The Essential Guide to Setting up a WordPress Website in 2020

June 11, 2020 / Web Design / Guest Post: Aidan Ashby, Owner of Lucid Rhino Web DesignAidan is a web and branding designer living in Northampton, UK. He is a cautious optimist and is loathe to discuss himself in the third person. He loves pancakes and has a perpetual desire to just be sat in the woods with his feet up in front of a bonfire. / LinkedIn.

Setting up a Wordpress Website. website design and development Brainerd Lakes

WordPress is by far the most popular content management system in the world. It started life in 2003 as a humble open-source blogging platform and has grown in popularity to power 35% of the web.

At the time of writing, there are 56,000 free plugins available for WordPress, and across the web, users post 77 million new comments each month. A few websites that run on WordPress that you may recognize are:

WordPress is versatile, stable, fast, and incredibly well supported by a growing open source community, which means it’s unlikely to fade into obscurity any time soon. While it takes a little more to set-up and customize a WordPress website than DIY website builders like Wix, Weebly, Squarespace and others, the flexibility and power of WordPress makes it a very popular option for people who want something a little more bespoke in order to present themselves with professionalism online.

In this post, I’ll be explaining how to set up and configure your own basic WordPress website from scratch, in nine steps.

Pick your WordPress Flavour

The first thing to note is that there are two ways to get WordPress. While WordPress is totally open source and created by thousands of independent contributors, the main contributor is the founder’s company, Automattic. Automattic runs a version of WordPress that they host at wordpress.com, and you can sign up there to create a free website. They make their money back by charging monthly for certain features like the ability to use your own domain name, customizing colors, and selling online, just like other DIY website builders.

This can be nice if you don’t have much time, expertise, or money to invest upfront, and it means you’ll never have to think about things breaking or security beyond using strong passwords. But, having to pay for every little upgrade can be very limiting and monthly fees can cost more in the long run.

The more popular version of WordPress is the free self-hosted version available at wordpress.org, and that’s what this post is about. If wordpress.com is like renting a house, wordpress.org is like owning a house. You’ll have to set it up yourself or pay someone to do it for you, but it’s all yours and you can do with it what you like. Of course, if the boiler breaks, it’s your problem to fix it, but WordPress is generally pretty simple to maintain.

One of the best things about WordPress is that it’s incredibly easy to get started. Let’s begin.

Step 1: Register a domain name

A domain name is an address that people use to find websites, like google.com or gracebuiltco.com. When you register a domain name you pay internet companies to send people who type in your domain name to a server that you specify, your website’s host, that then sends them your website.

There are thousands of domain name registrars and this post isn’t intended to be a review, but here are a few you could check out:

Step 2: Create a web hosting account

A web host is a company that runs servers that store website files and databases, serving them to members of the public online. You’ll need to set up an account with a hosting provider for people to be able to see your website.

Many hosting companies can handle both domain name registration and hosting, but it can be a good idea to split your domain name registration from your website hosting as this allows you to shop around for the best deal for each. It can also be a good idea to keep them separate in case something goes sour with one of them – then they won’t wield too much power and you’ll be able to rescue your website one way or another.

It’s a good idea to look for hosting companies that are based in the same nation as your intended audience as they will be able to send data to your visitors faster than a host sitting on the other side of the world. If it’s critical for your website to be equally fast all around the globe then you’ll probably need to set up a CDN (Content Delivery Network), but that’s a topic for another post.

Types of hosting

A shared hosting plan would probably be most suitable for a new WordPress website. In shared plans the host stores several websites on the same hardware, which keeps costs low while still providing adequate service.

However, if you expect your website to receive very high traffic you may need a VPS (Virtual Private Server) in which all the resources of that VPS are made available to your website only, making it a high-powered solution, along with a higher cost of course.

Many hosts offer managed WordPress hosting setups too, which are fine-tuned to allow WordPress websites to handle complex functions (like managing an e-commerce website) with high traffic at speed. If you expect your website to grow significantly in the future the best course of action may be to start with a shared hosting plan that you can then upgrade later to managed WordPress hosting as needed.

Types of server software

Many websites run on software such as Apache or Nginx. You don’t need to worry much about this as hosts will probably offer you a readymade and sane solution unless you ask them for something special. However, I recommend looking for a host that offers LiteSpeed web servers, as this lesser-used technology really does provide an edge when it comes to website speed, while still being configured by site admins in a very similar way to Apache, which is a well known, robust and longstanding technology.

WordPress recommends the following hosting server specifications:

    • PHP version 7.3 or greater
    • MySQL version 5.6 or greater or MariaDB version 10.1 or greater
    • HTTPS support

A few recommendations of web hosts:

When you set up your hosting account you’ll probably be prompted to enter the domain name you’d like the account to use and given instructions on how to carry out the next step, below.

Step 3: Point your domain to your host

The exact steps required for this will depend on your domain name registrar, but you’ll need to create settings (called records) in your domain’s DNS (Domain Name System) dashboard that point your domain name to the IP address of your web host’s server.

After changing DNS records it can take hours for the result to propagate across the internet, so leave a bit of time for changes to take effect before trying to use the domain. You can check how well DNS record changes have updated around the globe at: www.whatsmydns.net.

Step 4: Configure your hosting ready for WordPress

When you set up your hosting account they should have sent you an email telling you how to access the dashboard of your hosting panel. Many of these will use a system called cPanel. For the rest of these instructions, we’ll be assuming you’re using cPanel as it’s the most commonly used hosting dashboard.

