Wikipedia 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.
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.
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.