Blogiversary IV: Code Schmode

Since a bunch of you have requested it, I’m going to attempt to dole out some technical blogging / coding advice. I’ll admit I’ve been very hesitant to write this because I am very much an amateur myself. Asking me for web design advice feels a bit like asking your waiter to teach you how to cook. I can tell you the basic ingredients of what we’re serving, but things might get hairy if I’m asked to put together a menu. It’s really all just trial and error and a decent amount of googling around for answers. Note: yes, the following visual is a coding joke, hence the brackets.

Now that I’ve let my insecurities do a lot of the talking, I will say that I’ve mustered up enough technical prowess to design and operate this blog (of course Sherry has input when it comes to the look/function of things) with virtually no outside assistance (the only exception being our host’s customer service line and the occasional help from a friend or two when we can’t figure out why the heck we’re crashing). So I must be doing something right not totally wrong. But if you’re reading this as someone more amateur than me, please take my advice with a grain of salt. And if you’re more of an expert, please try not to laugh. And feel free to offer up other helpful suggestions for anyone looking for technical/coding tips.

With that said, let’s dive in.

MY BACKGROUND: This blog wasn’t my first dance with coding. Computer Science was a required course at my high school, so at age 15 I was taught C++ and a smidge of HTML (try W3Schools.com if your high school wasn’t as geeky as mine). I don’t remember a lick of C++, but it did give me the basic understanding of how code works (and, more importantly, how it doesn’t work when something as little as one end bracket is missing). I used my minimal HTML skills to throw together some casual websites in high school (like this hilariously-embarrassing and hilariously-still-available Geocities site for my high school band French Horn section) but was never formally taught more complex languages like CSS, Javascript and who knows what else. So if it’s not already obvious that I’ve got some geek in my DNA, this photo should make it abundantly clear. Why yes my Dilbert sweatshirt does say “Technology: No Place For Wimps.”

THE CODE-FREE WAY: The beauty of blogging platforms like WordPress, Blogger, and Tumblr is that you don’t have to know any code to use ‘em. Most of them make it easy enough that if you can write an email and upload a photo, you can blog. And that’s exactly how we started. We spent our first five months on a free WordPress.com account (screenshot below) where the extent of our “blog design” was sizing a header photo. So if you absolutely fear coding and designing, this may be the way to go for you.

BE FIND A GOOD HOST: We moved to a self-hosted WordPress.org blog in February of 2008 in order to have more design flexibility. That meant having a find our own host, meaning that our site no longer lived for free on WordPress’ servers but instead on a server that we found and paid for ourselves. We went to the WordPress-recommended BlueHost who charged less than $30 a year at the time. Our site lived on a shared server with about 99 other small blogs (meaning that other sites lived there with us, which is why it was so affordable) for about a year. Until we grew too big (i.e. regularly crashed the entire server… taking all 99 other sites down with us… oops). So BlueHost gave us the boot and we did a fair amount of research and landed at LiquidWeb, where we have our own dedicated server and some great customer support. It’s a far cry from that $30 a year price that we started with (try adding two zeros), but it’s all part of the deal when you’re as fortunate as we are to grow like we have.

OH YEAH, HOSTING IMAGES TOO: When we switched to LiquidWeb, we took some advice from others and also decided to host our images elsewhere – which reduces the load on one single server and can defray some of the cost. We briefly tried Flickr and Photobucket (since they were free or nearly-free, and we’re cheap) but after several complaints about those sites being blocked at certain workplaces (not that any of you read blogs at work, right?) we decided to transfer to a paid host: Amazon S3 (which we saw some other larger sites using successfully). Over time our number of photos grew along with our traffic… and so did our cost for image hosting (this sounds crazy to type, but we pay tens of thousands of dollars a year just to host our images). But again, hosting expenses are just part of the whole full-time-blogging thing, and we’re always grateful to “see” you guys… so we wanted as many people as possible to be able to access our pictures. You know, since they’re kind of the best part.

