Forum vs WordPress

Please bear with me on this one, I know they are very different beasts but I have been experimenting with a new concept (to me) over the weekend and would like to invite comments.

I have a site I have been running for a while which I would like to turn from a blog where comments are invited to a community. As much as I like forums in certain circumstances they can be a little bland when compared to a blog. This made me wonder what the potential is to combine the two.

A site I use on a daily basis is hotukdeals.com. This site uses a highly customised vBulletin installation to present the information in a blog-esque format. It works well, people can vote items hot and cold, but they have to register to comment.

Looking into it in a bit more detail it seems there are positives and negatives to using a forum vs using WordPress.

As much as people love WordPress (I do!), it seems to me to be a platform designed to publish information and then get comments on it. If you want a community then everyone needs the ability to publish. This is possible with WordPress but it’s a bit messy and still involved the back end. With a forum people can hit new post and post within the site itself.

The disadvantage of the forum is users generally have to register in order to comment. You can turn this off but forums don’t cope with this quite as well as WordPress does. This may deter the passing comment and rely on people buying in to the site.

My theory is to run a forum on the site but use the RSS feed to link the information to the front page, run by WordPress, replacing the usual blog posts. This way I have WordPress running the page areas of the site but the front page content is dragged in via an RSS widget. I don’t yet know how well this will work or whether a forum portal would be a better solution, but I guess I will find out once I have it up and running.

So…

Am I being crazy?

Are there benefits I am missing to using one over the other?

Does using both make sense?

This all came to me on a whim, so I apologise for the lack of in-depth research, I just thought at this point it may be a good idea to poll the readership.

Free software. What’s the catch?

I have always been a bit supporter of free, open source products. There is something about working with a community based product that gives you that warm fuzzy feeling inside.

One of my favourite free products is the phpBB forum software. It is in direct competition with the likes of vBulletin and Invisionboard and I must say it stands up strong.

The problem comes when you run into issues. Something stops working and you need to get it resolved. The paid for products have a support system in place where you can log a call and one of their staff will look at it for you. This is not the case with free software, and nor would you expect it to be.

Free offerings tend to have their support structure provided via the community forum. People help each other out and the developers often participate to resolve issues. It is a little bit random and sometimes there seems to be a shouting match going on. This is fine if your forum is a hobby, but if it is a business and the problem is serious, you really need to get it resolved pretty damn quick.

I am loathed to pay out for software that does pretty much what the free version does, but I am starting to see the value in the added support you get when parting with your hard earned cash. I have a query on the phpBB site at the moment and it has slowly slipped down the list, as others post new questions. Will it get seen? Will it get resolved? Who knows. All I do know is there is no guarantee it will, and there is nobody to complain to for a refund (refund what, it’s free?!)

It’s sod’s law (and some say I *AM* sod) that if you fork out for the paid version based on the support, you will likely not need it, but if your client comes to you saying the forum is not behaving, you will likely be glad you have the official support channels to fall back on.

Photoshop vs Fireworks

Ever since the days of Macromedia I have always used Fireworks for my web design and Photoshop for photo manipulation. Lots of people swear by Photoshop for web design too, yet every time I have tried it I have ended up swearing AT Photoshop instead.

I have compiled some thoughts on both these products, good and bad. These are just my views and experiences but I would like to get your thoughts on it too, as I feel that considering the amount of people using Photoshop for the layout and design of websites I must be missing something somewhere.

Photoshop_vs_Fireworks

Photoshop

As a photo manipulation package you cannot beat Photoshop. I love it, I love working with it, and I actually like the fact that it hasn’t drastically changed version to version. It feels comfortable.

When I turn to web design though, the story changes. I am so used to grabbing hold of my objects on the canvas and dragging them into place, like I was playing with objects on a desk. With Photoshop this task seems to be a bit more complicated. I have to look for my object on the layers toolbar, click on it, then I can drag it. If I want to drag another object out of the way I need to locate that too? There may be a shortcut to this, but I don’t know it.

If you are an organised designer you will name your layers as you go along. This makes Photoshop a LOT more manageable and saved scrolling through pages and pages of the layers lists all called layer1, layer2, layer3 etc.

Photoshop does win in certain web design areas though, such as text. Things like bullet lists can be mocked up quickly and easily. This is not possible in fireworks without an awful lot of messing.

Fireworks

I feel like I am a little biased in that I have been working with Fireworks ever since it was released, and I know it upside down and back to front. I live the way I can drag things around, work with objects as vector entities and knock together a site in half an hour. I don’t use it for generating code, I do that by hand, but as a web graphics tool I love it.

I love the slice tool in Fireworks. It is so easy to use and you have total control over the individual slice. This is not a deal breaker for me, but it works well.

Fireworks has some really useful vector tools. It also has a symbols panel. This is great if you use objects over and over again. Simply convert it into a symbol and add it to the panel. For UI design this is a real time saver and a definite advantage over Photoshop.

