Websites – time to make a web presence!

Wait, make a what?  Make a Web presence.

Web Presence
Web Presence

What does that even mean?  Well to be totally straight, it is more than just a website, but a website is a good starting point.

So first things first.  I think I’ve heard of HTML and stuff related to websites somewhere. I suppose I better learn about it.  Let’s read up about HTML (the language that powers the web), and CSS (the format scripts that help your site look homogeneous), and WWW, oh wait, HTML5 is new let’s look into that, oh and URL, which is of course much different than UML   And PHP!  Yes, we better learn PHP Hypertext Preprocessor, and MySQL, and PostgreSQL, and, and, and … wait, where is my Ritalin.  I’m exhausted already.  Isn’t there a better way?

Well, I’m glad you asked.  In fact, there is a better way.

Web design in the wild west days

Early screen capture of Alta Vista web search engine, circa 1997
Early screen capture of Alta Vista web search engine, circa 1997

Way back at the turn of the century and even ten years ago, when it was time to start a web site, a web developer needed to learn all this and more.  Web sites were coded, Dreamweaver was king.  Back then a content editor would create the perfect prose and package it up for the web developer.  The content editor would then tell the web developer where to put the important stuff and where to put… well, you get the idea.

But today it is different.  That was the Old Covenant of the World Wide Web.  Today, we are under a New Covenant. It is totally different!

Well kind of different.  And kind of the same.  The content editor’s job is very close to the same.  But it is true, the web developer portion has changed a lot.  There is still a web developer, but the developer’s job has changed.

Today, most web sites are not home brewed, new framework sites.   Today when we think of web sites, we think (or should think) Content.  As such, we will have the web developer look for a Content Management System (or CMS) to handle most of our back end work.

Custom development vs standards based off the shelf development

Foundry
Foundry

Think of it this way.  If you were going to build a home, what would you change?  Right, you’d change the doors, and the windows.  Oh, and the color of the house, and the size of the rooms.  But would you use custom sized doors that required a custom builder?  Would you hire a metal worker and forge your own water faucets, or buy them ready made off the shelf at Home Depot or a supply shop?  Would you hire a light company and create custom light bulbs, or use standard Fluorescent T8 and Edison screw light sockets? [ Bet you didn’t know they were called Edison screws… 🙂 ]

Edison Screw
Edison Screw

In most situations — scratch that, almost all situations — creating a brand new from scratch anything is just way more expensive, and also causes a lot of issues with the customers and users.  I mean, who wants to go to a special light bulb manufacturer and pay that extra special price when they need to replace a light bulb?  Not many people.  It creates a hard to build, hard to manage, and hard to maintain solution.

Same goes for web sites.  People have become used to seeing a certain format on web sites, and the easier we can make our site to use, the more likely we’ll have customers that stay around.  So for web development, keep it, well, normal.  Unless you have a very special need, there is no need to home brew a web site.

Get me started!

So now that we’ve decided we really don’t want to learn all this stuff, we just want to get on the web.

Person blogging
Person blogging

We want folks to be able to see news articles we find important, or rants about our children, or ideas that we’d like to share — like this page you are looking at right now.  We don’t want to be web developers, we want to be content editors.  We won’t be creating a brand new web development platform, so what do we want?  We want a content management system all our own.

Great!  Let’s go read about that.  What is the CMS paradigm?  What is a CMS engine?  Searching for Content Management Systems leads to WordPress, and Joomla, and Drupal,  and…. wait, gosh darn it!  Where is that Ritalin again?

Let’s look at this from a different perspective.  Is it really the case that these CMS solutions are appropriate for what I want to do?  Okay, I’m glad you asked that too.

  • WordPress is likely the most popular web imprint for blogging.  It is known for its easy management and thousands of free themes.  It powers the likes of The New York Times, eBay, and Samsung.
  • Joomla is a powerful and highly configurable CMS.  Joomla powers the likes of MTV, Barnes & Noble, and General Electric.
  • Drupal is the beast of CMS.  It is a very highly configurable and extensible framework that powers the likes of Warner Bros Recordings, NASA, and The White House.

So what is our take away from all this?  The shortest of answers is:  It just doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that we get out there and publish.  Sure, the CMS engine does matter some, but remember, content is king!  If we make a big mistake on using the wrong content management engine?  We can transfer the data later.

Choosing your CMS

Okay, time for a little candidness.  I’m new to this blogging stuff as well.  The last time I built a web site was ten years ago.  Guess what I used?  I built it using Dreamweaver, HTML, and CSS.  But like we’ve already discussed, times have changed, and it was time to learn a more modern approach at web sites and blogging.

When I started this article, I was going to approach it from the technical side — after all, I am an engineer.  I was going to get into the grit of how to install whatever engine on any given host, blah blah blah.  But you know what I’ve learned?  Everyone has a site like that.

