If you want a successful WordPress website from scratch, or are replacing an outdated site with a WordPress site, you might feel overwhelmed. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
That’s because like most business leaders, while you are GREAT at what you do to grow your company, the last thing you want to spend time doing is website design, or having to gain WordPress expertise. And that’s OK. This post and video will give you useful information so you can approach the task in a way that will be more efficient and less frustrating.
WordPress Best Practices — The sound starting point of a successful WordPress website:
You want to start with documenting your business needs. If you are a marketer, you are used to working with briefs. It’s extremely important for us to approach a website the same way, and especially applicable as a WordPress Best Practice. Because unlike building from scratch, right from a blank page, if you will, on code and design, we are actually working to fit within something that’s out there on the market, that’s going to be close to us, fit what our needs might be. So you want to look at the content that you need supported, the features that you need. I always put them in two tiers. That’s very important. They are the features that we must have for our business needs, for our site needs, and then the features that we would like to have.
The reason these are more important with WordPress than with a complete-from-scratch, non-CMS site is because you are going to need to make some concessions somewhere along the way. So labeling and having everybody be on the same page with respect to what’s important and where things are tiered is pretty important. It is very valuable. It eliminates confusion and helps for the process. Your website business goals, it may seem like it makes complete sense. You would always write down your goals.
I have actually found that letting the developer know what your goals are is really important. You may not necessarily think they are too interested in that. I always look for developers that do take some time to understand what my goals are, even though they may not really affect strategy decisions. If they know what our vision is, everybody is in the same direction, moving the same way. So I always share it, because it’s better to share it than not and then later on find out that they have complete confusion about what we are doing.
The other thing, it’s very important to make sure that the theme will meet your site goals. Not just business goals, but now site goals. Do you need that front page to be essential? Do you need it to be blog-based, because it’s an adjunct site to go along with your main brand site? One side of the coin is that well-established themes suffer over-exposure, unless you customize them. For somebody who is regionally-based in focus, does it really matter? I will give you an example. Real estate market. The real estate WordPress niche has incredible repetition. But real estate people by and large work within a radius of 500 miles from where ever their home base is.
So somebody in Southern California with their big picture on the WordPress site front page is not going to care if the same American flag theme is being used by someone in Virginia. It doesn’t matter. But for those of us who work with enterprises that go beyond those kinds of things, over-exposure is important. It goes along with the visuals that might be repetitive or over-use of stock photography. Same thing. On the other hand, new themes might be unproven, and when we talk about unproven, I always tell people, “Don’t be someones guinea pig with your website.” I really believe that. It may see like I am being trite. I am not.
If you have a decision to make between a theme that has somewhat of a track record and maybe a couple revisions underneath it, versus someone pushing a theme that’s brand-new, with a number of themes that are out there, I don’t get convinced too often that there is a must-have theme that’s brand-new that I should be looking at. Most times, we can take care of our business needs with another theme that closely approximates it. We also, of course, need to make sure it works with the latest version of WordPress. I don’t know why, but there are some developers who glom on to a theme, and they don’t let it go.
Remember, we talked about child themes? And they will build off an obscure theme from two years ago, and for whatever the reasons, they are using that theme, and it didn’t have elements of good responsive design. When I talk about good responsive design, I am saying that when they design for a mobile device, it really doesn’t look that great. You know, they put all of their creative talents into the desktop site, and then they deliver the responsive design because that’s what was required of them. And that’s really not worthwhile. You need it to support all the basic WordPress functions. That isn’t so much of an issue as it used to be, but there still are themes out there that don’t do everything that WordPress needs them to do, and there are issues at install.
How to spot a “dog” theme.
A dog theme, in my opinion, it’s one that’s going to have bad reviews. You are going to see that it doesn’t have a lot of downloads. And there is going to be a support log comment. Now, this is not riveting reading. You don’t want to look through all the support logs, but when you are looking at a theme and considering it, or a developer comes to you and wants you to look at the theme, if you are on the WordPress.org site, like all the other repositories that you can purchase from, there will be ratings included right next to the theme page itself. And within those ratings, you could read all the reviews. It’s very much set up like we are used to in Amazon, with respects to product reviews.
