I have been developing WordPress sites for over ten years now, so I have tried a lot of different tools in that time. My goal for this article is to help you get started in the WordPress ecosystem.
If I were just starting out — whether I was building sites for myself or for clients — these are the tools I would consider the essentials to get going.
Every WordPress site needs at theme. If you’re new to WordPress and not sure what that means, make sure you checkout my lesson on themes as part of my WordPress Made Easy course (free on YouTube).
The role of the theme has changed drastically in the last few years. When I started with WordPress you’d rely on the theme to layout the look and feel of your site. That is no longer the case, as page builders like Elementor have gained massive popularity, and WordPress’s own builder (called Gutenberg) is gaining steam.
Instead of choosing a theme based on style, you want to choose a theme that helps your site load fast and makes it setup your brand. Think about a brand style sheet. Your theme basically provides every page and post on your website your brand’s style sheet, but it doesn’t need to layout the structure of your site.
For me, Astra is the best choice nine times out of ten. Even though it’s been around for many years, it is still one of the fastest loading themes and it provides the most logical layout for adjusting the style elements I need a theme to help with.
Additionally, Astra is available with or without a bundle of plug-ins in their Agency Bundle that will make your site more profitable. Schema Pro, ConvertPro, and Ultimate Add-ons for Elementor are my three favorites in the bundle.
Why ConvertPro for Pop-ups
A quick word about ConvertPro. I think this is a highly overlooked plugin.
Many people use the pop-up builder that comes with Elementor, and I too have used that on occasion.
But, when it comes to marketing (and generating revenue) what gets measured gets managed. Right now Elementor just doesn’t provide any usable metrics for their pop-ups without a third party plugin. ConvertPro on the other hand, integrates with Google Analytics & Google Tag Manager… AND it offers A/B split testing so you can continually be optimizing your pop-ups. You’d need to use Google Optimize to do A/B testing with Elementor.
Other Theme Options
I believe you can build nearly any type of site using Astra as your theme, but I also know that people like options. There are literally thousands of WordPress themes available and I’m going to widdle it down to 4 for you to choose from. Pretty bold of me, eh?
If I were to not use Astra and specifically if I were to not use a page builder and wanted to go pure Gutenberg, I’d choose GeneratePress as my theme.
GeneratePress is doing some really clever things with how they’re utilizing Gutenberg to build layouts. And the theme is FAST. It’s also one of the cheaper themes at only $59 bucks and it doesn’t have any upsells or bundles you need to buy.
After that, the new hotness is definitely Kadence Theme. Kadence got a lot of attention from affiliate marketers (hey I’m one too!) because they had a new way of building headers and footers. Now Astra has copied that feature so it’s kind of a toss-up.
Kadence has managed to build a very performant theme as well, but they take a different approach for how things are laid out in the customizer (where you set your brand’s style), to me it isn’t as intuitive… but to others, it feels like home. That’s why the best thing you can do is spin up a test site and play with installing all three themes to see which fits best. They all have free versions in the WordPress repository.
The Community Factor… Streets Ahead.
If I am building a new site, the only reason I’m not choosing Astra, GeneratePress, or Kadence is because I’m building a site that will be used as an online community. For this, BuddyBoss theme is the most elegant and efficient way to get great results without going full custom development.
The BuddyBoss theme allows you to add a “facebook” like news feed, discussion groups, and messaging between users, all on your WordPress site! That’s a lot for one hosting platform, but it is 100% do-able with thousands of users. You will need powerful hosting for something like this, so don’t even think about using your $1.99/month GoDaddy plan. More on hosting will be posted on this site soon.
The downside of the BuddyBoss theme is that it is highly stylized out of the box. It will take a decent amount of work to give your site its own aesthetic. More on creating an online community using WordPress to come in a dedicated post and video.
The Page Builder
The page builder is the part of WordPress that is responsible for doing the actual layout of your site. You already setup your “default” look with your theme and now the page builder takes care of the rest.
There are dozens of WordPress page builders, but if you’re starting from scratch the options are easy to me.
Gutenberg is the built-in editor in WordPress. It is the way of the future, but as of right now it’s a bit of a dumpster fire. Learn it, get used to it, but unless you’re very patient, you probably don’t want to rely on it for laying out your entire site right now.
Elementor burst on the scene a few years ago and completely revolutionized the WordPress experience. The editor is easy to use and you don’t need to know how to code to create a custom blog layout or a stylist posts page. Elementor quickly hit 5M active users and because of their massive growth, Elementor has some of the best third-party support of any WordPress tool that I am familiar with. From Email Marketing solutions to the dozens of 3rd party add-on packs, Elementor has an ecosystem of its own.
There are of course other page builders out there.
- Beaver Builder is quite popular with agencies because of its ability to remove the branding (a practice known as white-labeling).
- Oxygen has rabid fans because of its speed and superior code that it renders when users visit pages.
- Divi is massively popular with the design crowd as they have heavily marketed an all-in-one WordPress creation solution for years. Quite frankly the competition with Elementor has pushed Divi to be a much better product, but they are always a bit behind.
- Thrive Architect is popular amongst marketers, but their walled-off ecosystem and slow development make it hard to recommend.
Elementor is efficient to use and works will with the most third-party apps. For that reason, it is the solution that will work best for the most people.
After you have your theme and your page builder picked out, there are few plugins you’ll want on every single site.
First, if you accept comments at all on your site, you want to install Antispam Bee. It’s the best plugin for filtering out spam comments that I’ve found. Bonus, it’s free.
Next, you’re going to need some image optimization so keep your site loading quickly. I am in love with Gumlet because it resizes, compresses, and delivers images over a super-fast CDN. All of the images on Profitable Tools are delivered by Gumlet.
If I didn’t use Gumlet there is no doubt that ShortPixel is clear the winner when it comes to a simple WordPress plugin that can squash your images supremely without anyone noticing because of the decline in quality.
Finally, get RankMath so that you can show up on Google search results.
The free version is probably enough to get started. A combination of RankMath and Schema Pro (if you get Astra agency) should be all the SEO mojo you need. In fact, RankMath does handle some schema and their new pro version does even more, so you may not need Schema Pro – it depends on the content of your site.
A dedicated post and video on backups and security is due soon, those things are essential too… just outside the scope of this post.
When it comes to WordPress, stability and security is king so you don’t want to just install any random plugin or theme you find in some dark corner of the internet. Stick with the reputable tools I recommend in the post and you’ll be able to minimze the amount of time you spend smashing your head into the wall because a plugin conflict took your site offline.
What are your favorite WordPress plugins and themes? Leave me a comment below and let me know.