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10 Pitfalls to Avoid when DIYing Your WordPress Website

One of the phenomenal things about WordPress is that it’s entirely open source, which means that anyone with a positive attitude and some time can build a WordPress website.

The vast array of WordPress resources give individuals a solid arsenal at their disposal to create beautiful websites. And now that many WordPress hosts and theme authors are integrating automatic website setup into their onboarding wizards, the barrier to entry is lower than it’s ever been.

Here’s the BUT (you knew it was coming).

Even with all the of these great resources at our disposal, I still get an SOS email several times each week because a well-intentioned DIY website project has gone horribly wrong.

I’ve been making a list and checking it twice, and it’s officially Christmas in June. Today I’m going to help new website builders identify (and ultimately avoid) some of the most common pitfalls I see with DIY WordPress projects.

Here are the pitfalls to avoid:

1. Don’t get caught up in theme marketing hype

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The same rules that apply to the streets apply when building your WordPress website too.

Not long ago I saw a WordPress theme telling me I can build an Amazon.com clone with their $59 product. If that were true, why doesn’t everyone have their own flavor of Amazon?

One important distinction to make when shopping for WordPress themes, is to understand their intended purpose. A WordPress theme is supposed to be for appearance and aesthetics, nothing functional.

Here’s the defintion of a theme straight from the WordPress developer handbook:

A WordPress theme changes the design of your website, often including its layout. Changing your theme changes how your site looks on the front-end, i.e. what a visitor sees when they browse to your site on the web.

https://developer.wordpress.org/themes/getting-started/what-is-a-theme/

So when a WordPress theme advertises the ability to host a membership website without any plugin support, that should be a huge red flag.

WordPress Themes should handle presentation, not function.

A really common scenario on ThemeForest especially is theme that “include” a number of plugins with their purchase. I put include in scare quotes on purpose. What they don’t tell you is that because of licensing restrictions, you don’t actually have any kind of agreement with the plugin author. You’re at the mercy of the theme author to release patches and updates, which in my experience is hit or miss at best.

I’ll be the first to admit that reputable theme shops are dwindling or going the route of swiss-army knives (themes that have a “do everything” approach), but here are the ones that I can recommend today:

  • StudioPress – StudioPress has a number of well-built and attractive WordPress themes that are powered by the Genesis Framework. StudioPress is part of WP Engine now, but does continue to operate independently for now.
  • WP Astra – WP Astra was introduced to me several months ago and I’ve quickly become a fan. Their themes are built using WordPress best practices and have a neat Starter Sites feature that allows for quickly assembling a lot of the most common types of websites for bloggers and small businesses.
  • AudioTheme – AudioTheme has carved out a niche in the music space, featured gorgeous themes for bands and solo artists alike. They continue to innovate, design beautiful themes, and back them with some of the best engineering I’ve seen in WordPress products.
  • Themeisle – Themeisle has a large library of easily customizable themes that are built in a solid way that allows users to make small changes as needed. If one of their designs is close to what you want, most DIYers will be able to make the customizations they need to with very little (if any) coding knowledge.
  • WordPress Repository – There are still a huge number of great themes available in the WordPress repository for free. These are vetted by WordPress contributors so you know that from a quality standpoint you’re getting something that adheres to all of the modern theming conventions.

2. Perform due diligence on a theme before buying or installing it

Screenshot of a code editor with WordPress theme code

This is related to the previous pitfall but warrants its own section because I’m going to show you specifically how to choose a WordPress theme.

Separating the wheat from the chaff in the WordPress theme space is harder every day. The lines between great and garbage are blurry at best, so I certainly empathize with the new website DIYer.

Here are some of the guidelines I fall back on when evaluating a theme for a new website:

  1. Don’t get enamored with popularity – There are some WordPress themes that are extremely popular that are giant trash fires from a technical standpoint.
  2. Be clear on the features you need – Is the theme mobile responsive? Is it accessible? Does it have the basic structure you want for your site? Does it need to include styles for a shopping cart? If you’re starting a blog, for example, avoid themes that offer too many features. Celebrate simplicity.
  3. Search the WordPress.org Repository – I still sometimes get caught in the trap of thinking I need to buy a theme, but the WordPress.org theme repository is full of really fantastic options which are vetted at a code level and explicitly exclude functionality that should be handled by plugins.
  4. Carefully inspect the theme demo – Most themes will have a demo, and the demos will be very eye-catching. Pay attention to things that aren’t included when you purchase the theme. If there’s lots of stunning photography or video, try and envision your website with the photos and videos that you own or have access to. In all likelihood the media you own will net a very different end result for how the website looks.
  5. Read the documentation before spending a dime – I have a strict rule that any theme that doesn’t have public documentation is automatically disqualified for me. In my experience the docs are usually hidden behind a paywall because they’re an afterthought or not helpful. On the flip side, if the documentation is pages and pages of content, it may be a sign that the theme is overly complex and not a good option for a beginner.
  6. Vet the authors – Social media searches and activity in support forums can be incredibly useful when determining whether a theme is well-supported by the author(s). If you see a good deal of activity from a theme author, a regular update schedule for the product, and general responsiveness, that’s a good indicator they’ll be supportive as you need assistance. A quick hack to check reputation is to search their domain in the Wayback Machine. If the website only has a six month history, it doesn’t mean they can’t be trusted. But all other things being equal, you’ll want to choose the theme author that’s been around for a decade instead.
  7. Ask an expert – I listed this as the last step because you’ll get 10x advice if you go to a WordPress Pro having completed all of the previous steps. If you can explain why a theme or themes is potentially a good option for your website, but want some reassurance, the pro will be able to give very specific insights and advice that wouldn’t otherwise be available if you simply ask “is this a good theme?”

