WordPress Documentation

As anyone who has ever used the web, you won’t find it surprising to hear that maintaining good documentation is difficult. For those of you who have known me for a long time (back in 2011?), you may remember that I had set up a site that had good WordPress documentation with links to articles and videos.

Don’t bother looking for a link, because you won’t find one. I simply can’t keep it up to date and won’t be maintaining that site. WordPress is evolving so rapidly, keeping up good documentation is very challenging. The same is true for all sorts of software tools, apps and anything online.

I remember has a teenager being told that purchasing a new car was a waste of money, since as soon as you drive it out of the lot, it depreciated. I’m starting to see the web in the same way. As soon as you start using a tool, something on the net changes and the documentation is no longer accurate. Just like purchasing cars, I think that’s something we have to accept.

Kudos to anyone who maintains docs. Your job is not an easy one.

The High Cost of Low Cost Themes

One of the reasons why people love WordPress so much is because there are so many resources, such as thousands of themes to chose from. Unfortunately, just like everything else, the quality of all of these themes can’t be guaranteed.

I was recently asked by two clients to help them out with their new websites. Both were almost ready to launch, but weren’t happy with a few things in their WordPress admin.

The first client, hired a developer and was a bit shocked to hear that they wouldn’t be able to update WordPress ever, or any of their plugins. The developer they hired, purchased a theme that was no longer supported and broke if anything was updated. Not only does this open you up to security vulnerability, it’s also just shoddy work. This is the equivalent of me buying my friend a new laptop running a XP them being stuck with using IE8 forever. I’m not sure my friend would appreciate.

In the second instance, the client also hired a developer who purchased a commercial theme but the updates weren’t an issue. However, they had no idea how the admin worked. The entire WordPress admin had been transformed and even I, after a few hours, didn’t know what was what. In addition, the final site loaded 32 javascript files and 17 external stylesheet, so was running super slow.

In both of these cases, I spent a few hours poking around the theme and tried to figure out what was going on. But I gave up very fast. Both contained so many files, it was hard to understand what was needed and what was not. In the end, I simply re-built the themes from scratch. Both were happy with the way the site displayed on and functioned on the front end, they just wanted to have an easier back end to manage.

In my opinion both of these commercial themes displayed what I resent most from them:

They have too many options.
Theme vendors want their theme to satisfy a large pool of clients, thus the more features there are, the better. These options come at a price though. More options, means more complexity with increase in error, and more files to load which makes your site load slowly.

Many love to customize the WordPress admin.
Perhaps this is meant to be helpful, but it’s not. As soon as you modify an interface, you’re asking your audience to relearn how things are set up. People shouldn’t have to re-learn out the WordPress admin works when switching from theme to theme.

So how do you know which theme you should use?
That’s a great question.

You might think to yourself that free themes won’t be as good, but the quality of themes in the WordPress.org repo has improved greatly over the years. In addition many theme foundries release their themes for free on WordPress.org and then offer a pro version for a fee. Before purchasing these, I would encourage anyone to look at a few free versions first.

If a theme from a foundry caught your eye, the first thing I would recommend before buying it, is to look at the theme’s rating and look at how the developer is addressing support issues. Are questions in the support form answered well and in a timely manner? Have many people written great reviews or are all of them one star only?

Make sure that the theme you are purchasing contains 99% of what your looking for. If all you want to do is change one or two colours, that’s easy enough to do with some custom CSS or a child theme, but if you want to make major changes to the layout, then you might as well start from scratch or look at free themes. Keep in mind as well, that purchasing a theme may not save you all that much. Hiring a good developer who builds theme from scratch will  be able to give you a bespoke theme made just right for you.



Considering Freelancing?

One of the reasons I love is teaching is to see how students evolve, progress and what they get up to after school. I haven’t looked at too many stats and this is not great research on my part, but most students who were more “design” inclined went on to do more classes, while the coders took on jobs. However during the course o the class, all of them always ask about freelancing and setting up their own company.

I’m pretty lucky that I’ve been able to experience both. I worked as a barrista for a few weeks back in 2000 and worked at a startup until the 2001 dot bomb exploded prior to going to going back to school. Following my time at BCIT, I started freelancing right away, but took on a job after about a year, at a company (that shall remain nameless), for only 6 months. I liked the job at the startup a lot, although the smell of money being burned got a bit overwhelming at times, but the other 2 jobs, not so much.

