I’m starting to dig into improving my WordPress site performance, as it is not where I want to be. On average it takes 3 seconds before it starts rendering and up to 6 or 7 seconds to finish. So I need to improve my WordPress site, so where do I begin? You can start with throwing solutions, such as caching, at the problem, which may or may not help, or you can first diagnose the problem
Sometimes those of us who are immersed everyday in WordPress, SEO and Online Marketing topics forget there is a whole world out there that has barely heard of WordPress. Or if they have heard of it, they think it is only used for blogs. So today I’m going to talk about WordPress themes and what they are.
To understand WordPress themes, it helps to have a basic understanding of WordPress itself. I like to think about WordPress as different components working together that not only brings you an awesome website, but one that comes with an administrative interface you can use to create new pages on your site without needing any technical know-how. If you can do Word documents, you can write pages on a WordPress web site.
Coming up with Update Steps that Work
When I updated my WordPress install from 3.3 to 3.4, I ran into issues. After the update, my sidebar and menus disappeared, and I could not get them to reappear, even when rolling back to an older WordPress version. So I decided to try updating my theme as well since the version I had was 18 months old. Here’s the sequence of steps I used to update WordPress, my parent theme (I have a child theme set up) and my plugins successfully.
When you first setup a WordPress site and select a theme, it often doesn’t take too long before you get the itch to put your own stamp on your site and start hacking the theme by modifying the files. Maybe you want a different color or you need to make changes to get a plugin to work, like WP-PageNavi. The problem is that if you ever want to later update your theme to a newer version you’ll wipe out the changes you made and have to reapply them. It’s not the end of the world, you can do it with comparison tools such as diffmerge (or winmerge) but it is non-trivial work.
This is where child themes come in. A child theme is a separate theme that points to the parent theme and inherits the parent theme’s functionality. All you need is a new directory with the child theme name, a modified style.css and you are ready to go. Many premium themes give you a starter download to make it even easier. You make modifications by copying files over to the child theme directory and modifying them there. WordPress knows to look for the code first in the child theme before the parent theme. There is lots of info on child themes, the codex has a good page and here is an tutorial from webdesignerdepot.
After my first not so successful attempt on upgrading WordPress. I came up with a specific sequence of steps that worked well for me.
While Google Webmaster Tools does show I am getting 404 errors on my site, they are all due to the the lower quality guest author posts that I recently deleted. A spot check of the errors didn’t turn up any external links to these pages. So because a 404 is not a frequent occurrence for my site, it’s not a top priority (hence my upfront criteria that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on this task). Nevertheless I wanted to make my 404 page more useful to my visitor and not a dead end.
Here’s how I added a search box and a list of categories to my 404 page. Now keep in mind that to follow along, I’m assuming you know how to copy and update files on your server and that you are comfortable editing php code.
Unless you have been living under a rock lately, I’m sure you are aware of that more and more web surfing is being done on mobile devices. So is your WordPress site ready for these surfers? Here are few avenues you can consider.
A WordPress responsive theme means that the theme will detect what type of device is accessing it and adjust the presentation accordingly. You can see the behavior if you are on a desktop and you drag the side of your right browser inwards. If you see the theme adjust and shift things around – it’s likely a responsive theme. If the right side of your site disappears – then it’s not responsive. The default twenty-eleven theme is responsive. If you are on a recent version of WordPress – see if you have a Mobile option in the Appearance menu to enable your them to be mobile friendly.
Some of these mobile themes will show a completely different layout of your site to a smartphone than to a desktop. These themes are not responsive – which retains the same elements of the site on all devices – but still a great mobile option. It’s a matter of preference which route you go. Do you prefer the consistency of responsive web design so that the “look” of your site is similar between browser and smartphone? Or would you rather have a presentation that is completely designed for a mobile device? There is something to be said for a theme that is optimized for a mobile device rather than one that has to compromise to work on both a desktop and a mobile device. There are pros and cons of either.
Just because you have a tool in front of you, it doesn’t mean you have to use it. This is particularly applicable to WordPress tags. A lot of bloggers tag each post they write with 4 or 5 multi word tags that they will never use again — thinking they are adding keywords to the post and helping their site’s SEO. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s say you are a foodie blogger and just posted a recipe on tomato soup. So you wrack your brains – gee what are all the keywords that describe this post? And you come up with “tomato soup”, “healthy eating”, “warm foods”, “easy recipes”. The way WordPress works is (as long as your theme shows tags), those tags will appear as clickable links that will take you to an archive page that show a list of posts that have the same tag. The problem is that unless you have written several posts on “tomato soups” – the tag archive page will just show your one post. Not only is that not useful to your site visitor, but could be diluting your content in the search engine index.
Since WordPress takes care of a lot of details under the covers, that we are often lulled into a sense of complacency. If you decide to rename a category, you don’t have to worry about updating your links and URLs for the change – the underlying WordPress CMS takes care of that. However, it is a good idea to periodically check your WordPress site for broken links especially if you link out or have comments on your blog.
One of the better link checking tools, is Xenu’s Link Sleuth. It’s free, but Mac users are out of luck, it only runs on Windows. You can download it from CNET or the project home page. It’s easy to use, you just type in your site’s domain and run it. You might have some problems discerning where the broken links are – as it doesn’t report out the parent URL, however you can usually tell by looking at the report which page it was looking at.
In my quest to make my category pages index worthy, last week I added manual excerpts to my WordPress archive pages. This week I altered my WordPress code to show category descriptions on the category pages, adding yet more unique content to these pages. Your theme might show these category descriptions out of the box, but most don’t, including mine. Here’s what I did: step by step.
One item I’ve had on my todo list forever was to convert my category pages into rich unique resource pages that were worthy of being indexed. I don’t currently index my category pages, because they would not be that useful to a searcher.
So to evolve my category pages into rich and unique pages of value, this week I took a step towards that goal by adding manual excerpts to the page.
Manual excerpts, are hand crafted summaries of your posts, and a great way to avoid having duplicate content on your site.
Many blogs will show you how to update your home page with manual excerpts, I didn’t want to do that – I wanted to update my category and tag pages – which currently only show the post titles – with manual excerpts. But the process isn’t that different. So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. If you are new to WordPress and making code changes, this may not be for you. But if you are comfortable using FTP to upload files (or have ssh access) and working with php code, keep reading … Continue reading
To understand one reason why it would be useful, let’s examine how page rank is typically assigned to a website. Keep in mind this is an oversimplification of how Google actually works, but it’s useful as a model. Let’s say your site has been assigned a page rank of 5, that means it has 5 points to distribute to all its pages. So if there are 5 links on the home page each link would get 1 point. Now let’s say that page also has 5 links, each of those links would get 1/5 of a 1 point. So what’s the takeaway from this? That the more clicks it takes to get to a given page, the less value Google and the other search engines assign to it.