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Silicon Valley veteran doing Technical Community Management. Photographer with a strong interest in birds, wildlife and nature who is exploring the Western states and working to tell you the stories of the special places I've found.
Author and Blogger. They are not the same thing. Sports occasionally spoken here, especially hockey. Veteran of Sun, Apple, Palm, HP and now Infoblox, plus some you've never heard of. They didn't kill me, they made me better.
Person with opinions, and not afraid to share them. Debate team in high school and college; bet that's a surprise.
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More to Read
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- Talking about 'Stuff'
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- 50 reasons Why I Haven’t Been Blogging
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Category Archives: Working on Web Sites
For some reason, the posting system for “things your find interesting” wedged for a few days. I’ve beaten on it with a stick and now it promises to behave.
While I was working on it, I decided to back off on the frequency I’m posting it, so it’ll only show up twice a week now. If you want direct and immediate access to that information, it has its own RSS feed over on tumblr at “Chuq Snarks“, and you’re welcome to subscribe to it.
The tumblr setup was very much an experiment and while it was an improvement on the older hack (readership has about doubled from extremely tiny to fairly small), there are aspects I still don’t like. It has helped me understand what I’d like a setup like that to be,a dn so I’ve started thinking about what it would take to build out a system to handle that information better. Not sure when it’ll happen, but now that the site redesign is done, I can put some energy into it and see what pops out (if anything).
I took a quick look at metrics on the site since I pushed the updates. I’m thrilled with the change. Before the change, the site was seeing about 1.4 pages per visit, and an average visit was about a minute. Not great numbers. The day I pushed the new front page — before I got the rest of the updates in place — that jumped to 2.12 pages per visit and 2:35 minutes per visit. The site’s been live about ten days now. Just looking at the last two days? Those numbers are 2.9 pages per visit and 3:44 duration. The one week average is 2.7 and 3:19, so the numbers seem to be trending up as I start cranking new content again.
That’s all really encouraging. what matters, though, is what the numbers will look like a month from now, after the newness settles dow and everything is back in a rhythm. but it’s a great start.
How’s that compare to the past? Looking at 4-1 through 4/10 against the previous month 3/1 through 3/10: pages per visit went from 1.37 to 2.44, up 78%. And time on site went from 0:57 to 2:52 — up 202%. Visits are up 13% and page views up 101%.
I just finished an editing exercise, going through the site and deleting blog posts that I didn’t want visible any more. By the time I was done, I slimmed down the blog by about 20% (those of you who believe content should be forever, cover your eyes!). Most of what got deleted was hockey related, and mostly day of game or link-snark entries. I can’t think anyone really cares if I thought Patrick marleau had a good game five years ago.
I’m trying to be careful not to over-edit the site, but I want the site’s content to really say something useful. I left in anything where I actually wrote commentary, vs a link snark piece that was little more than a pointer to something and a line or two proving how smart I was… That is the kind of blog post that might get some interest for a week or two and then disappear into the bowels of the archive and never looked at again. I’d rather that stuff be done.
Something to remember: if you’re trying to improve the quality of your content, you can do that two ways. Clearly, you should spend time and energy on creating better new content — but you can also improve the overall quantity by deleting the weakest content.
I’ve recently come to a new understanding, one that I’ll talk about in some detail soon, and it’s that I would much rather be known for a dozen really good things than as the guy with a million things that nobody ever looks at.
What are the dozen things you want someone to remember you by? Can you link to them? And how do you plan on improving that list over the next year?
FWIW, my first approximation of an answer to that is to look at the images on the front page of this site, and the articles linked in the sidebar to the right. It’s not a perfect list and I’m still thinking this through and refining it, but it’s a good start….
In pulling together the new design for the site, I did a lot of thought and research into what I wanted to accomplish here and what best practices I should adopt in the new design. AS I went along, I also ran into a few situations where I decided to invent new “best practices” and try something different, because as far as I could tell the justification for blogs doing that was “all of the other blogs do it”.
My overriding design principles were “simplify”, “easy to read” and “easy to find”. I felt that the old site was dull not not very interesting to look at visually, the content was chaotically placed and too wordy (a long running trait of mine I fight, and often lose), and that it often wasn’t clear where to look for something. The menu setup on the old site had over 25 items in it — why? So that everything is available everywhere?
As an example, the blog menu on the old site listed every blog category in it. If you went to click on “blog”, the submenu kicks in, and suddenly you have over a dozen choices. Why? As far as I can tell from my analytics, the number of people who ever used any of those menu items was — zero. Other than me, when I was testing. Not only a huge waste of space in a high profile location, but if someone isn’t sure what they’re trying to find and is looking around, giving them too many choices makes it harder, not easier, and encourages them to just say bugger off and leave the site.
When I dug into the categories and archives further, if you ignore the search engines spidering your site, the archives and blog category listings are rarely used. So why do they have prime real estate on every page, taking up large amounts of space in the sidebar on every page on your blog site? The answer, as far as I could tell, is because that’s what blogs do. I decided instead to stick them onto a secondary page and link to them in the menus; they’re available to the spiders there, and anyone who’s searching for the archives can find them easily, but that frees up that high-visibility space for more useful things.
I’ve been having these kinds of discussions at work recently, too, saying things like “why is the item we most want them to select in the third row of this grid below the fold on the page?” — and I’ve tried to put that same thought into this site, reducing the number of pages someone has to sift through to find something, simplify the navigation so that the choices to get to something are easier, and make sure that the most crucial things are right there in front of your eyes, and if a page needs to be scrolled to see what’s below the fold, that there are obvious hints to suggest a reader do that (like content that slides off the bottom of the screen).
The new navigation menus reflect this. When I sat down and evaluated the content and my future plans, it fell into three clear categories: my photography, my blog, and my writing. The latter two may overlap but the intent and presentation are different. I’m looking to do more long-form writing again and get away from the short-fast-first mentality that’s infected so many blogs and get back to writing longer, more thoughtful pieces and get in-depth on topics again. That long-form writing will live in the writing area, or will come to life in the blog as multi-part blog series and then be repackaged into a single article. That’s one reason I added the ability to create redirects into the new site — so I could clean up a multi-piece blog series into a single published article, and then redirect all of the old blog entries to it so none of the links break.
(digression: “wait, chuq, does this mean you’ll actually be deleting things out of your blog? Horrors! stuff published on the internet should live forever!” “No, you silly rabbit, anyone who tells you that is an idiot. Writing is like everything else: it can be improved and updated, and it can also be ignored and left to stagnate and rot. And just like I cull my photography of weak images as my skill improves, I do the same with my blog. Anyone who doesn’t isn’t trying to be a better writer or photographer, merely a prolific one. I would rather be known for a dozen good images and 20 great articles than a million photos or blogs that nobody really looks at…).
This simplify idea is reflected in the site navigation: Three main options: photography, writing and blog. Once you land in a place other options open up, but I felt that throwing all of those options into the mix at every junction just made it hard to understand where you wanted to go. It makes it more confusing, not easier. Where I added a sub-menu it was to bring attention to a specific item: print licensing for photos, or a piece of tangental or legacy content that needs to be easily found by some people but otherwise stay out of the way of the main parts of the site — OtherRealms and the old mailing list archives are examples of that. Easy to find for those that need them, but they don’t take up visual space on the site. The alternative is burying them or deleting them, and I don’t want content on my site you can only find via a search engine.
We Don’t Need No Stinking Breadcrumbs…..
Another design decision I made on the site: No breadcrumbs. This creates some interesting design challenges, but my goal was that if the site needed breadcrumbs for someone to work their way around it, it was too complex. So far, I think I’ve succeeded at avoiding this.