This article is the essence of what I’m trying to convey — content matters.  As I’m new to this as well, I had to select one of the CMS engines.  I chose WordPress.  Why?  Because:

  • It had the largest number of free themes available.  I didn’t want to spend any money during the learning process, so free was desirable.  Since everything on this site itself is free, I didn’t want to impose any fees on the reader to get started.  My first impression of Joomla and Drupal was highly configurable, but with fewer free gadgets.
  • It was “configurable enough”.  I wasn’t looking for The Configurable King, I was looking for something to get content, like this article, out to you … oh, and the world, of course. 🙂

I did install Joomla after the fact.  My first impression was it is just like WordPress, just the menu system is different.  It looks as though it might be more highly configurable than WordPress, but again, I only installed it.  I didn’t work on it.

Is that enough?

But is WordPress really enough?  Well, maybe.

  • If I wanted to develop a web imprint for general use?  I would develop a WordPress theme.  Why?  Because of market share.  Of course, the market is highly competitive as well, so keep that in mind.
  • If I wanted to develop a highly scalable web imprint, like that might power a Facebook or dating web site, I would likely develop a Drupal theme.

Well gosh though, with this in mind, you might ask why use a CMS engine at all?  I mean, if you are going to develop a large part of the engine and theme manually, why not just start from Java or .NET?  Three things come to mind.

  • Security.  If the Drupal or WordPress engine is compromised, rest assured the world will know about it, and a patch will be forthcoming.  If a site is home brewed, the site designers have to be particularly aware of security issues.
  • Speed of initial development.  Since the engine is off the shelf, a web site can be fully operational in weeks instead of months leaving the developers to concentrate on content.
  • Less expensive to maintain.  Since a large part of the management is handled by the engine itself, the content designers can focus more on the content and presentation instead of focusing on how that presentation might be coded.

WordPress pros and cons

I am already a big proponent of WordPress — can you tell?  There are great things, and there are a few things that I’ve noticed are difficulties.  The difficulties might be my fault, and these might be issues with all CMS engines, but just to note a few things…

  • It isn’t very easy to edit great content.  What I mean by this is the actual editing process.  For example, this page.  It doesn’t autosave (might be a plugin for that), and it just isn’t as natural as say using Open Office or Libre Office (haha, can you tell I support free software?)  Realize I’m new at this, so it might just be a learning curve.  I’ll edit this note if I figure out a better way.
  • It seems as though the site is going to become a little difficult to manage as the amount of content (especially pages) grows.  Managing WordPress is likely a learning curve issue, and I’ll post a note when I get this figured out.  I expect if The New York Times can manage tens of thousands of pages, it must just be a learning curve fear of the unknown.
  • There’s an app for that.  By itself, WordPress is really just a security engine.  What makes the magic happen are the plugins and themes and widgets.  Just remember, there is an app for almost anything you wish to do.  Sometimes it might be difficult to find, and sometimes especially difficult to find a free one, but someone somewhere has likely developed a widget or plugin that perfectly fit your needs.
  • Pages and post and plugins and themes and comments and administrators and editors and… Well, what I’m getting at here is, there is still a learning curve.  Once you pick the CMS engine of your choice, give yourself a few weeks to just poke and prod.  Create a page or even a site, and then start modifying it.  Add an image, change an image, add a page, just poke around.  Do it in a non production environment — like, create a wp2 instance for your eyes only, and break it.  Then see if it is easy enough to fix.

The WordPress platform

WordPress
WordPress

Out of the box, WordPress is a great platform, but what makes it a great engine is its extensibility.  This happens in part through plugins.  For example,  have you seen those CAPTCHA requests that are annoying to you as a user, but do a great deal to help reduce the amount of SPAM and spammy links to sites?  Well, there’s a plugin for that.  And for contact forms, so you don’t have to create your own, and for many other extensions you will likely use during your life as a web blogger.  We have an article on notable plugins that will help you learn to search for plugins, and help you get started in using them.

“…Let’s get this party started!”

Great, you’ve told me all this stuff, but how do I do it?  The easiest way is to open a WordPress account, and let WordPress handle the chores for you.  You can do that here, and learn about how to get started too.  Once you get an idea of how blogging works, you can install your own WordPress on your own site.  That task is host specific though, so you’ll have to find out how to do that through your domain host, or you can ask me individually and I’ll help you out.

As always, let’s be careful out there!  Happy blogging!

 References

  1. Elements of a successful business web presence, http://mashable.com/2010/02/10/business-web-presence/.
  2. WordPress Blogging introductory article, http://codex.wordpress.org/Introduction_to_Blogging
  3. Drupal Famous Sites, http://www.tributemedia.com/blog/erika-meissner/famous-drupal-sites
  4. Joomla Famous Sites, http://community.joomla.org/labels/joomla-portfolio.html
  5. WordPress Famous Sites, http://en.wordpress.com/notable-users/
  6. Get Started with WordPress, http://codex.wordpress.org/Getting_Started_with_WordPress
  7. Install your own WordPress, https://wordpress.org/

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