I’ve been a supporter and user of WordPress for over a decade. Heck, I remember when the terms Page, Post, and Category actually described what the software was used for. Of course this was before WordPress took over 30% of the Internet. Times have changed. Now the once simple turn-key CMS is a juggernaut that can overwhelm newcomers with an endless ocean of decisions and choices.
Coaching people on setting up their own digital lemonade stand, I’ve been successful framing your soon to-be WordPress site as a technology stack. If you’re unfamiliar, a tech stack is a set of softwares that come together to deliver a solution. The beauty of a tech stack is that it acts as a framework for decision-making. The ever-popular LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) stack outlines the necessity for an operating system, web server, database, and programming language when hosting websites.
My goal in writing this post is to share how I frame WordPress setups to keep me on track and avoid getting overwhelmed. There are a few assumptions I’ve made to keep this article focused on the ecosystem within WordPress. I will not cover domain registration, web hosting, or anything preceding a successful installation. I will assume you’re using WordPress as a personal blog/portfolio site with the intention of growing a subscriber base. I will not cover technology that is external to WordPress such as a mailing list or email provider.
Since we’re using the tech stack analogy as a framework, let’s begin by defining the different components in our WordPress Tech Stack — don’t worry I’ll share my own personal stack too at the end of the article. There are four primary components to our tech stack: Theme, Builder, SEO, and Opt-In. I will briefly describe each layer, offer some options, and let you know what I’ve chosen. By the end you’ll have my WordPress Tech Stack and a starting point to develop yours.
The theme is like your site’s digital skin. Choosing one is a time-consuming part of starting your blog. You’ll scrutinize over its aesthetic, wondering if others are using the same theme—trust me they are — and how to make something just the way you like. Sounds too familiar to making an avatar in an online game…
There are two main strategies in picking a theme. You can choose an minimalistic plain theme that will function out-of-the-box but may be limiting in the long-run. Conversely, choose a flexible theme that borders on being a content framework where you can adjust every corner and pixel. If you don’t get energized from picking color palettes, fonts, and column widths then go with the first option. At the end of the day, your content makes the site, not the theme. Get off the character screen and start leveling up.
Elegant Themes, Studio Press, and Themify are among a handful of real heavy-hitters in the theme marketplace along with an endless stream of free to freemium options. What distinguishes the leaders in this category is that their true product is the underlying builder that was used to create the theme. Here’s a list of top premium themes to get you started: The Best and Most Popular WordPress Themes of 2018.
I’ve used Elegant Themes and Studio Press for the better part of 10 years. My favorite theme of all-time was WooThemes’s Canvas, which does not exist anymore — they’re now WooCommerce if the name sounded familiar. Canvas was minimalistic in style but offered a tremendous amount of customization options. The result was a theme you could use immediately and tweak along the way. Currently I’m using Extra by Elegant Themes, the sister theme to their flagship theme Divi. I made this choice because Extra is built with blogs in mind and Divi is really the “build anything” framework that requires me to spend too much time configuring.
The builder is the interface you use to create your posts and pages. The leading builders are graphical, allow you to drag ‘n drop, and come with a variety of pre-built elements. I strongly recommend basing your decision on how you like the pre-built elements. In fact, this influenced my choice to go with the Event theme since I liked the modules in the underlying Divi Builder.
If your theme and builder are not bundled, I’d recommend Elementor as a standalone page builder. The interface is easy-to-use, clean, and bug free. I’ve occasionally run into vertical spacing being too big, but it’s most often my mistake and not grouping sections together properly. Here’s a list comparing the most popular page builders: 5 Best Drag and Drop WordPress Page Builders Compared (2018).
A quick note about selecting your builder. If you decide to change to another builder, this often means needing to export all your content under the original builder since the pages and posts are stored within the builder and not the normal WordPress GUI.
My experience working with the Divi Builder has been mixed. I really like the aesthetic of each module and how I can customize seemingly everything. What has been a challenge is understanding the boundaries of their taxonomies and infrastructure. Building standalone pages gives you a different set of tools compared to building in the Category Builder, which are designs intended to be used with defined post categories. Each module, row, and section can be saved for re-use; however, I’m still learning when each is able to be used and more importantly, the optimal way to organize my layouts.