Other things I’ve changed: I had eight pages of supporting material — “about my photography” “about my copyright” “about me” “about my about me page” — that sort of stuff. They were long and wordy (surprise!), and which covered what was confusing. I had a tendency to just patch in a paragraph or two on something when an issue came up instead of rewriting it properly, so ether were long and didn’t flow well. I now have three, for prints and licensing, about my stuff, and about my writing.
The blog footer has been stripped of everything but a copyright. Before, it was about 25% of the length of a typical page. It was sticking my amazon affiliate ad on everything, including the front page. The blog sidebar got refined a lot. It was significantly desaturated — before the site was powder blue, and the sidebar was a deeper robin’s blue. Because of the saturation and color it tended to draw the eye. You don’t want your sidebar to be more prominent on the page than your content. Now? There’s just enough color differentiation for you to be able to see that the sidebar is a separate component, but it shouldn’t be something that will draw your attention away from the content.
On the other hand, I added a bit of color to the social media (connect with me! please!) links and the “more reading” suggestions, but reduced their size a bit. That’s designed to encourage you to notice and explore them, but not have them take over the page and become the focal point. Again, I want the focal point to be the content, not the extras. On far too many sites, they end up (frankly) looking like that cheap casino at the state border where the advertising displays make you forget what you actually came to the site for.
Typographically, I tried to build in a fair amount of white space — bigger text type, extra leading in the text, visual spacing between paragraphs. I wanted the site open and light and easy to read.
So far I’ve avoided putting “on this page, you’ll find” lists on pages. As they grow, I’ll probably need to. For now, I think they’re short enough that someone will scroll and find stuff. I’ll have to design one for when I need it, because I know as I start to build out the longer article pages, I’ll need something.
Stuff I’m not sure I like
I’m using standard bullets in the lists. I should turn that into something nicer.
I’m still working out how I want to display images inline in articles. That styling isn’t final, and I still need to integrate this into my nextGen galleries.
There are some behind the scenes cleanups I can do — mostly identifying repeating patterns, turning them into short code snippets and using those instead of copy/paste operations.
I’m just starting to build out the writing area. A big aspect of this redesign was making that possible and usable. And I have so many plans….
I thought I’d talk a bit about the infrastructure I used to build my web site. My blog has been self-hosted on WordPress for a number of years, and for this kind of web site, I really like that as a foundation. It uses Apache, PHP and MySQL as it’s foundation, and it has been a solid and stable platform for me for a while. Perfect? No. Sometimes it could be faster. Sometimes it feels a bit bloated — but given my day job is in Drupal, relatively speaking it’s hard to claim WordPress is doing a bad job in managing the bloat. (see the end for a digression on this).
In older generations of this site, I would typically search for a free theme, or go to a site like Themeforest and but an inexpensive theme that I would install, beat with a stick until I thought it looked okay, and then move on. A year or so later, I’d be tired of the theme, and go look for a new one to refresh the look. When I redid the site about a year ago, I went looking for a theme that would give me more power and flexibility, one that I hoped I’d be able to live with and adapt to my needs better than the ones I’d been using.
After doing some research and seeing it in action on various sites around the net, I decided to try Photocrati. At $89 it’s not inexpensive but it seemed like it had the flexibility i needed to customize it down the road, and out of the box it looked pretty good. I installed it, whacked it with a stick until I thought it looked okay (baby blue background and all… what WAS I thinking?) and set it aside again. Over the last couple of months, I’ve come back and torn things apart and done some more serious customization and design against it, and that’s left me with my new site that I’ve just completed.
So I’ve actually used Photocrati two ways — as a simple “install and press buttons” theme, and as a framework for a more custom design. Photocrati isn’t the same as a base theme like Thematic, but for me that was a good thing: I could use Photocratic for the heavy lifting, and then put my energy into the parts of the site that I wanted a specific look on — in my case, specifically, the front page.
After building two designs and living with Photocrati for over a year and having gone elbow-deep into it a few times, what do I think?
I like it. As a “plug and play” theme, it’s got a nice, clean look and it has a fairly simple set of designs that you can build around with a lot of flexibility. You can build an acceptable site by installing Photocratic and poking at its customization until you like how it looks, without any significant HTML or CSS experience. It does a pretty good job of helping you tweak all of the details, and the admin and customization is nicely thought out.
With this new design, I needed to address two significant weaknesses to Photocrati, plus I wanted to put together a photo gallery area that and a nice distinct look and was maintainable without having to hand-code everything. I also wanted to improve how the site worked on mobile devices, both because that’s an increasingly important part of the web traffic to sites like mine, and, well, with my history working in the mobile space, it’s always been a bit embarrassing that my sites aren’t better at it.
The two things I couldn’t do with Photocrati out of the box:
- Fonts: The supported fonts in Photocrati are, to be honest, fairly weak. Typographically, the selection is limited and not terribly exciting. Fortunately, I found an easy fix for this with the WP Google Fonts plug-in. It let me override the Photocrati fonts and use the Google Font library for my typography. This worked once I installed and activated the plug-in — the site now uses Libre Baskerville for the text font and Open Sans Condensed for the headline font. I could also have done this by using custom style sheets to override Photocrati, but this is actually quite painless and I’ve found no compatibility issues.
- My custom front page: Photocrati doesn’t support a page that doesn’t display the site’s header and footer. I wanted a front page that was completely distinct from the rest of the site, not just with different material in the content area — a different treatment for the logo and a different menu structure, plus a completely different look and feel. The solution to that was building a new page template called ‘blank’, because it loads in all of the WordPress and theme infrastructure, but no content except the copyright in the footer. That left me an empty page I could build out any way I wanted. With some careful use of the existing Photocrati CSS I could even adopt in changes through their theme customization without having to recode the front page by hand, although in practice, I couldn’t for most of it.
Photocrati also has a way to let you write and publish custom CSS into the theme. This gives you the ability to override their CSS or write your own custom extensions that can be used anywhere you write your own HTML. To add in the “blank” page template involved adapting three PHP files in the theme. My custom front page is (I kid you not) under 25 lines or HTML, and my custom CSS is about 200 lines. That’s pretty much it.
The photo galleries are a series of WordPress pages, each with a hand-crafted HTML that’s themed by classes in that 200 lines, but each section within the galleries is a boilerplate of about four lines of HTML. They interface with a couple of WordPress plugins that implement the galleries and do all of the heavy lifting. Once you get those installed and running, it’s about customizing the look to your design and loading in the pictures.
Planning the new design and how I was going to restructure the site took me about five months of part time, intermittent work. Implementation took about a month, also part time and intermittent until the last couple of weeks, when I just dug in and decided to get it finished. There’s probably 60 hours of time in the implementation itself, and about a third of that goes to design and building graphics and the look of the site, a third to writing or rewriting content, and a third to actually whacking on WordPress and Photocrati with my stick until it behaved. Not a huge time investment compared to some WordPress projects I’ve done.
So I found that Photocrati scales nicely as your needs get more complicated. If you just want to install the theme and change a few colors, you can end up with a perfectly usable and nice site. If you want to dig in and write your own HTML and CSS, Photocrati supports that nicely. And if you get to the point where Photocrati just doesn’t do what you need it to do, there’s a chance an existing WordPress plug-in might solve the problem, and if not, you or your PHP hacker can dig in and customize the theme and solve a lot of problems without having to worry too hard about upgrades (in my case, I’ve added three files to the theme and changed none of the core theme files; as long as I don’t overwrite them in an upgrade, I’m fine. If I was smart, I’d make this a child theme and isolate my changes — and I may. Someday)
Plug-ins are an important part of the WordPress infrastructure and ecosystem. Where themes adapt the look and feel of a site, plug-ins add functionality that isn’t in the base WordPress installation. My belief is that you need to use plug-ins with some care, because they can cause compatibility problems and crashes of the site, and they can slow down the site’s response to the user significantly. That said, finding the right plug-ins and using them appropriately can really enhance a site and save you a lot of the pain of custom coding.
