Intelligent Design: The Evolution of WordPress

November 17, 2009
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wordpress logo 150x150 Intelligent Design: The Evolution of WordPressWikipedia describes WordPress as “ an open source blog publishing application and can be used for basic content management”.  At WordPress.org the description reads, WordPress is a state-of-the-art publishing platform with a focus on aesthetics, web standards, and usability.” These two descriptions probably articulate the two most common perspectives on what WP is and does. With the WordPress one though, it is clear that they are evolving beyond a blog platform to a full-fledged publishing and content management system that is fairly easy to use.

So Easy A Caveman Could Use It

The 5 Minute Install feature is the online version of the easy button, and a big reason why WordPress has taken off. You can be up and running quickly. But what if you could hand code a site as easily as setting up a WordPress site? It would certainly make it easier to employ many of the information architecture concepts that usability experts like Jakob Nielsen and Steve Krug extol, and by extension, improve the conversion rate on sites where generating business is the primary goal.

The Missing Link

In the past two articles I have focused on content and navigation infrastructure. Now it is time to implement the strategy. This is where it can start to get difficult, or frustrating though. Enter the theme.



Advertise at AG

There are literally thousands of theme options at our disposal. All we have to do is pick the prettiest one or the one that best fits our persona, right? The problem is that most themes, even premium themes, give you limited options. How you can use the theme and where you can display content is limited to what the designer imagines you should put into their boxes. Unless you hack it up, the freedom of adding anything else beside what the designer has allowed for doesn’t exist. Maybe they’ll give you a cool drop down menu, but that is more of a space-saving gimmick than a function of good usability.

What if you could manipulate a theme to give you the same benefits of hand coding a custom site, but without doing any coding?

Intelligent Design: Frameworks vs Themes

In a nutshell, a framework is a master theme than can be extended by using child themes. A child theme works by hooking into the parent (the framework) where it uses its template files and functions. The child theme can change both the way the parent theme looks and functions. The difference between a framework and a premium theme is that the typical premium theme has little flexibility or extensibility. If your goal is to use WordPress to its full potential as a CMS, a good framework can run circles around a regular theme.

A few widely used frameworks are  Thesis, Thematic, Hybrid and Headway, with new ones popping up all the time.

Cave Drawings

I set up Thematic with a beta child theme (still may see some IE6 bugs so use a real browser) on SanDiegoHomes.org to illustrate the flexibility a framework can provide. Whereas most of the premium themes may have two side bars and a few other widgetized areas where I can place content, Thematic gives me far more options. The child theme gives me even more. and by using a few cool plugins, I can leverage almost every inch of the onscreen real estate to take maximum advantage of how I can content and navigation.

Here are a few examples of what you can accomplish:

Flexible Content Management
The three content areas above the main content on the home page can be displayed site wide or on specific pages.

Usability and Conversion Testing
You can do A/B testing. I can create a 2nd home page with different content. On this page I added three content areas at the bottom of the page. It’s only a matter of checking a box in the settings to have this as the home page, so I can see if users will click on content that far below the fold.  Again, those three content areas can be page specific or site-wide, with unique content on different pages.

Fine Tune My SEO
Frameworks that allow you to utilize multiple widgetized areas can also help getting granular with your SEO efforts and really integrate aspects of the blog with the static part of a site.

I have one site with a static page that ranks well for short sale related terms. My best short sale content are the blog posts though, so while the static page ranks well, it doesn’t convert. With this framework, I can create a hybrid solution where I use my short sale category in place of a topic specific category which I added to the top nav menu. The downside to doing this normally is that as the blog posts change, the ranking can fluctuate. By using a widgetized area at the top of the short sale category page, I can now add some static, topic specific content and keep that page ranking at the top of the serps.

Surf through the site and you’ll see more examples. Keep in mind what you see now is just for demo purposes. Any questions? Fire away.

Added: This page here shows most of the different widgetized areas this child theme has as options.

A real estate vet, 2009 marked the beginning of Bob's 20th year in the real estate biz, with the last 10 years spent online. Bob practices in San Diego, California and is well known for his expertise in online real estate marketing, SEO and lead generation strategies.



Weigh in...

  • http://www.mnhome.org Ben Goheen

    Thesis seems to be a very popular theme. However, in my opinion it isn’t easy to customize. Sure the SEO factors are built into it, but if the site looks lame then is the user going to stick around?

