how to customize your website

Once you have installed WordPress.org and your SSL certificate in Siteground, all site customization work is done through your “www.yourwebsite.com/wp-admin” dashboard. This post is the second installment in a 4 part series on How To Build A Website. Part 2 focuses on how to customize a website with plugins and themes! If you’re interested in jumping around, here’s what else is covered:

  1. Create A Website (Questions, Definitions, WordPress, SSL Certificate)
  2. Customize A Website (Themes, Plugins)
  3. Connect A Website to Google (Analytics, Search Console, Breadcrumbs, XML Sitemaps)
  4. Create A Post with Good SEO (Writing, Keywords, Yoast)

Here comes the fun part!

Customize a Website with Themes

A theme provides the starting point for how the pages and posts on your website will look. Do you want a big picture on your front page or do you want to dive straight into your posts? What do you want your main menu to look like? There are tons of free themes that you can scroll through to find the one that is right for your website.

To find a theme, click on the Appearance tab on the left hand side of your WP-Admin Dashboard. Then click on Themes, select the “Add New” button, and start scrolling.

How to Customize your website
Here’s what a WordPress.org dashboard looks like

I recommend installing a couple themes and clicking around within their settings to see if they match the image you have in your mind. Don’t plan on being able to make tweaks to a theme (without coding experience you won’t be able to) so if all of it doesn’t work for you, install another one.

Once you’ve found a theme that you think you like, put together a homepage and create some test posts with text and images to make sure the main menu and page structure works for you!

And don’t worry, you are not stuck with a theme forever. You can change it anytime. Creating a website is an iterative process. As you write more content, you can adjust your theme to match your ever changing ideas!

Customize a Website with Plugins

Your theme provides plenty of structure but to really customize a website, you need to install some plugins. Plugins are additional pieces of code (like Lego blocks) to help make your site faster, more secure, or easier to find on the internet.

Great news, plugins are usually free with the option to upgrade to a paid version. I spend $0 for plugins on my websites. Here are the plugins I recommend to customize a website and why.

Akismet Anti-Spam – Spam Blocker

Blocks spam comments on your posts and pages.

Wordfence – Security

Protects against Malware and provides extra site security. Expect to get an email from them every time you or anyone else logs onto your website.

UpdraftPlus – Back Up

Periodically backs up versions of your website that can be restored in case of an emergency.

W3 Total Cache – Speed, Caching

Caching means saving a version of your website online so that it will open faster the next time it is clicked on. Go through “General Settings” and make sure that Page, Opcode, Database, Object, and Browser Caching are enabled. Also, make sure “Minify” is enabled and set to “auto”. Minify helps remove extra code from a theme or another plugin that your website is not using. You will receive a warning about “auto-Minify” potentially messing up your theme. Accept the risk. I use auto-minify and my sites have never been adversely affected. And just in case, you have your website backed up with Updraft.

Do NOT select the box for Lazy Loading images. This will be done by the next plugin focusing on image compression.

Do NOT enable CDN. CDN stands for Content Delivery Network. It is a service that stores your website on additional servers in different locations worldwide. The goal is minimize the physical distance from a visitor to the nearest server. I have tried this and found no additional benefit to my site speed. Using a CDN might be helpful for when your site makes it big, but you don’t need it to get started.

All settings can be adjusted from the “General Settings” menu. There is no need to adjust the more specific settings in the list menu on the left-hand side of your dashboard.

Fun fact about caching: If you edit and re-publish a post and then search it online, you will see the older version. This is because the old version has been cached. To see the new version, go to the W3 Total Cache plugin and click “empty all caches.” You can also clear your cache in your browser settings. This is what it looks like for GoogleChrome:

google chrome clear cache
Don’t clear your saved passwords!

Smush – Speed, Image Compression

Large image files slow down your website speed and odds are that the images you are uploading from your phone or camera are bigger than they need to be. Use this free image compression plugin to reduce image sizes without compromising quality. Click through the options on the Bulk Smush and Lazy Load drop downs to increase your page load speeds.

