Despite Wix’s weirdest attempts to try and demonize WordPress (we’re not buying it, guys), it’s clear that WordPress is by far the superior content management system out there.
What I love the most about it, is just how much control I have over everything (without feeling overwhelmed by it either). But I’ve been footering around with WordPress for about seven years now and I’m far from an expert.
But that’s exactly why you should read this post.
I’m not a WordPress expert, yet I was able to build this website without crumpling into a mess on the floor or throwing my laptop out the window.
Because WordPress might have more of a learning curve than say, Squarespace, but it IS accessible to us normal people once we get the hang of it (I promise).
I made my very first WordPress site back in 2014 and I think if you click on it you can get a feel for how far I’ve come along…
And nope, I didn’t take some super expensive or fancy web design course to dramatically improve how I build sites on here.
Today I’m breaking down how I built this current site in record time without a page builder like DIVI or Elementor because I’ve been trialling and erroring this whole process for quite a while now.
I don’t want to just go into the mechanics though. One of the main reasons this process was so easy for me this time around was that I finally nailed down my branding and messaging and once that’s clear in your mind, you’ll 10x the process.
That’s why I’m also going to look at how I got those critical elements down first, because they had such a major impact on everything.
So, let’s dive in 🤘
Before you think about building your site, you need to nail your messaging
Since becoming a copywriter, I think I’ve redone my site a total of four times and I was never happy with it.
The biggest reason wasn’t the design, but the messaging.
💁♀️ I had no idea who I was targeting so the copy was so bland
💁♀️ I had so many services that the thought of creating an individual page for each of them made me want to girl-from-excorcist vomit
💁♀️ My business wasn’t tied to a specific mission so I had no idea how to communicate my passion to my visitors
This all had a knock-on effect of making it harder to get my website actually built because I’d spend so long rewriting the copy, hating it and then finding ways to avoid actually publishing anything.
I don’t really know how to describe it, but once you get clear on who you’re targeting, what your niche is and why you care so much about it, the actual design just gets easier. I think maybe it’s because you start thinking of how you can build your site around your message instead of squeezing your messaging into whatever template you’ve chosen.
The seemingly random question that helped me nail the branding for my website [and beyond!]
I’m lucky enough to have access to Brendan Hufford’s brain by being in his group SEO For the Rest of Us, and one day Brendan asked an amazingly insightful question which I’ll paraphrase here.
When was the last time you really, truly had fun? How can you add more of that to your business?
The thing that came to my mind immediately was water fights when I was a kid. Our whole street would get involved, then the kids from the other street would get FOMO and team up against us.
It was the most fun EVER.
So that got me thinking about those summer days and I fell back into nostalgia for my 1990s childhood. Then one thing led to another and I realized that I’d love to incorporate that fun, nostalgic vibe into my branding, especially as most of my clients are the same age as me.
I wanted people to get a nostalgia-driven endorphin boost once the landed on my site and found graphics of floppy disks, VHS and cassettes.
Does it have anything to do with SEO, copywriting or digital marketing?
No, and that’s the point.
When you think of my niche what comes to mind are images like…. “woman sitting down at laptop smiling” “finger pointing to pie chart showing organic traffic growth”
And it’s also what 99% of other SEO copywriters will do too. So, my only advice as a non-branding expert is don’t just choose professional looking images or copy and paste what others are doing.
I also wanted to avoid what’s trending. I noticed that so many websites just looked the damn same: same pastel colour palette, same soft round shapes and same weird bottom-heavy-tiny-head-people-illustrations (really what IS the deal with those?!)
That’s why I went for a neon, in-your-face, bright and fun colour palette.
I call it “neon-punk”.
Not sure how to create a colour palette? Check out this amazing color resource.
So, with my messaging and branding down I’ll get into the actual meat of how I built this site from scratch (after learning a lot of lessons the hard way from previous sites).
Hosting for your WordPress Site & Why I left Bluehost
Before you build your WordPress site you’re going to need hosting for that site – basically the place where your website lives on the internet.
It’s so important to choose good hosting and it’s really worth it to avoid the cheap hustlers out there like Bluehost.
Speaking of which, fuck Bluehost.
They have such an aggressive affiliate marketing campaign that all your favourite influencers are forever touting how wonderful Bluehost are.
They’re not, they suck and here’s why.
I hosted my first proper site with Bluehost (duped by an influencer no doubt…) and at first I really had no complaints, but I also didn’t know wtf I was doing.
Then I kept getting these emails from JetPack (I don’t use them anymore) saying my website was down.
Like I mean sometimes I got that email 5 times A DAY!