    What child theme are you using in the example?

  • Bob Wilson

    Ben, Thesis has a fairly steep learning curve, but there is a ton of help out there and a cottage industry springing up around the child themes.

    I am not a huge fan of “built in SEO” as it’s just using the custom fields so you are at the whim of the theme designer and how they think it should be set. I prefer to use something like Headspace where I have complete control.

    That child theme hasnt been released yet, but it has 18-20 widgetized areas. I’ll set up a few demo pages where you can see them all. I cant imagine ever using them all on the same site, but it allows you to take the same theme and have 100s of different layout options. Toss in the gazillion different ways you can play with the colors or background images with the css and its pretty cool.

  • http://flatfeepro.com Fred Romano

    I have tried many different themes, both free and premium, not a fan of Thesis at all. I tend to like the work Brian Gardner does at http://briangardner.com.

    I also think you need to choose a theme that is simple and clean yet interesting. Keep the plugins light so you don’t bog the system down. This will help to make it load faster and make it more user friendly.

    BTW, the example you have is quite ugly… sorry.

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  • Bob Wilson

    Fred, I would like to keep this from being a marketing post about all the different themes available. I mentioned those frameworks as an introduction to the concept of frameworks and those are the most widely used at the moment.

    Thesis definitely isn’t for everyone, but when it comes to functionality, what can be done with hooks makes it an amazing tool in the right hands.The Naples site I referenced in the last article was built on Thesis and it manages content as well as any hand coded or dynamic site. AG is done on Hybrid. I used this child theme to show what could be done with Thematic. The point was to illustrate the flexibility offered with frameworks that premium themes don’t provide. If you don’t need or want that kind of flexibility,then a framework may be overkill for you.

    I took no offense because this wasn’t about looks. Pretty actually has very little to do with conversion. Good usability will beat pretty all day long, but it doesn’t matter in this case as that won’t be the finished product.The point of this post is about managing content. Also, well written plugins generally add to the user experience and don’t have to slow a site down.

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  • http://www.TheAgentTrainer.com/ Matthew Rathbun

    Bob,

    Thanks for this. I have a question about “I set up Thematic with a beta child theme (still may see some IE6 bugs so use a real browser)”

    I’ve made this off hand comment about IE as well, but how do we get around the overwhelming number of users who are on it? I’ve got Chrome, Safari, IE and Firefox (my preferred system) installed so that I can check each one after format changes are made. Any ideas on how to make it easier to work universally?

  • http://card.ly/laniar Lani Rosales

    “use a real browser”

    LOL!! Priceless.

  • Bob Wilson

    Lani, there is a plugin that detects IE6 and lets you display a custom message.

  • Bob Wilson

    Mathew, No. Programmers have told me that they develop in FF, then check everything in Safari, Chrome and Opera so they know everything is working right. Then they start debugging IE6. It cant be ignored because it is still used by about 25%. because of XP. I suspect once use drops down below 10% it will start to be ignored. I have it on the laptop Im using now, but only to access the MLS and check errors.

    Plugin developers have the same issues and need to test in IE6 as well. A specific use of a comma in php that is ignored in the other browsers will cause it to break in IE6.

    Even though I knew this theme wasn’t done, I went with it because it takes the concept of multiple widget ready areas to a new level.

  • http://www.hotlahomes.com Jose R. Reyes

    I am converting everything over to WordPress. It is much more cost effective. I currently pay $39 a month for a website that is very generic. I am in the process of building 5 custom wordpress sites. I am not a computer wiz so of course I am paying someone (very affordable) to create a custom theme. The cost to have all 5 custom sites will be about $45 dollars a month to have up and running. The most $39 of it being from IDX Broker. I should be launching in about 2-3 weeks. Be here is a sample of what the site will look like:

    http://66.147.240.185/~covinare/hotlahomes/

    Still a work in progress, but YES, this is WordPress. Let me know if anyone wants the contact for the designer that is doing this for me. She amazing and costs less then some WP themes.

  • http://www.rerockstar.com Matt Stigliano

    Bob – Love the note about the “Shockingly Big IE6 Warning” Plugin. I just checked it out and since it doesn’t have to be “shockingly big” (you can have it just display at the top), I think I may actually install it. Maybe if enough people install this we can help whittle down the IE6 percentages slowly but surely.

