1. What is a PHP Developer?

    PHP is one of the many acronyms you may hear as you surf the inner-workings of the web world. Originally standing for ‘Personal Home Page’, it now stands for ‘Hypertext Preprocessor’. In short, it’s a server-side programming language for websites and other applications. It’s the language you can’t ‘see’, but drives the content on many of the websites we view everyday.

    Server side language? Huh?

    Websites are just files and other related content residing on a computer. Yes, just a computer. It may be a bit fancier than the laptop you are reading this on right now, but web servers are just computers connected to the internet, serving the content we see as ‘websites’. I don’t want to get too far down that trail as far as explaining that, but for now that’s the simple explanation. Some of you may have seen the ‘View Source’ option in your web browser, which will show you the HTML code behind a web page. This is the part of the code that determines how you see a website. It is the presentation code which tells your computer how to interpret and style the site’s text, images, etc… HTML essentially ‘runs’ on your computer. PHP is code that is only executed on the server, and generates HTML or performs other tasks such as database interaction, complex calculations, and the like.

    Think of PHP as the man behind the curtain – without him most sites would not be possible. They would also have to be hand-written in HTML, which in many cases would be unmanageable. PHP saves us hours and hours of time when building sites, as things can written one time be re-used throughout the site.

    Now that you have a basic idea what PHP is, let’s talk about PHP developers.

    Dealing in abstractions

    Since most PHP code is either digging content out of a database, or calculating an eCommerce purchase, or showing a report of some kind, the language is not written so it makes much sense to a layperson. ‘Jibberish’ is a term often used when a client accidentally runs across some raw PHP. Best described as a way for programming concepts to take place, PHP is only obligated to perform it’s utilitarian function in the most efficient way possible, then go back into it’s little cave. The developer’s job is to find ways to write code that runs quickly, accurately, and makes sense to the next developer tasked with working on the site. ‘Best Practices’ is a frequently used term in the coding world – meaning nothing more than following standard conventions with coding technique. If you’re the only one who understands your code, maybe it’s overly complex. A good PHP developer writes lean, mean code that does the job and makes sense to his or her colleagues.

    The abstraction of a server-side language can vary from extremely vague class references (classes are re-usable pieces of code) to arcane object-oriented methods that rely on external code or libraries of pre-written PHP, which may not necessarily even be seen directly by the developer. There are many popular libraries like CodeIgniter, Laravel, Zend, and many more. These are fully-functional frameworks that provide most of the heavy-lifting for PHP applications, which developers can use as a code base to build larger, more complex applications or sites. To be a well-rounded PHP developer, you have to familiarize yourself with these frameworks and learn how to interact with them, as you will no doubt run into them on a project if you do enough coding work. These frameworks can seem overly abstract to a beginning developer, but as one gains knowledge and skill, the value of these coding libraries really becomes apparent, and the time saved is priceless.

    If you have a website that was created in the last decade, chances are you have a site that uses PHP. All of the WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, and similar sites use PHP exclusively, and when things go wrong it is important to have a knowledgeable developer available to work on them. As the web evolves, older sites using PHP need to be updated as well, as coding conventions are deprecated and new methods need to be used to accommodate the changing web server environments. Often there will be little things that just mysteriously stop working on a site, often because the web hosting company deployed an update that isn’t compatible with your site code. A good developer can find these incompatibilities and fix them using modern coding tactics.

    So, on your next web project, or even your current site, don’t forget the man behind the curtain – remember that humble jibberish we call PHP!

  2. Do You Need a Web Designer or a Web Developer?

    I get this question every once in a while – and some people don’t even realize there is a difference! Sure, ‘web designer’ is a pretty generic term, or is it? Here’s how the word ‘design’ is defined (the verb):

    design definition

    To translate this to website design: a designer conceptualizes the look & feel of a site, then hands it over to a developer to build. So, the essential roles are this: A web designer comes up with the graphics, the layout, the where and how of the site, and the web developer writes the code to make it all happen. If you have a design, or someone that is going to design the site for you, then you probably need a good developer. On the other hand, if you have someone who writes great code, but can’t draw a stick-figure, you probably need a good designer.

    Can’t you just do both?