For my web galleries, I ended up using three plug-ins:
- NextGen Gallery: This is the image management back end. WordPress has a media manager in it, and it’s okay, but nothing special. Photocrati comes with a media manager that, honestly, I’m not that thrilled with. It’s got some better functionality than the standard one, but also some eccentricities that annoy me. They seem to annoy the Photocrati folks as well, since they bought NextGen and have announced it’s going to be integrated into Photocrati this year. NextGen, so far, has been nice to work with, and is a good base to layer other things on top of.
- Justified Grid: This is the tool I decided to use to manage the galleries themselves. I’ve become a fan of this gridded look and I think it can really be used to show off images in a compact and flexible format. This isn’t a free plug-in, but it’s powerful and flexible, and I’m really happy with the results. Even better, all I need to do is define a gallery in NextGen, point Justified grid at it with a few options, and magic happens. No hand coding, no maintenance hassles — you DO design your sites for updates and maintenance, right?
- Foobox is the lightbox I use for the slideshows and to display images. It’s also not a free plug-in, but again, it brings a lot of nice capabilities and flexibility with it. A key advantage? It’s responsive, and that’s one reason why the images display on the iPad nicely without a lot of painful work on my part. Happy to pay a programmer to do the painful work for me…
So these three plug-ins drive the imagery and graphical look for my photos, and after installing them and getting it all running, I wrote the pages and styled the look around them. The pages are pretty literally cut and paste clones of each other, so the amount of work I need to do to build and maintain the galleries — or change them to add or replace images — is easy. No more galleries that are six months out of date because updating them is painful…
I’m using a few other plug-ins to help add some functionality to the site. Here are the key ones:
- Advanced Recent Posts Widget: displays the recent posts in the sidebar. Much more flexible than the one WordPress offers by default.
- Akismet: spam protection
- Disqus: drives the comments on the blog.
- Google XML Sitemaps: keeps the search engines informed about content and updates on the site.
- Jetpack: the WordPress ‘kitchen sink’ of functionality enhancements. I have mixed blessings here. There’s some nice additions — and I wish they were individual plug-ins and not this mass of features welded together. It seems “not WordPress” to distribute them this way.
- RSS Digest: creates the nightly “things you might find interesting” blog posting.
- Safe Redirect Manager: Allows me to create redirects from within WordPress when I move content around, which I’m going to do more of in the future now that I have this feature available.
- Shortcode Exec PHP: This allows you to write PHP code and turn them into short codes. Where this really comes in handy is that it means you don’t need to dig into the theme itself to customize it in many circumstances, you can write the customization as a short code and avoid infecting a theme with your hack — making future upgrades a lot easier.
- Shortcoder: does the same with HTML and CSS, turning them into a short code. This is very useful for hunks of code you want to re-use in multiple places, and in fact, I will likely re-implement my galleries using this down the road.
- w3-total-cache: performance optimization.
- WordPress Database Backup: You do back up your site, right? RIGHT?
- WordPress SEO: to help optimize what you do to look best to the search engines.
- Google Web Fonts: to add the ability to use Google Fonts on the site.
- Yet Another Related Posts Plugin: shows the “other articles you might be interested in” area on the blog entries. Much nicer than trying to do this manually.
And that’s pretty much it. This is one of the nice things about the WordPress ecosystem: there are a lot of things it does well at first install, but by careful choice of a theme and the addition of a few key plug-ins, you can really create something interesting and pretty. And save yourself hundreds of hours of work custom coding or tweaking HTML and CSS and all of that fun stuff we all love to do…
And that’s one place where I think Photocrati shines: it does the heavy lifting of creating a pretty, readable site, but gives you the ability to extend that in maintainable ways to the degree you need to get your job done. My history with other themes is that many of them aren’t so good at the extension and enhancement part — that’s why in earlier generations I used one, threw it out and replaced it after a year. Photocrati looks like it’ll handle what I want to do for the next few generations of my site as it continues to grow and extend to support what I’m trying to do as a photographer — without sucking out all of my time in coding or maintenance so I no longer have time to do photography…
It’s a big win for me.
(Digression on Drupal, since i know I’ll get asked/challenged: I use both. I like both. I use wordpress on my personal blog because I was using it before I took on working with Drupal for my real job, and the time and energy to migrate platforms properly simply hasn’t made sense. I prefer Drupal for larger projects, I think WordPress is perfect for an individual blog like this. There are times when I wish I had it in Drupal because it’d make certain projects easier, but Drupal is also more complicated to maintain and upgrade. I do think WordPress has done a better job of making the admin aspects of WordPress easier and more intuitive than Drupal has; Drupal still has that “adventure game and I’m lost in a maze” aspect to it for me at times. But they both are useful and stable tools that I use depending on the type of problem I’m trying to solve.)
I think I’ve got the last plug-in conflict debugged, all of the pieces in place, and most of the site content rewritten. Which means that the heavy lifting is done and this phase of the blog redesign project is finally winding down.
I started this back in October when I finally decided of looking at the site and going “one of these days, I have to do this right”. My history with this web site has been to tweak it over time until it gets to the point where it’s driving me crazy, then toss in a new theme and whack at it until the worst design problems go away, and then say to myself “one of these days, I have to do this right” and move on to some other project.
Well, this is “one of these days”, or at least I hope so.
This turned into an extremely complex project, because it wasn’t just about changing the fonts or putting in a new logo — for the first time since I left Apple. I didn’t expect it to take six months, to be honest, but I realized I had to commit to however long it took, or I’d just end up with another half-assed collection of stuff I wasn’t happy with.
I had to sit myself down and decide what I wanted this site to be about, how I wanted to represent that — and myself — and what the intent of the site should be. Those questions were actually rather difficult to answer, not in the least because I’ve been ducking them since I left Apple. But it was time to either give it up or get serious about it. Honestly, I considered both options. Get serious won.
I spent a lot of time looking at web sites and researching what current design trends were being talked about. I put in a lot of thought what made me like certain sites and what made me dislike others — which is where Things I Hate About Your Web Site came from. I then vowed not to do things on my site that I hated on other sites, and I’ve tried to stick to that.
When I boiled down what I liked about other sites, certain things kept showing up: Clear focus; Clean design; White Space; Simple navigation. Simplified design.
When I looked at my old site? I saw lots of clutter. lots of widgets and trinkets and trivia. It felt grey, there were too many menus and navigation alternatives; no clear direction on where to look for things and what to find on the site. The supporting documentation materials spread out across too many pages, were too long, too rambling and worked too hard at not having an opinion. And ultimately, the site wasn’t about anything — it was just a collection of stuff I put on it. No focus, no direction, no purpose.
Which, in retrospect, pretty much sums up things when I left Apple. And which very definitely isn’t representative of life today.
So, with my marching orders, time to dig in and start fixing.
I started with the logo. Done properly, it defines the essence of whatever the logo represents — in this case, myself, and the site (as my online virtual me). Laurie and talked about the logo a fair amount and she did the design, handing off the heron in outline holding the camera. It should not be difficult to come to this site and realize that a photographer lives here, and that there’s a strong emphasis on wildlife of some sort — whether or not you recognize that as a egret (or even as a bird). I reinforced that by making sure the front page put photography front and center and that the imagery you see on the front page of the site is a strong mix of both landscape and wildlife images with a good emphasis on birds — but not exclusively so.