3. Don’t manually code things that can be done quickly with a plugin

Screenshot of WordPress plugin install screen

Developers love to share code snippets. You’ll find them on blogs and on Stack Exchange. They’re everywhere. And in the right hands and right contexts, they can be incredibly useful.

If you’re a new website owner and don’t have much coding experience, beware of copy/pasting random code into your website.

Without being able to understand what the code is actually doing, it can easily have unintended consequences. Not to mention that typically speaking random code snippets aren’t one-size-fits-all. The suggested code may do what you want, but there’s a good chance it won’t either. There’s a reasonable chance the code could be malicious code too.

A much better path is to find a supported plugin (premium or from the WordPress.org repository) that has the functionality you’re looking for. These plugins are typically well-vetted and well-supported too. When developers share code snippets they rarely do it with the intention of updating that code or supporting it.

Using the built-in WordPress plugin system will also allow you to enable/disable functionality without editing files and potentially taking down your website with a white screen of death.

If you’re clear on the requirements of the functionality you need, there’s almost always a plugin for that™️

4. A few well-curated plugins will go a long way

It’s easy to go too far when installing plugins too. It’s incredibly easy to add new features and functionality to your website, and we’re only human, so more is better, right?

It’s important to keep in mind that every plugin you add to your website may drag down the overall performance. This impact will vary from one plugin to the next depending on the code quality and what the plugin actually does, but when you add a plugin to your website, you’re expanding your codebase.

Think of a truck towing a trailer full of bricks. For every plugin you install, think about throwing one more brick into the trailer. One additional brick on its own probably isn’t going to have a major impact, but once that trailer is full, you’re struggling up hills and getting horrible gas mileage.

You can keep your long-term costs like hosting in check by keeping your website as simple as it needs to be.

Ensure that every plugin on your website has a clear purpose. Avoid multifaceted plugins that include lots of features you’ll never use or need.

You can check out our list of essential WordPress plugins to get a great idea of where to start.

5. Don’t only use WordPress as the /blog/ portion of your website

Blog on laptop screen
WordPress isn’t just for blogging anymore.

I still somewhat regularly see websites that use flat HTML or another old framework to power the “main” part of their website, and reserve WordPress for their blog or newsfeed only.

For specialized cases like web apps, etc., I can see why there may be a separation.

But for marketing websites, online stores, or other types of content-drive sites, it really confuses me when the choice is made to have the website and blog separated into different platforms.

WordPress is capable of running some of the most powerful and dynamic websites in the world, so especially if you’re just starting out, let WordPress power your entire website, not simply the newsfeed.

Not only will it save you time, having a consistent codebase across your entire web presence can help reduce technical complexity and even improve metrics like organic search rankings and website performance.

Don’t overcomplicate things for yourself.

6. Don’t hire help on Fiverr

Screenshot of codeable.io homepage

The most expensive mistake I see new website owners make is hiring help on Fiverr.

Let’s imagine a scenario where you have things almost perfect but need help finishing the last 10% of the website to get it just right. So you think, “I’ve done everything until now with just my time, so I’ll spend $50 or $100 and my website will be finished!”

Don’t do it. I know it’s tempting but please don’t hire WordPress help on Fiverr.

I have far too many horror stories of people’s websites being taken hostage, their own work being ruined, timelines dragging on forever, etc. Fiverr does very little to verify identity so even sharing your hosting password with GloboTech Web Industries Inc. can put you at risk.

Inevitably that $50 can turn into $1500 because an expert needs to come in after the fact and either start over or do some significant salvage work.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t hire a freelancer. There are many reputable freelancers who love helping clients with that last bit of work. Look at Codeable, for example. They have a large network of vetted (both for identity and skillset) WordPress professionals who can help with hourly tasks.

7. Do hire a consultant, even if it’s only for an hour

Screenshot of Clarity homepage.

I work with website owners every day who have made the (very smart!) decision to get advice from a WordPress specialist even though they plan to do the majority of the work on their own.

