A Brief Review of WordPress at Westhost.com (versus Pixelpost)

Written by on December 18, 2008 in Blog, Notes on the way

I started using WordPress on June 23rd this year (2008). What prompted me to switch was the new gallery feature in WordPress 2.5. My former photoblog was powered by Pixelpost, which is great for showing one photo per day but very limited beyond that. I wanted the ability to show a set of photos at the same time. Plus, I wanted to write more (as you can see if you scroll down). WordPress offered the flexibility to become almost anything: a photo blog, a multimedia blog, or even a regular website. I realized it was time to switch to an application that would grow with me.

My web hosting service (Westhost) can automatically install WordPress from the control panel. But last June Westhost was only offering an earlier version of WordPress that I didn’t want. That was no problem, because it’s easy to install WordPress by yourself using the famous 5-minute install (really more like 15 minutes for knuckledraggers like me). After getting WordPress installed, I began the more time consuming (but satisfying) process of customizing it for my needs.

You need FTP software to install WordPress and customize it with free templates and plugins, and your web host must give you FTP access.  My web host (Westhost) give me full access, and I use Filezilla as my FTP software (free, open source, powerful, and super easy to use).

Plugins. Adding plugins is the simple and powerful way to make WordPress do what you want. Just go to the WordPress plugin directory and dive in. If you can imagine something that would make your website better, then search the plugin directory and you just may find it (but be sure to verify compatibility with your WordPress version and read some user reviews first). If you don’t know how to install plugins look for documentation at WordPress.org (and from your web host regarding FTP access).

(Note: Some of my plugins have changed. See updates below.)

Here are my WordPress plugins:

  • Akismet (spam filtering) comes with WordPress but you have to activate it (in the plugins section). Getting started required a trip to WordPress.com to get an API key (about 5 minutes and free). Akismet (and the next feature) has prevented any spam comment from ever hitting my blog so far.
  • WordPress Hashcash makes it very hard for spammers to automatically add comments on your blog using bots. Some still manage to get through, but Akismet stops them.
  • CryptX automatically scrambles email addresses so that spammers can’t easily harvest them. I’m still nervous about putting my email address openly on my blog, but at least with CryptX I’m not throwing it out there with a sign on it that says “spam me.”
  • Add to Any is a “share/save/bookmark” button (see at the bottom of this post) making it easy for visitors to help promote your site if they want to.
  • WordPress Supercache helps prepare your site for a huge rush of traffic. It creates static (HTML) pages and routes first time visitors there. If you get a huge rush of visitors all at once, then Supercache will keep the site running quickly. It’s over kill most of the time, but you never know when you’ll need it. Several months ago Boing, Boing and Andrew Sullivan both linked to my site at the same time, and I was really glad I had this plugin running.
  • Simple Yearly Archive is a cool alternative to the regular WordPress archive. Check mine out by clicking the “history” link to the right. There are options to change the way it looks which are documented on the plugin’s homepage.
  • Amazon Machine Tags is for Amazon affiliates who want to list books and other merchandise and possibly make money that way. I have it installed but rarely use it. I noticed the prices it displays are much higher than the real prices at Amazon, so I went into my CSS styles and made the price information white text (invisible).

WordPress Themes. Actually, the first thing I did was to choose a theme from the WordPress theme directory. Adding a theme is the first step in making a WordPress site feel like your own. This also requires FTP software. First, I added four or five themes, then I went to my WordPress control panel, clicked on the “Design” tab, and tried them all out. I was looking for a very clean interface with lots of room for my photos. After finding a suitable template (Simple LA Bob), I replaced the banner with my own (a JPEG or GIF image that I created) and made a few changes to the CSS stylesheet (widening the main content area even more, etc.).

Widgets. Widgets are cool. In the WordPress design tab there is a link to the Widget controls. You can add and remove widgets by dragging and dropping them. If you use widgets, then they will replace the traditional style links on the sidebar (categories, etc.). Widgets enable you to make instant “magical”  changes. For this reason they are both  convenient and occasionally frustrating. If you play around with them you’ll see what I mean. On the whole widgets are great. (You can still manually edit the sidebar, which is what I do for the essential site navigation links.)