I tried a number of treatments of the logo — it started out larger with an image kicked into the interior, tried textures and colors and color spots and various treatments. What I realized was that it was really easy to make the logo too busy and distracting, and it’s job was to identify the site on the page, not be the focal point. So I shrunk it down and went to the silhouette in a single color. It’s there, but it really shouldn’t be drawing your eye away from the content to the logo by being bright or busy.
Branding. Almost a dirty word now, especially when talking about personal sites instead of corporate ones — but in reality, it’s an important set of decisions that drive a lot of other decisions. Do it badly, and you drive them off a cliff. Is the site about me? Is it about my content? or what. My decision?
The site is really about two things: my photography and my writing. They come together in my writing about my photography, but the writing isn’t JUST about photography. The site needed to be able to handle both. So the branding, such as it is, is me. I used my name, not “Chuq’s nature photography” or “up way too early in the morning but oh my god the sunrise photography” as some not-personal entity.
Stories Told Here
I’ve talked a bit about the new tagline “Stories Told Here” already. I will likely talk about it in more detail down the road as plans come together. But in many ways, it’s my stake in the ground. It’s a reminder that the site isn’t about an image, but about helping people become interested and involved with that is represented within that image. It’s not about a pretty photograph, but the story that is told by that image and about the place that image describes. And down the road, I’m looking to do a lot more than ‘just’ still photography as I work to get a handle on adding in audio and video and telling a larger story through words and image and sound and movement and whatever else helps me help you understand what it was like to be there. Some of that philosophy got written about in my Beyond ‘Vacation Snaps’ piece recently, and that will help explain the direction I hope to travel, with this site as base camp.
The menu on the front page is different than the menus on the rest of the site. (why? soon. soon…). That decision created some interesting challenges because the theme I use, Photocrati, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of customization too easily. I ended up going in and creating a custom page type by hacking a few files in the them, one that fully supports the infrastructure of the theme but none of the content. That allowed me a blank canvas, but one that could use all of the support tools of WordPress and the theme, including the site-wide CSS so that the front page would fit in with whatever design choices went into the site (like background color for pages) without requiring the front page to be hard coded for everything. It’s actually a neat hack and one I hope Photocrati adopts in a future release, and yes, I’ll go into detail on it as I get deeper into this new site.
The menus are single level and simple by design. The visitor to the front page is likely brand new to the site. Too many choices intimidates and confuses and leads to site abandonment. I wanted to tear down the front page navigation to the bare essentials, and I think this is it: pictures, blog, writing, me, contacting me, and image licensing. Don’t confuse a new person with a zillion options, keep it simple and help them find what they came here for.
On the right side of the menu are contact points. Making it easy for someone to connect to you is increasingly crucial — you want them to be able to find you where it’s convenient for them. But not, as I noted in the article on why I hate your web site, beating them over the head and holding them hostage until they agree to stay connected. My philosophy is to make them want to come back with good content and a friendly site, and then make it easy for them to via easy to find and use contact points. Again, though, not too many — the secondary contact points are available, but off on the Contact page. Six months ago maybe the “Subscribe via RSS” would be enough, but with the pending death of Google Reader, I won’t assume that people who used to use that service will just move to another RSS reader — so I think it’s important they know how to create that contact point on the service THEY plan on using. Therefore, your twitter, your Facebook, your G+ all need to be on page one and above the fold. Don’t hide. That’s as bad as holding them hostage until they sign up.
This is another reason I wanted the front page menus to be unique to the site; there’s zero reason this much screen space needs to be taken up on every page on the site. That’d be a waste and it’d add to site clutter. But here?
And the pictures. Front and center, literally. What you should see. On the old site, I tried to make the front page serve two masters, the images and the blog/writing, and it failed at both. So the front page now is all about images. The front page of the blog is where the writing serves as lord and master (and we’ll talk more about that soon). Each is dominant in its domain, and so we remove that conflict and the clutter it created.
And deciding how to present the images is a story in itself, but not today. But I spent a long time trying to decide how I wanted this to look. It’s fairly unusual in that I’m not using a carousel/slider and instead it’s a gridded display. That’s actually the point, not being like everyone else, but only if it works. I think it does. Being about version 15 of the new!improved! home page, I have to say I really like it. (And yes, if you select an image, it’ll bring up a slideshow).
By the way, this site, for all my testing, works great on an iPad or other tablet. And should look pretty good on an iPhone or mobile device. That’s increasingly crucial if you want people to see your stuff. And all it takes is some care and thoughtful adoption of the right tools. The last version of the site? It, um, didn’t really take mobile devices into consideration, even though I’d recently spent three years of my life trying to build them. It was on the list, as soon as I had the time… Sound familiar?
The old site footer was a disaster. Used up huge amounts of space on the screen, and had way too many things because it was trying to serve many masters with a single layout. I ended up removing everything but the copyright notice, which goes on every page of the site. Everything else found homes elsewhere where it was appropriate — or went away.
So the new site is finally settling in. I still have work to do on some pieces, but the “figure out what needs to be done” phase is done, and the “fix all of the back end tools and infrastructure” is as well (I think. I hope). And now I’m winding down on the “fix all of the stuff that’s already there” phase, which means I can get back to what I want to do, which is create new images and write new words, rather than fix the old broken words and maintain the technology that spits them out onto your screen when you ask for them.
Or at least, that’s the plan…
And if I’ve done this right, I won’t feel like I have to do major surgery again for a couple of years. At least. Time (and your feedback) will tell. I am curious what you think, what you like, what you think I got right — and what you hate and think I got wrong.
Hoping that’s a short list, actually…
For those who would like to be able to follow postings to this blog on twitter but not all of the chatter on @chuq, I’ve created a new twitter channel: @chuqui_com. All blog postings and announcements will go to both twitter feeds, but the new one won’t have any of the other stuff. It’s just the blog.
To date, I have had exactly zero requests for this, but I also know that some of you would prefer to avoid the chatter of the main Twitter feed. So, here you go, before you even asked.
Enjoy. Or enjoy even more and subscribe to both, even though there’s no rational reason to….
Based on the feedback I got on yesterday’s note about switching from full-text RSS feeds, I’ve spent the evening looking into this.
The short answer: you all are right, the summary (aka excerpted) feeds look like absolute dog barf. This has me grumpy. This is also a feature, not a bug. It’s how WordPress does it. I did in fact fix a minor bug in the RSS feeds that was making the HTML incorrect, but that wasn’t the cause of this or anything anyone but an HTML geek would notice (but it’s now fixed, too).
Here’s the problem. the WordPress default RSS generator handles full feeds as if it was publishing the articles, and it includes the HTML formatting and so the feeds look reasonable. When you switch to the summary feeds, WordPress strips all of the HTML out of the feed and spits out a sanitized hunk o’ text.
This seems stupid, but unfortunately, there’s a reason for it: since a summary feed is only publishing a subset of the article and is editing it by chopping off the end, the chances that what it tries to publish is legal and valid HTML is effectively nil. To do this properly you would need to parse the article out enough to be able to clean up the HTML and make sure whatever is stuffed into the feed isn’t corrupted.
That’s a problem. I understand why WordPress made this decision — but for me, it’s frustrating. This decision isn’t as important if you use a default summary feed with a small number of words in each excerpt. When I tried to switch to summary feeds with longer summaries, that just runs into this assumption about stripping HTML and leaves the feed a large, gloppy mess.
One of the nice things about hacking WordPress is that normally, any problem you run into a dozen geeks have run into first and you can find half a dozen options to solve it. Not this time. Which probably means anyone who’s run into this so far has simply said “bugger it” and turned full feeds back on. Either that, or there’s a different solution I haven’t found yet (but I’m guessing it’s “bugger it”).
