Working Notes: Fitting out a WordPress Site

WordPress is a good CMS, but a default installation rarely does everything you want and need.

Making it look good — themes

To fix that, you need to write or acquire a theme, which defines the look and feel of the site. The current version of WordPress comes with a number of pre-installed themes and the quality and configurability of those themes has improved massively from a few years back and they’re well worth experimenting with if you’re just starting out.

It doesn’t take long to move beyond that — there’s a massive ecosystem of themes available for WordPress, many free, others licensed or purchased. A good place to start looking is Envato’s Themeforest, where most themes are currently sold for $40-60. Or go to your favorite search engine and type in “WordPress Theme” and see the glory of endless pages of people who want to sell you one.

Since I’ve used it and know it pretty well, I’m using the Photocrati theme for the galleries site. For the FYC site and the updated www.chuqui.com sites I’m now evaluating themes, but I’ve already cut the list down to two vendors (Elegant themes and Devpress). Both use what is effectively a membership model, you pay to license their entire selection of themes and then you can use them as you want. Both are at a fairly standard price for this — $69, which is close to the cost of an Envato theme but gives you more flexibility. Since I need two themes, going with a single theme vendor is more cost effective, and I’ve found that if you find the right vendor you get a higher quality theme (although there are many really good themes on Envato, if you want to dig through them). Since both of these sites need to be fully responsive, I started my search using “WordPress theme responsive” to avoid the themes that haven’t been upgraded for that capability yet — and frankly, I recommend that to everyone.

Adding Functionality — Plug-ins

Then you need to start adding in the functionality you need that isn’t part of the core WordPress release. Every WordPress geek has their own favorite set of plug-ins they use on every site. Here’s mine:

  • Akismet: spam blocking. Works well. Lets me toss $5/year to the wordpress folks as a thank you for doing everything they do. A bargain.
  • Google XML Sitemaps
  • Google Analytics (except for Galleries, Photocrati supports this so I don’t need one)
  • Jetpack: See below
  • Optimize Database after Deleting Revisions: let’s me optimize and clean up the database
  • Safe Redirect Manager: when I delete something, I can redirect the URL to something else. That way, if I convert a set of blog postings to a topic page, I can redirect and anyone with the old pages bookmarked gets sent to the updated content (and so do search engines: important!)
  • Simple Image Sizes: let’s me easily reconfigure the default sizes available in the default media gallery (not useful for NextGen gallery, though)
  • UpdraftPlus – Backup/Restore: backs everything up nightly to Dropbox
  • WP Missed Schedule: If you schedule a posting and for some reason that time got missed, this catches it and makes sure the posting happens.
  • WP Super Cache: speed optimizations. I set this up early in development because I want to find problems when I create them, not when I go production and turn caching on (only to have it break something or malfunction. Not that this would ever happen)

My goal with plug-ins is pretty simple: use as few as necessary to do the job; use plug-ins that are in wide use and under active development (if one I use doesn’t get an update in about a year, I’ll usually start looking for a replacement or look at removing it from my systems, since if they break and aren’t being maintained, you can end up with some badly timed crisis hacking).

Note: I don’t use any of the SEO plug-ins any more. I found (by accident) that turning the one I was using off cut the page load speed in half. I’d rather have fast loading pages. It’s unclear just how much they benefit you in a current WordPress installation, honestly, I’ve stopped using them and Google still likes me. YMMV.

These problems — slow page loading, huge memory or CPU footprints, etc — are why I always tell people to use as few plug-ins as possible and keep them current. When I’ve gone in and debugged broken or slow WordPress sites for people, I often find they had fun installing and testing plug-ins, then forgot about the 20 plug-ins they tried and ended up not using — but they were still installed and activated, taking up RAM and CPU and screwing over site performance. Put your WordPress on a diet and disable (and delete!) plug-ins you aren’t using or don’t really need. This is also why I always start with a small core set of plug-ins and then add in on a project by project basis, rather than keep a large toolbox of plug-ins around in case I want one.

