3D rendering, design, media, and technology news.

Previously, I had written an article on setting up a WordPress blog. Since then, I have learned a bunch of new tricks and plugins as I’ve gotten to know WordPress a bit better and I wanted to let the readers here know about these changes.

A New Website Host

Recently, I migrated all of my websites from Total Choice Hosting over to a new host at Mediatemple which caused me to rethink my prior WordPress setups. I also purchased a few more websites that I had started to work on. Prior to this post, I had recommended Total Choice Hosting as an easy setup. I still think TCH is still perfect for someone that only hosts one website and is looking to save some money. But if your site is relatively heavy or complicated, then you’ll probably get what you pay for. Please note that I’m not receiving any payment or kickbacks for recommending anything in this article – this is purely based on my own personal preferences and experiences.

There’s quite a few benefits of this migration to Mediatemple:

  1. Speed #1. Gzip compression is supported by their servers. Gzip can increase a website’s load time by 80%.
  2. Speed #2. Their servers are set up for grid computing which means faster processing and better handling of website traffic spikes.
  3. Speed #3. Faster speeds means greater reader retention.
  4. Speed #4. Google has been hinting that they may start looking at speeds as a factor into better rankings with their search services. However, no one outside of Google is 100% sure whether or not they’re currently implementing ranking based upon speed. They usually don’t release specific details for warranted fear of people taking advantage of the system.
  5. Speed #5. I’m fairly certain Mediatemple has newer equipment which probably means more memory and better processors.
  6. Storage. They give you 100 gigabytes worth of storage space which is perfect for hosting my eStore files over at HDRSource.
  7. No reselling. Total Choice Host is a “reseller.” Basically, they look around the country for other hosting companies. They are more or less middlemen. This is just one more layer you have to go through in order to get some questions answered, or if you do encounter issues with your server and need things to get fixed (as I had once.) As a result, they are also often slower to update their technologies (gzip support is one that they are lacking.)
  8. Support. 24/7 telephone tech support in case something goes wrong. They also have one of the best knowledge bases in the industry.
  9. Cost. It’s cheaper for me to host my eight plus websites under one $20 package versus paying $9 separately. You can host up to 100 websites. All of my bills are also consolidated this way.
  10. Consolidated. All of my websites are now under one login and administration panel versus having to manage eight separately.

The negatives to this website hosting transfer:

  1. Slight hiccups when it came to migrating my WordPress databases. This is to be expected and varies on a case-by-case basis depending on which host you are transferring from/to as well as the complexity of your websites. I had some issues regarding image upload paths once everything was transferred. I went manually through my database and had to reset some paths. Now it should all be working again.
  2. Getting used to a new system/administration panel after all of these years. It was a little awkward for a day or two, but I quickly got over that.
  3. I noticed some important emails were getting bounced to spam and have had to keep my eye out to keep that from happening.
  4. Slight intermittent email downtime. That’s the one thing I will say about TCH that was great. In all of the years hosting with them, I probably can count the email outages on 3 fingers. I have faith however that Mediatemple will sort this out as they are a relatively new company.
  5. I miss my website log analysis tracker AWStats. I think you can install it if you wish, but I didn’t have the time to tinker with it. Mediatemple by default currently uses Urchin, which was recently bought out by Google. Google is incorporating Urchin into Google Analytics. Some say Google Analytics is better than Urchin. I personally think it’s great, but the one downfall is that it currently doesn’t track real-time visitor statistics and only appears to update once a day.

I think if you have more than one website and are not looking for a completely dedicated website host, than a host such as MT is the way to go. It’s not perfect, but it’s much faster and the interface is easier to use. If you do decide to go with them, please feel free to drop my name as I could always use a discount (and no, I’m not getting paid to say any of this lol.)

Installing WordPress

If you’re looking to start fresh, then this is fairly straight-forward as they provide a one click install. You just basically create a new name and click a button then wait while the process finishes.

Most of my installations were transfers. I could simply add the domain on MT and copy all of my files over to the new MT folder via FTP. I also had to back up the database from TCH using phpMyAdmin and import it into the MT phpMyAdmin. After that, I needed to update my wp-config.php user name, database name, and password to the new locations. Once WordPress was installed, I manually went through the database file (using Textpad) re-exported from MT to check and fix some URL/file paths. From there, I proceeded to load fresh copies of the plugins I had used.

If you have any troubles or questions regarding a WordPress website transfer, a simple Google search for “WordPress transfer to new domain” or “WordPress database transfer phpmyadmin” will pull up a lot of results and tutorials.