    • Bob Wilson

      Matt, I think we’ll see another drop starting Black Friday as people take advantage of the seasonal deals and upgrade older PCs running XP and IE6.

  • Bob Wilson

    Fred brought up an interesting issue with his comments. Frequently people have a hard time imagining what can be done with a blank theme, so they go with the pre-made theme and change a few graphics.

    The reason I have stayed away from any design so far is to focus on the most important aspects of web development. One you get the content and navigation storyboarded, you send the css to a designer and pretty it up. Its the same as building a house. Paint and carpet comes last.

    To illustrate that point, here are two dramatically different real estate sites with different approaches both built on the same framework, but with different IA and css:

    http://www.archcityhomes.com/
    http://www.adeltarealty.net

    At first glance would you know that these are both built on Thesis?

    The tendency (and sales pitch from theme sellers) is to fit the content to the site. If I make only one point with this series, it is this:

    If you build a site upon which you are basing a revenue producing business, then you need to build the site around the content. Despite the premium theme pitches, there is no single out of the box ideal solution.

  • http://www.atlantarealestateinfo.com/ Rob McCance

    Bob:

    The site is coming along, looking good.

    To me, AgentPress reminds me of the thousands of Real Estate Webmasters template sites that are out there already. I didn’t put them side by side on my screen but when Agentpress popped up, I scrolled to the bottom expecting to see “Real Estate Webmasters” in small print at the bottom.

    LOL. I’ve looked at too many sites.

    As you know, I’m thinking about moving my static non-CMS, non-WP site over to WP, but right now I have too many unknows to begin.

    I hand wrote my site starting with <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC ….

    So hacking up WP CSS/HTML does not intimidate me at all, and I really like the idea of basically being able to add a new page to my site while sitting in Starbux with my MacBook, all while never touching a line of code. That sounds cool.

    So, I may be joining the dark side some day soon.

    Anyone using WP concerned with page load times? There are some really slow ones out there and recently, Cutts indicated Google may factor page load times into the algorithm someday soon.

    Not a big concern at the moment, but more importantly, site visitors don't like excessively slow sites.

  • http://flatfeepro.com Fred Romano

    I have experienced lag using certain WP themes… but the new one I use is fast. I think it’s because the code is clean and simple and I don’t use too many plugins that weigh it down.

    • http://flatfeepro.com Fred Romano

      I also think the Google analytics may slow it down a hair too.

    • http://www.atlantarealestateinfo.com/ Rob McCance

      Fred,

      Your site is fairly snappy, seems to take 1-3 seconds to load a new page.

      I just did a reload (not initial load) of the AG home page and timed it: 17 seconds.

      Just tried it again: 20 seconds.

      Is this “normal” for a WP site of this size with this traffic?

      • http://flatfeepro.com Fred Romano

        I noticed a bad lag time on AG since they switched to their new theme. It’s painful to wait for these pages to load. I don’t thinks it’s normal… I think Benn has got alot going on underneath the hood.

  • Bob Wilson

    Rob, Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. You are one of the poster children for a framework. I think once you nailed down how you want to set everything up, a framework would be an excellent solution for you.

    Its not likely that load speed will be a huge issue for most. The feedback from PubCon where Matt said that was that fast wouldnt necessarily improve your ranking, but slow could hurt. Even then, there are several other factors that will likely have greater impact that people should deal with first.

    My WP sites load extremely fast. I have seen some sites with 60-70 widgets activated, with several of them duplicating the same functions. keep in mind that not all plugins are created equal, so its as much of a good code thing as how many. Most of the slow stuff I find is related to database issues and in the recent past, pics set to a high resolution. The image resizing that WP has been adding to the most recent releases has helped that.

    Rob, the AG site is the definition of slow.Compare it to Copyblogger that gets huge traffic.

    • http://www.atlantarealestateinfo.com/ Rob McCance

      Thanks Bob.

      I just have to get clear in my head how to set up the sandbox development site, then ultimately move the WP site to the top level and replace the current site. And finally, get all my URLs mapped (or use the same file names in WP).

      I’m still stuck unresolved in that the WP URLs look like a directory, versus filename.php

      Look up, this one is called …./intillegent-design-the-evolution-of-wordpress/

      where’s the file?

      LOL!

      • Bob Wilson

        Rob, you will see many dont use the filename extension anymore. it makes it easy to switch platforms without having to change urls.

