If you’re planning to build your own website, it’s important to make smart decisions from the get-go. When I build websites for clients, I use tools I know they can master with a bit of training without pulling their hair out. These are the tools I recommend and use in my own business.
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links of products I’ve vetted and recommend — which means that if you click on it, I will make a commission (at no cost to you) — and some are not.
Even though this is about mostly about WordPress Websites, I must preface by saying that it’s not always the perfect option for every client, so I want to touch briefly on picking the right platform for your needs:
Choosing The Right Platform
If a client is particularly anxious about technology, and have zero time (or funds to outsource) to maintain a WordPress website, I recommend Squarespace.
The advantage is that you can get up and running pretty quickly, and because everything is hosted by Squarespace, you don’t have to worry about updates. The templates are nice-looking, and you can customize them.
It isn’t nearly as flexible as WordPress, but that’s the price you pay when you want something that’s really easy to use and maintain. When I recommend SquareSpace I manage expectations: “Be aware that there may come a time when I tell you ‘sorry, we can’t do that’ with SquareSpace.” The tradeoff for easy is always that it’ll have limitations.
If you’re looking for the best way to get online quickly, don’t bother wasting time researching the other “website builder” platforms out there (GoDaddy, Wix, Weebly et al) — SquareSpace is the superior choice in that space. (If you’re already using one of these platforms, do not burn your website to the ground! You’re fine. This is just my personal opinion, yo.)
For those who want more robust, flexible and scalable websites — and that’s me and most of my clients — I recommend self-hosted WordPress. WordPress is free, but you’ll need to purchase a domain name and sign up for web hosting.
I recommend staying away from EIG web hosts (see this article for details) and GoDaddy based on all the hairs I’ve pulled out dealing with them over the years. (GoDaddy is fine for domain registration though, just don’t be seduced by all the other stuff they’ll try to sell you though. And beware of the “1-hour website.”)
Choosing The Right WordPress Theme
I highly recommend using a high-quality, premium theme or framework to build your WordPress website.
Some themes look gorgeous, but can be bloated and slow-loading and difficult to customize. You want to use a theme that you can stick with for years to come, because you don’t want to be scrapping everything and starting over all the time. It’s much better for a myriad of reasons (not to mention time/cost) to have the ability to make iterative changes.
The criteria I use when deciding which themes to use to build client websites:
#1. It’s supported well by the theme developer and they’ve got a track-record for good and responsive service.
#2. There’s a big community of designers, developers, and users.
#3. It’s easy for non-techie people to make updates and changes.
Please note: Whichever theme you choose, always work with a child theme. Never make customizations to the core theme, otherwise, you’ll lose those customizations when you do theme upgrades.
For my site, and for most of my clients’ sites, I use the Divi theme. It’s very easy to build drag-and-drop, robust layouts, and there’s a huge online community (Divi Nation!).
The community was really the selling point for me, as it often is (one reason why I learned to love WordPress many years ago) because if you ever need to learn how to do something, chances are somebody’s written a blog post about it or created a YouTube tutorial, or you can join a Divi Facebook group and you’ll find very helpful people there.
The disadvantage to using Divi is that if you ever want to use a different theme, “theme switching” is not easily possible. You’d be able to export your blog posts with no problem if you don’t use the Divi layout builder and that’s what I strongly recommend. But the pages built it would cause some troubles.
That said, in my experience, “theme switching” isn’t really a big sacrifice for me because I haven’t done that since 2005 or so. When I redesign a website, I normally start from scratch anyway and re-think, re-write, and re-build all of the core pages.
“WordPress purists” will often dissuade people from using these drag-and-drop builders, but again, there’s usually a compromise when you’re making something “easier.”
For me, I love that I can train my clients to create and update their own pages easily, without having to wrestle with code, which becomes important when they’re creating sales funnels.
Thrive themes is another option that designers and digital entrepreneurs love. I don’t personally use it, but that’s only because I find it’s better to learn one tool and stick with it for proficiency’s sake. But, it’s something I’ve looked into extensively and it would be my go-to if I ever felt the need to move away from Divi.
The Genesis Framework is probably the most revered framework for WordPress — designers, digital entrepreneurs and even hard-core developers love it because it’s highly customizable and the code is on-point. If you want full control and know how to code, this is the option for you. My developer loves Genesis, and we’ve done some amazing things with it.
Personally, I like spending my time doing things other than working with code — even though I can do it, I’d rather be doing something else. (I’m glad that things have evolved since the days I used to spend pulling all-nighters and pulling my hair out. I’m no code hero!)
If you want more information, here’s a comparison of Divi and Genesis.
Essential Plug-ins for WordPress
One of the coolest things about WordPress is that you can expand the basic functionality with plug-ins. Here are the plug-ins I install by default for my clients, and plug-ins I simply can’t live without.
A word of caution: Don’t get too plug-in crazy. Some plugins aren’t coded well and they can cause issues, and having too many will slow your site down. Stick to the necessary things, which are:
Keep your site backed up and safe
Social Warfare — this was a game changer for me. If you want to enable social sharing on your blog, and provide optimized graphics and descriptions for Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest, and if you want to add one of those cool “click to tweet” snippets to your post, this makes it SO easy. It’s $50/year and I’ve never regretted a penny.
Don’t make the mistake of installing analytics six months after you launch. It’s important to get it set up from jump street so you have a baseline and can monitor trends over time.
Google Console — Formerly Google Webmaster Tools, here you can submit your site to Google and get some basic search analytics too
If SEO is a concern, it all starts with understanding the keywords and phrases you want to rank for. KWFinder is the easiest and most affordable tool I’ve found to help you understand how competitive your keywords are, discovering content gaps (who’s already ranking for those keywords; what’s missing?) and discovering alternative keyword phrases.
Social Media Scheduling
Ever wish there were two of you? Social media schedulers free up TONS of your time, but not all are created equal. I’ve tried most of them, these are the ones I find easiest to use, at the most reasonable prices, and the most feature-rich.
SmarterQueue — Create a “set it and forget it” social sharing schedule. This tool is a cheaper version of Meet Edgar & it’s amazing how much time it frees up!
Buffer — The FREE version is great to have in your arsenal for “on the fly” content curation.
Tailwind (Pinterest) — I don’t recommend signing up for the paid version of Tailwind if you’re just getting started. Pinterest takes some time to learn and understand if you want to get traffic (and you can get serious traffic)… begin with manual pinning (check out Meera Kothand’s tutorial) and then bring in Tailwind once you’ve wrapped your head around it.
Creating Social Sharing Graphics
Nothing beats Adobe Creative Suite for graphic design, but for non-professionals there’s a pretty steep learning curve and it ain’t cheap. Canva is a great alternative that allows you to create beautiful graphics, with a large bank of pre-made templates sized perfectly for social sharing.
Keeping Track of Passwords
I nag my clients about keeping passwords organized and on file because I can’t begin to count the number of times something happened (their site was hacked, domain name expired… you know, the stuff that blows up in your face that you’re just not thinking about when you launch your pretty website). During those moments of stress you do NOT want to be hunting down your accounts and passwords.
I use the free version of LastPass to manage my logins; it’ll change your life!
Make sure your grammar game is on-point
Grammarly is another life-changer. My clients fall in LOVE with this one!
I hope that helped! If you have any questions or if there’s something I missed, drop me a comment below and I’ll be happy to share my recommendations.