WordPress Themes – Look and Feel

I’m fairly confident you can use WordPress to set up any type of look and feel. It doesn’t even have to look like a blog nor does it even have to contain one. The reason I’m starting to use them is because it’s fast and there’s a lot of free plugins which are available that save a tremendous amount of time and add functionality (such as contact forms, galleries, online stores, search engine optimizations, etc.) If I do want to add a blog later on, then I can do this with relative ease. It’s also easier than having to manually edit code or create something from scratch.

There’s literally thousands of free WordPress themes available on the Internet. All you have to do is to log into your WP admin and go to the themes section. There’s also a lot more available beyond the WordPress site. A search for “WordPress themes” will pull up pages upon pages of documents for you to choose  from.

If none of those themes you find seem to satisfy, there’s even free online “WordPress theme generators” which can take you most of the way there to your final design. I just happened to be checking out a free trial of a paid version yesterday called Artisteer, and I was fairly surprised at how much it would let you do without having to code. I was expecting the worst but came away thinking the opposite. There’s probably even better ones out there, but I really didn’t have the time to look any further.

If that still doesn’t work, you can always just cobble the code together yourself. I often try to find something approximating the overall look and feel that I’m going for – two columns, one column, side navigation bar, etc and then go in and modify the code to obtain what I want. Most of it is generally CSS parameters.

Last but not least, you can always make it another person’s problem. Find a freelancer online and pay them to mock up a site for you.

WordPress Plugins

WordPress by itself is a very powerful blog/CMS (content management system), but it’s bare-bones and not too attractive when it’s a fresh installation. While it has everything you’ll need to get up and running, there are things you will want to add to extend its usefulness and functionality. A note of caution is to use the minimal amount of plugins as necessary. A lot of plugins are coded incorrectly and can result in slower performance, memory leaks, and even break other plugins as well as your layout. If you’re not using them, then delete them.

To install them, it’s pretty easy. All you do is venture to your WordPress Administration screen and go to the plugins section. Click ‘Add New’ and search for the plugins below. Install and activate.

Below, I will post a list of plugins that I’m currently using on a WordPress 2.9 installation. Some of the plugins from my previous article on “Setting up a WordPress Blog” have been discontinued or changed:

Design Related:

  1. Lightbox Plus: A lightbox is a method of displaying your pictures, movies, and images. You’ve probably seen it in action before. When you click a picture, it enlarges into a popup window and the background may fade out. I’ve tried just about every lightbox plugin – both manually and even within WordPress, and so far Lightbox Plus is my favorite. It works right out of the box and doesn’t seem to break things. It also provides you with a bunch of ready-made designs of which you can always tweak too.
  2. Page Links To:  If you have navbars and menus at the top of your site with submenus, this allows you create a dummy page (and hence another submenu item linking elsewhere.) This is pretty hard to explain but I’ll try here: I had one user clicking the submenu’s but not the main buttons and he couldn’t figure out the main button was also a separate page… Basically, this is an ineptitude checker.
  3. Pro Player: There’s many ways to embed videos into a WordPress site. This plugin provides an easy way to embed videos into your posts from sites such as Vimeo or Youtube. If all I wanted to post was Youtube videos, I’d probably go with TubePress instead. However, Tubepress requires a little bit of shortcode.
  4. WP Typography: Believe it or not (it’s hard to admit), most of us use incorrect grammar and punctuation. WP Typography helps correct common mistakes such as em dashes versus en dashes, quote marks, ellipses, math symbols, widows, etc.
  5. WPTouch iPhone Theme: If you have a smartphone or an iPhone, than this plugin automatically shrinks your website down to something perfectly readable for an iPhone. It definitely makes surfing this website much easier on the eyes.

Security Related:

  1. Secure WordPress: This plugin helps to help fix holes. It also removes information which really isn’t anyone’s business such as which version of WordPress you are running.
  2. PHPSecInfo: This isn’t a WordPress plugin. Instead you install it manually into your root site directory and browse to the link. It will tell you which php holes exist. This requires a bit of advanced knowledge to tweak these settings. Most people probably do not need to even bother with this.
  3. CHMOD 755 and 644: This isn’t a WordPress plugin. I just thought I’d mention it here since I’m on the topic of WordPress security. All folders should be set to 755 on permissions (via FTP) and 644 on individual files for security purposes. There’s probably a plugin which performs this function.

