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I built my very first WordPress site in 2008—which feels like an eternity ago in Internet time.

Since then, I’ve built hundreds of WordPress sites and now I teach a WordPress course at a University. I’ve come a long way since that first site.

Thirteen years ago, when I first discovered WordPress, the Internet was a very different place.

In fact, WordPress was only 5 years old at the time. So new, that it took me quite a while to even figure out what other bloggers were using to customize their site so well.

After some digging, I finally ditched “blogger,” downloaded a zipped folder of WordPress, and attempted to install it on my domain.

Like I said, the Internet was a different place.

Now, teaching a WordPress course at a University, each semester I get to introduce my students to the magic of WordPress all over again.

It’s lots of fun.

It has also made me consider some of the most critical things I wish I had known when I started my own first WordPress site years ago.

So today, I’ll mix my own experience with what I’ve learned teaching WordPress newbies to share with you 5 things I wish I’d known when building my first WordPress site.

Here we go:

1. WordPress.com is NOT WordPress.org

Let’s start by tackling one of the most confusing things about WordPress:

WordPress.com is not WordPress.org.

It’s complicated, but here’s how I’ve found is the best way to explain it to my students:

WordPress.com is similar to alternatives like SquareSpace, Wix, or WebFlow in that you just sign up to use the service and they host your website for you.

WordPress.org (the original WordPress) on the other hand is self-hosted. That means you need to sign up with someone like Bluehost or Dreamhost or thousands of other web hosting options in order to get your WordPress site online.

It’s important to note that a self-hosted WordPress site is far more powerful and customizable than a WordPress.com website.

Of course, with more options, comes a steeper learning curve if you’re not a developer. But you can always get quick WordPress support if you hit a snag.

2. Most good web hosts offer free WordPress installation

Since it’s wisest to go with a self-hosted WordPress installation, skip all the trouble I went through trying to set up my first WordPress site with this little tip:

Most hosting services offer a free WordPress installation. I know for a fact that DreamHost has a one-click installation and BlueHost has an entire onboarding walk-through.

Honestly, we’re spoiled in 2021. It’s fantastic if you’re ready to build your first WordPress site.

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3. Plugins aren’t the answer to everything

When you’re new to WordPress, it can be easy to get excited about the literally endless possibilities of such a versatile and ubiquitous platform.

Because WordPress is used on around 1/3 of all websites on the Internet, millions of people have contributed to the infrastructure that supports it.

This happens perhaps most heavily through plugins.

What you’ll soon realize, as you build your WordPress site, is that there are literally plugins for anything you can dream of in WordPress.

But just because there’s a plugin that can solve whatever problem you’re facing, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the right answer in every situation.

In fact, many plugins can pose security threats, slow your site way down, or become outdated and broken.

Instead, consider reaching out to a WordPress support team for ideas on solving your problems without a plugin. Even if their ultimate suggestion is to use a plugin, they’ll have a better idea of which plugins work well, are well-maintained, and won’t bog down your site.

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4. Premium themes are worth the money (usually)

Naturally, one of the first things you’ll be compelled to work on when building a WordPress site is the site design.

For this, you’ll need to select a WordPress template that will act as the foundational design for your site.

When choosing a template, you may be tempted to install one of millions of free WordPress themes available on the market.

While there are many good free options (particularly the ones created by WordPress’ owner Automattic), I have found a good premium theme is a great option for beginning site owners.

Premium themes tend to have fewer bugs and are typically updated regularly by the author which means your site will remain secure and updated at all times.

A few premium themes we recommend include Divi by Elegant Themes or Elementor, which both offer a drag-and-drop interface along with their themes. You can also search marketplaces like CreativeMarket or ThemeForest for premium themes to fit your needs.

5. You should have a basic understanding of HOW WordPress works on the inside

Finally, when building your first WordPress site, it can be tempting to blindly follow onboarding sequences from your host or follow online tutorials without understanding “why” you’re doing what you’re doing.

I encourage you to learn the basics of how WordPress works.

I don’t mean you have to learn how to write flawless PHP code or develop your own WordPress theme from scratch (yes, people do that).

I just mean you should strive to understand how WordPress works. How does it utilize a database to present dynamic content? How do posts and pages work together? What is a permalink and why is it important?

To begin, try learning about WordPress’ most important internal functions here.

Of course, you don’t have to become a developer in order to have a nice WordPress website. You can always use free resources or even hire a freelancer to help you.

But regardless of what route you take, you should always make decisions understanding how your choices fit into the larger WordPress setup on your site.

Make progress; Get help when you hit a wall

My last piece of advice for anyone building their first WordPress site is this:

Make progress every week and get help when you hit a wall.

Far too many people get overwhelmed, busy, or distracted and never actually finalize their WordPress site to a place they’re happy with it.

Instead, make something that’s “good enough” and publish it. You can always make changes later. You’re not writing a book. You’re building a website.

And when you do get stuck (because we all do—even after 13 years, I run into problems I’ve never seen before), reach out to a WordPress support team for assistance. There’s no shame in it.

Above all, you’ve got this! Good luck on your very first WordPress website.

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