State of My Word(Press) 2011

How WordPress Eased Me Into The World Of The Web

One year ago I started thinking seriously about making some major life changes. Changes that resulted in leaving the well worn path to my 8 year “career”, and on to the nebulous world of freelance/self-employment. I had never heard of, let alone used WordPress. Although I did have a solid computer background, the idea of publishing a blog or website ranked somewhere up there with black magic or pixie dust. But as life teaches us, necessity is the mother of invention, inspiration, or whatever else you need to do. And I needed to get a site up and running for myself and for my wife’s burgeoning business endeavours.

My move into the world of the Web, Social Media and WordPress has been tremendously exciting, rewarding and frustrating. I would not have learned what I have, and accomplished as much if I was on my own. Some pretty smart and very generous people have gone before and are making it easier for folks like me (and probably you) to follow along. The community improves when everyone shares more, as the saying goes

A rising tide floats all boats

Consider this the start of my contribution the community. If you are just starting out, or if any of my story resonates with you then hopefully this can help steer you clear of the mistakes I made with a good understanding of the fundamentals. While there are some very good books out there, they generally stop short of giving opinions or recommendations. That won’t be a problem for me, I will let you know what I chose, think or recommend and why. I really only endorse products that I have used and have some experience with.

1. Choosing A Blog Platform

If you are bootstrapping your own start-up business, you really don’t have much of a choice but to do most of the groundwork yourself. So after a bunch of reading and research, I settled on WordPress from all the other blog/CMS (Content Management System) platforms out there. My thought process went something like this:

  • I want flexibility. I want a solution that can function as a blog and CMS and can be flexible for whatever the future holds. That ruled out a few choices.
  • Free vs. paid. I didn’t mind paying for hosting and for themes. You generally get what you pay for and the free options held too many compromises and limitations for me in the long term.
  • I want to be part of a large and well established community. I can’t afford to be on the sharp end of the stick when it comes to errors or software bugs or whatever. This was the big one for me, and WordPress probably has the largest and most active developer community out there.
  • Lastly I wanted something easy that I could start with, but didn’t limit me as I learned more. So WordPress it was then.

2. It’s All About The Theme

So with the decision for self-hosted WordPress made it was time to pick a theme. Here is where the wheels can come off for most folks, they certainly did for me. There are tens of thousands of themes out there! So many in fact that just choosing a theme store site to browse and buy from was a challenge in itself. I ended up at ThemeForest, which still had more choice than I knew what to do with. I the “me” of today could go back to the “me” from last year I would have a few lessons to teach myself. We fell into the trap of choosing a theme for how it looked in the demo, without any regard for how it worked and how it functioned. I can’t really blame myself because I just didn’t know to ask those questions or think that way. But I do now.

So here is how it broke down. We (the mrs and I) chose a theme for her site. I worked hard for a week or so trying to hit our self-imposed deadline for launch date. And I started learning WordPress along the way. On deadline day we had a fairly nice looking site; Mission Accomplished. That lasted for 60 days before I realized that we had made a poor choice and had outgrown the design of the theme. How? I am driven by what the Japanese call Kaizen, a philosophy or practice that focus upon continuous improvement. This is was drove me to be working on continuous minor refinements of the site, and how I found all of the themes weaknesses in such a short time. Here are a few pearls of wisdom I uncovered in the process.

