Tag Archives: wordpress

Why You Should Run Screaming When Someone Mentions A Custom CMS

29 November

buildinopensourceI am all for paying for a great product. But I am a big believer of using open source (free) content management systems (CMSes) to build websites.

I think this for a few good reasons. I thought of this analogy story to illustrate my point.

Once upon a time, there was a large group of builders who lived and worked in Dreamville. They used materials like plywood and sheet rock to build houses for homeowners.

The homeowners were, for the most part, satisfied. If they decided they didn’t like a particular builder, they could always use another. When builders got busy, they referred work to each other. 

Then came along The Flashy Company. The Flashy Company was also a contracting company but they built all their houses out of kwah, a material that has the toughness of quartz with the flexibility of plywood. They were the only ones who could use kwah and when the contractors tried to look up information about it, they could find very little about it, in Google or otherwise.

Soon people in Dreamville heard about kwah and how amazing The Flash Company was telling everyone it was. Many jumped on board and had kwah houses constructed. Soon there were twenty houses in the town all made of kwah.

One day, The Flashy Company left Dreamville. At first, this was no problem since the houses were so durable. But eventually, even kwah started to fail. Houseowner Hugo called up Contractor Carl to come fix his kwah roof.

The problem was threefold:

1) No one outside The Flashy Company knew how to make kwah so all Carl could do was rig a half-ass solution with his plywood and other materials.
2) It took the Carl a long time to figure out how the house was built. Since the material was so strange, regular solutions didn’t work. This time Carl spent trying to understand kwah meant money to Hugo and was frustrating to Carl since he couldn’t offer a fast efficient solution.
3) Since The Flashy Company hadn’t worked with any other contractors while in town, it was difficult for the homeowners with homes built in kwah to find contractors to be able to work on their house. Contractors had to figure it out quickly yet had no information they could look to to help them.

Carl had to tell Hugo the sad truth: eventually he’d have to rebuild his house. Yes, even though he paid a lot of money to The Flashy Company for kwah, and even though he just paid Carl to come up solution for the room, eventually it would start to completely fail and need to be built in other materials.

What can we learn from kwah (besides it’s an amazing fake building material that should exist elsewhere besides my brain)?

1) Custom CMSes mean only the company that built your site knows how it works. If you need someone else to work with you on your website, they are either going to have a steep learning curve and/or they are going to have to rebuild the whole thing for you.

2) Open source CMSes (like Joomla, WordPress, and Drupal, among others) have multiple people that can work on them. That means people can share work, find solutions, and otherwise tap into a collective intelligence. Custom CMSes are at the mercy of the relatively small team that built them. Would you rather have a product that 10 people worked to improve or 1 million people worked to improve? Exactly.

3) It’s nice to build in something that has been tested by others. While it is attractive to work in something that’s new and shiny, materials with a track record will stand the test of time, online and off. Joomla has existed since 2005, WordPress since 2003, and Drupal since 2001. By comparison, many proprietary CMSes haven’t existed that long, or have had millions of people use them in that time.

4) Proprietary CMSes are slower to innovate. Because their code isn’t open to developers around the world, these systems move much slower in terms of features. We had one client using a proprietary software but wanted a responsive site, which the software hadn’t yet started to offer. So they had to pick between keeping their current system or having something their customers were asking for (mobile friendliness).

Now what if you have a very specific kind of business (like you sell farm shares) and this one company has a system that just does that thing perfectly? Then you should do it… but you should do your homework first. Does that monthly fee include payment processing? Are you signing up for this for a certain period, like one year? Do you own the rights to the design, should you want to take it and move it into another platform later? What features does it have to address your concerns like mobile and social media users?

In other words, really look into it and make sure it’s a good fit. Because the kwah website you build may last as long as you need it to. But someday you will need to rebuild, like we all do, and picking a material you know people can work is a good step to ensuring what you build remains standing, long after any company you work with.

Wordcamp Boston 2013

08 November

wordcamp2013It’s not often I get to see my friend Matt in real life. We work together virtually on almost a daily basis and I consider him one of my best friends…  he just happens to live over six hours away.

