WordPress is a good CMS, but a default installation rarely does everything you want and need.
Making it look good — themes
To fix that, you need to write or acquire a theme, which defines the look and feel of the site. The current version of WordPress comes with a number of pre-installed themes and the quality and configurability of those themes has improved massively from a few years back and they’re well worth experimenting with if you’re just starting out.
It doesn’t take long to move beyond that — there’s a massive ecosystem of themes available for WordPress, many free, others licensed or purchased. A good place to start looking is Envato’s Themeforest, where most themes are currently sold for $40-60. Or go to your favorite search engine and type in “WordPress Theme” and see the glory of endless pages of people who want to sell you one.
Since I’ve used it and know it pretty well, I’m using the Photocrati theme for the galleries site. For the FYC site and the updated www.chuqui.com sites I’m now evaluating themes, but I’ve already cut the list down to two vendors (Elegant themes and Devpress). Both use what is effectively a membership model, you pay to license their entire selection of themes and then you can use them as you want. Both are at a fairly standard price for this — $69, which is close to the cost of an Envato theme but gives you more flexibility. Since I need two themes, going with a single theme vendor is more cost effective, and I’ve found that if you find the right vendor you get a higher quality theme (although there are many really good themes on Envato, if you want to dig through them). Since both of these sites need to be fully responsive, I started my search using “WordPress theme responsive” to avoid the themes that haven’t been upgraded for that capability yet — and frankly, I recommend that to everyone.
Adding Functionality — Plug-ins
Then you need to start adding in the functionality you need that isn’t part of the core WordPress release. Every WordPress geek has their own favorite set of plug-ins they use on every site. Here’s mine:
- Akismet: spam blocking. Works well. Lets me toss $5/year to the wordpress folks as a thank you for doing everything they do. A bargain.
- Google XML Sitemaps
- Google Analytics (except for Galleries, Photocrati supports this so I don’t need one)
- Jetpack: See below
- Optimize Database after Deleting Revisions: let’s me optimize and clean up the database
- Safe Redirect Manager: when I delete something, I can redirect the URL to something else. That way, if I convert a set of blog postings to a topic page, I can redirect and anyone with the old pages bookmarked gets sent to the updated content (and so do search engines: important!)
- Simple Image Sizes: let’s me easily reconfigure the default sizes available in the default media gallery (not useful for NextGen gallery, though)
- UpdraftPlus – Backup/Restore: backs everything up nightly to Dropbox
- WP Missed Schedule: If you schedule a posting and for some reason that time got missed, this catches it and makes sure the posting happens.
- WP Super Cache: speed optimizations. I set this up early in development because I want to find problems when I create them, not when I go production and turn caching on (only to have it break something or malfunction. Not that this would ever happen)
My goal with plug-ins is pretty simple: use as few as necessary to do the job; use plug-ins that are in wide use and under active development (if one I use doesn’t get an update in about a year, I’ll usually start looking for a replacement or look at removing it from my systems, since if they break and aren’t being maintained, you can end up with some badly timed crisis hacking).
Note: I don’t use any of the SEO plug-ins any more. I found (by accident) that turning the one I was using off cut the page load speed in half. I’d rather have fast loading pages. It’s unclear just how much they benefit you in a current WordPress installation, honestly, I’ve stopped using them and Google still likes me. YMMV.
These problems — slow page loading, huge memory or CPU footprints, etc — are why I always tell people to use as few plug-ins as possible and keep them current. When I’ve gone in and debugged broken or slow WordPress sites for people, I often find they had fun installing and testing plug-ins, then forgot about the 20 plug-ins they tried and ended up not using — but they were still installed and activated, taking up RAM and CPU and screwing over site performance. Put your WordPress on a diet and disable (and delete!) plug-ins you aren’t using or don’t really need. This is also why I always start with a small core set of plug-ins and then add in on a project by project basis, rather than keep a large toolbox of plug-ins around in case I want one.
One missing plug-in: Disqus. When I revise my sites, I will be disabling commenting on them and where I can, removing the commenting controls from public view. I currently use Disqus on my main site, and it’s served me well, but the reality is that almost all of the feedback I get is via twitter, and more rarely Google+ and email. Comments are very rarely used. On the flip side, adding Disqus support to the pages can slow down page load time significantly, and comments are the most likely vector in for trolls and spammers, and while Disqus has done a nice job of filtering those out for me, the combination of infrequent use, slower page load speed and high risk of bad things happening makes it an easy decision for me to choose to cancel this out. More and more sites are choosing to do away with comments, and this is a somewhat controversial topic  but I’ve ended up siding with the people who think comments are a past tool and as long as there are other reasonable and open channels (especially twitter) for people to engage and converse with me and each other on something I write, I’m comfortable choosing to shift the rest of the conversation there.
Project Specific Plug-ins
At this time, I’ve only installed two plug-ins that are project specific:
- NextGEN Gallery (Free)
- NextGen Plus (which layers in extra functionality for a small cost)
Do not expect me to leave it as is, but I don’t know what I’ll want to add yet.
Wiring up Services
There are various services I always wire up to my wordpress sites:
- Google Webmaster Site: keeps me informed of any possible problems and how the site is being seen by their search engine.
- Google Analytics: my system for figuring out what you folks, the readers, are doing and what’s working and not working so well.
- Jetpack (wordpress.com): WordPress’s way to supplement WordPress Core with functionality. I’ve got some mutterings about the way they do this but it works and many of the tools do the job quite well. The ones I typically turn on initially are:
- Custom CSS (but Photocrati also supports this so I may not use it)
- Enhanced Distribution
- Extra Sidebar Widgets
- Markdown (I’m finally going to start using Markdown, this time for sure)
- Photon (maybe. or use CDN in wp super cache? Need to evaluate)
- Shortcode Embeds
- Site Icon
- Site Verification (hooks you into Google Webmaster easily)
- WP.me shortlinks
- WordPress.com stats
And with that, I now have a basic wordpress site installed and functional. Now all it needs is some content and a customized design on top of the basic design Photocrati gives me. those are the easy parts, right? Right?