Book Review: Smashing WordPress

About a year ago, I was looking for a good book on using WordPress as a CMS.  Browsing the shelves of my local bookstore, I noticed that there are few books on WordPress that go beyond the basics.  Most of them simply explain how to use the admin interface and write blog posts.  If you are lucky, you might learn how to make a few minor tweaks to the theme you use.  As a developer, I was looking for something much more advanced.  “Smashing WordPress: Beyond the Blog” by Thord Daniel Hedengren looked like it could satisfy my needs.

“Smashing WordPress: Beyond the Blog was written with the web developer in mind, but anyone who has fiddled a little bit with XHTML, CSS, PHP, or WordPress, can benefit from this book.”
{Thord Daniel Hedengren – Smashing WordPress – Foreword}

As you can tell from this quote, Thord Daniel Hedengren assumes his audience knows basic HTML, CSS and PHP code.  If you don’t know anything about these coding languages, this book is not for you.  However, if you know the basics and are willing to learn, you can jump right in.  Each time Thord quotes a long section of code, he breaks it up piece by piece and explains what the code does and why it’s there.  While I really appreciate this approach, I have to admin that the ebook version I bought sometimes suffers from hard to read formatting for the blocks of code.*  smashing wordpress cover

The book is written with WordPress version 2.7 in mind.  Today, the most recent version is WordPress 3.0 and 3.1 is about to be released any day now.  These newer releases of WordPress have really focused on improving the functionality of WordPress as a CMS.  Since Smashing WordPress is all about using WordPress as a CMS some things have obviously changed since the time of writing.  This doesn’t mean that the book is outdated already. It does mean, however, that some of the solutions Thord proposes are no longer the best way to do things, but conceptually most content is still valid and valuable.

Thord Daniel Hedengren writes well.  The book is much easier to read than his name would suggest.  Smashing WordPress is divided into five major parts, each part consisting of several chapters.  This structure works well for the subject.  The content is vaguely structured in a chronological way.  It starts with the things you encounter first, the installation of WordPress and how to get started with a simple theme.  The next parts and chapters explain WordPress from a functional point of view. Thord explains how WordPress works and how you can make it work for you getting exactly the results you are looking for.  From running queries to writing plugins, you learn about it all.  While Thord touches on the subject a few times, this book does not really focus on styling the content.  After all, it’s not a book about CSS it’s about WordPress.  Towards the end, we get a list of interesting plugins to look into, some specific examples of different types of websites and some final tips that will help you get the most out of WordPress.  The way the content is structured makes it easy to read Smashing WordPress from cover to cover.  I’ve read many technical books that are just impossible to read this way.  Since it’s important that you can easily pick up the book and look for something, the table of content is also very important.  Luckily this book has a great table of content, it’s easy to find what you are looking for because the titles for the chapters are comprehensive and descriptive. I also like that you a good feeling for the content and the focus of the book by reading the table of content, which also is not always the case with technical books.

As you can tell, I like Smashing WordPress.  There might be a few things that could have been done differently, but overall I’m very pleased with this book.  I keep it around and refer to it often.  I will definitely check out Thord’s next book Smashing WordPress Themes and who knows maybe one day write a review for that book too.  Now it’s time for me to find something negative to write about.  I feel like I’ve been endorsing and praising too many products and services here lately.

* I bought the ebook version instead of the physical version because the advantages outweighed the disadvantages for me, but in an ideal world I would just own both versions.  I would love to see a license for the ebook included with the physical copy of the book.  I could buy both, but that means I’m paying twice for the same thing which is why I always feel like it’s bit of a rip off when I’m presented with those physical book + ebook bundles.  But that’s a different discussion.

Transparency pays off

When I first started using Google’s browser, Chrome, I noticed how the ads served up were much more targeted than I what I was used to.  I also noticed that I have a much harder time ignoring targeted ads.  I hardly ever notice the  regular ads that clutter the web pages I visit.  Subconsciously I must have trained my brain to ignore this kind of advertising.  Since these targeted ads feature content directly related to my recent web searches, they stand out more and they cause my privacy paranoia to flare up.

