upload them to the server via FTP. Unfortunately there’s a lot more to it than that, as you will need to install a database for your website and create a configuration file, before finally setting up your website’s credentials.
This is overly complicated for most users, and so web hosts offer a non-FTP method for installing WordPress. Most web hosts use cPanel, which supports WordPress installation in just a few clicks using Fantastico. Most users, myself included, find this to be the easiest method of installation.
Whichever way you choose to install WordPress – and there are lots of options – the end result is the same: the core WordPress files are uploaded to your server for WordPress to run off. As connecting to FTP allows you to access files on a different computer, in this case your server’s, this means you can add, view, and edit the WordPress files using FTP.
The same applies when adding a page to your website. You might be able to do this with one click of the mouse from the WordPress dashboard, but your website still needs files to read for each page it displays. In this sense, WordPress is doing what would previously have been done manually using FTP: creating and uploading a file to your server.
For this reason, there will always be a connection between FTP and WordPress.
Do You Need FTP?
Despite what is going on behind the scenes, most WordPress users know very little about FTP. In fact, WordPress is such an effective CMS that users could build a WordPress website without ever requiring FTP, or even having heard of it!
The WordPress CMS handles everything involved with running a website.
You can download and install themes and plugins from the Appearance section of the dashboard – if you’ve already downloaded the files to your computer, you can upload them directly to WordPress, too.
You can add new pages to your website with the click of a button, then use the built-in text editor to write and format your content. You can also upload any media files from your computer to the WordPress media library, ready to be published.
You can make tweaks to your website’s appearance by using the many customization options built in to the majority of themes. You can even edit your stylesheet directly from the WordPress admin.
Essentially, everything that would once have been done using FTP is now done through the WordPress dashboard.
Troubleshooting with FTP
So far, I’ve basically told you that WordPress is good, FTP is bad – however, FTP does have its uses.
‘So when might a WordPress user need to use FTP?’ you might be asking.
One word: Troubleshooting.
Although FTP will rarely be needed during the everyday running of your website, when things go wrong it can prove invaluable.
You won’t need to become an FTP whizz, but it’s good to have a basic understanding of it so that you can fix your website if it breaks.
Even though all plugins are developed to be used on the WordPress platform, not all plugins are compatible. Sometimes two plugins that work perfectly well by themselves will cause serious problems with your website when activated at the same time. This can also be true of a plugin that has not been updated for a while – they can become incompatible with the latest version of WordPress.
In some cases you can simply access your plugin list from the dashboard and de-activate the culprit, but sometimes that isn’t possible. Anyone that’s used WordPress for a while and experimented with a wide range of plugins has probably encountered a blank white screen in place of the dashboard at some point – referred to lovingly as the ‘white screen of death’ by some people.
With no access to your dashboard, you have no way to access your plugin list to disable the bad plugin. In such a scenario, FTP is often the only fix for the problem.
To access FTP you’ll need to download an FTP client – one of the more popular FTP clients is FileZilla. You can login by using your hosting credentials, but if you have any problems your host should be able to help you with this.
After you’ve logged in you can use FTP to see every file on your web server, which will enable you to remove the problematic files. Deleting the files will uninstall the plugin.
On the left you should see the files stored on your own computer, with the right side showing the files on your server – you’ll need to use the right-hand side to remove a plugin. Click on the public-html folder to bring up a list of all your websites, select the appropriate one, then click wp-content > plugins. Now you should be able to see a list of every plugin downloaded for your site. If one of these plugins is causing you problems, simply delete the folder and the problem should be fixed.
The process is actually quite simple when you know what you’re doing, but if you’ve never used FTP before it can be tricky. Most web hosts will offer you support when using FTP, and there’s also a great video tutorial over at WP Beginner, which you should find useful.
With the problem plugin removed, you should now be able to access your WordPress admin as before.
With the rise in popularity in CMS like WordPress, FTP has largely been consigned to the history books.
When things are running smoothly with WordPress you will rarely need to use FTP, but when things go wrong it is one of the easiest ways to fix the problem. Having a basic knowledge of FTP can give you the confidence to experiment on your website until you’re happy, safe in the knowledge that if your site breaks, you know how to fix it.
Do you have any tips for using FTP? Let us know in the comments section below!
Shaun Quarton is a freelance blogger from the UK, with a passion for online entrepreneurship, content marketing, and all things WordPress.