    Sure, some folks do both – design and development, but there is usually a division of duties on larger projects as doing both can become daunting. Having a person (or persons) dedicated to each role can help a project stay on schedule and keep decisions from having to fall on one person. That division of labor often makes for a better end result. A good designer will often push for something that a developer initially thinks he or she can’t do – and if the decision was solely theirs to make, the feature would often be skipped, at the expense of the overall site design and/or function.

    Do I really need a designer for a small business website?

    Yes. Maybe that designer is also the developer, but you definitely need someone with a sense of design, both aesthetically and functionally. Aesthetically for the overall look and design, functionally for how the site ‘flows’ and presents the information. Many times a business owner will hire a developer to build their site ‘because they can build websites’ and the end result is well, embarrassing. These days, it really isn’t enough to ‘just have a website out on the internet’ – you really need to make a good first impression, as most people’s first look at your business is via your website.

    But we can just buy a WordPress theme – Anybody can build a site with those, right?

    No. No matter how ‘simple’ your site is, even with an ‘idiot-proof’ WordPress theme, you are probably going to end up needing a developer either to bail you out of a completely botched-up WordPress site attempt, or at the very least there will be some sort of little change that needs to be carried out by someone with coding experience. Many designers make this mistake – thinking they can just adapt an off-the-shelf theme to the project at hand, but eventually find themselves handcuffed by the theme’s limitations. Hello Real Developer!

    Thoroughly screen your candidates for a website project.

    When you are shopping for a firm to build your website, make sure you ask them up front: “Will you be designing and developing the site, or will others be involved?” If one person is to do both, make sure you see samples of their work where they did the design – not just the development. And if you are hiring a developer, ask for references from designers they have worked with – you need to know if they can work well with others on a project. Also ask them if they will be using a pre-built theme. This is becoming more and more common…so instead of a truly custom-designed site, you’re getting a cookie-cutter template and they may even charge you the same price! Don’t be afraid to ask.

  3. How HTML Can Effect Your SEO

    So you have a website, you hire a hot-shot web designer to redesign it, make it look modern and cool and up-to-date, but you’re just not getting the search engine ranking you hoped for. Sound familiar? The reason may be simpler than you think.

    Semantic Code? What is That?

    Mention that term to your web designer – if they don’t know what it means, run! Semantic code is a fundamental aspect of building proper web pages, but even in 2013 I see sites all over the place that have poorly-written HTML, not utilizing the correct HTML tags where they should, etc… A properly coded web page will get better search results than an improperly coded one, and it’s for very simple reasons.

    HTML is Not Just Style and Positioning

    HTML as a coding language is really intended to describe the content on your pages to whatever is reading it – meaning a web browser like Chrome, IE, Firefox, Safari, or some of the screen readers for the visually impaired. If these browsers can properly interpret your content, your site visitors will have a better experience. If your site is not using semantic HTML, the browsers can have trouble interpreting the pages properly, which takes away from that experience.

    The impact on SEO from all of this can also be an issue, since search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing and others use ‘web bots’ to scan and interpret the pages on your site. Again, if your content is ‘described’ correctly using good semantic HTML code, the web bots can get the full meaning of your content – not get tripped up because an amateur web developer didn’t know their basic HTML!

    Examples Please!!

    So what is the basic idea behind describing the content with HTML? Here are some really simple things to remember about HTML and web content:

    • Each piece of information on your site needs to be ‘Marked Up’ with HTML tags, like book-ends.

    For example, if I have a top-level heading, I use an <H1> tag, then the heading text, then a ‘closing tag': </H1> Very simple concept…the tag tells the browser that my heading is the top-level heading on the page (hence the H1, instead of H2, H3, H4, etc…) If my page has other headings, I can use the H2, H3, H4, H5, and H6 tags to describe them according to their place in the page hierarchy.

    • Each piece of information on your site needs a start and end tag.

    This one little rule accounts for most of the ‘Oh no my site is messed up!’ calls I get. If someone leaves off the closing tag on a sentence or other piece of content, the formatting can get all kinds of messed up. Always remember that the tags are like book-ends – there must be one at the beginning and one at the end of each unique item on the page. This tells the browser exactly where each piece starts and ends. Simple huh?