Theme Selection Criteria

  1. You get what you pay for. Most free themes are fairly simple. If you want a blank slate then they give you that, if you want good design, support and features, keep looking.
  2. Not all theme developers are created equal. This was the hardest lesson to learn, because as a “noob” I had no tools to discern the good from the bad.
  3. A good theme developer is in it for the long haul and offers continued support for the theme.
  4. A free theme from a well established designer is probably a lot better than a “premium theme” at some random theme store.
  5. Not all themes are created equal. Some themes (most theme store themes) are designed for one purpose, the one shown in the demo. Try to introduce a different widget, plugin, feature or whatnot and it will either not work, or break the built in function.
  6. If you even hesitate for a second thinking you will only ever use your site how the demo is shown, you may want to research you theme choice A LOT more!
  7. A widgetized area or areas on homepage or wherever else are much more valuable than some sort of “baked-in” function, any day.
  8. If you think you could end up having more than one site, you may want to research Theme Frameworks. Why spend all that time learning each unique theme, only to do it all over for the next site? If you don’t think it will happen to you, you might be surprised. I just rolled over into double digits.
  9. If you read this far in the list, you may want to spend some time looking at theme frameworks. That is where I ended up.

Theme Frameworks

60 days after launching our first site I knew that I needed something better. All of my research, re-read and combined with the experience I had now gained, pointed me towards Theme Frameworks. I had read about theme before, but failed to grasp the significance of what they offered. There are three basic categories that I can see how to define the different theme frameworks.

Types of Theme Frameworks

  1. Developers that use a Core Framework of code to build each of their themes. The theme itself is designed for a particular look, but most of the code and back-end function of the site is the same, theme to theme. They tend to sell their themes as memberships and you typically get access to a few, if not all of their themes. The code similarity typically allows you to change from theme to theme with minimal effort. The best examples of this approach are by companies like WooThemes and Press75. Take a look at their sites, they have some pretty good looking and functioning themes. Even the Free themes released by Press75 are pretty amazing.
  2. Developers that use the theme framework as a very adaptable platform to build a site on top of. They all have a standard “look” but are able to be designed into just about anything from there. Good examples of this are Thesis by DIY Themes, Headway by Headway Themes and Standard Theme by 8Bit. A good friend of mine runs a site using Thesis, and I have worked with Standard Theme on a few co-blog projects with friends. I have never used Headway personally, but the design possibilities it offers are very intriguing.
  3. Developers that use the framework as a “Parent” Theme, and have “Child” themes that are used for the look and function of the site. The best example of the Parent Theme/Child Theme setup is the Genesis Framework by StudioPress. Another example is the versatile Thesis theme as some enterprising developers have started creating “skins” for the Thesis theme to change its appearance and function.

3. So Which Themes Do I Use

Almost all of my sites run on the Genesis Framework. The reasons ended up being pretty simple and logical.

  1. Genesis is licensed under the GPL, which allows me to use as many copies of it for my own sites as I please. Now that is good value!
  2. When I realized that I would have more than one site active, I came to the conclusion that it just made sense to learn one Framework system really well, instead of having a fragmented system of back-end support to deal with.
  3. I love the ability to change the look of a site with a change to the child theme. In some cases it takes only minutes.
  4. The SEO from Genesis is just outstanding. Without having to fill in a bunch of extra fields and information, I am getting better results by just writing good content.
  5. The more I use it, the more I learn what it is capable of and I don’t run into any roadblocks (like the very first theme I started with)
You may have noticed that I said the word “Almost”, and may be wondering what that meant. One area that Genesis is not that strong in is serious Photography themes, although it is a matter of time before someone released a great photo theme. My main freelancing job is as a photographer. My current photography site is running on Genesis, but I am currently planning a redesign (and some personal photo & video projects) for my site using the ProPhotoTheme by 8Bit. ProPhotoTheme is built on the Standard Theme framework, so I know it is well designed and has good SEO and all that. I didn’t make this decision lightly, but in the end the Photo specific design and features are just that much better than I would be able to design on Genesis.
I am also working on some ideas to bring together a Live Streaming event, for which I will be using the LIVE Theme by 8Bit, which again runs on the same framework as Standard Theme. Honestly I started thinking about a live event AFTER seeing a demo of the LIVE Theme. Prior to that I thought that kind of functionality was out of reach.