It would be possible to write an RSS feed generator that both preserves valid HTML and excerpts the content. Nobody I can find has done that to date. It looks like a fair bit of work, even hacking on the existing code as a starting point. I did try turning off the filtering and immediately started seeing broken feeds, so that’s not an option.
I do have a couple of ideas I want to explore that may lead to solutions, but there’s no “quick fix” that allows both summary feeds and readable ones, not using extended (250 word) excerpts.
Because of this, I’ve said “bugger it” and turned full RSS feeds back on — for now. I don’t want people to have to live with the crappy summary feeds unless I decide I have no better option. As long as I’m exploring those options, I’ll leave the full feed on.
If I can’t solve this to my satisfaction I’ll have to make a choice whether the problems of publishing full feeds are outweighed by the problems of publishing crappy-looking summary feeds or not. I reserve the opportunity to turn them back on down the road.
So for now? Back to what it was. Only a bit grumpier to be caught by this little WordPress surprise. Sorry to surprise you with it, also; I didn’t realize the shift was going to disrupt the feed this significantly.
Live and learn…
I wanted to call this out on its own, since I know it’ll be controversial with some of you. I decided that now was a good time to make a change and I’ve gone from full text of all articles in the RSS feeds I’m now going with partial feeds for longer articles. Anything shorter than 250 words should come through complete, but the longer articles will be truncated.
This is going to upset some folks (I’ve already gotten one complaint), but now, as I’ve just started rolling out some major changes to the site and making a fresh commitment to better content it seems like the best time to make this change, as my readership is probably as low as it’s going to get (at least, I hope so!) and it’s best to do something like this at the beginning and not down the road after I’ve started posting content and the audience starts building again.
Why do this? Two reasons: one is the growing problems with spam sites and scraper sites that steal and repost content without permission by sucking RSS feeds just to populate sites aimed to suck page views by stealing content. But the other is that I feel that as the size of the article grows and there’s more complex formatting and the images and other media I’m planning on using that it becomes more important to see it within the context of the site design and styling.
I have grappled with this one a lot. I understand the arguments on both sides. But you know what I finally realized? I’m just not that desperate to have people read me, and I’ve come to believe that there’s a value in the design and styling of the site that gets lost in the RSS feed and so I’m just not going to keep pushing my long-form content out that way and make it easy for the scrapers to steal it.
If you aren’t’ willing to click through to read my article (one click and one page load) is too much hassle for you, then well, it’s been nice.
Over the weekend I rolled in some changes to the site, including an updated front page. I’ve been spending the last few months trying to figure out what this site needed to be about — or whether it was time to just shut it down and do something else.
“Chuqui 3.0″ is retired, thank god. That was then, I stuck with it far too long, mostly because I wasn’t sure what came next.
I’ve felt for a while that the blog has been sort of on idle. I haven’t really committed to writing for it consistently and when I have written, I haven’t felt like I’ve been putting my best effort or content out. The same has been true of my photography. For a while, that was okay; I wasn’t trying to turn this into anything specific or generate an income stream, and honestly, it more or less matched life in general. There are times when you need to just back off and tell yourself it’s okay to coast and not worry about it.
It’s time to start pushing myself again, figuring out what I want to focus on over the next few years, and make it happen. The question was, what?
That turned out to be a difficult question to answer. Over the last year, I’ve been researching whether or not to jump back into my fiction writing, which I’d put on hold “for a while” about 20 years ago. With the ebook revolution going on, there are definitely market opportunities that weren’t there five years ago.
Or do I jump back into the mobile space? It’s sometimes hard to remember that I went to work for Palm because there were apps I wanted to write and things I wanted to explore on mobile devices, but I’ve now been away from that circus for a while and that’s been tugging at my attention again.
A discussion of why I made the choices I did might happen some other time, but at least for now, what I’ve decided to do is put the focus back on my photography and to finally invest the time into the blog and the site to make it do what I’ve always wanted it to do, but never was willing to invest in.
This weekend’s update isn’t “the new blog”, but the new front page. There’s still a lot of work needed, but to get to this point meant making a huge number of decisions, both about design, and content and intent. The two big criticisms I had about the site were that it wasn’t really about anything (it was just a holding place for stuff I stuck on it) and that the design was cluttered and sloppy.
It is time to fix that. Laurie offered to design the logo, and I think she did an awesome job on it. The logo really defines the direction I’m setting out on: at my core, I’m a photographer, and at the core of my photography are birds and nature. The last time I re-did the site, I split the focus of the site between my photography and the blog, and the result was a cluttered mess (toss in affiliate advertising and various other gadgets and things and blocks and toys, and when you end up with is fail).
So, the new front page. It’s all about my imagery. If you come to me site, that’s what you see. I’m working on an updated blog page that will focus on the blog and try to do justice to the words the way I hope the front page sets the stage for the images.
The three pages that will be the foundation for the site will be the front page, the blog page and the portfolio page. One down, one partially done. Just starting to hash out how I want to display images in a non-sucky way. I don’t think I do a bad job of it, but I’b not really doing a great job. I’m tired of okay-for-now-someday. I’ve made a few changes on the blog side — the new text font is Libre Baskerville, which I quite like — but there’s still work to do. I realize some will think I should just hold everything and do a “big splash” update all at once; my view is the iteration over time will let both you and myself benefit as I figure this out, and I expect I’ll be spending time over the next few months working through all of the details.
About the Front Page
The front page of the site sets the tone and style for everything else. It’s got a unique look and feel that won’t be matched by the other pages, but the rest of the site will borrow from the decisions I made building it as I build them out as well. The goals were straightforward: nuke the baby blue for something a lot whiter and neutral (but it’s not white; there’s still the barest touch of blue in it). Clear out the clutter and anything that wasn’t directly about me (like the affiate advertising), and make it very crisp and clear what the site is about.
The blog page will complicate that message again — the blog is not JUST photography, but basically the current content mix — but the front page needs to keep it simple.
The new tag line for the site is “Stories Told Here“. A very simple statement, but you don’t want to know how many hours of my life I spent figuring that out. Photography long ago stopped being about showing up at a place, grabbing a random shot and posting it. It’s about understanding a place, and finding a way through my work to see it and feel it and understand it. It’s one thing for me to take a picture of a flock of geese flying, and it’s another thing altogether to be there as 20,000 geese all take off and fly around and over you, screaming their freaking heads off.
That’s part of where I’m trying to push my work. It’s not just taking that “icon shot” as it is trying to create a context to help all of you understand and appreciate what caused me to photograph it. That is going to involve more than displaying a picture, and I’ve started experimenting with both longer form works (writing and pictures, and collections of pictures) and other techniques such as including audio or video. As my abilities to integrate this stuff mature, hopefully what I’m seeing in my head will make sense to you and help you see things as I saw them (and if not, well, I’ll try something else).
It’s not about taking a picture, or posting it online. It’s about telling a story.
A story of a place, or a thing, or a being.
And that journey — or this leg of that journey — starts now. Enjoy the ride.
I have been investigating ways to improve the Things you’ll find interesting links that I’ve been posting for a while, and I’ve finally pulled the trigger on a big change.
They’re now hosted on on Tumblr. Doing this has a number of advantages:
- It puts moves this info to a stable platform. What I was using on the back end was a bit of a hack with limited features.
- It gives me more of a capability to comment on the links — to do some extra curation and create some context for why I thought you’d find this interesting.
For you, it creates options to enjoy this buffet table of information. You can:
- Continue to read Things You Find Interesting here on the blog nightly, but you’ll lose out on most of the curation since the feed won’t carry it over. I’m actually considering canceling this, as I think it’s the least effective way to follow this content, IMHO. But I do think it’s useful for linking the two sites with each other in the eyes of the Great Google, so for now, I’m leaving the daily digest in place.
