Plug-ins, theming and more at WordCamp Buffalo 2013

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Scott Herman, who teaches and runs http://www.wp-education.com/, which offers WordPress training and classes in Buffalo, gives a talk on plug-ins at WordCamp Buffalo 2013.

Bloggers, business owners, students and professionals packed into several classrooms to learn about or improve their WordPress skills on Saturday for WordCamp Buffalo 2013 at Canisius College’s Lyons Hall.

Talks ranged from basic introductory WordPress topics such as plug-ins, SEO and themes to more advanced talks on sliders, creating your own theme, accessibility, caching and security.

For those new to WordPress, Scott Herman, who teaches and runs http://www.wp-education.com/, which offers WordPress training and classes in Buffalo, says having a support network is a good idea and that person or group can help you out with problems, especially when you are stuck. He said that the WordPress users group in Buffalo is a great place to network with other more knowledgeable WordPress users.  The group, which is free to join and attend meetings, is run through MeetUp.com (also free) and meets regularly and divides meetings between more advanced topics geared towards designers and developers and “users meet-ups” which discusses content editing, blogging and less development oriented elements.

Top 10 plug-ins to get you started

Herman, a speaker at the event, gave a talk on “Top 10 Plug-ins to Get You Started” and went through his list of suggested plug-ins.

For those transitioning their sites, Herman suggests the redirection plug-in that will let you set up redirects from old pages to new pages without losing your search engine rankings or confusing users who have bookmarked your site’s old pages. 

Herman pointed out that sometimes after you install a plug-in, figuring out where the setting for that plug-in are in your dashboard, can confuse newbies.

“You either find them over here on the left (inside the WordPress dashboard) where they create their own little menu;  you’ll find them under settings or sometimes you’ll find them in the plug-ins page themselves, so you’ll have to go to settings for that plug-in,” said Herman.

For adding photo galleries to your site, Herman likes the NextGen Gallery plug-in which is available as a free and as a premium version for $39 annually.  The plug-in can quickly upload multiple photos, resize them for faster load, rotate photos and allow you to manually resize thumbnail images.

For SEO, he likes the WordPress SEO Plug-in by Yoast, who offers his basic SEO plug-in for free, but also sells a video and local SEO plug-in.  The free SEO plug-in allows you to optimize your post title and meta description and uses the snippet preview function to  view what a listing would look like in Google’s  search engine results, RSS enhancements, permalink cleanups and XML sitemaps generator.

Adventures in theming

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Connie Oswald Stofko, publisher of Buffalo-NiagaraGardening.com, the online gardening magazine for Western New York, gives a talk on “How to Get Ideas for Blog Posts” at WordCamp Buffalo 2013.

In WordPress, a theme determines the design and functionality (look and presentation) of your site without affecting or changing the WordPress software.  WordPress.org refers to a theme as “skin” and says, “A Theme modifies the way the site is displayed, without modifying the underlying software.”

There are many free themes out there that you can easily load or install on your site with one click of a mouse, but many speakers cautioned users against using free “premium” themes and said it is best to stick to themes that can be found in the WordPress.org directory which have been checked and inspected for hacks and deemed safe or else purchase premium themes.

If you are interested in creating your own theme, Sheri Bigelow, speaker for the session “Adventures in Theming” who works for Automattic, a web development corporation based in San Francisco, Ca.,  said knowing CSS is crucial and recommended the book “CSS Mastery” by Andy Budd.  She also recommended the sites HTML Dog for basic CSS tutorials and Theme Shaper which offers 17 free lessons for creating and distributing your WordPress theme.

When developing a theme you need a frameworks which WordPress.org describes as either, “A ‘drop-in’ code library that is used to facilitate development of a theme, or a stand-alone base/starter theme that is intended either to be forked into another theme, or else to be used as a parent theme template. “

After you develop your theme it will need to pass review before it’s made available to the public, that’s where http://developer.wordpress.com/themes/ comes in handy as it presents all the guidelines your theme must meet and pass. Bigelow called it a “hidden gem.”

Bigelow said she found the CSS 3 layout mode Flexbox invaluable when creating her theme. Flexbox allows the arrangement of elements on a page in a predictable way especially valuable when it comes to user interfaces and different screen sizes. Placholder.it also helped when she designed her theme which allows the creation of image holders according to size, color and text which can be used in design mockups.

Other tips for creating your own theme:

  • keep the design simple
  • test in multiple browsers, but let browsers be browsers. “If one browser has extra space at the bottom of the paragraph and the other doesn’t, that’s ok,” she said.
  • the best way to design for the smallest screen (mobile) is to have almost no CSS
  • make something you love and others will love it too.

A few new moves for confident WordPress beginners

Themes, plug-ins, code, and frameworks all were discussed by Geoff Campbell, a web and graphic designer from Hamilton, Ontario for his talk, “A few new moves for confident WordPress beginners.”

He said the problem with plug-ins is that it’s hard to evaluate multiple plug-ins that claim to do the same thing.

“One plug-in might have five stars (rating), but it has two votes; the other has three stars, but 1,000 votes so which is better?” said Campbell.

He said WordPress could create better rating systems for its plug-ins and he plans to propose some suggestions.

Campbell recommend plug-in central which allows you to easily add all the plug-ins you typically use in one mass installation which saves a lot of time, especially when you set up WordPress sites for a living. He also recommends turning off such single-use plug-ins after using them so your site is not running extra items that might cause performance issues.

“If you have a list of core or trusted plug-ins, you can go and install them all at once,” he said. “But if you’re trying out new plug-ins, don’t load 20 new plug-ins at once; weird things might start to happen and you won’t know which plug-in is the culprit causing you the performance issues. Install new (unknown) plug-ins one at a time.”

If you do get a plug-in conflict, he said the best way to resolve it is to turn all your plug-ins off and then turn them back on one-by-one to see which plug-in is causing the problem.  When you find the problem, use Google to find the solution and to see the known conflicts with that plug-in.

“Get yourself a system for evaluating plug-ins, he said. “Sometimes it’s better to find somebody else to find you the best plug-in for a situation.”

For moving your site to a new domain or server, he suggested the free plug-in Duplicator and use WP Maintenance Mode plug-in which closes your site to outsiders while you work on it.

For those interested in learning more about plug-ins, he recommended the podcast and site “WordPress Plugins from A to Z”  at http://wppluginsatoz.com/ which talks about new plug-ins each week and fields listener’s questions.

When it comes to themes, you can find a theme for specific purposes such as running an online auction or an event, but make sure that the theme works properly in a mobile environment.

“These days and where the future is going, I insist for all my clients that we are building you a responsive site,” he said. “We are all accessing the web now on our phones and it’s going to continue to go that way. A lot of themes now, by default, will be using responsive design because they understand that’s the way things are going.”