How I threw SEO out the window

Like a bane, search engine optimisation, (SEO) has long driven bloggers looking for visitors towards a meta-tag-heavy, Flesch points-restrictive style of writing. That needs to change.

When I started blogging seven years ago, I had to adopt the same practice and, while there is no doubt it worked, I always felt it hindered my style of writing. There is some sense in such optimisation, but the actual method of weighing writing is far too inhuman.

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From start to finish: details and tips on how to write a blog post quickly, yet thoroughly

As promised in my recent article, I am going to dedicate this one to detail my blogging method. Generally, how to write a blog post so that it saves time, not takes it all away. Many people have asked me specifics before, and, over conversations with other bloggers, I learnt that this is one of the most frequent questions established bloggers get: how exactly do you blog?

When you come down to it, the thing is pretty simple; but some dumb it down so much that it loses meaning. A lot of thinking does go behind a blog post, and my intention today is to explain to you exactly what I do and how I do it. Particularly, the physical process of turning an idea into an article.

If, in my last writing I was unclear that I would talk about the mental approach rather than the physical technique, I apologise. In this one, we will surely talk about doing things — typing and things along those lines, yes. And I hope to keep this article quite short.

(Also note that, in an attempt to address the largest possible group of people, I will be focusing on writing on a WordPress blog. Except for a couple of specifics, however, the process should largely be the same.)

An idea strikes

Like everything else, blog posts too begin with ideas. At the start, it is one at a time; then it floods like a barrage gave way.

That is when you will need two apps I strongly recommend to all you serious WordPress bloggers. Firstly, get the WordPress app (download for Android or for iOS — or download your blogging platform’s app; Blogger, Tumblr, they all have one). Secondly, get Pocket (download for Android or for iOS — other options like Instapaper may serve just as well, although not on your pocket).

It is a universal rule that you get topics to blog about when you are in no position to actually blog. So twist this rule of nature using the two apps above. Ideas that come from offline go straight into your WordPress app: create a new post, title it and leave a note to yourself in your blog. Here is the screenshot I had used in my previous post, just to jog your memory:

Title your post, leave your idea as a note to yourself in the post body. Do not forget to save it as a draft before exiting, lest your post be published.
Title your post, leave your idea as a note to yourself in the post body. Do not forget to save its status as a draft before exiting, lest your post be published.

When you have time to blog and you sit before your computer, voila, WordPress is updated.

Some prefer to use dedicated note-taking applications for this. But in this case I find that complex and unnecessary because you end up noting down in one app and having your phone around when you blog, and copy things over between your blog and computer (or even across apps within a computer if that is the case). The method I have explained above works beautifully.

But what if your idea strikes while online? You can use the Press This bookmarklet in your WordPress Tools > Available tools menu if you are on your PC, but, if you are on your phone, switching to your WordPress app may not be the most time-saving option.

You can instead save to Pocket using a pre-determined tag. I use the tag #ToBlog which is not intuitive, so I never use it anywhere else by mistake. When I need to look things over, I quickly search for all #ToBlog saves and I have the stuff I want.

Organise your dashboard

This is an integral part of blogging. Other services may call it different names, but as a namesake I will call it the dashboard (which is what WordPress users are familiar with).

To focus on your blogging, let no part of your dashboard cry for attention. I have gone the extreme minimalist way and re-designed my dashboard to look something like this (hold on while I jump to my administration home and take a screenshot — there you have it):

Screenshot (115)
The VHBelvadi.com desk is the same as the WordPress dashboard, but it has been fully customised to suit my needs with lots of quick access links. Please click to view it large.

You may not be able to make yours look exactly like this without some unnecessary effort (for most personal bloggers, anyway) but the point is not so much in the looks as in the pending notifications, alerts, messages, errors and the like. Deal with it as they come. Approve comments, make them private or public, reply — the whole aside process.

Now you are set to write and do nothing else.

The writing process: how to write a blog post

a. Where to write

This is a big question to many bloggers. Some of us bloggers hated the original WordPress writing area. And most bloggers hated it because everybody else hated it too. The new version, with the distraction-free writing option, is something I am quite fond of. But I never use the distraction-free editor because I cannot add tags, featured images, excerpts without switching around and that takes time. (I sometimes do these things halfway through an article.)

If you still hate the WordPress editor, try an alternative such as JustWriteBlog for Chrome. I do not use it myself, but have tried it and found it usable on a regular basis. (Why do I not use it then? I do not see the need for an alternative to my VHBelvadi.com desk — not yet, anyway!) Alternatively, ScribeFire for Firefox is an equally trusted and (perhaps better looking) option. It is also available for Chrome as well as for Safari.

b. Know your WordPress editor shortcuts

If you use an alternative editor to the default WordPress editor, skip this section; if not, you will have some fun here.

When typing an article, know that all the regular shortcuts work. But make sure the cursor is clicked within the visual editor area. Hit Ctrl+B to embolden; hit Ctrl+I to italicise; hit Ctrl+Z/Y to undo/redo; similarly Ctrl+C/V/X will copy/paste/cut; and Ctrl+A will select all text.

Deeper shortcuts include several things you can do with the combination of Alt+Shift+shortcut where the shortcut (key) can be any of the following: D to strikethrough, N to spell-check, U to start a bullet list, O to start a numbered list (that is O, the letter, not 0, the number), M for image, and Q for quoting.

This is what my editor looks like. As you see, it is not the distraction-free mode because I then lose access to the areas on the right here. Besides, I have re-designed it to be pretty minimal, so there is not a lot of distraction stemming from this screen. More details typed into the screenshot (including a type -- sorry) so please click to view large.
This is what my editor looks like. As you see, it is not the distraction-free mode because I then lose access to the areas on the right here. Besides, I have re-designed it to be pretty minimal, so there is not a lot of distraction stemming from this screen. More details typed into the screenshot (including a typo — sorry). To view it exactly the way I do, please click on the image.