ESTABLISH A THEME: A theme is what dictates the look of your blog (colors, layout, fonts, etc). WordPress has lots of built-in themes, or you can go find your own (they’re not always free, though). And if you’re really ambitious, you can make your own. But I’m not that ambitious, so we just found a theme that we liked and tried our hand at customizing it. Ours is a free theme that’s called “WP Premium” and we learned of it through Nicole at Making It Lovely. Our two sites are examples of how one theme can be customized to create two totally different and unique looks (we both still use the same template with different customizations). So find a theme that has the basic functions that you’d like in your blog – something with a certain number of columns, a specific kind of navigation, a traditional look that you like, or even a magazine-style theme (like Layla & Kevin’s blog) and start there (that way there’s no coding from scratch involved).

STYLING: If your theme is like ours, it relies on Cascasding Style Sheets (aka CSS). It’s a file (or files) that dictate how your site looks when it loads. So rather than me having to manually code our blog titles to be a certain size and color each time, the theme knows to reference my style sheet each time and follow those guidelines. Our theme has two style sheets, one that guides the size and placement of elements on the page (i.e. make the sidebar this many pixels wide and this far to the right of the main content box) and one that dictates images and color (i.e. all embedded links are blue). I didn’t know CSS before blogging so my technique to customizing the style of our blog was basically “change some code, see what happens.” A lot of times it would have wonky results (“woah, the menu bar suddenly disappeared”), but gradually I figured out the cause and effect of my coding tweaks. And slowly but surely I worked towards a custom look. There are some great CSS lessons at W3Schools.com if you want to learn some coding specifics.

AN IMAGE IS WORTH A THOUSAND CODES: Obviously not everything on a website is number and code. Actual graphics (like a headers or sidebar icons) are a big part of the design too. Giving advice on Photoshop is a whole ‘nother topic, so I leave it at this: get yourself some good photo editing software, specifically one that makes it easy to adjust colors and sizes (in pixels, specifically) and save in a variety of formats (like web-reduced JPG and transparency capable GIFs or PNGs). Obviously we’re fans of Photoshop (we own Adobe Creative Suite), but we hear that sites like Picnik are good alternatives. Beyond that, just be sure you’ve got a way to upload your images. Your host may have built-in FTP software or you can Google for a version to download.

TRIAL, ERROR, AND GOOGLE: The “change some code, see what happens” is pretty much my best advice for coding as an amateur. Sometimes the easiest way to understand what a bit of code does is to alter it, and observe the consequence. Just be sure to save the original code somewhere so you’re able to undo it easily. When I get really stuck, I turn to Google. Just Googling the mystery code (and I mean literally copying the code into the search box) can turn up some enlightening results – message boards, support forums and even sometimes literal definitions of the code in question). WordPress itself has some great forums and even a Codex that breaks down what all of their code and functions mean, including some tips on altering them.

PLUG IT IN, PLUG IT IN: You can also amp up the function / customization of your site with Plug-Ins, which are free add-ons to a WordPress blog that you can usually download from right within the WordPress dashboard. They can add cool widgets to your sidebar, increase the functionality of your posts, and even help your site run faster (like our much relied upon W3 Super Cache plug-in which keeps us from crashing all day, every day). But plug-ins can also bog down your site too (like when yesterday’s polling plug-in overwhelmed our site to the point of ahh-we’re-craaashing four frustrating times in a row). So it’s always preferable to hard-code these types of functions where possible (if we knew that plug-in would fail ahead of time we would have tried to hard-code something else). If hard-coding is too hard (har-har), just learn to live with less of them (the ones that really matter) to avoid gray-hair-inducing emergencies like unexplained loading errors and full-on site crashes.

GET HELP: At some point you’ll get stuck. Everyone does, no matter how brilliant they are. So it’s always good to have some places to turn. These are my favorites:

So, there you have it. Hopefully that was helpful for those of you who were interested. I’m sure there are lots of specific questions floating around that I didn’t cover (my answer would probably be “try changing some code and see what happens, or google it!” since that’s usually my go-to method). But again, if you’re an expert – feel free to weigh in with advice for anyone interested! Wait, but one question first: who had a super sweet Dilbert sweatshirt like mine? Come on, I know somebody did. And I hope you also took the opportunity to rock it with stonewashed jeans and a bowl haircut a la Ninth Grade John.

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