The blog experiment so far…

Around the end of November, I decided to relaunch my blog and see what would happen if I actually updated as close to daily as I could.

It’s been about a month so far, and I’m fairly pleased with the results.   Visits and page views are climbing, and at least one of my articles has had over 800 hits, due to search relevance.    My bandwidth usage is actually lower now since I removed some mp3 files from my site that aren’t even linked to these pages — apparently there are a lot of spiders finding all the mp3s out there, so some of my music has been linked from a number of mp3 sites.  Traffic has doubled over October, even considering the mp3 files that I removed, which were Christmas mashups that got 3000 hits each in the 2 days in December I had them up.

It’s taking a while to get a rhythm going.  It’s now been 2 weeks since my last update,  which is a bit disappointing but I have some excellent excuses, like updating my laptop to OS X Mountain Lion and finally getting all my devices synced properly through iCloud.  And then there were job interviews.   The fun thing is that all of these occurrences have inspired me with topics for future posts.    My last post, the announcement of WordPress 3.5, has opened a can of worms — my upgrade process is going to be non-trivial, so I should have a lot to share as it goes.

My first long-form article, the iTunes 11 review, took days to complete, while I’ve been able to get out a number of short useful articles in no time at all.   A lot of this has to do with the workflow behind collecting links and using screen grabs.  I have made some strides in collecting links, but am still having some issues with my workflow for media.   I am hoping the WordPress 3.5 authoring tools will improve this, soon as I do the update.

I’m not expecting to build an audience overnight, it’s going to take time, and more compelling content, but I’m optimistic that things will grow.

Some insights I’ve gotten so far:

  1. Regular updates are really important, both for getting return views and for maintaining creative momentum.
  2. For a blog like mine, it’s important to mix it up between bite-sized posts and longer-form articles.   Holding off for 5 days to finish a long story doesn’t help you be a daily resource for people.
  3. Longer form articles can take a lot of time to research, fact-check, and do screen captures.  You need to nail down a workflow that won’t get in your way, especially for your screen captures, which often will need annotations.
  4. Relevant post titles and content will get you good search engine placement.  The most popular article so far in December was ‘changing font size in itunes 11’, which was also the search term.  You just have to title and write your posts clearly to get this benefit.
  5. Analog seems like a more detailed web statistics package, but I’m not sure it’s more useful than Webalyzer.  I will probably switch back soon.  Whichever you use, seeing the needle move day to day based on your posts is a powerful motivator.
  6. It’s not cheating to blog about process.  Really.

Let’s see what Month 2 brings.

WordPress 3.5 released.

WordPress 3.5 released yesterday. This looks like a big update, with better media handling capabilities.

I could have really used better media handling capabilities to do the iTunes 11 article — getting screenshots into my current WordPress version was tedious and error-prone.

I’m using version 2.8.2 of WordPress currently, so the update is long overdue.  However, since this is a big point release, it may make sense to wait on 3.5.1 for bug fixes.  This is the eternal dilemma with maintaining your own WordPress site — do I need to install the new version that just came out, or can I wait?    Clearly, I’ve waited too long to embrace 3.x, which has better tools and improved architecture, as well as better mobile support.

Not everyone has this issue — you automatically have the latest and greatest if you have a WordPress.com site,  and web hosts now are supporting it. My Web host has an option for auto-installing it (and other popular open-source packages like PhpBB) that keeps it up to date, for an additional $3 a month.  WordPress also has the feature to update from the admin panel, but that requires your hosting service to support it, and you to set up certain permissions that may be a security risk.   I wouldn’t depend on this feature for a major update like this anyway, the database migration is risky, but it would be great for updating a minor version change.

Look for some changes as I update the site.  It’s pretty likely I”ll need to re-think the site theme (skin), the plug-ins I use, and the content that I expose via widgets.   WordPress widgets have gotten much better since this version — WordPress.com, for example, supports several new widgets that can be put on your sidebars, such as Twitter feeds.

I’m hoping that the authoring workflow is better.  I like the WordPress post editor overall, but it does have room for improvement.  The 2.8 version is pretty clunky if your post is longer, and working with media is awkward.  I’ve been considering using BBEdit to do my writing and just pasting things in, but that isn’t nearly as convenient as just logging in from a web browser, writing a post and hitting Publish.

A quick WordPress tip…

…for folks that haven’t updated their blog in forever, like me. Be sure you categorize and tag your posts when you write them, going back afterwards is tedious and error-prone. Also, using the QuickPress interface from the WordPress dashboard isn’t such a good idea, as it defaults the category to ‘uncategorized’ and only lets you manually type in tags. When you do fix categories and tags on your posts, be sure that you don’t inadvertently change the publish date in the process, I managed to do that somehow as well.