You can also hit Alt+Shift+W to go full-screen (distraction-free editing) and once there, special shortcuts work, such as Alt++ to increase width of the text area, and, conversely, Alt+- to decrease it. If you messed it up, Alt+0 will return it to the default dimensions (and it is 0, the number, here and not O, the letter).

Hitting Ctrl+number will quickly format your writing. 1 goes to heading 1 style, 2 goes heading 2 all the way to 6; then 7, 8 and 9 will turn it into regular paragraph text, pre-formatted code or address text.

Also make it a habit to hit Ctrl+S to instantly, temporarily save as you write, so that you do not lose your work.

Mac users, remember the eternal lesson: Ctrl = Cmd. Also, not all of these may work on all browsers.

c. What single button do I use most?

I am a big fan of the preview button at the top-right. Some lucky people can hit Ctrl+Alt+I to preview instantly. This gives me an idea of how my post will look once it is published for the world to read. I do not have to return to bulk-edit my work after publication, because that would be a foolish thing to do.

Using the preview capability helps not only to keep track of the post length (sometimes 2,000 words seem short in the editor) but reading in the actual format and design that the article would ultimately be read in, in my experience, makes it a lot easier to manually spell-check.

d. Add any images

It is generally a good idea to add images to your writing. It acts as a buffer between large chunks of text and gives your reader some rest. Five images in a 500 word article is too much, but three or four for a 1,000 word article is a good measure.

I add images at the very end, because doing so while writing is not only distracting, but also time-consuming. This, of course, is unless I have to make references to any content inside the image.

e. Tag, file and save

Finally, tag your post. My limit (and a good limit, unanimously accepted) is no more than five tags. Two things to remember when you tag your posts are, first, whether each tag represents the whole article rather than a portion of it. If you have only two words that truly represent your article, tag it with just two words.

Second, avoid long, spaced out, phrase-like tags. These are not only unnatural but may backfire by narrowing down your results too much; on the contrary, try not to be too vague either. For instance, I have tagged this article with the words blog, wordpress and technique.

h. Copying from elsewhere

I know a few people write their articles on text editors like Word. When you copy and paste across softwares, things get real jazzy. But the dangerous part is sometimes code is added to your copied text that does not make a visual difference when you look at it, but its presence is quite harmful for robots indexing your website.

Once you paste, WordPress has a handy tool called the remove formatting button. In the kitchen sink (Alr+Shift+Z) it is the sixth button (next to the paste from Word button with a W). Hit that and, even if you noticed no changes, you are good to go.

Publish or schedule it

Ah, the end.

You can publish your article right away, of course, but if you were feeling particularly energetic and wrote three in a day, you would not want to throw them all out at once, so hit schedule to post at your preferred time and date.

Then sit back and talk to your readers. It’s the second most rewarding part of blogging.

 Cover image: Flickr/Christine and Hagen Graf  VHBsign

“Just write”, or, what is Swiss style all about anyway?

To mark my seventh year in blogging, as of 2014, I decided to go over my approach to writing posts, hitting publish and interacting with my readers.

Part of that necessitated stripping down my blog to the bare minimum — minimalism, as we know it — which I have always loved, (and which runs in my family, as I learnt on my last trip to Europe). Further, I have taken time to re-evaluate and re-think my approach to blogging.

Honestly, if you have ever caught your blog going stale, or through a rough time (and let us be honest, we all have) then you will be surprised how much good taking time off to come at it in a whole new way will do.

What is Swiss style?

If you have been following me for a while now, you will know I am a big fan of minimal design. I got so many emails about this that I decided to clarify things here.

Swiss style has little to do with Switzerland. It’s an avant garde art movement started in post-WWII Switzerland and quickly spread everywhere else. Key elements of this style, more technically called the international typographic style, are the use of left-aligned sans-serif fonts and lots of supporting photographs, like this photograph of me writing this article.

Blogging at my desk, with my laptop over an insanely precarious edge
Blogging at my desk, with my laptop over a precarious edge

I love typefaces as much as Lasagne Verdi al Forno. No, really, I do. Helvetica is one of my favourite sans-serifs, as you can probably tell by looking around this screen. And Swiss style (I call it that because saying international typographic style every time is tedious) uses sans-serif type exclusively.

In short, the style of this website as you now see it, is Swiss style. But, of course, various (albeit at a limited amount a time) solid colours are used as well. I like minimalism partly because it’s as difficult as it seems easy. It is hard because the thing boils down to deciding what to throw away; and, confessedly, I’m a hoarder, and I find it hard to throw something away because “you’ll never know when you’ll need it!” so minimalism lets me practice throwing away.

This page, and this blog and this site, in its current form, is about as minimal as I have ever got and I’ve really come to love it much like physics and music: the simplest stuff is always the hardest, the most correct and the most beautiful.

A note on Helvetica Neue

I’ve spoken so often about Helvetica, that I thought I would dedicate a short note on it’s ancestry and correct pronunciation.

History

Helvetica is a classic typeface which is a slight alteration on the original and the first widely-used, probably Swiss, type known as Akzidenz Grotesk from the 1890s.

To compete with this, in the 1950s Swiss type scene, a new typeface was released called Neue Haas Grotesk, or the new Haas Grotesk, since it was developed in the Haas Type Foundry and was based on Haas Normal Grotesk and inspired by Akzidenz Grotesk. Neue Haas Grotesk later came to be known as Helvetica.

