Build a Site from the Ground Up

Recently I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a new blog, just for fun. The area of focus will be on craft beer brewing and reviews. Knowing what I now know about content, content planning, and management, I started to think about how to build a site from the ground up with entertaining but valuable content.

Of course, this means I need to spend time thinking about how to organize my content and what CMS will I use? If you read my last post, you’ll see that I’m back to WordPress but also evaluating Expression Engine. The reality is that WordPress is way easier when it comes to templates and since this blog will be casual, I’m not going waste time and effort with a big powerful CMS system only to have to hack together a bad looking web template.

That said, it doesn’t negate the fact for having relevant and well organized content on the site. I sat down last night and jotted down a few notes and ideas on my handy Moleskine.

This is where you and I begin.

Mind Mapping

First think about what you want to do with the blog. In my case, I want to write about great craft beers I’ve recently tasted, give them a personal rating, and also post my latest brew logs. I’d like to build a community that will share info, so I’ll need to create a Twitter and/or Facebook presence, and I might create brew day videos too.

So the main mind mapped chunks are:

  • Beer Reviews
  • Brew Logs
  • Videos
  • Social Interaction
  • Exercise

Beer Reviews

Beer reviews will be about just that, beers that I’ve tried and logged. The posts should have a photo of the beer I tried, maybe poured in a glass and a discussion about its characteristics. A final 5 or 10 star rating will be provided at the end. Organizing this content will be straight forward. Categories will break the beer into lagers or ales and tags will provide a deeper description of color and body.

Brew Logs

Brew logs will be a bit tricky as I share my brews recipes and experiments. The key thing is to be able to allow my readers to download the recipes easily and to do that I will generate them in the beer.xml format.  Readers can then quickly import them into BrewTarget or some other tool to get all the particulars of mashing, ingredients, etc.

Videos

Videos will probably come later and be posted to a new YouTube channel. Why? So I can monitor the analytics separately. The intent for these videos is to share what happens during a brew day. I believe (and this remains to be measured) that a video, coupled with a brew log, will be a powerful and useful bit of content for my readers.

Social Interaction

Any videos that will be posted to the YouTube channel will also be published to a new Facebook page. I’ve come to find that connecting on Facebook has a better signal to noise ratio that Twitter. Twitter will always remain as the modern version of email marketing!

Exercise

WTF is exercise doing on here? Well the reality is that beer makes me fat because of my generally sedentary lifestyle. So my goal is that before each beer review or brew day that I spend some yet to be determined time at the Dojo or on the Elliptical burning off extra calories for my tasting. If I meet my exercise goals, then I’m allowed to have a beer or brew beer!

Now I just have to figure out my inaugural home brew batch!

Content Creation and Management

What I learned about Content Creation & Management

Bless me Father for I have sinned. Please forgive me for my content creation and management sins. Yes, I admit I’ve have mismanaged good content for the sake of expediency. Often I’ve have ignored how my readers consume my evergreen content. For that I beg for your absolution. I promise, on my CMS’s grave, not to stray from the path of good content creation and management again. Amen.

Today

It’s been almost 10 years since I started this blog and its gone through many evolutions. Everytime I switch to a new CMS it was to try something better and newer. I was chasing fades, looking for SEO shortcuts, and working to streamline CMS bloat.

In the end I’ve come back to two CMS’s that I thought were terrible: WordPress and Expression Engine.

Why? Because of what my stats and Adsense revenue say.

It’s no secret that I started blogging with WordPress. I tried out Expression Engine, Jekyll, Blot, and even TextPattern. Code injections and the plugin bloat of WordPress just turned me off. I completely misunderstood how to use Expression Engine and Jekyll wasn’t ready for primetime.

For me, TextPattern was like waking up next to a stranger after a night of drinking. Blot has an interesting proposition and it holds a dear place in my heart.

I know there are a few more big ones out there, like Drupal and Blogger, but I have little to no experience with them, so I won’t comment on them. Regardless, it feels like all these CMS’s or Blogging platforms are like various religions. Each one claims they’re the best and the only way to success!

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

All Blogging platforms are easy to use. You can post and share photos, tweets, and content as fast as you can write and hit “post.” Usually you sign up for an account and create your own subdomain like greatblog.blogger.com. The top 5 off my head are:

  1. Tumblr
  2. Blogger
  3. Medium
  4. WordPress.com
  5. Blot

Some of them masquerade as a Content Management System (CMS) but in the end they try to keep things simple for you. You don’t need to think about template structures, permalinks, caching, updates, etc. There is no software to maintain and no databases to backup. All you need to do is login, write, and post.

The differences between a Blogging Platform and a CMS is like night and day. One is simple with some flexibility, while the other is complex and very powerful – if you know how to unleash it.

My take on WordPress

WordPress masquerades as a full CMS if you install it on your own domain and server. It’s a quite capable CMS and it’s the most popular one out there. It has a nice user interface and making site wide changes is a breeze. I can install themes (aka templates) with one click and extend it with 1,000’s of plugins.

