What happened at Smashing Magazine?

Twitter was aflutter earlier about a sudden change at Smashing Magazine. They had redirected every page on their site to point to an ebook promo coupled with a plea for aid. “We need money,” they said, “and we’re turning to you, the community, for help.”

Smashing being what it is, supporters turned out in droves. They primarily write how-tos and helpful articles about web development and design, from which myself and probably hundreds of thousands of others have benefited. They post all of their content online for free, serving up advertisements and selling ebooks to keep everything humming, but this stunt was entirely new.

“We’re trying to prove a point,” the announcement said, but they didn’t list what point they were trying to make. As I was lying in bed, the pieces fell together for me.

One of the staffers at Smashing posted in the comments on the ebook promo page that they had recently moved into a new office and hired more staff. This happened to occur just before ad revenue went down, as everything else has in the last two years.

My guess is that Smashing Magazine went to their investors and said, “Hey, we’ve got a popular site visited by hundreds of thousands of people, and we normally have solid revenue through both advertisement and ebook sales. We’ve just moved into a larger office and hired additional staff so we can turn out even more great content, thereby leading to more ad and ebook revenue, but we need some time. We’d like you to invest in Smashing Magazine, and we guarantee you’ll see a good return on your investment.”

But the investors didn’t buy it. “You give all your content away for free?” they may have asked confusedly. “How do you make any money? How will my investment pay off? Advertisements alone can’t account for this much cash, and return would be too slow.

“Tell you what–prove it to us. Show us you can make this money. I don’t know, sell something, and if the response is good, we’ll see.”

So Smashing threw the dice. They redirected every page, asked their community for support, and they got it. Their store crashed, in fact, under a crushing wave of goodwill. Once they got the site back up, they updated the post to say they had removed the redirect because their point had been made.

The investors were satisfied.

That update has been removed, as have a few other edits to the original post (you can still find the comments in the associated blog post), but I’m reasonably confident in my hypothesis. Though the crisis appears to have passed, you can still pick up Smashing Magazine’s ebook for $9.90. I’m sure they’d appreciate it.

New Design for SilverPen

Last January (2009), I created the FaceBook and MySpace pages, made some modifications to the site, and announced my goals for the upcoming year. I wanted to write books, commit to regular publishing of blog articles, and invest in or create an online community of writers. The first few months of this went relatively well, but it became abundantly clear that my site wasn’t really up to the challenge. It was too limiting, too basic, and what’s worse, I had no idea how to fix it.

Enter Ryan Burrell, stage left. Ryan and I have been friends since junior high, but we never really did much together until after he graduated college. Through a strange series of events, we found ourselves with mutual friends and spending more time together. And while I was leaving my cocoon and struggling my way into writing regularly, Ryan was becoming a well sought after web designer.

When he offered to create a new design for SilverPen, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to abuse our friendship, and I know that web design is both a difficult art and an expensive one. His offer was incredibly generous, and I didn’t feel comfortable accepting.

At the same time, friends should trust each other, and my own attempts at modifying themes had failed miserably due to my lack of knowledge. I finally accepted Ryan’s offer, and he has blown me away with what he came up with.

Take a look around and know that the extent of my guidance to him was, “I really like the colours from this other theme… dark brown and blue, though I’m not devoted to them. And I want the body text of articles to be decently wide, though that doesn’t really apply to the front page.” I also had a list of things I wanted; things like… the stuff I write. And threaded comments (which is built into WordPress). And a Currently Working On section.

So, given what he had to work with, Ryan did phenomenally well. I wasn’t of much help in this.

New Features

I’m really excited about everything this theme has to offer, so let me give you a tour. Ryan suggested removing the traditional Categories and Archives from the front page and/or sidebar(s), as they take up a lot of room but aren’t always needed. Instead, he created a slider bar attached to the header to serve those purposes. Click on Topics and it will drop down to show the various categories used for posts. Clicking on Archives will show the most recent six months as well as a link to all archives. This is not only more aesthetically pleasing than just having everything listed in the sidebar, it also saves a lot of space and is just a neat feature.

Click on the words Archives or Topics to see the archives by month or the categories, respectively.
Click on the words Archives or Topics to see the archives by month or the categories, respectively.

