Ten Insights Before You Make Your First WordPress Site

wordpress-logoOne thing I have learned is that it pays to know the why as well as the how when you build your first WordPress site.

Knowing the why saves a lot of heartache and confusion when you already have a lot of information whirling around in your head.

I set up my first self-hosted website in 2007, and I’ve set up more than a dozen sites since then.

I’m not a developer or a coder: I just set up my own websites and use them. But I do like to know what I am doing and to take a step back and get an overview.

Apart from WordPress I’ve set up sites using Textpattern, Getsimple CMS, and other systems, but I keep coming back to WordPress.

This site where you are reading this is built on WordPress.

I didn’t understand the ‘why’ when I started

I remember I didn’t understand anything when I started building my first WordPress site.

I was afraid to press buttons in case I did something that would mess up the site before I’d even got started blogging.

I read the WordPress installation guide and I knew what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t understand why I was doing it.

What I didn’t have was the big picture.

A person sees the big picture when he understand the situation or concept as a whole rather than getting bogged down on specific details.

You might want to click the link and read the installation guide now

What you could do now, is read the WordPress installation guide and then come back here and read the rest of this article before actually starting. Or you could read to the end of this article and then read the guide.

Either way, the installation guide will take you from A to Z. What this article does is attempt to help you understand how it all hangs together.

Controlled panic is one way to do it

When I set up my first site, I took and deep breath and I reasoned that lots of people had their own websites, so it couldn’t be that difficult, could it?

And I also reasoned that the web-hosting companies wanted people to set up websites, so it definitely couldn’t be that difficult, could it?

So I controlled my panic and just followed the prompts. But it would have been so much better if someone had given me the big picture of what was going on – if someone had explained how it all fitted together.

So if you are in that position, this is for you.

But before we start, did you know that there is a community version of WordPress at WordPress.com? It is hosted by the WordPress people themselves – and it’s completely free.

If there is the community version of WordPress, why run your own site?

The advantages of using the community version of WordPress are that all the back end, technical stuff (including security) is dealt with by the WordPress people, and your content is backed up automatically.

You also become part of a community of people using WordPress.com

The disadvantages are that you don’t have full control. You can only use the themes that WordPress.com allows; you cannot add your own plugins or modify the php code; and you can’t run your own adverts on your site.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. You can set up a site on WordPress.com and you can also set up your own self-hosted WordPress site.

What some people do is to start with WordPress.com and then later on, move to their own self-hosted site.

That isn’t always a good idea if you have built up a site that gets good traffic and has links leading into it from other sites.

It is possible to get all your traffic and links migrated to your new site by the people at WordPress.com for a fee.

But if you are going to set up your own self-hosted site, it’s probably better to do it sooner rather than later.

You’ve thought about and you definitely want to run your own website

You’ve thought about it and you want control. You don’t want to run your website on someone else’s service. You want to run it yourself, and you want to run it on WordPress.

Here’s why WordPress is a good choice:

  • It’s the most popular.
  • It’s very well developed and it is constantly being improved.
  • It’s very flexible. You can blog, sell products, showcase music, run podcasts. There are lots of things you can do.
  • It’s free.

Let’s be clear what I mean when I say that WordPress is free. What I mean is that the bundle of files that make up the WordPress software is free. You have to run the system somewhere and you have to have a name for your site – and you have to pay for those.

But the WordPress files are free and you can download them anytime from the WordPress site.

What exactly is WordPress?

Good question. In the most abstract and general way of describing it, it’s a way of showing information on the web.

It does it by splitting the appearance and the content.

What I mean is that part of WordPress is about the design, or layout or theme – call it what you will – which is the way the site is presented, and includes such things as the colours, the typography, the columns at the side, the menu bar across the top, that kind of thing.

The actual content, the stuff you write, the images you put in your articles, etc. – all that information is stored separately. It’s not exactly stored ‘in’ WordPress; it’s stored in a database.

And when a visitor views the page, what they are really seeing is the layout or style plus the data or content.

The layout sits there waiting until someone looks at the page, and then the system calls the data from where it is stored in a database.

I think it’s pretty amazing that a page can kind of self-assemble whenever someone wants to look at it. Don’t you agree?

So WordPress is a theme or layout and it is also a method of arranging content that is pulled in from a database.

And it’s also a set of built-in rules that enable you, the owner of the site, to go into the back end and add content without having to write code, and then to publish it.

What makes WordPress attractive is that you can type in the back end without having to write lots of code like ‘make a new line’ or ‘ make this a heading’ and the system will interpret what you write.

This is what WordPress looks like in the back end where you write your articles, upload images, etc.

Wordpress admin panel

This Is The Admin Panel

Over on the left are the tabs to take you to the library where images are stored, where you can view different layouts, and lots more. Over on the right is where you control when you publish your content. And in the middle is where you add your content and give it a title.

This seems a very long and involved explanation. Do I need to know all this?

It’s not essential, but you’re reading this because you want to know what you are doing, and it helps to know that in addition to the WordPress files, you also need a database that you are going to make.

You are going to set up a database up on your web host as part of the process of installing WordPress.

