This WordPress review summarizes my recent experience with WordPress, a powerful and user-friendly website-building program. It tells why you might want to create a personal website, gives a brief introduction to WordPress and weighs the pros and cons of WordPress as a website tool.
The social media universe has exploded, with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn being joined by a dizzying array of apps that can connect us with each other. Most people don’t need a website to communicate with their friends and their friends-of-friends-of-friends. So why did Art Chester need a website?
I have written elsewhere about my desire to write fiction about life in the research lab. Those who inhabit the arcane world of science are in fact real people: they have adventures and romances even though they have chosen a way of life that’s a mystery to the general public. I wanted to lift that veil of mystery.
I soon learned that in today’s world, it’s easy to publish a book, but the real trick is breaking through the barrage of noise to find people who will read it. Therefore, ArtChester.net started as a way to build an audience for my fiction. I decided to write about something that I know about: to translate what happens in science for non-specialists, searching for useful nuggets that we can apply in everyday life. I quickly found two other benefits in addition to list-building: the website enabled me to comment on research results that I thought were interesting and important; and it gave me additional ideas for book plots that incorporate technology.
As my library of articles grows (over 200 to date), my website traffic keeps growing, both from regular readers and from people who discover my articles through search engines. The website had 10,000 views last year and is on track for 18,000 this year. In case you’re curious, my most popular article has been the one on Hawaii’s sea burial customs.
These numbers are miniscule compared with a profit-making business, but I’m proud of the progress, and I’m grateful to you, my readers, for your interest in what I write.
Why A Website Of Any Kind?
More generally, here are four reasons why many of us create websites:
– 1. As described above, to build a “platform,” that is, a potential audience, for a “product,” which in my case is fiction about research lab people.
– 2. Self-expression, which can evolve into a profit-making enterprise (viz. Fifty Shades of Grey). [Note: I don’t mean to imply narcissism – for me, this category embraces goals such as communication, education, supporting a charitable cause, providing a forum to answer questions, and other purposes.]
– 3. To make available a portfolio of one’s professional credentials and past work – for example, the websites of artists and design professionals.
– 4. To sell and deliver products and services; this type of website includes a means for collecting money from you, with all that implies.
WordPress Review: Accessibility
The fourth reason above is typified by a company whose revenue stream arises directly from its website. Such a website owner will find it worthwhile to hire web developers to create and maintain a professional web presence.
For the first three categories of website, the domain owner generally has to choose between a cut-rate web design service on the Internet, and some form of Do It Yourself. And Do It Yourself is a practical and accessible option for anyone who has average computer literacy thanks to WordPress, the world’s most popular blogging system.
As I present a critical WordPress review and discuss website options, I’ll use my three current websites as examples:
– ArtChester.net, this “science” blog site;
– Honokeana.net, the vacation rental website for our Maui condo rental association;
– Maui114.net, the rental website for the Chester condo on Maui.
ArtChester.net and Maui114.net are my personal websites; Honokeana.net is a site that I manage along with my co-webmaster Phil Wolken, another Honokeana Cove condo owner, in support of our condo rental association.
This WordPress review serves to update my previous blog article about WordPress and the Weaver II theme. It addresses a reader who has, or might acquire, a domain name and get it hosted by some company such as GoDaddy. And it assumes that person has decided how his or her material and motivations fit into the list of reasons above.
WordPress Review: Control
As noted in my earlier article, although WordPress.com lets you use their blog site for free, you have to accept ads that you cannot control. It’s a better idea to let your domain hosting company install the WordPress software for you, which takes only a few minutes. Then you are free to decide whether to have ads at all, and if so, which ones.
The combination of free installation by your hosting company and lots of documentation makes WordPress both accessible and controllable for almost everyone.
WordPress Review: Flexibility
WordPress is popular and ubiquitous largely because of its flexibility. Its flexibility arises from several add-on features: Themes, Plugins and Widgets.