Second of all, when I started learning more about websites (again, I’m no guru here) I ran a website speed test and the biggest problem that was flagged?
Slow. Server. Response. Times.
AKA – Bluehost was screwing me.
A lot of people have also complained (quite publicly) about Bluehost’s terrible customer support. I have to admit I actually had no issues with their customer support (who I was on with more times than I wanted to be…)
I’ve also reached out to a few developers who always say the same thing: Bluehost sucks.
So after dealing with my website being constantly down and dreadful server response times, I made the move to Siteground.
Siteground don’t just have great customer support (although I’ve heard grumblings from some in the US that it’s declined in recent years) they also just have great hosting.
Now when I run my site speed tests I never get flagged for slow server response times and anytime I have a question or need help I’ve found the folks over at Siteground really helpful. Switching from Bluehost was easy also, you just need to update your DNS records which isn’t as scary as it sounds and someone from Siteground will help you do the whole transfer.
Strangely, in my experience minification can actually slow down a site because the combined css/js files clog up the server (at least that’s my assumption). So if you haven’t, you might try running some speed tests with minification off. Minification can also break stuff [so make sure to test your site after minification].Matt Stern, Stern Design
So, do your due diligence when it comes to minification.
Because I run other websites (which are currently in rebuild phases…) I went for Siteground’s “Grow Big” plan so I can build unlimited websites. But if you just want to build one site then their starter plan should be more than enough.
(A weird quirk of mine is impluse buying domain names “just in case” – that’s actually what happened with this site. I just liked the name so I bought it and now it’s my main site!)
Siteground isn’t the cheapest hosting out there, but like I said good hosting is the BEST investment you can make for your site.
I’ve also heard good things about WPRocket but I haven’t used them so can’t comment personally.
Making my site faster with cloudfare
One great, free and EASY way to speed up your site is to get a CDN (Content Delivery Network). What this does is serve up your website to users from their nearest data centre so it loads faster for them.
My site is currently hosted in the Netherlands which is really far from say, the USA, but visitors from the US get my website content from a server that’s closer to them, reducing load time.
Cloudfare is a great CDN and is used by bajillions of people and luckily, they have a free plan (I’m on the free plan).
What’s great about being with Siteground is that you can set up Cloudfare right from your Siteground dashboard.
You can install Cloudfare for your site for free and without even leaving your Siteground Dashboard.
Now, FINALLY: what I used to build my site from scratch [themes & plugins]
The site that used to be my professional site was built using DIVI, but I decided to leave DIVI and visual page builders behind.
The first reason for this might ruffle some feathers and again: I’m no expert. This is based on what other experts, who I trust, told me. I appreciate the fact that so much can be causing a website to run slow and it’s not just a page builder.
Here’s why I left DIVI:
- Page builders can slow down your site: I’m not developer, but I know and talk to a lot of developers. Many of them said that DIVI is quite bloated and will slow down your site. I also know lots of web designers who use DIVI and make really fast sites, but they are professionals. The rest of us don’t know nearly as much about how to make a site run faster while using these page builders, so I remain cautious.
- It was clunky and annoying to use: I hate building on the front end and feel much more at home on the back-end Gutenberg Builder. I found DIVI to just be really clunky and slow, so it slowed down my whole process when I was building my site
- I’d seen so many of the same templates over and over: a lot of people use DIVI because you can import a whole website template in the click of a button – amazing! But I’ve also seen the exact same templates in a lot of different sites. Remember everything being a copy of a copy of a copy?
If you want to move off DIVI (and I’m not even saying you should – if it’s easy for you and you’re happy with it, stick to it!) you can use a plugin called Bye, Bye DIVI to remove all DIVI shortcode from your site.
But I’d also speak with a developer just to make sure you don’t accidentally blow up your site.
Now, let’s see what I DID use to build my WordPress site.
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My WordPress Theme? Astra
I’d heard really good things about Astra. A friend of mine used it and I always thought his site looked amazing, and he said it runs really smoothly and he never has issues with load speed.
I’d also heard from a few SEOs/Developers that Astra was their favourite theme, many of them used it with Elementor, but I was determined to not depend on a page builder again.
If you want to make sure that your WordPress theme is truly lightweight and fast here’s a tip: check the demo site and run that through a page speed test like GTMetrix
Again, I know there’s so much more than the theme that goes into these page speed tests but it can help you get an idea at least.
As you can see here, this demo site did quite well.
When you buy Astra you get access to their Starter Templates. I’m just on the regular subscription so I don’t have access to that many, but there’s still plenty to choose from. In the end I ended up deleting nearly everything from the template and just kept the header and footer design which I liked a lot.