So when he told me about Wordcamp and that it was 1) in Boston and pretty close for all of us and 2) that he was going, Alice and I went down to check it out.

There were around 400 people at the conference from all over the place so I didn’t expect to know anyone. Of course I am in line for sandwiches behind a guy I haven’t seen since college who now is working on a cool WordPress plugin and I run into Tracy who I’ve only seen online yet lives in Maine.

In other words, I actually knew people! I mean, we were in Boston (very closeby) not Istanbul but still, small world.

The biggest takeaway for me? The need for fast websites. My favorite talk of the conference was by Chris Ferdinandi called ‘Wicked Fast WordPress’ on this very topic.

As we try to make websites more interactive, interesting, and responsive to design, us website designers/developers have invariably slowed down how fast they load. If 70% of people will not wait more than 3 seconds for a website to load before moving on, that’s something we need to pay attention to. (I’ll do a whole blog post on this sometime soon I am sure.)

Year after year, website security is always a concern. No matter what the software, there is no such thing as a 100% safe website. But Sam Hotchkiss’ presentation about security was complete and a favorite of Matt and Alice (I was in another room watching a different presentation… the good news is that link goes to a video where you can watch his talk!)

And finally, there was more talk about responsive design: how to do it well, deal with issues unique to that process. If you want to know a bit more about it, click on this post we have about dealing with mobile users on your website. 

All and all, it was a great weekend where we not only got to learn new things from some very smart people but have lots of bonding time, mainly over food. We’ll be back next year I’m sure but hopefully be getting to see Matt before then.

How To Pick The Best WordPress Plugin Or Joomla Extension

11 October

The great thing about open source website building platforms like WordPress and Joomla? They come with a lot that works out of the box. In both these systems, you can create pages, menus, and manipulate the basic site template.

Most people, however, want their websites to do something with this software. They want to sell products, have a form that collects information, or display Flickr photo albums.

These ‘apps’ that work on websites and allow them to do more then the standard software allows are called plugins in WordPress and extensions in Joomla. Here’s where you can find them:

Joomla Extensions Directory (JED)

WordPress Plugins Directory

As you see, you have options. Want a Facebook like button that works with Joomla?

facebooklikebuttonOh I’m sorry. Were you not looking for 116 options but simply the best option for you? You are reading the right blog then!

Here’s how to find the best plugin or extension for your Joomla or WordPress site (I can’t speak for Drupal but I bet these same rules would work there as well):

1) Is it in the directory?

Both Joomla and WordPress review the listings of plugins/extensions in their directories. Now if I wanted, I could create a plugin and just put it on my website. But getting something that is listed in the directory means you are already more likely to be getting something that is peer tested and reviewed.

2) Is it compatible with your software?

When you log into your website, you should see the version of the software you are running. Let’s say you are running Joomla 2.5. You will need an extension that works with this software. (Not all extensions work with every software.) WordPress updates more frequently than Joomla so look in the directory and see when the plugin was updates and what versions of WordPress it’ll work with:

wordpressplugincompatibility

 

As you see, if you are running version 3.4 of WordPress, you can’t use this gallery… so you’ll have to find another gallery or upgrade your software (we recommend upgrading in general- prevents hacking and all kinds of other nonsense).

3) What else does it need to work with?

Let’s say you want people to be able to leave blog comments while logged into Facebook or Twitter. When you look for a commenting plugin, you know to look out for compatibility with Facebook and Twitter.

By understanding how you want something to work (and as importantly, how you don’t want it to work), that’ll eliminate some potential plugins.

4) Is your design responsive?

If so, you’ll find a lot of plugins/extensions are not responsive in nature so this will limit you. Like a lot. (Try finding a responsive business directory that doesn’t look like crap or cost a ton of money for example.) Tip: If it doesn’t say it’s responsive, it probably isn’t… but if you are in love, it’s worth installing and testing it out.

5) Are the reviews good?

Now granted, everyone has one to six haters out there but in general, I like something where at least a majority of the people are not completely angry in their reviews. A quick look at the star ratings and some forums will let you know what people really think of the plugin.

reviewsjed

6) Is this from a reputable developer?