Themes. A “theme” is a user interface that provides the look and feel of your website. Your WordPress installation arrives equipped with several WordPress-provided themes, bearing such names as Twenty Fifteen and Twenty Fourteen. If you like the look of one of those, you can use it as is, or you can use its control panel to change such things as color schemes, fonts and photos.
Child Themes. Once you choose a theme that you will use, you must create a Child Theme, which is a duplicate of the basic theme plus your customizations. If you have a child theme, updates to the underlying theme will not wipe out your customizations. I have successfully used the plugins Child Themify and Child Theme Wizard to create child themes.
Free Themes. Most themes are free or have a free version. I strongly recommend trying one or more free themes, and only then considering whether to upgrade to the “Pro” (non-free) version. WordPress currently has more than 10,000 available themes, of which thousands are free. You can find lists of recommended themes and easily discover a free theme which has had thousands of downloads and is praised by dozens of reviews. A section below discusses systematic approaches for choosing a theme.
Plugins. A “plugin” is a helper program that performs specific functions. You will need security plugins to patch the gaps in basic WordPress and to create a child theme. You will want other plugins to add functions that you want on your site, such as contact forms, Facebook feeds, sitemaps, image slideshows, social media buttons and syndication, tables, search engine optimization, and YouTube frames.
Widgets. Widgets are blocks of data that you can format as you wish and put anywhere at all on your website. They may contain menus, search boxes, blocks of photos, videos, or just about anything, depending on how flexible your theme is.
WordPress Review: How to Choose a Theme
Once you start working with a theme you will invest considerable time personalizing it, so it makes sense to choose the theme carefully. You can start by searching WordPress for themes using keywords that relate to your interests.
Responsive Themes. When researching themes, I include the word “responsive” in my search queries because responsiveness, that is, compatibility with mobile devices, is essential for every new web design today.
It’s not a perfect test, but you can get an idea of the responsiveness of any theme by looking at their demo pages and dragging your browser window to narrower widths, to see how the display changes. The narrower browser should cause the page elements to rearrange so that they are all still visible. If the narrow window simply obscures part of the webpage, drop that theme from consideration.
Essential Steps. Whichever approach you take, there are some things you must do with every theme you are considering. (These are also recommended for every plugin that you consider using.) You should:
(1) look at the theme demo pages; see how many copies of that theme have been downloaded;
(2) see when it was last updated;
(3) see whether it has extensive documentation that matches your tech skill level;
(4) see whether it has an active user forum where questions are posed and answered.
(5) In addition, you must read every WordPress review of that theme: not just the ones from friends and family of the developer, but also the ones that criticize the theme.
By comparing these factors for candidate themes, you will quickly separate the sheep from the goats. However, you may still have too many sheep, so this WordPress review will suggest a way to winnow them out, as follows.
Weeding Out the Themes. So far as I can see, there are three strategies for sorting through the many choices of themes: Copycat; Dazzle Factor; and Professional Guidance:
– Copycat. (“You can’t argue with success!”) Suppose you are familiar with a few websites that do what you are trying to do, and seem to be doing it very successfully. You can look for themes that give your website a similar design and functionality.
– Dazzle Factor. (“Those high tech effects blow me away!”) You will encounter some themes with impressive special effects – slideshows that drop from the sky and have built-in menus, multiple video windows, 3-D animation, you name it. If these goodies make your heart beat quickly, perhaps a high tech theme is the one for you. However, be on guard: the newest stuff will have skimpy documentation and very few reviews – and the latter may be primarily from the designer’s best friends.
– Professional Guidance. (“I know what I don’t know”) If you know that you need professional design and implementation help, by all means find help and use it. I had to learn this lesson. I created my first version of ArtChester.net using inspiration from other author websites I had seen, such as the ones that publisher Wheatmark offers to their clients. Alas, I realized that my first attempt at a website did not telegraph who I am and what the website is about. I consulted Mike Bell, an advertising professional whose design work has always impressed me, and a sample design from Mike persuaded me that visual design of a website is something that I just don’t know how to do. My approach henceforth has been to ask for a conceptual design that will accomplish the goals of the website; then go shopping for a theme flexible enough to allow me to implement the design.
