Beginner’s Primer on WordPress and other blogging platforms

Or, “What I wish I had been able to read before I started my blog that would have saved me 2 weeks of banging my head off my desk”.

So, believe it or not, this site didn’t just materialize out of thin air. I wish! I am not a coder, I have not manually coded (the better part of a complete web page at least) in nearly a decade. I googled my way to the finish line on this one, folks. Well, I got help from forums too.

I am here to share with you my lessons and tips learned, and how you can get set up with a website quickly, instead of banging your head off your desk for 2 weeks, like I ultimately did.

So first thing,blogging platforms! There are a few options.

1. Blogger (if google hasn’t shut it down yet) – this was my first blog after I graduated from the days of LiveJournal (remember that?!). It was technically a public blog, but I didn’t promote it. I haven’t written on there in probably about a year now. Blogger is bare bones, simple – basically you’re just writing posts. I don’t know if it has evolved since I last logged in, but when last I did, it was probably the simplest (and user friendly) dedicated blog site available. I really only stopped using it because I no longer had a need to write just personal journals online. My writings became more focused, more thought pieces.

2. Tumblr – very popular among youth, but not especially practical in my personal opinion, for running more of a tradtional blog/website. I know several podcasts use it as their show notes platform (I did this as well in the past) if they aren’t using LibSyn (LibSyn’s user interface sucks even worse, actually). I may take heat for this comment, but honestly to me, Tumblr feels like 2013’s MySpace. I’ve seen more bad tumblr’s than good ones, and when you reblog or reply to an already-long comment thread on tumblr, it’s just messy and things get really visually squished and mutilated. Apparently it is not only popular among so called “hipsters”, but also feminist bloggers. I generally stay off tumblr unless I get linked to a specific page/post by a trusted source. I recommend staying away from this one if you want “a real site” and to be taken seriously.

3. Weebly – The other 2 websites I run (one and two) are built on the weebly platform. Weebly is free, and pretty much drag and drop to build your website. It’s very easy and if you don’t need a lot of functionality, it’s probably sufficient. I chose it to start my personal website because a friend suggested to me as a good free option that didn’t require you to know how to code. My biggest complaint about it (for what it is), is that despite automatically rendering a “mobile friendly” version of your site by default, that mobile version is kind of a pain to navigate if you have a lot of pages (and subpages) on your site. But I have remained on that platform because I haven’t had the time or inclination to rebuild my website elsewhere (and I still don’t know how to code).

4. SquareSpace – I haven’t personally used it, but every podcaster and their dog seems to be sponsored by them. Upon a quick peek, it appears to work very similarly to how Weebly works, so it’s probably just as good. If I was doing research in order to choose between Weebly and SquareSpace, I would hop over to reddit and search for “weebly or squarespace?” and read a few threads to get a sense.

5. WordPress.com / wordpress.org – You didn’t think I’d forget, did you? (obviously, there are other options, but these are the main ones).

Something that’s VERY important to know and understand before you go down the WordPress road – there are 2 different versions of WordPress. This kept making me confused for a while, even after I officially launched my site.

WordPress.COM is where you just log into WP and blog away (kind of like Blogger). WordPress.ORG is where you install the WP files onto a server (hosted somewhere that you are paying for, unless you have some sweet connection to free hosting), and then login through a dashboard online. Through this dashboard you can add “plugins” (like apps that run on your site) and more. The .ORG version is the fancier, more in depth version. If you aren’t just doing a blog for fun, and are really serious about making a professional website, you’ll want .ORG. Also worth noting – if you’re on WordPress.ORG, the header is light grey (black). On WordPress.COM it’s blue.

This focuses on the (grey black) Self-Installed WordPress, as that is what I have the most familiarity with.

UPDATE – Dec 28, 2013

So with the update from WordPress 3.7.x to 3.8, WP has changed the dashboard design/colouring of self-hosted WordPress. It is now a darker grey which is close to black. I just double checked wordpress.org and the change is there too. Personally I think WordPress just made their product look more Gmail-esque with the interface update (that is to say, I’m not a fan of all the blockyness) but maybe that was their intent.

