There’s no doubt in my mind that redesigning Bit51 was one of the most challenging projects I’ve taken on in a long time. This isn’t because it’s too technically complex, rather it was one of those projects where every single detail could take a week of worry and testing to make sure it wasn’t just right but that it was perfect. Plugins changed, the theme changed, content changed, and just about everything that could be seen by either a user or developer was put under a microscope in an effort to make sure it wasn’t just done, but that it was done right and would provide as much value to my users as I possibly could.
Throughout the project the biggest change was, without a doubt, the tools and services that make up Bit51 including everything from the subscription services to plugin choices. I’ve learned a lot along the way and hopefully my rationale can help some of you shopping for your own site. That said, here is what I’ve used to put Bit51 together and to keep it growing.
As with the original Bit51, the new design is built on the Genesis Framework by StudioPress (affiliate link). The big difference this time around is that instead of a packaged child theme the new site is using a completely custom child theme I built myself. Sure there are other good themes out there, for this redesign I looked at Thesis, WooThemes, Catalyst and a few others, but in the end Genesis had two things going for it that the others didn’t. First, the API was both easy to use and well documented and, second, the community simply provided better support when I did get stuck. Sure, maybe the others are technically superior in one way or another but in the end Genesis has the right combination of excellent code and community that allows it to shine above the competition.
Must Have Plugins
As someone who doesn’t have a background in graphic design (or any kind of artistic endeavor) the functionality of a site is something I tend to focus on. My projects, including Bit51, are designed to communicate as effectively as possible and do deliver those communications to as many people as could possibly make use of it. As such I get rather picky about the plugins I use and the new Bit51 is no exception.
To start off, I immediately installed four plugin. First was Better WP Security because if this site is hacked and harms my users I have completely failed my mission of helping folks. For this Better WP Security is the only plugin I use and has, so far, kept all of my sites 100% safe.
Next is WordPress SEO by Yoast. Here I’ve tried the competition (I even paid for the pro version of All in One SEO Pack) but I always come back to Yoast’s plugin as it is both feature rich and trouble free as well as developed by one of the best WordPress developers around. WordPress SEO by Yoast provides the meta data across my pages and posts, give me XML Sitemap capability, helps detect SEO problems in any new content and helps notify Google and other services when new content is published. No other plugin can do all of this in one shot. In fact, even when splitting this functionality up into multiple plugins falls short as WordPress SEO just does it better.
After WordPress SEO comes Gravity Forms (affiliate link). This plugin does it all as far as communication with my users is concerned and I use it throughout this site for everything from my contact form to my support form and even to accept recurring donations and to sign up new subscribers to my email list. Contact Form 7 and others are great for a site with only a simple contact form but it you really want to engage your users you simply can’t beat Gravity Forms. Yes, it is a paid plugin, but sometimes you really do get what you pay for.
With Gravity forms Bit51 doesn’t just use the core plugin either. We have two add-ons which connect forms to both PayPal and MailChimp (affiliate link) making integration with other services incredibly easy and pretty much full-proof.
Finally, if you can’t get to my site in a reasonable amount of time nothing else really matters. Simply put, the longer your page takes to load the more visitors you’ll lose, approximately 1% for every 100ms (that’s milliseconds) it takes your page to load. To combat this on Bit51 I use W3 Total Cache along with a number of server technologies resulting in an average load time of right around 1 second (or less) for most pages on this site. As with other plugins I tried the competition including WP Super Cache, Hyper Cache and Batcache, but none of them could match the feature set of W3 Total Cache which includes CDN Integration (I’m using Amazon CloudFront), Memcached integration, and integration with performance monitors such as New Relic that help me find problems before my readers do. No, it isn’t the easiest to set up, but spend a little time with it and you’ll find it is totally worth it.
More To Come
Of course, this is only a small glimpse of everything this site runs on. I’ll continue the breakdown over the next week or two. In the meantime are you using these plugins? If not, why not?