4. The Right Advise

I wouldn’t be anywhere without following and learning from a bunch of talented designers and developers. Because I have chosen to almost exclusively us the Genesis Framework, I obviously follow major players from StudioPress as well as as many of the independent designer/developers that make their living developing child themes or sites for clients using Genesis. They are a great bunch of people who are extremely helpful. Whether you choose Genesis or not, you should be able to find a community of people on Twitter, Google+, etc that are built up around your framework of choice.

The other great resource associated with Genesis is on the support forums. Great tutorials abound, and in most cases any question I would need to ask has already been asked and answered and just waiting for you. You need to have purchased a copy of the Genesis Framework in order to gain access to the forums.

Getting in to the world of blogging there are too many resources to follow, so you need to pick and choose. Someone like ProBlogger is a well established entity. His 31 Days To A Better Blog is a great ebook and will teach you a lot. Another place you will want to look is a site called WPCandy.com.

If you are identifying with me so far then I would like to give you a suggestion: you need to check out a guy by the name of @tentblogger (tentblogger.com). His site has become my go-to learning resource for WordPress and blog development. The reasons are fairly simple. He has a background in development, so he knows what his is talking about (he is behind ProPhotoTheme, LiveTheme, and StandardTheme). He is a genuinely likeable guy who is easy to learn from, and does a great job conveying that in his posts and videos. Lastly the sheer amount of information he has laid out in a few of his blog series is astounding. He literally does a step by step approach to launching a WordPress powered blog, taking you through all the stuff you didn’t know about to make it safe and secure and just work. And he does it in a way that is as easy to read a possible, given the subject matter. If you are looking for where to start, or want to learn more, then look no further.

Bottom line. Continually look for people that are free with the advice and follow them, they will push you to learn more.

5. For the Genesis Crowd

I spent (wasted) too much time wading through search pages on Google trying to find all of the possible options for child themes. The problem is that there are some awesome themes buried 40 or 50 pages deep in those searches. For my own purposes, like proposing a site redesign to my wife for her site, or helping friend choose a child theme, I started to make a list of all the different developers with links in Evernote (if you have never tried Evernote, do so now and thank me later). A month or two later I decided that I should make the list public, because I couldn’t be the only one hunting for all these themes. The result is a Directory of All Genesis Child Theme Developers, with links to their themes and key information (pricing, licensing, theme count, etc). Some of links in this document are affiliate links, but most are not. I wanted to include ALL options, not just the ones promoted with affiliate links.

I took the same approach in grouping together all of the Free Child Themes that various developers

In either case, you will still need to purchase and install a copy of the Genesis Framework before activating the theme of your choice. If any of this information has been helpful to you, consider clicking your way through the affiliate links provided: Purchase the Genesis Framework by StudioPress. Thanks!

6. Bringing It All Together: Summary of Recommendations

So to conclude what is possibly the longest post I have ever written let me summarize what I am saying here.

  • If you are looking for an adaptable blogging platform and/or you want a customizable CMS, then look no further than self-hosted WordPress.
  • For the most ready to go, out of the box theme for standard blogging, you are going to want to take a hard look at Standard Theme.
  • If you have several sites to create, or like something highly styled, or you like the idea of changing things up, then take a real good look at the Genesis Framework.
  • If you plan to do some sort of live/interactive event, the LIVE Theme is worth some serious consideration.
  • The winners on the easy-to-use/great-SEO front, in my opinion, is the Genesis Framework, followed by Standard Theme.
  • When developing your site remember: design it with the user in mind for a good browsing experience.
  • If you want to see all of the the free child themes for the Genesis Framework, check out my Catalog of All Free Genesis Child Themes.
  • If you want to see ALL of the possible child themes out there, check out my Directory of Genesis Child Theme Developers.
Remember, be awesome in WordPress, just as in life!!

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Comments

  1. thanks for the link…. love!

    but it’s missing an active URL ~~~> http://cl.ly/9uhm

    😉

    • Ha. I woke up at 5AM this morning and realized I forgot to add that hyperlink. Hoped it would go unnoticed until I had a chance to fix it. You are just too quick!

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