    • If it Looks Like a duck, it’s probably a duck…Use the appropriate tag for each piece of content!

    Here is another one that trips up the neophyte web coder…trying to use fancy markup in place of the (usually simple) and most appropriate tag is a bad idea. If you have a basic paragraph of text, use a <p> (paragraph) tag! If it is a list, use the <ul> or <ol> tags for ‘list’. It really is pretty straightforward, but so many get it wrong. Using a styled <div> tag for a paragraph is misleading…always use the appropriate tag to describe the content. If you have a numbered list, don’t add numbers to <p> tags – just use a <ol> tag (ordered list). Simple!

    How Do You Learn all of the HTML Tags?

    For the most part, you don’t have to learn them all – unless you do this for a living, in which case you better hit the books! But really, there aren’t that many to learn for day-to-day usage, and there are plenty of websites where you can learn HTML. If you maintain the content on your blog or a small website, you should only have a few main tags that you would ever really use, such as h1, h2, p, ul, li, strong, and a few others. For normal web site editing, it’s a small number of ‘everyday’ tags that will get you through. Knowing them and properly implementing them can help you increase your SEO and ensure that your site visitors get the most out of your content.

    So How Does HTML Effect SEO?

    Keeping the above tips in mind about using the appropriate tag for each section of your site, you can start to see how a search engine would use those tags to interpret pages. If you have a page about ‘Photographing Wild Birds in Wetlands’, you probably should put that term in your <H1> tag. This establishes that text as the main focus of the page. Any subsequent headings would use H2, H3, H4 accordingly, giving them heading (important text) status, but in the proper order according to importance on the page. It just helps the search engine know how relevant the information is on that page. If someone searches for ‘Photographing Wild Birds in Wetlands’, Google will see that you have a whole page devoted to that topic by seeing the H1 tag, then analyzing the paragraphs on the page, plus the subheadings, etc… to determine that yes, this page indeed contains relevant content for this person’s search query. It’s obviously much more complicated than that, but on the surface it really is that simple.

    Don’t Forget the Page Title and Description Tags

    Another tag many developers fail to utilize is the <title> tag. For each page on your site, you should have a unique title. This lets the search engines know the general content contained on the page, and it is usually the text that shows in the search results. Make sure you accurately describe the page content in your title, don’t make the mistake of just putting the website name in there! The ‘description’ meta tag is also used in the search results, under your title tag…so be sure to include unique description tags for each page as well. A web developer or designer who omits these important tags is not dong their job completely – always make sure they are being used.

    Need to have your site checked for proper HTML usage? Contact me for a site assessment and I will see how things look. Sometimes it’s easy to increase your search ranking by large margin just by tweaking some basic tags and getting things where they should have been in the first place! Sloppy HTML code accounts for many SEO and design issues on the web – don’t let it kill your search ranking!

  4. Is WordPress Just for Blogs?

    This is a question that comes up often – “Isn’t WordPress just for blog sites?” The short answer is: No. The more elaborate answer takes us into what makes a good CMS (content management system) platform. This is an issue that comes up for each website project, regardless of the project’s end result. Choosing the right platform can mean either smooth sailing or endless headaches right from the start.

    A CMS needs to be user-friendly

    When starting any web project, the decision needs to be made as to which CMS to build upon. Every developer will have a favorite, and part of the decision should be based on which system best accommodates the project. That being said, I always consider the client’s need to maintain and edit the site once I hand it over. If they can easily make changes and manage the site, it’s a win-win for both of us. If I hand over a site that is complicated and hard to update, the client isn’t happy, and the site will ultimately suffer since nobody will want to maintain the content.

    WordPress as a blank slate

    One of the requirements for any good CMS is versatility. WordPress is built on a codebase that offers a wide variety of functions for the developer to leverage when adding features to a site. Many of the custom-programmed add-ons that would normally require many hours of development time are available in WordPress as ‘plugins’. These save the developer time and the client money…’win-win’ again.

    Many CMS systems have much more built-in functionality than a site may need – we call this ‘bloat’…which can possibly slow down the site’s performance and make things difficult to troubleshoot when things go wrong. With WordPress you have the ability to trim down the functionality for the theme you are building – choosing exactly which features to load and not load, which can speed things up considerably and clean up an otherwise bloated coding environment. The less junk a developer has to wade through to find things, the better.