- Go and visit Chuq Snarks on Tumblr and read it there. In all its Tumblr Glory.
- Subscribe to the Chuq Snarks RSS Feed and read it via your favorite RSS reader.
- Tumblr will post entries to my twitter feed, so you can pick them up there. This, actually, is my preferred way to watch this kind of microblog, because if I’m busy and I miss a few links, the universe isn’t likely to notice (and neither will I. And I promise, if you miss a few links, I won’t hate you…)
I’ve been mulling over how to improve this for a while — the runner up technology was a WordPress blog themed with P2 but the more I looked at Tumblr, the more I felt it was a good base platform and something I wanted to experiment with. The other option — building my own back end — was more work than it deserved right now (but always tempting anyway).
I still think there’s a lot of possibility to be found in linking systems like this; the problem of this kind of information being seen for a couple of days only to disappear into the back end and basically never being seen again is still unsolved, and I think there is a lot of opportunity to make this information more useful if only the discoverability problem can be solved (emphasis on “if only”, and the phrase “famous last words” come to mind).
The content flowing through Chuq Snarks is going to change and expand in a few ways. It is, basically, my home for linking to interesting stuff and commenting on things where I don’t think a full blog post is needed — I’m setting the limit to 1 paragraph or less. If I want to say more than that, I’ll put it here on the main blog. The reason to keep these separate is simply one of clutter; I don’t want the main blog to be filled up with dozens of “minor” pieces that make people not want to follow it or see the less frequent “major” blog posts. So, long form here, short form there. If you want to read it all, you can subscribe to both. If you want to avoid the chatter of lots of “minor” pieces, then ignore the Tumblr with my blessing. “short form blogging” is definitely something that not everyone appreciates, and I’ve tried to be sensitive to that all along.
It should also be noted that implied in the name of the Tumblr blog is that my commentary over there may be a bit more — pointed — than I’ve typically done here on the main blog. What that is going to ultimately mean is still a work in progress, and probably always will be…
Enjoy. And feel free to point interesting stuff in my direction or let me know what you think about what I’m posting…
I’m doing some end of year evaluation and taking stock of what worked and what didn’t this year, so I can finalize plans for 2013. Despite my recent “blog vacation” (and I thank you all for your patience and understanding; I needed it), the blog has show significant growth this year — pageviews up 125% from 47,000 to over 106,000. Unique visitors jumped over 200% from 20,000 to over 64,000. Total visits spiked from 31,000 to 81,000.
Half of my visitors are from the US. After that, it’s the UK, Canada, Australia, and then Germany, Netherlands, Spain and France, so not surprisingly, about 90% of the visits come from English-centric countries. 45% of you use Safari, another 25% use Chrome as your browser. Firefox is down to 4%, and Internet Explorer is 7%. Not too surprising to me half of you are Mac users, 25% are Windows, and 17% of visitors are now checking in via IOS — a reason why I think 2013 is a year all blogs, not just this one, need to come to grips with mobile. that’s especially challenging if you want to get your photos right. (Android is 2% and Windows Phone and Blackberry are both almost countable on two hands).
The top ten blog entries this year:
- Aperture vs Lightroom. It is, unfortunately, an easy call. (interestingly enough, the rumors of a new Aperture being announced after the first of the year are heating up. I’m curious to see what Apple has planned).
- Some Thoughts on Lightroom Keywords – I updated this and it was published on Naturescapes.net, so there’s definitely continued interest in this topic.
- Changing of the Guard (and letting it down at the same time) – in which I talk about leaving Palm/HP for saner pastures.
- Upgrading to Lightroom 4: reprocessing before and after: Some initial looks at the new LR4 processing engine. 9 months later, I still really like 98% of Lightroom. It’s been a good, solid release.
- A bit more on Aperture vs. Lightroom
- Apple and NFC – why it’s not there
- Thinking different about the next Mac Pro (and the rest of Apple’s Desktop line)
- No, IOS is not a prison
- Dealing with Crap Apps in the Catalog
Four photography articles, two on the WebOS fallout, one more or less about challenges I dealt with dealing with app catalog problems that were relevant to any platform, and three Apple-related pieces. The reality, though, is that while I can generate pageviews writing about Mama Fruit, very few of those pageviews are worth it — you get linked in from one of the Mac sites, and they pop in, glance at it and leave. Unless they stay around to troll. That’s why I typically decline wading in on those topics now; it just isn’t that interesting to me any more, and it isn’t useful in building my audience. So expect little of that next year, too.
Those are small numbers compared to some blogs, but to me, they’re stunning. thank you. They are also an indication to me I need to continue trying to improve this place, both in terms of design and content. That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.
2013 is going to see some changes here, but overall, fairly minor. It’s more a recommitment and a focus on improving quality and making pieces deeper and better thought out, even if it means posting less often.
We will talk about 2013 soon. For right now, let’s leave it at — I’m pretty happy with 2012 here on the blog, and I’m working to make next year even better for everyone involved, including me.
When I did my last redesign of the blog, I made a decision to base it on the Photocrati theme. As you might guess from the name, it’s a photography-centric WordPress theme. I’ve used a number of themes from Themeforest in the last few redesigns (I seem to go through a theme every 18 months or so). Photocratic is about double the price of a typical Themeforest theme, but at $89, I felt it had enough flexibility and power to meet my needs for multiple re-designs.
Having lived with it and spent some time underneath the hood, I am happy to say I’m right, and that I really like the Photocrati theme. It’s been stable and worked reliably, which not all theme forest themes were. My current look and feel on the blog is pretty much built out of the box, I haven’t done much in the way of “serious” design or customization, yet I think it’s a pretty nice, if not stunning, look — you can install the theme and get something that works well and looks nice out of the box by pushing buttons and without any under the hood geeking.
The work I’ve done on the blog this last few months have mostly been research into projects I might want to do and building out the back end and making sure the under the hood stuff was set up the way I wanted — I’m now starting to gear up the project for my branding, designing and theming. I’ll be basing this next set of upgrades on Photocrati, and as far as I can tell, it’s more than capable of handling some of the things I plan.
That said, nothing is ever perfect or “finished”. There are still some things I’d love to see Photocrati support that I am either going to have to defer or hack in myself. Here’s my current wish list of things I hope to see added to the theme’s capabilities in the next year or so.
- Fully responsive layouts to support mobile devices
- Support of high-density (aka retina) screens: to be honest, if these two items aren’t fully supported by Photocrati when I do my next redesign, I’ll switch out to a theme that does. Having some way to auto-manage loading in higher res images for high-density pixel devices is increasingly becoming a necessary function, and I think responsive designs to support tablets and mobile devices is going to be crucial down the road. I expect both of these to be the focus of the design of my site after the one I’m starting now (and may well move forward that next redesign significantly)
- “Daring fireball links” article as a custom page type: I’ve experimented with some of the wordpress plugins and haven’t found one that I like and that works well with the theme. I think this kind of link capability is becoming a defacto-standard on blogs, so all themes need to support it in some way, either directly or by formally supporting one of the plug-ins that implement it.
- Extended web font support (typekit, google web fonts, etc): the current font support for Photocrati is probably the weakest part of the setup. The list of fonts is limited and the choice is, well, uninspiring. The number of fonts available for use on blogs has exploded, and the theme needs to support them properly.
- Standard support for social icons similar to the “social” plug-in, or formal an acknowledgment of which plug-ins are supported. The way I’d handle this is to document list of tested and approved plug-ins for wordpress that Photocrati will support their theme with if you use them.