Fireworks is not without it’s faults though. On the Mac it seems to decide with the roll of a dice which fonts it is going to use. With Photoshop I activate and deactivate fonts and Photoshop picks that up (upon reload), but in Fireworks it seems to misplace certain fonts and I don’t know why.

Verdict?

After comparing the two I am left with the same view that I had at the beginning. Photoshop seems better for photo manipulation and Fireworks seems better for web design. Why then do so many people swear by Photoshop for web projects? I guess the answer lies in the fact that there are a lot of web designers who have come from a general design background and grown up with Photoshop. If you have taken years to master a tool, why bother to learn another?

I really would like to use Photoshop for web design projects but at the moment I feel it slows me down too much. That may be partly due to the product, but mainly because I am a lot more familiar with Fireworks. The purpose of this post was not to choose one over the other, but just to see why people use what they use and what strengths and weaknesses each product has.

I have only touched the surface with this post. There are a pleathora of options out there, Photoshop, Fireworks, GIMP, Coreldraw, Painshop Pro. Each of them have their own strengths and weaknesses.

What do you use for your web designs, and why?

How wide should your site be?

This is an age old debate, trying to strike a balance of usability between the users with older setups and smaller screen resolutions and those with modern wide-screen (or just plain hi-res) displays.

I have followed this debate for many years and the argument seems to always cater for “what the site looks like full-screen”. I don’t know how you work, but personally I have lots of things happening on my desktop and many windows open. I cannot remember the last time I opened a browser window full-screen.

That said, if I was running in 1024 x 768 resolution then maybe I would work differently, I don’t know because I have not used that resolution in 10 years.

The thing I love about hi-res displays is they allow me to have a browser windop open, still see parts of my desktop, have email visible (albeit not the whole window), but running full-screen just feels claustrophobic to me.

That said, I am less bothered about the upper end of the scale, they don’t HAVE to run full-screen, and providing the site isn’t too narrow then I’m sure they will manage.

This leads us to the question of “how narrow do we have to go?”. I am seeing more and more sites with quite large widths. A few years back 750px used to be the norm, then 850px. Nowadays a lot of sites are over 1000px wide. Is this too wide?

There is no answer to this, hence it has been an ongoing debate for years. How wide is too wide?

The other question to bear in mind is whether the content on the right makes a difference to how wide you are willing to go. If everything to the right of the 850px mark is adverts for example, does that mean that the fact that the users on lower resolutions (the minority) can see the navigation and the main body content make it an acceptable width?

My gut feeling was crossing the 1000px mark was a little bit much, but with a little bit of investigation I have found that some of the most widely used blog templates actually cross this boundary.

Has the width-creep occurred while I have been asleep?

In my mind these themes look fine. I even opened them on my secondary monitor (1280×1024) and it looks fine. I can’t say I would want it to be any wider, but still it looks fine to me.

What do you think? How wide is too wide?

Duplicate content? Check out the canonical tag

Google (along with Microsoft and Yahoo, it seems) have just announced they now support a format that allows you to publicly specify your preferred version of a URL. If you have multiple pages that have similar content you can now let Google know which is the one you wish them to index.

Direct link to Webmaster Central Blog

The idea is a new <link> tag that specifies the preferred version of a page inside the <head> tags, as follows:

<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.thinksynergy.co.uk/2009/02/11/twitter/”/>

At first glance I was wondering what all the fuss is about, as to be honest most of us have done a reasonable job of cutting out the duplicate content in our blogs anyway. Once thing I overlooked was the use of Google analytics campaigns (along with any other campaigns). This could lead to your URL being tagged (and indexed) as:

http://www.thinksynergy.co.uk/2009/02/11/twitter/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=twitter

There are two issues with this. The first is that the above indexed URL could be (to what extent, only Google can answer) penalised as duplicate content. Secondly, if it is not being penalised, it is certainly attracting the PageRank that should be aimed at the “official” page.

By using the canonical tag the tagged URL will now tell Google the preferred version of itself, thus putting the PageRank where it should be and avoiding any possibility of being kicked in the backside for duplicate content.

This is a subject that has been discussed a few times on Nice2all, as WordPress seems a hot bed of duplicate content and it is a challenge to cut out as much of it as possible. I imagine with this new method it will be possible to put this issue to bed once and for all, although I haven’t had time to test it out just yet.

I am a bit cynical of the effect of duplicate content, I actually think Google deals with it quite well and people are not punished as much as they may think, but this is a very easy tag to implement and whatever we can do to make the search engines job easier the better in terms of reward, I guess.

Twitter

Months ago I made a plan to try out different technologies and report my findings. I have been trying Twitter for a little while now and to be honest it’s been a mixed bag.

I have decided to report on this experience by listing the positives and the negatives, rather than write an essay.