Check the “Bulk Smush” section of this plugin every month or so. Smush usually compresses images when they are uploaded but sometimes I have to click the button again to compress a few extra images when I open the plugin.

If I was to pay for a premium version of a plugin, it would be this one. Pictures take up a lot of space on food and travel websites!

WP-Optimize – Speed, Database Cleaning

Typos are always easier to find AFTER I publish a post. This leads to a lot of post revisions which all get saved and stored in your website’s database. You can use this plugin to erase post revisions.

Only use the Database drop down in this plugin. Make sure under “Images” that WP-Optimize does NOT automatically compress new images, Smush is doing this for you. Make sure under “Cache” that WP-Optimize is NOT page caching, W3 Total Cache is doing this for you. Having multiple plugins trying to do the same thing will slow down your website.

Why not only use WP-Optimize you ask? I tried this and it does not work as well as using W3 Total Cache or Smush. In my experience, using multiple plugins each specific to one task works better than one plugin that claims to do everything.

Swap Google Fonts Display – Speed

Helps increases site speed and page load times.

WP Remove Query Strings From Static Resources – Speed

Helps remove unnecessary code from your website.

Link Checker

Checks to see if you have any hyperlinks that are no longer working.

LuckyWP Table of Contents

Allows you to insert a table of contents that is based on the headings in your post.

Under Construction

If you don’t want anyone to see what you’re working on before you launch your website, this free plugin pops up a page that says “Under Construction” when someone searches for your site.

Smash Balloon Instagram Feed

The easiest plugin to connect an Instagram account to your website.

WPForms Lite – Form Builder

A quick and easy form builder that you can use to create a “Contact Me” page.

Google Analytics Dashboard Plugin for WordPress by MonsterInsights

Google Analytics is the most reputable tracker for counting how many people visit your website. The easiest way to link your website to Google Analytics is through this plugin. It will walk you through the process.

Note: There are only two way to connect your website to Google Analytics. Manually insert specific code into the header of every single page/post you want to track or have this free plugin automatically do it for you. If you deactivate this plugin, it will remove the code it added and disconnect your site from Google Analytics. Don’t deactivate this plugin!

Yoast SEO – SEO

What does SEO mean? SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. In human language, SEO is how easy it is to find your website on the Internet. Yoast is the most intuitive, free plugin that will teach you what you need to know.

Under the “Search Appearance” tab, go through and allow only pages and posts to be found under search results. Categories, tags and authors will only clutter your search results and make the content on your website harder to find.

Under Social, you can connect your website to a Facebook, Instragram, Pinterest, etc. You can also connect it to Google.

Yoast helps you with even more when writing a post. We will tackle that in Part 4 – How To Write A Post with Good SEO.

Questions About Plugins

Should I Use Siteground’s Recommended Plugins?

I do not recommend doing this since you do not know whether you will use Siteground forever. I compared Siteground’s plugins to the plugins above for site speed and, for me, the plugins above performed better. If for some reason you ever had to move hosting platforms, you would not have to change any of your plugins.

What About the Recommended Plugins For My Theme?

Plugins recommended by your chosen theme are probably made by the same developer. The free plugins above give you everything you need to build a fast, efficient website.

Is There a Plugin for [Insert Idea Here]?

When in doubt, Google it.

Let’s say you’ve seen something cool on another blog. For example, they have a gallery of three pictures and each one links to a different article. But you can’t get your gallery images to do that. This is where Google comes in. Go on Google and search “wordpress plugin for linking to posts from a gallery.” In this example, you’ll read about a wordpress.org plugin called “Gallery Custom Links.” If you add that plugin to your site, the next time you create a gallery you’ll have the option to link the individual pictures. Pretty cool, huh?

How to customize a website - plugins
Searching for “gallery custom links” plug-in

Using Google first to find a specific plugin works better than blindly searching for “linking gallery images” using the “Add Plugin” button in your WordPress dashboard. The “Add Plugin” button is just not set up for blind searches. If you want to add a plugin, do your homework on Google first and then go to WordPress and add it!

There you have it, our How To Customize A Website post! For Part 3 – How To Connect A Website to Google, click here!

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