Book Reviews

Review: Teach Yourself Visually WordPress Second Edition by Janet Majure

Teach Yourself VISUALLY WordPress, 2nd Edition
By Janet Majure
Indianapolis: John Wiley & Sons, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-118-197-87-5

One of my graphic designer friends raved about the first edition of this book, and I can see why. “Visual” is not an understatement with this series: it includes almost more images than text, and in bright full color, too. The illustrations and well-laid-out text boxes are certainly one of the book’s great strengths. Though a few of the screenshots are too small to be read at the size they appear in print, most of the illustrations aid considerably in following the steps in each chapter. The “Tips” boxes that appear at the foot of many pages to answer frequently asked questions are also very helpful.

Chapter 1, “Introducing WordPress,” helps you decide between WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress (commonly referred to as WordPress.org), explains some core WordPress terms like pages, posts, permalinks, and the dashboard, and provides tips on choosing strong passwords, specific blog topics, and good site names. Many of these are not WordPress-specific tips, but they are important considerations for people who want to build good blogs or websites.

Chapter 2 focuses on setting up a WordPress.com blog. If you already know you want to use self-hosted WordPress, you can skip this. If you’re looking for a book that can help you with your WordPress.com site, however, you’ll be glad to know that this one addresses WordPress.com in all but a few chapters.

Chapter 3 covers both manual and “one-click” (control-panel based) installation of WordPress on your web server, using Bluehost and Simple Scripts for its screenshots. (The process is essentially the same for other hosts using Fantastico or Softaculous.) There’s a troubleshooting section for common installation problems. Then you have an overview of the time and date section of the general settings, followed by a tour of the dashboard home screen, the admin bar, and the user profile page. There’s no mention at this stage of other settings, even privacy (it’s often a good idea to hide a site at such an embryonic stage from search engines). Instead, before moving on to any of those things (they are coming in Chapter 4), the author suggests changing themes.

Really? If you know ahead of time what theme you’re planning to use, fine, activate it. But if you have no idea, you could spend hours down the rabbit hole trying to decide and getting nothing at all done about setting your site up. The theme is one of the easiest things on your site to change, after all, unless you are using a theme that relies heavily on custom post types (an argument for creating those within a plugin). That section of Chapter 3 seems oddly out of place.

Chapter 4, “Know Your Administration Tools,” addresses the rest of the settings (reading, writing, discussion, privacy, and permalinks), though without mentioning the all-important Screen Options tab to control which modules appear on your Dashboard in the first place, and which metaboxes appear on other screens throughout the administrative interface.

Chapter 5, “Create Written Blog Content,” walks you through the creation of pages and posts, including using WordPress.com’s Writing Helper. Here at last we meet the Screen Options tab, without which many once-standard parts of the new post/edit post screen would be hidden from us. (If you’ve used WordPress in the past and suddenly can’t find the Excerpt, Author, Slug, Custom Fields, or something else you’re looking for, check the Screen Options.)

Chapter 5 also covers the Quick Edit feature and the too-often-overlooked Paste from Word button (illustrated on p. 100), QuickPress, PressThis, mobile apps for posting to WordPress, offline blogging clients like Windows Live Writer, and importing posts from Blogger. Credit for thoroughness.

Chapter 6, “Create Visual and Audio Content,” starts by asking the reader to think about file size, load times, and, well, good taste, when it comes to adding media, and then sensibly recommends editing, and particularly re-sizing, images before uploading them to WordPress.

Curiously, there’s no mention of the problem that WordPress has with embed codes in the discussion of embedding slideshows from PictoBuilder (a recommendation made primarily, I think, because the author hasn’t discussed plugins yet) or videos from YouTube. In case you haven’t faced this problem yet, if you switch from the HTML editor to the visual editor after pasting in an embed code, WordPress will try to “clean up” the code, with the result that the code won’t work anymore. Ooops.

Equally curiously, there’s no mention of the oEmbed function (http://codex.wordpress.org/Embeds), which allows you to simply copy the URL of a YouTube video (or a video from Vimeo, or a photo from Flickr, or, now, a tweet from Twitter) and paste it into the HTML editor on its own line. Presto, the video (or whatever) appears, sized exactly to fit your content area. A neat trick, first introduced in WordPress 2.9. It’s as if this part of the book has not been updated since the first edition.

Chapter 7 addresses widgets and plugins. Since WordPress.com users get access to a number of widgets that substitute for plugins, the first part of the chapter is relevant to them, too. The widget section treats adding, rearranging, removing, and reactivating widgets very thoroughly, including the use of text widgets and screen options for text widgets.

