Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Bloggin’ On Up, Part 4: Setting Up Shop In Your New Town

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

Ditched Blogger? Check!

Found a new webhost? Check!

Grabbed a domain name? Check.com!

New website set up? Uh… uh… uh… you didn’t tell us how to do that yet, Nick!

Oops, my bad. But that’s okay, because now I’m going to share with you all 734 steps it took me to go from this…

[          ] <–empty space

…to this…

(um, yeah, look at this website).

By the way, I’m obviously kidding about the 734 steps. It really takes at least 2,000. I’m serious. Really, I am! Okay, I’m not.

Pick Your Poison: WordPress vs. Something Else

If you’re looking to set up a new blog, you’re probably going to install a pre-made blogging platform. Feel free to write your own, but keep in mind that it’s not very easy. For example, it took 3,000 slave monkeys 14 years to write the 17 million lines of code that make up this blog.

There are dozens of blogging software packages available out there, but since you went to all the trouble of leaving behind your free webhost to switch to a paid one, you’re probably looking for the best one. In that case, you’re going to want to choose WordPress. Why WordPress? Because whenever I say WordPress and link to WordPress, they pay me eight cents. Er, uh, I mean, because it’s the most well developed and supported blogging platform in the world that you can get for free.

But just so I don’t seem biased towards WordPress WordPress WordPress, here’s a quick rundown of the other two platforms I considered before ultimately choosing the rich, creamy flavor of WordPress

  • Movable Type. Normally I’ll choose something that’s written in Perl over something that’s written in PHP any day of the week, but I just couldn’t do it this time. Much angst was generated by Six Apart‘s decision to buy Movable Type and start charging for it, though a free version still exists for those not interested in paying for support. And while Movable Type supports multiple blogs with a single installation, it was just too lacking in other areas compared to WordPress to make it worth any real consideration.
  • b2evolution. I’d call b2evolution the underdog blogging platform. It is comparable to WordPress in many ways–it’s completely free and open source, it possesses some of the features missing from Movable Type, and it seems to be pretty flexible and easy to work with. In fact, if it weren’t for WordPress, I predict that b2evolution would rule the free blogging software market. But WordPress exists, and b2evolution seems to be a few steps too many behind it.

Mmm, WordPress. Droooool.

In all seriousness, WordPress surpasses every other available blogging platform by leaps, bounds, and capers! Here are the main features that made WordPress the obvious choice for punny.org.

  • Free free free! It’s free to get (it costs nothing to license, download, or install). It’s GPL’d (arguably the best license for open source software). And it’s free from the restrictions suffered by other blogging software that costs money and isn’t open source.
  • First-class support, free! If you have a question about WordPress that the excellent documentation doesn’t answer for you, you can pose it on the WordPress support forums. There are a lot of smart people reading and responding to questions there. From my experience, if WordPress can’t do it already, you go to their support forums and someone will figure out how to do it.
  • Plugins like you wouldn’t believe. There are so many freely available plugins for WordPress that can help you extend its functionality that it can sometimes be hard to choose which plugin you want to use. Fortunately, installing most WordPress plugins is as simple as downloading the plugin, FTPing it to the WordPress plugin folder on your server, and clicking a single button in the administration panel to activate it.
  • Wide selection of themes. The default appearance for WordPress is downright plain, but a quick and simple installation of a theme will bring your blog’s appearance to life! The theme you see here is a heavily modified version of the TriColumn Theme by Matthew Phiong. (Matthew was using the theme on his website up until just last week, but you can just Google his name and you’ll find dozens of other blogs using unmodified or slightly tweaked versions.) Making changes to the appearance of your blog requires no changes to the actual WordPress code (so upgrades don’t force you to re-hack your theme in), and you can accomplish simple color tweaks of most themes by just playing around with the CSS file.
  • It’s simple, but not too simple. I could have easily installed a theme and a ton of plugins without ever looking at a single line of PHP code. WordPress is simple enough to give basic users a lot of power yet flexible enough to give more advanced users insane customization abilities.

My WordPress Installation From Download to Opening Day

While I typed up a whole bunch of notes during my setup of WordPress, I’m going to seriously condense them here so that I don’t bore you all to death. In total, I estimate that it took me about 20 man-hours to get this site to its present appearance.

Step 1: (Download and) install WordPress.

There is a good chance that your webhost has a feature that will help you install a WordPress blog on your website in as little as one click. While there’s nothing wrong with those (and it’s probably best for people looking for a no-nonsense installation), I’m going to walk through a manual download and installation.