The footer has been drastically expanded and now includes a bit more about how this site is licensed and what you can do to help. In addition, I’ve got a blogroll of sorts now and the Momentarily Featured is really five random articles, displayed with the hope that older pieces will get read once in a while.

The Currently Working On section is a special one that will contain updates on… well, what I’m working on. I’ve usually got five projects going at the same time, so this will change on a regular basis as I move between them. In addition, there is also a Latest Entries section on the front page to display what has been published recently.

When you add those three sections on the front page to the sticky-notesesque thing at the top of the sidebar, that makes four unique sections for displaying content.

Taking the pressure off

WordPress is geared primarily to act as blogging software, and as such the default emphasis of a WordPress site is on the blog articles. The problem is that I really hate having blog entries on my front page because there is often information I want to share for longer than the latest entry’s common lifespan. Without a decent body of static text on the front page, I can’t post long term updates very easily, and some blog entries might get lost in the shuffle (if I publish too often, for instance).

With the theme I was using, I had two options. The default was to have multiple blog entries on the front page, and I generally ranged between four and ten. Part of me likes having multiple entries available because then people can just read without having to load new pages. Obviously, this didn’t make me happy for a front page, but I like it in theory, and that’s why there’s a Journal button up top for those people who like to see a traditional blog page.

I was never able to figure out for myself what to put here, but Ryan excels at designing and stocking web site footers.
I was never able to figure out for myself what to put here, but Ryan excels at designing and stocking web site footers.

The second option was to only display the most recent blog entry on the front page. After Ryan suggested that I limit the display so people might actually have a chance of seeing my footer, I agreed that this was the better of the two options. The downside to this is that it puts a great deal of emphasis on that single blog entry, and if I update (even just a short, quick note about something that happened that day), it would push that original article off the front page. I schedule updates three times a week, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 4:30 a.m. (because that seems to be before most people start accessing my site), but sometimes I want to write something Monday afternoon, or on Tuesday. If I did, whatever I wrote 1) Would displace what was currently there and 2) Wouldn’t be visible for very long at all.

Of course, the solution is what you see now, but I had neither the means nor the knowledge to create a page template that met my goals. I kept hearing and reading about how easy all this was, but I’m a writer, not a designer or programmer, and despite hours of strain and trial/error, I couldn’t make it work. This front page layout is the most significant improvement to SilverPen and will make the greatest difference in how the site is organized and maintained. I’m excited about its automated features, but I’m also really curious to see what I think of to do with it in the next year as I come to understand how it works and how it influences my work. What will it be like when I don’t feel like my web site design is holding me back?

Demanding Excellence

Working with a real designer has been an eye-opening experience, and much of the recent series on design was inspired by this process. Because I don’t have the sort of intelligence that lends itself to understanding or facilitating visual art and/or design, it is remarkable to me that I could provide such little guidance and Ryan could turn those ideas into what you see here. When I first saw what he had come up with, I was startled and a little uncomfortable: it didn’t seem anything like me because it was too good. At the same time, I was excited because it was just so neat.

I hope you’ll like the new design as well as I do, because it’s going to stick around for a good long while. Previous theme changes at SilverPen were because I was never satisfied with what I was able to find for free, but this custom design changes all that. Every need and desire has been met, and it Just Works™.

If you’re curious about the importance of design and my thoughts on its purpose, power, and presence, I encourage you to read the collaborative conversation we have recently completed on the topic. A good site design makes a world of difference, and I’m anxious to see how it impacts my visitors. I know that its excellence demands more from me than my previous theme(s)–that is to say, this new design demands higher quality writing from me, and in a greater quantity. There’s no going back now. I will meet my goals and use this site to its full potential.

Ryan has dubbed this theme Publicity. I think that I shall refer to it as Tallgeese.

WordPress not quite ready for mobile browsing

Instead of redacting this entire entry, I’ll let you know that mobile browsing for WordPress does work now. See my updated article on The Evolutionary Process of Mobile Browsing on WordPress for more details.


