Moving your website is like moving house. If you moved it brick-by-brick. And if each brick had been soaked in VX…
It’s been an insane couple of weeks – well, ten days. I am prone to having impulsive ideas and even if I’m in the middle of something more important, I drop everything and crack on with this amazing new idea. On November 15, on a typically wet grey and weirdly dark November morning, I had the brilliant idea of transferring my website over to a new platform. To get the site up and running I had initially used a basic, though still powerful, web builder app lent to me by my hosting provider. It pretty much did what I wanted to, place objects on a page, add text, add pictures, create a blog and, er… that was pretty much it.
But I got into web design back in the mid 90s and have been into HTML and CSS pretty much ever since. You want a website doing? Sure, I’ll write it in HTML, none of this ‘visual’ design nonsense. The upshot though is that it can take weeks to put together a decent site.
In my last job, when I was redesigning the website after a disastrous move to ‘a popular web platform’ (it rhymes with “Blurred Cress”), I came up with an absolutely gorgeous design, showed it to the MD and got a personal thank you at the following work Christmas party from the MD that made me nearly blub like an actress.
Seriously, the “Blurred Cress” site was awful. Outsourced to probably the cheapest web designer possible, with barely any design it did nothing to promote the business or the company. Difficult to navigate, difficult to update and, because we were hosting ourselves on our brand spanking new HP server, an absolute pig to get configured. Also, because the site had to be multilingual, the PHP had to be hacked to get it to work. Worse though, and this really stuck in my craw – whatever a ‘craw’ is – was the use of non-standard locale codes. I was attempting to be a Java developer at the time and was used to en-GB, fr-CA, you know, ISO standard locale codes. Go to the Canadian French part of the website and the URL contained ‘cf’ as the language prefix. Ugh.
So, ever since then I have not been much of a fan of WordPress, I mean “Blurred Cress”, nor a fan of web builders in general. I find that they take away the fine tuning of a site and pretty much every web builder site looks like any other web builder site.
So I jumped at the chance of redesigning the company site, this time using manly HTML and CSS, hewn through hours and hours of coding. Okay, so I did use Dreamweaver for my site building. As you will be able to tell from the upcoming video masterclasses I’m putting together, I am pretty fanatical when it comes to creating templates and style sheets. It is one of the reasons why The Documentalist came into being. Without templating your design it can soon become disorganised, inconsistent and difficult to update.
In Dreamweaver I would come up with a small set of templates and base all site pages on those templates. Similarly, I would create reusable Library objects that could be dropped, ad hoc, anywhere on the site. Actually, because the site was data driven, I wrote neat functions to select Library items depending on the language. There was no awful locale select in the URL as it was all done through cookies and session variables.
So I came up with a lovely new website and the new Marketing Manager, the MD’s missus, asked innocently, “is it responsive?”
No it wasn’t, or at least not very.
I did some research and pretty much every discussion on Stack Exchange said “if you want to create a responsive site from scratch then don’t!” I ended up finding a CSS classes file that did what I needed and it was over 2,500 lines long. Two and and half thousand lines of CSS code to get a website to reorganise itself depending on the screen width. Crazy!
Anyway, as usual, I digress.
The web builder I used initially did a pretty good job and I had a site up and running within a couple of days, instead of the months it would have taken had I hand-coded it. And though it was a great site, there was very little to zero room for tweaking it. Attempt to add a CSS class or even inline styling and it would be ignored. Very quickly, after a few weeks, I had reached the limit of the application’s capability.
So I started to look at WordPress in earnest and in a rash of impetuousness contacted my provider and proudly announced to the very helpful lady on the other end of the phone, “yes verily I require that you transfer my web site forthwith and with haste to your WordPress platform” coming over all Dickensian for a moment or two.
I then panicked because I then realised that my email account was IMAP and pointing the DNSs to somewhere else meant that that all my email vanished into the aether. Balls.
After an hour I was able to log into my WordPress admin account and start putting a new and improved site together.