Despite Chrome being the fastest browser I had ever used, the ads were annoying enough for me to stop using it as my main browser.  I even avoided buying from the business that was serving most of these ads to me.  Then other browsers became better (or worse?) at serving up targeted ads so I resorted to clearing my cookies and history more often.  I started using Chrome again but still keep Firefox as my main browser.

Zappos Criteo Screenshot
Zappos Criteo Screenshot, click to view larger

Then something interesting happened.  After browsing Zappos last week, I was presented with targeted Zappos ads for shoes similar to the ones I was looking for.  This time however, there was a “Why am I seeing this ad?” link included.  Clicking this link, redirected me to a Zappos branded page on ‘Criteo.com’.  The page explains how targeted ads work, why I received the ad and even what happens in the background to make this work.  Apparently, my status with Criteo is that I have an active cookie, I have not opted out and I have a cookie from Criteo.  What’s nice is that this page gives me the option to ‘opt-out’,  not just once, in a small print footer, but several times and in clearly visible large print.  Actually, the original link on the ad, the one that led me to this information, was also big, clear and prominent.  Criteo even gave me instructions on how to turn off third party cookies altogether, which would implicitely opt-me-out of most other targeted ad services as well.

I did not opt out, neither did I go and delete all my cookies.  I figure if Zappos and Criteo are honest about the information they have on me, give me a fair chance to opt-out and even teach me how to turn off third party cookies altogether, there is little harm in returning the favor with some limited and anonymous information about my browsing behaviour.

I ended up buying shoes online, not from Zappos, but I’ll, voluntary, continue to see their hard-to-ignore-ads.

Transparency pays off.

Further Reading:
Criteo Privacy Policy

Yahoo planning to shut down Delicious

Unfortunately it looks like the rumor of the day is true:  Yahoo is planning to shut down the Delicious bookmarking service.  After Apple’s shutdown of Lala, this is another one of my favorite web services that gets closed after being acquired by a bigger company. I guess Mark Zuckerberg knew what he was doing when he turned down Yahoo’s offer to buy Facebook.  Nothing is free, especially not when it’s free of ads(1). I’m just glad I own all of the content that I publish here.  Somewhere in my old fashioned paper notebook I keep a list of web services I use. I should have a look at that list and make sure that the services I care about can be exported and backed up easily.

“Part of our organizational streamlining involves cutting our investment in under performing or off-strategy products to put better focus on our core strengths and fund new innovation in the next year and beyond,[…]”
{Statement provided by Yahoo, via CNET }

(1)Except of course true open source initiatives like WordPress.org

Le Pain Quotidien on Facebook

Because I like to know what the soup of the day is without walking over to Le Pain Quotidien, I follow them (@lepainquotidien) on Twitter.  While I originally started following them for this very mundane and practical reason, I’ve been surprised at how well they use this channel to communicate with their customers.

One of the things I like is that they don’t send out a million tweets everyday. Some companies and individuals I follow, tweet so much that I’m tempted to stop following them altogether.  And if I continue to follow them, I hardly ever read their tweets anymore. I’m looking at you @mashable and @nytimes! A twitter feed is not an RSS feed! Sometimes less is more.  On Twitter, less is almost always more!
Another admirable characteristic is that they occasionally reply to people that have mentioned them, but only if they have something worthwhile to say, not systematically and definitely not through some automated process. This way they really show their customers that there are real people behind the brand. However much we all hate the term social media, there is a reason why these media are supposed to be social.

OK, so these are two examples of why Le Pain Quotidien has a healthy Twitter strategy. Surely, they are not the only company that does things right? Why single them out? I could say it’s because they are Belgian and so am I.  But if that was the reason, I could have also used @waffletruck as an example because they are Belgian too and they have a pretty good Twitter feed too. The real reason is this link that @lepainquotidien tweeted yesterday.  “Ever wondered why we serve our organic coffee in bowls?” Honestly? No, I haven’t.  But now that you mention it, I am curious to know.  If you are too, you’ll have to follow the link to read all about it.
You’ll find a cute, tongue-in-cheek explanation of something as trivial as the absence of handles on their cups.  They briefly touch upon a number of details that makes the company a little more unique and a lot more like-able.