The plugin recommendations are a bit lackluster, or at any rate dated. Share and Follow is no longer in the WordPress Plugin Repository (a pity: I liked it and still use it on several sites). Sexy Bookmarks changed its name to Shareaholic. The most popular free backup solution these days is BackWPUp, which backs either (or both) your database and files up offsite to a variety of places, automatically, on a schedule you specify. Joost de Valk’s WordPress SEO plugin has pretty much eaten All in One SEO’s lunch.

Missing from the chapter are any instructions on deactivating and uninstalling plugins, which is a bit odd given that the widget section showed readers how to remove widgets. Nor is there any mention here of plugin conflicts and how to troubleshoot those.

Chapter 8 collects a number of not-precisely-related topics under the rubric “Make Your Content Appealing.” This starts out with checking your spelling, using sub-headings and bulleted lists to break up your text, making better use of your images, and dividing long posts with the <!–more–> tag. Then it moves on to categories and tags, and finally it concludes with creating custom menus.

Conceptually, I would class categories, tags, and menus all under “Organizing your content.” I would prioritize it above “Polishing your content,” which is what the first part of the chapter talks about. In fact, I would probably talk about creating categories and tags back when I started talking about creating posts, because it’s a pretty good idea to start coming up with categories before you start producing a lot of content, and not after. (Trust me. I’ve done it. I started blogging before blogs had categories, never mind tags. Adding them later was ugly.)

Also, although there is a brief mention in the “Menu” section of adding categories to a custom menu, there is no mention of this in the box on “Category Display” on page 168.

This chapter does demonstrate the Bulk Edit function, which is useful for adding categories or tags to groups of posts after the fact.

Chapter 9, “Build Traffic to Your Blog,” also seems to combine at least two different subjects. Most of the topics aren’t really about traffic—getting visitors to the site. Instead, they’re about engagement: things like comment policy, e-mail subscriptions, ratings, surveys and polls. It makes me wonder whether the publisher set a limit for the maximum number or minimum length of chapters.

The topics themselves are generally relevant and accurate. Though not everyone publishes an old-fashioned blogroll these days, the Links function in WordPress can be used for a number of things, since many people want to display related resources or links to other sites of their own. The section on creating a comment policy is particularly good. The recommendations for commenting on other people’s blogs are also sensible. The author covers comment moderation in great detail.

The section on RSS is slightly outdated. RSS icons no longer appear in browser address bars: you have to go hunting for them in the bookmarks section. Otherwise, however, the instructions are clear.

The book goes into considerable detail about how to embed a widget from Twitter, though it doesn’t provide comparable information about other social networks. I don’t myself like Twitter’s widgets and prefer to use WP plugins for Twitter feeds, but that’s a matter of taste; the instructions are accurate. And since Facebook changes the way it does things every other day, it might be hard to include instructions on how to include your Facebook fan page box, etc. Best just go to FB for those instructions.

The general SEO guidelines are adequate, if basic. One thing worth noting and not mentioned is that since WordPress 3.3, the problem with the /%postname%/ permalink structure has been fixed, and this is the permalink structure favored by Google’s Matt Cutts.

The section on polls and ratings uses PollDaddy, available on WordPress.com or through the Jetpack plugin, for its example.

Chapter 10 is called “Tweak Your Theme.” We haven’t heard more than a word or two about themes since the end of Chapter 3, when the author hurried us away from Twenty Eleven as fast as we can go. Now, however, she’s using Twenty Eleven for her screenshots to demonstrate custom headers, header text color, theme options, custom backgrounds, and so forth.

Post formats also make an appearance here, though, as there is no discussion of actually creating new templates for said post formats, they probably belong in Chapter 5, or would if Chapter 5 focused on posts and not on written content per se.

The overview of CSS provides a starting point for the total beginner. I’m not sure whether someone who is that much of a beginner should actually be messing about in the theme editor or attempting to create a new page template, but hey, as long as you have backups…

The final item in the chapter, “Add a Category RSS Feed Link,” is a useful thing to know how to do, but not a theme tweak. Your feed URLs are independent of your theme. The only thing that makes this part of your theme is putting the link in a widget, because when you change themes, all your widgets get moved to the “inactive” section.

Chapter 11, “Content Management,” leaves out about 300 pages. Where is the section on custom post types? On handling sites with hundreds of pages? On…oh, well. People who want to know those things will probably buy a different book. (Indeed, maybe I should shut up and write it.) Let’s look at what the chapter does cover.

User Levels and Capabilities

Up to this point, the book has assumed that there is one user, the site administrator. In many cases where WordPress is used as a CMS, there are multiple users, and most do not have administrator privileges, so the chapter begins with an overview of other user levels (editor, author, contributor, subscriber) and their corresponding capabilities.

