10 Things I Learned My First Year On WordPress
I mentioned last week that I had a whole slew of personal posts coming your way this month, and we’re diving right in today with a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while. However I needed to wait for the dust to settle and my raw nerves to heal before doing so! Some of you may recall that about this time last year…right when we were moving into our Kansas home…I took an entire month off of the blog to work tirelessly behind the scenes to prepare for a new blog design. In fact, it was August 5th of last year that I officially made the transition from the (free and easy) Blogger platform to the (not free or easy) platform WordPress and launched the all-new, custom-designed The Homes I Have Made (the design you see on your screen now). In the year since I transitioned to WordPress and revealed the new design, the blog has experienced tremendous growth. In fact, I almost don’t believe the numbers! My traffic in the last 12 months is almost twice that of the previous 12, and I have gained thousands of new followers, subscribers and readers across a variety of platforms! But as many of you dedicated readers also know, the year was not without some SIGNIFICANT technical challenges and setbacks that cost me a lot of money, stress and sleepless nights. A year later, I can say without reservation that switching to WordPress was one of the best things I did for my blog…but I sure messed up A LOT along the way! Read on to find out what I did wrong, what I learned, and what I’d do differently if I could!
(Pssst – I realize not a lot of you are bloggers and potentially don’t care about the technical side of blogging. However, I really want to share my epic failures with other bloggers (and somewhat feel a responsibility to do so) who might be getting ready to start a blog and/or transition from Blogger themselves. Blogger or not, hopefully, you’ll find this peek behind-the-scenes interesting and maybe even a bit humorous! And if you do make it all the way to the end…gold star for you…this one is a long one!)
1. Do A Lot of Research…And Then Do Some More
I started my blog 5 years ago (whaaat??) on the free Blogger platform, intending it to be just a hobby blog. When I started blogging a little more “seriously,” I knew I would eventually switch to WordPress because of the significant boost in website capabilities. I’m not tech savvy at all…so in November of 2014, I started exploring various designers (via Etsy) who could not only help me re-brand (with a new logo(s) and color scheme) but also design a corresponding website and move my entire Blogger blog over to WordPress. The early stages are a bit fuzzy now, but I believe I searched “WordPress design” on Etsy and then spent hours pouring over the plethora of sample logos, fonts, and designs available. This was my only “research.” I was consumed with the look of my site, and didn’t really research about WordPress itself or how the transition from Blogger to WordPress would and should work. I didn’t educate myself on how WordPress is setup or learn about themes/child themes (how a website looks and is organized). I didn’t know other bloggers had put together entire step-by-step manuals on how to setup a pretty and unique WordPress site for far less than I paid for a custom design. When I thought I was researching “how to transition to WordPress,” I was really just gathering ideas for what I wanted my site to look like. But a good web design is about so much more than how it looks.
LESSON LEARNED: I’ll just put it right out there…I very much regret doing a custom web design when I switched from Blogger to WordPress. I’ve since learned that you can purchase very pretty blog/website design templates (from online shops and designers) and customize them for much cheaper than what I spent for a custom site. I also regret not researching “how to setup a WordPress blog,” because a lot of the other mistakes I’ll talk about in this post could have been avoided if I was following a step-by-step guide. If I could start again, I would buy THIS e-book by Abby from Just a Girl and Her Blog (which I discovered AFTER I had already switched and launched). She breaks down every step for starting a WordPress site, a lot of which I could do myself. Yes, I still would have needed help with customization and transferring my Blogger posts over, but I could have navigated the hosting, domain, and basic design stuff much easier than how I really stumbled through it all.
2. A Good Designer Does Not Equal a Good Website Builder
I am not about casting shade or calling someone out, so my original logo and site designer will remain anonymous. That said, a lot of my trouble in my transition from Blogger to WordPress was because I hired the wrong designer for the job. I found a designer who’s aesthetic I loved, and I (too) quickly signed a contract and handed over a whole bunch of money for a custom logo AND web design, including the Blogger transfer and a shop. The designer didn’t have a vast portfolio or a bunch of reviews…but because I was smitten with the logos in the online shop, I put aside my worries, stopped my “research” and went for it. We started with the branding process, which was honestly wonderful. Although I’ve gotten some negative feedback on them, I personally really love my logo, fonts, and color scheme the designer put together for me. I LOVE having several pre-made logos I can use on photos, printables, business cards and more…and since implementing consistent fonts and colors, I feel like I finally have a very recognizable brand.
