So you're not going to take my advice and instead you're going to develop your Drupal skills by building a site from the ground up. I have to say that if you've got the time, it's not a bad way to go. To give you a little nudge in the right direction, I've updated this list of essential modules for new site builders.
PathAuto is a very useful little module that allows you to not only give your URLs a consistent naming convention, but also provide more meaning to humans and search bots alike.
By default, Drupal will produce URLs that look like this:
Of course, you can always add a more human-friendly path using the URL setting on the edit screen, but PathAuto makes things much easier. By working with the Token module, it automatically creates paths whenever new content is created according to rules you define.
Tokens allow for a very wide range of possible parameters that can be used to set the URL. Below is an example that shows a path set using tokens for the content type blog, the year the content was posted and the node title.
Each new blog post on the site will have a path automatically created using the same pattern. Aside from helping provide consistent naming conventions, it allows you to include keywords in your URL (from the page title, for example), giving you a boost with Google and the other search engines.
Views allows you to create queries on the content for your site and then display the results on a page, in a block or RSS feed. To really understand how useful and powerful Views is, you need to get your hands dirty and play around with it a bit. It won't be long until you come to deeply appreciate the flexibility this module provides in displaying your site's content.
So essential is Views, that in Drupal 8 it has been moved into core. If you're interested in getting up to speed with Views, here's a good place to get started.
One thing that surprises a lot of new Drupal site builders is the lack of a built-in WYSIWYG content editor. Although Drupal 8 corrects this oversight, for Drupal 7 you'll need the Wysiwyg module to get your editor sorted out.
Yes, I'm cheating a bit here by only counting Wysiwyg as one module on this list when there are really three modules plus the actual editor involved. The whole thing is usually a confusing mess for beginners. Just watch the video I made a while back and you'll be fine.
This one is essential for anyone who wants to optimize for search engines, and who doesn't want that? When you set the URL alias (or have PathAuto do it for you) Drupal will create the path specified, but it doesn't get rid of the original page, usually named 'node/XX'. This leaves you with two paths that lead to the same page which can cause real problems with search engines.
Global Redirect takes care of things by directing users to the same page every time, keeping you on Google's good side.
Everybody hates SPAM and developer's often turn to one of the CAPTCHA modules for help. Bad move. Although CAPTCHA might solve your SPAM problem, it creates new ones which are possibly even worse.
Fortunately, there's another option. Mollom offers access to an 'intelligent' moderation service. Instead of using CAPTCHA for each submission, Mollom only requires a CAPTCHA if it thinks the person submitting the form might be a spammer. So if the user isn't typing in weird, spammy things or isn't on Mollom's list of known offenders, they'll sail right on through.
If you're using forms on your site (sign ups, comments, etc.) this is essential. I've been using Mollom for a while now and can vouch that it works great and best of all you can get started for free.
Cut in Half?
When I first published this post a couple years ago there were ten modules on the list, but this time around there are only five. So why the change?
Out of the box, Drupal isn't quite a proper content management system. The modules on this list simply fill Drupal out enough so that you correct some of the issues present in a fresh Drupal install - things like no content editor, weird URL paths, etc. In other words, not all the modules on the original list of ten were truly "essential". It might be argued that I've got some non-essentials on this list (and what Drupal nerd doesn't like to argue?), but it's my list and I'm sticking with it.
I know that getting started as a new Drupal site builder can be challenging at times. There are a lot of modules and a lot of configuration settings to learn. Should you decide the "from the ground up" approach isn't the best option for you and would like to play around with a pre-configured Drupal site, give my installation profile a try. It's free to use and besides seeing some of the modules mentioned here (and many others) in action, you'll also get a chance to check out how the mighty Omega base theme works. Might be worth a look.