“WordPress 101”

Okay, I will admit, I have paid $6 for a video tutorial series on WordPress, and while I got a few things out of that, let me put it this way – IF YOU HAVE TIME TO GOOGLE AND SEARCH YOUTUBE FOR HOW-TOs, DON’T PAY FOR LESSONS.

There are several websites out there that offer video tutorials for a fee (and support forums). The only time I’d recommend using these is if you don’t have time to do the research and learn yourself (or if you have money to burn and are highly impatient). I did one video tutorial just to see what it was like, but I just looked at wp101.com and they make it seem like there is SO MUCH to WordPress that warrants several dozen videos to explain. I disagree. Learning how to use wordpress takes a matter of hours, maybe a couple of days. You’ll have the basics down quickly. If you aren’t going the self-hosted route, you can totally figure out 90% of what you need to know in an afternoon. And the harder stuff is just a matter of patience and reading.

Save your money, unless you literally don’t have time to do the research. Honestly though, the video tutorials tend to be 5-10 minutes each, and you could learn many of these things in less time than that. (EDIT – I should probably mention I think I’m a fast learner so this may not be an accurate statement. Basically, find all the free videos you can first and you should be able to get what you need out of those)

Also, resist the urge to install tons of plugins. They may sound useful and cool, but many plugins overlap in functionality and you don’t want to get bogged down unnecessarily. The exception here comes in the security department. From what I have read, many sites and blogs recommend installing at least 2 separate security plugins.

Like a computer, you’re gonna need security

One thing I feel the need to stress, as it was one of the biggest headaches for me, is if you go the self-hosted route, find a reliable and secure hosting solution. Bluehost seems to be the most recommended for WordPress, though I am running on DreamHost. I had issues with hosting for reasons I can’t get into here, but I would say that hosting issues delayed the launch of my site by several days. It wasn’t the host’s fault either, it had to do with domain forwarding and a middle man. I saved some money but it cost me time and frustration.

I recall being told, or reading that Bluehost’s customer service is excellent, while Dreamhost is apparently harder to get on the phone, so to speak. Fortunately I have rarely (almost never) had any problems with my hosting, so this hasn’t been an issue for me.

(Self-Installed) WordPress is kind of like running another desktop computer “in the cloud”. You can install “plugins” which function similarly to installing say, Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop on your computer, they give you additional functionality. You also have to install anti-virus protection as well. So if you’re going to go this route (self-installed), be aware that it’s not a set it and forget it option. You WILL have to acquire some technical knowledge and be mindful of what’s going on.

Now, the potentially annoying thing is that wordpress is basically designed in the most general way, for the widest variety of users and purposes (at least that’s my impression).

A lot of the security settings have to do with locking things down, applying restrictions and limiting permissions to only one user. I feel like perhaps they should offer a version of Self-Installed WordPress (I would call it “WordPress Manual Version”, because you have to manually maintain it) that comes preset with most of this already done. Knowing people and how lazy we can often be by default (how many of you read Terms and Conditions when signing up for things?), I can see how a lot of these things won’t get done.

If you aren’t selling anything and thus have nothing really of value to be stolen, you may not need to worry as much, but if you take a better safe than sorry attitude, I would say be prepared to spend an entire day on security measures for your WordPress blog. I did.

Another point on the security topic, another thing that many blogs will stress is to STAY UPDATED. Update your WordPress itself, as well as your plugins, as soon as you can once updates come out. Backup first, but do this.

“Child Themes”

One thing to note thought, is that updates to WordPress itself (as opposed to 3rd party plugins) might undo some of your template customizations (you’ll need to make a child theme). Essentially a child theme is a copy of your chosen main theme so that if you make CSS changes (fonts, text and link colours, etc), they won’t revert when WordPress updates the core of their platform.

One thing that doesn’t get saved/retained in a child theme (which is annoying) is the placement and custom text of the “Leave a Reply” link in posts. By default it appears right under the post title (I can’t for the life of me figure out why the WP developers thought that was a good place for it, every other site on the internet has the reply button at the end of the post). You can change the text and location, but every time core WordPress updates, you have to remember where to make the change and go do it again. This is very annoying.