The troubles really started when we moved into the website design phase of our contract. The designer was seemingly unable to translate my requests into a site design that looked and functioned the way I wanted. I now know it’s partially because it was designed using a different “theme” than most of the blogs I’m used to reading. But because I hadn’t researched enough, I didn’t have the vocabulary to ask for specific things. The whole design process came to a screeching halt when the designer was unable to complete the transfer of my old Blogger posts to my new WordPress site (despite having paid for it) and fix some final pre-launch issues. Out of desperation, I had to suddenly end our relationship and look for another designer to salvage my site and my launch.
LESSON LEARNED: At least in my experience, a good graphic designer does not necessarily translate to a good website builder. I LOVE my logos and branding and feel like they were worth every penny. But from the get go, it seemed my designer was not as comfortable or experienced designing and building the website. There are so many things about my site that I truly love, but if I were to do it again, I would have spent the money for custom branding (logo, colors, fonts) and used those elements to customize a basic WordPress theme. If you are going to hire a designer to do a custom website for you, do A LOT of research, ask to see sample sites, and trust your gut. Oh…and if the price seems to good to be true…it probably is 😉
3. Find Good Tech Support
When I was faced with putting off my blog launch (to sort out issues with my current designer) or jump ship in an effort to get back on track, I chose the latter. I went back to Etsy and searched “Blogger to WordPress transfer” and found Daniel of Trendy Themes. His prices and reviews were phenomenal, but having just been burned by lack of research, I was hesitant to hire someone else so quickly. My launch deadline was approaching however, so I trusted all the 5-star reviews and requested a custom order. Literally within a day, he had righted all that had gone wrong with my blog transfer/launch…and I practically became a customer for life! Messaging Daniel that “fate-full” day last August was seriously one of the best things I’ve done for my site. Not only is Daniel incredibly savvy and gotten me out of a whole heap of messes I made throughout the year, but he is consistently proficient, professional, reasonable, and just darn good at what he does. I have now gone back to him time and time again to fix things that break (more on that in a minute), and am quite certain that I will be using him for any site re-designs in the future.
LESSON LEARNED: For those of you thinking about transitioning/starting on WordPress, the rumors are true. WordPress can be hard to figure out; and when it “breaks,” it’s not the most intuitive thing to fix. If you are like me and lack any and all website/technical skill, then I can’t recommend finding a good and reliable tech/design support person enough. When things don’t look or function right on the site, it can be really, really unsettling, but I personally don’t have the time or interest to learn that tech side of blogging to be able to fix it myself. Having someone I can “call” to fix issues…big and small…has allowed me to get back to the funner and prettier parts of blogging!
4. Good Hosting Is Everything
Because I was not following a step-by-step guide and didn’t have a good designer to walk me through the process, I stumbled through a lot of the initial WordPress setup (i.e., domain name, hosting). Years ago, I bought my domain name (www.thehomesihavemade.com) through a partnership Blogger had (has??) with GoDaddy. Because I thought GoDaddy already owned my domain name, I figured it was where I HAD to setup my hosting too. It turns out that when you buy your domain through Blogger, GoDaddy treats them a bit differently. So I still had to “release” my domain from Blogger/GoDaddy and regular GoDaddy had to pick it up. This is an insignificant detail, but had I known that I wasn’t already tied to GoDaddy, I would have “shopped around” a bit more for domain and hosting support. Anyway, with my domain at GoDaddy, I figured I had to have my hosting through GoDaddy too (which actually isn’t true!) and signed up for a Managed WordPress hosting package, not really knowing what it was or that I had other options.
Life was good and the site transfer was going swimmingly until I made my biggest mistake of all (#5 below). To fix that mistake (which I go into detail below), I had to change my Managed WordPress hosting to Shared WordPress hosting…which in itself was a huge blunder. I wish there were big red signs and flashing lights somewhere that said ” Danger Ahead! Danger Ahead!” Because Shared hosting is exactly as it sounds…you share a server with other sites…it’s not the most suitable option for blogs with a decent amount of traffic (especially ones as picture heavy as DIY blogs). For 4 months, I (and you!) suffered through site crash after site crash, slow loading, “site not available,” and new posts not showing. It was exhausting and exasperating, and I can’t even tell you how many nights of sleep I lost fretting over my darn hosting.
In March, I finally had enough and committed myself to spending the time, money and hassle of switching BACK to a Managed WordPress platform (where you don’t share a server and a lot of the maintenance issues are handled for you). Instead of sticking with GoDaddy, this time I did REAL research and switched to Synthesis hosting. Not only is my site faster and no longer has any weird cacheing issues, but it has only gone down once in the 4+ months I’ve been with them. It was a very costly and time-consuming mistake but after MONTHS of agonizing daily over my hosting, I honestly haven’t thought or worried about it since (which is how it should be!)
