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. 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!

  3. Free HTML and CSS Validation – Use It!

    One of the most important aspects to creating a website is making sure the pages can be interpreted by most web browsing software, like Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and others. Of course all of these browsers have a number of different versions being used, which creates all sorts of issues for web developers in terms of making their sites compatible with all of the versions. While your site may look OK in IE7, it may fall apart in IE6, or look a little off in Chrome. This is usually due to the way these browsers interpret HTML and CSS code. Even though there have been huge efforts to standardize HTML, (W3C) there are still plenty of differences in browsers and the way they display web pages. But, the cause of most web page problems is due to sloppy HTML or CSS code, which is usually easy to troubleshoot.

    Where to Start When Troubleshooting Web Pages

    The simplest way to troubleshoot the code web pages are built on is to make sure it conforms to the W3C standard. While there is some debate about whether having pages ‘validate’ or not is really necessary, there is no doubt that the validator can find mistakes in both HTML and CSS, which can save you hours of searching for bone-headed coding errors. The W3C Validator should be your first stop on the road to troubleshooting code. If the site is live on the web, just paste the page link right into the validator, or if it is not live, just copy & paste the generated HTML right into the validator’s ‘Direct Input’ form. It will scrutinize your HTML and find any non-standard conventions, mistakes, or just typos, etc…

    Use the Custom Options

    A handy feature of the validator is the ‘More Options’ section – this allows you to fine-tune the results for your needs. Checking the ‘Show Outline’ box will give you an overview of the page’s structure to make sure you are using H1, H2, H3 tags correctly. This is a big help for SEO. The ‘Show Source’ option allows you to see the errors right in your original code. It’s like having a paper graded by your elementary school teacher!

    More Options in the W3c Validator

    The ‘Verbose Output’ option will give more details than you probably wanted, but the suggestions are helpful and you might learn something new.

    Don’t Forget the CSS Stylesheets

    The other important part of the validation system allows you to check your CSS code. It is very easy to overlook some of the obscure syntax (or even the not so obscure!) when writing stylesheets. Just paste a link, upload a file, or copy the code straight in – the validator will do the rest and let you know if there are any mistakes. It will also show any warnings for non-standard code.

    Just like the HTML validator, the CSS checker gives you options, even allowing you to validate against different versions of CSS – VERY helpful if you are writing mobile apps or web pages. Clicking the ‘More Options’ link will open a little dialog with the following dropdown for ‘Profile':

    More options for CSS validation

    The ‘Medium’ selections will even allow you to validate based on the intended viewing medium…screen, projector, print, braille, handheld, etc… Pretty cool!

    Save Time and Just Check It!

    It seems like a no-brainer, right? Just run your code through the W3C service and get quick, accurate results, which will save time and money. Best of all, it is free…and won’t confiscate your chewing gum.

    HTML Validation

    CSS Validator