One missing plug-in: Disqus. When I revise my sites, I will be disabling commenting on them and where I can, removing the commenting controls from public view. I currently use Disqus on my main site, and it’s served me well, but the reality is that almost all of the feedback I get is via twitter, and more rarely Google+ and email. Comments are very rarely used. On the flip side, adding Disqus support to the pages can slow down page load time significantly, and comments are the most likely vector in for trolls and spammers, and while Disqus has done a nice job of filtering those out for me, the combination of infrequent use, slower page load speed and high risk of bad things happening makes it an easy decision for me to choose to cancel this out. More and more sites are choosing to do away with comments, and this is a somewhat controversial topic [citation needed] but I’ve ended up siding with the people who think comments are a past tool and as long as there are other reasonable and open channels (especially twitter) for people to engage and converse with me and each other on something I write, I’m comfortable choosing to shift the rest of the conversation there.

Project Specific Plug-ins

At this time, I’ve only installed two plug-ins that are project specific:

  • NextGEN Gallery (Free)
  • NextGen Plus (which layers in extra functionality for a small cost)

Do not expect me to leave it as is, but I don’t know what I’ll want to add yet.

Wiring up Services

There are various services I always wire up to my wordpress sites:

  • Google Webmaster Site: keeps me informed of any possible problems and how the site is being seen by their search engine.
  • Google Analytics: my system for figuring out what you folks, the readers, are doing and what’s working and not working so well.
  • Jetpack (wordpress.com): WordPress’s way to supplement WordPress Core with functionality. I’ve got some mutterings about the way they do this but it works and many of the tools do the job quite well. The ones I typically turn on initially are:
    • Custom CSS (but Photocrati also supports this so I may not use it)
    • Enhanced Distribution
    • Extra Sidebar Widgets
    • Markdown (I’m finally going to start using Markdown, this time for sure)
    • Monitor
    • Omnisearch
    • Photon (maybe. or use CDN in wp super cache? Need to evaluate)
    • Publicize
    • Shortcode Embeds
    • Site Icon
    • Site Verification (hooks you into Google Webmaster easily)
    • WP.me shortlinks
    • WordPress.com stats

And with that, I now have a basic wordpress site installed and functional. Now all it needs is some content and a customized design on top of the basic design Photocrati gives me. those are the easy parts, right? Right?

 

Posted in Redesign 2015: Upgrading chuqui.com in public

The Philosophy of using both a Gallery and Portfolio site

Continuing the thought started in the last set of working notes, here’s my thinking behind why I want both a Photoshelter (aka my “portfolio” site at photo.chuqui.com) and a more casual gallery setup (at “galleries.chuqui.com” and based on WordPress, Photocrati and NextGen).

Why do I separate these photos? Because I want my portfolio of images to represent the images I’m proud of, not just the ones I’ve taken. Most “serious” or pro photographers do this to some degree or another, and it’s why my SmugMug site only has a subset of all of my images on it.

Inside Lightroom I use star ratings to rank the quality of the images. The rankings  use are:

  • ***** Best of Breed
  • **** Portfolio
  • *** Publishable
  • ** Keepers
  • * Parts and Pieces

When I do my first edit, I make a decision whether an image is a Keeper or deleted. Deletions are generally the technical dings that aren’t usable in any rational way, and those go to the great bit bucket in the sky.

My second edit looks at the Keepers and I start making decisions which images I’m going to publish and which I won’t. The primary difference is that I’m looking at a set of similar images and choosing the one (or few) that have the best gestures. My goal is to publish the fewest number of images to properly represent this shoot (NOT the most, the fewest) — unique subjects, unique gestures within a given subject, anything that makes an image special/unique or stand out. Life is too short to publish 200 left profile images of the same duck, and anyone who does that and expect their friends to actually wade through them is fooling themselves.

With my generally shooting wildlife/critter in burst mode, it’s not uncommon for me to end up with 25-50 images of the same bird or animal and many of them are quite similar. Technically they’re all fine — but of those 50, maybe only 4 or 5 show off the bird without looking like clones. Or maybe only one.

The end result might be 50 kills, 450 keepers, and 20-40 I rate 3 stars. The Kills are deleted, the Keepers are archived off to my NAS and left to age — I don’t look at them any further. As part of my importing process I add basic metadata and location info, but after that, I don’t put any effort or processing on them, and I won’t look at them again for at least a few months when I’ll take a second pass to see if any pop out as images I missed on the first run through.