You make the empty database and then in the final stages of installing WordPress, the WordPress software will create a set of tables inside the database.

WordPress has to come bundled with at least one theme

A theme is a framework for displaying the information on the screen, and WordPress comes bundled with a couple of themes.

When you think about it, WordPress has to come bundled with at least one theme.

If didn’t include at least one theme, then there would be nothing for the WordPress instruction files to issue their instructions to, so there would be no way to see the information on the screen.

The bundled theme that is currently bundled with WordPress is called TwentyTwelve. It’s quite minimal and you may want to change it later on, once you are up and running.

Once you are up and running, you can search out lots more free themes in the WordPress theme repository. Some of these are excellent, but if you really want to spread your wings, then there are lots of paid-for themes built by various individuals and companies.

A word of warning about anything you do not get from the WordPress repository

There are some reputable individuals out there making beautiful themes. They sell them, so you will not find their themes in the WordPress repository. Instead, you will pay for their themes and then download them and upload them to your site. There’s no problem with that.

There are also some reputable people making plugins that enable you to do clever things like send snippets of your posts to Twitter automatically, or create a sitemap to send to Google. The list of plugins is endless.

Just be aware of where you get your themes and plugins.

If you go to some dodgy site and download a theme or a plugin that has not be checked and then upload it to your site, you could introduce a virus into your website.

A website needs a home

So now that you know that WordPress contains a couple of themes and all the information to build a site, and that it needs a database to run it, where do they go? Where do they reside?

Believe it or not, they could reside in your computer. You could run a web server and pump out your website to the world from your living room.

But most people don’t do that. Instead, they pay a hosting company to host their website on the hosting company’s computers. You will hear people talk about ‘servers’, and they mean the computers and the software that can run websites and push stuff out onto the web.

So you need a web hosting company. There are web hosting companies all over the world. It’s probably best to choose one that is in the country where you are and the visitors to your website are likely to be from.

On the other hand, US web-hosting companies tend to offer a lot for what you pay, so that’s maybe a reason to choose a US hosting company.

Not all web-hosting companies are equal in reliability. And not all of them are set up to run WordPress, although many are. So choose wisely. You can check their specs against the WordPress requirements and WordPress has a list of web hosts that it recommends.

You need a domain name

You need a name – what is called a domain name. Something that ends in .com or .net or .info or .co.uk or maybe .ly or .me

There are lots of domain name options. Some of them aren’t available to you. For example, you have to be the UK government to have a domain that ends in .gov.uk

And of course you need to have the bit before the .com or the .co.uk. For example google.com – except it has been taken already. This is where you may find yourself pulling your hair out trying to think of a name you like that hasn’t been chosen already.

Then you need to register the domain name with a domain registrar. The web hosting company you choose might also be a domain registrar. It might even offer to register the domain name for you for free if you host your site with them.

Some people get confused and think that the domain name is the website. But it isn’t – it’s just the name.

OK. Time for a checklist. You need a web hosting company and you need a domain name that has been registered with a domain registrar.

You need WordPress

What else do you need? You need the WordPress files.

If you are going to do this thing, why not download WordPress now so you have it on your computer ready for use?

Now what you need is a way to get the files and folders into the administrative area of your website.

Some web hosts are set up with software that runs a little program that installs WordPress for you with a couple of clicks.

But let’s assume you are going to handle it all yourself.

You need FTP software

You will need FTP (file transfer protocol) software which you need to install it on your computer.

fetchThere are lots of FTP programs you can download. I use a program called Fetch because I am on a Mac and it is built for the Mac.

I also use it because it has a little dog that runs back and forth when I upload files (it really does.)

Cyberduck is good too. It’s free (actually, it’s donation ware, which means it’s up to you whether you donate) and it runs on Macs and PCs.

So now you have a domain name, an FTP program, a web host, and the WordPress folder full of files and smaller folders.

You need a text editor that can edit the WordPress files

You are also going to need a way to look inside the WordPress folder and add a couple of bits of information to one of the files. You need something that can open and edit php files. If you’re on a Mac, Textwrangler is free.

I’m not the person to ask about text editors for PCs, but I just googled for it and found Notepad++.

DNS – domain name servers

If you register your domain with a domain registrar and then host your site with a web hosting company, you are going to have to change the DNS servers at the domain registrar. This probably sounds like something from Startrek if you haven’t heard of it before.

The DNS bit might sound scary, but it’s just an address. For example, if you register your domain name with GoDaddy then when people write your domain name (such as www.mysite.com) in their browsers, the internet will go looking for your site at GoDaddy.

But if your domain name is care of GoDaddy and you run your site on a web host like Dreamhost, then the address should be care of Dreamhost.

So you have to go into your account at GoDaddy and change the DNS (the ‘care of’ address) to Dreamhost.

However, if you use a host that is also a domain registrar, then you won’t need to change the DNS because the address will already be correct.

And while you are asking, yes, Dreamhost is a domain registrar as well as a web-hosting company.

Now you are all set. But where to start?

Start with the database.