Community Sites

For a simple community site, the author recommends using the P2 collaboration theme (http://wordpress.org/extend/themes/p2), which allows people to post from the front page in a Twitter-like interface. She does warn that this might get a bit chaotic to moderate if you don’t manage who is allowed to register as a member. P2 is available on WordPress.com as well as for self-hosted WordPress sites. The plugins WP Mingle (http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/mingle/) and WP Symposium (http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/wp-symposium/) get footnotes in a tips box, but without screenshots or instructions. Mingle hasn’t been updated since October 2011, while Symposium is more current, but I haven’t tried either and can’t speak to their ease of use.

The BuddyPress social networking plugin (http://buddypress.org) gets two whole pages. BuddyPress bills itself as a social network in a box, and it has phenomenal capabilities, but it’s pretty complex and by no means as user-friendly for your community members as, say, Facebook, even though it can do all the same things. How it works also depends on whether you have a single or Multi-site WordPress installation, and this book has yet to mention WordPress Multi-site. I’d recommend reading a BuddyPress book, studying the forums in detail, and maybe hiring a consultant unless you’re an experienced WordPress user with plenty of time for trial and error.

I’m not sure why the author picks Mingle Forum rather than bbPress for her example—perhaps because it coordinates with WP Mingle. (bbPress comes packaged with BuddyPress, but it is also available by itself.) The important thing to understand when installing any forum on your site is that it will require moderating.

The document management section on page 252 provides an extremely basic method for linking to uploaded files. It works, if that’s all you want to do. There are lots of WordPress plugins to help you with a more sophisticated level of document management. Try Docs to WordPress (http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/docs-to-wordpress/), WP Filebase (http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/wp-filebase/) or WP Document Revisions (http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/wp-document-revisions/).

The section on “Use a static page as your home page” on p. 258 needs to come with a warning. If you have a magazine-style theme, or anything else that uses a home.php file with a special layout, and you select this option, you will lose your fancy home page. (You can get it back again by restoring the “Reading” settings to their original state.) Make sure to read any instructions that come with your theme about how to set up your home and blog index pages.

I’m not sure I would class sticky posts as part of CMS functions—I would think they’d belong back with “Make Your Content Appealing” in Chapter 8. Creating a portfolio, on the other hand, is a good topic, but the actual section focuses primarily on theme choice, rather than on portfolio content types or categories.

Is advertising a CMS topic or a traffic-related topic? In either case, the author covers the basics of the types of advertising, the difference between WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress regarding advertising, PPC programs versus affiliate programs, and how to insert Google ads and Amazon affiliate links into your site.

The chapter concludes with another two pages on e-commerce. As I said, the book is missing about 300 pages. Setting up shopping carts, never mind things like SSL certificates, is a pretty tricky business, and it’s really beyond the scope of an introductory book.

The final chapter, “Maintain Your WordPress Blog,” provides useful general tips about backups but less detail than I would like. (All right, I’m slightly obsessed. Almost no one covers this subject in enough detail for me. I spent years writing a blog all about backup.) There is, interestingly, no mention of Automattic’s VaultPress service (http://vaultpress.com), which is dead simple to use, extremely comprehensive, and works with any hosting company. It’s also about $15/month at minimum, so you pay for that peace of mind.

The advice on cleaning up outdated drafts is good; even better would be a suggestion to clean up old post revisions. This requires a plugin or wading around in phpMyAdmin, but can save you a lot of space: we just cut a client’s database size in half by deleting old revisions.

I like the recommendation of the W3C Link Checker on p. 288, because I’ve run into some irritations with the Broken Link Checker plugin. (Sometimes it finds things again even after I’ve fixed them, and I’m not sure why.) And, of course, you can use the W3C tool if you have a WordPress.com blog.

I’m not sure I would put analytics tools under “Maintenance”—I would think that makes more sense under “Traffic”—but in any case the four pages on statistics provide a good overview of the subject.

The last two pages on troubleshooting are minimal, but good advice as far as they go. It might make more sense to put the section on “Get to know WordPress support options” right before this. There are some support options not mentioned, like local Meetup groups, the WordPress group on LinkedIn, and Twitter, where a lot of WordPress developers hang out. If you have really borked your site, one of those channels should lead you to paid help.

Overall, I would recommend this book to beginners, particularly those who are visual learners, and particularly those who want to set up a blog or to use WordPress.com. Though it doesn’t cover all the material in the same order I would, it covers everything you need to know to get started and provides a sense of some of the other things you can do with more experience. It ought to provide a few more “Kids, don’t try this at home” warnings and update a few details, but in essence it’s a good book for someone trying to find her way around the WordPress platform and learn something about blogging and website design at the same time.