LESSON LEARNED: If you have a picture-heavy site, a decent amount of traffic, and/or ads, a Managed WordPress platform is worth the extra money. Period.
5. HTTP AND HTTPS Are NOT the Same Thing
Oh friends. Just typing those words makes my face red hot and my fingers start to shake. A majority of my troubles over the last year are attributed to this, and I feel like I could write an entire cautionary tale on this one. But I’ll try to keep it brief. The short version of the story goes like this. When I originally setup my (Managed WordPress) hosting through GoDaddy (and before my new site went live), it came with an SSL (a secure certificate). I simply got an email that said “Setup Your Secure Certificate Now.” Not know what it was exactly (because I hadn’t done my research), I went ahead and set it up. I quickly learned that it’s the “thing” that makes a website httpS rather than just http….and that’s a big difference. Essentially, it’s an entirely different url..and unless you do some fancy coding, all of your old http links will go dead. Because I was having a shop on my site, I figured having an SSL was probably a good idea, so I kept it. I had my tech guy re-route all my traffic that was previously http (from Pinterest and other web features) to my new httpS site. I launched, and all was good with the world. I had a fast new site, I had an SSL, and my traffic was all re-routing properly.
After a few months of swimming along, I decided to put ads back on my site. Love them or hate them, ads are a valuable way bloggers make money, and I was missing out on a real and important revenue stream. Well, after LOTS of rejected applications, I learned that no ad agency will put ads on sites with an SSL. Whomp. I agonized for weeks on what to do, but ultimately decided to remove the SSL (so I could have ads on my site) and re-route all my now HTTPS traffic back to my HTTP site. Well friends…you can easily route HTTP to HTTPS, but for some reason that I still don’t quite understand, you can’t route it the other way without some very fancy and complicated coding. For 2 weeks, my site was dark, no one could find me, pins weren’t routing, and I was sad. So so sad. So…I switched my site to Shared Hosting (see above) and my tech guy did the fancy re-routing required to get all my traffic going to the right places. And for a time, all was again right with the world. You guys could get to my site, pins were re-routing correctly, I could have ads on my site, and I could breath. Until my site started crashing over and over and over…because of the shared hosting. Are you exhausted yet?? Because the whole thing was beyond exhausting then!
When I switched back to a new Managed WordPress platform because my site speed and stability were so bad, I had the option to keep the fancy httpS re-routing but decided to say goodbye to the SSL once and for all. No fancy configurations, no more re-routing. Just a plain old http site on really good hosting. For a few weeks, I had a lot of pins on Pinterest and around the web that led to dead links, which certainly isn’t ideal. Over time, the pins have mostly “washed out,” and after having a few rough traffic months, things are finally starting to come around. All in all, I’m relieved to have the saga over, but man did I pay in a lot of ways for a dumb, dumb mistake!
LESSON LEARNED: Stay away from the SSL! Okay…kidding…but just a bit. There ARE times when an SSL is very appropriate (like with a shop). My shop, however, only accepts PayPal, which has and uses its own SSL, so I never really needed one to begin with. Long story short? If you want to be able to have ad revenue, do NOT install an SSL!
6. Things Really Do Go Wonky
Okay…so I certainly had the perfect storm of design problems, hosting issues, and re-routing complications that most bloggers don’t regularly have to deal with (I hope!). BUT…the reality is that WordPress sites do “break” or go wonky seemingly inexplicably. After months of quiet on the backside of things (after a very rocky first 6 months), I logged on just the other day to discover my side bar was missing. Gone. I hadn’t done anything (wasn’t even logged on!) to make it disappear. Galleries have stopped working for me, my header has reformatted on its own, and more. I’m assuming they are due to updates or weird theme glitches, and boy they used to really, really rattle me. With everything I’ve been through with my hosting and link re-routing though, these small nuisance issues have become just that…nuisances. I typically wait until I have a bunch of them and then hire my tech guy to fix them all at once.
LESSON LEARNED: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Yes, it can be frustrating to wake up one day and have a page or side bar missing or a link not working right. But if your site is up, running, and you can publish a new post, all is good. Figure out a way to deal with the technical glitches or hire someone to do it for you…but all in all…just know they ARE going to happen!