Social Bookmarking:

  1. Cute Profiles: On the side of my blog, you’ll see a few buttons that take you to my Facebook page, etc. If anyone is interested in following me, they can always click those items. By adding these options, you may increase your readership. Plus it’s kind of cool. Of course, you don’t have to use this as you could also provide links in your blogroll as well as widgets for many of these Social Networking websites.
  2. Sociable: This provides little buttons below each of my posts. These buttons allow readers to select an article they like and post a link back to it on other websites such as Buzzfeed, Facebook, Technorati, etc. I use Sociable on most of my blog websites, but unfortunately the layout broke on this particular website when it was used with my translation feature. I’m not quite sure why the break happened, but I did spend time trying to figure out the cause as well as digging through code. I ended up using Sexy Bookmarks instead.
  3. FD Feedburner Plugin: This redirects all of your RSS (really simple syndicate) headlines and sends them to Google’s Feedburner. Google’s Feedburner site provides a handy gateway and options to redistribute your RSS articles in a standardized format to those who use RSS feeds. If you have a homepage set to iGoogle, MSN, or Yahoo – most of those articles that appear are nothing other than RSS feeds/headlines that are appearing. Some people prefer to view daily headlines through RSS feeders as opposed to having to manually comb through websites which may (or may not) be of interest to them. More information on Feedburner setup can be found here.
  4. Sexy Bookmarks: a XHTML compliant social bookmarking set which allows users to select articles they like and post to other websites or email. I’m currently using this over Sociable on this website.
  5. WP to Twitter: I had set up a Twitter account specifically for my websites Lunarlog and Lunarstudio. Basically, whenever I post to this website, WP to Twitter takes the post link, shortens it, and automatically sends it to my Twitter account. It’s hidden on the back-end, but it is there. I could install another plugin which pulls information down to this website for display, but quite frankly, my Twitter account isn’t all that interesting. There’s a lot of these Twitter integration plugins available – I haven’t had time to experiment with all of them. Suggestions are welcome.

Spam Related:

  1. Askimet: Ships with WordPress. Enable and signup unless you really like getting spammed.
  2. WP SpamFree: Another antispam plugin which appears to have blocked over 70 comment spams since I enabled it last week. It includes a contact form as well. I just hope it’s not blocking valid users… I can’t seem to check.

Speed Related:

  1. Autoptimize: This optimizes your website by concatenating your HTML, JavaScript, and CSS into one nice, tidy bundle. It works in most instances, but occasionally breaks other plugins and even your layout. I’d save this plugin for last as once you install it, you’re going to want to test your site out to see if anything went wrong. For this blog, it kept breaking my translation flags so I turned it off. Instead, I am currently using WP Minify.
  2. Cache Images: Everyone should be using this if possible. It basically tells a reader’s browser to store to temporarily store an image (such as a logo used throughout a site) on their hard drive. This way, their browser doesn’t have to download an image every single time they move to a new page. It makes things seem faster and reduces the load on your server saving both bandwidth and processing. The nice thing is that in-case you do get hammered from a popular site linking back to you, you’ll be better prepared to handle a huge spike in traffic.
  3. OSSDL CDN off-linker: A CDN stands for Content Delivery Network. A CDN redistributes your files around the world and caches them. That way if someone else on the opposite side of the world goes to your website, instead of having to sit there and wait for information to download, their request will hit a server that is closer to them and the pages will load much faster. CDNs generally cost extra, but if you want your website to be fast – then this is something you should use. At the moment, I am using MaxCDN with my websites. They are currently running a promotional deal at $10 signup for a 1 TB of information transfer. OSSDL CDN off-linker simply allows you to connect to your CDN and formats all of your images and scripts to be fetched from CDNs such as MaxCDN. I was using W3TC (W3 Total Cache) but it was breaking some of my plugins (Proplayer killed my RSS feeds and eStore.)
  4. Use Google Libraries: A lot of plugins use code that comes from other sites (for example, many lightboxes use libraries from Google.) But why keep all of those libraries local when you can take advantage of the latest and greatest directly from Google itself? Google runs on a CDN as well. This ensures that these libraries are pulled from there instead of your website, and it will reduce the load times for your viewers.
  5. WP Optimize: This helps clean up your database. Over time, you install plugins, remove them, write articles, save drafts, delete things – all of this adds holes to your database. On a very busy website, you may have a lot of holes which ends up slowing down your website. WP Optimize is basically a “disk defragmenter” for your database – it removes these holes which can slow down your site and puts everything back together again.
  6. WP Minify: This plugin concatenates JavaScript and CSS files much like Autoptimize does and helps speed up your website. Basically it puts all your scripts together in one neat bundle, and strips out unnecessary comments and white space. Where Autoptimize broke my Transposh Translation flags, WP Minify didn’t. So as much as I liked Autoptimize, I’m using this for now.
  7. W3 Total Cache: This is a new-comer to the whole scene and has some of the highest rankings on the WordPress plugin site. It sets out to do a lot of things mentioned above (Autoptimize, WP Minify, Cache Images, and OSSDL CDN off-linker) but it can be somewhat confusing to novices. And although it has close to 5 stars from over 150 users currently, I found that it broke some plugins that I used. In particular, I couldn’t get it to work with my WordPress eStore plugin – the cart widget wouldn’t refresh properly. Secondly, it completely killed my RSS feed (which is pretty bad) when I had ProPlayer installed (a huge bug.) Frederick Townes is the author of W3TC and CTO of Mashable – I’m fairly positive that he is looking into these issues right now after I had mentioned it. Temporarily, I’m using several of the plugins mentioned above to help compensate for W3TC.