Review: Beginning WordPress 3 by Stephanie Leary

Beginning WordPress 3 cover By Stephanie Leary
ISBN13: 978-1-4302-2895-0
ISBN10: 1-4302-2895-4
432 pp.
Published Jun 2010
Print Book Price: $39.99
eBook Price: $27.99

Amazon Price $28.79 (affiliate link)

The title of this book is deceptive, enough so that I handed it to a friend who was making the move from WordPress.com to self-hosted WordPress because I thought she might find it helpful. She didn’t, and when I actually sat down to read it myself, I understood why.

This is not a book for beginners, if by “beginners” you mean the people for whom WordPress for Dummies was written. It’s a book for web developers who haven’t used WordPress before.

To be fair to the author, the back cover copy says exactly that, but the publisher describes it as “User level: Beginner.” I’m not sure how Apress would describe books for people who don’t have any technical knowledge. “User level: Hopeless N00b”?

But the book itself is fantastic. It may be the best book I’ve ever read about WordPress. I don’t consider myself a developer, but I know enough not to get completely lost in the code examples. This is a great book for those who are experienced users of WordPress but not PHP wizards and who want to go deeper and understand more.

I had a number of revelatory moments while reading this book. You can turn off or limit post revisions with one line of code in your wp-config.php file? So why was I bothering to use a plugin for it? (I know, some people don’t have access to their wp-config.php file…or shouldn’t be allowed access to it. But other people need to reduce  the number of plugins they have installed, and I’m one of them.) There are RSS feeds for pages? Wish I’d known that when someone was asking about it on LinkedIn a few weeks back. You can show custom taxonomies, custom post types, and tags in your menu management page by clicking on Screen Options? (I beat my head against this for ages because I’d forgotten I’d read it, and I even marked the page.) There’s a way to import content from Joomla? Bring it on. (Please. I’m desperately hoping to convince a client to change platforms.)

Then there’s the great discussion of things you can do with the Loop, like create a page that displays excerpts from all its child pages. Most magazine themes make you pick two or three featured categories, but you could actually feature all your categories if you wanted to. (That’s assuming you have a reasonable number of categories, unless you want a really long home page.)

I admit I got a bit lost in the chapters on creating widgets and plugins—I don’t think I’m anywhere near ready to start developing plugins, and I’m not sure I ever will be. But I understand a little better what’s involved in the process and how to look at the code.

There’s a solid chapter on performance and security that covers all the usual suspects except the define('WP_MEMORY_LIMIT', '96M'); trick (another single line in wp-config.php that can make a big difference) and then a highly valuable chapter on custom post types and custom taxonomies. Stephanie Leary walks you through how to do this the hard way, which gave me a chance to see what the

plugins that help with these two WordPress features actually do, and helped me follow the demonstrations at the September WordPress Meetup.

The final chapter is on WordPress Multi-site, with a brief mention of BuddyPress. While this is a fraction of the information found in BuddyPress for Dummies, it has the advantage of referring to WordPress 3.0 and not the old WordPress MU, so it was good to get an overview of what had stayed the same and what had changed.

The author refers to useful plugins throughout the book, and also has a plugin index (Appendix A) and a collection of “plugin recipes” (Appendix C). The recipes are combinations of plugins you can use to build things with WordPress, like a wiki (I thought there was already a wiki plugin for WP) or a document sharing site. Again, I had a couple of surprises. There are plugins to sort your posts alphabetically? And I spent time creating special category page templates to do that for a client. (The other surprise was that Stephanie Leary doesn’t seem to have heard of Blubrry’s PowerPress plugin for podcasting, or that PodPress had been revived.)

If you have no web background at all and you’re completely new to WordPress, this isn’t the book for you. But if you’re somewhere in between the complete novice and the hard-core developer, you’re going to find this book unbelievably useful. The fact that it’s clearly written in a non-technical style, tidily laid out, and has abundant screenshots is just a bonus. And you can download all the code samples from the Apress website.

Review: Create Your Own Blog by Tris Hussey

Book Cover | Create Your Own Blog: 6 Easy Projects Create Your Own Blog: 6 Easy Projects to Start Blogging Like a Pro

By Tris Hussey

Published Dec 31, 2009 by Sams. Part of the Create Your Own series.

Copyright 2010
Dimensions: 7-3/8 X 9-1/8
Pages: 288
Edition: 1st

Book

ISBN-10: 0-672-33065-2
ISBN-13: 978-0-672-33065-0

eBook

ISBN-10: 0-672-33160-8
ISBN-13: 978-0-672-33160-2

MSRP: $19.79
Amazon Price $14.95 (affiliate link)

When I first discovered blogging and podcasting in 2005, Tris Hussey was one of the first bloggers I learned about, so I knew he had the chops to write a book on the subject of blogging. (No, I don’t know Tris personally; my only disclosure in writing this review is the usual one, that Pearson Education sent me two free copies, one to review myself and one to give away at the East Bay WordPress Meetup.)

