10 step guide for improving a vanilla WordPress install

A few weeks ago I was approached with a request to help setup a simple WordPress site from the ground-up. The simple requirement being that after the initial setup, the site be ready for steady growth with minimum update requirements outside of core WordPress upgrades. I created this general guide highlighting 10 facets of a vanilla WordPress install every new blogger should consider. The gamut includes a number of additions that anyone capable of editing files and navigating a web server is capable of doing.

01. Optimized code for maintainability & indexability

Invest time (and research if necessary) in writing clean code. Doing so will reduce the amount of time wasted on debugging, ensure browser consistency & compatibility, allow for search engines to crawl your pages more effectively, and save time (no wasted time if code is easy to traverse and you know where everything is).

  • W3 Schools – Resource for anyone interested in dropping all-in-one editors like Dreamweaver. Online tutorials & references.
  • Break or prevent bad habit(s) – plain text editors: BBEdit (Mac), TextMate (Mac), or Notepad++ (Win).

02. Code indexability taken a little further – SEO

There is a lot of chatter concerning “search engine optimization”. The SEO goal is to maximize traffic referral from search engines. Fortunately, WordPress – by default – provides a lot of the basics to ensure that search engines see your content. Yoast put together a thorough guide on WordPress SEO for reference.

  • All in One SEO Pack (plugin) – Automatically generates meta tags and titles.
  • Google XML Sitemaps (plugin) – everytime you edit or create a post, your sitemap is updated and all major search engines that support the sitemap protocol, like ASK.com, Google, MSN Search and YAHOO, are notified about the update.
  • Google Webmaster Central – Better understand how Google works + tools to optimize your site.

Recommendation for code organization in templates: (1) header / navigation, (2) main content, (3) secondary nav + extras.

03. Simplify WordPress site administration

The WordPress admin dashboard works well when you’re in front of a computer. But how about when you’re mobile? Rather than sitting down at a Hotspot, why not simplify the management of your site? It’s all about rich mobile handsets and mobile internet.

  • Clean Notifications (plugin) – Mike Davidson contributes his solution to heavy comment moderation emails. Notifications are reformatted with a reduced visual footprint.
  • iPhone / Mobile Admin (plugin) – Together with Clean Notifications, mobile users can now manage their WordPress site(s) from their back pocket.
  • WordPress for iPhone – Write posts, upload photos, and edit from your iPhone. Still no comment moderation though.
  • Moderator (plugin + desktop) – A WordPress plugin + Adobe AIR desktop app for that brings comment moderation to your computer desktop via Blogging Pro.

04. Improve the built in WordPress search bar

For some, the integrated search feature in WordPress falls short. By default, search queries are limited to posts with no support for booleans or indexing pages. The resolution / solution (depending on how you look at it) requires installing plugins or opting to use an external search service to index content.

  • Search Everything (plugin) – Picking up where WordPress left off, Search Everything offers configuration options to index pages, categories, tags, drafts, excerpts, custom fields, and attachments.
  • Google Custom Search – Use to replace or supplement the existing WordPress search. The power of Google.. Without the aesthetic coherence.
  • Lijit (plugin) – Search powered by Google + the addition of providing your “other” social sites as search results. E.g. a query for baseball on your WordPress site will display results from your blog and photos tagged baseball on your Flickr account. Also lacks visual coherence with your design – results are displayed as an overlay.

05. Understand traffic

Analytics data is no longer for statistics junkies. Understanding your visitors is vital to the growth and success of your website. Compare traffic figures prior to and after the implementation of new featured content containers, advertising links, design changes, and or content focus. Understand where readers are coming from, know how long they’re staying, and see where they’re going. Are visitors landing on your home page and promptly leaving? Or, are they reading and exploring older content? Questions like these can be answered by collecting and understanding visitor data.

  • Mint – Beautiful analytics package + extensions via Peppers.
  • Google Analytics + Google Analytics for WordPress (plugin) – Google Analytics cann be run sans plugin but without loses the ability to track outbound links from within posts, comment author links, links within comments, blogroll links and more.
  • Crazy Egg – User behavior tracking and visualization.

06. Promote similar, related, or completely random content

Congratulations, you have fresh eyes on your site. Why not try and lead your new visitor into the archives to continue reading?

  • The content “explore” block – Utilize built in WordPress functions to promote related content to a visitor. Link to content which shares similar categories and tags.
  • WordPress Related Posts (plugin) – This plugin goes beyond using tags as links to similar content. Add a list of related posts to your RSS feed, or anywhere else in your template to link with titles.
  • Random Redirect (plugin) – Create an attractive button to click + this plugin to link to random posts in your archives.

07. Improve the discussion

Visitors are more inclined to explore content which has corresponding comment activity. The current iteration of WordPress supports Gravatars by default. Custom avatars coupled with select plugins and visual accoutrements transform comments into a valuable aspect of a published article.