First, grab the latest version of WordPress from here (600KB .zip file). Yes, the latest copy is always found at that location. Unzip it onto your computer. Then you can pick up from step 2 of the installation instructions. These instructions are pretty straightforward for just about any host. Be sure to pick out strong passwords, and carefully type in the fields required by wp-config.php. (I didn’t and spent about 20 minutes trying to figure out why I was getting an error page. Stupid me.)

In the fourth step of the installation instructions, you’ll notice that you have a choice between installing your blog to your website’s root directory (i.e. http://www.example.com/) or a folder underneath it (i.e. http://www.example.com/foldername/). As you can see, I installed to the root directory, but it does make things a little trickier (but not much). Choose either way, but I think installing to the root directory makes your URLs look a little cooler.

The install script is as easy to run as it looks. If you get the WordPress database error page, then you probably mistyped your information in wp-config.php.

Step 2: Make your blog look prettier.

Visit your blog at whatever location it’s installed; you’ll probably fall asleep from boredom. No content, no extras, default theme. We’re going to tackle these issues in reverse order.

Start your search for a theme at the big long list of WordPress themes. Once you’ve decided if you want a one-, two-, or three-column layout (stick with two or three for maximum awesomeness), start visiting theme links to view examples of each theme and download the one(s) you like. Unzip each theme and upload each theme’s folder to your wp-content/themes directory. You can then go to your administration panel’s Presentation menu to pick a theme. Select the theme you want, view your blog, and repeat until you find the one you like. Feel free to leave any other themes loaded on your site; you can always switch to another one later with ease.

You’ll also want to change your permalink structure. Instead of your URLs looking like http://www.example.com/?p=45, you’re going to want http://www.example.com/something/your-post-title. This will help you a great deal with search engine optimization, and it looks cooler, too. You can choose a few formats for your permalink structure including http://www.example.com/year/month/day/your-post-title and http://www.example.com/category/your-post-title. I highly recommend using category instead of date to help even more with search engine optimization (and, of course, it looks cooler). You can also do http://www.example.com/your-post-title, but this has a habit of breaking things, so I don’t recommend this setup.

Step 3: Pimp out your blog.

See that Plugin button in your administration panel? It will soon be your favorite button out of all the buttons in the universe. Yes, even more than ~.

If you visit the Plugins menu, you’ll see that three plugins have already been installed for you. Ignore Akismet and Hello Dolly, but click the Activate link for WordPress Database Backup to turn it on. You’ll now have a Backup tab under the Manage menu that will help you make backup copies of your WordPress database (everything from posts to comments to links is saved by default). Select the “Download to your computer” radio button and click Backup! to save a copy of your database. Hopefully you’ll never need to use your backups, but it’s nice to know they’re there.

You’re probably wondering how many plugins are working to keep Punny Money buzzing like the sexy little bee that it is. As of today, I have ten plugins installed and activated, though I’ll probably add a few more soon. To be cool like me, you will want each and every one of those ten plugins. Backup is one; here are the other nine starting with the most important…

