As I moved from blogging into developing websites, I got a lot of questions about the Genesis Framework, which themes to use and how plugins work. Today I’m answering all those questions right here. Yay for easy answers!
If you’ve followed our series and have installed WordPress, I hope you’ve had some time to play with it and are starting to figure out some of the aspects of your new website. While you learn the mechanics of how WordPress works, it’s also time to think about how your site looks. Because our moms were wrong. Appearances do count, at least in the online world.
Making beautiful websites is pretty much my favorite pastime and I still offer this service to clients who don’t want to make their own. Because it does take time and there is a learning curve to WordPress and working with themes. Having said that, if you’re committed to DIYing your site, and it can totally be done and here’s what you need to know before you get started.
Understanding How WordPress Themes Work
A WordPress Theme (or any theme for any platform really) basically controls how your site looks to the rest of the world. Codex defines it best as:
A WordPress Theme is a collection of files that work together to produce a graphical interface with an underlying unifying design for a weblog. These files are called template files. A Theme modifies the way the site is displayed, without modifying the underlying software.”
I like to think of website building as you would with building a house. The domain is your street street address and once the domain is registered and you’ve added hosting you own the property. The actual structure of the house is what WordPress or any content management system (CMS) is. It’s the building that will hold your belongings. Your furniture and other belongings are your content like all the posts and images and other things you’ll add to your website. The theme is the style of your house and what makes your space unique and attractive to you and others.
And I like to think of themes in the same way I like to think about interior design. Every room starts with a concept of how you want it to look. Your website is the same way. Some themes are businessy, some are designed for portfolios or magazines, some are feminine and on and on it goes. There are literally thousands of themes, just like there are thousands of sofas, chairs, and area rugs. Themes are what pulls your design together and makes your site functional and also represents what your site is about. And they do it all without you having to learn any coding skills. Nice.
FREE WORDPRESS THEMES
You probably noticed that when you installed WordPress, they kindly gave you three free themes to play around with. WordPress has lots of free themes and if money is super tight it’s easy to get started with one of them.
Having said that, I have found that free themes don’t take you very far and many of them are less than customizable. I’m uber fussy about my house and similarly fussy about my websites. I have very specific ideas of how I want things to look and feel. Sometimes I get too hung up on things like fonts and spacing just like I do at home with throw pillows and flamingos. #designerproblems #apparentlywedontneedmorethrowpillows
There are two ways that I’ve worked with themes in the past half decade. For the longest time, I only used themes that stood alone (ie. I didn’t use the Genesis Framework). Why? Basically because I can be very cheap and I didn’t want to pay for what I felt like was two themes rather than one. Which turned out to be just plain dumb.
The Genesis Framework- Why We Love It
When you work on sites as often as I do and change things around frequently, it’s pretty great to be able to update and make cosmetic changes without having to redesign an entire site around a new theme. Genesis, being framework, makes this so simple that I can’t believe I ever worked without it. Once I was introduced to Genesis, we fell in love and now Genesis is my new boyfriend and we’ve been together for the past two years. Also, Genesis lets me hog the blankets and doesn’t care if I eat all the marshmallows out of the lucky charms. #truelove
The Genesis Framework is an actual framework and uses “child” themes along side of it. Genesis is like the walls are the framework of your rooms, and the child theme is what makes the room beautiful with fancy mirrors, art work, and a good paint job. (More interior design metaphors, cuz that’s how I roll, y’all).
Regular themes that don’t rely on Genesis have to do it all and that can be problematic for a variety of reasons. When WordPress is updated it’s not uncommon to lose bits and pieces of your design. When you change themes, you essentially have to rebuild your entire site. I did that for far too long until I met and fell in love with Genesis.
Here are the reasons why I think Genesis and a child theme are the way to go, particularly for beginners:
FEATURES OF THE GENESIS FRAMEWORK
ONCE YOU KNOW GENESIS, YOU BECOME A GENESIS GENIUS
Unlike when you purchase a new theme and you have a learning curve to climb, Genesis requires that you only learn it once. And once you know it, you really know it and the learning curve is over. The child themes that go with Genesis are basically like accessories and require very little learning time. Child themes may have different features and ways of showing your content, but Genesis itself is very easy to get to know.
Genesis doesn’t change even with updates which is HUGE! When regular themes get updated by a developer, your site can “break” and look very distorted which means you need to work on learning the new updates to your theme to get your content back to where it was. When Genesis updates you don’t need to do much except be pleased that you use the framework. Your site is exactly like you left it. This also includes updates to WordPress which happen fairly regularly. I’ve never had a single problem with updates since moving to Genesis.
UNLIMITED LIFETIME SUPPORT
Genesis is pretty cutting edge and always up to date which is cool. As we already talked about, when Genesis is updated it doesn’t affect your site. If you are struggling however, Genesis comes with unlimited, lifetime support. Having said that, you probably won’t need a lot of support because it’s so easy to use and very user friendly. If you do need support there are a heck ton of Genesis experts and a community forum with over 100,000 users hanging out and talking Genesis. And because it’s so popular you’ll find loads of free tutorials all over the place to help you get started. In fact, I’m probably going to do one in the very near future.
