Rethinking Site Functionality, Presentation, and Structure

Two weeks ago, I decided to completely overhaul Perishable Press. The decision came after several months of smooth sailing with excellent site performance, an optimized theme, plenty of visitors, and even a comfortable posting schedule. All things considered, everything was peachy keen — until I began reflecting on the “big picture,” meditating upon certain aspects that are frequently taken for granted or simply overlooked during periods of hectic operation and maintenance. For example, while troubleshooting htaccess and PHP errors, webmasters generally don’t take the time to meditate on the structural and functional integrity of their overall site configuration.

Fortunately, I recently found the time to contemplate Perishable Press from a broader perspective, rethinking everything from themes and plugins to organizational architecture and permalinks. As I approach the completion of the most comprehensive site renovation ever, many significant improvements are currently underway. Here is a summary of the primary changes involving site structure, presentation, functionality and performance:

Fewer active themes
The previous site design provided over fifteen self-designed WordPress themes for visitors to change the look and feel of the site. Two years ago, when there were only two or three theme options, keeping everything organized and synchronized required a minimal amount of effort. However, with each successive theme addition, keeping track of everything required increasing amounts of work. For example, creating even one new category required manually editing several pages in each of fifteen different themes — around 50 file edits for a single category! After looking at the statistics, I realized that users were using only a few different themes — there was no need to carry all of that unnecessary baggage, so I dumped ‘em (for now). The alternate themes remain available for download, but are not currently available to customize the site.
Fewer active plugins
Another downside to running fifteen concurrent WordPress themes involved the sheer number of plugins required to facilitate their various functional requirements. As previously seen in the Site Dungeon, Perishable Press was using over 47 plugins. That is simply waay too many. Considering themes individually (not every plugin is used for any single theme), certain themes required an obscene 20 or more plugins to operate as intended. Granted, while first establishing the site a couple of years ago, I didn’t hesitate to use 20, 30, or even (at one point in time) as many as 50 plugins per theme. Like many a new WordPress user, I wanted it all — as many belles and whistles as I could possibly manage. Now, with a bit of experience under my belt, I am concerned less with all the latest trendy features and focused more on improved performance, faster loading times, and optimized page delivery.
Faster page loading time
God, in His infinite grace and wisdom, has blessed me with the wonderful gift of fiber-optic Internet connectivity. With a fiber optic line connected directly to my router, virtually any web page loads in the blink of an eye. Even the resource-intensive, bandwidth-hogging delivery of my site’s previous design, pages loaded instantaneously and changes were effective immediately. However, after several experiences surfing Perishable Press via alternate connections (e.g., dial-up, cell phone, DSL, et al), the relatively bloated composition of the previous configuration became painfully obvious. On average, visiting a page via the site’s previous theme (Optimized) required over 250 kilobytes of downloaded material. Ouch. To lighten the load, improvements have been made in many areas, including leaner markup, optimized images, compressed files, and fewer server requests. Additionally, a reconfigured htaccess strategy coupled with streamlined PHP functionality and a reduced number of plugins also help to speed things up.
Streamlined directory structure
As much fun as it has been developing this site and using it as an experimental laboratory for everything from htaccess and JavaScript to PHP and MySQL, the unplanned, rather spontaneous unfolding of the site’s architecture had resulted in a convoluted maze of chaotic proportions. This is why premeditated planning is so very important. If your site is going to be around for any length of time, it is absolutely critical to think beyond the immediate joys of free-form, undisciplined site development. Investigating my site after two years of such uncontrollable management, I was finding collections of files and subdirectories scattered everywhere! For example, I had theme images, post images, JavaScript, and even CSS files dispersed in multiple locations throughout the site. There were “secret” directories, subdirectories, symbolic links, and myriad external script implementations sprinkled about quite randomly, as if I had deliberately tried to confuse myself. And so, rather than postpone site restructuring for another two or three years (when it would be utterly overwhelming), I am tackling the problem now, before it’s too late.
Simplified file content
Last but not least, I have completely eliminated a ton of unnecessary and/or duplicate files. This especially applies to images, where many themes had been developed using similar images that were unfortunately called from countless different locations. There were also copious quantities of unused or obsolete files filling up several “private” directories, as well as numerous miscellaneous files that had somehow managed to build up over time. Of course, eliminating redundancy transcends mere files, involving everything from extraneous database tables (from deactivated/uninstalled plugins) and even unnecessary page links. Indeed, the goal for which I have been aiming involves reducing overall volume while increasing valuable content.

Of course, there is much more involved with the current renovation project, which I intend to discuss in upcoming posts (luck you). Now that I have identified and implemented these key points of renovation (e.g., WordPress-2.3 upgrade), I continue with the tedious process of correcting the inefficiency and chaos of previous site-development efforts. This is one of the downsides of learning new techniques and sharpening your skills: it requires you to continually rethink your previous work. For static projects, such as one-time client contracts, this is not so much of an issue because you aren’t confronted with inconsistencies and imperfections on a continual basis. For blogs and personal sites however, daily blogging and updating requires you to constantly rethink current strategies as your knowledge and abilities increase.

One of the benefits I have already reaped from the site overhaul was the ability to upgrade WordPress from 2.0 to 2.3 with minimal fuss. Before simplifying the site, upgrading to even 2.1 would have devastatingly crashed the site. For example, the most recent upgrade attempt (from version 2.0 to 2.1) utterly failed, requiring immediate rollback to remedy the nightmare. Yesterday, I am happy to report, the WordPress-2.3 upgrade went rather well (it may have taken all day, but that’s another post). With the new site configuration, the process of staying current with the rapidly evolving WordPress platform has been greatly facilitated.

Once the site renovation project is 100% complete (hopefully within the next few weeks), Perishable Press will provide a completely new user experience: simple, clean, and fresh. Functionally, the site will employ fewer scripts and less code to achieve better, faster performance requiring a minimal amount of resources. Structurally, the site will be stripped down to the core, which will be completely streamlined and reorganized to maximize efficiency and simplify long-term manageability. Aesthetically, Perishable Press will feature a more chilled-out, laid-back, minimalistic theme that emphasizes content, usability, and accessibility. Throw a new version of WordPress into the mix, along with a host of new articles, and you have yourself an inspiring journey toward our second anniversary and yet another exciting revolution in the life of Perishable Press.