Functionality Related:

  1. Contact Form 7: Provides a contact form on your blog/website. Instead of having to provide an email which people could reach me at, now they can send me emails via the built-in form. Not only is it convenient, but it also serves as a spam bot check. You have your choice of choosing questions and answers or CAPTCHA for security. You can also add functions such as allowing attachments, etc. I know this type of form is very useful. Over on my website www.lunarstudio.com, I have a php contact form that I hand-coded many years ago. I also provide an email address. Guess what – most people tend to use the form instead of sending me emails. It’s probably a 9 to 1 ratio. I absolutely love this plugin. You can see it in action here.
  2. Dagon Design Sitemap Generator: This automatically creates a handy sitemap on your website. Instead of having users click on categories, tags, and next buttons – all your articles appear on one page that’s easier to follow. I also speculate this helps search engines figure out and spider your site more easily. You can see it being used as a page here.
  3. Evermore: This adds a “read more” link to each abbreviated post. I used to use a more in-depth plugin called Post Teaser, but I think it has been causing some slowdowns recently.
  4. Post Teaser: Same functionality as Evermore mentioned directly above, but adds a little more information such as reading time, word count, etc. I have it temporarily disabled because I think it was slowing down my sites.
  5. Google Ajax Translation: This is a translation plugin for your posts and comments. It’s very handy. Unfortunately, it leaks PageRank (although you can hack the code if you desire.) Secondly, it was breaking with some of my optimization scripts. Instead, I’m using Transposh Translation Filter for now.
  6. Gurken Subscribe to Comments: This is perhaps one of the lamest things WordPress doesn’t provide by default. If someone comments on your article, you might want to provide them with an option to subscribe to the thread. That way if anyone replies to them, they will get notified via email.
  7. Highlight Author Comments: This plugin allows you (an author) to easily stand out from the rest of the people commenting by allowing you to easily adjust your comment colors. Some themes may have this function built-in. Many do not.
  8. OpenID: This allows users with an OpenID account to have it automatically sync up whenever they comment.
  9. Simple Tags: This helps you tag each of your pages and posts more easily than the one provided by WordPress. It gives you far greater options. Tags are basically keywords (or important words) found throughout your site. Often, you will see tags appear on the sidebars of blogs – sometimes they are referred to as “cloud tags.” They get indexed as well, and helps both users and search engines to navigate commonly used phrases and topics. I was using WP Cumulus which is really nice to look at, but I think it just adds to the processing on people with slower connections and computers. Disabled for now.
  10. Transposh Translation Filter: These are the flag icons on my sidebar which helps foreign users translate my website into the preferred language of their choice. It should also help get your site seen internationally. I was using Google Ajax Translation mentioned above but stopped because of incompatibilities.
  11. WP Cumulus: A pretty method of tagging topics. I have it disabled due to processing loads and I am currently using Simple Tags instead.

Summary

This is my setup currently. While you could go with a basic install, I find that the WordPress plugins mentioned above improve, visibility, speed and functionality. Upon installing the plugins I mentioned above, you may want to activate them one by one and test to see if they break any of your other plugins or themes. You’ll want to clear the cache in your browsers – with Firefox, you can simply hold shift+refresh. With IE, you can do that within your tools\options menu.

As always, I’m open to better suggestions from the community. If you have any comments, please feel free to leave them here. I hope you find this article useful.