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.
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.