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Blog Redesign Take-Two

Well, my weekend redesign/server move seemed to go well. But then I did a couple posts and tried to implement a few tweaks and things began to go downhill. My main problem was I picked the wrong theme for how I wanted to maintain this site. I used WP-Clear by Solostream which was a theme I liked the look of and it had some nice features. It wasn’t a bad theme and it actually suited the reason I picked it. The problem was – I had the wrong priorities.

I’d was moving from the now obsolete Frugal theme. I opted not to move to it’s replacement – Catalyst. My reason for not moving was that my testing showed there was no quick upgrade path if I wanted the same design. My thought was I wanted to spend less time on design and more time on content. Catalyst advertises 800+ settings available through its interface. I never counted, but it seems like a reasonable number. Plus it provides an easy way to inject code. With this many options I’ve been poking at it for weeks and yet up with something I liked. So I picked Solostream figuring it would quickly give me a good looking website. And it did. And I was happy. And I launched the new design.

And then I realized I didn’t want a fast, good look. I wanted to tweak and code. I found that the things I wanted to do in WP-Clear required going in and changing code in the template. Plus I was approaching 30 plugins to do the things I wanted without having to add code. That was asking for problems down the road when it came time to upgrade. And eventually I’d be forced to upgrade if only to keep up with WordPress.

So it was back to Catalyst. And the migration wasn’t as bad as I thought. Being forced into it made me do some more research and I found the Regenerate Thumbnails plugin. This was a huge time saver for the biggest problem I faced. Being able to re-size the thumbnails easily meant not being locked into the current design until I spent considerable effort redoing all the posts. In about 10 minutes I had all the thumbnails resized. Some of the original images didn’t look good after cropping but got me most of the way there. I decided to crop rather than maintain proportions as I want exact sizes going forward. Even though I may only use the plugin once it warranted a small donation since it solved a huge problem and seems to be the only one of its kind out there.

Once that was done it was pretty simple moving forward. It took some effort to cut out some plugins and replace them with some code. Catalyst makes it easy to add code and make changes since it’s a framework that support child themes which is where my changes are made. Plus it has numerous hooks to add PHP and HTML code without having to change files. And for things that need changing there are separate files for custom changes. The custom files don’t get overwritten in theme upgrades. The problem was figuring out the code, not implementing it.

I still have the problem that Catalyst is so customizable and powerful that I could (and do) spend hours and days lost in the tweaking.

Some things I could easily do in Catalyst that weren’t easy in WP-Clear:

  • The homepage has both a feature article and a list of the latest posts. While WP-Clear could do both I couldn’t find a look I liked without digging into the theme files themselves.
  • WP-Clear had pre-configured spaces for ads but I couldn’t find a way to limit ads so that regular visitors wouldn’t see them. (I define a regular visitor as anyone who’s viewed 4 pages over the last 30 days)
  • One of the things I liked in WP-Clear was the ease of highlighting the latest posts in selected categories so I carried that over to the new design.
  • Maybe it was me, but I couldn’t get Google custom search working right and I was having a heck of a time making the built in search look the way I liked.
  • Since I couldn’t easily add code I wanted I was forced to use plugins. Twenty seven at last count, while now I’m down to 17. All those plugins brought overhead I didn’t want. I didn’t do any timings, but I had a heck of a lot more scripts running and some parts of the site felt slow to me.

Intense Debate is gone. I made an attempt to use Intense Debate. Mainly hoping it would help reduce spam comments. Since I was unwilling to restrict comments just to people who have logged on this had the opposite affect.  When I got home tonight there were 22 comments awaiting moderation and all were spam. I suspect requiring a logon would resolve this but with the native WordPress comments and the Akismet plugin I still get the spam comments, but they get automatically moved to the spam folder and eventually deleted without me having to touch them. I haven’t noticed a problem with false positive for spam. With Intense Debate I was concerned I’d miss a legitimate comment in the haystack of spam. On the plus side, comments made while Intense Debate was running were preserved as promised.

Backups are good. In my haste to make some changes I actually destroyed all my databases on the server. Well, actually I restored some rather old  backups as I tried to restore a completely different DB. Luckily I had a backup from the night before and while I lost some recent design changes I was able to recreate them rather quickly after the restore. I also changed my backup strategy to avoid these fat-fingered overwrites in the future.

So apologizes if any of you visited and got the maintenance banner, or just saw some grossly unformatted page, but the dust has settled and I think things are working fine now.

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