Freelancing has definitely been the right move for me. But is it the right move for everyone? If you’re considering a career as a freelancer, here are a couple of pieces that I think are worthwhile looking at.

Mike Monteiro, designer extraordinaire and author of Design is a Job (a must read for anyone, even non designers), wrote a great article a few months ago advising students to consider getting some experience before setting up their own firm. He makes a great case in point.

If you’re still not convinced by Mike’s argument and think to yourself that freelancing is the right path for you, you might want to check out Shane’s Freelance Primer.

Just fill in your email and you will get access to his one hour presentation on the subject. In his presentation Shane covers the basics of starting a business, getting all the paperwork done, finding great people to work with, finding great customers, most common mistakes, etc… This video is a great resource for anyone starting out and diving into freelancing.

Keeping Your Web Info in Order

For some, building a website can be quite a big undertaking. Once you’ve done it once or twice, like anything, it gets easier. You’ve learned the lingo, understand the difference between domain registrar and hosting and have a good idea what your web designer will need from you.

One of the most crucial part is very simple, yet often overlook and that’s keeping everything about your website info in order. I’ve seen this problem happen many times when taking on new clients who dealt with a previous web designer. Transitioning to a new web designer can be painless or complicated, depending on how well you’re prepared.

All web designers see this and most of us offer similar advice. In this month’s copy of Zoonews, Kathryn Presner shares the following tips:

Domain registration – be sure you are listed as the domain registrant (not your web designer!) and that the email address on file is an active account. If your web designer’s email is listed as a contact instead of yours, make sure you switch it over to your own email address before you cut ties with your old designer. This is extremely important. I’ve heard of business owners who lost control of their domain name because they failed to do it.

Hosting account – keep handy all relevant details, including the name of your hosting company, the URL of your web-based control panel, and its username and password. Know your FTP (file transfer protocol) credentials, including your FTP host name, login and password. This information will allow your new designer to access your web server and website files.

Logo – have an electronic version of your current logo on hand. It should ideally be in a vector format (like Adobe Illustrator or EPS) on a transparent background, to ensure the greatest design flexibility.

Graphics – retain electronic versions of any images such as stock photos that you may wish to reuse.

E-commerce – know the login details of all e-commerce accounts you may have, such as PayPal and shopping cart systems. Be sure you have access to the accounts, and that they’re registered in your name.

Keep on file in an easy-to-remember place all other information and documents related to your website. It’ll simplify your life – and that of your new web designer – more than you can imagine.

Kathryn Presner runs a web design company, Zoonini Web Services in Montreal. She’s also spoken at several WordCamps and is a moderator on the WordPress Support Forums.

Hosting requirements for WordPress

The main advantage of using WordPress as a Content Management System (CMS) is the ability to make your own website edits. Gone are the days of finding a typo on your site and not being able to do anything about it. However a website powered by a CMS isn’t the same as a static website. In fact a site that is powered by a CMS is called dynamic, not static.

When making changes to a static site, you’re web developer modifies the code of each HTML page. Changes on a WordPress site are done by modifying the content which is stored in a database. The WordPress templates, coded using PHP, then pulls the content dynamically from the database and displays the webpage.

Thus when planning your WordPress, you’ll need to make sure that your hosting provider offers the following:

  • PHP version 4.3 or greater
  • MySQL version 5 or greater

Any server that runs PHP and MySQL will do, but an Apache server is the most robust and has the most features for running a WordPress site. Some hosting provider will tell you that Microsoft based servers are perfectly fine, but please don’t listen to them. The set up is quite difficult and no fun at all.

Having installed hundreds of WordPress sites, I am happy to recommend the following hosting providers.

These hosting providers all have very good WordPress support and great customer service.

Once you’ve set up your hosting, you’ll need to provide your web developer with the following:

  • Access to your hosting provider control panel – This is needed to set up the database
  • FTP access – This is needed to install the files on your server

Setting up a WordPress site is a bit more complicated than a static one, but with WordPress’s popularity, more and more hosting providers and making the necessary changes to offer full WordPress support.