I just did this to a huge archive of keepers — 38,000 — and did a “promote or purge” on that entire set. It took me about ten days of rather intense and eye-blurring evaluation, but out of the 38000, I promoted about 500 images and deleted the rest. My new process is going to be to wait at least 3-4 months and maybe six, do a second pass and either promote or purge keepers rather than keep them forever, because if they don’t fit my needs after a few months of marinating, they won’t two years from now…

Anything 3 stars or better gets published to my galleries. Some images are special, and a few are outstanding. Those get rated up further, to 4 to 5 stars, and end up in my portfolio as well. Those are the ones I show off and use for stock or in my other uses. The 3 star images are there because they’re nice and useful in blog posts to help fill out a story around the special images, and because I have some uses (like Bird ID) where I don’t need a portfolio-caliber image.

To use a musical reference, in the cast of a show or in an orchestra, everyone in the cast has to be able to hold their own with a song — but only a few of the performers get the solos. My portfolio are the soloists, and my best of breed shots are the ones that end up on the marquee.

As it currently stands, my collection looks like this:

  • Best of Breed: 94 (2%)
  • Portfolio: 465 (11%)
  • Publishable: 3504 (86%)

That’s 4063 images. Before my purge, my catalog of keepers or better was a bit over 42,000 images; over time I’ve deleted at least 10,000 dings, probably 15,000 (but I don’t track those). My ding rate can run 15%, +- 5%, depending on what I’m shooting and how cooperative my autofocus is when I’m shooting flying birds (with landscapes, the ding rates go way down, when I’m in poor light shooting moving critters, it can skyrocket. I’ve had shoots where I’ve done 100% dings because frankly, my work sucked that day — but I’d rather keep and publish fewer but better images than lower my standards).

Of the images I don’t ding on first view, about 9.5% get rated publishable. Of the publishable images only 2% get rated best of breed, and frankly, if that number grows I’d yell at myself for lowering my standards. As I’ve matured as a photographer I’ve been able to generate 5 * images more consistently — but I also review my ratings at times and I rerate older images and often there are some that get downgraded.

(Speaking of reviewing ratings, I also, once a quarter, review all of the images for the quarter against each other, so that all of the 5 star images go up against each other, 4 stars, etc — to make sure they all meet the same overall standards. It’s not unusual for a 5 star to get reset to 4, but I also find 4 star images that grow on me and get upgraded; and I’ll usually find some 3 star images that get upgraded or get downgraded to a Keeper and get unpublished; sometimes that special image may look really good when compared to the chorus, but when you put it up against all of the other special images falls short — and you can’t always rate accurately processing right after you shoot; that said, it’s 1% or less of the image that might get moved around, but it’s well worth it for that gem you just didn’t click with the first time…)

3 star images don’t get any special processing, just my standard lightroom work. The 4 and 5 star images are the ones I’ll spend extra time on in processing to really refine them, work on better titles or captions and do more extensive keywording. Part of splitting this designation between “Gallery” and “Portfolio” is efficiency — there’s no reason putting a lot of work trying to fine-tune an average image.

And when people come to see my photography, I want things set up to show them my best images — and that ultimately is why I keep my portfolio and galleries separate. My galleries might contain vacation snapshots from a road trip, or personal images, or other more casual imagery I’ll use on the blog or share with friends. I don’t need them mixed in with the images I’m hoping will attract a buyer.

Is it more work? Yes. It is worth it? I think so, yes. Once everything is set up, my processes make it easy to get the right images to the right places from within Lightroom, so with a bit of automation and thought, it all happens without a lot of chaos.

That chorus — the 3 star images — is still useful through being visible through the search engines and helping to build site recognition and SEO. That’s one reason I’ve left them on flickr until now — their search engine likes me and sends a few thousand views a day, which is nice, but those views only translate into free usage request, so the actual value is low. Moving them onto the galleries.chuqui.com sub-domain will shift them to the big search engines and will hopefully help people find my site, and hopefully, when they land on the image, the page will help them learn about me and maybe go visit my full photo site (remember the previous post I did where I talked about Call to Actions? same happens here, of course…) or check out the affiliate advertising. I’m better off controlling this content myself now rather than sub-contract it out to Flickr. A bit more work to set up, but I’ll have better control of the user experience and I think it’s more than worth it.

(if I’m bringing my galleries in house, why am I then pushing out my portfolio site and photo blog to Photoshelter and outsourcing it’s hosting? Because in that case, the work needed to build out the photo site myself is significant because that site needs to be seriously polished and work well reliably — and I want to be able to take advantage of their design skills and SEO knowledge. I could replicate it on a self-hosted site, but the number of man-hours I’d spend to match what they can bring me would delay the project months, or I’d cut corners and pretend I’d catch up on them later… )

So that’s why I’m doing this; I think I can benefit more by bringing the galleries in from flickr and host them myself, but I can benefit a lot more by moving my “professional” site off to Photoshelter and taking advantage of their expertise rather than building my own. With the galleries, I only need an “80%” solution, while Photoshelter will take care of the first 95% for me and let me focus on that last 5% of the design that I need to deal with.