    So why is WordPress primarily known as a blogging tool?

    When blogging became very popular, developers were constantly getting tasked with jobs that required building a blog platform, often from scratch, or using frameworks that we built for other projects and re-used on others. There was a huge need for a standard, flexible platform that could offer the functionality needed and reduce the time for creating a site. WordPress managed to rise to the top of this heap pretty quickly, because of it’s fairly simple architecture and ability to adapt to the client’s needs. It’s theme architecture also made it easy to change the look of a site while maintaining the core content.

    As the WordPress platform matured, developers quickly started finding that they could use WordPress for other types of sites then just blogs. Most websites have a set of basic functions that every developer will use, from logins and user accounts to email, syndication via RSS, social media integration, etc… Any good CMS will have these basic functions built-in, as well as allow the developer to add custom functionality on top of the existing code without actually altering the codebase. This way the core system can be updated without overwriting the changes and modifications added to it. Plus, the changes will be written in a way that any developer worth his salt can step in and understand the code, make changes or edit as needed.

    This all brings me to my last thought on the matter – will WordPress eventually branch off into a system that is not so ‘blog-centric’? Will developers push to create a system that runs on the same general platform as WordPress, but does not lean towards a blog site? It does seem like a good idea…perhaps there will be two versions, or at least an option within the package that tunes it either way. The future should be interesting indeed!

  5. WordPress – Sites Made Simple – Or Complex

    Wordpress web design - you need it

    If you are looking for a tutorial on how to build a WordPress site, this may not be a great article for you. On the other hand, if you want a quick overview of how WordPress has become one of the web’s most popular site platforms, read on.

    I develop many different types of sites, and my web development background is a variegated menagerie of technologies, all chosen for some reason or another, but the web has come a long way since I started playing around with HTML in the 90’s. In all this time very few CMS (content management systems) have had the impact that WordPress has had, and its appeal to web developers of all skill levels is something unique indeed. WordPress has proven itself to be a solid platform for a site, with the flexibility to run right out of the box with hardly any modification, or undergo extensive custom development and personalization.

    The Hardest Part of a Web Project

    In the good ol’ days, a custom web project required building a back-end system that allowed the non-developer site admin to edit or add content. Creating this system from scratch was a bear of a task, requiring all of the forms, logins, database interactions, error handling and other admin functionality to be designed and coded from the ground up, which took hours and hours of development time. All of the time (and money) was spent building this low-level functionality, while the cool stuff that could have been added to the public-facing web pages was sidelined. This made these types of sites cost-prohibitive for small businesses and only available to large corporate firms or other deep-pocket clients. Well, systems like WordPress have changed all of that. Not only is the core system free, most of the add-ons available are free and offer solid solutions to most any website requirements like mailing list signups, social media integration, video and audio presentation, and much more. All of the low-level stuff is built-in! No need to hire a team of developers for 300 hours to build a bunch of stuff nobody will ever see. This brings us to the next question…

    Why is WordPress Free?

    WordPress is an ‘Open-Source’ piece of software, which means it allows users to access the core code and modify it or develop their own contributions to it freely. But wait, you say—Anyone and everyone can access the files on my site and change them?? No…it means the software, once in a developer’s possession, can be modified and customized as needed for THEIR application. The core code of WordPress is maintained and updated by the ‘official’ team of developers that contribute to the project. All changes to the core are evaluated and verified before they make it into a ‘release’ or update of the core framework. This keeps the system more secure and up-to-date since there are thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of expert eyes on the code. Any weakness or inefficiency in the code is sniffed out and optimized. This is a HUGE benefit of the project being ‘Open-Source’.

    So Why Should a Small Business Use WordPress?

    Here is a brief (by no means complete) list of reasons:

    1. It’s Free
    2. It supports user-friendly content edits and updates – it’s simple to update
    3. It has a very flexible and customizable theming system (for visual design)
    4. Most web designers and developers know the system and how to build upon it.
    5. It’s Free (this is worth mentioning twice)
    6. It runs on the most common web server platform (Apache/PHP/MySQL)
    7. There are zillions of free plug-ins and add-ons created by pro developers
    8. It has very good built-in SEO and can be made even better with free plug-ins
    9. WordPress can be custom programmed to accommodate nearly any website requirement
    10. It doesn’t require a huge investment in proprietary hardware or software.

