Custom WordPress websites for scalability: the perfect plugin selection and tech stack.

WordPress is never just WordPress. The open-source nature of WordPress, along with its supreme flexibility and ability to customise as you need has seen it grow to be the world’s most popular CMS. The global adoption means that there’s a plugin out there for almost any function you can think of.

This is not always a good thing. There’s plenty of poorly developed or unsupported plugins out there, which can quickly equate to costly fixes, refactoring or rebuilding. Or in a worst-case scenario, a website that has to be turfed soon after build as it simply can’t be upgraded. Unfortunately this is a regular occurrence. Here at Mainstay we’ve had to rebuild many legacy sites handed to us by clients from former developers.

Performance, scalability, lowered risks

This article outlines our plugins of choice, and the wider tech-stack we use. As we build and support sites for scalability (and security and performance), we undertake many custom WordPress builds – and this is always our preference over a site using an off-the-shelf theme or template. And by custom, we mean working with a base theme to develop the user interface based on designs from scratch. It also means we aim to minimise the number of plugins we use down to a core selection.

There are some compelling reasons for custom WordPress builds:

Purpose-built means reduced code, cleaner code which in turn means site performance


Less plugins means reduced code bloat – again performance and lowers risks of breakages in maintenance and updates


Less plugins means less maintenance, and fewer risk of vulnerabilities


No need for attempting to retro-fit functionality to a templated theme (which never works well)


Read-to-scale – purpose-built with a lean plugin and code base sets you up for scalability

In a nutshell, it’s about performance, scalability and lowering risk.
Let’s dive into our core WordPress “tech stack”, which comprises of a CSS framework, a PHP templating framework and plugins.

It’s helpful to think about the purpose of each of these first:



1. Base theme 1. Content blocks
2. PHP Templating 2. Firewall / Security
3. CSS Framework 3. Monitoring
4. SEO
5. Site Performance
6. Image Compression
7. Forms
8. File Management
9. Security
10. Search
11. PHP Templating
12. CSS Framework

Minimum plugins

As we have a “minimum plugin” ethos, we also advocate for integrating with dedicated 3rd party services, rather than loading up WordPress with plugins which are attempting to bring them into the WordPress house. Some examples include: your CRM (e.g. Hubspot or Salesforce), your email marketing client (e.g. Campaign Monitor), email notifications (e.g. Mailgun), site analytics (e.g. Google Analytics). We do also write scripts and mini plugins on a regular basis to fulfil site and business specific needs.

And what makes a good plugin? It must be written well, supported, and widely adopted, and it strikes the balance of features & functionality vs need. It’s been well planned and built for purpose. Unnecessary features within the plugin equals unnecessary code, which means inefficiencies.

This list excludes major plugins such as Woocommerce or Memberpress, as these are specifically for ecommerce or membership sites.

So let’s jump in!


Base theme: Lumberjack

WordPress utilises “themes” which control the end output of your site appearance and functionality. Using a base theme means that much of the base functional heavy lifting has already been done, and you can style or change functionality based on your needs. Afterall, there’s no point developing from scratch if you can leverage pre-existing (quality) code. This is the rationale behind all programming frameworks.

In most cases, we use Lumberjack. It’s built to a Model-View-Controller (MVC) standard, a best practice web development standard. Lumberjack means we avoid code re-use, it’s written in a consistent style and it’s easy to develop with. Lumberjack helps to manage dependencies, separates out the WordPress front and back ends (ensures iterations aren’t a mess) and provides better management for files, folders, post types and configuration.

PHP Templating: Twig

Twig is a PHP templating engine which plays in nicely with Lumberjack. The existence of Twig highlights one of WordPress’s shortcomings – the lack of a templating language. Coding straight into WordPress is not modular, which means it can be messy. Enter Twig. Twig compiles templates. And for developers, it provides a stack of features, tools and approaches which translates to lean, secure, efficient code.

CSS Framework: Tailwind

Tailwind is a framework for implementing CSS, which means it doesn’t need to be manually written. This reduces unnecessary code, provides a standardised structure, and is highly flexible. Styling interfaces with Tailwind makes for rapid development, as it can be done directly within the HTML.


Advanced Custom Fields Pro

It feels like before ACF Pro was around, WordPress just wasn’t really WordPress. Developed in Melbourne, ACF Pro is now one of the most globally used plugins to catapult WordPress customisability into the stratosphere. Essentially, it provides a PHP framework for repeating fields, building custom block types, and integrates with WordPress field types. This helps developers create custom interfaces in line with how WordPress themes work. It’s also fully compatible with WordPress core.

Gravity Forms

There’s plenty of form builders out there such as WP Forms and Contact Form 7, however we’ve found Gravity to provide the most control and flexibility balanced with simplicity and ease of use. It comes with a stack of other features such as responsiveness, paginated forms, accessibility compliance, custom CSS and conditional logic.

Robin Image Optimisation

Image compression is a must have in any WordPress site. It directly equates to improved performance and load speeds. A good image compressor will reduce the size of an image without loss of quality. Although there’s other great image compressors out there (such as Smush), we feel Robinhood compresses a little better.

SEO – Rank Math

There’s plenty of plugins on the market to manage your on-site SEO, but Rank Math has, in recent years, taken the crown. It takes all of the features available in plugins like Yoast such as sitemaps, on-page analysis, links, search engine submission – and ups the ante with a suite of its own, including a host of integrations. A must have for anyone who values SEO.

Security – Wordfence

Keeping your site secure and plugins secure from vulnerabilities is must. Essentially a firewall, Wordfence helps keep you secure against bruteforce attacks, secure forms, headers and IP access. They’re backed up by a massive team to research new vulnerabilities and provide patches.

Performance – WP Rocket

It used to be a manual process to optimise websites for performance. WP Rocket does do quite a great deal of heavy lifting, and has an immediate and tangible positive impact on site performance. Features include page caching, server-side page compression, minification, delayed file execution, lazyload, database optimisation, reduced latency. What this means is a higher performing website, increased PageSpeed scores and improved Web Vitals. This is better for UX generally as well as SEO. A must have.

WP Activity Log

It’s super handy to be able to check what has changed on your site, when, and by whom. That’s what activity log does – tracks user activity and logs it.
In the event of a site breakage, security issue or trouble shooting scenario, it provides immediate visability.

Search – Relevanssi

The standard, out-of-the-box Search feature included with WordPress is pretty basic. A more powerful site search engine, which can index custom fields, PDF contents, multi-site content, comments, user profiles and shortcodes provides a better user experience and returns more relevant content in search results. In addition, features such as sorting and keyword weighting make it an important plugin for large and content-heavy sites.

WP File Manager

WP File manager allows you to edit, upload/download, copy and paste files via the WordPress admin, rather than having to fire up a FTP client for file access. It’s also helpful for troubleshooting and quick fixes. Your development team should always be mindful of internal deployment practices, such as use of versioning and Git repositories.

Wrap Up

So, there you have it. Our lean plugin and tech stack ready for custom, scalable, high performance WordPress development.
There are of course plenty of other useful plugins, such as Phoenix Media Rename (rename images from within WordPress), WP Optimise for database optimisation, plugins for pop-ups, chat, and various types of automation. However, we consider them less “core” and would only use them given a specific need.
And of course, what about backups? Our stance is that this should be managed by your hosting provider, who should be taking snapshots as well as periodic off-site backups. Less clutter in WordPress, the better.

If you’d like to learn more about our custom builds, get in touch via the form below.

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