Impressions of an online WordPress class with pitfalls and triumphs along the way
My clients often need help upgrading or creating Web sites, so I look for Web gurus to partner with. I much prefer to spend my time creating content rather than being a back end techie. But, Web masters that meet my standards are hard to come by, and the great ones are often super-busy or not affordable for my rural clients. So, finally I decided to bite the bullet and upgrade my own creaking Web Site crafting skills. I’m taking online classes through the local college at $129 a whack. The first one — HTML5/CSS3 went pretty well. By pretty well I mean, the interface was bug-free and instructor Alan Simpson had a very thorough delivery style. I aced the final, but didn’t master the material. Part of that is due to lack of time for more practice. But I have the notes to refer to now. I love school, so when that class ended, I decided to enroll in the WordPress II class.
Switching to WordPress
I want to master WordPress for a number of reasons.
- I need to bring, www.southlakecda.com into the 21st century.
- I need to create a new website for thrival-survival.com.
- I want to build and/or migrate content management sites (CMS) for clients.
- I’ve tried simpler Web site building programs: Intuit, Kompozer and Weebly, and they all have glitches I don’t like.
I decided I could handle the WordPress II class because:
- I already have several wordpress.com blogs
- I helped a client navigate an existing Web site to a very basic WordPress.org site
- I practiced with lessons on YouTube by Tyler Moore who is an online WordPress web tutor extraordinaire that makes it all look very easy.
Nevertheless, efforts to learn what I need on my own have resulted is frustration. I hired a consultant — something I rarely do on my tight budget — but thought 10 hours or so of his time would get me on the right track. This was true to a point, but mostly the lack of progress was disappointing. For one thing, he ran into some of the same frustrations I did; and, I needed to take a class just to understand what he’s talking about.
This blog article started as a draft of notes to post on the class discussion area. It got way too long so I decided to journal my experiences here to keep track of my questions, and discoveries. Somebody wanting to learn WordPress may be able to benefit from my trials and tribulations. Also, I don’t really want to sound like a whiner on the class discussion site, or sound disrespectful to the teacher, but there are some frustrating aspects of this teacher’s communication style that I need to vent about!
Challenges With the WordPress II Class
I signed up for the WordPress II class through ed2go.com thinking it would be pretty much a piece of cake, and I could get answers to a few of the sticking points that have been holding me up. Right off the bat, it’s taking more time and money than expected. This is as compared to my previous experience with the HTML5/CSS3 class. We’re three lessons into this one and I’m already lagging behind. I feel the teacher, John, could be better at making things more clear right off the bat.
Too begin with, I had to find a new web host, and the extra expense was completely unexpected. Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see anything about that contingency in the syllabus or orientation. I know it must be hard to believe, but some people don’t have an extra $60 – $100 bucks lying around that’s not allocated for food, gas, and toilet paper. Also, John tends to make vague statements that leave out important (to me) details. This requires extra time from me to: 1) pore through the discussion posts one-by-one to see if my questions have been addressed there — and if not, formulate my questions in writing; and/or research elsewhere (which I could do without paying for the class). From the very beginning a few avoidable painful twinges pop up, and I briefly consider dropping out and getting my money back.
Lesson One – Getting Started With WordPress
We are told the class will be building a practice site together and that we will need a domain name and a host, so get the checkbook out. There was confusion on my part about how this domain should be named. It says I’d be needing an “unrelated domain name,” but “this shouldn’t matter…” huh — unrelated to backyard gardens? What do you mean it doesn’t matter?
“Also, keep in mind that you’re going to need a domain name for our class project website. You won’t be able to use its real name, http://BuildABackyardWaterGarden.com (because I’ve already registered that domain), so you’ll have to pick an unrelated domain name. This shouldn’t matter, because it’s just a practice site—and after the course ends, you can erase the content and use the domain for your own purposes. If you plan on working on your own site during the course, you’ll have to register one domain for the course project and a second for your own.”
I have an aversion to “should/shouldn’t,” especially in reference to what should be precise directions. Since I don’t have money to throw away, I would definitely want to erase the content and use the domain for my own purposes at end of class. And yes, I have several pending projects and would want to register a domain name I actually plan to use. Does the erasing include everything except the actual domain name — like Web site title? Will I find the practice template useable for the domain name I will want to use? Not a deal breaker, but these are questions that should be anticipated and clarified at this point in the lesson, I think, rather than the FAQs at the end.