Later, in the 1980s, a team of type designers sat down to give the letters in Helvetica, now more popular than ever, a more unified height/width ratio. This altered version of the typeface came to be known as Helvetica Neue.

Pronunciation

Many people I know (and certainly more than half the world) pronounce these Swiss/German/French typefaces wrongly. So here is a quick guide to saying it right:

Akzidenz is not pronunced rhyming with accidents; it goes aak-szi-DANCE.

Helvetica, I have heard many say as hell-vet-ica. It’s actually (h)ell-VEE-tica.

Neue, is not pronunced new or nui; it’s NOY(a).

In each case the text in capital is stressed and letters in (parentheses) are sort of semi-silent. The r is throtal, like the french r, and rhymes with air.

No more comments

A second major (almost elephantine) change I have made is turning off comments. I no longer allow comments on this website. First of all, I almost always reply to comments via email. I get them in my moderation queue, I reply by email. I get them in my email, and I do likewise.

I did this mostly because I do not see the need of a comments stream. A fraction of readers actually ever comment anywhere; and moderating discussions that arise out of comments can be very strenuous. It is one of my principles: if it is strenuous, something is not right; if it is strenuous, it can hardly give delight. Nobody said that.

Black guy asks nation for change - the Onion
Change: (Oh, the Onion!) If you want to read the article, click here.
Image courtesy: Flickr/Unlisted Sightings

Now I have no interest in getting into an argument over the use of comments. Yes, they help discussion; and, yes, as Rich Polanco points out rightly, they help readers ask and explore questions they were probably hesitant to ask right away for whatever reason. But comments also come with a weight. As a blogger with a lot of other things on my plate, comments simply take too much of my time.

If you have something to say, use the multitude of sharing options I have provided at the head and foot of this (and ever other) article, and speak your mind in various social networks. Get the word out, get a-discussing with your social circles too. If you share it, I will know, and I will track the link like I always do and if I come across some interesting discussion going on, I will, most definitely, participate.

On Ghost

If you have followed me on Twitter, you will know I have said a couple of times already, how WordPress as a blogging platform was something I loved; and how the current direction WordPress is moving in is sidelining bloggers to make space for large CMSes.

I suppose it comes down to how nobody likes change at first, and how WordPress’ current progress might very well have been the intended one, but to satisfy my urge for a clutter-free, minimal blogging platform, a new kid just arrived in town:

Ghost is John O’Nolan’s brainchild, but really a product that many of us bloggers had dreamt up at the back of our mind. To put it more simply: Ghost is what WordPress started off as (and will hopefully stay that way).

Currently, Ghost’s installation, although based on a much more advanced and contemporary platform of node.js, is complex for the average user. It is something the Ghost team will have to change if they want to get things moving (and they are working on it, as they say on their website.)

But from what I have seen of Ghost, having installed it on my Linux machine, it fits scarily well into my imagination of a minimal blogging platform. I like to write my blog posts in html and Ghost’s Markdown supports it; not to mention that Markdown is, in my opinion, downright the best way to write an article if you want to spare yourself any distractions.

In fact, I like it so much that I have decided to move my upcoming Essays subsection/sub-blog (as I call it) from a fully set-up WordPress.com blog to a Ghost blog. For obvious reasons, my current website, i.e. this one, will stay on WordPress.

Joining the Internet Defense League

VHBelvadi.com is now an official member of the Internet Defense League, a non-profit political activism movement against government control/take-over of the internet. I believe that the internet was the last good thing to happen to humankind, and not least because no single government controlled it. Or, to put it blandly, why fix something that is not broken?

The IDL cat: brought to you by Fight for the Future.

Other member of the IDL are WordPress, La Quadrature du Net, Cheezburger, Overblog, Reddit, Open media, IMGUR, OTI, EFF and Mozilla, with whom this website has sponsorship/affiliation (move your mouse or finger to the bottom left of your screen.) Why? Because it’s right.

Looking forward

I have been blogging for seven of the twenty years that the concept of weblogs has been around, and for seven of fourteen years since it came to gain substantial mainstream use. That is 50% of the time.

I started off with a Vox and a Blogger couple running simultaneously, was dissatisfied with Blogger for reasons I will not go into, and moved finally to WordPress as Vox shut down and then to this admittedly larger website. So far, the writer in me has liked it.

I was excited when WordPress introduced the full-screen writing option, and have only been as excited about a back-end change when Ghost 0.3 was released publicly. Where do I want to go from here? I cannot say. I love writing, and sometimes it involves guiding readers, sharing my experience, sharing my opinion, introducing products, decently commenting on other’s articles (only because I respect it highly and think it deserves a post all by itself), taking readers through my everyday learning and then some.

I see no reason to stop. And I do not see anything better than blogging rising up in the distance either. I still tweet, I still write on Google+ and elsewhere, I still contribute to moderated debates; but blogging has been in a league of its own, and will continue to be, as far as I can tell, in the short, visible future.

It might be with new additions like my design (which took me a full month to make responsive!) and Ghost, which beckons me as an early adopter, and it may be with a lot of other changes which neither you nor me like; but it is really that blogging will remain blogging, and I will remain blogging.

I know it is still a month before we welcome 2014, but I’m generally excited by everything, which is exactly what I am as I unveil my redesigned website. And the best part of this redesign, and how it is different from previous iterations, is that things have been changed from the inside-out. The code running this huge system has been refined. Everything should not only be much faster than ever before, but also much sharper and much, much smoother and pleasanter.

To put numbers, my move from WordPress to VHBelvadi.com was termed VHBelvadi.com 2.0. In that spirit, the move made here is fantastic and substantial enough for me to declare that, with a Swiss design and ultra minimalism focusing my readers’ attention on content, with a more thoughtful back-end and faster front-end, this is VHBelvadi.com 3.0

Well, then, I’ll see you on the other side.