        In your case you can 301 the /filename.php to /filename/. If the page doesnt have links of any value, you dont really have to worry about the redirect. Set up a custom 404 page for those strays and you can recapture and redistribute any link equity that is floating out.

        I did one site with over a 1000 redirects. It can be a pain, but once you make the move, any future moves are far less painful.

  • http://www.mnhome.org Stillwater Real Estate

    I’ve also noticed a huge slowdown of AG since the redesign. It may be due to the theme, hosting company or both. Looks like this is on bluehost.com, which many people seem to praise. But I’ll stick with arvixe.com since all my sites load super fast.

  • http://mportlandrealestate.com Portland Condo Auctions

    WordPress is THE way to go for a good website, especially for the real estate industry. You will spend less time trying to get your website to work, and more time writing quality content and providing for your clients.

    -Tyler

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  • http://pensacolafloridahomesforsale.net Pensacola FL Homes For Sale

    We have a website built on the Thematic framework and a child them that is still officially in beta. It can be seen at the link above. Not quite live yet as we are still playing around with it.

    Before we went with Thematic+Child, we tried Thesis. Thesis is ,no doubt, a powerful framework but as most have warned it does have a steep learning curve and a lot of the plugins we like to use don’t work with it for some reason.

    Thematic was free so we tried it and haven’t looked back. Our site does load slower than I would like but I think if I replace the (unnecessary) image rotator at the top right with a static pic and link, it should load fine.

  • http://dannybrown.me Danny Brown

    Would loved to have seen what you did at SanDiegoHomes.org, but unfortunately wouldn’t load on either Firefox, Chrome or Safari. Have you closed it off?

    Anyhoo… while Thematic is funky enough, Headway (I feel) trumps everything. Coders, non-coders, custom CSS, valid XHTML and the ability to have columns and widgetized footers galore – I’ll take that anyday, cheers.

    Oh, and its built-in SEO is trumping every SEO plug-in I’ve ever used prior to switching, including Headspace.

  • Bob

    Danny, I had to back-off of the development of the site until the Cal DRE approves our brokerage. It was supposed to be a 2 week approval process but they are now at 3 1/2 months. You caught it tonight when I was upgrading a server. Its live now, but in a basic form.

    The SEO aspect of Headway is simply a utilization of custom fields – nothing you cant do on any theme if you know what you are doing. It also doesnt do anything more than the Headspace 2 plugin, and HeadSpace gives you some options HW doesnt. I like Headway, but there are still things you can do with a Thematic child theme that you cant do with Headway hooks unless you hack the php.

    With Headway you use hooks to place content on certain page types like a category. However, with the hooks, you are limited to having to place that content on every category page. With the way Thematic uses widgetized content areas instead of the easy hooks, you can put different content on a category page that is specific to just that category.

    Here is an example: This page (sandiegohomes.org/blog/category/short-sales/) is a category. At the top of that page I have the ability to put static content there that is only about short sales, while I can opt to leave other categories alone, or use specific static content for a different category. The flexibility this gives me is huge when it comes to ranking a category. I can do the same at the bottom of that page as well. In this case, I can put an intake form on there specific to the topic. With the hooks, Im stuck using the same form and it would have to be on every category. I tend to think and work out of the box, so my biggest beef with HW is that they have pre-defined things a bit too much and that puts limitations on what I can do.

    The beauty of WordPress is the way you can manage content these days is limited only by your imagination and ability to innovate. I wouldn’t ever say that HW or any one theme is the end all. There are other frameworks being developed that do even more. It is the nature of open source.

  • Stephen

    The wordpress installtion of sandiegohomes.org seems to be down at the moment. It is displaying the following error:
    Warning: file(/www/public_html/slotted.org/wp-content/themes/SimpleRealty2/style.css) [function.file]: failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /www/public_html/slotted.org/wp-includes/theme.php on line 180

    Warning: implode() [function.implode]: Bad arguments. in /www/public_html/slotted.org/wp-includes/theme.php on line 180
    San Diego Homes.org

  • Bob

    Yea, I was screwing with some php code on a live server. Not something you should do with a live site, but this is also acting as a dev site for now, so it happens.

  • http://www.atlantatownhomeinfo.com/ Rob McCance

    ….or you could just leave all the SLOP up for the world to see, as I’m (unfortunately) doing on my development site!

    Check out the gnarly half finished divs I’m working on for the front page..

    :)