What you need to know about going with Astra
- If you want access to the Starter Templates you’ll need to purchase a subscription
- The cheapest subscription is $47 a year (a bargain)
- You need to also install the Astra Pro plugin to unlock all the pro features from your subscription
TIP: When you import a template make sure to update your categories! My template came with “fitness” “health” categories that I had to delete.
Another thing I LOVE about Astra is the customization options are so readily available on the back-end. One thing about building WordPress sites that used to drive me crazy was how to get everything full width, but still have the content contained.
Astra makes this easy. In each page or post you build you can use a range of option to display your content. For my blogs I use “content boxed” and for my pages I use “Full Width/Contained”
I can also disable my title so I can have proper full-width headers that don’t have the title just floating awkwardly above them…
What Plugins I Used to Build my Site
Building your site on WordPress means plugins and while we should all try to keep them to a minimum, some are pretty essential for creating a great site.
Here are my favourite plugins and the ones I use on this site.
SEO Plugin: RankMath
I used to be with Yoast, but when I discovered RankMath my mind was blown. There are so many more options available on RankMath compared to Yoast. My particular favourite is the range of schema you can implement using RankMath.
Schema is code that tells search engines more about what your content is actually about. It’s what’s used to get those “rich snippets” you see on Google. Think of when you search a recipe: you see lots of photos of the food and maybe even reviews left my people who tried it – that was created using schema.
I’d been dying to try out more schema on my websites (cause Yoast’s schema options are super limited) and RankMath makes is really simple to add schema to your posts, even custom schema.
RankMath also includes options that Yoast makes you buy another plugin for, such as video schema options. Now maybe this is to reduce bloat on Yoast’s plugins so it’s more lightweight, I don’t know. But RankMath offered me the best options for exploring schema so I went for it.
I’m going to do a full review of RankMath, but just know I think it’s pretty great. The switch might not be worth it for you if you just want some very basic SEO functions, but if you want to go more in-depth, I think RankMath is a step-up.
Ultimate Blocks: I LOVE this plugin
A while back you have seen a little “Click to Tweet” widget, pretty cool right? Usually you have to pay to get those types of embeddable tweets. But with Ultimate Blocks I can create as many as I want and never spend a penny.
They also have great built-in testimonial, call-to-action and buttons you can use to improve your posts and pages. Like this right here 👇
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See what I did there 😉
But really, those CTAs look really good and this plugin doesn’t cost you anything (I think there is a premium version, but I use the free one).
Security Plugin: iThemes
While Siteground does a great job at boosting security on your site, I also wanted a little extra. I did some digging and discovered a free security plugin called iThemes. It helps your improve your site’s security by;
- Monitoring unexpected file changes
- Providing local brute force protection
- Blocking users snooping around 404s to exploit
- Running security checks: it makes sure your site is using the latest security checks
I’m no expert in this, but I heard good things about this plugin and so far, so good. If you know of any others feel free to let me know in the comments, I’d appreciate it.
How I built my headers
I wanted to include a quick section about how I built my header sections, because this REALLY used to frustrate me when building on the back-end.
As I mentioned above, I made sure that my Astra page settings were set to:
- Content: full-width, contained
- Disable Title
Then I used the Gutenberg block “covers” to make my headers/hero sections and made sure they were selected at showing in “full width”. Then within the cover section I chose the “header” then “paragraph” block.
And that’s it! You can set what background image to use on your cover, the focal point and overlay colour & opacity.
This was a game changer for me, honestly and something I used to really struggle with when it came to WordPress design.
And that’s what I used to build this WordPress site from scratch
I could go into way more detail about how I set everything up, but I think this post is meaty enough for now! The main takaways are;
- Nail your messaging first or else your whole website will feel like an absolute chore
- When it comes to branding, think outside the box and forget the latest trend
- Good hosting is 100% worth the price
- Set up a CDN like Cloudfare
- Use a lightweight theme like Astra that gives you lots of easy-to-customize options
- Download an SEO plugin like RankMath or Yoast. They won’t “do” your SEO for you, but they’re helpful for quite a few things like creating your sitemap
- Get great creative blocks from plugins like Ultimate Blocks to make your content pop
Like I said above, I’m no expert. But people asked me what I’d used to build my site and were surprised to hear that I didn’t use a page builder, so here we are.
Always do your own due-diligence and check with people like your hosting provider or a developer if you want to add things to your site and you’re not sure if it’ll work well or not.
If you’ve got any of your own advice or you think I could improve on anything about my own site feel free to leave a comment below.