- I’d actually generalize that idea: I want to know what plug-ins they’ve tested against and will say work with the theme, and which ones they know have problems and shouldn’t be used with the theme. Their support team run into these issues, it wouldn’t be too hard to build an online database showing what plugins (and which releases) are known to work and which ones are broken.
- Documentation/support for (and best practices docs) on how to create child themes with Photocrati as the base. Photocrati’s documentation on how to use the theme is pretty good. It’s documentation on customization and extending the theme would be useful.
- Improved support for custom CSS and CSS processors like LESS (I want to be able to child-theme Photocrati and override EVERYTHING….)
- Support optional image lazy-loading
- Google+ author support (see here)
Overall, I’d say most of this is support for emerging tools and functionality, not mistakes or missing features — but I also think it’s important that a theme like Photocrati innovate quickly on things like this if it wants to remain one of the “thought leader” themes for photographers to use.
I got into a twitter discussion yesterday with some people about turning off Feedburner on their blogs, since the rumors are Feedburner is going away (and even if it’s not, it’s been unreliable and is clearly not a priority for Google). I made a decision to turn off Feedburner over a year ago because I felt Google was going to do away with it at some point, and since then, I’ve seen nothing to indicate Google has plans to enhance the tool. It seems to be leaving it to slowly die of neglect. Because of that, I’m glad I stopped using the service, and I suggest everyone consider removing their RSS feeds from it while they can plan the migration rather than waking up one morning to unpleasant surprises and a crisis migration.
As part of that talk, I did some quick research on what needed to be done and I thought it might be helpful to others to put those notes online here. These notes are assuming your site is running with WordPress, but they should be generally useful for most sites on other platforms like Drupal.
There are three aspects of Feedburner that might impact someone trying to migrate themselves off of the service:
- RSS Feed
- Email subscriptions
Most users use Feedburner to redistribute their RSS feeds off their site. In return, they get some stats on usage, and Google spends some of it’s network feeding the RSS instead of it coming off of your site. Migrating from feedburner on your WordPress site involves changing your RSS links to point to your local feed instead of Feedburner, and then disabling Feedburner and having it point existing RSS subscribers back to your site.
The RSS feeds in your wordpress can be set up either by the use of a plug-in. The first step in migrating your RSS back to your local feed is to disable whichever plug-in you are using. (note: if you read this instruction and go “huh?” then you probably need to find a friendly geek to help you through this).
It’s possible that your Feedburner feeds were hard-coded onto your page, so you need to examine all of the links to see whether disabling the plug-in converted them back to your local RSS (the local RSS feed is typically a URL like <site>/feed). If you still see links pointing to Feedburner, you’ll need to dig into your theme files and find and change the hardcoded links.
Once you’ve taken these steps, all of your RSS links should point to your site instead of feedburner, and all new subscribers will subscribe to your local feed. Your existing subscribers are still subscribed to you via Feedburner.
To change that, you need to log onto Feedburner. There is an option to disable the feed. Feedburner will try to talk you out of it (of course), but if you insist, it will disable it, and for the next 30 days when someone goes to the old Feedburner link they’ll get a redirect pointing them back to your RSS feed. Most RSS readers are set up so that when it sees that redirect it’ll automatically update the subscription to use the new link directly.
So, once you’ve updated your site to stop pointing to Feedburner, and disabled the feed on the Feedburner site, you’re done. For the next month, when your existing subscribers pick up the feed, they’ll be automatically redirected to your local feed. It’s always a good idea to blog about the change for those users who’s RSS readers don’t follow the redirect properly, but it should be automatic for the most part.
Feedburner has an option to let users subscribe to your site via Email. If you use that, migrating the email off of Feedburner is going to complicate this, and you should do that before trying to migrate the RSS.
The bad news: you’re going to have to choose a new service to handle your email, it’ s not something you can (or should) handle on your WordPress site directly. trust me on this, I used to do email for a living. The good news: there are a number of sites that do this kind of email (but depending on the size of your subscriber list, it might cost you). Here are links to pages that explain this migration for a few services:
I’ve worked with aWeber and MailChimp in the past for various projects and both of them I’ve found are reliable and work well with good support. I haven’t worked with Feedblitz. you’ll need to evaluate these options and decide which one makes sense for you and what the costs are. All of these sites should be able to handle a migration from Feedburner.
This migration may take some time, especially getting your site updated. I’d suggest setting up and testing the new email setup and then updating your subscription pages, and then doing the Feedburner migration in three separate steps to minimize the possibility of chaos. One nice thing about migrating to a commercial emailer is that if you decide to do a site newsletter as well as a blog posting remaining setup you can integrate the two and do some marketing to get people on the e-newsletter.
The big loss in moving away from Feedburner is the loss of some easy statistics on how many subscribers you have. There aren’t any great options for replacing this, but there are a few things that might help. If you use Google Analytics (you do, right?), then check out this solution form ZoomMetrix. It looks like a nice solution, but the negative is that it’ll only work for new subscribers. There’s no easy way to add this tracking to existing subscribers.
The other way to get subscriber stats is to parse out your web site log files. There’s a project underway to build a script to create good stats out of an Apache log file; this is something I’m looking to implement for my site. Or you can do what I do, and mostly just not worry about it much. Seriously.
Hopefully, these links will help people looking to migrate off of Feedburner. If you have other suggestions, improvements, or corrections, please drop me an email or leave a comment.
One of the things I’ve been doing the last couple of weeks has been trying to figure out exactly what I want this blog to be about, and what has value in the greater scheme of things.
The thing is, defining “value” for a blog is still a really squishy concept. The easy answer is pageviews, but unless you’re one of those sites that’s designed to maximize them because it drives your advertising revenue, what do pageviews really mean? And buy you?
Want to goose pageviews? It’s surprisingly easy to write some link bait that gets pointed at by sites that can drive pageviews and give you that nice, ego-satisfying spike on your Google Analytics.
(look, maw! I went viral!)
Of course, three days later, they’re gone, and they don’t come back. Maybe they even left you a few choice presents in your comments — did you check?
I’ve come to believe that pageviews is a poor way to judge the value of a blog post, but how I wanted to value them wasn’t really obvious to me. What is the value of a blog post?
Well, now that I’ve trashed pageviews, I need to talk about them a bit. Over the last year, readership of this blog has been growing, slowly but consistently — and for that, I say thank you! Pageviews are up about 130% since January, and up a massive 275% compared to this time last year. Visits are up 350%, unique visitors are up over 500% — which implies that pages per visits has dropped, which it has, down from about 1.5 pages to 1.25 pages per visit.
But overall, the site is now seeing around 10,000-12,000 pageviews a month. A few pages have been blessed by the google beast for a few fun and interesting search phrases, and that’s helped drive consistent traffic for the last six or seven months.
That’s why the Amazon affiliate and Borrowlenses ads showed up about three months ago, because I wanted to experiment to see if the combination of those ads and that traffic might generate a little revenue, and if so, whether it would be worth tossing that page real estate at them for the return. the short answer is yes; with two months of data, the blog is now paying for itself, plus maybe a couple of cups of coffee. The number of complaints I got for adding ads to the site were, well, zero.
So all in all, the experiment is a success. I have zero interest in turning the web site into something that looks like a low-end neon brothel, so don’t expect to see pages festooned with a dozen ads for things like mortgage refinances and weight loss miracles. Not interested in prostituting my content for the sake of a few pennies. I won’t offend your eyeballs like that.
An interesting shift over the last year is that 70% of my pageviews are now photography related, with an emphasis towards the geekier side of things — tools and workflow. That doesn’t surprise me, and I think that’s an area where I do bring some real value to a conversation, so it’s safe to assume that’ll continue. Having said that, I have no intention of turning this into a photo-only blog. It’s still going to be “stuff I’m interested in”, of which photography’s only one aspect.