Make sense?

(P.S. — another factor in all of this is the IndieWeb movement, which I think is a great idea. I should probably write a post on why I think hosting the portfolio site on Photoshelter is (mostly) compatible with the ideals of the Indieweb)

 

Posted in Redesign 2015: Upgrading chuqui.com in public

Working Notes: Lightroom web galleries (my eyes. they burn)

Okay, spent a few hours looking into lightroom web galleries to solve the “move stuff off Flickr” task.

As Steve Martin once said, “Comedy is not pretty”. In fact, it’s pretty sad.

Web galleries as distributed by Adobe  are pretty simplistic and not very useful. They’re okay for basic usage, like posting a set of images from vacation to share with the family, but that’s about it. They also seem effectively unchanged since around LightRoom 3, so they clearly aren’t an Adobe enhancement priority.

I went looking for third party alternatives. I found some, but only a couple that seemed to meet my needs. You certainly can do complex and interesting things using third party plug-ins, if you’re willing to work on it (and swear some along the way) — look at what Terry White‘s done, for instance, as an example of doing it well using web gallery tools and plugins.

I finally settled on 2-3 options and started pulling them down and experimenting with them, and while I think the people who wrote did the best they could with the capabilities that Adobe gave them, it quickly ended up looking a lot like one big steaming pile of complicated hack, both in the tools and in the building of a themed site setup. I could do it that way, but I felt I’d be constantly fighting chaos and the whole thing seemed overly complicated and fragile. Not my idea of a setup I’d want to run in production. One of the tools had installation instructions so muddled I never did figure out where the various pieces had to go — some of which is because the bowels of Lightroom where this stuff has to go is pretty ugly, but mostly, they were just really poorly written, so I abandoned out halfway in. I was able to generate some tests that showed me I’d quickly come to hate both the interface and the performance of the setup and that it would never live to production.

So, web galleries generated directly out of Adobe Lightroom. Nice idea, but not going to work. 95% of is because Adobe’s implementation is simplistic and sludgy, and while the third parties can build plug-ins and templates to supplement (and sometimes replace) Adobe’s capabilities the foundations Adobe gave them simply aren’t good enough to use — which explains why when you look into third party tools via search engines you find a very few actually building them and many haven’t seen much activity in a few years, indicating a lack of active development and interest by the authors. My belief: you don’t want to depend on tools the authors aren’t enthusiastically pushing forward without a good reason. My solution: off to plan B.

(By the way, with so many online sites like Flickr and 500px and Shutterfly and half a dozen others that do basic online web galleries already, I can’t blame Adobe for not seeing this module as a priority for resources and enhancement. I probably wouldn’t put the effort into it, either, not with the existence of the Publish module and an easy way to get images online that way…)

So, plan B: set up a gallery wordpress site on galleries.chuqui.com; load a wordpress template into it, and add in a gallery plug-in. The obvious solution there is the Photocrati theme (which I’m using on my general site, although I haven’t upgraded that site to the new release that does responsive display because I felt it was too risky given I’d planned on a full redesign) and their gallery plug-in, NextGen. I’ve talked to the Photocrati folks, I know the quality of their code; the new version of NextGen was a massive rewrite and had stability problems when it first came out, but it’s stable now and would do what I want.

But I found a different gallery system called EnviraGallery, and I really like it on initial investigations. The interface seems cleaner and more intuitive, and I like a lot of its functionality. It seems like it’s easier to use and overall it looks good. The big problem? it’d cost me $100 for a license and one year of support and upgrades, and then I’d have to relicense for upgrades after that. So figure $100 to start (for the Gold level license to get the features I want) and then probably a relicense every 18 months or so when I want to get access to updates again.

NextGen Plus (full capabilities minute e-commerce) is $49, as I write this on sale for $29. Photocrati (which I’d need with either theme, although if I went with Envira I might not use Photocrati but some other theme) is $89 (and currently on sale for $49 — it and NextGen also use the “permanent license with upgrades/support for a year” pricing, although I haven’t actually needed to pay for access to upgrades to Photocrati for a couple of years).