When Is Enough Good Enough? (or, Better is the Enemy of Good)
For ArtChester.net, I reviewed dozens of themes and settled on Weaver II because of its stellar reviews, great documentation, active user forum and, especially, its provisions for personalizing almost every aspect of the website. And it turned out that the Weaver II theme was flexible enough to implement the design provided by Mike Bell.
For Honokeana.net and Maui114.net I considered a handful of other themes but decided to stay with the Weaver family of themes, most recently updated to Weaver Xtreme. I have also gradually acquired a library of several dozen trustworthy plugins, from which I select the ones needed by each of my websites.
Am I being lazy by sticking with a theme in a familiar family, one that seems good enough? This is how I look at it: My skills at web programming are creeping along, but I am by no means ready to hang out my shingle. I can insert HTML code right and left. I can write CSS commands now and then. And I have changed a PHP file with guidance from a plugin’s documentation. But these form the extent of my web-building skills. I certainly can’t program whiz-bang effects from scratch.
I’m willing to live with my programming limitations, because what I want more than anything else is to create websites of high quality that will entertain and benefit my visitors. When mobile devices became common, users demanded responsive websites, and designers answered that need by building responsive themes. And when additional innovations become de rigueur, I’m sure that the theme designers will incorporate them. Therefore, I believe that so as long as I’m willing to be “up to date” but not “ahead of the curve,” my programming skill is good enough to achieve my goals in the Internet world. Let’s hear it for selective laziness!
WordPress Review: Growth and Evolution
One more benefit of WordPress is that during its 14 years of existence, it has benefited from continual upgrades by a core group, supported by hundreds of volunteers. Even more visible are improvements in its themes and plugins. Here are a few examples from my last two years of website creation:
– The default settings in WordPress have been improved to patch some of its “out of the box” vulnerabilities, thereby protecting innocent users who have not thought to install proper security plugins.
– When I used Weaver II to program Honokeana.net, in order to implement theme-wide images called for by the design I had to manually format some of the content using HTML; however, the newer theme Weaver Xtreme contains settings that could accomplish an equivalent result without requiring any HTML code.
– My favorite security plugin All In One WP Security has been upgraded with many more layers of protection; it is pre-loaded with default settings that are suitable for most users.
WordPress Review: Criticism
No tool is perfect, and this WordPress review would be remiss if I did not mention some drawbacks of Do It Yourself website construction via WordPress:
Spammers and Hackers. Just as Windows PCs attract hackers because of their wide usage, so does WordPress. WordPress “out of the box” is not well protected. It’s essential for you to install and configure plugins to protect against these continuous threats: (1) hackers who try to sign into your account or register as users so as to take control of your site; (2) spam comments on your posts, which contain links to sites offering random products and services; (3) spam comments on your Contact page.
I have found the following plugins to provide a secure line of defense: Akismet (spam filter); All In One WP Security (hacker security); Contact Form 7 with Really Simple CATPCHA plugin; and Simple Trackback Validation with Topsy blocker. There are good articles with additional advice on preventing spam.
File Proliferation. WordPress generates a large number of files and whenever a visitor views a webpage, the host server has to access a large number of them. When we added a web cam at honokeana.net the additional page views pressed the limits of our GoDaddy hosting account. Fortunately, GoDaddy has added a “Managed WordPress” hosting service that is optimized for WordPress, and since switching to it we have not noticed service delays. Presumably other hosting companies are doing likewise.
