Week #3 Build a better blog site – User themes and plugins

Week #3 Build a better blog site – User themes and plugins

So our site is up and running, our main page is getting all set up, but what now? The reason we built the site in the first place: our users. Like a houseplant, we have to give them everything they need so they don't shrivel up and go away. Remember the notes we made back in week #1? This is where we'll need them.

We'll need to think about our users and what they will be doing, and how they will use the site. Maybe you already know of a few themes and plugins you'll be needing for sure: P2 for a twitter-like site or comicpress if you're starting a webcomic network.

Generally speaking, any WordPress theme will work on WPMU. However, there are a few things to look out for and change or fix so they are polished up and presentable. Since users cannot edit themes and each themes is shared by whomever picks it, things like this:

About Me:
edit sidebar.php to replace this text

is something you are going to want to remove from a theme. Users can't edit that, and even if they could, the same text will show up for everyone. You will also want to get rid of any sponsored links, encrypted footers, or just plain jacked-up theme code. You'll know this by checking out your error logs periodicaly. (I've seen themes calling non-exisitant images they don't need) Plus make sure the themes have wp_head in the header file and wp_footer in the footer file, and that themes are localized if you're going to offer different languages.

You can also use the 100 theme pack, but the down side is you'll be offering the same 100 themes as hundreds of other sites. I have had users tell me they signed up to homeschooljournal.net just because of the themes that were offered. I have a page off the main blog showcasing the available themes. WordPress.com, for example, rarely adds new themes and had has the same small number of themes available for ages. If you're familiar with svn, they've made their themes available here.

Some extra theme bells and whistles you may want to do is adding a custom header option or widgetizing sidebars or other areas.

The official theme repository has plenty of tags to search themes by, and generally speaking the themes there are safe to use, in terms of encryption & sponsored links. Please, ALWAYS leave the designer credit in the themes. It's hard work and many are produced for free, so give credit where it is due. If a theme gets popular on your site, then the designer gets a lot of love as well.

If you decide to buy a premium theme, please make sure you ask about any licensing restrictions before you buy. Some shops insist you buy a developer's license to make the theme available for use on all blogs. I prefer shops with a GPL license, as then I can do what I like with the themes in question.

Here's the tricky bit: while many plugins for WordPress work in a WPMU setup, many do not. There is no list of plugins that do or don't work, and also no real hard and fast rule as to why some don't, or usually do not behave in an expected manner.

Where to find plugins? Well, in the official repo, I look at the tags for wordpressmu or wpmu to find ones specific to that. Otherwise, if a regular plugin comes up and looks interesting, I test it. That's right, you may actually have to test plugins on your site. The real test is if you activate a plugin on two separate blogs and save the options. If that works out fine, then the plugin works on WPMU. Another place is wpmudev.

You may want to provide your users with popular plugins, or ones with specific features. User like to network, so make it easy for them with twitter plugins, or the awesome commentluv. Depending on the audience, you may want ad-sharing or Amazon widgets. Will they be embedding videos on WPMU? How about a plugin to make each blog look right on the iphone? And of course, some setups might want further privacy options.

There's a dizzying array of plugins available, so to make it easy on yourself, narrow down the list and start off with a just a few for launch and then as your site grows you can add a new theme or plugin each month or week, as time permits. This keeps your users interested in your site, and they won't feel constricted.

If you have a support forum or ticketing system, feedback from your users can be invaluable. You won't have to spend a lot of time trying to guess what they want, as they will tell you.

So to recap: give your users what they expect, and also a few extras.

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  • Adriana
    Posted at 09:21h, 28 June Reply

    Thank you for another great post, Andrea. I’m loving this series! One question though: I suppose too many plugins might slow the site down… In that case, how many plugins would you consider too many?

    • andrea
      Posted at 09:48h, 28 June Reply

      There’s really no magic number for too many – you could have 20 small plugins and barely see a difference, or one large one can bring the whole thing to a crawl.

      It’s more about the type of plugin, what they do, and how they are coded. One inefficiently written plugin could do it. Of course, if you had a LOT of plugins, you’re adding a LOT more code and it will take longer just by the sheer volume of code it has to run.

      I tend to go on the lightweight side and use the minimum amount that I think I *need* and avoid adding too many plugins that are too similar.

  • Graham Gallagher
    Posted at 05:01h, 16 July Reply

    Another great episode in creating an interesting blog. I struggled with addign a subfolder, until I discovered your article – boy did it clear things up in my mind!

    I have now added themes, plugins and I post on my blog every day.

    Thanks again.

    Graham Gallagher

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