IT’S CHEAP AND YOU ONLY NEED TO BUY IT ONCE
Once you buy the Genesis Framework, it’s yours for life. Developers work on it constantly and the updates are free. For, like, EVER! Even better? You can use it on as many sites as you want. For people like me, who love to build sites and sometimes do it for clients, that’s an incredible deal and it means I don’t have to charge as much to build a site! So many themes and frameworks come with licenses that don’t allow you to use the framework more than once. Which means you have to purchase an extended license package (often very costly) or keep buying the framework for every site you develop. Genesis, at $59.95, is yours for life.
TONS OF FEATURES AND PLUGINS ALREADY INCLUDED
We’ll talk about Plugins shortly but quite simply the ones that are included with Genesis are the bomb which means you require less of other plugins to make your site do what you want. Genesis is SEO friendly which means you don’t need an SEO plugin. You also don’t need author, newsletter, featured pages or posts and a whole host of other plugins that can slow your site down. Every time you add a plugin you risk slowing down your loading time which annoys your readers and affects your SEO. Genesis has great plugins that keep things rolling quickly. When I didn’t use Genesis I sometimes had to do plugins by trial and error which meant installing and trying out 10 or 20 different ones to figure out which would work with my theme. And, as a cautionary note, plugins are often the reason of site crashes. Twice I’ve called Bluehost to rant that my site was down and learned it was a plugin I had installed. Awkward.
Want to learn more about Genesis?
And check out our favorite child themes here!
CHILD THEMES WE LOVE
ALL ABOUT PLUGINS
I adore plugins as much as I adore themes. I love the idea that a few clicks means I can add a new feature to my site. Because that’s what plugins are. Plugins offer features and functions to your site to allow you to further customize it after you’re finished installing and customizing your theme.
If we stick with the house analogy, plugins are like appliances. I mean, sure you can let wash your dishes by hand and all but a dishwasher plugin means you don’t have to. You could toast your bread in the oven or get a toaster plugin. Or mix margarita by hand or have a frozen one with your blender plugin. See where I’m going with that? Right. To the liquor store.
For example, I use an Adsense Plugin on my some of my other sites so that I don’t need to copy and past code from Google Adsense to make ads in my posts. Which save a heck ton of time and allows me to easily place an ad in my article.
I also use the Instagram Feed plug in under the footer of this site so you can see my Instagram photos because I like pretty pictures and figured maybe you would, too. (PS. If you want to follow me on Instagram, I swear I won’t bombard you. Just pretty pictures and occasionally a life altering quote. Sometimes with some swear words.)
TIPS FOR USING PLUGINS
LESS IS BETTER
Keep your site running smoothly and loading quickly by using only the plugins you really need. In writing this article, I took my own advice and went back to my first site and uninstalled 12 of them that I wasn’t using. 12! It happens fast. You find a plugin that everyone’s talking about, you want that too, and the next thing you know you have a bloated site with too many flashy things and it takes forever to load.
UPDATE PLUGINS REGULARLY
When you login to your dashboard, take a peak at the top left corner.
It will show you if you have any updates so you can get on those. Updates are important because they keep everything running smoothly. The other option is to select “Plugins” from your sidebar menu which will take you right to your plugin dashboard. The ones in red need updating. Easy-peasy. And use that time to check and see which ones you may not need any longer and get rid of them. Don’t just deactivate them but actually delete them. You can always find them again when you change your mind, particularly if you keep a diary or notebook about your site (which you should!). Just make a note of what you used it for and where to find it and then hit the delete button.
WATCH FOR SITE ISSUES
If your site starts acting wonky or crashes completely, you’ll want to start by looking at your plugins, starting with your most recent install. Try deactivating and see if your site starts working again. If it does, you’ve found the problem. Plugins are notoriously weird and much like a highly dysfunctional new boyfriend who looks good on the surface, they can easily upset the balance of things. While some will work beautifully for other bloggers, it could cause all sorts of problems for you. If your site has slowed, or is acting up in some way, investigate your plugins.
PAID VS FREE PLUGINS
Free plugins are widely available with varied levels of support. Paid for plugins should come with some kind of support which often makes them worth paying for, particularly if the concept of what the plugin does and how it works is not something you’re familiar with. Having said that, I largely use the free ones. Because they’re free and I love free. One of the exceptions to this was my landing page that I used before this site launched. I felt that was worth spending a few dollars on and I loved that I could customize it so you guys had a way to see what we were about before we launched and allowed you to sign up to be notified when we went live. Loved that. Coming Soon Pro if you’re wondering. There are forums and all sorts of ways to work with plugins and you can research the ones your interested in. Again, only add them if you really feel you need them.
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PIN IT FOR LATER!