If you’re new to WordPress, it can definitely seem a little overwhelming, but we promise, it’s not nearly as techy and scary as you may think! But it is new, so let’s walk through it all to get you started with themes and plugins—two of the coolest features about self-hosted WordPress!
What are Themes? What Kind of Theme Do I Need?
The real first step is finding a theme. If you’re scratching your head wondering what a theme is, it’s essentially a blog design! In WordPress terms, your blog design is called your theme.
WordPress comes with free themes, but they’re not the greatest, so we recommend going with a premium theme, especially if you’re just getting started! Premium themes are themes you have to purchase. But, they’re very affordable and typically range from about $50-150.
Every theme will have unique design features and functionality, so it’s important to keep that in mind when searching for your theme.
There are thousands of themes out there and it’s easy to get overwhelmed! For bloggers, we recommend sticking to something that’s simple and straightforward so your content shines!
Try not to get too distracted by some themes shiny bells & whistles and focus on what’s best for you.
When deciding on your blog design or theme, don’t forget to think about your blog’s goals. If you have gorgeous imagery and want that to be the focus, make sure to pick a theme that highlights that.
If you want to encourage readers to click on links, make sure they’re visible—if this is important to you, make sure to watch the video at the end!
You can of course hire a designer and developer to custom design a theme for you, but custom design can get very pricey and you’re better off starting with a premium theme and figuring out exactly what you need over time before making the investment.
Fun fact—both Jess and I have premium themes that we’ve customized to fit our needs!
If you want to add customization to a premium theme, you can hire a designer or developer to make these additions for you.
You can also add a theme yourself if you learn a little bit of code! Again, this will keep your costs low from the start and give you the ability to have a design that looks and feels very custom!
How to Install your Theme
Once you find a theme, all you have to do is upload and install it. Login to the backend of your self-hosted WordPress site and navigate to ‘Appearances’ > ‘Themes’.
If your blog is on WordPress.com, you will not see this option as WordPress.com does not allow for premium or custom theme design. Yet another reason why self-hosted WordPress is the way to go!
Click on ‘Add New’ and a dialog box will open below.
Click on ‘Choose File’ and select your zipped theme files. These files should come zipped, but if not, right-click and hit ‘Compress’. If you attempt to upload files that are not zipped you WILL get an error message! Once you’ve got your file selected, hit ‘Install Now.
You’re almost there! Once your theme files are uploaded, just hit ‘Activate’ to make your theme go live on your site. Depending on your theme, you may have options for customizations, so go through those and set them as you please.
Themes will come with documentation on how to customize, so whenever you run into a snag, make sure to reference those, as they’ll be your guide to getting everything set up correctly.
If all else fails, you can always reach out to the designer or developer who created the theme with problems, but make sure you’ve read through their documentation fully before reaching out!
They won’t be able to help you with additional customizations as part of the theme purchase, but sometimes they offer customization options at affordable rates.
What Are Plugins?
Plugins are snippets of code that can be added to your WordPress blog to give it more functionality and features.
Some of these plugins will be things you can see, like specific sidebar plugins, while some will be more behind the scenes like Google Analytics that allows you to easily add your tracking script to your blog without touching the code. It’s not something your readers will notice, but it’s super helpful!
Which Plugins Do You Recommend?
There are so many plugins out there! Some are free and some are premium-like themes. Premium plugins typically offer more support and are better maintained, but there are still so many amazing free plugins worth installing.
A few of our favorites that you can download straight from the backend of your WordPress account are below:
• Google Analytics: This allows you to drop in your Google Analytics tracking code without having to touch the code! Some themes might have a spot for this already, so make sure you don’t add it twice, or else you’ll get incorrect reporting data.
• jQuery Pin It Button for Images by Marcin Skrzypiec: You can easily add a Pin It button over your images with this simple plugin!
• WordPress Popular Posts by Hector Cabrera: This plugin allows you to add popular posts to your sidebar. It’s a feature both Jess and I love. The settings are pretty customizable, so have fun!
• Yoast SEO: WordPress is great for SEO on its own, but Yoast helps you make sure that each post is set up for SEO by giving you simple fields to fill out. This one is an absolute MUST for everyone!
• Simple Custom CSS: by John Regan, Danny Van Kooten: This plugin allows you to add custom CSS without touching your blog’s hard code, which means if you mess something up, you can just delete your code without worrying about breaking your theme!
How to Add WordPress Plugins
Like themes, plugins are super easy to add—maybe even a bit easier! To add or search for a new plugin, go to ‘Plugins’ > ‘Add New’.
You have two options now. You can upload a plugin, which you’ll need to do if you’ve purchased a premium plugin or received a specific plugin that you only have a download of.
These are not available to the public which is why you’ll have to upload them. If you want to search WordPress for those free plugins I mentioned above, you’ll use the second option and type in the plugin name there.
Make sure to check the author name as there are usually multiples of every plugin out there!
If you upload a plugin, you’ll need to hit ‘Choose File’ and select a zipped file, just like you would with a theme. Once you’ve selected it, hit ‘Install Now.
Once it’s installed a new page will open and it will have a big blue button that says, ‘Activate’. Click that to turn that plugin on.
If you accidentally navigate away from this page before hitting ‘Activate’, that’s okay. Just go to ‘Plugins’ > ‘Installed Plugins’ and find it there and hit the activate link underneath it!
If you’ve searched for a WordPress plugin, you’ll also need to activate it, but instead of it opening a new page, the activate button shows up where the Install Now button previously did.
You’re all set! Depending on the plugin, there may be customization settings you have to select or information you’ll have to drop in.
Read the documentation on the plugin’s website or in the WordPress codex for more information!