The positives

  • Occasionally there will be Tweets from people you don’t hear from often, it’s good to find out what they are up to
  • Certain people report interesting findings on the Internet. Lyndi does this, and it’s great to share the knowledge.
  • Sometimes you hear “breaking news” via a tweet, especially if it’s in a niche sector
  • If someone has a particularly interesting day (or job) it’s good to feel involved in what they are doing

The negatives

  • I really don’t need to know “Phil is eating toast”, really!!!
  • Some people seem to have a Twitter addiction. Every 5 minutes they are Tweeting something… too much!
  • I’m not sure if people feel offended if you don’t like their Tweets and delete them from the friends list?

Conclusion

I think I like Twitter. The positives certainly outweigh the negatives for me. I do think I will have to delete the people that wish to tell me they are eating breakfast, drinking tea or picking their nose! Whether they feel offended, we’ll see!

What is your experience of Twitter? Do you love it or do you hate it?

Return visitors – 3 Strikes and you’re out!

It may seem blindingly obvious to state that the Internet is not a book or a magazine. People who visit your site (or blog) are interested in gaining information, whether it be information about you, what you sell, or what you have to say. If they re-visit your site they want to see fresh content, new posts or new products. If they have seen it all before, why come back?

In general I tend to think readers of websites, or blogs even more so, have a certain attention span that needs feeding. Most people are fairly busy and don’t want to waste their time looking for something that is not there.

When I visit a site that I like I tend to bookmark it (or subscribe to it via RSS). I go back in a few days and have a look for new posts. If there are new posts I come back the next day and the day after that. On the flip-side, if I go back and the content is the same as before I tend to move on and look at other things. I will often return in a few more days and see if it has been updated, but if there is nothing new I tend not to go back for a while.

The more you go back to a site and see nothing new, the more stale the site becomes. There are so many sites out there and such enormous competition, that it is easy to move on and forget the site that was not updated.

With this in mind I liken the generation of fresh content on a website or blog to the 3-strike rule in baseball.

Strike one

A visitor usually comes back in a day or two, looking for fresh content

Strike two

Visitor comes back again a day or so later, giving the site a second chance

Strike three!

Visitor usually returns a little while later, when they remember about the site. If there is still nothing new the visitor is unlikely to return

This is not a hard and fast rule, some people may give a site more chances, some might give less. Most web site owners, bloggers in particular, are guilty of allowing lapses in posting (myself included), especially when they are busy, but it is worth keeping this lesson in mind when you start to get busy.

Your most valuable visitors are the return visitors. They obviously liked what they saw the first time they visited, that’s why they came back. Don’t let them down!

The true cost of a “free” website

How many times have you heard the phrase “I’ll sort out a website for you, for free”?

Ok, you may not have heard it spoken to you, but most of us know someone who knows someone who is a web guru. This person knocks out websites like Willy Wonky knocked out chocolate bars, and best of all he does it for free!

It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Where in life can you get something for free, really? If you wanted your haircut and someone said “little Jimmy down the road can do that for you” would you take them up on it? The fact of the matter is you generally get what you pay for in life, and if something seems too good to be true, it generally is.

Why am I blogging the obvious, you may ask?

Well, I have had discussions with a few people this past few weeks and it is clear there is an aspect to this “free” website business that can turn round and bite you in the behind.

The story goes as follows…

Someone starting up a business gets offered a free website.  They see this as a great offer and so take them up on it, and low and behold in a few weeks they have a website. The website is ok (i.e. better than nothing) in their opinion, and don’t forget, it’s free! The problem comes in a few weeks or months, when the business owner realises that they need a proper website, something that reflects their business and maybe something they have control over (let’s face it, little Jimmy is busy, and you don’t want to bother him too much, as you are not paying him!).

It is clear to see what has happened here, the business owner has now lost control of their site. They don’t want to go elsewhere, as little Jimmy was kind enough to put in some hard work in the first place, it would be rude to ask someone to re-design it now, wouldn’t it?

Basically, through no fault of their own they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They want a proper site, but they don’t want to upset the person who put themselves out to design the first version of their site.

It’s all very well telling the story and pointing out the obvious (it IS obvious, right?), but what should you do if you find yourself in that situation?

There is no hard and fast rule here. I always try to advise against getting something done for free, as it ultimately (unless you are very hard faced about it) relinquishes control of your website. I mean, how angry can you get at little Jimmy when the website that you are not paying for goes offline for half a day?

I know of several individuals/organisations who are (or have been) in this situation. While it is not their fault as such, it is ultimately harming their business, as every other aspect of their business is growing, their website is lagging behind.

I guess the moral of this story is to take control of every aspect of your business, including your website. In this day and age your website is becoming more and more your shop window. People on average spend very little time on a site before making a decision whether to do business with you. Use this opportunity to make an impression and don’t worry too much about little Jimmy’s feelings, he’ll get over it!