I was able to attend WordCamp Austin this past weekend. It was the first time I’d been to a WordPress conference so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. It turned out to be small but very well run conference with several interesting topics. For this post I am going to review my notes from the conference and highlight the items or topics that I thought were interesting.
WordCamps are typically small 1-day conferences held all over the world focusing on WordPress related topics. For any given weekend there are likely several conferences being held. The big problem is that the camps almost always sellout before the first speaker is even scheduled. So you you either have to be ‘in the know’ about what are the good WordCamps or take your luck of the draw as to whether the camp will be right for you. I was afraid that the conference would be too flufy (i.e. topics like how to build a community, or just using WordPress) instead of technical topics. It turned out that most of the presentations were at least mildly technical with very few covering topics of just how to use WordPress. It seemed to be a direct match with the audience. I’d say that if you feel you’re a programmer you’re probably not going to get the most of out these conferences. Technical concepts are not covered in depth as you would expect from other communities.
With that said, I’m a newb to the WordPress community. I’ve built a few themes for my self (i.e. this blog) and a few others. So take what’s said here with a grain of salt from an outsider’s perspective.
Presentation: Before the Famous Five Minute Install
Author: John Chandler
John’s presentation presented topics about what to do when building a new website — the stuff you should do before you start coding or designing. His presentation focused on techniques to illicit what the customer is looking for along with typical work flows. The basics of his topic were the straight forward water-fall design model. However one of the items he talked about was really interesting: Mood Cards. These are just simply a set of different web page styles to get the customer thinking about what they are looking for. The idea is that you either print these out and have your customer look through them in person, or send them a website with them all listed. With these the customer will have a starting point to say things like, a little bit of “this” and “that” – but I don’t like “this other one“. In short it helps start the conversation about designing a website.
Mood Cards online: http://moodcards.lyricalmedia.com/
Multiple Column Posts
Presentation: WordPress Beyond Blogging
Author: Bill Erickson
Bill’s presentation covered several topic areas focusing on how to use WordPress as a plain old CMS – more than just blogging. That seems to be the mantra going around the community recently. While he covered many topics, the one that I thought was most usefull was his tip to use the
<h5> tag to separate out multiple columns. The idea is that instead of using short codes, or embedding HTML in the post, is to use the
<h5> header tag to delineate when multiple columns should be displayed. A filter would look for these headings and add the appropriate HTML to separate out the content into multiple columns. The reason why this approch is better than short codes is that it works seemlessly with the
WYSWYG editor. It’s also hard for the end-user editing their content to mess it up.
PODS is Crazy!
Presentation: The Sky’s the Limit – Migrating Static Sites using PODS
Author: Nick Batik
The next presentation was about a system called PODS. Nick’s presented this system as a very powerful plugin to build WordPress websites from sets of structurally defined data. The basic concept is that you’d import your data into a table, then configure WordPress to pull that information out to create pages/posts/comments/whatever using the data. He demonstrated a website he was in the process of building that pulled in static content from a book to publish it online.
The problem with PODS is that it has all the negatives of dynamic content (slow, complex, etc..) without any of the benefits of static content (fast, simple, easy to understand). The PODS plugin provides a horribly complex administrative interface that any end-user looking at it would give up after a few minutes. The user interface expects the end-user to provide embedded php code, know concepts about the loop, and other WordPress-isms. In short it’s basically un-usable. WordPress isn’t an end-all tool for every task. It’s a great platform to build your typically website with a great (probably the best) interface to allow end users to edit the content on their website. But PODS trys to extend WordPress beyond this use case and utterly fails. Perhaps there are some very small use-cases where PODS would be useful, such as a WordPress site solely administered by a php developer. But really, at that point you should step back and ask your self why? Why not just take that php developer and create some one-time scripts to convert the static content into static HTML. That would end up being much simpler to maintain over time, and probably easier that spending any amount of time figuring out the crazily complex PODS system.
Permalinks should must start with numbers
Presentation: Common WordPress Mistakes
Author: Jared Atchison
Jared’s presentation about common mistakes people make with WordPress included one that I hadn’t know about. Apparently when trying to find the correct page, post, or whatever for a particular URL it tries to optimize the search. If the first part of the path, the stuff before the first slash, is numeric then it will narrow down the search to just those posts that start with the number. If it’s something else then WordPress can’t do this optimization and has to check every type of object to see if it fits. This seems like an easy gotcha that could quite easily slow down your WordPress site. It also explains why I can’t create a page name that consists of nothing but a number.
If you stick with the permalink options provided you’ll be fine, they all start with a number.
Custom Post Types
Presentation: Custom Post Types
Author: Devin Price
Devin covered the new features from WordPress 3.0: Custom Post Types. These are a great step forward for the WordPress community and bring the platform up to par with Drupal, or Joomla. They have been needed for a while. Devin went into the concepts and explained several use-cases. I haven’t had a chance to use them but I’d like to add them to my other personal blog that I run.
Stephanie’s Static HTML Importer
Presentation: Content Importing
Author: Stephanie Leary
Stephanie’s presentation about importing content into wordpress was light on details. But it’s nice to know that there are lots of tools to aid in migrating content into WordPress. The one that she highlighted more than any other was her very own Static HTML Importer plugin. It definitely looked like a great plugin to use if you have a static HTML site that needs to be imported into WordPress. One interesting thing to note is that Stephanie works at A&M, in the University Writing Center. It is a bit weird to drive to Austin to hear a presentation by someone so close. In fact somewhere around half of the presenters and WordCamp Austin are or were living in the Bryan/College Station area in the last year. It seems to me that they really should have been WordCamp AggieLand.
Presentation: Optimizing WordPress
Author: Jason Cohen
Jason’s presentation was by far the best presentation that day. I wish some of the other presentations were a bit shorter so that Jason could have had more time. He covered caching and optimization topics, I suggest checking out this presentation when the video is posted. (I’ll post an update when that happens) Specifically he went through the options of the W3 Total Cache plugin, when to use them and when not to use them. One thing I learned is that the object cache is almost always a loss, you’re better off caching at the Database and HTML levels. It just dosn’t take PHP much time to recreate an object from the database so all your doing is wasting memory. He also cautioned about using disk caches if your disk speed is slow, like if you’re in a hosted cloud environment like RackSpace or Amazon’s EC2. In some circumstances you’re better of skipping the disk-based cache.
Another topic that I will highlight here is “Smush It” from Yahoo. The tool works as a plugin to Firefox and when run will take a webpage and compress the images to the smallest possible size without effecting the visual effect. Jason did a demo of using the tool on CNN‘s webpage and it was able to save 25% of the image bandwidth. That’s a pretty huge effect. I ran it on one of my websites and saw around a %10 savings. In either case, it’s a pretty nifty and easy to use tool.