VHBsign

7 Tips for Personal Bloggers

Blogging can be viewed as one of several things — an art form, a means of income, a means of trolling and a waste of time — but one thing is certain: blogs are taking an increased amount of importance on the Web space and, not surprisingly, offline too. Needless to say, while it is of absolute importance for brands to have blogs, it would not hurt a single person to maintain one either.

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Defining personal blogs

A blog can serve as a portfolio of things you are good at (or you think you are good at,) a collection of your thoughts or stories or even a public diary.

This is where worldly misunderstandings come in. Most people who begin blogging (or have been doing it for some time) have large misconceptions about the concept of blogging itself; so large, in fact, that it can be the end of their blog. So if you are starting out on a blog (and it is most likely to be a personal blog) or if you have already been blogging since a while, you can benefit from these seven tips.

Before we start off, let us take a moment to define personal blogs, so we know exactly what we are talking about.

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personal blog is a blog or online journal that serves as a means of expression for the blogger, on their own platform, with their own community, independent of the type of sharing and the size of the community.
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 1.  Traffic means nothing

Anybody knows blogging is almost entirely based on traffic, do they not? It turns out that is a load of poppycock as far as personal blogs are concerned.

As a personal blogger, start thinking about your blog as a window of expression and look out from the safety of your house. Your major traffic will be your friends and family, but that does not mean you will never see anybody else visiting your blog.

To you, what is important is expressing your inner thoughts to people who care. If you are looking for traffic, or have monetary enhancements on your website or blog, you are probably mistaken about running a personal blog in the first place!

So, lesson#1, counting visitors is pointless.

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 2.  To SEO or not to SEO

A big word floating around the blogosphere is SEO. If you walked straight up to somebody and asked them to define the term, they would probably say it is all about getting your website ready for search engines like Google.

The truth is, nobody really knows what SEO is all about. If we do have to define it, it is merely a bunch of good blogging practices some of us maintain in order to make the content on our website, and its structuring, easily detectable by bots.

As a personal blogger, should all this pro-blogger stuff matter to you? Not quite. Personal blogging is more about how a website looks to humans and not bots. (Pro-blogging is all about striking the right balance between the two.)

The next time somebody tells you about Search Engine Optimisation, forget it, crush it, step over it and do not bother looking back. Worry about great looks, readability and design instead.

So, lesson#2struggling with SEO is also pointless.

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 3.  Personal bloggers = I see you be you

You can either call yourself in plural or do the clever thing and make it open that you are just another human being, sitting on a chair, laptop before them, typing (sense) away.

The point here is also a peck at the very definition of personal blogging. A company blog (or a blogging company!) will refer to itself in plural. You do not have to; in fact, you better not. Readers prefer talking to real people, not a bunch of mysterious men who draw ultra-formal pictures about themselves.

On the other hand, if you are working with somebody behind the scenes, to bring out something to your readers, feel free to use the plural; just do not make it overly officious.

So, lesson#3, by a single person, not the face of an organisation.

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 4.  Choose the right platform

Here again we come to crossroads. While having a blog anywhere would not matter, having a blog around the friendliest community does help immensely. Here we shall consider three currently major platforms: Blogger, Tumblr and WordPress.

As I have said before, there are several reasons why Tumblr is great for a community, but it has its drawbacks. WordPress is fusing several Tumblr-inpired features into its platform. And I am pretty sure something is happening with Blogger, or Google would have long gotten rid of it.

Here are things to consider and choose a blogging platform based on:

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Blogger

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  • Absolutely new to blogging (it is better to start with Blogger’s basic features and evolve to WordPress’ advanced features.)
  • Google’s your alleged friend if you use its blogger platform. Alleged.
  • Easy monetisation with products like AdSense (if you are hellbent upon monetising even your personal blog.)

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Tumblr

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  • You hope to blog on the fly with quick updates, pictures, videos and very remain light on text.
  • You are looking for a quick (not to mention surefire) way of gaining a community.
  • You want to be able to make your own design, domain name changes etc. without having to pay every step of the way.

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WordPress

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  • Hands down the most powerful blogging platform there is. But it may need some coding knowledge.
  • You are hoping to share dedicated, text-heavy posts (and few photos, audio, video etc.)
  • You do not mind building your own community with a little effort, but a good guarantee it will happen.

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So, lesson#3, pick the platform that is right for you.

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 5.  Tell people

Let us face it, you are no god in any field. Nobody is going report your opening a blog in any media. You have to do that work yourself.

While it is pointless bothering yourself with the optimisation we saw in #2, you still have to work towards getting the word out. What this means is that you need not spend hundreds of dollars advertising on other sites (you do not have to spend even a penny) but you will have to learn the magic of word-of-mouth publicity.

This actually works. I did it for one of my first blogs and it proved to be a great stepping stone to my current website. So start telling people everywhere. Talk about it in social networks, talk about it over a cup of coffee. Perhaps even tell a stranger you start a conversation with on the subway.

So, lesson#5you are your own publicity agent.

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 6.  Know your competition

The best part about personal blogging  is that you so not have any competition. You know those websites that get a hundred-thousand visits a day? You are not going to beat them, so stop trying and go write a blog post instead.

The so-called ‘big websites’ are not in a bigger league than you are, they are in a different league. They have a host of contributors, each one doing his own publicity, and are most often a corporation of some sort (although they choose to call themselves blogs.)

This does not mean you do not matter. The Web is all about fresh perspectives and original content. If you keep at your blog and speak your mind, the Web by and large will value your blog more than a steamy cog whipping out a hundred articles a day.

So, lesson#6you do not have to compete with anybody.