As much as it looks like Envira may well be a better tool than NextGen, I can’t begin to convince myself it’s worth twice the cost of NextGen — and with NextGen and Photocrati on sale right now, costing this out it becomes a no-brainer.

So I think what I’ll end up doing is hosting all of this on my Dreamhost server, use WordPress, Photocrati, and NextGen as the underlying infrastructure, and plan to upload all of the images to NextGen for organization and publishing of galleries, and Photocrati to chrome the pages and galleries.

And, in the magic of continuing to work on this while postings are queued up for publication, here it is! welcome to galleries.chuqui.com. At the moment I write this (on 1/3) it’s purely generic but the theme and gallery plug-in is involved. Still some plug-in installs to make, but it’s ready to start loading content and building the design. Total time spent to this point: about 3 hours of installation and build-out. Total cost to date: $70. Monthly costs above what I’m currently spending: $0.

And… there is a publish module interface to upload photos to NextGen, which solves that problem for me, assuming it works rationally. (update: because of security restrictions on my host, this one’s a no-go. So I have to upload images old-school…)

So, I think that solves this for me. It’s not 100% of what I want from what I can see (I’d love to have a publish module that handles a nested tree of collections and builds out the galleries for me on the fly on the site), but it gets it close enough that I’m not going to complain about the final missing bits. All of the bits involved are fully responsive, so I don’t have to worry about them working on tablets or phones, as long as I’m careful about the design.

This does open up a new task, which is that I have to start worrying about what the site designs are going to look like and what common elements will have to exist across them (iconography, menu naming and placement, etc). I expect to start I’ll put up a generic or simple (swap in my logo…) design and defer that until I finish up the design on the Photoshelter site, and then use what I build there to inspire an improved look to this galleries site.

Why not just put all my images on Photoshelter?

Well, that’s a bit of a discussion…

 

Posted in Redesign 2015: Upgrading chuqui.com in public

Working Notes: Attack Order

For those interested in following along, I’ve created a new blog category specifically for this redesign. For those who don’t want to follow along, this will act as a metadata tag you might be able to use to know to avoid these…

My online presence is rather complex when you pull together all of the pieces (have you thought about all of your public touch points and how they work together (or don’t?)) — the main blog (hosted wordpress), SmugMug (my portfolio site), Flickr (my casual/social photography site), email lists (Mailchimp), Twitter, Google+, Linkedin. And we can’t forget Tandem-Stock, where my stock photography is sold. Integrating with that and encouraging sales has to be a part of this.

For the purposes of this redesign, Linkedin isn’t going to be part of this. I’m trying to get in the habit of using Instagram more, and it’s going to take away part of what I use flickr for. I plan on adding Photoshelter to handle all of the photography material, and deleting Flickr and SmugMug.

One unknown is that I don’t know if the pieces of Flickr that aren’t going to go to Instagram are going to end up self-hosted or as part of Photoshelter (yes, I don’t necessarily consider the social/casual photos to be part of my photography empire — probably a later blog post discussion). Right now I’m learning towards using Lightroom publishing to build out web galleries and hosting them myself. Or wire them into the general blog via a wordpress gallery like NextGEN? I dunno yet. My gut is telling me for what I want stuffing 3000+ images into wordpress and using NextGen is going to add complexity I want to avoid; publish channels out of WordPress to disk and then syncing that folder out to a web site seems the easiest to maintain if I can find a system that’s easily flexible (and protects existing links so URLs don’t break unless I delete an image).

I’m working to document how I want everything to work together when we come out the other end and where the interconnects are. But in general, right now the order of attack here seems to be:

First Phase (the photo stuff):

  • Take all of the content on Smugmug and move it to Photoshelter (and fix all of the now broken image links everywhere)
  • Take all of the written photo content and move it to the Photoshelter blog (and fix all of the links to them, and redirect the deleted pages)
  • Set up a mail chimp for just the photo blog; also an announce-only for the photo blog.
  • how do I report new postings here in the general blog in a non-annoying way? can I automate that?
  • Do I do new portfolio images as announcements? Or post them as I create them and publicize them in some other way?
  • Can I use a metadata tag to push a standard note about stock availability on images so I don’t have to manually remember to edit them in?