When you signed up with your web host it granted you access to some kind of interface that is private to you. There are various kinds of interfaces. Some web hosts use an interface called cPanel. It’s used by a lot of web hosts.

Whatever interface your web hosting company uses, go into the interface and make a database and a hostname.

There will be instructions how to do it, and it is not difficult.

When you have done it, you will have database and your own private username and password so that only you can add information to certain parts of the database.

You are then going to put this information into one of the files in the WordPress folder on your computer and then you are going to rename the file.

From here on in, you should look at the instructions on the WordPress site

Once you have read through to the end of this article (and shared it on Facebook, and Twitter, and Google+, please), it’s a good idea to go to the install guide on the WordPress site and it will guide you through the install.

In a nutshell though, it is going to tell you to look in the WordPress folder that you downloaded from the WordPress site. Now use your text editor to open the file named wp-config-sample.php and add the hostname etc. information in the spaces provided.

Then rename the file to wp-config.php and save it on your desktop.

Now use your FTP software to upload all the folders and files inside the main WordPress folder to your web host. Don’t upload the WordPress folder; upload all the files and folders that are inside the main folder.

You can upload the wp-config-sample.php file that’s in there if you want, but importantly – upload the config.php file that you made and saved on your desktop.

Then there are a couple more small and simple steps described in the install guide, and if everything goes OK, you have a new website!

What if I already have a WordPress.com blog and I want to move it?

Follow all the instructions here and then export your files from you WordPress.com site and import them to your new site. Don’t expect it all to go perfectly. I have read of lots of cases where posts don’t show up exactly as planned.

An alternative way is to copy them one by one to your new site. That works.

If you are convinced it will all end in tears because you have zillions of posts on your WordPress.com site, the people at WordPress will do a guided transfer for you for a one-time fee, provided you set up your self-hosted sites with one of their recommended hosts.

Useful things to do as soon as you have set up your site

Setting permalinks
For time-sensitive articles it might be a good idea to have the year, the month, and the day, as part of the URL for each post. The downside is that the URLs can get very long.

And for articles that have ‘evergreen’ content, shorter permalinks are probably better.

Whatever kind of permalinks you decide you want, you probably don’t want the default permalinks that Worpdress sets when you set up your site. An example of a default permalink would be something like mysite.com/?p=4 – which doesn’t tell your readers anything.

You can read about permalinks on the Worpdress site.

Controlling comments
The next thing you want to do is make sure that you control who can comment on your articles. Go into ‘Discussion’ in the sidebar of the Admin page of the dashboard and make sure it is set so that an administrator (that’s you) has to approve comments before they are published.

Not doing that is an open invitation to spammers to come in and leave their stupid comments full of links to things you don’t want to link to.

A final word, and any questions?

That’s it and I hope you found it super useful. Feel free to ask a question in the comments here. I’ll be happy to answer anyone with anything that might help.

thank you for reading this. if you liked it, please share it.


    1. says

      Very useful, thank you David.

      I have my posts’ permalinks set to date/year etc for the first site I had set up and I really regret it. I believe it’s possible to change them but I’m not exactly sure what the process is and with over 500 to change I think I might just leave them as they are now! I’ve been using WordPress for about four years, but very often I’m still afraid to touch anything in case I break it :-)

      • David Bennett says

        Hi Angela,
        I recently changed the permalink structure on one of my sites.

        I have over 400 articles on the site and my heart was in my mouth when I made the change.

        I knew the change would work, but I wasn’t sure what would happen to all the inbound links that were leading to the URLs.

        I needn’t have worried. After I made the change, I tested it with one of the old URLs to see what would happen.

        When I went to that URL, e.g. mysite.com/year-month-date/post-name, some internal magic in WordPress redirected all the URLs to the new structure of mysite.com/post-name

        I don’t know what happen if two articles have the same name. I guess the permalinks would change to post-name and post-name-1 so that the redirects would still work.

        It’s straightforward to change permalinks. In the Admin page, go to Settings > Permalinks and change it there. I was a bit put off when I first set my own permalinks using the %post-name% setting. The percentage marks looked scary. But now I see they are just a language for delineating permalinks.

        I keep my WordPress version up to date. I don’t know how clever old versions of WP are at redirecting permalinks.

    2. says

      That’s a terrific article … hats off, for writing it!

      The ‘why’ I need to ask myself is merely; ‘why do I want a web site?’ I should have something to fill it with :)

      I’ve had several self-hosted WP-blogs, but never went through that whole procedure … I just let GoDaddy (which was my domain host before) do it. It’s always tempting to go back to self-hosted, but I hold myself back. The WP-community is more important to me, than having fun with the design and plugins.

      • David Bennett says

        I wrote the article in response to someone who asked me to help them set up a site. They had read the install guide and felt mystified. So I started to write an email to explain it, and it turned into an article.

        I agree that the community on WP.com is important. It’s how we met :-)

        For some things, self-hosted is the only way to go. For example, we are just setting up a blog built on WordPress, and it is on a sub-domain of our new e-commerce site, so it has to be self-hosted. I’ll send you details when we go live ;-)

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