The Essential Guide to Launching a Killer WordPress Site: Part 1 – Structure
So much of the content online about website creation talks about how to build a site quickly. From installing WordPress to creating content, site generation is marketed as a lightning quick process.
And while you can certainly launch a site fast—especially if you choose to build it on WordPress—it’s not so simple as install, pick a theme, and publish. Well, it’s not if you want the site to actually be good. And you’re here, so I’m assuming you do.
Beyond the 5-minute install, you need to have a real game plan in place for launching a site that digs deeper into the process. That’s why we’re deviating from our usual Weekend WordPress Projects this weekend to bring you this two-part ultimate guide to launching a WordPress site. Use it as a checklist the next time you’re looking to create a site from scratch and you’ll be sure to not miss a thing.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series on launching a WordPress site. In Part 2 tomorrow, we’ll cover design and functionality.
- The Essential Guide to Launching a Killer WordPress Site: Part 1 – Structure
- The Essential Guide to Launching a Killer WordPress Site: Part 2 – Design and Functionality
Before You Begin
Now I want to spend a moment to talk about how I’m going to structure this guide. I think the process of building a site is akin to building a house. You have to build it from the ground up. It needs a solid foundation. It needs a sturdy frame and walls. It needs a good coat of paint and some interior decorating sense.
That’s why for the duration of this post, we’ll be talking about your next WordPress site as though it were a piece of real estate. You probably didn’t need the disclaimer, but I digress.
Today’s post will discuss the structure of your site and the second installment will cover the aesthetics and function. Let’s start building that site, shall we?
Establish Your Foundation
Before you can even think about starting work on a new site, you need to get the foundation in order. I mean, you wouldn’t build a house without first purchasing a decent plot of land, right? The same goes for your website. Your site has to live somewhere and if you’re going to invest time and money in building it, you better make good and sure you pick a good host.
Standard vs. Managed Hosting
Hosting comes in many different forms. You can pick a standard host that serves as a home for any kind of website, whether it’s built on WordPress, Drupal or hand-coded. Or you can pick dedicated WordPress hosting. The advantage to the latter is the support team usually consists of experts in WordPress, so your questions are more likely to be answered in full.
Managed hosting is also advantageous because the server structure has been optimized with WordPress in mind. Everything’s been designed to work seamlessly with one application and one application alone—WordPress. A managed setup handles all of the backend stuff so you don’t have to worry about anything. You can expect to get staging areas, backups, and CDN support with whatever package you select. And often, you can get other backend features bundled with the hosting like security, WordPress core updates, and so forth.
Shared vs. VPS Hosting
Another decision you’ll need to make is whether to use shared hosting or VPS. Shared hosts are those you see advertised the most often. According to Smashing Magazine, they’re often referred to as “public transportation” when it comes to hosting options because they’re typically overcrowded, not very flexible but offer really low fees. If your site gains traction, shared hosting could present a problem since slow server times and bandwidth caps are commonplace.
In order for shared hosting providers to make money, they have to cram as many sites on a single server as possible. That means your site will be fighting for page load speed and bandwidth with hundreds of other sites.
That’s why many who are running business sites opt for VPS hosting. Short for virtual private server, VPS hosts are a way to get better site speed like you would with a dedicated server without having to shell out the big bucks. This is cloud hosting and it’s a popular way to get the kind of site performance you need.
Of course, there are drawbacks. VPS are usually run on Linux, which means you’ll have to use the command line to setup and configure your WordPress installation. And VPS environments often don’t come with support, so this can be a major disadvantage. This isn’t really an option for beginners to WordPress or site development in general.
It’s important to note that managed hosts come in both the shared and VPS varieties, so you have quite a bit of decision-making to do before landing on a host that’s right for your site (and your budget).
Your last option is a dedicated server. This is by far the most expensive option, but it also offers the best performance. Your site sits on its own dedicated server so you get precisely the amount of RAM advertised and the maximum amount of bandwidth. Since you’re not competing for space or speed with other sites, yours will load lightning quick.
Of course, downtime is still possible due to hardware failure. This can be a major problem if you don’t have a site backup. You’d be out of luck in a big way!
You can also opt for a managed dedicated server, which means you’ll get all that great backend support right along with improved site performance. The price is high, however. You can expect to pay upwards of $100 per month for a dedicated server.
Now that you’re familiar with all the different types of hosts, here are a few that have decent reputations you might want to check out:
DreamHost. Offers every kind of hosting you might need from standard shared hosting to a managed VPS to a dedicated server. Good customer support and decent pricing, too. Shared hosting plans start at $9.95 per month and managed hosting starts at $19.95 per month.
GoDaddy. It’s not without its flaws, but you can get hosting at a real bargain here and get access to live customer service—a rarity for many shared hosting providers.