Second phase (more correctly, parallel activity to the photo stuff):

  • Spin out a new wordpress blog and built it out for the For Your Consideration content. I’ve been exploring available themes already and have a few candidates for more detailed looks
  • Figure out how to present the affiliate ads off of that FYC site back onto the photo and general blogs (hint: probably iframes of a specially designed page living on FYC
  • Challenge: how to make this all easily configuable (via blog categories?) and/or randomized so the selections change  on repeated visits and kept fresh — everything is static now, which I think reduces their effectiveness. Also: it makes sense to try to have some optimizations here to target specific types of ads to specific content types.
  • Challenge: need to be built so that I can CSS style them into the look and feel on each site
  • Challenge: has to continue to not be annoying. It’s about the content, not the ads. Sites that forget that lose my eyeballs, I don’t want to become something like them.

Third phase (needs to trail first phase, probably trails second phase somewhat)

  • New wordpress theme/blog for the existing general site.
  • Clean up/edit non-moved content to work in the new theme

Details:

  • Separate twitter for the photo site? (probably)
  • How many mailing lists? How detailed do I want to split this up? Or do I? (there will always be an RSS feed and a mail list for “everything”, but segmenting for people isn’t quite clear to me yet)

Calls to Action:

I’m going to have to be careful defining my CTAs. CTA is marketing-speak for “this person came to this page, what do I want them to do now that they’re here?” (reading the content is a given, but something some sites often forget given their focus on what they want out of the reader instead of what the reader wants. Every page needs to have some CTA (or multiple CTAs) attached, things like:

Subscribe (via email, twitter, RSS). But is twitter the primary ask, or email? RSS is now more or less a legacy protocol

Can I interest you in this other content? (hey, check out the site. you’ll like it)

While you’re here, aren’t you interested in buying this neat thing I found and want to show you?

What else?

Navigation:

I rather like the navigation of the current site, it works, it’s pretty clear, and there aren’t many confusing pieces left. It’s going to be a challenge to help people navigate between three sites (main, photo and FYC), but right now, I have to coordinate navigation between blog, flickr, smug mug, etc. the trick will be to make navigation between sites easy and obvious, and then build out good clean navigation within each site. Don’t split them up and then try to integrate them except at very carefully specified interaction points.. it’s easy to get too complicated here.

Design and branding:

In general I like my existing design and branding (especially the logo, designed by my wife). It’ll all need tweaking but I don’t expect it to massively change.

Looking at the paths people travel on sites, if they do choose to look at a second page after reading what brought them to the site, their next step is likely one of three pages: the front page, the blog main landing page (if it’s not the front page) and the about-me page, in about equal percentages. The about-me page is usually a forgotten resource and I think I need to put a lot of work into improving mine.

right now, I’m thinking in the next design the writing page merges into the about-me (somehow), once the photo stuff moves to Photoshelter the general blog landing page moves to the front page of the site merging those two. And on the photo site, the blog landing page will be a second page as I want the photo site to be about photos first, writing second. Expect the new photo blog to be some form of full page, full-bleed format where the photography shines and the rest of it gets out of the way.

Next Steps:

Right now this is my first set of notes, more or less trying to organize the project a bit. The two pieces that clearly need my focus first is to get the Photoshelter site up and start working on the design and the photos (the blog is a secondary need), and to start figuring out the web gallery piece — photo shelter or separate?

So, I wonder. Can I set an arbitrary deadline of February 1 to have these in place and either be ready to retire (or have retired) both Smugmug and Flickr? My guess is the first 90% of both of these tasks is fairly easy and pretty straightforward, but I’m worried about the last 10% — detail and polish and refining designs.

My design and implementation strategy isn’t like some of the more formally educated designers, I have more of a tendency to make big, global decisions early, bring things live as a prototype and then beat it with a stick until I like it, rather than doing a lot of up-front design and planning and then implement for release. I’m also a big “find stuff that’s close and integrate it together, then tweak” rather than a “build it yourself”, not only because it significantly cuts the number of hours to implement, but usually simplifies maintenance vastly so the sheer number of hours needed to get to “done” and from “done” through the enduring maintenance cycle is minimized. I will happily trade off (some) dollars to save myself hours, because free hours in my life is constantly the critical path resource.

Time to go start figuring out the web gallery options…

 

 

 

 

Posted in Redesign 2015: Upgrading chuqui.com in public

chuqui.com in 2014: Site in Review and Lessons Learned

The end of 2014 is a good time to take a step back, look at how the things you do have moved forward (or not), and decide what needs to be changed (if anything). I’ve already decided to redesign my online sites in 2015, but there’s a lot to learn from the existing site that can guide those changes and help me how to better help people find the content they’re looking for here.