Even so, I was honestly surprised by just how useful I found this book. After all, I’ve been blogging for a while now, so I mostly expected to be evaluating the book in terms of its usefulness for newbies. But even experienced bloggers have rarely done as much blogging as Tris has, since he does it for a living, on many different blogs. Not that many of us have set up a personal blog, a business blog, a podcast blog, a video blog, a portfolio blog, and a lifestreaming blog just for ourselves, but Tris has.

Those, in case you’re wondering, are the 6 easy projects. I don’t think Tris picked the title, because nowhere in his text or his table of contents does he refer to these as the six projects, even though he has a chapter for each one—and also a chapter, which he mercifully leaves for last, on making money with your blog. I say “mercifully” because there has been far too much written on the topic of how to get rich quick by blogging. Tris knows that if you want to quit your day job in order to blog, it’s going to take both time and hard work, and probably luck, too.

In any case, the “6 Easy Projects” are not what get you started: they form the second half of the book. The first half covers important basics of blogging, including domain names, hosting, and different blogging platforms—though like any sensible person, Tris uses self-hosted WordPress for most of his examples.

The book is nicely designed, with new terms defined in callout boxes and bright blue sidebars addressing topics ranging from the worst domain names of all time to the Paste from Word button to reasons not to have comments on your blog. Tris’ style is friendly and accessible, and he explains things well. He would, however, have benefited from a more eagle-eyed proofreader, as there are a number of word substitutions of the sort that spelling checkers rarely catch. The funniest comes on page 121, under the heading “Writing.”

You don’t want a perspective client saying to themselves, ‘Jeez, they couldn’t even spell check their posts. How will they handle my business?’

That should be a prospective client, though people in a few fields do have clients for whom they do perspective work.

The six projects overlap quite a bit. Tris actually covers all forms of multimedia in the personal blog chapter, but doesn’t go into detail about them. Likewise, any business blog might use photos, audio, or video, but in this case Tris introduces some new elements, like screencasting, as well as discussing comment policies and corporate blogging policies. He also tells you how to get Google Analytics to e-mail reports to you.

The podcasting chapter is a good capsule treatment of that subject. Tris describes some basic audio editing techniques, introduces the concept of podsafe music, enjoins readers to make sure they use correct ID3 tags, laments the shortage of hosting options for audio, and shows you how to submit your podcast to iTunes and use the Blubrry PowerPress plugin. If you’re serious about podcasting, there are more books to read, but all this advice is sound and will get you off to a good start.

The video blogging section introduces us to the rule of thirds and the importance of good audio quality for video, as well as providing more important reminders about copyright. The surprise takeaway for me was the reminder that Windows Movie Maker does more than create slideshows from still images. I don’t record much video myself and haven’t bothered to learn how to use Adobe Premiere; the little video editing I’ve done has been in Camtasia. The idea that I might be able to do something useful with Movie Maker is encouraging.

Tris also addresses the vexed issue of video formats and makes a good argument for taking YouTube’s guidelines as a useful set of standards. As in the podcasting chapter, he covers hosting and iTunes. (The basics of embedding a video into a WordPress post are back in the chapter on setting up a personal blog.)

The chapter on portfolio blogs spends a little time on themes, and a little time on plugins (note that Featured Content Gallery, which he mentions on page 194, is getting a bit long in the tooth; I just tried SlideDeck for WordPress and like its ease of use and versatility), but also addresses issues like shopping carts and photo-sharing sites. On the whole, Tris appears to be of the belief that you should host your media files somewhere other than your own server if you possibly can, and not just to avoid storage and bandwidth charges.

Tris moves away from WordPress in the lifestreaming chapter, pointing out, rightly, that this is primarily the realm of a variety of hosted services that aggregate your content from other sources. He covers Twitter, Friendfeed, Posterous, Tumblr, and Cliqset—the last of which I hadn’t heard of until reading this book. But he also tells you how to create a DIY lifestreaming blog in WordPress, then wraps up with a quick look at the comment-aggregating services Disqus and Intense Debate.

The final chapter is, as I said, “Making Money Through Your Blog.” It’s a refreshingly sensible and straightforward approach to the topic. My only quibble is with his division of methods into “direct” and “indirect,” because I would consider all of them “direct” methods. Indirectly earning income from your blog is get
ting hired as a consultant or speaker because someone is impressed with your blogging. But there’s advertising revenue and then there’s fee-for-service revenue, the kind that comes when you are a blogger for hire or when you produce sponsored posts on your own blog.

I highly recommend this book, and believe it will be almost as valuable a year from now as it is today, because most of the guidance it provides isn’t about the state of the technology.