User Name Privacy. In WordPress, for security you would like to use a user name that is different from the name you display on your posts. Keeping your user name private adds one more impediment to a hacker trying to sign on to your account. However, if you publish posts under the same name that you administer your WordPress site and include an author credit, WordPress publishes the author name with a link that can allow a hacker to learn your user name. I hope that WordPress will fix this defect soon; in the meanwhile, it requires awareness and extra effort on the part of the website owner.
Immovable. Once you install a WordPress site, try to avoid moving it to another domain, or to another hosting company. There are extensive articles which supposedly explain how to move your WordPress site, and plugins that claim to automatically “clone” a site from one domain to another, but basically, it’s very risky. After consulting Phil and Janelle, my favorite Microsoft gurus, and trying out a cloning plugin which did not work at all, I concluded that life is too short to worry about all the things that can go wrong when you move a WordPress site. So when I updated our Maui condo website, I just installed it on a new domain (Maui114.net) and after it was up and running, I forwarded the old domain (Maui114.com) to the new one. The coward’s way out, I admit, but my compulsive desire to be perfect in every way does in fact have its limits.
Nevertheless, if you really need to migrate a WordPress website to another domain or hosting provider, tools and help are available. When I moved honokeana.net to GoDaddy’s new WordPress hosting service, that required cloning the site. The GoDaddy rep did most of the work using their in-house tool; all I had to do was to disable my security plugin, wait for him to perform the transfer, then re-enable and re-configure the plugin.
Freshness Tags. I have one more minor quibble with WordPress: its posts are labeled with the post’s date of publication. I would prefer that posts display the date when the article was last amended or updated, because that is more useful information for the visitor. Making this selection should be a control panel option; at present, it requires you to manually edit the WordPress files.
Your Website as a Member of your Family
Owning a website is akin to owning a pet, because it requires continual time and attention. These requirements are not unique to WordPress, yet a WordPress review would be incomplete without these cautions:
Daily Care and Feeding. I check my websites almost every day. I look at the most recent comments to make sure that spam has not slipped through. I install updates for all plugins and themes: with the number of plugins I use (24 on ArtChester.net, 18 on Honokeana.net, 23 on Maui114.net), there’s an update almost every day.
I used to blacklist the URLs generating spam comments. However, when I reached 281 blocked URLs I started experiencing frequent outages on my site, apparently due to congestion in the .htaccess file, so I had to abandon my blacklist. It’s not a great loss: I observed that spammers have a near-infinite number of URLs available from which to send spam, and tend not to use the same URL more than once. Thus blacklisting is not an effective way to block them. Spam filters, such as the Akismet plugin, and CAPTCHA fields together do a good job.
Daily Enhancement. A website that is not frequently updated is dead. Here’s how I update the sites that I maintain:
– ArtChester.net. I try to post a good blog at least weekly. Archived articles acquire dead links, so monthly I use a tool such as BrokenLinkCheck to find and repair them. Less often, articles need updating: I have updated my Scrabble Word Lists a dozen times, and my “Interview with Urno Barthel” and “Personalities” articles several times.
– Honokeana.net. This site’s most rapidly changing content comes from its embeds: iFrames on the Guest Reviews page show Facebook posts that change daily and TripAdvisor reviews that change almost as often. The Weather page tells Maui conditions and forecast. The Web Cam page shows current weather plus people having fun at the Cove. In addition, Phil and I are now in the process of adding a newsletter from our rental manager, which will enable comments from readers (and invite the ever-present spammers).
– Maui114.net. The condo website is designed so as not to require frequent changes. Nola and I send holiday cards to a number of past rental guests every year. This year, we may invite them to share photos and stories that I could syndicate onto the site. I also plan to make periodic additions to the site’s nine “Feature Stories” that describe Hawaiian traditions and visitor activities.
So concludes my WordPress review.
Are you inspired to start your own website? If not, at least you’ve seen what goes on behind the scenes at countless thousands of websites we encounter whenever we use the Internet.
Image Credit: WordPress logo, courtesy of WordPress Foundation. Used with permission.