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 7.  Share the love

Let me tell you a law that runs on the Interwebs: you get what you give. You share more articles, your articles get shared more often; you like more posts, your posts get liked more often; you visit others’ blogs, you blog gets visited often; do you notice a pattern here?

This is no big magic trick. The more of something you do (such as, say, sharing others’ articles on Twitter) more agents around the internet realise you are active; people start following you, bots notice you interact, everybody zeros in on what you produce and then the same sharing and liking starts on your posts.

At the end of the day, look at it from a broader perspective: just as you want people to visit your blog and interact with you, others want the public to do the same on their blog too. Who knows, in this fuss you might even strike up a nice inter-blog relationship with other personal, or even pro-, bloggers.

So, lesson#7you get from others what you give them.

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These are our seven tips for any personal blogger. Whether you are new or seasoned, it would be worth your while to re-visit these tips and make sure you are following them well.

Do you have your own points to share? Comment below or drop me an email.

[hr_padding] [notice type="red"] Want more pro-blogging tips for free?

Download your copy of the latest edition of my well-received ebook, The Mainstream Blogger, for free. Click here to find out more.
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Cover image: Flickr / Hey Paul Studio

How to add an end mark to your articles on WordPress

END-MARKS ARE A typographical feature, most probably derived from the technology and computer-science industry, that employs a use of a symbol, text or icon to signal the end of a piece of text to the reader.

Personally, I am a great fan of end-marks, and I was using them in my first blog at WordPress.com but things changed later and, (unless I manually inserted them every time,) I had no way of fitting one into my articles… until now!

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As magazine features

If you have ever seen an end-mark before, it is probably in a magazine, at the end of every article (see picture below for examples.) Apart from being typographically good looking, these things serve to signal a more finished end to an article, much like a full stop does to a sentence. Once I managed to write a handful of code, I began employing end-marks on this website as my regular readers would probably have noticed.

Endmark examples

As I said already, manually inserting end-marks after every article is a tedious job; but, on the other hand, it cannot always be fully automated either. For instance, Colin Temple has a great endmark plugin that appends an end-mark of your choice to your articles.

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Endmark plugin

However, as I found out myself, if you have meddled with some of the code previously (or even if you have not, in some cases,) such as including certain sharing options after your blog post etc., the sharing buttons come wrapped into the main content division (they even do so native-ly on some themes) and you end up with an endmark after the sharing options, which can turn out to be awkward.

Colin’s plugin has some other features that need working, as he says on the website himself, but — if you care enough about your blog to remember adding an end-mark — I have a quick and foolproof solution for you with one of WordPress’ best introductions: shortcodes.

I have not come up with a method to fully automate it for the same reasons stated earlier, but if a code as simple as [x] is too hard to type in, then this exercise is not for you!

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What is a shortcode?

Ever since WordPress introduced shortcodes, the platform — and well neigh the blogosphere itself — has begun a sort of new era in that clients can do quite a bit of flexible work themselves now.

Basically, a shortcode is a small piece of text that signals the browser to do something a programmer has pre-programmed into your website. For instance, if I pre-programme a code into your website to print a red block every time you type in [red] then the code [red] is called a shortcode and you can use it without really knowing the original code that tells the browser to display the red block. (And you don’t have to call me up to find out how to do it either!)

In my solution, I decided to create a shortcode to my liking, and that is what I will show you now in as much step-by-step detail as possible.

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 Step #1:  Creating a shortcode

We will start by writing a small piece of code that does some simple things:

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  • It tells the browser to start executing the end-mark function
  • It tells the browser what the end-mark is, and
  • It tells the browser how to recognise your request to display the end-mark

I have already written the most basic structure of that code for you, so all you have to do is copy it and hold on to it for now. (Hover over the code and click the second icon that appears to copy it.)

[php]

<!–?<span class="hiddenSpellError" pre=""–>php
function UniqueFunctionName() {
return ‘<p>fin</p>';
}
add_shortcode(‘end’, ‘UniqueFunctionName’);
?>

[/php]

If you’d like, you can paste it onto a text editor like Notepad and edit certain areas. First of all, change the  UniqueFunctionName , in the two places that it appears, to a name of your choice. You can call it anything you like, but avoid spaces and use under_scores instead.

Next change the text that says  end  to whatever you want the shortcode to be. In this case, calling [end] will get the browser to load your end-mark. You can change it to anything you like; for instance, I keep mine as [ vhb ] so I can sign off with it each time I finish an article and have the end-mark displayed. While making changes at these places, be careful not to alter inverted commas and other punctuation.

Once you are done with the changes, copy the altered code to your clipboard (i.e. Ctrl+C on your PC, or Cmd+C on your Mac.)

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 Step #2:  Adding the code to your theme and calling it

Our next step is to add this code to our theme. There are several ways to do this, but if you are not too good with code, it is better to make as little change as possible to the original files, so below is the method I suggest.

[hr_padding] [notice type="blue"] The best way to edit a theme is to leave the original files alone and create a child theme instead, but I will not explain that here since it is a huge topic on it own!
[/notice]

First go to your core files (your control panel/ftp area where your website files are stored) and create a new file; call it something like endmark.php. Of course, you can call it whatever you want, but this is the name I will be using in this tutorial.

Paste the code you copied (or the one you altered) in step #1 to the endmark.php file and save it.

Now we are going to make sure the lines of code that load your website onto a browser remember to call the new endmark.php file, else your shortcode will not work. Again, there are several ways to do this — including conditionally — but, since this code is light-weight and will hardly delay the page load time, we can afford to do it in a simple, straightforward manner.

Open your theme functions file (named functions.php) or a child-theme you have created and add the line of code that I have written below to it. If you do not know where exactly to add it, just make sure you put it before the  ?>  symbols at the very end.