    Why Should a Large Corporation Use WordPress?

    Read the list above – all of those reasons are valid for big companies, but there are some other reasons that may also apply:

    1. WordPress supports ‘multi site’ functionality, or sites-within-sites.
    2. The system is used by many notable companies, such as CNN, Reuters, Forbes, New York Times, Ebay, GM
    3. Sites can grow to hundreds of thousands of pages with no problem
    4. Tons of people use it, and there are answers for most every problem
    5. WordPress sites are more secure than many large-scale corporate systems, and can be made even more secure.
    6. WP offers multiple admin roles, which means varying access levels for different users or departments
    7. It doesn’t require a huge investment in proprietary hardware or software.

    I could go on, but I’m not here to dote on WordPress….well maybe a little, but only because it’s truly a fantastic platform for designing and building websites. From the very simple to the infinitely complex, WP can handle most anything you throw at it, and it just keeps getting better.

    For WordPress development services, drop me an email or a phone call and let’s talk about how WordPress can save you time, money and boost your online presence.

  6. Why Redesign Your Site?

    First off, great websites don’t always start out that way. Many websites go through dozens of revisions before they even get launched. Many internet-savvy businesses keep their site updated and redesign every year or so, adding little improvements each time. On the other hand, some companies rush to get something out on the web, then they neglect it with the attitude ‘build it and they will come’ (regardless of the content and design!) Don’t make this mistake!

    Websites are like fruit – people like them best when they’re fresh

    An old tired website says a lot about your business, at least to the visitor who only knows you from their first visit to your site. After all, first impressions leave lasting memories. It can make the difference between a valuable customer and a lost lead.

    After a site has been up for a while, you are certain to hear some feedback (good and bad) from your customers. Listen to them with an open mind – not that you have to rush to change every little thing one person doesn’t like, but if you hear the same complaints over and over again, you can be pretty sure it’s worth changing. And likewise, listen to the compliments and be sure to maintain the things people DO like about your site. How many times have you used a program or website that was updated and now lacks some convenient feature the old version had? Those people probably weren’t listening to their customers!

    If you let your site just sit on the web and don’t tend to it regularly, it will become stale and your search ranking will plummet. Search engines like fresh content too.

    The Web Redesign Process – Where to Start?

    So where do you start? If you don’t do this everyday, a redesign may seem like a daunting task. Never fear, it just takes some planning to put the right pieces together. First, assess the current site and find the strong and weak aspects.

    Site Assessment Top 10 List

    • Instant Site Identification on Every page
    • Good use of whitespace – not cluttered and crowded looking
    • Navigation is clear and intuitive
    • Site displays on various browsers and screen sizes
    • Contact info is prominent
    • Overall design caters to target audience
    • Fonts are sized and styled to fit the design
    • No reliance on 3rd party plugins or extra software to view site
    • Strong ‘call to action’ used (prompting user to do something)
    • Pages use consistent design and format throughout site

    These are the simplest of issues we want to look for when assessing a site’s design. This is of course just the tip of the iceberg in terms of evaluating a site, but many of the key improvements in any redesign can be traced to one of these 10 items. Keeping your list simple will help keep the redesign effort focused and help prevent things getting bogged down in details that may not add value to the project.

    Old Sites Are Like Closets

    Sites that have been up and running for years without a full redesign can be like old cluttered closets or garages – things are added and piled up, but never taken away. A redesign is a great opportunity to clean out the junk that accumulates over time. Users like simplicity and clear layout, not a maze of clutter. When doing your site evaluation, find which pieces are essential and lose the rest. It probably won’t be missed!

    To sum up, it takes some planning and tough decisions to make a redesign project work, but it is essential to do this regularly. Just letting your site sit on the web will do very little for your business and the ROI can be great. It also shows your customers or visitors that you care about them and their experience on your site.

    If you need some help getting started, contact me today and I will make sure your site stays fresh!