One of my design goals for revision 3 of SilverPen Publishing was to make the site more accessible. I’m not a web developer by trade and didn’t really know how to do this, but I knew that I didn’t want to exclude people from visiting my corner of the web. To me, this didn’t just mean making SilverPen more friendly to screen readers and other assistive technology devices, but also to make the site work well on mobile devices.

To this end, I found yet another great plugin by Alex King that queries the user agent of the browser trying to access the site. If it’s a mobile web browser, the plugin serves up a custom template that’s very lightweight and fast to load on mobile devices. It worked very well, but unfortunately it only worked in a vaccuum, and even then had some serious repercussions.

WP Super Cache

First off, it simply does not work with WP Super Cache, and in fact, no mobile browsing solution does. For those who haven’t heard of Super Cache, I’ll explain what it does and why it’s necessary very briefly. Every blog post and page that WordPress serves up is dynamically generated on the fly when you access the site. Putting all the pieces together to make a web page puts a lot of load on the server, and it makes the page load a lot slower for you. Caching allows the server to create static pages, rather than dynamic ones, of the same content and therefore serve it up faster. This reduces load on the server and makes the page load a whole lot fast for you.

Because of how WordPress works, this caching is pretty much vital to running a site on WordPress. My traffic’s not that high yet, but it has more than doubled in the last few months, and I expect it to continue increasing at a similar rate. The last thing I need is Bluehost freezing my site temporarily due to a sudden spike of traffic, so like all good WordPress bloggers, I use WP Super Cache.

To make a long story short, WP Super Cache creates a copy of a page the first time someone visits it. Each subsequent visitor is shown that copy, and this is what breaks WordPress Mobile Edition. Since you’re viewing a static copy of the page that has already been generated, you don’t see the mobile theme, rendering the mobile plugin useless.

If it’s a choice between having the page load more quickly for most everyone and reducing the load on my server vs. having the site more accessible on mobile devices, I’m going to have to go with the former. Especially as data plans move towards 3g and faster mobile browsing.

Search Engine de-Optimization

The second reason that mobile browsing fails for WordPress is because it kills SEO, which harms your ranking in search engines. By its very nature of essentially serving a different set of pages to mobile devices, plugins such at WordPress Mobile Edition fool search engine robots into thinking there’s a second website with duplicate content on it. Such duplicate content is ranked down by search engines, which means your pages are less likely to turn up in searches and you’ll get less traffic.

The mobile plugins and solutions for WordPress all admit that it’ll kill your SEO and recommend you “do something” about it, but don’t offer many solutions. I thought I had found an elegant work-around yesterday in the form of themed multiple domains in WordPress, which would allow me to have multiple domains pointing at a single instance of WordPress, wich each domain triggering its own theme. In this instance, you can easily redirect robots that hit those other domains to a separate robots.txt file, which would tell them “don’t index this site.” For example, if I had silverpenpub.net and m.silverpenpub.net (for mobile browsers), I could have the main site indexed and tell the robots not to index the mobile site.

But I don’t want to register a separate domain for mobile browsers, and I couldn’t get it to work with a subdomain for some reason. Maybe I was doing something wrong there and will figure it out eventually, but it’s not going to happen today.

Not worth my time

In the end, trying to twist WordPress into working on mobile devices doesn’t give a  lot of return for the investment, and I’m beginning to think it will be a non-issue before too long. Even I am beginning to dream nightly of acquiring an iPhone, and browsing with a 3g connection means that, even over a cellular data plan, you can load a site quickly. And newer phones have a lot larger screens, which means that my theme displays fine all on its own.

I know that WordPress now has a iPhone-friendly administrative interface, and I hope that they include more features in the future to help their platform run better on mobile devices. Accessibility is still important to me, but I can’t justify 5-10+ hours of work to make the site more accessible to 0.5% of readers by introducing “features” that degrade or break the site for the other 99.5%.

Step 2: Visual Design

I am, to be perfectly, honest, an incredibly non-artistic person. I appreciate art, and I know what I like looking at, but I sometimes lack the vocabulary to discuss art and I am completely incapable of producing it. The written word is my forté, so when I began to design a new website, I was stymied.