[php]include(‘shortcodes.php’);[/php]

Now, onto the next step!

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 Step #3:  Designing the end mark

By now I take it you have decided what your end-mark will be. Most prefer to use a small square block or an ancient, intricate glyph. I, for one, use my wordmark (see the end of this article.) If you have not, you have one more step before you start using the end mark, so start thinking!

In this step, we will make sure our end mark is displayed where we want it to. To start, open the endmark.php file.

If you have not made any alterations (except the ones stated in step #1) then, in the line 3, you should find this:  <p>fin</p> .

Alongside this I also suggest you open a new post editor on your WordPress dashboard, type in your endmark shortcode (in this case, [end]) and use the preview button to see how it is working out. The chances are you see the word fin at the end of the article, but it is on a new line. The reason for this is that html does not support multiple <p> tags on the same line. (One <p> tag is already being used by your body, and using a second one moves it to a new line — after all it is the paragraph tag!)

Now there are two things you might want to do here. You can either use this and, perhaps, center the end-mark on its own line; or you can push the end-mark to the same line as the last line of the article, like you see on this website.

Let us examine the first case: you can, of course, simply edit the  <p>’fin'</p>  tags in the endmark.php file to  

‘fin’

 , however, the align attribute of the paragraph tag is unsupported after HTML4.0 — in other words, you may not be able to do this successfully.

So our next solution is to use CSS, which does work. Simply change the line to something like  <p style=”text-align:center”>fin</p>  where the center attribute may be used as left also, to left-align the endmark.

The second case is if you do not want the end mark in a line of its own: edit line 3 to put the paragraph tags inside span tags like  <span><p>fin</p></span> . Preview your post now and, voila, you see the end mark in the same line as the last line of the paragraph.

[hr_padding] [notice type="blue"] You might notice how I have a little space between the last full stop and the end mark on this website, but you cannot see so much space in your preview before the fin end mark we have added.

The trick is to use an HTML code called the non-breaking space (i.e. white space that the browser does not collapse.) You can do this by typing in  &nbsp;  where you need a space. Do it several times to leave lots of space.
[/notice] [hr_top] [hr_padding]

 Step #4:  Making the end-mark yours!

Who wants a lousy fin as their end mark? In this final step, we will make the end mark truly yours!

You have probably decided on what you want the end mark to be be now. Perhaps a square, or a circle, or a half-circle or a weird scribble, or an elvish initial, or maybe even your own signature like I used to use before. The simplest way to use this is to create an image; keep it within 10 – 14px in height, depending on your text, and making it square is always your best bet.

Upload the image somewhere — I strongly urge you to use your own website — and copy the image location. We will call this  http://mysite.com/location/of/my/image.jpg . JPG files are slimmest, and therefore the fastest to load, but you can use any common format you like.

All you have to do is replace the word  fin  in your endmark.php file with  <img src=”http://mysite.com/location/of/my/image.jpg”> . Replace our fake image location with yours and there you have it: your own unique end mark!

If you have any questions, feel free to ask me with a comment here or simply by dropping me an email, and I will help you as best as I can. Have fun with your new end mark. [vhb]

The Genesis Framework: how much is it really going to affect your website?

I HAD BEEN a user of the Genesis framework once-upon-a-time. I had, perhaps, used it for just over a year, but then I gave it up. When I first gave it up, I was quite unsure of how my website performance would head from there. Downhill? Saddle? Uphill?

That last one was something I was almost certain would never happen. It might saddle, and I was prepared for that, what with so many pro bloggers saying such great stuff about Genesis. Indeed, I liked Genesis a lot when I first began using it, and I still think there is nothing technically wrong with the framework, but — purely as a matter of opinion — I find Genesis not all that useful to blindly switch to. And, more importantly, after I (for lack of a better word) dumped Genesis, my website performance never went down.

It rocketed up.

[hr_top] [hr_padding]

Why anybody would want to use the Genesis framework: the good stuff

If the Genesis framework has taken hold of the WordPress sphere, it must have a reason — either a fully loaded bazooka, or stuff no other framework on WordPress can get you. As a blogger, many go into Genesis hoping for some sort of miraculous boom in site traffic. If it were that easy, every blogger would have a ten-thousand-strong visitor base every single day.

So what does the Framework get you?

Search Engine Optimisation is one of Genesis’ most played cards. Indeed, Genesis themes are written by expert coders, not us on the couch just trying to get the job done and who keep refining it as they go on. Besides, Studio Press rightly claims, this helps Genesis (along with its SEO section in the options panel) to give search engines exactly what they are looking for.

Support and staff that are part of Genesis, are some of the best we have seen in recent times. Moreover, Genesis promises unlimited everything: unlimited  updates, unlimited websites and unlimited support.

Plugins ad widget areas are another much-announced Genesis feature. The former are believed to make my day better by saving great coding time, and the latter are quite self-explanatory.

[hr_top] [hr_padding]

Where I think the Genesis Framework falls short

The problems with the  Genesis is in the sort of flexibility they promise, but one which isn’t exclusive to the framework at all. Plugins fit most codes, and, of course, Genesis has a few extra plugins, but none which lack a counterpart for non-Genesis sites. In fact, conversely, there are several Genesis plugins that were written solely because the usual plugins that work with a thousand non-Genesis websites, do not work here. And that is where my second problem stems from.

Genesis, although a framework for WordPress, does not employ the same coding as the WordPress platform itself most of the time. If you are thorough with the coding structure of WordPress, it does not mean you can jump in and help a Genesis friend set their blog right. Even an expert coder will still have to re-learn some parts of the system to understand the codes Genesis employs. Below is an example to illustrate this.

