Tips for using WordPress

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Using WordPress as a Website Content Management System (CMS)

WordPress is a great product but it can cause problems unless it’s set up and used correctly. Below are some helpful hints for those using or thinking of using it. They apply equally to other good CMS like Joomla, Drupal and Magento.

WordPress is a Content Management System or CMS. A CMS is piece of software that operates site-wide. It acts like a container that sits over and around your Web site enclosing all content including page templates, images, video etc. One way of envisioning how a CMS works with templates is a fishing tackle box — those boxes with lots of compartments inside (a simple analogy for the two ways WordPress (and other CMS like it) can be used to manage a Website).

One type of box has its compartments permanently fixed. In the example below, you can’t move the dividers to make the compartments bigger or smaller so whatever you put in them has to fit their pre-defined limits. These boxes are cheaper because they are one-size-fits-all and inflexible.

How a standard WordPress template looks

Standard WordPress templates have fixed, immovable content compartments

Another type of box has expandable, moveable compartments. In this example below, you can easily move the dividers to re-size the compartments to accommodate anything you want. These boxes are more expensive because they are made to be flexible.

How a custom WordPress template looks

Custom WordPress templates have flexible, moveable content compartments

Standard off-the-shelf templates are a one-size-fits-all template that severely limits what you can change in the underlying page code;
A custom-built template is a hand built template that gives you complete control over the underlying page code.

Standard off-the-shelf Templates

These have pre-designed themes and pre-set functions and are available at low or no cost. Standard WP templates try to be “all things to all people”. Their themes come with lots of added elements and plug ins that are required to make that theme work but are not necessary for the site itself (and which would not be on a custom built site). This has a number of negative results for site performance:

  • bloated code. Plug ins and Themes load with the page even if they aren’t being used. One well-known theme has an inbuilt home-page slideshow that is 2 MB in size (that’s just the slideshow). All this slows down the site.
  • lack of control. Some plugins automatically insert unwanted, additional CSS and JavaScript into the page header or automatically generate page titles without any regard for duplicate content issues.
  • limitations on what you can do to change key page elements. Some themes have Title and Header tags hard coded into their HTML, which means you can’t change them in the editor. Others have the Home page style and feature box headers set in their CSS. Again, you can’t change them.
  • Plug ins are not always cached, which is not efficient for the browser.

With standard templates, you’re stuck with whatever combination of display options, boxes, font families and font sizes the theme designer (they’re always designers, not developers) decided to use for the various page elements. Depending on the theme, you may be able to add inline CSS to some pages — but not to others. The biggest problem with standard WordPress themes is that they are stuffed with unnecessary code — code bloat — and contain errors in the code. It’s possible to fix or remove some HTML, CSS and JavaScript errors, but not all. And this is a fiddly job requiring a developer to go through the code line by line to delete only the offending items without breaking any other functionality that might depend on these items.

Custom-Built Templates

This is a clean HTML page specifically designed to work with WordPress (or Joomla, Drupal, Magento). It is built from scratch and so is more expensive. However, it does not have the heavy load of extra code required to run the themes and plugins stuffed into the off-the-shelf templates.

This not only gives you complete control over what displays where and how, it also makes your pages natively more efficient for search engines and browsers.

CMS Decisions

If all you want is a low-cost Web presence, and you are going to drive users to your site via means other than search engines (we can help you with that, too), then go with any template from any CMS discussed here. As a tech purist I hate to say that but if you are fortunate enough not to need to rely on traffic from search engines, then this is your most cost effective option. But remember, your ability to do the technical fine-tuning Google is looking for is almost zero, so don’t expect to rank anywhere in G’s results. That’s the trade-off.

If your business is going to depend on search engines sending traffic to your website but your budget is limited, go with custom templates from any CMS discussed here. You’ll get a lean, clean page template, and you’ll have control over your server. However, you’ll still be subject to some of the CMS’ quirks noted below. If you can live with that — many can — fine.

Whatever you do, avoid the “free” offers from the likes of Wix, Weebly, Shopify, Vistaprint, Prontaprint, etc and your telco.

WordPress Quirks

WordPress, like Joomla, Magento, Drupal and other CMS, has some quirks, irrespective of what type of template you’re using, e.g.:

  • some scripts run unnecessarily every time the server loads a page.
  • errors on the home page may have been fixed but other errors may still be found inside other template files.
  • sometimes they do not recognize an HTML entity and convert it to a character entity.
  • all updates must be enabled in order to take effect.

WordPress & SEO

It’s often claimed — usually by site designers who aren’t familiar with technical optimization — that WP is SEO-friendly out-of-the-box. This is simply incorrect. Bloated, incorrect code causes problems for search engines and browsers no matter where it originates from. Standard templates can be made somewhat SEO-friendly, yet too often, a site builder simply loads content onto an off-the-shelf template without making any adjustments for them. As to the various SEO plugins available, they all have their quirks. For example, one well-known plugin is only responsible for on-page meta tags and does not allow you to change the Header styles or placement. How SEO-friendly is an H2 at the bottom of the page, instead of following the H1 at the top of the page?

A custom template, on the other hand, can be made very SEO-friendly from the outset. It will cost you more but the payback will be much greater.

If a site designer quotes you for a WP site, the first question you should ask is: “Are they going to use a standard template or build a custom one?

If they’re proposing a standard template, ask:

  • how much the template costs (some are free, premium themes can be around $30 – 60).
  • which template they are going to use (so you can check out the pre-built features and have a look at the code).
  • which plugins they propose (ditto).
  • how much time is necessary to upload content (as a guide, it takes a few hours for a small site and up to a day for a large one).
  • what optimization they propose for the template and plugins.

If they’re going to custom-code a template, ask:

  • how much the hand-coded template costs (it takes anything from a half to a full day to build a decent template).
  • how many templates your site really needs (do you really need a unique template for each of the About, Contact and Privacy pages?).

Costs for a WordPress site

As a rule of thumb in 2015, expect to pay around:

  • £500 for a site built using a standard, out-of-the-box template without any optimization
  • between £1,500 and £3,000 for an optimized site built on a custom-coded template.

Finally, a CMS is not a Web host — you still need to host your site at a Web host and you still need to optimize the server.

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