Great companies tend to have great reputations. Checking into the company that has developed the plugin will give you a look into how (and if) the extension/plugin will be supported and how customer service will be handled. Trust me, as important as having an awesome piece of software? Having the service to back it up. (I recommend a Google search on this since this will turn up forum posts and other places off the beaten path people may have left feedback.)

7) Does it work on your site?

So you download the extension and install it… does it work? Sometimes, it is not as simple as find, install, and tada. (If it was, not sure if I’d have a job.) If the plugin doesn’t work, try disabling all other extensions/plugins and see if there is a conflict. If it still doesn’t work, try it with another theme or template. If you find it works elsewhere and just not on your website, you have to decide whether it is worth your time getting it to work, or trying something similar.

The great news is people are developing extensions all the time that’ll make our lives easier and our websites better… but we still need to develop the skills to find and use the best of them.

 

Hiring Someone To Write Your Blog: The If, The Why, and The How

29 April

Many people are surprised when I tell them we ghost write for other blogs. Despite the fact that this blog is fun and kicky, we can be serious when we need to be. Some of our clients have been tech companies (since we have that knowledge anyway), some are just regular businesses.

Many people know that a blog is great for SEO and building authority. So the natural decision to make at this point is: are you going to do it or pay someone else to?

There are a whole group of people who think blogging can and should be handled within your company.

Why Your Blog Could Be Handled Within Your Company

should-someone-write-my-blog1) Someone in your company knows what’s going on. A content writer is not in your business so they can’t know close to everything that is going on like someone who is there 40 hours a week.

2) Someone in your company can write. Yes, most people graduate high school being able to string sentences together… and some people have a real talent for it.

3) The same person who can write has free time. You can probably think of idle times in your schedule (or an employee’s schedule) and have the thought ‘Hey, maybe I/they can crank out a blog!’

There are a few reasons though why you may hire people like us to coordinate your blog, write part of it for you, or write the entire thing for you.

Why Your Blog Could Be Handled By A Content Writer/Marketer/SEO Person

1) Content writers are lay people. Chances are your customer won’t care and, most importantly, won’t understand fancy jargon. Someone who can explain things about your business in a way your customers understand and enjoy can be worth some money.

2) Content writers are good writers. Someone who understands how to write for the web and how to write concise blog posts that are both interesting to read and written in the voice of your company will leave website visitors with a good impression.

3) Content writers get the SEO stuff. There is a bit more to blogs than the writing part. It’s part specialized data entry, part understanding how blogs work in the bigger picture of website traffic. You need to  know about the following to do it well:

  • using tags
  • interlinking to previous blog posts
  • how to find, use, and cite legal images in a blog post
  • how to write a grabbing headline that has keywords in it
  • proper formatting for easy reading and search engines
  • and more!

4) Content writers are fast. These people look at websites all day so we should be fast. They’ll work at least twice as quickly as your employee doing the same thing. (I’d be slow trying to ring up a customers purchases at your cash register since I have no idea what I’m doing in that situation!)

In other words, you have options. You don’t have to write the blog yourself! You can have a blog for your business and have someone else write it!

Even if you do hand this off, as the person driving this train (re: your business), you will need to set the person helping you (and your blog) up for success.

How You Can Set Up A Blogger For Success Who Isn’t You

  • A blog site

You’ll need to understand a bit on how your website works to understand if you’ll be able to blog on your current site or if you need to set up something on another domain that links to your site. Talking to a web person is worth it at this stage, mainly because you don’t want to build this blog up (and links coming into it) only to have to move it later. (I have moved my blog three times, trust me, don’t do this to yourself!)

If you are on the fence on the blogging thing, set up a free account on WordPress.com and try it for a month. If you like it, you can move it to a WordPress self hosted site by the Import/Export functions under ‘Tools’ without much trouble. All this to say, to blog you’ll need a place to blog. It may be worth it to have the employee you plan to blog with sit down with your web designer for some training on the software.