I don’t know who was behind this, it might have been a marketing agency, or it might have been someone in their own marketing team.  It doesn’t matter.  I think it’s a great example of using the individual strengths of both Twitter and Facebook.  I love how they used Twitter to get my attention and, with a little teaser, pulled me over to their Facebook page. Furthermore, once they had my attention they didn’t ruin it by trying to sell me something.  Instead they gave me something that I’ll be able to remember and smile about the next time I have one of their hot drinks from a bowl.

Design and redesign

Made by Fred has been under construction for a few weeks now. During this time, I’ve been experimenting with the design.  While a few core ideas have remained unchanged, the general look and feel has gone through many iterations already.  I skipped the Photoshop stage and dove right into editing CSS.  The only reference I used were a few sketches in my notebook.
As a big Instapaper fan, I’ve been really focusing on content and clear presentation.  It’s a misconception that the current readability trend is at odds with graphic and web design.  It’s not about less design, it’s about using the design to present the content in the best way possible.  Made by Fred is not entirely there yet, it’s a work in progress and to some extent that will always be the case.

Readability and clear presentation go hand in hand with typography and font rendering.  There is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to web typography.  CSS3 gives us more options but we’re not quite there yet.  My computer screen is nice and bright, but it doesn’t even come close to rendering fonts as well as my e-reader (which is in turn a far cry from a well printed book).  Leaving hardware out of the equation, there’s the issue of font rendering differences between browsers.  I mostly use Firefox, Safari or Chrome on OS X, but some of my time is spent on Firefox or Internet Explorer on Windows 7.  Windows 7 is a solid OS, but the font rendering is downright pathetic.  I hardly ever use Ubuntu, but I love how well it renders fonts!  The trouble is, while fonts might looks great on Mac OS X or Ubuntu, most people still use Windows so you’ll have to pick fonts accordingly.
Typography is just one aspect of design, but it really affects the look and feel of a web site.  While the above mentioned issues can make the process of selecting the right font a little frustrating at times, it’s well worth spending some time on.

Made by Fred is not entirely ready for prime time at this point.  But since I strongly believe that ‘if you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version you waited too long’, it’s online anyway.  Things will continue to change and hopefully improve, but in the meantime Made by Fred is available for you to enjoy.  Feedback is welcome even if the comments section isn’t entirely finished yet!

Another website?

Another website? Is that really necessary? Don’t you have a website already? And don’t people just publish through Facebook, Flickr or Twitter these days? Yes, I have and yes, they do. But I believe there is still room for another website, even if I already have one, or two.
I’ve been using the internet since 1995 and since 1999 I’ve had a few personal web sites. Both the internet and I have changed over the years. My first website was a college project that I maintained for a few years after I graduated. When I met my wife, we shared a website for a while. After she ventured off on her own to create a strong online identity and business, I kept our website up for a while, but it was clear that I was ready for something new myself. For about a year, I was all over the place. Trying to keep a personal website, a business site, one or two blogs and the mandatory facebook and twitter accounts. All this fragmentation really hurt my content, and the choice of what to publish and where became totally overwhelming. Time to reassess! Consolidation and simplifying things is usually a good idea so that’s why I created Made by Fred.
My passion for communication and mass media is the main reason I’m online in the first place, so my online communications studio and my blog are the most important aspects of my web presence. Made by Fred will focus on these two types of content. I’ll use other services like Facebook and Twitter for the specific functions they are good at. But Made by Fred will be the hub that ties my online identities together. Obviously, just aggregating content is not enough to encourage you to come back here from time to time. I’ll write about web design, on-line communication, what I’m up to and what I think is worth reading or checking out. So sign up for the RSS feed or bookmark Made by Fred and share your thoughts, remarks or just say hi in the comments!