Since I switched back to WordPress, I’ve seen an increase in Adsense revenue and a bump in traffic. While these are all good qualities, I still feel it was cobbled together. WordPress feels like it started as a blogging platform that evolved into a CMS over time. Wordpress has worked hard to make its CMS fast and powerful but the plugins make it feel bloated. Especially if you need to install 10 to 20 of them to get it to do what you want it to do! WordPress feels like it was never built from ground up as a CMS.

My take on Expression Engine

Expression Engine isn’t as popular as WordPress. It occupies a small niche area for designers, developers and content creators. It’s comprehensive and flexible. You can create many content “containers” and spend your time building the UX for your site. It comes with many add-ons right out of the box where with WordPress would need you to install plugins. There is a plugin marketplace for Expression Engine but it’s just not as a large as WordPress. Expression Engine’s biggest strength is also its weakness, it’s too damn flexible. There are 99 ways to do something and 99 ways to mess things up.

This is where I failed with Expression Engine, I was like a deer caught in the content headlights. I had all these options to do things and I just couldn’t decide. It’s hard to choose when you have so many choices.

Still, both CMS’s are capable for managing your content. They’re both capable for helping your readers consume your content. The ugly choice is which one makes the most sense to grow your site and keep your content viable for your readers?

My Evergreen Content

I couldn’t fathom where my life would lead when I started this blog almost 10 years ago. My RapidMiner tutorials remain the biggest traffic draw from both organic search and referrals. I get some traffic from social media but most if it comes straight from Google and some friend’s sites.

When I analyze my Profit Index I see that visitors do two main things. They land on my home page and then navigate to my Tutorial page, or they go straight there. Almost all my traffic does one or the other but lately some visitors have been coming for my other content.

Regardless of what the content is, my tutorials are “Evergreen Content.” This is content that is useful and relevant even if it’s 10 years old, readers extract value for it. All other content outside my Tutorials are suspect. It’s hard to tell if they’ll stand the test of time, but I’m working hard to make them so.

Content and User Experience

As I switched from one CMS to another like a hamster on meth, I began to learn a thing or two. I learned about SEO, permalinks, and page speed. I read up on tweaking backend performance and the pros and cons of working with a database. I’ve come to prefer writing in markdown and love static html posts. I loathe regenerating those static posts every damn time. Simplicity is my ultimate goal but I covet complex well thought out websites.

Above all, I’ve come to appreciate the reader of my content. After all, it’s all about them. You might have the best content in the world but no one will ever read it and get value from it if your UI and UX sucks.

I had this epiphany earlier this week when I came across a retweet on Twitter. It was a blog post titled a “Guide to Useful Content (Part 1).”

The article talks about building content containers. Content containers are well thought out building blocks of content. They’re built with flexibility and usability in mind. They look toward making the content reusable in many different ways, even if the UI changes. The idea is to be dynamic.

“In essence, content types are the building blocks of dynamic, future-friendly content across systems. They provide the structure used by people and computers to explicitly express meaning.”

My Application of Content

I have a Tutorial page where I share my different applications of RapidMiner. That tutorial page is simple, it just links back to a single blog post that I wrote weeks, months, or years ago. There’s the body of the post, maybe a code block or video, and sometimes a zip file download. It’s a simple way of helping my readers find my tutorial content. They just visit the page, find what they need, and click on the link.

In hindsight, this simplicity is lacking in robustness. I can’t summarize a list of all available downloads, or codeblocks, or videos. Cross referencing that summary by a particular category, like Python or D3js, is impossible. There’s no way to extract all that information into a newsletter and email it to readers. The site isn’t dynamic enough to handle this!

In hindsight I should’ve been thinking about how build my content from the ground up. It never occurred to me to think about the reader what he/she experiences when they visit my site. Hell, I never thought my little blog would get so popular!

The reality is that my readers come from all over the world. Some of them look for book references, some of them want videos, and others want XML code. My readers make heavy use of my search function – I love reading what they type in – to find what they need.

The Way Forward

I’ll continue use WordPress for the time being. I plan on learning all available features it has to fill my content management gaps. I read that they created custom fields recently. While this is a good thing, custom fields was something that Expression Engine had from day one. At work we use WordPress’s resource functions for our PDF assets but it still confuses me.

I also plan on building a test site from the ground up using Expression Engine. I plan on spending the time thinking about what Carrie shared with us in her post. If it means weeks or months, then so be it. I’m going to spend a lot of time thinking about how my readers consume my content. How they extract value from it and how to continue to build Evergreen Content.

Lessons Learned to Share

The takeway from this long post is this, always think about your reader. If you’re going to write something to make an impact you must write awesome content. Period.

Work your tail off at writing something of value. Many long hours and late nights were poured into my blog content and my reward was steady organic growth and a dream job. Do the same and your readers will thank you for it in ways you haven’t imagined.

Ask how your readers will get the most value from your content. Can they find it easily? Can they find what the want and in the format they need? Is your website inviting or clunky? What are the channels for consumption? Are you using only RSS? What about newsletters or login protected content? What about e-books? Think about all the ways your reader will want to consume your content and format it accordingly.

It’s only after those two steps, and in that order, should you hit publish button.