This may be different in the new version of WordPress, I must admit. I also must find out soon, I’m long overdue for an update. WordPress is great, but it changes often and it’s easy to get behind. There are also generally new versions in the pipeline, too. WordPress 3.5 is now in release candidate status, so doing the recommended update to 3.4.2 is probably not the best idea, but updating to the newest version has its own risks of breaking themes and plug-ins.

WPtouch is an awesome way to get your blog on the iPhone

Since I’ve been studying how to optimize web pages for the iPhone, I decided to quit procrastinating and finally install WPTouch, a WordPress plug-in that generates a very iPhone-friendly version of your WordPress Site.IMG_0108

WPTouch provides some very elegant UI attributes, including a search panel that slides in, Google Adwords for Mobile support, and the whole presentation is very configurable. Also, you have a switch that will let you go to and from the standard browser layout, so you aren’t stuck with the theme. WP Touch is considered a theme, but is installed as a WordPress plug-in, since it has to inject some code into your pages in order to do the theme-swapping.

Mike-icon-snapshot

Obey the foot. See how happy it will make him?

So, you may be asking, “how do you get one of those neat-o icons that you can put on your iPhone home screen to jump directly to the web site?”
This blog post has a great tutorial of how to set up your icon app if you are using the plug-in. Normally in a static web site, you just create a 57×57 pixel PNG file and name it icon.png, and link to it in your HTML header:


Oddly enough, the apple-touch-icon link is not part of standard wordpress themes in general. I guess that’s not so weird considering the themes are designed for desktop rather than mobile, but it is annoying that the iPhone plug-in can do this but the standard view of the site can’t be saved with your custom icon to the iPhone home page.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this mobile page looks on other devices, apparently the user agent sniffing done by the plug-in can also supply the page for Blackberry, Android, and others.

Theming WordPress plug-in content

I have to say that I really like the delicious plugin (del.icio.us for WordPress, by Ricardo Gonzalez), but it didn’t quite look right in the Constructor theme that I am using. The heading didn’t match the rest of the theme headings, and there was text following the link names specifying when the link was posted, but it was indistinguishable, i.e. same style.

(Delicious.com, or del.icio.us,  is a social bookmark site, you can save bookmarks to the cloud and share them with your friends.  You tag the links, they’re searchable, your list of links is browsable, and the ability to access that cloud on your blog is a great little feature.)

Turns out when you look at the source code generated by the widget, it does have custom classes for these elements:

Delicious_title_link   -- the actual title used in the sidebar
Delicious-item    	--  the specific link list item
Delicious-link     -- the link itself
Delicious-timestamp  -- the time for the item (e.g. “36 mins ago”)

Fortunately, Constructor lets you add your own CSS rules to the theme in a separate CSS file that won’t be overwritten when you update the theme files. This is a great place for adding the rules you need.

So, I added the following to the css file, just to differentiate that time stamp with smaller italic text in a contrasting color, and to make the title link look like the other sidebar headings:

.delicious-timestamp {
font-size: smaller;
font-style: italic;
color: #2F608A
}

.delicious_title_link {
color: #2F608A;
}

Voila, now things match, and if I should build my own custom theme from scratch later, I can just lift these rules to accommodate that widget, or any other widgets with their own CSS classes.

Theming WordPress – work in progress

Still working on theming the site and installing the plug-ins I want.

I ended up selecting the theme Constructor for now, which looks relatively nice out of the box.  The theme supports several different layouts, and lets you customize a lot of things.

StockConstructorSkin StockConstructorSkin2

Here’s the same theme with a few minor adjustments, mostly different background images and font tweaks:

MyConstructorSkin1 MyConstructorSkin2

I’d spent a bunch of time scratching my head over how I might do something similar to the legos/crane motif. Finally, I found something I could isolate and put into the theme, and just went with a simple photocollage for the header file. I played with a few backgrounds, and decided to go with a bright, fairly neutral glass texture. With a couple hours of Photoshop, now the page looks more like my old one.

And, just for giggles, here’s what my test version of the site looks like with the default WordPress theme.  It’s quite boring, and requires you to shove everything off to the left side.

Boring. The only thing you can change visually is the color of that blue bar at top, you can't even just drop in your own header graphic.

Boring. The only thing you can change visually is the color of that blue bar at top, you can't even just drop in your own header graphic.

I will say that I am struggling a bit with the flow of the content inside these posts, things really fall apart if you have more than one small graphic, it seems. Perhaps I’m not doing this the easy way, I did see that wordpress has a built-in gallery function for putting a bunch of graphics in a post, but they didn’t look so good to me. Suppose my next step is to RTFM before I blame the theme or WordPress. I also think that my articles are already proving to be too long for the front page, I should use excerpts, but not sure if the theme supports that. At the very least, I may need to override some more things in the style sheet.