Do I Need A New Hosting Service?
I already have a host for a going Web site, and several reserved domain names I plan to use someday soon. So, the first thought is to use those and hopefully put the checkbook away. As part of the project to migrate to WordPress, the guy I’d hired had already set up a rudimentary WP site on my current hostmysite account, where the existing old html Web site is housed. I had paid him to do it so I wouldn’t have to worry about it — (but the WP files are residing there free). Now I have to focus on what he had already done, to see if I can appropriate it to my class needs.
I switched to hostmysite last year after my main old html Web site was hacked and the host took a full week to respond. Everything is working fine, and I have never actually needed to spend any time looking at the control panel. I always update the site in html and load it via the Filezilla FTP program. Now I’m looking at the hostmysite (basic service) control panel, which looks very outdated compared to the example shown in Lesson One. I click around for quite a while and can see no visible support for WordPress. You’d think it would be under the Applications tab, right?
Wildly Different Levels of WordPress Support Against a Backdrop of 100% Ignorant
When I started the process of trying to change my old site to a responsive WP site, I had asked the folks at hostmysite if they supported WordPress, and was told they do. I have since observed there are wildly differing levels of how a host “supports” WordPress. Last fall, starting out 100 percent ignorant, I helped a client in Oregon upgrade a Web site to WordPress — and add a map and video — by following the simple download instructions provided by their domain host (along with Tyler Moore’s great videos). I figured all hosts who claim WordPress support would have an automatic loading function.
When it came to migrating my own site, I didn’t have time to deal with it. I wanted the site moved quickly and, based on the ease of my experience with the client in Oregon, thought a seasoned WordPress contractor could take care of it in a snap. I paid him so I didn’t have to sorry about it, I thought. Now, if I was going to utilize my current host for the class requirements, I needed to zero in on what exactly my techie had done. I fished out the progress report he had emailed me and read it thoroughly for the first time. Then I emailed him with a couple of questions based on ignorant assumptions, forgetting that he tends to ramble on and on and charge me by the minute like a lawyer. I admire that he values his time, but not so much when I’m paying for him to tell me things I didn’t necessarily ask about.
Essentially, the important part of his response was that he had installed WordPress manually and “stashed the WordPress site in a sub-folder.” At about that time I learned the basic service on hostmysite uses Plesk control panel, which the instructor cautioned us to stay away from because “it doesn’t work well with WordPress.” I slept on it and decided to look around for a more WordPress friendly host.
The Search for a WordPress Friendly Host
I spend several hours on the Internet, researching WordPress-friendly hosts, and finally zero in on SiteGround for: load speed of WordPress pages, customer help, cost, and services. I prefer to do business with American companies, but the hosts so outshine the competition, I overlook the fact that they are based in Sofia, Bulgaria. I am happy to see them on instructor John’s list of suggested sites. To sweeten the pot, they also have a sale going, and I get a year of hosting (with hack alert) for less than $60. So far the customer service chat has been stellar and I love my new control panel.
First Baby Steps to My New Web Site
I have been renewing a number of unused domain names through hostmysite and started an account at SiteGround with one of them. I’ll be using the automatic WP install to develop a brand new WordPress Web site for thrival-survival.com. But I still need to make a space for the class practice site. In the FAQs, rather than within the lesson on creating domains and finding hosts, I see a question from somebody in a similar boat to my own.
“Q: I have one domain that I’m using for an existing website. Do I have to register a second domain for the class project?
A: Definitely not. You can set up a place for our practice website on your own domain at no extra charge, and you’ll be able to administer each site separately. It’s done by creating a subdomain.”
Sweet, but this contingency should have been anticipated and addressed in the flow of the lesson instructions. I intend to install the class practice site on SiteGround, on a subdomain of thrival-survival. I will try installing that second one manually for the practice.
Some statements by the teacher confuse me:
“…You can set up a place for our practice website on your own domain…by creating a subdomain (and call it) classproject.yoursite.com (the subdomain is listed ahead of your main domain and separated by a dot) or, yoursite.com/classfolder (the subdomain is in a folder of your main domain). The version you choose will determine how visitors will access the website.”
There is no explanation about the pros/cons of the two choices, nor is there clarification about the resulting user experiences.