The idea of creating a theme from scratch and of having complete visual control over one’s website is certainly appealing, but I lack the capacity for such design work. Therefore, I chose a few designs and showed them to Ryan, with whom I collaborated while creating SilverPen Pub revision 3.0. I would have a theme that I didn’t really like, but wasn’t sure why, and he would supply terms describing how its flatness and lack of depth failed to catch the eye or guide the reader to where you want them to spend their time. The current theme, however, worked really well, and after I bludgeoned one of my own photographs into the banner using The GIMP, I’m happy with it.

There are several things to consider when visually designing your website:

  1. Sidebars: How many do you want, and what do you want them to contain? Personally, I feel that sidebar length and composition is determined by logical order. That is to say, it should be organized logically, with clear reasoning why one item has been placed above another item. If your sidebar has reached a length where you are sticking things in with no justification for its placement–if you don’t care where something goes–then you are adding things to the sidebar that probably don’t need to be there. As much as I enjoy Lorelle’s blog, the sidebar annoys the hell out of me because I can’t find anything useful in it. It’s a mash of random things, with subscription buttons and book article advertisements littered throughout. After reading her article Who the hell are you? I began looking for her “About” section. Because it was hidden in the ridiculously long sidebar, I had to use Firefox to search for it to even find the oh-so-important statement she was talking about in her article.
  2. Mood, pathos, etc.: Colour is a tricky one, because it can affect how a reader perceives and responds to your blog. It affects the tone in which they read your entries, and if the appearance of your blog is offensive to them, they will certainly be unreceptive to what you have to say. Nevertheless, I maintain that the most important aspect of the visual design of one’s blog is that the author like its appearance. A reader can use an RSS feed, but the author cannot avoid looking at their own page. It is important to keep this aspect of visual design in mind, but it is perhaps not the most important. The only rule regarding colour is to make text readable. Stereotypical MySpace pages are bad, m’kay?
  3. How comfortable are you with editing code?: If you don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty, you have a few more options when choosing a theme. You can pick one that’s close to what you are looking for, then edit the CSS and PHP files to make it exactly what you want. Conversely, if you just want a CMS where you can input your content and you’d rather not have to deal with anything else, WordPress has a lot of options to help. In this instance, however, you may have a harder time finding a theme that really makes you happy and gives you all of the content you want.
  4. Accessibility: I will write more about this at a later date, but accessibility is probably the most overlooked issue when it comes to personal blogs. Nevertheless, it is important to pay special attention to this aspect, if for no other reason than it is simply the right thing to do so. There are scads of guides online about how to make your site more accessible, so I won’t go into details on that, but keep in mind that you should try and make your blog as accessible as possible. This might require a little bit of coding on your part, but it’s not hard and can make a visually challenged person’s day a whole lot better.
  5. Content: Will your blog entries be short, or long? How far your readers have to scroll to read a particular blog entry might be worth considering, and can be affected by widening the content section of your design. However, keep in mind that long lines of text are awkward to the human eye, and anything beyond 80-120 characters is difficult for a person to read. Try to keep your content column at a reasonable width.
  6. Scaling: This is the first test I do to see how well a site is design. Does your site scale gracefully, or does your text go all over the place and become unreadable? This is partially an accessibility issue, but it’s also about standards; if you stay within the spec, your site will usually scale just fine. WordPress, by default, handles this pretty well, so you shouldn’t have any problems if you’re using WordPress as your CMS.

Once you strike a balance between these and have everything settled, it’s time to decide how you intend to organize your blog, which I will discuss tomorrow.

Step 1: Choose a CMS

This article is now somewhat out-of-date since I collapsed 4 of the blogs into one (Reading, Religion, Theology, and general updates are all in the same blog now, with separate blogs for writing projects). However, the principle is still the same, and the history of my experience with blogging is relatively accurate. Therefore, I’ve decided to use this entry as a reply to Lorelle’s current challenge, rather than writing a whole new one with most of the same content.

Prologue

In 2004, I became fed up with LiveJournal and Xanga. I had begun the former because a girl I liked (circa 2003) had a LiveJournal, and through my joining I discovered a great many of my friends were already using LJ. The next year, however, all of the people I met hosted their blogs on Xanga rather than LiveJournal, and so I created one of those as well to keep in touch with them. Not surprisingly, it was a pain to keep both sites updated, but that wasn’t the worst of it. LiveJournal and Xanga crashed regularly, so when I wanted to blog, I couldn’t. This was inexcusable.