Review: Blogging to Drive Business

Blogging to Drive Business Book Cover

Blogging to Drive Business: Create and Maintain Valuable Customer Connections

By Eric Butow, Rebecca Bollwitt

Published Jan 7, 2010 by Que. Part of the Que Biz-Tech series.
Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.9 inches

ISBN-10: 0-7897-4256-X
ISBN-13: 978-0-7897-4256-8

MSRP: $19.79
Amazon Price: $16.49 (affiliate link)

Overall, the advice in this book is good, but it suffers occasionally from not being quite sure who its audience is.

Most of the time, the authors seem to be speaking to medium or large companies, as when, in Chapter 6 (“Who Will Write the Blog?”), they advise hiring (or promoting) someone to be the social media director, or hiring a full-time blogger who has established a following in the same industry. Likewise, they use examples and case studies taken from corporate blogs: My Starbucks Idea, the Huffington Post, Rubbermaid, Intel Inside Story, BusinessWeek, Whole Foods, Molson Coors.

But Chapter 3, “Creating a Blogging Strategy,” focuses primarily on consumer-level tools. It’s as if this chapter were actually written for an entirely different book, one aimed at hobbyist bloggers or a more general reader. The authors list WordPress.com without mentioning that the free blogs hosted there are supposed to be for personal, non-commercial purposes, and mention LiveJournal, a tool used almost exclusively for sharing personal stories with select groups of friends. The closest they come to mentioning an enterprise content management system is a brief entry for Drupal.

And they almost never actually tell the readers which of these platforms, if any, the blogs in their examples are running on.

Likewise  the analytics and marketing tools they mentioned are primarily lower-end, small-business kinds of tools. While even a large corporation might benefit from Google Analytics  and Google Alerts, most of them are also in a position to take advantage of paid services that offer more detailed, human-filtered analyses of the company’s online reputation or website visitors. And most will also need, and quite possibly already use, higher-end e-mail service providers of the sort that integrate with Salesforce.com, not a basic Constant Contact account.

Chapter 9, “An Overview of Web 3.0 Technologies,” should have been left out altogether, or at least retitled—its main purpose seems to be buzzword value. The authors themselves admit on pages 152-153 that even those on the forefront of developing web technologies don’t agree on a definition of Web 3.0, and most of the actual tools mentioned in the rest of the chapter are really Web 2.0 tools. The space would have been better spent addressing the mobile web and the importance of making your blog accessible to those using mobile devices to read it.

While the broad strokes of the book’s guidance about such things as comments, blog authorship, tone, etc. are sound enough, the details are dubious. Most of the statistics seem to come from Technorati, and there are some erroneous statements, like the claim on page 45 that Blogspot blogs rank higher than others because Google owns Blogger. There’s actually almost nothing you can do to improve the SEO on a Blogger blog, and they don’t come up at the top of search results or appear in lists of top blogs all that often. Google would, in fact, lose its credibility as a search engine if it gave automatic priority to any blogspot.com sites, regardless of their content.

The book would have benefited considerably from thorough fact-checking and from evaluation by someone who was checking every chapter against the question “Who is this book for?” and “Does this chapter actually address the subject of blogging to drive business?” It wouldn’t have hurt to have a few more concrete examples of the ways blogs had actually increased sales, preferably with some hard numbers.

So while there’s some worthwhile material here, in the final analysis, I can’t recommend the book, because I think it might mislead or confuse those who are totally new to blogging, and annoy rather than enlighten those who are more familiar with it.

Sams Teach Yourself WordPress in 10 Minutes

Sams Teach Yourself WordPress in 10 Minutes Cover

by Chuck Tomasi and Kreg Steppe

Copyright © 2010 by Pearson Education, Inc

Dimensions: 5-3/8 X 8-1/4
Pages: 240
Edition: 1st

Book

ISBN-10: 0-672-33120-9
ISBN-13: 978-0-672-33120-6

eBook

ISBN-10: 0-672-33175-6
ISBN-13: 978-0-672-33175-6

MSRP: $13.49
Amazon Price $10.49 (affiliate link)

I have not one but two disclosures to start with. The first, for the FTC: Pearson Education sent me a review copy of this book, and a second copy to give away at the East Bay WordPress Meetup with the request that the winner also review it on Amazon. The second, for the reader: I’ve known Chuck Tomasi since the 2006 Podcast and Portable Media Expo, when we both gave presentations on similar topics, so I was predisposed to like Teach Yourself WordPress in 10 Minutes. That doesn’t mean I’ll pull any punches, though.