7. Being on WordPress Can Be Expensive
If you can’t already tell, I’ve forked over a good bit of money in the last few years just to get my blog up and running. From the custom design work to tech support, hosting fees and various plugins and services (like my mailing list platform), it certainly adds up. The blog does make money, so I am comfortable investing some of it back into its design and function; but when compared to the FREE Blogger platform, it can defiantly take some time getting used to. Thankfully, hosting and domain fees are an annual (or even bi-annual) cost and the design fees were a one-time investment (until I decide to change designs again!). All the tech support fees have been worth every penny for peace of mind and knowing things were done correctly. However, they are something I have to factor into my blog budget since I am pretty much incapable of fixing the technical problems myself.
LESSON LEARNED: On one hand, I want to say “It takes money to make money,” but I also know there are many, many successful bloggers running their businesses through Blogger and other free platforms. I don’t necessarily regret having to spend money to keep my blog up and running, but I do admit I could have penny pinched more along the way (like customizing a generic theme rather than getting a custom-designed site). Like everything these days (or so it seams), the online/blog world is a big ol’ business, and you can end up paying for pretty much every product and service out there. Instead of throwing caution to the wind, I recommend paying for a few select things that really matter to you (and only you know what those are!), and trying to DIY or find work arounds for the rest!
8. Find a Community
I could technically lump this one into “Do More Research,” but I thought it was valuable to point out how invaluable fellow bloggers are when it comes to de-bugging issues, finding the best plugins and tutorials, implementing the latest strategies and more. For my first few months on WordPress, I was marching along alone and very afraid to do or try anything that might “break” my blog. If I needed something done, I would reach out for professional help only to realize that (some) of the fixes were relatively easy (and even sometimes achieved via a plugin!). When I bought Abby’s Building a Framework e-book (for a whole host of reasons!), it was the exclusive Facebook community that I found the most helpful for WordPress-specific troubles. When I needed a new pop-up plugin, a simple post to the group quickly yielded dozens of options and opinions. When I finally decided to sort out my hosting saga, fellow bloggers were the ones I ultimately trusted to point me toward the best companies and packages. When my site is doing something crazy weird and I don’t know if I should freak out or not, I can quickly find out if other bloggers have experienced the same thing!
LESSON LEARNED: Google searches are great, but when it comes to finding the best advice for your blog, check with other bloggers (even better if they are in your niche). They know the platform, the requirements, and the common problems better than anyone and can usually offer a fix that is easier than you imagined!
9. You Can Easily Do So Much More!
I’ve gone on and on and on about how much more work, stress, and cost having a WordPress site has been, so you might be asking yourself “Then why even bother?” The simple answer is because WordPress really is a much more sophisticated platform; and because of that, you can easily do so much more (at least compared to Blogger). Uploading, naming and tagging photos is SO much easier. Linking back to old posts/projects is SO much easier. Writing specific SEO descriptions (so that Google can find you!) is SO much easier. Pre-populating picture descriptions for Pinterest and Facebook so they load automatically is SO much easier. Adding in “no-follow” and affiliate links is SO much easier. Sharing downloadable files (like printables) is SO much easier because you can actually upload PDFs right to WordPress (which is impossible on Blogger). Creating galleries and menus and forms is SO much easier. Yes, the big headaches of hosting and costs and broken links can sure be stressful and exhausting when they come up, which is infrequent. Rather, it’s the efficiency and simplicity of the smaller and much more frequent tasks you do in every single blog post that make the biggest difference and make it SO worth it to be on WordPress!
10. It’s Easily The Best Thing I Did for My Blog!
If this post tells you anything, it’s that I’ve been through the ringer my first year on WordPress. I made so many stupid and costly mistakes, and lost way too much sleep and wasted too many dinner conversations trying to fix them. It has been a steep learning curve and a heck of a lot of trial-and-error, but I will say this: I’d do it all again (well, maybe not the SSL part because that really was so painful to sort out). I love the professionalism of my site, the increased functionality, and the ease at which I am now able to do basic post functions (such as SEO, linking and more!). I can’t say that the increase in traffic and followers over the last year is directly influenced by my site design (because I have been busting my but on projects too), but I have to think it’s been part of the picture!
Phew! What started as a quick and simple listicle-style post turned into one of my longest ever. Sorry about that. Told you I’ve been storing up to write this post for a while! Beyond just sharing what I’ve gone through this past year, this post also serves as a good reminder for me on how far I’ve come. Making mistakes (especially costly ones) is not fun for anyone. And while there is still so much I don’t know about blogging and WordPress, it’s times like these when I can step back and see (and appreciate!) how much I do know! This whole blogging journey has really been one big DIY for me…figuring it out as I go, learning what I like and don’t like, and even making some great things happen along the way! Thanks for indulging me with your time on this one, and hope you found something here interesting and/or helpful!