If you’re planning to DIY your brand and build your own website, it’s important to use the right tools so you can be efficient and smart with your budget.
Some of the links below are affiliate links but some of them are not. For example, tools like Canva and Squarespace don’t have affiliate programs but I recommend them over their competitors who do. In cases where there’s a quality product I recommend that’s available for free, I have recommended that rather than the paid solution.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Choosing The Right Website Platform – SquareSpace or WordPress?
Choosing A WordPress Theme
Essential WordPress Plugins & Extensions
Social Media Tools
Productivity & Project Management Tools
Branding Tools & Resources
Choosing The Right Website Platform
Even though this is about mostly about WordPress Websites, I must preface by saying that WordPress is not always the perfect solution for every one of my clients, so I want to touch briefly on picking the right platform for your needs:
For those who want more robust, flexible and scalable websites — and that’s me and most of my clients — I recommend self-hosted WordPress. What this means is you will sign up for your own hosting service and install WordPress on your own account.
Note this important distinction: WordPress.org is the open source software you host wherever you please. WordPress.com, is a hosted solution and that’s different, I do not recommend this route for businesses.
The WordPress software is free, you just need to purchase your domain name and a website hosting account.
SiteGround is the company I recommend to host your website. All web hosts offer similar features but the crucial difference is in the quality of the support and the performance of the servers, At this time, SiteGround wins on both counts and is perfect for small businesses and bloggers on a budget.
Note: I recommend staying away from EIG web hosts (see this article for details) and GoDaddy website hosting 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 upsell you on in the checkout process.)
If a client is particularly anxious about technology and has zero time, patience, or funds to outsource the maintenance of a WordPress website, I recommend Squarespace.
👍You can get up and running pretty quickly
👍Because everything is hosted by Squarespace, you don’t have to worry about updates, they handle the tech
👍The templates are nice-looking, and you can customize them
👍It’s a very popular platform so you can find tons of resources, tutorials, blogs, and support
👎It isn’t nearly as flexible as WordPress, you can run into “you can’t do that with Squarespace” problems. The tradeoff for easy is always that it’ll have limitations
👎Because everything is run by Squarespace, that means you’ll be running your business on rented property. You’re unable to migrate your site to a different website host should something change or go wrong
There are many other drag-and-drop website builder solutions on the market such as Weebly, Wix, and GoDaddy, but because of the passionate user base and the quality of the designs, SquareSpace is my recommendation in this category.
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 to your website.
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 change
Please note: Whichever theme you choose, always work with a child theme. Never make customizations to the core theme — you’ll lose those customizations when you do theme updates.
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 even if you don’t know how to write a single line of code
👍There’s a huge online community (Divi Nation!) so you can find loads of tutorials, support, and helpful communities
👍It’s the most popular theme on the market today, so there are lots of third-party plugins, child themes, and extensions
👎Because of the way Divi is coded, if you ever want to use a different theme, “theme switching” is not possible… not easily anyway (which isn’t something I ever do anyway for my site or clients’)
👎People complain about slow load times with Divi, but many Divi designers and developers disagree with that
Here’s my take: If you don’t use the Divi visual drag-and-drop builder on your blog posts, you can export them easily without worrying about “Divi Code.” When it’s time to redesign and you want to use a different theme, you’ll redesign all of your other pages anyway.
As for site performance, I’ve experimented with other “supposedly faster” visual builders and themes and they tested worse than my own site that uses Divi. It works just fine so long as you don’t bloat your website with heavy images and tons of plugins, and if you follow best practices for reducing page load times.
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.
Elementor + Astra
(Free versions are available, but they’re pretty limited.)
The Elementor visual builder–which is a tool that allows you to create drag-and-drop layouts (similar to the way Divi works)–is the new, popular kid on the block. I personally don’t find it as intuitive as Divi, but I mention it because it’s gaining tremendous popularity.
Astra is a WordPress theme that’s often used in conjunction with Elementor, praised for its fast performance by web designers and developers.
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 Website Extensions
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.
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.
When all of this went down, a lot of people abandoned ship and started recommending Social Pug, which I mention so you can make an informed choice.
Further Reading: How to Optimize mages for SEO, Pinterest, and Social Media
Image Optimization Plugins for WordPress
I recommend using one of the following WordPress plugins to optimize any legacy big, non-optimized images you have on your website that are slowing your site down.
That said, I don’t recommend relying exclusively on these plugins to optimize your images. Instead, build best practices into your workflow:
Use the appropriate file type
- PNG-24 files are true-color, lossless in quality and look beautiful, but they’re usually the largest file size.
- PNG-8 supports fewer colors but will be smaller in file size
- If you’re working with photos, you typically want to use .jpeg saved to the lowest quality possible without sacrificing the aesthetic quality of the image
- Make the file size dimensions as small as you can before you upload — do not resize them in WordPress
In Photoshop, I test my images as .jpegs and .png-8 to see which file size is smaller and whether there is a difference in quality. If you don’t have access to Photoshop or the budget to buy it, check out Gimp, which is a free alternative.
Finally, I run those optimized images through TinyPng.com to shave a few more KB off the file size before uploading. This workflow keeps my pages loading fast and only takes a couple of extra seconds of my time.
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.
Optimize Blog Post Headlines
SEO all starts with understanding the keywords and phrases you want to rank for and you’ll need a research tool to get that information.
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.
UPDATE: KWFinder no longer allows you to use their service for free, so I went on the hunt and I found something better.
SEMScoop is very similar to KWFinder, and you can use it for up to 5 free searches per day.
Personally, I like to do keyword research in batches and track everything in a spreadsheet when I’m planning my content calendar so I am on a paid plan, if you find it’s easier to work that way too you can use my promo code SAVE20LT to save 20% off lifetime for a subscription plan.
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. Watch my free, ungated SmarterQueue tutorial.
Tailwind (Pinterest) — I don’t recommend signing up for the paid version of Tailwind if you’re just getting started, a free account is best until you wrap your head around things. Pinterest takes some time to learn and understand if you want to get traffic (and you can get serious traffic).
Instead, begin with manual pinning (check out Meera Kothand’s tutorial) and then, once you get the hang of it, bring in Tailwind to build efficiency into your workflow and free up time. Their SmartLoop feature has saved me hours every week and their Tribes Feature has helped expand my reach by millions.
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.
I also recommend ConversionMinded’s Biz-in-A-Box – which includes Canva tutorials plus LOADS of professionally-designed social media templates for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest, list-building and product templates, and branding elements as well. If you just need social sharing graphics, check out the Social Media Templates.
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.
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.