Therefore, I hopped on NewEgg, specced out a new computer, and within a couple of weeks I had built a webserver in my bedroom. The entire experience was geared towards learning as much as I could, so I installed Linux on it (which I had never used at the time) and set up everything from scratch. WordPress was the blogging software I had heard the most about, so I ran through the 5-minute install and away I went.

For a little while, anyways. As a writer, I had a lot of work sitting around that I wanted to put on my website, and knowing as little as I did at the time, I created a static page on WordPress for each piece. Suffice it to say that WP doesn’t handle a large volume of pages on the backend very well, and once the database queries began taking 3-5 minutes for me to find a page so I could update it, I began casting around for a new content management system (CMS). Mambo was recommended by a friend and, after learning its somewhat ridiculous administrator interface, I created a second website just for my writing.

Those of you who have used Mambo, or Joomla! which is very similar, know that it has its strengths and weaknesses. It worked fantastically to display my work, but due to the very nature of it, my writing site stagnated. I always told myself I’d go back and revise items, but once I put them into Mambo, I didn’t have to think about it again. Moreover, it was such a pain to get the site themed and looking like I wanted it that I invariably “set it and forgot it.” The admin interface could be frustrating and nitpicky, as well as cluttered, so I often avoided logging in for as long as I could. In general, it wasn’t an enjoyable CMS to work with. And while WordPress was significantly more enjoyable, it simply couldn’t do the job.

The Present Era

As a sidenote, I looked at Drupal briefly, but was equally unsatisfied with it (perhaps more so than I was with Mambo/Joomla!). I began to despair, wondering at a solution, when I stumbled upon an article by Lorelle on WordPress that discussed the problems with using pages rather than blog entries. The wheels began turning, and I thought, “Why not have all of my writing be blog entries? Why do poems and stories need pages of their own?” Having them in the blog gives me all of the controls I’m used to, chronological organization, and an opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to: revise and share my work.

Therefore, I hatched a plan to use WordPress as my CMS and blog entries rather than pages to post and organize my work. As stated in my About page, there are five main topics on which I desired to write, but I couldn’t throw this all into a single blog or nobody would bother reading it. Moreover, I didn’t want to actually have five separate blogs, hearkening back to the days of LJ and Xanga (to which I crosspost automatically now through plugins) because updating would be a colossal pain (as would upgrading the software, especially since WP releases an upgrade every 3-6 months now, it seems). Therefore, I decided to try a personal installation of WordPress-MU.

WordPress-MU is often associated with WordPress.com and Blogsome, where you can install no plugins and the themes available are selected by the developer and largely uncustomizable. Due to this, the software has a stigma against it as being restrictive, but the truth is that around 95% of the code from WordPress is shared with WordPress-MU; they are very similar programs. And since I am doing this to create blogs for myself, there are no issues with restrictiveness.

To provide readers the option of only reading the content in which they are interested, I created a blog for each topic on which I intended to write (as well as corresponding LJ and Xanga accounts to which they crosspost for those who prefer to subscribe via those services). Because it is all through WordPress-MU, I administrate and post to the blogs from a single backend interface, and I will only have to upgrade one location for all of the blogs to benefit.

On the negative side, due to some of the redirection settings and requirements of WordPress-MU, some plugins (like the Ask-Apache 404 Google WordPress Plugin) simply refuse to work. Themes not written specifically for WP-MU will have problems with its registration page, and the configuration files require some hacking if you want everything to look nice (particularly if a user gets a 404 error but you don’t want them to register a new blog). WP-MU was created with the intention of running a site where users can create new blogs, so I’ve had to work around the software a bit for my purposes.

Nevertheless, it feels like the best CMS for me at this time. Few bloggers write on as many topics as I do and I haven’t heard of anyone organizing their site in this fashion, but this solution works well and gives me all of the benefits I want. WordPress is a very nice CMS and, while it certainly isn’t ideal for everything, I keep coming back to the question Lorelle asked that set this all off: why not use blog posts?

I am confident now that, at least for me, the answer is, “There is no reason, therefore I shall.”