It wasn’t in my plans, but without really realizing it, I found myself elbow deep in my site doing a bunch of redesign and working on a lot of the guts normal humans never see.
This is all stuff that’s been on my “do someday” list, but I’ve been going through a phase where “waiting for someday” is a bit of a dirty phrase, and so I’ve been trying to dig through the various “to do” lists and clean them up where I can and have time.
I originally mentioned this back in mid-july, and at the time, I thought I was done. turns out I was wrong… Here we are six weeks later, and once again I am thinking I’m at a good stopping point (not done, not by a long shot, but the important stuff is done).
Where that first phase was about making a lot of fairly visible changes: upgrading the page navigation, completely redoing the footer, adding in things like a design for the Photo of the Day and the Three Dot Lounge, a lot of what I’ve been doing you won’t directly notice.
It started when I ran a link checker on the site and saw literally hundreds of 404s, mostly from older blog postings pointing to pages on other sites that had been deleted, so off I went to clean all that crap up, and other useless, obsolete, wrong or irrelevant content (those of you who believe content should live forever and never be deleted, please avert your eyes. I’m not one of those people, nor will I ever be)
And then I noticed the sitemap, a file used to give information to Google and other search engines, hadn’t been updated since April — because I’d turned it off and never turned it back on. Oops. One thing led to another and I found myself doing things like setting up secure browsing for the site (soon, when you go to it, it’ll flip you over to HTTPs. We aren’t passing around any personal information with the site or doing e-commerce, but it’s still a good idea), and I did some upgrades to the hosting server, including adding a dedicated virtual server for the mysql database. All of that has sped up the site page load speed by about 80%, making me a lot happier with overall performance.
One of the visible changes is the return in a new form for For Your Consideration, now built out to hold and promote my review content, which is something I’ve been trying to find a good solution for a while. I like the design of that page and the general and so far, the response ha been pretty positive. The one downside is that it’s manually maintained, but it’s not tough, just a bit — manual. It’s one thing that would have definitely been easier in Drupal, though.
While I was doing that, I also designed a new look for the product/affiliate blocks I put on pages where I talk about an item, and went over all of the gear bag pages and updated them and cleaned up the look, and… Ultimately I touched and tweaked about 20% of the site, and deleted a big swatch of blog postings that I felt were dragging the quality of the site down (most were links and comments to things that had been deleted elsewhere, making them pretty irrelevant). A quick survey in Google Analytics indicated that almost all of the deleted pages hadn’t been looked at by anyone, or at most one or two people, in the last year, so it’s hard to argue it’s valuable content.
I end up with a site with a much better look and feel, it’s more secure, a big hunk faster for pages to load, and without most of the broken links and bogus pages that litter most sites as we chatter about things that stopped mattering years ago…
Why does all this stuff matter? To you, it probably doesn’t directly. To me, though, it solves a few things that have been nagging at me for a while:
- I love doing reviews, going back to when I published OtherRealms. I’ve long wanted to start doing reviews again, but in the typical blog setup, a review gets published, it gets read for a couple of weeks, and then it dissapears hoping that some search engine gives it some organic search love so that people will come and see it over time — and in my experience, that rarely happens. I now have a setup that will, I hope, encourage people to look at those reviews over time rather than a burst of activity and then limbo.
- Reviews matter not just because I enjoy doing it, but because affiliate sales through Amazon is my most effective way to generate some income off the site without loading the pages with advertising blocks that make it look like i’ve designed a portal page for some cheap and gaudy brothel. I don’t want to do that. Fortunately, income isn’t a major priority, but it helps buys trinkets and toys, so I wanted to improve that experience and make it easier for people to decide to buy an item through one of my links. And so far, that seems to be working.