NameCheap. It’s all in the name, really. NameCheap offers value-priced shared hosting and domain names. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find they offer VPS, reseller, and dedicated servers, too. Their dedicated server plans start at $58.88 per month, a total steal.
Flywheel. Managed WordPress hosting with an air of style. Site migration is free and pricing ranges from $15 to $75 per month for individual sites. Bulk plans start at $100 per month.
Pagely. Another managed WordPress hosting option, Pagely is ideal for developers. Plans start at $64 per month for three sites and go up to $269 per month for 20 sites. VPS plans for 35 sites start at $399 per month.
Siteground. They offer a little bit of everything from shared hosting to dedicated servers. Shared plans start at just $3.95 per month and dedicated servers start at $217.50 per month. Siteground also offers cloud hosting.
WP Engine. Top-notch managed WordPress hosting that starts at $29 per month for one WordPress installation and goes up to $249 per month for 25 installs. Enterprise plans are also available.
Kinsta. Here’s another managed WordPress host that offers the infrastructure your site needs. Plans include free migration, CDN, and a client dashboard. VPS plans range in price from $287 per month for 10 sites up to $987 per month for 40 sites.
Get a Domain Name
I’ve already touched on domain names above but they warrant their own section, too. With hosting in place, you need a domain name so people know how to find your site. There are tons (and tons) of articles out there about how to pick a good domain name for your brand or business—like these to name a few—so I won’t bore you with that here. Just know that a domain name is a reflection of your company or blog or personal site and needs to suit the subject matter accordingly.
You can often buy hosting and a domain name together. Many of the hosting services I listed here offer them including GoDaddy, NameCheap, and DreamHost. Another option is Network Solutions.
I’ll include a little checklist at the end of each section so you can see how your site is coming along at a glance. Once you’ve tackled everything for the foundation of your site, you can move on to the next section:
- Shared hosting or VPS?
- Standard or managed?
- Does the host offer the level of support you need?
- Does the host include backups, security or other features you want?
- Does it fit within your budget?
- Have you secured a domain name?
Frame the House
Your website has a place to live. That’s great! But now you have to actually start building the thing. Most houses look pretty much the same in the beginning. Once the foundation is down, the frame goes up. The frame is just bare wood that gives the entire home structure. It’s the bones.
For site building, that means installing WordPress. Much of the time, this is as simple as a single click. One-click installation is offered by many hosting providers these days. There are many arguments for and against installing WordPress this way, of course. Is there anything in the web development world that doesn’t spark an argument?
Should you go the one-click route (which you can find in your host’s control panel) you’ll only need to make a few selections. Pick the directory where you’d like it installed, a username, and a password. That’s it.
If for some reason the host you pick doesn’t offer one-click, you can still do the “famous five-minute install” as detailed in the WordPress Codex but you’ll need to upload the WordPress zip file, make database tables, create a configuration file, and run the install.
This method won’t work for everyone, of course. Sometimes, hosts don’t offer GUI tools for unzipping files. This can complicate things and leave you searching for another method of installing WordPress.
We actually wrote a lengthy post about this very topic a few months back that you should check out for more details. It covers terminal installation and WP-CLI, plus numerous configuration options like changing your database prefix, setting up an .htaccess firewall, and changing wp-config to suit your preferences. For instance, you can change the auto-save interval and eliminate post revision tracking. Pretty cool, huh?
Once WordPress is installed, you can go into the dashboard and start making changes to the settings. Simply go to Settings in the lefthand menu and work your way down the list of subcategories like Reading and Writing. From there you can do things like change the permalink structure, add users, configure how comments are handled, setup your media options, and more.
Now before you actually install WordPress anywhere, it’s a good idea to sit back and consider what you want to accomplish with your site. Are you building a single site for your business or blog? Or do you plan on building multiple sites for several different business? Or maybe you even plan on selling site development to other people. If the latter two options match your preferences you’ll get more mileage out of a multisite installation.
To use our real estate example, this would be like hiring one contractor to build an entire block of houses rather than just one. So, we’re talking about many completely separate sites but they’re all managed from within the same WordPress installation on the backend.
A multisite installation can handle this well and make development and maintenance a lot easier (you can update plugins across all sites, rather than one at a time, for instance).
If multisite sounds right for you, check out our Ultimate Guide to WordPress Multisite for more information.
- Pick an installation type (one-click, five-minute, or manual)
- Choose between single site or multisite
- Make database configurations
- Modify .htaccess
- Change site settings in the dashboard
Put Up The Walls
Okay, so you’ve got your frame in place. Next, you need some walls on that house. Otherwise, it’d be drafty. In WordPress land, the walls are the theme. You need to pick a theme that includes features that complement your site’s goals. It needs to be secure, include updates and support, and play nice with all the plugins you want to use.
It also needs to look nice.
