Dougal Campbell's geek ramblings

WordPress, web development, and world domination.

WordPress Wednesday Kick Off

This is the first installment of “WordPress Wednesday”, which I mentioned in my previous post about making changes to my site. This first one is going to be a little long, and I’ve been editing the draft off-and-on for over a week. Future articles will probably be shorter, in general, and focus on a particular subject. But let’s start out by looking at the current state of this website. We’ll examine what is good, what I think needs changing, and I’ll point out some recent changes I’ve already made, and why.

In later installments, I will begin making changes to the site, and we can examine how and why those changes were made. I hope that by following along, you will be able to learn a little something that might help you see ways to improve your own site. Below, I’ll lay out some of the topics that I will be touching on. If there is something in particular you’d like me to address, let me know, and maybe I can add it to the list.

Where we are now

Currently, the base theme for the site is Sandbox, which is a great “bare-bones” template to implement a CSS design around. Sandbox has good SEO (Search Engine Optimization)  features, well-structured semantic HTML, microformat generation, and an excellent system of contextually generated class attributes which let you style your site using CSS based on a wide variety of factors for the page a visitor is currently viewing. Which is a complicated way of saying that it generates lots of classes in the HTML that you can use to do fancy things in your stylesheets.

I’ve also been using several plugins to add minor improvements here and there. Some of the main plugins are:

  • Search Everything — extends the default WordPress search to include pages and comments
  • Easy Gravatars — my own plugin, adds Gravatars to comments without modifying the theme files
  • ShareThis — allows visitors to easily share my links on popular social networking sites like Delicious and Reddit
  • Simple Tags — extra tag management features, tag cloud
  • Subscribe to Comments — allow visitors to subscribe to post comments via email
  • Twitter Tools — display my latest Twitter updates in my sidebar
  • Flickr Badge Widget — display random photos from my Flickr photo stream

As you can see, some of these plugins are “decorative” in nature (Easy Gravatars, Twitter Tools, Flickr Badge). Others are to improve the site’s usability to visitors (Search Everything), others are to encourage “stickiness” (Subscribe to Comments, ShareThis). And there are plugins to make things easier for me, the site owner (Simple Tags).

I use many more plugins than those listed above (nearly 40 all together), but that list will give you an idea of some of the more visible ones, and why I use them.

A few personal touches

For some features, I either couldn’t find an existing plugin that worked like I wanted, or the plugins I found were overkill for my purposes. I wanted to avoid modifying template files in the same way that you want to avoid modifying core WordPress files. So one thing I’ve done is to create a special plugin called “My Local Customizations”.

This plugin handles several things that are specific to my site, but not tied down to whatever theme I might be using. For example, it is responsible for adding in the scripts for Google Analytics and other traffic metric services, adds extra metadata to my pages, adds a “related posts” section (aided by the Simple Tags plugin), and it defines a customized “nice_excerpt” function that some of my archive pages use. I’ll probably give more details about nice excerpts in a future article.

Room for improvement

For some time now, I’ve been using the “Rockem Sockem Robots” image for my “branding”. There was no particular reason for choosing it, other than I had taken the photo, and wanted to use it for something. In a long-ago redesign of my site, I stuck it in my header, and began using the robot image as my avatar shortly afterwards. The robot branding is fun and fine for small-scale personal usage, but if I ever want to have personal branding that I could use for business purposes, I would start running up against trademark issues. As a result, I am planning to phase out the robot images, but I haven’t settled on a definite replacement yet.

In the earlier days of my site, I generally assumed that most of my visitors were pretty tech-savvy, and could find ways to keep up-to-date with my site on their own, if they wanted to. However, the blogosphere has changed since then, and I can’t always assume that someone who wishes to subscribe to my site knows how to let their tools find my syndication feeds, or knows to look around for a “subscribe by email” link. I need to do some work to bring these subscription options in front of people’s eyeballs, make them easy to find, so that I can make it easier for visitors to subscribe to, and revisit my site. Expect to see prominent subscription icons appear soon.

I’ve got several stand-alone pages such as “About This Site“, “Contact“, “Donate“, and “Tag Cloud“. The About page has some information about me and this site, but I’m really not very happy with its current state. Likewise with the Contact and Donate pages: they are very basic, sometimes cluttered, and not terribly interesting. I’ll be touching those up somewhere along the way in this series of articles.

Though I’ve created several plugins for WordPress, I haven’t done a lot to promote them, beyond announcing them and making occasional updates. There are several improvements I can make to help improve the visibility of those projects. For one thing, I will move them from posts to pages. Then I will create a special page template which will automatically include download links, a “call to action” for donations, and changelog information. I will also create a consolidated “projects” page which will list all of the projects, to make them easier to find.

My sidebar is a cluttered, badly-organized mess. There are too many links, several of which are probably out of date. Many of the external links should be removed from the sidebar, and moved to a separate “resources” page. The sidebar will be reduced to primarily contain links with more information about myself, this site, and a few key external resources which are important to me (likely in the form of some kind of lifestream). I will also make context-sensitive sidebars, so that different sections will appear depending on whether you are viewing the home page, a single blog post, a plugin project page, archive pages, etc.

My categories are also in a state of disarray. Back before we had real tag support in WordPress, I began using categories as tags. After we got tags in the core system, I began to regret that decision. As I’ve posted before, there are valid reasons to use both categories and tags, for separate organizational purposes. I plan to slim down to a very small set of broad categories, with tags providing supplemental keyword metadata. In order to preserve any existing category URL pointers, this will require me to create some sort of redirection from the old categories to new tag archive URLs. This will likely be done in a custom 404 handler in the new theme, when I reach that stage of my redesign. Once I finish reaping the categories, I plan to give posts in each category a unique visual identity, by means of a standard icon for each one, and possibly a unique color scheme variation. This will make it easier for visitors to pick out the topics that interest them the most when skimming the site.

Currently, I am using a very standard blog format — a header, sidebar, and a main content area containing ten posts. In the long  term, I plan to switch to a format more closely resembling an online magazine. The main content area will call more attention to just the most recent few articles, with just linked headlines to some of the less recent ones. I will probably switch from Sandbox to some other base theme, and modify it  to my needs. More on that later, when I make more decisions about how I want to arrange things.

Most recent changes

Even though change here has been slow, I have made a few improvements and additions recently. For example, I set up my feeds with FeedBurner and installed the FeedSmith plugin. For one thing, this finally gives me some idea about how many RSS/Atom subscribers I have, about 500 — more than I thought, not as many as I would like. I will be doing more with this, such as using FeedBurner’s Email Subscription service so that visitors can receive site updates by email. I also installed the All in One SEO Pack plugin, which makes several good SEO improvements right out of the box. I installed the Increase Sociability plugin, which recognizes when a visitor arrives from Digg or StumbleUpon, and gives them an additional “call to action” to help share my site with others. And I began trying out the Drain Hole plugin (on my post about the XCache object-cache plugin), which is a precursor to the plugin page improvements I mentioned above.

Stay tuned…

So there is my “State of the Blog” update, and a rough plan for how I know I can improve my site. I’m no designer, but I’ll do my best to make the site not only function better, but to look better. Again, I hope that some of you will learn something as I progress, and if you have your own ideas that you think will improve the site, feel free to toss them into the pot!

About Dougal Campbell

Dougal is a web developer, and a "Developer Emeritus" for the WordPress platform. When he's not coding PHP, Perl, CSS, JavaScript, or whatnot, he spends time with his wife, three children, a dog, and a cat in their Atlanta area home.
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