- A lot of content gets lost in a blog; after publishing, it gets a lot of views for about ten days, then it trails rapidly, and by day 30, it’ll probably have seen 98% of its lifetime views unless it happens to get picked up in organic search. It falls out of date, links break, your opinion on it changes — and it’s hard to justify fixing it because you know it’s never viewed. That’s why I’ve been making a shift towards permanent, longer-form pages like my gear bag pages so I have fewer but longer and more detailed content pieces than in a typical blog entry, and they’re in a form easier to add or update material to over time. I’ve just revamped my Fuji XT page, for instance, updating all of the information and consolidating in three other blog posts which got deleted as their content got merged). This makes it easier to keep the content fresh and up to date, and I no longer have to worry about someone landing on an old page with bad information nearly as much
- And finally, I’ve always had that list of “someday” things where there was an aspect of the design I didn’t really like but didn’t really want to take the time to fix right away. These days I’m spending more and more time involved in design issues elsewhere, and in all honesty, from a professional standpoint I felt it was bad to have a personal site with sloppy design or lots of “straight out of the theme and generic” elements in it, especially when I knew those elements were impacting the site usability in bad ways. I didn’t feel the site represented me well any more from a design standpoint. It’s still not perfect, but it’s a lot closer.
Have the changes impacted the site? Looking at the analytics, definitely. Pageviews are up; number of pages visitors look at per session is up 70%. Session duration is up by about a third. And for the second month in a row, the site is paying its hosting bill from affiliate sales. The last time that happened for one month was about two years ago, so having it happen two months in a row is great. We’ll have to see if that sustains itself.
Mostly, though, the site no longer looks ugly to me, so I’m more willing to write content for it. And because the review area is now working well (or so it seems), I don’t feel like writing reviews is a waste of time, so I’ll be more likely to do that. And because I finally got all that stuff off my todo list, I can now worry less about all the stuff I never get around to doing, and more on content and photography again. And since fall is coming, I’ll soon be moving from “god, I hate the light in summer” to “any day the geese will be returning” and start getting out with the camera more…
There’s still a bunch to do on the site, but it’s stuff I’m in no hurry to start; it works fine on an iPad, but I’m not happy with the look on an iPhone or other phone-style device. Fixing that requires a lot of work, because what I really want to do eventually is rebuild this to be a fully responsive site but that’s a couple of months of work and not going to happen. I still have some material I need to shift into the review area, but it’s waited this long, it can wait for those evenings when my brain’s too tired to write original content but not so tired I go to sleep.
If you haven’t checked out the new For Your Consideration page, I’d love to know what you think about it. I’m really happy with how the updated Gear Pages came out, especially the updated Fuji page (by far the most popular on the site now).
Next up I think is getting back to writing and working on content. I want to get the before and after series rebooted and build a new one every couple of weeks. I’ve been researching whether to shift that to a video-podcast format, but I’ve decided my strength is in writing and I should stick to that for now (but don’t be surprised if I dabble once in a while). There are advantages to going to video — but disadvantages as well, and I’m happy with the current format. I have plans for a couple of new gear bag pages and I’m researching some other stuff as well.
And beyond that, not sure yet. The next big challenge for me is that this site has issues on mobile devices, which is 35% of my traffic and growing. It looks okay to me on tablets, but it’s not really tablet ready, and in some places I use Smugmug embedded galleries and slideshows, which are still flash based and that’s a non-starter on many mobile devices. On the iPhone (about 10% of traffic) the site is usable but not up to my standards.
It’s frankly telling that the changes I’ve made in this round of improvements has really improved user response on desktop devices but hasn’t changed a thing on mobile devices. I’m clearly not doing the right thing for those users yet.
The problem is that solving these is a major hunk of work, probably involving tearing out the theme I’ve based this on (Photocrati) and basically rebuilding it from scratch. that’s a month or more of work (at least). Photocrati just released a significant update (4.8) that includes some support for responsive sites, so I need to take a look at how that’s going to affect my customizations and how best to take advantage of the update. I don’t expect to wander down that path right away, but I’m monitoring the mobile usage and it may force my hand.
Right now, I’m trying to get more of a focus on photography again; as typical in my summers, enough other things are happening I tend to lose focus of the camera for a while. Once I start seeing fall arriving, the interest in shooting returns, though, and this year is no exception…
And who knows what else? I certainly don’t…