CSS Styles. This post is getting long, but this is important. In the design tab you can edit the current theme, and there you’ll find a link to edit the CSS styles (styles.css). This file controls the appearance of your website from font styles and colors to spacing, etc. Often you’ll find images (like the banner) are controlled here. If you’re a newbie, then figuring out how styles.css works may elicit some curse words and give you a few gray hairs, but it’s worth it. Once you learn how to change every page of your website by changing one line in styles.css you’ll be hooked.  (Note: Some plugins and WordPress functions (like media.php which controls the gallery) have their own CSS style references. In those cases, if you’re THAT picky, you may have to get under the hood with a flashlight to make changes.)

A few technical challenges. Most of my time went into wading through all the options, searching on Google for tips, and customizing my site. But there were a few difficult moments (there always are). Fortunately, I managed to work through the challenges and get the results I wanted.

The challenges:

  • Image.php – At first the new gallery feature in WordPress 2.5 wasn’t working nearly as well as I’d hoped. To make a long story short, I realized the gallery feature requires a page called “image.php” that hadn’t come with my template. Since the gallery feature was so new, many others were having the same issue. Basically, I made my own image.php from scratch based on advice and comments I dug up here and there. You can see how the gallery feature works for me now here.
  • Navigation in the gallery – I really didn’t like how WordPress 2.5 handled navigation in the gallery (with big thumbnails below the displayed image). I wanted simple text links above the displayed image. Getting there wasn’t easy. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone (you never are). Other people wanted the same thing, and using Google I found someone who had solved the problem. It requires some changes to image.php and adding some code to functions.php (which I can send on request if you ask).
  • Permalinks – I wanted Google friendly permalinks, not the default links, but they weren’t working on my other blog. After more digging I found a solution. I have a unique domain name pointing to my blog (a shared hosting situation), and this is managed through my Westhost control panel. A comment in the Westhost forums pointed me there. For some reason the default web directory needed to be changed from what it was to: /var/www/html/globalcompassion (and then everything worked sweetly). This problem may only affect Westhost users using multiple domains with one account.
  • Small images – I was uploading photos 645 pixels wide, but they were displaying at a much smaller size (even though I chose the “full size” option). For some reason, WordPress had a maximum image and didn’t tell me. Fortunately, a little snippet of code in functions.php fixes the problem. Maybe the current version of WordPress doesn’t have this issue, but just in case, here’s the code: $GLOBALS['content_width'] = 800;
  • Image captions – I didn’t like seeing captions under the thumbnails, but there was no option to eliminate them. I could see that the captions had their own division (so they were controled by CSS styles), but I couldn’t find any reference in styles.css that I could change. Eventually, I went into media.php (to line 587) and changed the color of the “gallery caption” white (#FFFFFF). So the gallery captions are still there under the thumbnails in each gallery, but I don’t have to see them.

A few more words about why I like WordPress

Flexibility. I can give my WordPress website almost any look and feel that I want, and I can give it a complete facelift anytime without recreating any of the content.

Upgrading. Starting with WordPress 2.7 you can upgrade automatically rather than downloading files and doing it yourself. Plugins can already be updated automatically (if the author provides this functionality). WordPress is really maturing both in terms of quality and ease of use. It’s a great time to get on board!

RSS feeds. Most blogging applications, including WordPress, have built in RSS feeds. If you haven’t tried an RSS reader, you don’t know how powerful this is (or what you’re missing). Personally, I’m following a number of blogs daily using Google Reader.

Searchability on Googe. My WordPress pages do very well on Google. Every page has a unique title, and Google can index them all. You have to be smart about putting keywords in the title, and you still have to write good content. (I don’t do anything beyond that, but you’ll find plugins that supposedly better optimize your WordPress blog for Google.) If you can handle writing good titles and content, then people will find you. Getting them to come back is the real challenge.

Speaking of coming back, have you bookmarked this site or added me to your RSS reader?

UPDATES:

1. After writing this post I realized that I hadn’t yet optimized the page titles on this blog for Google. The default titles list the blog name first followed by the individual page titles (plus the titles include the word “archives” etc.). See for yourself. To do well in Google the individual pages should not include extraneous words like “archives,” and it’s better to list the page titles first and THEN the title of the blog. Specifically, I went into header.php (in the theme editor) and changed replaced the “title” line (near the top) with the following:

<title><?php if ( is_single() ) { ?> <?php wp_title(”); ?> | <?php } ?><?php bloginfo(‘name’); ?></title>

Now I use the powerful and super convenient “Greg’s High Performance SEO” plug-in. Well done Greg!