In 2014, 47,000 people views 80,000 pages on my blog. Thank you to each and every reader for taking the time to visit. Users were up 50% from 2013, and pageviews up 33%. 77% of the audience is U.S. based. The split between OS’s visiting is interesting. For the first time, Windows users visited more often than Mac visitors, 31% to 29%, but IOS visitors where just behind at 28%. Android was about 7%

Think about that number a second; a third of my visitors are on a mobile device, not a desktop. This shift to mobile viewing is crucial for all of us who maintain web sites. If our sites don’t look good or doesn’t function properly on mobile devices (at the very least, an iPad or Android Tablet) we’re now cutting off an increasingly large percentage of ourr site visitors. If there is one reason why I’m redesigning my sites this year, this is it — while I’ve tweaked my sites to look okay on mobile devices, my designs aren’t really mobile friendly (just “mobile compatible mostly”). By the end of 2015, all of my content has to be redesigned to be mobile friendly and fully responsive to match this trend. How are your sites set up to handle this transition to small screens?

About half my pageviews come in through organic search, and 98% of those come from Google. Thank you, Google, for supporting my site (or a few pages of it, at least). 25% come in direct (no referer noted), and about 12% each social (primarily twitter, no surprise given my activity there) and links from other sites.

Most Popular Articles in 2014

Here’s the most popular pages on the site in 2014

  1. My Fuji Camera Kit
  2. Outfitting the Digital Darkroom
  3. My Canon Birding/Wildlife Camera gear Kit
  4. Getting started in bird photography: Choose Your Weapons
  5. Some Thoughts on Lightroom Keywords
  6. Facebook Steps In It
  7. Life at Apple revisited….
  8. Should you consider upgrading your home network to a NAS?
  9. using WordPress and Photocrati to build a web site
  10. Update on Jasmine Star’s Plagiarism
  11. Thoughts on the new Smugmug and how this fits in to my universe. Or doesn’t.
  12. Thoughts on Jim Goldstein’s ‘Best of 2013′ project
  13. Photography Before and After — Sunrise at Merced National Wildlife Refuge
  14. Building Flash-free galleries for the new Smugmug
  15. My take on Google+ today

It’s interesting to note that one big change I started late in 2013 was a shift from posting stuff to the blog and leaving it there towards building up specific topic pages where I sucked in pieces from the blog and built up longer, more in-depth articles compared to what a typical blog post gives you. This tactic seems to have worked well — the top five pages and 6 of the top eight are all these rewritten (and updated as needed) pages.

There’s a lesson here: a blog post will typically see 90% of it’s forever traffic in the first week, and 98% in 30 days, after which, unless the search engines choose to bless it, it disappears into the mist, and I don’t know about you, but I rarely find time to update those postings if my opinion or changes. I think it’s a good policy that if you have useful information spread across multiple blog postings that you should collect it into a single topic page — and delete the blog posts and redirect those links to the consolidated page.

End users aren’t going to wander the site picking out the bits of content you offer them; web analytics makes it clear most users are looking at 1-2 pages. So the “long form” model works — for you, for the viewer, for the search engine. And if it’s collected in one place, it’s a lot easier to update when it needs changes than when it’s spread around a half dozen blog posts that may (or may not) be linked to each other.

My strategy for the last year has been:

  1. Write blog posts or a series of blog posts to get the content published and available.
  2. Collect those posts into a single topic page as appropriate.
  3. Collect those topic pages into a single bundle of content and publish that as an ebook.

Well, that last one would have been the plan if I’d had the time to do it… Still the plan when I actually can.

I think that’s a good strategy for people wanting their content to be read into the future; you are going to be better liked by the search engines with fewer better pages; a dozen well written pages of content will fare a lot better than 500 blog posts without much coordination. More isn’t better here. Better is better here. The day where “post every day” was more important than “post well” is long, long gone.

Things you can’t depend on

The front page of my site is only the 4th most popular page; the blog home page is 7th. This is because of organic search links and linked content, so you can never assume people ever see your home pages, because many don’t.

Most users are going to look at the page they clicked onto. They might check out one or two other pages. After that, they’ll click off and leave again. They are not going to explore the site. They are not going to search through lists of things for content, they’ll click off and search again.

