In Parts 1 thru 3 of this series, I’ve covered the basics in getting your site up and running. Today I’ll tell you how to start making a site your own. To explain this process I’ll have to assume you’ve taken my suggestion and used WordPress for your content management system. If you have, you’ll soon see how easy it is to customize your site through the use of themes and plugins.
What is a Theme?
A WordPress theme is just what it sounds like – it controls the look and feel of your site. Most themes designed for WordPress will retain a set of standard functionality, but the look and feel of how those functions come together can change drastically from one theme to another. Themes are like clothing and you can dress your site however you like.
How to Choose a WordPress Theme
There are over a thousand WordPress themes available so here are some things you may want to decide on before trying to find a theme that suits your needs:
- Colour – Are you looking for a light theme or a dark theme? Are you looking for black, greyscale, or something bright and bold?
- Layout – Do you want one column? Two columns? Three? Four? Do you want your sidebar on the left, or on the right?
- Width – Do you want a fixed width theme or one that will scale with the size of your users’ browser windows?
Once you decide on these basics, you can use filters to find a theme that fits your criteria.
Best Sources for WordPress Themes
Here are my top 3 sources for WordPress themes:
- WordPress Themes Directory – The themes directory at WordPress.org features over one thousand free themes. Some of these look fantastic and the price certainly can’t be beat.
- Thesis Theme – Currently this website is running on the Thesis theme which is a paid theme. This theme offers a user-friendly interface for more advanced features, improved SEO, and has several skins to customize the look and feel of the theme.
- Genesis Theme – Genesis is another paid theme I use for one of my sites and have enjoyed using it so far. Like Thesis, there are skins to further customize the look of the Genesis theme and it offers professional design with great SEO and user-friendly control of some more advanced options.
Remember, the way a theme looks is never final. You can always edit the theme to customize it further as I have for this site and several others. That being said, finding a theme which is very close to your desired end product will be much easier for you in the long run when compared with building a theme from scratch or heavily customizing a theme that isn’t a close match.
How to Install WordPress Themes
The easiest way to Install a WordPress theme (once you’ve found the one you want) is to navigate in your admin panel to Appearance > Themes > Install Themes. You can then search the WordPress Themes Directory or upload a paid theme and let WordPress do all the installation work. Once you’ve installed the theme, you can activate it from the main Themes page and start working with your new theme right away.
What are Plugins?
Plugins extend or change the functionality of your default WordPress install. If you’ve ever wished your WordPress site could do X, one of the 14,000+ plugins on the WordPress Plugin Directory might be designed to do just that. Most plugins can be added or removed with ease and give you additional control over the way your site works.
10 Essential WordPress Plugins
Here are a few of my favourite plugins and a brief description of the functionality they offer:
- Akismet – Checks your comments to see if they look like SPAM or not. This is a pretty good filter but you’ll still need to apply a human touch to fix whatever slips through the cracks.
- Contact Form 7 – This simple plugin adds a basic contact form to your site which is perfect for your contact page.
- Dagon Design Sitemap Generator – Creates a fully customizable HTML Sitemap which is great for SEO since it will help search engine crawlers find all of your content.
- FeedBurner FeedSmith – Redirects your RSS feeds to your FeedBurner feed so you can track every possible subscriber.
- Google XML Sitemaps – Creates an XML Sitemap which is also helpful for SEO purposes.
- Popularity Contest – Ranks the popularity of posts which can be useful for creating a “Popular Posts” widget in your site’s sidebar.
- Redirection – If you rename pages or posts this plugin can help you fix any broken links by redirecting them to the updated address.
- ShareThis – Makes it easy for your users to share your posts with their network.
- Social Media Widget - Adds links to your social network profiles, RSS feeds, or email newsletter signup so your users can connect with you by various methods.
- WordPress Database Backup – You can set automated backups to be emailed to you for safe keeping. You never want to lose all your content do you?
If you’ll be collecting data through the use of forms, you’ll want to check out Gravity Forms. This one is a paid plugin but I’ve found this to be the best form plugin for WordPress since it has a host of options and makes it very easy to setup forms, collect entries, and manage the submitted entries right from your admin panel.
How to Install WordPress Plugins
As with themes, it is very easy to install plugins in WordPress. Navigate in your admin panel to Plugins > Add New. From the Install Plugins page, you’ll be able to search the WordPress Plugin Directory or upload a plugin and have it working with just a couple of clicks. Once your plugin is installed you’ll need to activate it before you can begin using it. After activation you can usually access the settings through the “Tools” or “Settings” menus in your WordPress admin panel.
If you aren’t able to get exactly what you want out of Themes or Plugins, there is still plenty of room for further customization. This is where WordPress goes from being as simple to use as your web based email account to something more complex. If you’d like to start making your own tweaks I suggest reading the documentation for the theme you are using to gain more insight on which files you’ll need to modify to produce the results you’re looking for. Usually you can start with the CSS stylesheets, but be sure to refer to the manual AND make a backup before you begin editing any code.
In the next article I’ll share some simple SEO and time saving tips you can use right from the get-go. Stay tuned!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links to various paid themes and plugins, and if you purchase anything through those links I may earn a small commission. I have personally used each of the products I’ve liked to and found great value in them. As such, I recommend using any of these providers which suit your website needs and budget.
photo credit: MrB-MMX
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