  • Subscribe to Comments (plugin) – At some point or another, we have all contributed to a discussion and never gone back to check for a reply or rebuttal. Subscribe to comments provides visitors with an option to follow a comment conversation from their email inbox.
  • DISQUS (plugin) – A comment aggregation service with support for threaded replies. A direct replacement for the standard WordPress comments backend.

08. Combat spam

As of this post, the site has has over 5,500 comments / trackbacks. A small percentage in contrast to the number of spam filling up the moderation queue. WordPress ships with Akismet by default, but there are recommendations.

  • Generally spam tends to offer up a nice collection of links mixed in with random garbage. For added moderation protection, reduce the number of permitted links in comments. Settings > Discussion > Comment Moderation – “Hold a comment in the queue if it contains 2 or more links”. Change 2 to 1 if you’re willing to make sure safe comments are erroneously left in the queue.
  • Defensio (plugin) – Similar features as Akismet. A spam filtering service which cross references flagged comments against a database of known spam.
  • Postable (pre-comment) – If you anticipate discussions which might include code examples from readers, provide a link to Postable which converts code into a blog comment friendly format.

09. Offer more opportunities to connect & meet readers

The web is social. Providing the means for readers to connect and interact with you outside of your blog creates a stickiness that may translate into increased traffic. Use your WordPress site as a platform to represent your online footprint.

  • Brightkite Location (plugin) – Fire Eagle and Twitter integrated Brightkite lets users update their status + whereabouts in real-time. Brightkite Location adds your most recent check-in to your site (links to your Brightkite profile).
  • Twitter Tools (plugin) – two way integration of Twitter. Pulls a digest of Tweets down as a blog post, or pushes Tweets to the Twitter service.
  • ShareThis – Provides readers with a myriad of options to push your content to their favorite social services.
  • SimpleLife (plugin) – A “lifestream” of your social activities – Last.fm, Facebook, Delicious, Flickr, and more.

10. Reduce load times, prepare for traffic

Whether you’re planning a site for constant high traffic or throwing a site together for friends & family, WordPress performance plugins will improve load times and reduce server resource requirements – which is never a bad thing.

What do you generally do after a vanilla WordPress install? [digg this]

Discuss - 22 Comments

  1. dimhap says:

    that was really useful, especially for newbies like me
    thank you:)

  2. Devin Reams says:

    Excellent guide, Derek. I do most of these, too.

    I throw in Feedburner Feedsmith just because I like the statistics but it’s certainly not necessary (or desired by many).

    I also use the WordPress.com Stats plugin just because it’s nice to have some simple numbers right there in my dashboard. I haven’t noticed any affect on performance running simultaneously with Google Analytics.

  3. Webby says:

    Thanks a lot for posting this article, it was very useful.

  4. Kevin says:

    Looking solid.. Can’t wait to implement some of these on our website!

  5. Excellent article! Some new stuff in here for me, which I’ll check out and probably feature in my newsletter :)

  6. Heidi says:

    Thanks! Very useful article.

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  9. Derek says:

    Devin, just realized that the Feedburner feed replacement plugin I was using was renamed. I guess the stats you’re referring to are the standard stats collected by Feedburner – even without the plugin?

  10. Cesar Noel says:

    Nice article great list of plugins. I use some of those plugins on my WordPress blogs.

  11. Tschai says:

    Since Automattic acquired ‘Intense Debate’ I would not suggest to use DISQUS. Instead just wait for the inevitable integration of ‘Intense Debate’ in WP.

    Further, great list surely…especially if you want to get the max out of WP!

  12. Derek,

    Great stuff!
    I am making some final adjustments to my wordpress surf report site, purpletide.com
    Especially in the reduce load time section, super-cache has been giving me problems with users who are not logged in, the cache doesn’t expire…

    I do want to note that threaded, paged, and admin coomments will be available in worpress 2.7. Check out the new dashboard here:
    http://wordpress.org/development/2008/10/the-new-27-dashboard/

    Shen

  13. Really helpful. Came to this page through the recent Digg story on 50 beautiful free WordPress themes. I shall be keeping a close eye on your site as it develops further. Thanks again.

  14. Great list of wordpress plug-ins and resources. I’ll be passing this along to my clients who need to get an overview of how to improve their blogs.

  15. Mike L. says:

    I really thought I was ready to launch my simple site until I read this entry. I publish with MT because it was the best choice for me at the time. I now I wonder how important are all the items listed and where do I go from here.

  16. Thanks.
    Useful links are always a value.

  17. [...] Derek’s posted a great 10 step guide to improving a vanilla wordpress install. [...]

  18. John Dyer says:

    Thanks very much for this great guide!

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  20. Andre says:

    One thing I would add for combating SPAM is the reCaptcha plugin, http://recaptcha.net/plugins/wordpress/. This is a great tool to prevent spam robots from blasting your site with links. You can see an installed example of it on my TechClub blog, http://techclub.mypctechs.com/?p=185 under the comments area. I’ve found that it’s cut the amount of Spam on my blog considerably.