I play around with typefaces a lot, as you may have probably realised after reading my three-part series on Typographical design basics, ethics and practices, so I shall give you an example in that regard.

[hr_top] [hr_padding]

The standard WordPress way

In a standard WordPress theme (the set of php, css etc. files that give the look and functionality to your website) if I were to install a web font — one from, say Google — I would create a child theme (so I do not have to mess with the finalised code of the original work I wrote, and I can keep the option of reverting open before me,) I put in a small line of code (like you see below) into a functions file and hook it to the WordPress header area, using wp_head.

[pre]

add_action( ‘genesis_meta’, ‘wpb_add_google_fonts’, 3); function wpb_add_google_fonts() { echo ‘css” href=”http://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Oranienbaum” media=”screen”>'; }

[/pre]

Then I head over to a new css file I have created (WordPress now has a neat css override option) and once the browser has downloaded said file, I can call it whenever I want, in, say, your browser, with one of the simplest css codes in existence:

And voila, I get what I want. And this is what any coder would do for your blog too, if you hired one, not just me.

[hr_top] [hr_padding]

And, the Genesis way

Enter Genesis; how would the same coder have to do it on a Genesis-powered blog? Since I actually went through this for nearly a year, I am a self-proclaimed expert in this. Let me show you:

So what  does that do? In order, it basically hooks into the first element in the parenthesis (i.e. the genesis_meta hook) and executes before all styles in your website’s code files, so that the font is downloaded before the text where it is used appears on-screen.

The problem here might seem simple, even trivial, but think about several other such instances throughout a website that, while building a theme/rectifying a bug, that a coder will have to think about when working with Genesis.

[hr_padding]

IN-LINE UPDATE: Talk about co-incidences. I scoured the web for more people who have such minor things against the Genesis Framework and, surprisingly enough, found that Konstantin Kovshenin cites this very example on his blog too (along with a very understandable rant.) Do read it.

[hr_top] [hr_padding]

Genesis Framework wipes away your SEO worries?

Another statement that Genesis coders make is that Genesis offers you a quick, effective, worry-free SEO maintenance on your website. (I paraphrased that.) But how useful is it?

When I switched to Genesis first, my blog readership substantially increased. But, as a student of physics, I knew better than to blindly attribute that to Genesis, so I went around my blog scrutinising Genesis’ contribution to this boom, as well as my own contribution in the form of small, good blogging practices in this regard. (You can find out more about these practices I employ from my eBook, for free!)

I found that, while Genesis does contribute well to my website’s optimisation, it is definitely not the sole reason for the readership boom.

Fast-forward a year and I had convinced myself my website could survive without Genesis, because — as someone who knew how to handle WordPress code, and actually liked it — I had no problem digging into the core files (and altering them via children themes!) to get the result I want. Besides, I would not have to re-learn certain codes just for the sake of Genesis.

[hr_top] [hr_padding]

The post-Genesis era

I call the current era in my blogging as the post-Genesis era because I no longer use Genesis. But, returning to our more important discussion on my blog visitor-base, bounce and click-through rates (which I was monitoring via Analytics all this while) I found that using simple stuff, such as Joost de Valk’s beautiful piece of work for WordPress — even in the post-Genesis era — did the job just as effectively (if not even better.) Take a look for yourself below:

Analytics during the period of August 2011 for VHBelvadi.com Analytics during the period of August 2012 for VHBelvadi.com

As you can see, I have chosen to compare the same period in both graphs: the first one shows my website performance for the month of August last year — when I had Genesis — and the second shows the performance during August this year — by which time I had literally re-created my entire blog sans Genesis.

The visitor stats are pretty much similar. Having Genesis really made no difference to me because I could afford to spend the time on handcrafting my SEO while still achieving the same results of — on an average — 22,000 to 22,500 visitors a week (give or take half-a-thousand.) Well, it is a personal blog at the end of the day. What more can I ask for? :-)

However, I do agree there are several bloggers out there who either have no coding knowledge or no time to manually do their SEO, and Genesis is pretty helpful for those.

[hr_top] [hr_padding]

The monotony of Genesis child themes and other thoughts

If you take a walk through StudioPress’ theme gallery, I am sure you’ll notice one thing: almost all Genesis themes look alike. Perhaps this is because they are structured that way, or maybe WordPress’ secure coding prerequisites put a leash on design creativity, but most themes there have several elements in common — and it often leads to monotony.

I often use these to recognise a Genesis-powered blog and have been right almost every single time.

Let us start with the header: on the right is either an advertisement, a search bar, the date or,  in rare cases, a widgetised area. The site title itself is most often pushed to the left. Then there is the characteristic dual-navigation option: one above the header, one below. Occasionally, there is the featured posts slider, but there almost always is the list of blog posts right on the home page. And then the sidebar with a search bar at the head (if it is absent in the header,) and several ad spaces, perhaps a newsletter sign-up form, and the list goes on. The point is, if you’ve run on a Genesis theme before, or even if you just have a friend whose website you visit often, you can recognise a Genesis-powered blog anywhere on the Interwebs.

Sure, none of these are bad in any sense of the word. In fact, they are all terribly useful, strategic placements in terms of SEO; but are there no alternatives to this? Can Genesis not offer its users the same flexibility, albeit with less coding-work, than any other third-party theme can offer? And can Genesis not work more like WordPress itself, instead of setting apart special codes just for the framework?

I am quite certain that Brian and Nathan (they’re the seriously awesome guys behind Genesis) and their wonderful team are working on such similar things as I write this article.

A few closing remarks: Genesis provides, arguably, the best support for customers I have seen in more recent times. Also, a little something that always struck me as funny was Matt Mullenweg’s testimonial on the StudioPress page. Here is what he says:

[hr_padding]

Child themes and a framework are the only way you should build your WordPress site and Genesis has great support for child themes and other WordPress functionality.