  • A regular publication schedule 

Whether you are going to publish every Monday or every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, establish this with the person you plan to work with. They are going to be limited by time constraints (like everyone!) and they need to know what is expected. For an employee that’s new to this, allow 3-4 hours per blog post (start off with 4 hours and as the person gets the hang of it, the time will be less). Remember a blog post isn’t sitting and writing: they may need time to contact information sources and do research in addition to the actual writing part.

If you are hiring a content writer, have them create a proposal of what you can expect from them in terms of content and publication schedule. (Note: content writers work much faster than your employee who is not a full time writer. It’s not fair to your employee to think otherwise!)

  • Sources for images

Whether you have a company Flickr gallery, an account with iStockphoto, or just a Dropbox folder where everyone puts in images, make sure whoever is writing the blog has access to this resource. They will need them for blog posts (blog posts with images are much more widely read, and having images has other benefits).

If you are creating the images, make sure to name the files something useful (like the name of the person in the photo). This way, the writer will be able to use the images appropriately and generate captions.

  • Topic structure and leads

Usually at a blog client kick off meeting, we figure out a general topic posting schedule. For example, Mondays are going to be interviews with our suppliers. Here are the questions we’d like to ask them and here is the contact information of some people to start with in terms of the first four interviews. Thursdays are going to be a product review. Donna will email you a list of new products for this season. Here’s a sample review I wrote to kind of give you an idea of what we are looking for on Thursdays…

A ridiculous level of detail? Maybe. But you don’t want your blog writer to stare at the blinking cursor and think ‘What should I write today?’ Having a structure will force ideas for days there are none and give a structure for the writer to work within and make sure the blog stays on topics you want it to be on.

Sometimes people do is hire a content writer to set up a structure for the staff blogger to follow. Give it a month and if it’s not working, you can always change it… but at least it’s a place for the blog to go day to day and week to week, especially those first few months.

  • Access to social media

The best thing to do after you blog? Be able to promote it! If your company has a Facebook page or Twitter account, give this person access so they can promote their posts. Sure you can have it set up so posts automatically go out but letting your writer go onto the social network and respond to comments, share it on their profile, and more means you’ll get way more bang for your buck.

  • Autonomy

By all means, check the first few blog posts before they go online… But nothing will slow down your company’s blogging quite like the bottleneck you will become if this keeps happening. Trust your people to do a good job (and by all means read the blog when it’s online!) but after an initial period of training, let your content writer run with it.

How Do I Find Content Writers?

So you’ve gathered above that while paying an hourly or salary employee to blog is cheaper for you per hour than having a writer do it… but it will also take them at least twice as long as someone just figuring it out. How can you find someone to help your employee get started or to do this for you?

Read blogs.

By reading blogs, you will find bloggers whose style you like. If you want to find someone local, do a Google blog search for local blogs in your area and see who’s writing. If you want someone who specializes in an industry, read blogs in those industries and certain names will emerge. These are good starting points.

Try LinkedIn.

Now that you have some names, look these people up on LinkedIn. Are they legit? Do other people recommend their blogging skills?

With LinkedIn's new skills endorsements, at a glance you can see that while you might not want me to fix your leaking faucet, you probably can trust me to blog for you.

With LinkedIn’s new skills endorsements, at a glance you can see that while you might not want me to fix your leaking faucet, you probably can trust me to blog for you.

You can ever search by skill on LinkedIn (blogging) so think of this site as a way to check someone’s references.

Problogger.net Job Board

If you want to be a bit more general about it all (‘I just want someone who wants the job’), try posting it on the Problogger job board. This is a highly regarded place in the online community to find legitimate paid blogging opportunities. (Well it’s as legitimate as Craigslist for finding an apartment… there are always scammy people but plenty of reputable people use it too.)

No matter the route you go, all bloggers should be able to provide writing samples to you and other pieces of information that can help you make your decision.

Like the rest of the world, you are more likely to find someone you already know for the job. That said, there is no reason you can’t go out and seek a content writer yourself if you don’t know any!
Does this seem like a bit of work? It always is to implement something new at first.
Will your employee need a bit more help then someone who does this all day? Of course.
But is it worth having a blog? This being my 897th entry, I might be a little biased when I say absolutely.