First, about the name. Naturally, you can’t learn all of WordPress in 10 minutes. The idea behind the series (and don’t ask me why it’s “Sams” and not “Sam’s”) is that each lesson will take you ten minutes to complete. This is a bit of an exaggeration, since it will take you about that long to read it, and probably that long again to go back and do it. And I would recommend that you read each lesson through before applying it, unless you already have some familiarity with WordPress. And even then, you know, it really can be better to RTFM.

Chuck’s LinkedIn profile states that he wrote this book (or his part of it, anyway) in 60 days. With software that changes as rapidly as WordPress, book publishers are at a huge disadvantage, because their books can become obsolete during the normal 18-month turnaround time traditional publishers have for nonfiction. Sams Teach Yourself WordPress in 10 Minutes shows remarkably few signs of haste. I only found three errors that appeared to be the result of hasty editing or last-minute changes.

The book’s compact size is both a drawback and an advantage. It’s easy to carry around and won’t break your wrists, but the screenshots would be hard to read when inserted into portrait layout pages even if the image reproduction weren’t so bad. (And the image reproduction is terrible, both faint and grainy; you notice it immediately with the authors’ photos and it doesn’t improve from there.)

The book covers all the basics without confusing detail. You won’t find answers to obscure questions or a breakdown of the code that makes WordPress work here. You will learn how to set up an account (and a blog) at WordPress.com and how to install and work with a self-hosted WordPress blog. There’s a whole lesson devoted to “Blogging on the Go” with remote tools like the WordPress iPhone app, Flickr, Posterous, and Scribefire (though no mention of my personal favorite, Windows Live Writer, or its Mac equivalent, Ecto).

I have one small quibble and one comment that applies equally to this book and to WordPress in Depth.

The quibble is with the statement on p. 136 that WordPress is “platform-agnostic” and you can get any kind of hosting you want. Yes, it’s possible to install WordPress on either a Mac or a PC for development and testing by using XAMPP or MAMP. But installing WordPress on a Windows shared hosting environment is another animal entirely. Windows server experts have given up on making it work the way it’s supposed to. Unless you’re a masochist, get Linux hosting for your WordPress site.

The comment has to do with security. As I write this, there’s a nasty Google cloaking exploit making the rounds. The problem is not a flaw in WordPress itself, but rather in file permissions on the server, generally in shared hosting environments, frequently as the result of one-click installation scripts. There are a number of articles out there about keeping WordPress secure, and a few plugins to help you with it, but the books I’ve read have mostly focused on using strong passwords and updating regularly. That’s good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

I know Chuck and Kreg had to take material out of this book to keep it down to size. I hope they’ll cover security in their companion podcast. So far there’s just one episode, a teaser intro, but the first real episode is in the can and scheduled for delivery within a day or two.

If you’re already an experienced user, you won’t get much new from this book, but if you want a quick, effective introduction to WordPress, Sams Teach Yourself WordPress in 10 Minutes is a good choice.

Building a WordPress Blog People Want to Read

Building a WordPress Blog book cover Building a WordPress Blog People Want to Read by Scott McNulty

Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Peachpit Press; 1 edition (November 21, 2008; copyright 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0321591933
ISBN-13: 978-0321591937
Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 6 x 0.6 inches

MSRP: $29.99
Amazon.com price (affiliate link): $19.79

I checked this book out of the library last week because I hadn’t had a chance to read it when it first came out. The screenshots of WordPress 2.6 are a reminder of how much, and how fast, WordPress has changed, yet much of the content remains relevant.

The book is beautifully designed and typeset—kudos to WolfsonDesign—and entertainingly written, a combination that makes for rapid readability. And while it doesn’t go into immense detail, it covers pretty much everything. (“Oh,” I found myself thinking. “Is that how you were supposed to use the original gallery feature? I never could get it to work.) It even provides tips on what to do if your blog has been hacked.

One thing I found a bit peculiar was the order of the subjects: McNulty leads readers through all the details of creating content and adding media before tackling themes and plugins. I almost always choose a theme and install the most critical plugins before I start working on the content, and I think most people paint their houses before they furnish them. On the other hand, many people really do just use the Kubrick theme for their blogs.

Peachpit seems to be producing other WordPress books rather than asking McNulty to update this one, which I think is too bad. It would be worth bringing out a new version covering WordPress 3.0. Meanwhile, read this one for what’s still relevant.

WordPress in Depth

WPinDepth WordPress in Depth
Bud Smith & Michael McCallister
First Edition: Pearson Education (Que), 2010
Softcover, 432 pages
Dimensions: 7” x 9 1/8”
MSRP: $26.99
Amazon.com price (affiliate link): $19.79

  • Book
  • ISBN-10: 0-7897-4275-6
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-7897-4275-9
  • eBook (Watermarked)
  • ISBN-10: 0-7897-4431-7
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-7897-4431-9

A representative of Pearson Education spotted me on the LinkedIn WordPress group and offered me a review copy of this book, and a second one to give away at the East Bay WordPress Meetup. That was more than a month ago, but I wanted to do justice to all 432 pages and actually read the book in as much depth as it had been written.