Search Engine Optimization is what I consider the dirty work of content creation. It’s a tedious but necessary chore to maintain a level of compliance and ensure your hard work isn’t falling on deaf ears. This couldn’t be more true if you’re getting started out and need all the help you can get climbing up the Google Search ladder.
SEO is heavily focused on making sure your content has the appropriate underlying information that search engines use to automagically categorize and deliver your site when searched for. Once you know what fields are required, the next step is knowing how to be an all-star at using them. A good SEO tool will help you with both steps by making it easy to fill in the necessary fields and assisting you
Yoast SEO is the clear leader in the SEO game. With over 5 million active installations and a ridiculously high rating, you can’t go wrong here. The plugin is truly all-encompassing. It checks everything from title length to word repetition and displays it in a way you cannot miss. Over time I’ve found it a bit invasive. Yes it keeps you honest, but it starts to feel like a helicopter parent. If you’re brand new to SEO and want the hand-holding I recommend Yoast without hesitating.
I’ve recently switched to trying out The SEO Framework with positive results. The plugin is as unintrusive as possible. They even include the following in the description: This plugin is unbranded! This means that we don’t even put the name “The SEO Framework” anywhere within the WordPress interface, aside from the plugin activation page. I appreciate this type of transparency and not needing a brand new interface just for my SEO. The configuration is one-and-done while the helpers are small but visible so they don’t distract.
The third big player in the SEO game is All-in-One SEO. I found this article helpful in deciding which way to go and recommend the read to inform your own decision: 3 Best WordPress SEO Plugins Compared.
The final layer of our WordPress blog tech stack, having a method to capture visitor information is crucial in growing your brand and eventually monetizing your content. When deciding on an opt-in plugin keep in mind the need to support your external mailing provider as well as what features are important to you.
How the opt-in is displayed and when it is displayed are the two primary factors in your decision. Some plugins focus on widgets either in the sidebar or below a post to collect information. Other plugins are focused on pop-ups or fly-ins. In terms of when an opt-in is displayed, control based on page allows a contextualized message while features like exit intent let you target a user before they intend to leave your site.
I tried the following plugins each with satisfactory results: OptinMonster, Hustler, and MailChimp for WordPress (MC4WP). MC4WP was definitely the easiest to use while OptinMonster provided more power and flexibility. I’ve settled on Bloom, also by Elegant Themes, as my opt-in engine. It’s been very easy to configure and I appreciate the granularity of display triggers, but it’s missing exit intent which is a huge blow. I imagine this will make its way into the plugin eventually as a ubiquitous feature, which is why it’s omission did not dissuade me.
Here’s a good article comparing the most popular opt-in plugins: 11 Best WordPress Mailing List Plugins for List Building Magic.
If you’ve been keeping track, I use Event, Divi Builder, The SEO Framework, and Bloom as my tech stack. Three of the four are provided by Elegant Themes which brings me to the first of three takeaways in deciding on a tech stack.
Consider an ecosystem. Guaranteed interoperability between your components cannot be understated. Customer support, feature updates, and a consistent experience help you get off the ground and stay up-to-date. Ignore the sticker shock of an all-in-one bundle, it’s worth it. You have to decide if you’re taking this seriously or not.
Some layers are easier to change than others. Want to switch out your opt-in plugin? Block off an hour or two and you should be fine. Want to switch your SEO plugin? Block off a day or two and you should be fine. Depending on the configuration, a theme may not be too bad to swap out. If you’re not confident you’ll keep your builder then try to use the default editor when possible.
Anticipate the growth of your stack. Wouldn’t that be great if you installed one theme, three plugins, and never touched the backend again? Wishful thinking. Plugin creep is a real thing and you probably can’t avoid it. Be intentional when growing your stack. If you know in the future it will expand a particular direction then factor that into your initial decision-making.
Starting a new site? I hope this post was helpful. If you have great ideas and content to be written, don’t let the setup get in your way.
Already have a site established? What is your WordPress Tech Stack and why did you choose each part?