WordPress Tips

… started for Radford coms326 Web Production course
… everyone welcome

WordPress is best known as a “blogging platform,” but it’s really a multi-purpose publishing system. Explaining the difference is the main purpose of this page. In and around Radford University, WordPress is being used by The Tartan, Whim Magazine and The New River Voice, and even TheBurgs.com, a part of the Roanoke Times.

I made this page the first time I taught my RU Web Production class, when we took a quick look at several top “Content Management Systems” — WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and Day CQ5.

The point of any Content Management System is to keep most of the code out of sight: Users create pages through a Web browser window by simply typing text, clicking buttons and choosing items from lists. A beginner can be “published” in an hour — without knowing anything about the Web’s markup or coding languages behind the scenes, HTML, CSS, PHP, MySQL and JavaScript. (Knowing some HTML and CSS does give you a little more control; knowing the other languages lets you fully customize WordPress sites.)

There are two ways to use WordPress:

  • WordPress.com offers Web hosting at no cost. In return, the company puts ads at the bottom of some of your pages. (It will remove the ads for a fee, and will offer you other paid services.) This site you are reading is a free one.
  • WordPress.org lets you download  the same software for free, so that it can be installed on any server — but users must arrange for the server hosting. That may take more time or money, but it gives the users more control to customize the system. Many hosting services provide one-click installation of the free software.

Because getting started is so easy, many students’ WordPress sites become “Web cobwebs,” with front pages displaying prominently dated year-old blog postings.  If you abandon a site, either take it offline, add an explanatory note, or convert it to a “not a blog” layout that does not emphasize date-stamped “blog posts.”

A blog layout may not be the best showcase for a student photographer, designer or journalist headed for the job market. Those students should be putting their best work out front, not just some recent blog post. WordPress can still help. See my “not a blog” demo — one that puts a non-dated “page” out front instead of a stack of date-stamped “blog posts.” On that demo site, dated entries are redefined as a “news” section. Photographs are on a page headed “album,” but they could just as easily be the front page.

Some designers share — or sell — portfolio layouts done with WordPress. Installing them may mean paying WordPress.com or another host for additional control, but if your career is at stake, that’s probably worth the price.

Getting Started with WordPress

For beginners who just want to get started with a free WordPress site, the rest of this page will identify some key terms and topics, whether your project is a blog, a portfolio, or a site for the corner coffee shop.

You can begin with free hosting at WordPress.com, buy WordPress hosting elsewhere, or download the software for free and install it on your own server, if you have one. That’s up to you.

Once you are logged in at a new WordPress site, you control everything from a three-column page called the “Dashboard.” For a WordPress.com site, the  Dashboard’s Web address is “yoursitenamehere.wordpress.com/wp-admin.” There is a prominent “Help” button in its top right corner and a link to a Support Site for more help.

The overall layout of a WordPress site is called its “theme,” which can include a variety of page layouts. Most hosts offer you a choice of dozens or hundreds of themes, some free and some costing extra. Even the free-hosting sites provide some ability to customize themes — at least change the image at the top of the page and decide what information to put in a sidebar column.

When you are starting out, examine a few free themes and notice similarities and differences, such as how the header graphics vary in size and shape. With few exceptions, you can begin a site with one theme and change later without sacrificing any of your contents — although some header or background images might no longer fit a new look.

If Web design is your thing, you can learn to customize themes or build your own, and find a hosting service that allows you to do so. Free hosts are less likely to give you full control. However, even free sites offer some room for personalization and creativity.

Widgets and Pages and Posts! 

Menu for changing reading-settings of a WordPress blog

All WordPress themes arrange three main kinds of content: “Widgets,” which fill the sidebars and bottom of your site with lists and special features; date-stamped “Posts” like most entries in  blogs, and undated “Pages,” like this one you are reading. Some themes offer the choice of making Pages full-width, with no Widget-filled sidebar to distract from the content. Compare this page to the site’s home page. You can build a classic blog (mostly posts with maybe just an “about” page) or a site that is primarily pages, such as that “not a blog” demo of mine — and most personal portfolios or business sites.

Your theme determines the placement and look of posts, pages, menus and widgets. For customization, even free themes at WordPress.com let you change the header text and images, using the “appearances” section of the Dashboard. You also can remove the generic just another wordpress.com weblog “tagline,” using the “general settings” section of the Dashboard. Getting rid of that tagline shows you’re paying attention — especially if you don’t consider your site to be a blog at all!

“Unless something else about your site makes it clear the line is postmodern/ironic or expressing extreme gratitude to Matt and the other folks at WordPress, having ‘just another WordPress weblog‘ on your page might as well be saying ‘just another unemployed barista.’ Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” — Dr. Bob

Although the terms are similar, a “theme” is not simply a “page template.” Within a theme you can have more than one template — such as one page layout with a sidebar and another without, or one that incorporates a photo slideshow.

Start by understanding the two main kinds of content:

  • “Posts” are date-stamped blog-style news items, usually appearing in most-recent-first order on the front page. As the image on the right suggests, there’s a way to change that when “blogging” isn’t your site’s main point.
  • “Pages” — or “static pages,” including the site’s “about” page and the page you are reading — are generally undated. Depending on the theme you choose, they are listed by title in a menu or a series of tabs on the top or side of the site. They can be arranged into “parent” and “child” pages and displayed as drop-down menus, such as the sub-pages ones on this page’s Video tab. Depending on the theme and your decisions, pages may or may not “byline” the author or offer a “comment” area at the end.

Headlines — Posts and Pages both have main headings, which WordPress also converts into the directory name for the page. Pages’ headlines also become menu entries, under some WordPress templates, including the one used on this page. I shortened the original headline of this page to “WP Tips” so that it would fit the menu space.

Both Post and Page headlines can be edited after the story is posted. Headlines should not have additional HTML tags, but some HTML entity characters may be useful, including the ampersand (&) and non-breaking space ( ), which, for example, can keep a month and day like Nov. 1 (Nov. 1) on the same line.

Comments — Bloggers usually want a “comment” area for each post. The same may not be true for your more static Pages. For example, if your portfolio includes your resume, do you want visitors adding comments? From the WordPress Dashboard, you can turn off the comment feature on any page: Click the “Pages” heading, then the “QuickEdit” menu for that page. (The comment switch is only on “QuickEdit,” not the full editing page.)

I’ve put more notes on using WordPress and its pages in other demo sites. If you don’t want a “blog look,” here’s a demo of one way to use static pages as the main part of a site, and make the “blog” an internal “news page” with an RSS feed.

For students interested in doing even more with WordPress:

Footnote: I’m keeping a page about hosting sites for students to use on their projects, including many that offer WordPress and other Content Management Systems.

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