In my workshop, I find examples to show the audience. I might pick on a particular theme that is very specific to a niche. It might be a very nice theme if you are a musician. It is not a dog, but it is very young and not a lot of people have reviewed it, which makes it an unknown quantity to build a site upon. Do I want to use this theme for a really important site? I don’t think so. On the other hand, the site that features the theme tells you how many downloads have been made of the theme. Usually, there is how many downloads have been available, what the support is. And even though we are using WordPress.org in this example, the same holds true with ThemeForest or any of the others. So if you are in the position where you have the need to look at the pedigree of a theme, that’s the best place to look at it.
As we talked about earlier, and you’ll hear me say it over and over, you want to make sure it’s SEO-ready and friendly, but with clean code. There are ways to check this, actually, because if you access tools, it will allow you to check SEO on a site. You can actually go to the themes demo page. Because everything that’s out there has a demo page that you can actually go, and it’s got [inaudible 00:06:44] some Greeking placeholder text, and it’s housed on the fastest server that they can possibly find, and things like that. And you can assess what the site speed might be on different browsers.
Of course, we talked about responsive design, and you have heard it all day, if you have been at the other sessions. Mobile First is a must with todays world for users. Even new users are buying mobile devices before they are buying desktop computers nowadays. And it goes along with that trying to make a theme responsive after the fact causes problems. This isn’t just a problem of old themes. There are some newer themes that only have two stages of responsiveness. They either go from full size, 900 pixels wide, down to boom, down to smart phone size. So I always suggest that people check on three devices when they are looking at themes and considering them.
You want to have the number of layouts that meet your needs. If you don’t need a lot of depth to your site, you don’t need this. If you need a lot of depth, and your theme isn’t providing it, you are going to have to find it some way, either through a developer doing special coding, or through plug-ins, which add weight, once again, to your website. Never review a theme and evaluate it, if it’s brought to you based on static images. Always want to see a demo. I always recommend that. There is a challenge to that. I am going to say it up front as a designer.
Being able to let go and visualize lets you get beyond the window dressing
The hardest thing is when you have a theme that looks red and blue, and will use a strange type, and you are showing it to someone in the early, early stages, right out of the box, but you know that you’re going to be making some changes on that, some visualization is necessary and without getting caught up too much in the fact that it’s the wrong colors, it’s not appropriate colors, things like that. But even though its demo is short, it’s good to see that, because what you are looking at is, “What does my total site flow and experience look like?” And everybody that’s a decision maker needs to be part of that.
The themes navigation needs to align with your strategy as well. If you have multiple sets of products or multiple service areas, and you know from experience, maybe from your legacy site, that you need several tiers of drop-down menus, you want a theme that will provide for some of that and do it smoothly and fluidly and intuitively, versus a theme that only has five little things across the top, exaggerated, but has only one level of nav up here and one down below and one up above as options, and none of these drop downs. So build to what you need, and purchase for what you need.
Now, you can always check this. It’s not a requirement. Themes sometimes will offer calls to action. I have found that they are always put in the worst possible place, from a direct marketing perspective. They are usually put down in the footer, for some reason. But that’s because they are built by people who don’t understand direct marketing and the principles that we are doing. So there is this warning. Don’t expect the theme to deliver the best practices. Use your background, your skills and knowledge in direct marketing, and your advisors and your agencies to do this job right. This is the part that they excel at. And by the way, it’s going to be the same if you have a non-content managed site as well.
The role of support for a WordPress Theme
And then after the fact you want to have your questions answered, you want to know what your support options are going to be. Nobody likes to get handed off just the site, and it’s sort of a, “Well, there you go. We’re done with it, and now you gotta figure it out.” It’s a tough spot to be in. I have actually been in that spot, way, way back with a site that was a niche product site. And it’s no fun, and it’s a waste of time for a lot of people that have to learn something because it was not well supported.