New Website Launch: National Park Sea Kayak

25 April

When Robert approached us about a website redesign, we could see that while the information on his site was current, he needed a visual refresher.

The old National Park Sea Kayak homepage was text heavy and needed an update.

The old National Park Sea Kayak homepage was text heavy and needed an update.

Robert wanted to use a logo that Z Studio had made several years ago. He also wanted it really obvious how to make a reservation request on the site:

The new design uses more of the width of the page, showcases photos, and has a very obvious 'make reservations' button and the phone number on top.

The new design uses more of the width of the page, showcases photos, and has a very obvious ‘make reservations’ button and the phone number on top.

We wanted all the visitors’ most common questions answers on their homepage:

  • What will we see?
  • What should we bring?
  • Why are tours four hours?
  • Where will we go?
  • How do we make a reservation?

We also wanted to put some ‘trust’ symbols on the homepage. Trust symbols let people know they are dealing with a legitimate business. Since they have excellent Tripadvisor reviews and all kayak guides are certified Maine guides, we made those prominent so the visitor would have confidence in booking a four hour tour with people they may have never met in real life.

A lot of what we did we editing the content. By making the website less wordy, we hoped that users would get the information they needed quickly and easily. We also used the extra space to showcase large scale photos by local photographer and friend of Acadia Kayak StealthVader Photography.

Congratulations to Robert and his team, who are planning on blogging this summer on their brand new site! Catch them on the water if you are in Bar Harbor this summer!

New Website Launch: Quigley’s Building Supply

27 February

What happens when you run three different kinds of businesses but want to run them on the same website platform? This is the issue Quigley’s Building Supply had… until their new website we launched yesterday.

Three Templates, One Website

Quigley’s Building Supply has always evolved to respond to community needs during its over 60 years of existence. These past couple years, this has meant moving beyond building supplies and into two other areas: equipment rental and an outdoor department. These businesses within the business have related but separate logos and operate in different parts of the same building. How do we represent this idea of separate but cohesive online? Three templates running one piece of software.

buildingsupplyminirentalminioutdoorsmini

Designwise, Alice made the images in the menu, headers, and sidebars all different. There is one template for the building supply side (We love the red hammer and were glad when Quigley’s did too!), one for the rental business, and one of the outdoor supply store. It’s really important that website visitors be able to move around on the website so tabs to the other sections are on each page. We also have breadcrumbs and site search allowing people to navigate the website beyond using only the menu.

What’s great is while these three parts of the website all look different, they all run on one install of WordPress. This allows the site search to work best since when a user submits a term or phrase, it searches all three parts of the site to find the information. From the angle of Quigley’s staff, this also gives them one administrative panel to log in and update the site.

To keep the look similar as website visitors move from one part of the site to another, the logos were placed in the same location and the same background color was used throughout the site. Each part of the site shows a different ‘business’ but it gives a unified sense so the web visitor understands that it is the same business.

Pro Staff

Part of the initiative of Quigleys Outdoors was to partner with area outdoor guides and give them a place to showcase their work. Many guides don’t have their own websites so this should be a valuable marketing opportunity. Each guide page has photos, information, and a contact form which gets emailed directly to the guide, allowing both Quigley’s Outdoors staff and the guides themselves to monitor referrals.

Mobile Template

We created a simple mobile template (with simplified menu going to each of the three main sections) using Obox Mobile. This way, if users are visiting from their smartphone, they can still get the information they need.

Third Party Integration

Quigley’s uses external services like social media, their eBay store, and a credit company called BlueTarp they use to give contractors and others store credit. We made all these resources easy to access and prioritized them on different parts of the website.

While the Quigley’s website seems simple, the three templates mean it only looks that way. Congratulations to Justin and the Quigley’s team on your new website!

Breaking Even Communications would like to thank Matthew Baya and Tom Beal for their contributions to this site. 

Full disclosure: This business is owned by my mom and managed by my brother-in-law. Not sure what this means since they paid us to do it and we aren’t receiving any other kickbacks from it but thought I’d disclose that anyway!