If you didn’t register the domain name to be used with your hosting account in Step 2, you’ll have to do it before going any further. You may have to contact your host directly to ask them to link it up. Alternatively, if you already have a hosting account set up with another domain name as the primary domain you can add your new domain name as an addon domain in the addon domains option in your dashboard.

Then find the PHP module in your dashboard and set your account to use PHP 7.3, or at least a version in the PHP 7 series. At the time of writing PHP 7.4 may work fine but may not be compatible with all the plugins and themes that you may want to use.

The recommended PHP extensions to activate here too are:

    • curl
    • dom
    • exif
    • fileinfo
    • hash
    • json
    • mbstring
    • mysqli
    • libsodium
    • openssl
    • pcre
    • imagick
    • xml
    • zip

Then create an SSL certificate for the domain name that you’d like to use in your host settings. Your host may provide free SSL certificates using a tool like Lets Encrypt, so use that if it’s available. Your domain name will need to resolve to your host correctly before you try to register a security certificate for it.

Step 5: Set up WordPress

There are two ways to do this.

You may find in your hosting dashboard, an application installer like Installatron or Softaculous. These can handle the installation of a wide range of free software for you, including WordPress. Here are the instructions for Installatron:

    1. Find and open Installatron or Softaculous in your cPanel dashboard
    2. Search the tool for the WordPress application and click ‘Install’
    3. Select the domain you’d like your website to load on, making sure to select the https version
    4. Set other settings as required and make a note of the admin username and password that you set. These are the credentials that you’ll use to log in to the admin area of your new WordPress website.
    5. Click ‘Install’ and if all goes well you’ll be presented with a screen like this:

However, if you’re not provided with an installer you can set up WordPress yourself. Here are the steps:

    1. Download WordPress and unzip it
    2. Create a MySQL database for WordPress on your server and create a user for it. Note the name, username, and password and activate all user permissions for the database
    3. Upload the unzipped WordPress files and folders to your server
    4. If you’d like WordPress to be installed in the root of your domain, upload it to the root folder of your hosting environment (probably called public_html).
    5. Otherwise, if you’d like it in a subfolder like example.com/blog, then create a subfolder called blog, or whatever, and upload it there 
    6. Navigate to your website to run through the setup wizard. If you uploaded WordPress to a subfolder you’ll need to navigate to the subfolder, e.g example.com/blog. The wizard will ask you for the database name and password, so have these handy.

If you get stuck setting up WordPress using this method you can check the WordPress setup instructions for further help.

Step 6: Log in to WordPress and review default settings

Once that’s all done you can find the admin dashboard for your new website at example.com/wp-admin (where example.com should be replaced by the address your website was installed at). Log in with the WordPress username and password you set in the setup process (not the database username and password).

Then make yourself a drink for getting this far, you’ve done all the difficult bits.

Now, some key WordPress settings that you’ll need to check or set as soon as you’ve set up are:

    • Settings / General: set the site title and tagline. Make sure the correct language version, timezone, time, and date formats are set for your region.
    • Settings/ Reading: If you’re not ready for people to find your site online tick ‘Discourage search engines from indexing this site’.
    • Settings / Permalinks: this controls how WordPress picks the unique part of the URL of pages and posts (called a ‘slug’) when you publish them. It’s usually best to set permalinks to ‘Post name’ for readability and SEO compatibility.

Step 7: Activate a suitable theme

WordPress themes control how information is laid out on a web page, and it comes with a few themes that you can use out of the box. You can customize the active theme or install a new theme under Appearance / Themes in the admin menu. The WordPress repository contains 7,400+ free themes for all kinds of websites, and there are many theme developers that sell pro themes you can buy online too.

Some popular versatile themes you could try are OceanWP, Avada, Astra and GeneratePress. Some of these have both free and pro versions and some allow you to download free prebuilt customizable templates to get you started quickly.

You may find something that suits your needs with a traditional theme like the ones above but if you want a completely bespoke layout you should look into using a WordPress page builder tool. Popular options are:

    • Divi – annual or lifetime subscriptions for an unlimited number of sites. Available as a theme or as a plugin that works with any other theme.
    • Elementor – free and pro subscription for a limited number of sites
    • Beaver Builder – various annual subscriptions for an unlimited number of sites

Once you’ve installed and activated your chosen theme in most cases the place to configure it is under Appearance / Customize.

Step 8: Install relevant plugins

Plugins add to or change your website’s functionality. Just like with themes you can install and activate plugins from a vast free repository under ‘Plugins’ in the admin menu. At the time of writing, there are 56,300 free plugins available there.

Plugins can be wonderful but I have a few words of caution:

    • Plugins can increase your website’s security risk. Only install plugins obtained from reputable sources and keep them up to date.
    • Most plugins slow things down so install as few as possible. When you have a choice, always prefer more lightweight plugins. For example, don’t use a plugin with 100 features just for one of them when there’s another plugin available that does just that one thing equally well.
    • When you look for plugins check their user ratings and number of installations and consider that a vote of confidence.

Types of plugins that every website should install:

You may find it helpful to read a longer compiled list of the most essential WordPress Plugins For 2020.

Step 9: Set up your posts, pages and menus

Posts and pages are pretty much identical except posts are designed to appear in a chronological list as a blog, whereas pages are more static and timeless, remaining permanently in their place.

These can both be configured under ‘Posts’ and ‘Pages’ in the admin menu. You’ll want to create a menu too, which can be created and configured under Appearance / Menus or in the theme customizer.

So there you have it. Being able to set up WordPress websites is a valuable skill that opens up great possibilities when it comes to web design. You no longer have to make do with high monthly costs and the possibilities for what you can build can grow in leaps and bounds as you pick up developing with WordPress.