Remaking my online world


How I went from this:

old scottmacdonaldphotography

to this:

new scottmacdonaldphotography

and this:

new scottmacdonaldweddings

I started out 2009 with a plan to redesign my website. My previous website, generously built by my cousin Chad (who does beautiful letterpress printing in San Francisco), had served me well for years, but it was time to make some changes.

But I didn’t really know what kind of changes I wanted. After some tentative steps in January, my efforts were largely abandoned, because 2009 turned out to be a pretty busy year.

Let’s see: Amber and I planned our wedding, got married, booked our honeymoon and spent three weeks in Italy. We moved to a new city, San Jose. I joined a new band and went on a brief tour with my old band. All this while working a full-time job and trying to remain sane. Busy year.

I came home from honeymoon with my head full of ideas about what I wanted my new websites to be. I knew I didn’t want a Flash-based website: Chad always warned against that approach, plus I had read all the PhotoShelter information that preached the no-flash gospel. But I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted it to be.

The day after I return from honeymoon I see that Photoshelter is offering a webinar called “Websites of the Future: The Future is Now.” I sign right up.

Much of what Grover presented in the webinar I had already heard, because I’m an avid reader of all things Photoshelter (I’m a nerd, what can I say?). He reinforced some key concepts: your website should be easily found by search engines, it should generate money for you, it’s a marketing tool, etc. Great information, sure, but the last few minutes of the webinar were pure gold.

Grover showed a few websites that were really making these concepts work. Ami Vitale’s website. Olson&Farlow. Jack Gruber. And he recommended a company that builds Wordpress themes that can accomplish this: Graph Paper Press.

I left the webinar with a much better idea of what to do.

The next day, Photoshelter announced a partnership with Graph Paper Press. I signed right up.

My plan was this: I would have two separate sites, one for my wedding photography and one for my editorial photography. They would both integrate with my Photoshelter archive, which would serve as a bridge between the two. I would use Wordpress to power both of my websites and Graph Paper Press themes to give them their look and functionality. My Photoshelter site would be customized for seamless integration with both sites. And I would use Photoshelter to serve images to both sites, using Graph Paper Press’ Photoshelter plugin.

So here’s the part of the process where I started to run into problems. The beginning.

I decided to build my new weddings site first, using it as a testing ground for Wordpress stuff and Graph Paper Press themes. No one would notice as I messed with it because no one would know it existed. I shopped around for web hosting and found that searching for reviews of web hosting services is like looking into a black hole of trickery and deception: Web hosts set up fake review sites to pump up their own services and tear down the competition. I’ve yet to find a reputable, unbiased source for reviews of web hosting companies. If someone knows of one, let me know in the comments.

So after reading forums and being thoroughly confused, I threw my hands up and went for FatCow: Cheap and wind-powered. What the hell.

Well, they were slow as molasses. I’d make a change in my Wordpress control panel and I could go get a cup of coffee by the time it had finished thinking about it. So I ditched them and went with WestHost. The speed increase was dramatic and immediate. One problem solved.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to think up a really catchy name for my wedding photography business. Something clever and awesome. I settle on a name and find that the URL is for sale. Sweet. I make a modest first offer and get a counter offer in the $20,000 range. My counter offer brought him down only to the $10,000 range. And that was the end of that. Scott MacDonald Weddings it is.

All the while, I’m working with my Graph Paper Press theme, tweaking it, trying out content, learning about Wordpress and the code that’s driving the site. I loved the look of Jack Gruber’s site, so I chose the On Assignment theme, a child theme for GPP’s flagship Modularity. I was told that his site was built on this theme.

(During all my poking around inside people’s code, I discovered that Jack Gruber’s site wasn’t really running the On Assignment theme. It uses a theme called “Jack Gruber,” likely built for him by someone who’s a million times better at web design than I am.)

So my new site was starting to look good, but I was encountering a few bugs in the themes. Graph Paper Press’s support was good about helping to straighten them out — GPP maintains a robust forum and their small staff attempts to answer all questions within 12 hours.

Here’s where I have to give my mixed review of Graph Paper Press. I love the look of their themes and the functionality behind them. They’re powerful and flexible and beautiful. But unfortunately, my experience has been that their offerings don’t work exactly as advertised right out of the box. Most of the bugs were small, just little things.