And then always ask about what is customer service like, and are things going to be done automatically or not.
Don’t forget about plug-ins
I get involved with helping people make sure that their plug-ins and things like that are kept up to date on their websites. If you are running about six plug-ins on your website, which is not a lot—it’s a very few, you will have an update approximately twice a week. Update intervals won’t be evenly spaced, and they will be triggered by events. WordPress updates something, then everybody’s plug-in gets updated. A cascade of events. You know, these things just happen. Sometimes, keeping up with the updates feels like juggling spinning plates.
Will your site immediately crash if you don’t update the plug-in immediately? Not usually, not usually, especially if you are working with quality. But it does require maintenance afterward. And then, of course, as we talked about before, you want to be looking for your user experience and user interaction elements that work for you. Button sizes, mobile tappable, that’s my biggest beef. I see some designs that they look great on the demo, and then when I look at them on a mobile phone, I don’t have big beefy fingers, but even for me, they are positioned so close together, I know I am going to need my development team to separate buttons and make them larger, because somebody didn’t think about that. I don’t know who they thought was going to be using these phones, but it wasn’t me.
And then, we want to be sure that the theme was truly free of issues with particular devices. If it’s not going to work well on android phones and look poorly, and android phones are pretty important to you, you don’t want to be finding that out after the fact. And then I always ask people to do this, and do this in real-time. We are in a great test environment. We are in a Wi-Fi zone, that’s probably, if you haven’t already encountered, it’s not the quickest, which is good. The next best thing to this would probably be like Starbucks at 6 p.m. tonight.
But the thing is that you want to see what a demo for a theme might look like in real-time and on real devices. So it’s always a very good gut check to make sure. Is it fast-loading or not? And you know, as we said before, it’s better to build upon something that loads more quickly. And then there is another aspect of WordPress that doesn’t get talked a lot about a lot, and that is your final WordPress dashboard. We saw images of WordPress dashboard sample screens earlier. That is your basic look of the dashboard. But with every plug-in that gets added, with every feature set that gets added, there is one more page added to that dashboard, one more sub-dashboard. You need to make sure that you are aware that certain areas are going to require additional training.
Locking down the WordPress dashboard for everyone’s own safety.
I always advocate that people either white-label or find locks and limits areas for dashboards. And what I mean by that is, it can be set up so that people that are below a certain access level don’t see everything that’s on the left margin. It’s easier for them, it’s less frustrating. There is less going on. I would imagine everybody knows how to drive here. Hopefully we all do, I’m kind of guessing. I had a friend that never learned to drive. He lived in New York and Singapore all his life. When I met him, he was 40 and learning to drive in LA. Poor guy.
But the thing is, that first time we got in the car we had all those gauges. We had the stereo, we had the stick shift, yeah, if you had a stick shift. But you had everything going on in front you. It was overwhelming. Had it been simple like a bicycle, you only had the handle bars, the brakes, the pedals, you were there. The point is, been able to mask some of those areas is possible in WordPress websites. It really helps when you have people that are at the contributor level, that you don’t want to frustrate them with a lot of things that they could end up touching or braking, or that will just overwhelm them.
Training before you deploy leads to more odds of success with WordPress
I always recommend that an organization get additional training for advanced plug-ins like WooCommerce and Gravity Forms. It will suit you well. Even if you are happy with your forms, if something needs to be tweaked later, it’s worthwhile to get the training. So in addition to looking at those elements, you want to also consider that you want that theme to be flexible and compatible. We talked about conflicts earlier. We want to be sure that we start with our list of plug-ins that are on our must-have list and that whatever theme we are looking at doesn’t have known issues.
I have actually found that if I know my list of plug-ins, and I am looking at a theme to purchase, I can send an email, and usually by the next day will get an answer, via email, of have we had an issues with this plug-in or not. And what they will do is they will say, yeah, we had issues with this plug-in, so we recommend this other plug-in to work better. And that’s pretty good. Most of the time, there are no issues, but it never hurts to ask.