Back to updating as soon as possible – this is true. When hackers find flaws in things, the developers act to patch them, you don’t want to be the poor schmuck who the hacker finds still exposed and hacks your site. Again, if you aren’t selling anything, you’re probably relatively safe, but even still.

Another thing to note – there are A LOT of plugins for wordpress. Infact, there are often plugins that do (in just one install), what it takes upwards of a dozen other plugins to do individually, so do a bit of research and don’t install a million plugins if you don’t have to. I have read blogs that say “no more than 10” and I have even heard some people say “you only need 5 and that’s it”. As with having too many programs installed on your computer, too many plugins will slow down your site. No one likes to wait for a site to load!

Plugins – Less is More

I have read sites that say you shouldn’t have to run more than 10 plugins on your site. Be careful of installing anything that sounds cool. Check the screenshots and check the reviews. Oh, and typically you should only install plugins that can be found through a search on the official wordpress database! That is to say, if you go to the menu bar on the left of the dashboard and click “Plugins>Add New”, you can search on that screen, and if the plugin you want doesn’t show up there (watch your spelling), then you should think carefully about it. Also, once more – check the reviews and compatibility. I just recently got a new phone (which is also a lot like a computer in my hand) and there are lots of “apps” (like plugins) that are in the official store database, but have low review scores and most people say they crash or freeze or do other unwanted things to your phone. WordPress’s official apps pages even have a section that show what the most recent WP version they are compatible with, and how many users have said it works vs doesn’t. I’ve avoided installing a few plugins because people said that those plugins did all kinds of bad things to their site. I’d rather not lose an entire weekend to rebooting my site because I didn’t read carefully enough (I’ve already got one backend glitch that I don’t have time to fix). That’s another reason why keeping a loose restriction on number of plugins is a good idea – cover the basics and then ask yourself “do I really need this?”.

Issues I ran into

So, getting installed was easy – some hosting solutions literally offer “1 click install” of wordpress, and it works. Use it.

Learning the interface was the first step (it’s much different than weebly). You will need to spend some time navigating the interface and learning everything that’s there (or at least, where to find things later when you need them – more on this later in this post). The more plugins you install, the more settings you have to get familiar with so again – don’t go overboard unnecessarily.

I learned the blogging interface in a short amount of time. Then came the trick of learning how to format posts. It seems best to not try to get too fancy. If you want text aligned around an image, just insert the image and start typing. Keep it simple, or your posts are going to get garbled and look bad.

Interface control

I would say that Weebly has much more control in terms of site layout and object placement options, so it was hard for me to come to WordPress and feel like I didn’t really have control anymore. On the flipside, I came to realize after getting oriented with WordPress, that the availability of plugins and other functionality is so powerful and useful, it’s worth the trade off by far. I actually find Weebly limited now, but don’t have the time or desire to reboot my other two websites on WordPress. If you want to make a serious blog/website, WordPress really does seem to be the way to go. You can buy premium themes that give you full customizability, and I tried one called HeadWay – which allowed for extreme customization (for the serious power user) – but ultimately decided that I didn’t want to get bogged down in interface details, I just wanted to focus on writing posts with the option of future scaling/expansion. That option is afforded by WordPress plugins/addons. I don’t know if the same is true of other platforms.

Now that life has gotten rather busy again, and I’m juggling things, I’m actually quite thankful for the simplicity of WordPress. Aside from the fact that due to some glitch I haven’t had time to root out, I cannot schedule posts successfully, I can quickly type up something and go. The most time consuming part tends to be tags and SEO settings (which are both optional). Oh, and a really handy thing – if you paste a youtube link into a wordpress post, it automatically embeds it. You don’t actually have to go get the embed code or put some HTML widget into your posts for youtube. Super convenient. Just make sure you are pasting the right link, or preview your posts before you publish to make sure the right video is coming up.