2. If you are using the Supercache plugin then keep in mind that you can’t always see the changes you make. That’s because Supercache is showing you cached pages, not the updated pages. This can be very confusing and frustrating if you don’t realize what’s happening. When editing your CSS and making other changes, you probably should turn Supercache off. Or go into the Supercache settings page and enable and disable compression (toggle it on and then off again). This will clear the cache so you can see the changes you just made.

3. Plug-ins I’ve changed or added (March, 2010):

- I use Cryptx plus NoSpamNX to stop almost all spam, along with Akismet.

- I no longer bother trying to sell via Amazon. It’s never worked for me, and I think there are much more effective affiliate programs to turn traffic into income.

- I was using Image Gallery Reloaded and Contact Form 7 plug-ins, but I realized the javascript they use was really slowing the site down. I don’t recommend any plug-ins that use jquery.js to work. Such plug-ins can do amazing things, but at a high price. Best not to keep your site visitors waiting for the front page to open or they’ll simply leave. If you need a secure, simple contact form plug-in, I think “Fast and Secure Contact Form” is a much, much better way to go than “Contact Form 7.”

About the Author

About the Author: I live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where I work with young adults transitioning from growing up in an orphanage to living independently. I also facilitate immersion learning programs for Japanese. I'm a photographer and video maker when time and opportunity permit. .

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  1. Robin says:

    WordPress is great. I’ve played with it some, and just this week tried to set up a new blog, but ran into some trouble… I’ll try again on the break.

  2. Andy says:

    I hope I didn’t understate the challenges section. It’s a real pain when things go wrong. If I wasn’t so persistent I might not have solved the issues above, but where there’s a will there’s a way. If I can help with the problem you’re having let me know.

  3. Robin says:

    Just got it working. Now to customize it…

  4. Robin says:

    Is this the gallery feature you’re talking about/using?

    http://codex.wordpress.org/Gallery_Shortcode

  5. Andy says:

    When you publish a gallery you get a set of thumbs. If you click one, then there are 2 things that may happen. If you have a file called image.php and it’s setup properly, then you will see the image you clicked along with navigation (of some kind) that will take you to the previous and/or next images. But if you don’t have an image.php file, then it will default to the regular one (page.php or single.php — I forget which one). Then you’ll just see the image with no navigation, so you have to click the back arrow to return tot the gallery and choose another image.

    At first, I was stuck with the second scenario. Then I made an image.php file and got it working the way it does now. If you find one of my gallery (click the “photos” category and go back awhile) then you’ll see.

  6. Robin says:

    Thanks again for sharing these tips and links. I think I’ve finally got my site looking how I want (logo etc), though I still have some pages and stuff to add.

  7. charles says:

    I’m a real newbie at this blog stuff. I’ve been trying to figure out how to use and customize, but the WordPress docs are way too wordy and not very good at getting right to the point on how to do things. Just when you think you’re going to find an answer to something, the article gives you a link to another document and you have to do a bunch more reading only to get another link to something else. Frustrating!

    Is there any good source that will get right to the point of answering how to do things in WordPress?

    Right now I’m trying to figure out how to use an image to make a custom header. Any help would be appreciated.

  8. Andy says:

    Charles –
    1. Create the banner image in Photoshop or whatever. Plan in advance what size of banner you’ll need based on the width of your template (or change the width of your template if you want). Be sure to convert to sRGB and save as a web quality GIF or JPEG file. (Make a quick note of the height and width in pixels.)

    2. Upload the image to your website. I usually put it in the “images” folder that goes with the template, but you can put it anywhere (just be sure to note the image path).

    3. Go into your WordPress admin, click “Design” and find your way to your template files. Then click on “Header” to view that part of the code. (Note: The code for the page is broken into pieces — header, footer, main, sidebar, etc.)

    4. When looking at the Header code find the code pertaining to the current banner. Then just replace the image path and file name so it points to your new banner image. Be sure to change the height and width attributes if needed or your banner will be out of proportion.

    5. Save the changes, and then have a look. You’ll probably want to tweak something. Just keep tweaking until your site looks great, and that’s how you learn.

    Note: Depending on the size of the banner you make, you may have to change attributes like: the height of the header area (to avoid overlap), padding above or below the header to make more or less white space, or the width of the page. These can be done by making changes to styles.css (a whole topic by itself with many resources and tips you can find using Google).

  9. Andy says:

    I took it off some time ago.

  10. Lynda says:

    Hello there! Quick question that’s totally off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My web site looks weird when viewing from my iphone. I’m trying to find a theme or plugin that might be able to resolve this problem. If you have any recommendations, please share. Thank you!

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