Now, on Matt’s own blog — from a post he wrote in August 2010, which I think is where the Genesis guys got their quote — this is what he says:

[hr_padding]

Child themes are the only way you should build your site on top of a framework.

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but Matt’s comment (from his blog) simply means you need to build a child theme if you are using a framework, not that you must use a framework. Since I can create a child theme for absolutely any theme I prefer — including any I wrote myself — I am still on the safe side with my WordPress blog, aren’t I?

Now I do not mean to denounce Genesis, StudioPress or anybody affiliated with it; and I’m definitely not being paid by an evil corporation to write this post. They are just my two cents (or dollars, since this article was pretty long!) and I’d love to discuss this further either on my email or when you leave a comment below!

Lorem Ipsum

I have a confession to make. I think Tumblr is great; and I think — in terms of community — it is way better than WordPress. There, I said it. And having said it, let us move on to what I really intended to tell you today. Below I have outlined what I hope to cover in this post, so feel free to jump around and entertain yourself with it.

[item]So what if I like Tumblr?[/item] [item]What is Lorem Ipsum?[/item] [item]How on earth did I get that subtitle on this article?[/item] [item]What’s new with my photography?[/item] [item]Why should you return to my site?[/item] [item]What’s wrong with my older writing?[/item] [item]Do millipedes really have a thousand legs?[/item]

Tumblr and me

Here are a few differences that I would draw between Tumblr and WordPress. I’ve made sure I highlight only the good (and entertaining) stuff, and soon you will know why.

[one_half content_align="left"]

WordPress

Powerful content management
Vast developer base
Mostly functional
Large but fairly impersonal community
Highly flexible, great possibilities
Nobody will know you are dead

[/one_half] [one_half_last content_align="left"]

Tumblr

Variant content management
Simple level of coding
Mostly recreational
Close, caring but smaller community
Predefined, yet vast and fun framework
People will ask you if you are not around

[/one_half_last]

The best part is the variant content management that I mentioned above. Tumblr allows you to categorise post types — as opposed to just posts — as quotes, videos, audios etc., a practice that WordPress is now slowly borrowing. In this regard I actually missed Tumblr when I fully shifted to WordPress, so in an attempt to overcome this, I now introduce all the above post types on VHBelvadi.com

Some of my readers — including my good friend and fellow photographer, Raghul Selvam; and flash fiction author, Darrell Sermon, (also my regular reader) — have mentioned their pleasure at my occasional showcasing of classical music pieces. Perhaps I have some good news for them: I will now be using audio posts, streamlined towards one track each, to showcase these pieces more often, although not in bulk; so stay tuned for those.

Along the same lines most other formats will work and you will keep stumbling upon them occasionally. As for images, any that I have put up will be on my photography area (which we will talk about shortly.) So that is how I am now going to make the most of WordPress and Tumblr for my own good — and yours of course!

What is Lorem Ipsum?

Nice question. Lorem Ipsum is my most favourite passage of text ever. I am kidding.

Lorem Ipsum is really nothing. It is just a bunch of letters some people will tell you is Latin, but it really is not. A series of passages did begin with the words Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet… in one of Cicero’s many books, but somebody in the 16th century decide to toss in a few random words and letters and wreck the now more or less lost script into creating what is known as a piece of dummy text.

So why do we use it? People like me, who are typographers by hobby, who love to play with fonts and weights and shades and tints; and people on the other end: professional designers who earn their living at it, all use Lorem Ipsum where we want to show some text is going to appear in the final product, when in full-scale use.

The idea is, if you had any other text there, say this very article, for instance, your (the reader’s) eyes would be pulled around by the text formatting, the uneven space distribution within and in-between lines and so on. But the standard print and typesetting industry text which is now recognised by its first two words, eliminates this by laying out even space and words that would wrap to the next line fairly evenly, no matter how wide a text column is. This way your eyes rest on the design rather than the content and your brain soon realises the content is random and, needless to say, disregards it.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Phasellus nibh lorem, dapibus vel cursus bibendum, consequat quis velit. Vestibulum eu est nulla. Pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus et netus et malesuada fames ac turpis egestas. Suspendisse gravida, velit ut tincidunt mollis, elit nulla venenatis velit, id consectetur dui tortor in mauris. Maecenas semper semper quam, varius eleifend sem bibendum at. Vestibulum varius interdum nisi, nec lobortis lacus porta quis. Proin congue neque vitae sapien fringilla eu convallis enim bibendum. Quisque enim nisl, rhoncus sit amet lacinia vel, pretium et ipsum. Morbi eu magna erat. Donec eu arcu urna. Sed aliquet, tellus id cursus dapibus, ante erat volutpat odio, vestibulum porta risus metus quis tellus

Generate your own ‘Lorem Ipsum…’

How did I subtitle this article?

You might be wondering how I got that subtitle for this article (the one in grey, just below the title.) While, on the one hand, many find it difficult to add because it needs to be dynamic and looped, on the other hand, explanations on how to do this on the internet are sparse at best. So here is how I did it, simple and straightforward:

Put this piece of code onto where-ever you want your subtitle to appear. Typically, it is just after the line that declares your page or post title. Once you have that done, things get fairly simple: create a custom field called the subtitle (if you are using the exact code as above) and then go ahead give it any value you want. Styling it is the same, such as using the <p> tags along with style=” “ values and properties for your text.

Voila! There is your subtitle, all handy and juicy. I like subtitles because they give you a second chance to extend the message on your title itself. And in case of more catchy, less descriptive titles like Lorem Ipsum, it helps in not turning off your readers!