  • Spam Karma 2. It will happen. There’s no avoiding it. Your blog will get comment spam. There are countless plugins to help combat it, and you may want to try them all to see which works best for you. Many, like Spam Karma 2, will take advantage of various tricks to block automated comment spam. Your regular, human visitors will be completely unaffected and won’t even notice it’s there. You may not need it now, but keep the download link for later.
  • Adsense-Deluxe. If you want to use your blog to make money and/or help defray your hosting costs, you can put up Adsense ads without a plugin. Adsense-Deluxe just makes it a million times easier to include additional Adsense blocks in your posts. Just pick an ad unit from a dropdown list and some code for it pops into your post. It even keeps track of your ads per page for you so that you don’t exceed three units per page (the Google-defined limit). Just don’t plaster the ads all over your posts because you’ll undo all that hard work that went into making your blog a handsome beast.
  • Iimage Browser. You may rarely put images into your posts, or you may put them in all the time. WordPress is not a picture blog platform, so it doesn’t help you much with adding pictures to your posts. This plugin will take care of that. It adds a button to your Write Post screen that brings up the Iimage Browser window. In that window, you can upload images, automatically generate thumbnails, and get the HTML code you need to include them in your post.
  • Jerome’s Keywords. WordPress includes great support for categories, but you generally only want to assign one or two categories to each post. With Jerome’s Keywords, you can add countless tags to each post. You can also use this plugin to generate a tag cloud like the ones you can get from del.icio.us, and it will automatically add your tags to your Technorati account. If that’s not enough for you, Jerome’s Keywords also allows you to use…
  • Jerome’s Keywords: Related Posts. Add a short line of code to your post templates and your posts will include links to entries with matching keywords. This is a fabulous way to connect visitors to other relevant information. Make sure you have Jerome’s Keywords installed first.
  • WP-cache. While this plugin does nothing to ease your bandwidth or disk usage, it does help with that hidden limit I mentioned some webhosts like to secretly throw in: CPU usage limit. Each time a user views a page on your blog, WordPress loads your text from a database–a process that can take a bit of time and a decent chunk of CPU. Now multiply that by X number of visitors and you could be going through CPU like mad. Should you be linked on a popular website or print publication, you may find yourself being slapped down like a newbie by your webhost. WP-cache helps immensely by storing a static copy of your visited pages on your server so that subsequent visitors don’t trigger intensive PHP and database functions. You can set the cache to clear your pages regularly (say, once an hour), and you can add page URLs that should never be cached (like your index page, for example). As its many users can attest, this plugin can help you survive a serious diggin’.
  • WP-Cron. Meant to go hand-in-hand with the Database Backup plugin that comes pre-installed, this plugin automatically backs up your WordPress database at intervals you specify. I have mine configured to backup everyday at one in the morning and e-mail a copy of the backup to me. Again, hopefully you’ll never need to restore from a backup, but it’s comforting to know it’s there and that it’s taking care of itself.
  • Permalink Redirect. A plugin that works without you ever seeing it work, Permalink Redirect makes sure that search engines only associate one URL with each of your posts (important to avoid duplicate content penalties in search engine optimization). If someone visits a different version of your permalink, Permalink Redirect issues a 301 (Permanent Redirect) code to your real permalink. This is a vital behind-the-scenes plugin that you can set and forget forever.
  • Sitemeter. I know, this is not a simple-install plugin. You’ll want to add some sort of traffic counting to your site, whether it’s the tried and true Sitemeter or a newcomer like Performancing. There are also some WordPress plugins that will count your traffic, too; you’ll just have to find one that does what you want it to do. (While writing this, I just got an invitation code to Google Analytics, so I may give that a try.)

Step 4: Import your old entries.

You may be ditching your old free blog host, but I’m sure you don’t want to leave behind all that quality content you’ve already written. You could manually reenter all those posts again, but that can take a long time, and you’ll lose all your previous comments in the process.

Fortunately, WordPress makes it brain-meltingly simple to import your posts and comments from a number of blogging services. Just visit the Import menu and choose your old blog’s host. For Blogger, importing your posts is as simple as providing your Blogger username and password (don’t worry, it’s completely safe). The import script will automate the entire process and help you populate your new blog with all of your old posts and comments. Before starting the import from Blogger, you should back up your Blogger blog template because the importer temporarily resets it (but it should restore it afterward).

Once your stuff is imported, you’ll want to go through all of your old posts looking for formatting problems. Note that any pictures you uploaded to your Blogger blog won’t be uploaded automatically to your new website. You can either let them load from Blogger or download and upload them again and change all your links.

For me, XHTML and CSS validation were important, and while I had gotten my blog template that far, my imported Blogger posts had numerous things that needed fixing.

And while you’re fixing things, be sure to add categories and keywords to your posts to help organize them. This can take a while, but it’s well worth it to help future visitors find past entries.

Step 5: Time to write!

Are you ready to write your first post? I hope not, because there’s still one more thing you’ll want to do. Choose Write Page under the Write menu and compose a few static pages. At the least, you’ll want a page for your contact information (or a contact form, another plugin you can find), your archives, and your “about” information. Depending on which theme you chose, you may have templates for each of these that you can generate automatically by selecting the proper template from the Page Template list. Be sure to link prominently to each of these pages.

And finally, with everything else ready to go, you can now start adding new content to your blog. WordPress makes doing so stupidly easy; Write Post under the Write menu. If you’re coming from Blogger, you may not recognize a few things. First, if you’re blogging about someone else’s blog, be sure to put that post’s URL in the Trackbacks field so that a link to your post will show up on theirs (assuming they support trackback pings). “Post slug” lets you pick your own hyphenated-title-for-your-post that will appear in the URL if you have pretty permalinks on. You should also use Categories to help organize your posts, and definitely use lots of comma-separated keywords/tags if you installed Jerome’s plugin. Once your post is written, hit Publish and you’re on your way to internet glory!

Things Can Only Go Up From Here

Yessiree, you’re well on your way to conquering the internets, but your work is just beginning. You’ll need to water your blog daily with lots of original, quality content and closely monitor your growth and that of the rest of the blogosphere so you can adapt to changes and keep your blog fresh and exciting. The next and final entry in the Bloggin’ On Up series will explore ways to take your blog to the top!

Until next time, happy blogging!

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