A good WordPress consultant can go a long way in saving you time and money, and helping you avoid common mistakes. Much like getting advice for a theme, the more homework you’ve done before contacting a consultant, the more valuable your insights will be.

A solid WordPress consultant will probably charge between $80 and $200 per hour for their time, which sounds like a lot, but if their guidance can save you 10 hours of your own time, it’s suddenly a steal.

You can find WordPress consultants on platforms like Clarity. Here are a few we know you can trust to get up and running:

They all have unique areas of specialty so be sure to read through their profiles to see which consultants can help in the area where you need the most assistance.

If you need more hand-holding or are undertaking a bigger project like launching a business and need ongoing assistance, check out our SiteCoach program. We sign up to be your website General Contractor — managing all the facets of your digital presence and mentoring you along the way. We’ve worked with dozens of SiteCoach clients who have graduated to operating their online business completely on their own.

8. Choose your web hosting partner carefully

Pick your web host using the same scrutiny you use when looking for a new apartment. It is your digital home, right?

Switching web hosts later on isn’t the worst thing in the world, but getting this decision right will save you all sorts of time, money, and heartache. There are usually two main reasons why someone chooses a new web host:

  1. The host has frequent downtime or slow load times
  2. Support is lacking and leaves them feeling helpless

I deliberately used the word “partner” in this section heading. If you think of your web host as your partner, it gets you out of mindset of comparing line item features and taking a closer look at reputation and ability to support you early on as you start off in the world of website ownership.

Renting server space is incredibly cheap these days, but that’s not really what you’re shopping for, especially if you’re taking a DIY approach.

A good web host needs to meet your technical requirements, sure, but what you’re really after is performant hosting that’s supported by a team of professionals who can help you when issues arise.

Good WordPress hosting is a place that’s worth investing, even if you have a very bare bones budget for every other part of your website. These are some of the providers we trust for a solid hosting infrastructure and solid support to back it up:

If you’re looking for a deeper dive on technical aspects to evaluate when choosing a web host, check out our guide for that.

9. Choose our team for your WordPress Support

The divide between web hosting and support partner continues to grow. Especially as WordPress platforms become more managed, and the scale of WordPress hosting companies continues to grow, the ability for support teams within those organizations to offer troubleshooting or code-level help is dwindling.

In fact, many hosts have blanket support policies that prohibit their team from changing anything on customer websites. I understand the reasoning. That level of support simply doesn’t scale the way that most hosting companies need it to. But that doesn’t change the fact that you still need help with your website.

If you find yourself regularly hitting a brick wall with your web host support, you may need more help than they’re equipped to provide.

Our team is built to fill that gap with our WP Site Care plans. We have a whole team of WordPress pros aching to help you work through any troubles you might be facing. Think of us as the technical team for your budding (or already budded) business, without the overhead of having a full-time person or people on staff. And without the trust and reputation concerns you may encounter with other outlets.

We’ve been doing this for a long time and know how to support everyone from the DIYer to the growing organization that needs a near full-time WordPress staff. If you find you need to pass off the technical overhead of website ownership to focus on your business and your own area of specialty, get in touch with our team and we’ll help you find the plan that’s right for you.

10. Backup your website frequently and in multiple locations

Open hard drive

Last week I wrote a comprehensive article comparing all of the backup services available for WordPress. I don’t need to reiterate the importance of keeping backups of your site, but I still know that someone reading this isn’t keeping regular website backups.

If this is you, start backing up your website right now. Leave this article and don’t come back until you’ve taken at least one full backup of your WordPress files and database.

And as I mentioned last week, don’t leave backup management to your web host. You’re ultimately responsible for your own data. Trust me, that’s the position the hosting companies take. Their policies are almost always written in a way that lets them off the hook should your entire website be obliterated, even if it’s their fault.

One other huge benefit of maintaining regular backups beyond avoiding catastrophe is that if you do inadvertently break your website and need to call in the medics to revive it, at the very least they’ll have a backup to reference. That will cut down on downtime and troubleshooting time as well. You’ll end up saving yourself lost business opportunities and the frustration that goes along with extended downtime, not to mention money because the pros will be able to finish their work more quickly.

Backups are good. Please keep them.

Will you DIY your next WordPress website?

I got started with WordPress strictly out of curiosity and wanting to expand my learning, so DIY was a very natural fit. I came into WordPress with a strong technical background, but I wasn’t immune from some of these very same mistakes that I’m warning you about. I made a lot of them.

How are you feeling about it now? Are you ready to dive into WordPress to create your next online presence? Or will you save your money and hand it off to the pros? Hit us up in the comments to see if the DIY route is right for you.

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1 Comment

  1. Reza

    You’ve rightly pointed out the pitfalls to avoid while designing and developing a wordpress website. I was introduced to WordPress a year ago, and I did commit a mistake of hiring a so-called wordpress expert on FIverr – It Was Devastating. Your post will do good to a lot of wordpress newbies out there.

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