Lesson Two – Setting up the WordPress Site
This lesson contains a lot of important technical steps for setting up the WordPress files and I can only hope they are clear once I get into the thick of things. As I said earlier, I am lagging behind. I notice another vague statement, this one regarding permalinks:
“I’m going to give you one that works well for CMS websites that don’t have too many blog posts.”
How many is too many? How does number of blog posts interact with the syntax of a permalink? How should we plan ahead for a site where “too many blog posts” might occur? On the topic of quantity, how many pages (as opposed to posts) would be considered “too many” on a WordPress site?
Lesson Three – Working With Themes
Upon signing up with my new host I am (almost) immediately prompted to do the automatic WordPress install which requires picking a theme. I often hear about how themes can be easily changed, such as in the opening lines of Lesson Three:
“It takes only a few mouse clicks to activate a different theme, and you never have to worry about losing your site’s content when you switch. And perhaps the best part of WP themes is that you can customize them to your heart’s content.” So a different statement by John comes as a surprise: “…you may need an extra sidebar on the left or right of the main content…The overall layout is one of the most difficult elements to change, so make sure you’re satisfied with the way your theme is set up.”
I have a very simple layout in mind, and I do need an extra sidebar, but have not been able to find the proper theme. I thought I could easily experiment with themes and change if needed, but now I wonder.
John writes, “…choosing the best one (theme) for your needs is a major decision. For me, it’s often an agonizing task that takes as much time as any other part of the development process.” So, I’m not alone! Looking for the theme I need has already sucked up a HUGE amount of otherwise billable hours. There is always learning and professional development time, but this has come to a point of ridiculous for somebody trying to make a living in a rural one-woman shop. This one factor has completely stalled my ability to switch my old html site to a responsive WP theme in a reasonable time frame.
The framework I need seems simple enough. I need a theme with a header, and below that, a 50%-wide content block on the left and two 25% columns on right. I want the content block to look exactly like my existing site. Images with floated text that wraps around. I don’t want lines between the entriess. The columns should be 170 px wide. They will hold numerous static ads already on my site (enter the widgets, I suppose)? These specs are a rough idea and can be adjusted for maximum phone viewing efficiency, if necessary. I want the site to basically look like my old html site except the ad columns will both be on the right side, rather than straddling the two sides of the text block, like they are now. Oh, and I want to add a video plug-in and the site needs to be responsive, asap. Maybe I’ll have room for a thin column on the left for links and other things currently on the site. Pretty simple, right?
In Search of the Elusive Theme & Other Vagaries
I can see where a new service of “theme broker” could be a growing industry. I have eaten up way too much time searching and not finding. One key reason I invested in this class is for some clear help dealing with this theme issue. So, I was encouraged at the start of Chapter Three with the promise: “This lesson will cover every aspect of WordPress themes.” [Emphasis mine]. Unfortunately, vagaries like, “In addition to general purpose designs, there are plenty of WordPress themes for specific uses,” are a dime a dozen on the Internet and not what I want to be paying for.
I have tried some sites that offer WP themes and search filters, but so far none has offered satisfactory choices. It shouldn’t be that hard. A theme collection with with more sophisticated ability to select specific needs seems to be lacking. Even a site that shows basic free themes with lots of examples of what each one can potentially look like after incorporating various options, would help.
I hired that guy bring a theme solution to my table, but he also complained of all the fruitless hours spent looking at themes. I feel like I got about 10% closer to where I want to be for twice more than I wanted to pay. Part of the problem is not understanding beforehand, what can and can’t be easily tweaked (such as column width and placement). And now, finding out that only paid themes can be adjusted, is not good news at all.
Then, reading further, I discover even if I find a theme with the correct layout, the “responsive” function might not even work, according to John. “Not all responsive themes work as advertised.” How about providing a list of the ones the DO work as advertised??
We are advised to avoid themes with hidden links, which seems like a useful nugget of information, but once again, I have the feeling of being left dangling…”You’ll sometimes run across an unusual-looking link in the footer or sidebar of a free WordPress theme.” Why not describe what is meant by unusual looking?”
Will there be explanations about what some of the features in the Install Themes filter mean, such as: Blavatar, Custom Header, BuddyPress, Microformats, Flexible Header, Front Page Posting, RTL, Language, Featured Image, Full-Width Template?
It would be nice to know these things before starting the installation.