The theme dictates what people see when they visit your website. You can make cosmetic changes, of course, but the theme you choose should be pretty close to what you want to save time and hassle.
Here are a few quick guidelines to follow when picking a theme:
- Consider free or premium. Do you want (or can you afford) to spend money on a theme? Or would you rather try to get by without opening your wallet? Both are valid options, it’s just a good idea to know what to expect before you start your search. Free themes typically have fewer features and lack support while premium themes tend to include more features, support, and updates.
- Evaluate reputation. Whatever theme you choose needs to come from a reputable source. You can’t just go to any old website, download a theme, upload it to your site, and call it a day. Make sure it comes either from the WordPress.org directory or from a well-recognized theme developer’s site.
- Do a feature check. A good theme will have all the features you need to get your site up and running as you want (within reason, of course). So, if you want to include submenus, you’ll want to pick a theme that supports this. Likewise, if you want to have footer widgets, you need to find a theme that will help you accomplish this.
- Make sure it’s responsive. Any theme you pick nowadays needs to be responsive, especially in light of the recent Google algorithm changes that prioritize mobile web browsing.
- And SEO optimized. While WordPress is inherently pretty SEO-friendly, you need to pick a theme that has been designed with SEO in mind, too. Some theme developers might just say a theme has been optimized for SEO, so make sure you actually evaluate it for yourself. Smashing Magazine suggests installing a Chrome extension like MozBar to assess how SEO friendly the theme’s demo is.
- And secure. It might be a little difficult to evaluate how secure a theme is at first glance. That’s why digging deeper is always a good idea. Unless the theme is made by a well-known developer, avoid using it if it doesn’t have plenty of user reviews on sites like Themeforest or on the WordPress.org theme directory.
- And customizable to your liking. Not every theme carries the same level of customization as the other. So it’s imperative that you make sure whatever theme you choose allows for the kind of customization you want, whether that be a robust theme options panel or full CSS control. If you want to be able to make changes in a WYSIWYG setting, then look for a theme that includes a visual editor, as well.
- Check WordPress.org info (if applicable). If the theme you’re interested in is available in the WordPress directory, it’s a good idea to check out what info is available about it. How many times has it been downloaded? How many stars does it have? How often is it updated? Does it come with support? These are questions you need answers to.
- Read reviews. Either on WordPress.org or third-party sites. If you find a theme that looks good, do a quick Google to see if it’s been featured on blogs or review sites. Learn from your fellow developers.
- Ensure support is available. Though support is usually something that goes along with premium themes, free ones sometimes include it as well. Make sure whatever theme you choose includes the level of support you require. Whether that’s full documentation, tutorial videos, or 24/7 customer service support is up to you.
- Don’t get overwhelmed. There are a lot of theme choices out there and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options but try hard not to get mired in it. Instead, focus on the elements that are the most important to you and make those your criteria for choosing a theme.
- Acknowledge there is such a thing as too many features. While having a theme that does absolutely everything under the sun can be nice, it can also lead to something I call feature fatigue. That is, you get so caught up in what you could do with your site that you end up not accomplishing your original goals. Too many doodads isn’t a good thing. Again, prioritize the features you need and avoid exceeding that. Too many features can also make your site too cumbersome to load. And slower load times are not a good thing, either.
For more advice on how to pick a free theme, check out our recent post on the subject.
Install Your Theme
If you choose a theme from the WordPress directory, you can install it from within the WordPress dashboard. If you choose a premium option, you’ll need to download the theme files and then upload it onto your site by going to Appearance > Themes > Add New.
Then you just need to click Activate and the new theme will take effect. However, it’s never a good idea to customize a site while it’s live, so you’ll likely want to set up a testing environment to get your site looking and acting precisely how you want it on a localhost first. There are many plugins and localhost setups you can use to accomplish this like MAMP, XAMPP, and Bitnami. Check our list of the top 8 testing environments, for more ideas.
Once you’re all done, you can upload your site that’s hosted locally to the live server. We wrote up a walk through of how to do this with the Duplicator plugin recently, too.
- Decide on a free or premium theme
- Pick the features you want
- Evaluate the theme developer’s reputation
- Evaluate the theme’s reviews, updates, and support
- Evaluate the theme’s SEO compliance, responsiveness, security, and customization options.
- Setup a testing environment.
- Download and install your theme on the test environment.
- Use the theme options panel to make customizations.
- Make CSS customizations, if need be.
- Upload the local site to your live server.
You got your site’s foundation, frame, and walls in place. Good job! The structure is complete.
In the next post in this two-part series, we’ll look at how to create the aesthetic, or design, of your site and how to add functionality, too.
But until part two goes live, I want to hear about your experiences with building websites from scratch. What speed bumps did you run into, if any? What’s something you wish you would’ve known about the structural build of WordPress before getting started?