Not surprisingly, my fine-toothed comb revealed a handful of typos and printing errors, which I’ve pointed out to Pearson so they can be corrected in the next edition. They’re all fairly minor and I won’t mention them here.

There was only one omission really worth the name, and it made me wonder how many other experienced WordPress users might have overlooked this feature when it came out, because I’m pretty sure the authors aren’t the only ones. More on that in a minute.

The book is detailed but not excessively technical. I wouldn’t give it to my mom, but anyone who is computer-literate should find it accessible. The style is clear, the directions easy to follow, and the decisions about what to put in sidebars and callout boxes logical. There are plenty of illustrations and some impressively detailed tables. The book design, like the writing style, is workmanlike: it gets the job done effectively, without being especially beautiful or inspiring. (You want a WordPress book that’s beautiful, go take a look at Digging into WordPress.)

The most important thing to know about WordPress in Depth is that the first 226 pages are dedicated to WordPress.com. As the authors point out, there are very few resources, online or off, devoted specifically to WordPress.com users. When I first began using WordPress in 2005, WordPress.com didn’t even exist, so I never learned anything about it. But with a meetup to run, I thought it would behoove me to learn. After reading this book, I feel much more confident answering questions about the differences between WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress (often referred to as WordPress.org).

I’m sure that any WordPress.com user will be able to get the most out of that service with the help of WordPress in Depth. Though, really, the more I learned, the happier I was that I’d always installed WordPress on my own site and had the full range of themes and plugins to draw on. Hosted services (I used Blogger before converting to WordPress) are incredibly limiting.

In moving from WordPress.com to installing the WordPress software on your own site, the authors take us right off the deep end: setting up a web development server on your own computer with XAMPP. It’s great to have this tutorial here, though by no means everyone who uses the .org version of WordPress is going to need a development server. It’s also good to show the steps of a manual WordPress installation. On the other hand, most popular web hosting companies offer a “one-click” installation process for WordPress through Fantastico or whatever their control panel software is, and it wouldn’t have hurt to see a screenshot or description of that process, too, though of course it differs somewhat from host to host.

The next two chapters cover themes and plugins, and here is where that omission comes into play. Every time Smith and McCallister talk about installing a theme or plugin from somewhere other than the WordPress.org/extend/ repository, they tell you to download, unzip, and upload via FTP. It seems that neither of them ever noticed the “Upload” option under “Add New” in the Themes and Plugins sections of the WordPress dashboard, which lets you browse for a .zip file, upload it, and install it.

Upload Theme

I use this all the time, and it works extremely well, except in those few cases where the real theme folder is actually a subfolder, in which case you have to go back and move things around with FTP. Everyone who manages a self-hosted WordPress site should know how to use FTP, but why make things harder on yourself than they have to be? This feature came in with WordPress 2.8, and it’s a handy one.

screen options

Another feature the book never mentions—and which I only noticed myself a few weeks ago—is the ability to set the number of columns for your edit window. So you don’t actually have to switch to full-screen mode (a thing I didn’t know existed until they recommended it on page 86) in order to get a wider window for your content: just choose 1 column under Screen Layout. (I don’t actually like this very much, because I have to scroll down in order to do anything, but then, I normally work on a 17” laptop, and I normally write my posts in Windows Live Writer. On my netbook, it might make a lot more sense to use the single-column layout.)s

The brief overviews of CSS, XHTML, and PHP are certainly not enough to make you expert in any of those things, but they’re surprisingly helpful. (And Pearson publishes titles on all those subjects, if you want to learn more about them. Just search on their website.) You’re not going to become a ninja-class theme developer just by reading what’s here, but having it would have saved me a bit of trial and error in my earliest days of tweaking themes. And since I really knew nothing of PHP beyond what I’d cribbed from the Codex, I found the description in Chapter 15 illuminating.

The book concludes with some handy appendices: a comparison of WordPress.com and WordPress.org, an examination of the existing WordPress documentation, some examples of famous WordPress.org and WordPress.com blogs, a map of the official WordPress sites, and finally a guide to importing your content from other systems into WordPress.

I would recommend this book without reservation to WordPress.com users and to anyone who is about to make or has just made the transition from WordPress.com to self-hosted WordPress. If your main interested is in WordPre
ss.org, however, you may find the first half of the book frustrating. While there are many things that work just the same for the two versions of WordPress, there are also quite a few differences, of the kind particularly likely to trip up beginners who are unfamiliar with the WordPress dashboard.

While not the best book for everyone, WordPress in Depth is a very good book for at least one segment of WordPress users.