And it was a nightmare.
I had to admit that maybe I had reached that age where new stuff was confusing and terrifying. Oh crap, would I no longer be able to program the video to tape Awesome Canal Boat Journeys? Seriously, I like programmes about canal boats and people living on canal boats and people living on canal boats going to places on canal boats, on the canal. In a boat. There’s been one recently about a youngest hipster musician dude who gave up the rat race and bought a narrow boat, spending his days eating bacon and eggs prepared on a wood fired stove, pulling someone’s pants out of his propeller and saying hello to people. Utopia.
Actually, here’s the link: www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/m000bks0/canal-boat-diaries.
(I’ve just had a coffee that I don’t remember drinking. On the plus side though, I have just found a bag of Fruit Pastilles that I didn’t know I had.)
But anyway, I spent the next three or four days tearing my hair out trying to get the site working. I just didn’t know how it worked!!! Coming from a traditional web design background I am comfortable in the paradigm of creating a single file for a single web page. That page is placed in a directory on the server that corresponds to the URL. Everything organised, everything nice and neat. WordPress throws this completely out of the window. As it’s essentially a Content Management System (CMS) it doesn’t adhere to this traditional way of doing things. Pages aren’t really pages, they are content, with a pseudo link assigned to them. Content can also be differentiated into content types, such Portfolio, Blog posts, Services and Testimonials, something which I spent two days trying to work out. It was like trying to wrestle a puma made of jelly, and teeth.
By the end of the second day, Saturday, I was all ready for just abandoning it and going back to the old Web Builder way of doing things, but that would mean annoying my hosting provider, and I reckon there’s a maximum number of times in a week that one can change their site DNS.
In the early evening of Saturday my BMF texted me to ask if I fancied a few beers. “Why yes, my friend, a couple of ales would be most agreeable! Let us tarry with all haste to the nearest hostelry!” I replied, though I have point out here that I am paraphrasing; the language used was slightly more colourful.
Thing is, I get to a point with something I’m having trouble with and rather than give up, the old Dunkirk Spirit kicks in and I refuse to be beaten. The last time I did this, spending a weekend without sleep to get something to work, was when I was chromakeying video of Kriss Akabusi who had been shot against a blue screen. And was wearing a blue shirt… That’s probably a story for another time but with a deadline approaching I was seriously considering running away to Bolivia. So, I wasn’t going to give up.
Fortunately though, after a couple days, it just clicked. I got it, it made sense. And whilst editing a website through a web portal is not my cuppa tea and a milk chocolate Hob Nob (I prefer a desktop application, to be honest) I found that I was able to get my site roughly how I wanted it to be.
I once read somewhere that to get WordPress working, one needs to download plugins and widgets to do the more whizzier functions and this is definitely true. There are literally thousands of different themes and plugins out there and each theme has different functionality, which was, in part, reason for my frustration. Get something working on one theme, change the theme and that function can completely disappear. But, after a couple more days I had got my site set up and configured the way I wanted it.
And so the point of this post is to announce that the site is now ready! Sort of. There are still a few bits and pieces missing, mainly portfolios, but the content is back and this will be changed, moved around or updated over the coming weeks. I will always prefer the more ‘manual’ approach of creating a website but I have to admit that this way of doing things is probably going to disappear in the next few years. WordPress and I have the same relationship as a couple of flatmates: sometimes we’ll go for days not talking to each other because neither will take the blame for using the last sheet of bog roll but then afterwards we’re sharing a beer and saying “you’re my best mate you are! I love you man!”
The problem with the platform, and it is probably more my problem than anything, is that it is open-source. I’ve never been a huge fan of open source simply because although there are some great tools and frameworks out there, it can take time to find them. Find a poorly coded plugin or widget and you’ll be wrestling with the puma made of jelly. Find a ruddy brilliant plugin or widget and you’ll be wanting to give its author your last bag of Fruit Pastilles!