I’ve used short lists to good effect this year:

2015-01-01_09-36-51

But I’m even wondering if I need to trim those lists a bit. I have more extensive lists over on my writing page, but as you notice, effectively nobody clicks that link to go explore them. I’ve also known that the email subscription hasn’t really done much, but I haven’t had time to wrangle that yet. I do think, with the death of Google Reader, that making an easy email subscription as an alternative is a useful thing, but the tradeoff between making it easy and visible and being annoying and grabby at people just trying to look at the site is something I haven’t had the time to do anything about.

I absolutely loathe sites that try to make me sign up for stuff before actually letting me see what I came to look at. Sort of like a restaurant that wants to swipe your credit card before you order. Very off-putting. That said, if you talk to those sites they tell you that tactic is very effective, but I think most of them aren’t really tracking how many users drop off because of it. At its base, it sends a message of “me getting your email address is more important than you seeing my content” and I think that sends a very negative message to users. I don’t ever want to do that. but where’s the acceptable line in the sand? Not sure right now. I’ll have to deal with that in the redesign.

Lessons Learned

My first takeaway: most of the things I tried this year worked pretty well. Shifting to full-page and moving most of the sidebar content to the footer? I was afraid users wouldn’t find it, but they clearly are. Redesigning the affiliate advertising? Revenue went from about $1/mo to about $50/mo. I call that a success, and I think I did a very nice job of not making the advertising annoying or having it distract from the user experience of the site.

What message does the experimentation this last year and these stats tell me?

If you’re website doesn’t run on an iPad, you’re in trouble. (Those of you still in flash-based sites, I’m sorry. Bang bang, you’re dead). Special mobile sites are a bridge, but web sites need to be fully responsive so they are useful even on a phone, because that’s increasingly where users coming to your site are.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Users don’t want complexity. They don’t want to have to dig for content. They want to visit a link and find it. If you make it hard for them, they’ll drop you and go find another site. They won’t explore your site.

As the site designer and content creator, this puts some interesting challenges in front of you: we need to make decisions on what we want to present to the viewer who lands on a given page that will encourage them to visit other pages. But we have to limit your choices on what to present.

So we need to keep it simple, you need simple, effective navigation. The page they land on has to stand on its own, but it can’t be cluttered up with lots of options. If we give someone a list of 15 choices the most likely item they’ll take is none; they’ll go elsewhere. So it’s important to keep these lists short and simple and easy to find (but not in your face annoying). In some cases we can get away with something like an accordion or a tab interface, if you understand that very few viewers will check out the content not visible by default (hint: make sure ONE of them is open by default, or the entire thing will get skipped)

I have some legacy content (OtherRealms, my fiction, etc) I need to keep available but it can’t add to the complexity of navigating my site. that’ll be a fun challenge to work out.

I think this reinforces my thought that it’s time to split the photo content from the rest of the site; if I added to the topic areas, it’d add complexity, and that is in conflict of keeping it simply, organized and easy. Too many choices is a bad thing. We need to guide the user.

My Bottom Line

In 2013 I analyzed my site and came up with some ideas that I thought would improve it, especially in terms of navigation and helping users on the site find other interesting content. I experimented with those ideas in 2014 and have found most of them have worked out quite well. It gives me more ideas I want to try, but I’ve pushed the existing design and infrastructure as far as I reasonably can (and a bit beyond), and what I want to do goes beyond tweaking.

That’s the reason it’s time for a redesign. Web sites are never done, and they are always evolving (or should be), because the universe is evolving around them.

My big limitation is — and will continue to be — time; that implies I have to be careful what I commit to doing and how many things I try to do. Better to do fewer things well than many things poorly. It also implies I need to keep the processes for managing and creating content for all of this simple, and automate where I can (one minor detail that shows this well: on my writing page, I thought putting the year each page was updated in the listings would help people see how current the content way; in practice, I don’t think anyone really cares, and almost all of them are out of date because I never remember to update them when I modify the pages. So they need to be removed)

I think this is the first year in a long time where the list of things I don’t like about the sites I’ve built is shorter than the list of things I think are working well. that makes it a good base to build off of because it’s not as much about fixing the broken as it is about improving and enhancing.

Which should make 2015 a good year, if things go to plan… (but do they ever?)

Posted in Redesign 2015: Upgrading chuqui.com in public, Working on Web Sites