Get it All

This blog has officially been upgraded to a WordPress MU site! I’ve been thinking about making some changes to my political website, DragonFlyEye.Net, and I’ve decided that this is the way I’d like to go.

I last did a major overhaul of the site design about a year or so ago. I’d been learning more and more about how to make a proper website, including a lot of lessons learned from working with WordPress, and so I pooled those lessons into a new design that was much more flexible than anything I’d worked with in the past. While the “blog” continues to be driven by WordPress, the Flagship content is driven by my own design. The site is currently template-based, fully database-driven and even has a rudimentary “Widgets” thing going with sidebar pieces that I can mix and match.

But there are problems. For one, in my haste to complete the project, I took shortcuts with the HTML design that made the site non-compliant with XHTML. That hasn’t exactly doomed my SEO pursuits, in fact I’m doing just fine, but better is better, and I’d like to improve upon this flaw.

A second flaw has been the inclusion of HaloScan commenting. It’s great that I was able to incorporate this service into my site, since I didn’t want to mess with handling all the commenting/spam issues myself, but it has it’s issues. For one, the separate window thing is annoying. I’d prefer for people to be able to comment directly within the body-flow of the article itself, and more importantly, I’d like visitors to see any comments and be encouraged to contribute. Finally, any commenting traffic and keywords are moving towards someone else’s domain and not contributing a damned thing to my SEO. That may be small-potatoes thinking, but in my estimation, anything you can do to improve your standing while avoiding Black Hat tactics you should be doing.

Another consideration was the fact that the Flagship areas of my website are so completely separated from the blog. The traffic coming into the website is primarily driven by my blog, nearly 60% of my visitors in a month came to the site through either direct-visits to the blog or searches that led them to blog articles. Meanwhile, those people coming into the site through websearches that hit Flagship content rarely seem to follow through to anywhere else on my site. One-hit wonders are normal: people search, click a link, decide its not for them, and move on. However, when you see a larger portion of visitors clicking through blog articles than through Flagship content, you know that there is a design problem.

And it was specifically this click-through problem, this lack of movement in Flagship content, that led me on the voyage I’m currently taking. I realized what I need is a consistent theme throughout my site that always includes a navigation bar in the same place. Once users get used to the flow of a page, they explore, and new visitors are more likely to flow around a site that is easily navigated.

So step one in my thinking was that I needed a central theme, which would require sharing a theme between WordPress pages and the rest. Well, that’s not really possible, is it? It could be, if you want to write REALLY complicated theme files, but it would be easier if everything was WordPress. And of course, you could just setup individual WordPress installations in their own directories with their own prefixes in the database, but here the problem is sharing one Templates folder. To do that, at minimum, you’d need to hack or write a plugin and install it on every single blog. Lots of overhead, that.

Additionally, I wanted to maintain the different “channels” on the site, each dedicated to it’s own unique content. So, I hit on the idea of WordPress MU. With this, I can create as many blogs as suits my fancy, even stretching them over multiple dB’s, should that be required. The plan is to import all the articles from the Flagship areas into their own unique blogs and then move on from there. An extra bonus of doing this is that I am currently limited, not only by site design but also by the amount of database work required, to only a few channels. With MU, I can expand my channel selection as needed.

Better yet, I plan to open the website up to community input and allow others to write blog posts on the site. This should also hopefully include local personalities. I’ve still not decided how this will work, whether the new users will each have their own blogs or if there will be community blogs where everyone contributes. These are details that will come in time.

Basically, my primary muses for this project are TalkingPointsMemo’s TPMCafe and the Huffington Post. Community feel with featured blogs. I’ve also decided that I’ve reached a level of PHP expertise that doesn’t require me to do everything myself. I’m ready to contribute to something larger, like the WP community, for example.

But first thing’s first: I’ve got to get comfortable with MU before I start deploying it on the other website. Since this is a place for me to experiment with my junk anyway, it seemed a perfect place to start. I’m going to start playing around with the basic interface, get used to how blogs and users are created, and then maybe crack into some plugins and see what I might need. I’m planning on updating the blog (or at least, one of them!) regularly with my thoughts.

For now, let me say what I’m looking into doing to see if anyone has any helpful hints on where to go next:

  1. I will probably need to classify my blogs, regardless of what I do with them, so that I can limit what appears in the navigation bar. Something along the lines of “Channel,” “User,” “Community,” and other classifications. This may be as simple as adding an option into that blog’s options table, I haven’t gotten that far.
  2. If I go with community blogs (as indeed I may do even if I go with user blogs, also), I’m going to need to find a way to enroll new users into all of those blogs as authors while limiting them to subscriber level on other blogs. Here’s one more reason for classification.
  3. I am thinking that creating a hidden blog solely for the purposes of hosting advertisements would be an efficient way to handle and track advertising campaigns. To introduce the advertisements, I would probably IFRAME the contents into another blog and write a plugin to dynamically call them. Meanwhile, I’d need to write up a stripped-down theme, with only a simple one-color background and none of the fancy stuff.
  4. Speaking of themes, I’d like there to be a way to restrict the selection of available themes by blog classification. Obviously, I would want to keep primary content separate from user or community content, and while the themes might generally be related, it would be nice to have slightly different themes for user blogs.
  5. A minor detail, but my current Flagship setup includes titles and subtitles for articles. I’m going to want to either use or create a plugin to allow this in blog posts.
  6. I am noticing something rather annoying about MU and themes: you cannot seem to edit them within the interface like you can in the WordPress personal edition. I understand why you would not want to allow just anyone to edit themes, but why not allow this option under Site Admin for those who are, in fact, Admins? I’d hate to think that I’m going to need to install a whole new WordPress personal just to test and tweak themes!

Whew! As you can probably tell, this is not a project that will be any time soon in its completion. I’m going to go ahead and create blogs here and work with them to get the feel, then I’ll need to do some pretty fancy footwork to get it all setup on the main blog. I’ll probably also use this environment to work on some of my themes and get them going right.

Wish me luck! I’ll probably bump into you on the WordPress MU Forums or on!