When I was getting all set up, I did a lot of reading, more reading actually than watching videos, because usually I was just looking for a simple answer. As I said, the security stuff takes the longest (and you should not take it lightly unless perhaps you aren’t planning to sell anything or have a subscriber list that a hacker might want to steal). If you’re doing self-hosted, one easy tweak that you’ll want to do is modifying a file called .htaccess. You can literally create it yourself in a text file using Windows Notepad (or whatever equivalent Mac application). In that file you can set your installation to not allow anyone to view or access any directories on your server except through the admin dashboard (which only you should have access to). If you’re going to tinker though, make sure you have manual FTP access, because if you change something and get locked out from the dashboard, you’ll want to be able to go in and overwrite the old file with one that doesn’t have the same restrictions so you can get back in.

But there are some very basic and easy precautions to take. For one thing, don’t use “admin” as your username, because most hack attempts try that first, and if your password is easy to guess, you’re toast. You don’t have to make your UN random, but something that no one would easily guess that isn’t “admin”, or your name (for instance “JSmith”).

If I were to do it all over again now

So, it has been over 2 months since I started. I admit I’ve forgotten about many of the finer points I intended to cover in this post, but maybe a good exercise is to explain what I would do now based on what I remember. Kind of like if I decided to start studying language again.

Fortunately, both Bluehost and Dreamhost have 1-click installs for WordPress. Manually installing self-hosted wordpress, from what I read, is not fun, and could take an entire afternoon in itself. So getting the 1-click install option is great. So let’s assume you’ve done that.

So, now you’re installed, you’re sitting at your dashboard. Until you start posting stuff, you won’t need to worry too much about installing security and all that just yet, but you will want to get a few plugins going from the start.

One of them is JetPack (available on the plugins page by default) which basically connects you to the WordPress.com network of websites. This way people searching through those sites can still find yours, and if you link to non-self hosted wordpress sites, they will get a notification (and presumably vice-versa). JetPack also allows for some basic site traffic tracking and other tweaks. There is really no reason not to install this plugin.

Akismet is another, I can’t remember if it’s available by default or if you have to go hunt it down, but it is basically a comment and link spam filter.

WP Super Cache – this one caches your website (which helps it load faster). I’ve read that there are other cache plugins that are better, but I had trouble with the main one (I don’t think it installed properly for some reason), but this one works fine.

From there you’ll want to get some security and backup plugins (I’ve stuck to all free ones but you can get paid ones that presumably have more features or perhaps cause less slowdown on your site while they run). I would also recommend getting a plugin called WordFence, as I have gotten several notifications from it about hackers in Russia, Korea and other far away places trying to get up in my business.

You will have to figure out how often is best to do backups. It will depend on how often you post.

DASHBOARD MENU OPTIONS

Media

You can upload images to your blog. I tend not to do this very often because this site is more about information, but typically I upload images to the depository and then I can insert them into posts when I need to. I haven’t bothered to figure out how to insert images from external sources yet, haven’t really needed to.

Pages

You can add pages to your site, typically you’d want to add an “About” page, a contact page, and maybe one or two others.

Comments

All moderation can be done from one screen. It’s convenient.

Appearance

This is where you would choose your theme and make changes to the appearance of your site. You can either manually edit php files (not recommended unless you know what you’re doing), or you can keep it really simple and just make a few CSS changes and call it a day.

Plugins

Covered.

Users

Obviously this is where you set up and manage permissions for multiple users. I don’t have multiple users so not much to say here.

Tools

This seems to be mainly for importing/exporting your site files to transfer to another server if need be.

Settings

This is actually where you set up and make changes to the plugins you have installed. The plugins screen is kind of just like your “Start Menu” in windows, this settings screen is kind of the control panel equivalent.

Wrapping Up

Basically once you’re installed and you modify your theme and appearance to make your site look how you want, you install the desired plugins and then you can pretty much start posting. The posting interface is VERY simple.

That’s probably about all I need to cover. Feel free to ask me questions about it in case there’s anything I didn’t specifically mention but could tell you more about.

I normally link to lots of external resources but for this, there were just too many pages I looked at and with it being 2 months ago, it’s not particularly feasible to retrace my steps at this point. Sorry about that. Hopefully this information helps and gets you started!

Care to share your thoughts?