But even that’s not really correct. I’ve been thinking long and hard about not just posting to the blog, but adding value to the universal conversation we have here online. It’s easy to open a vein and type something out and post it, but those kind of articles are quickly forgotten. I’m more interested in posting less frequently, but posting a higher quality and more interesting set of messages.
How to judge that? I’ve decided on two metrics:
- Engagement: do people react to the piece? Is it shared? tweeted? Do you leave comments? Do you write blog posts condemning me for it? Do you send me email? All of those are active measures of whether the content matters. So are some less obvious things like how long you spent reading the material and whether that page encouraged you to look at other pages on my site. I’ve decided, for instance, to look more at page views combined with time spent on a page to create a basic value metric: 1,000 pageviews of a page that people spend 3 minutes on is higher engagement value than 10,000 pageviews where people stick for 30 seconds.
- Revenue: In some cases, it’s easy to track back an Amazon affiliate order to a specific page or entry point. In other cases, not so — but I have some ideas on how to do some behind the scenes tweaks that will at least let me get this data to the category, if not a specific page. Right now, it’s pretty easy; almost all of the Amazon affiliate purchases have been photography related, so it’s fairly safe to tie it back to the photography writing. About half of the orders I can tie directly to a link on a couple of specific pages, too.
One of the questions I’ve been asking myself is whether I really want to wade back into the mosh pit of writing about technology stuff, and secondarily, Mama Apple. I find a lot of the writing in this space pretty piss-poor, to be blunt about it, but I also wonder if I really add much to the overall conversation (or even if I want to). In a few specific areas I think I do, but honestly, I struggle to convince myself I really want to, given how many babbling mouths are already fighting to be heard talking about those topics.
So I conducted a couple of experiments. They got some initial link coverage, and ended up with nice sets of pageviews, but by my metrics they didn’t do well. Engagement was poor — few folks spread the link love around. Few explored my site. Almost none sent feedback of any kind. Nobody clicked an affiliate link and dropped some pennies in the tip jar. And after the peak of the moment, as far as I can tell, none of them subscribed to the site and hung around to see more, because my numbers dropped back to where they were before the spike.
So to me, the value of contributing that kind of content is effectively zero. It helps feed the huge herd of news-omnivores that wander the net in search of something to look at and then move on as if it never existed for the next content to chew on. Other than the herd leaving the occasional turd in the comment section, they don’t return anything useful as an encouragement to grow more stuff for them to feed on.
So I don’t see any reason to keep trying to find reasons to write for that audience right now. Doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally, but it just reinforces my instinct that things are moving in the direction I want it to move. (all those discussions about “slow and steady” as a way to good SEO and search engine placement? It turns out they’re true, and it works, if you keep at it. It took me a couple of years to shift my readership to be photography-centric AND to return to the page view volumes I had when I left Apple. Of course, few folks have the patience to do things the slow and steady way, which is why so many people get taken by the black-hat SEO scammers…)
It’s important to remember that if you want more of some kind of content, or if you have a writer you want to do more of something, you have to actually let them know you want it. Passively sitting back and reading stuff and then moving on — that gives authors no hints on what they ought to be doing more of. I think that’s one reason why so much of what’s published online is so forgettable and interchangeable (that, and there are too many freaking sites all cribbing from each other on the same few and trivial stories trying to pump up pageviews to pay the bills…).
So here’s the call to action: give feedback. I’m not speaking specifically about me, but about writers in general. There’s a reason why I do the Things You’ll Find Interesting blog posts (which are, by the way, the second most popular postings on the site overall after the photo geeking). And why I litter interesting links on Twitter and Google+ (when I have the time; it’s still the site that loses when I get too busy, but hope springs eternal). Links are one way to let someone know you found it interesting; it also helps show Google something was interesting, which helps it get better placement in the great search engine database. And you can do those things without necessarily spending the time it takes to write comments, or drop a buck in a tip jar, or things like that. But those things matter, too, and frankly, a well-thought comment or email means as much as a few dozen links, because of the time I know went into writing it.
If you want better content online, you need to invest a bit of energy — but it’s easy. simple make sure that the people writing the good stuff know about it. It’s as simple as a link on twitter. Or commit to once or twice a month hitting someone’s tip-jar or one of their affiliate links. Amazon affiliate costs you nothing, and Amazon throws a few dollars at someone for you. It may sound trivial, but it’s noticed — and even something simple like having a blog that pays for its hosting costs makes it a lot easier to put time into writing content for the blog. Even if you only throw a half dozen links a week onto twitter or G+ or Facebook, it’ll make a difference in helping encourage better writing on the net.
Or just sit back and browse on whatever gets tossed at you and do nothing. And you’ll get more of that. To me, that’s like living on fast food. It keeps you fed, but wouldn’t you really like something better to chew on?
If so, you need to start helping the chefs know what that is. By telling them…
I sort of apologize for the relative quiet on the blog the last week or so. I’ve been off geeking my way through a project, and it’s borrowed most of my free time attention.
What I’ve been working on is a way to organize the data stored within my blog’s “For your Consideration” areas — lots of reviews and recommendations, but it’s a blob of data that really isn’t very useful once the initial “post to blog so the readers see it” time passes. I’ve felt for a while that better organization to make that material browsable would give it more visibility, and since it ties into amazon’s affiliate marketing, might generate some incremental revenue for the site.
(quick digression: I’ve done some minor testing over the years, and my audience seems best oriented towards Amazon or similar type advertising; I have always kept it low-key and intend to continue that, but it’d be nice if this site ultimately paid for itself, which it currently doesn’t. that’s my problem to solve, not yours. But, it goes without saying, if you like the kind of stuff I write here, and wish I’d write more, then go down to the footer and go buy yourself something on Amazon through the link. It costs you nothing, and amazon chips a few bucks into the pot for me).
I love all aspects of building sites, but if I could only do one aspect, the structure and organization the most. Figuring out how to tie everything into a usable format is both non-trivial and a lot of fun. That’s probably why I enjoyed DBA work so much, back in the day. I’ve found working out these kind of structural issues is a natural for early and quick prototyping — you have some idea how it should look, then you take your data and start pulling it together, or at least a subset of it. As you do, problems in your approach show up early (and usually, often), and you can solve it as you go along, until you either find it working, or it collapses in a heap and you tear it all apart and go back to the drawing board.
My ultimate goal is to turn “For your Consideration” into its own site. It was obvious early on that the best solution would to to use a database back end and spit the site out on demand, but I wanted to avoid building that until I knew it was worth the investment. Because of that, I’ve been exploring whether I could build it as a static site in a way I liked enough I could push public and explore how people reacted to it (or whether they ignored it, or laughed at it).
What the last few days of exploring the manual prototype has confirmed is that doing this manually doesn’t scale, even to a small scale experiment. I’m not disappointed; I had a feeling that might be the case going in. I could mitigate that somewhat with templates, but even so, I don’t see a “simple” (i.e. manual) solution working beyond 15-25 records. So if I’m going to move this forward, it’s by writing a real backend system, or coming up with another approach.
That’s the fun of doing this early prototyping; I spent a week or so of evenings exploring this. It taught me a lot about what worked with this data set as well as what didn’t, and very little real time doing the tests. It would have really sucked if I’d spent a month or so on wireframes and page design and chrome and the look and feel, only to get a week into actual implementation and hitting that “oops, we have a problem” point.
So now this one goes back on the back burner while I decide what my next steps are, or until I decide I want to go ahead and build the back end. It’s actually a fun project, but I’m not yet convinced I want to invest the time — because remember, it’s not just writing the code, it’s administering and maintaining the thing once it launches, too. Is it worth it?
Probably. But I have to think that one threw a bit…