But the big bug, the one that still hasn’t been worked out, is the Photoshelter integration plugin. The plugin that’s at the heart of the partnership between the two companies, the one that would allow me to only have to upload my photos one time, then serve them out from Photoshelter to my various websites. It never worked for me, and it seems like it never worked for most users. The staff of Graph Paper Press is still working out the bugs. In the meantime, they’ve released a beta version that requires users to open their sites to a dangerous security risk.

However, I’m confident that the staff of Graph Paper Press is dong the right things to get this fixed, and to their credit, they’ve offered to extend users’ subscriptions because of the problems. Bravo!

The other big part of the GPP/Photoshelter partnership involved an automated process for customizing your Photoshelter site to look like your GPP blog. Just enter your site url into a form at Photoshelter and Presto! This didn’t work for me, but it was likely my fault, because I had been messing around with the code in my theme. A couple helpful forum posts at GPP and Photoshelter guided me through the process of copying the correct code into my Photoshelter custom theme.

So the design process took a lot longer than I hoped it would. Through the magic of the Web Developer and Firebug plugins for Firefox — as well as good ol’ “view source” — I was able to figure out what was going wrong on my own site, what was going right on other people’s sites, and rework my code.

I want to stress that I don’t regret signing up for Graph Paper Press and using their themes. Their themes are great, and I have faith that the issues with the Photoshelter plugin will get worked out. Plus, it’s a bargain. I recommend them. Just be prepared to do some learning.

I’ve done a lot of learning recently — reading the Wordpress codex, scouring the GPP forums, editing css, poking around in phpMyAdmin, editing my htaccess file … really nerdy stuff. But I’m better off for it, although I would’ve rather skipped the nerdy learny stuff and had the sites launched a few weeks ago.

During this design process, I started getting my photography business into the world of social media, setting up a Twitter account and fan pages on Facebook for both my wedding photography and editorial photography sites. I also signed up for MailChimp as a way to create and manage newsletters.

Once my wedding site was designed, it wasn’t hard to integrate the design into my main photography site and make it all work with my Photoshelter site.

I’ve still got a lot of work to do, with marketing and SEO and stocking my Photoshelter archive with images. But today, about two months after starting this process, I’m happy to announce the launch of my redesigned websites.

Enjoy.

2 Responses to “Remaking my online world”

  1. Thad says:

    Chris

    Thanks for the overview and the feedback. I’m curious to know what didn’t work for you “out of the box” with our themes? They should, but if you found a bug, by all means we will squash it. ;-)

    A few of your points need clarification:

    *The current beta version of the plugin is being totally reworked by a leading Wordpress developer. He literally wrote the Wordpress Bible. Literally, it’s available for presale on Amazon. The new plugin should be available in the next two weeks.

    *”The plugin that’s at the heart of the partnership between the two companies” – Not exactly. PhotoShelter approached us months ago about integrating our designs with their service. We agreed. “Integration” is first and foremost design integration. I decided to take it a few steps further and develop plugins that taps into their API to allow users to pull in photos, galleries, seamless navigation, and PS search widgets into Wordpress. This was added as a bonus for users. I can see how that the plugin concept could be interpreted as the cornerstone of “integration” largely because it is the most complex piece of “integration” if you ask me. But that said, the plugin was always considered a mere bonus, and not part of our original integration plans. The plugin will be released as GPL, so, any software developer can build on top of our code.

    Anyway, your site looks great and I appreciate the feedback.

    Thad
    http://graphpaperpress.com

  2. scott says:

    Hey, Thad. Thanks for the feedback.

    You’re right, I definitely interpreted the add media plugin as the cornerstone of the GPP/Photoshelter partnership because it’s so complex. The design integration piece did seem like the other big part of it, but I hadn’t previously read that the plugins were added as a bonus. Anyway, I’m glad to hear about the work going on with the plugin. Like I said, I know you guys are doing the right things to get it worked out.

    Let me restate that I’m a fan of your company and your themes and I’m glad I went with you guys. I’m recommending you to other people, as well. I know there were a couple things in my blog post that weren’t entirely positive, but I wanted to give people a complete and honest overview of my process in building these sites. But overall, count me a happy customer.

    thanks,
    -scott

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