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Six Must-Have Plugins for WordPress

I’ve seen quite a bit of change in WordPress, as a content management system, in the past three years, but one thing has stayed the same. The power of the open-source community to create plugins. Plugins can be your best friend, but they can also create problems if you choose the wrong ones. To add a crucial bit of functionality, provide search engine optimization, or take your site to the next level, the proper plugin is a panacea (for my friends of alliteration!).

Here are six plugins I install on almost every project.

1) BackupBuddy

You’ve put your heart and soul into your personal blog, or you’re investing time creating a business website for a client … either way, you don’t want to lose all that work. BackupBuddy is a premium plugin that’s worth the price. From within the WordPress Dashboard, you can backup your entire site with one click. Not just the database, but also the themes, widgets, and plugins as well. And if you’re switching hosts, restoring the site in a new location is simple and straight-forward. You can find out more about BackupBuddy and all the cool plugins at the PluginBuddy marketplace here (affiliate link).

2) Google Sitemap XML

This free plugin creates and submits your sitemap to Google and all the top search engines. The plugin creates a special XML sitemap, which makes it easier for the crawlers to see the complete structure of your site and retrieve it more efficiently. The plugin indexes all your pages as well as custom URLs. Once you’ve activated the plugin, it will notify all major search engines of new content every time you create a post. Find out more here.

3) Gravity Forms

Even if you’re just creating a simple form for your contact page, Gravity Forms is a great option. But if you’re wanting to create complex forms, collect contact information for a directory, develop your own surveys, and more … all without coding a single line, there’s really no other comparable choice. It is loaded with features: an easy-to-use visual editor, conditional fields, multi-page forms, and the ability to integrate with popular online services like Freshbooks, Mailchimp, Twilio, and AWeber. The styling is great out of the box — simple look and seamless integration with WordPress.

Click here to learn more about Gravity Forms (affiliate link).

4) ShareThis

Make it easy for your visitors to share your content. This is probably in the top ten commandments of blogging and internet marketing. ShareThis is a free plugin that allows users to share your content through email or any one of 50 social networks including the biggees: Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon and Google+. It’s easy to choose the placement of the share buttons on your blog post and you can choose from 4 different display types — big and small buttons, counters or no counters. If you register and create an account with ShareThis, you’re able to customize the widget on your site and get access to enhanced analytics for your shares. Here it is in the WordPress Plugin Directory.

5) Genesis Simple Sidebars

Now, this one only works if you’re developing your site on the Genesis framework (affiliate link). For the last 18 months or so, this is where I start every new WordPress site. If you’re a beginner or experienced developer, I highly recommend this secure and search engine optimized framework (they also have the best support forums I’ve ever experienced!).

Back to Simple Sidebars. This free plugin is the quickest and easiest way to have different sidebars on different pages within your site. Want to highlight some things on your “About” page but have a completely different set of widgets on your Blog sidebar? This is the plugin to do it. I almost always have 2-3 different sidebars for calls-to-action and different cross-linking, but on one project in 2011, I pushed this plugin to the limit and created 30 different sidebars for kix.com.

6) Slickr Flickr

This is a great free plugin for integrating your photos from Flickr. Slickr Flickr has everything I like in a WordPress plugin: a user interface that’s easy to navigate, ample instructions within the Dashboard (and the plugin website has even more, if you want to take the plugin further), and light-weight functionality — it doesn’t bog down your site in the least. You can easily have an unbranded set of thumbnails or an unbranded running slideshow in your sidebar or within your page content by inserting a shortcode. It comes with ready integration with Lightbox display and you can add Galeria display options fairly easily. Check it out in the WordPress Plugin Directory here.

So, what about you?  Which plugins are essential for a great WordPress site?  I’d love to hear from you and find out what I missed — let me hear from you in the comments.

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Website Design Questionnaire: Setting the stage for designer and client

One of the most helpful tools I’ve found in discovering a customer’s design preferences and managing expectations is a good questionnaire.  Preferably these questions get asked in person with a browser open between you so you can navigate to sites that are complimentary with or competitors of your new client.  However, there’s no reason it can’t happen with an online form.

web design, client satisfaction, designer expectations, web design questionnaireThe key is asking the right questions.  And I still think I’m on the journey to the perfect questionnaire!  So, calling all web designers or anyone who has had their website (re)designed recently:  let’s construct the perfect design questionnaire! Here what I work with at the moment to gather information …

14 Prompts I Give the Customer

1) Tell us about your organization Include the full name, correct spelling, possible abbreviations, the common name to be used throughout the site, etc.

No rocket science here, but you need this info!

2) Does your organization have a formulated mission or vision statement? If you have a slogan or tag-line, please include it here also.

3) What makes you who you are? List the main points of your marketing message, your strengths, your value proposition, and anything else you’d like your audience to know about you.

Notice I haven’t asked them anything about the website yet.  Just trying to get them to talk about their organization, their brand. In a subtle way, I hope this sets an expectation for them that the website is not separate from the company’s overall vision.

4) Describe your ideal customer? Include things like age, sex, social status, income etc. — we want to know all about your target audience.

5) What are your goals for your website?

I wonder if a better way of asking this would be something like, “List 3 goals for your website”?  This would keep it from being so open-ended … What do you think?

6) How will your target audience use the site? In other words, what are the key reasons a visitor might have for coming to the site?

I want to know as much as possible about their perception of their ideal site visitor.

7) Help us understand the “look and feel” you have in mind.

Here, I give the following options and ask them to choose which ones fit:

Conservative corporate look
Bright and vibrant color solutions
Photo-driven design, using color photos that represent your organization
Positive, optimistic feel creating a happy mood
Minimalist, functionality-driven design
Calm, strict design with black and white photos

 

8) List 5 websites that you like. These can be competitors or complimentary businesses or just websites you find appealing. Be sure to include an explanation of why you like them.

To me, this is the most important questions I ask.  I’m tempted to ask for even more examples — 7 or 8?  Especially if you’re able to talk personally with the client, this surfing around to various websites helps gauge their design preferences.

9) What colors would you like to see incorporated into the site design?

If they give good feedback on number 8, this question can be redundant, or less important.  But it’s always good to know if they’re dead-set on using lime green somewhere on the site!

10) If you are doing a re-design, what elements from your current site do you wish to keep?

Good to know if there are any “sacred cows” from the previous design.

11) If you are doing a re-design, what elements from your current site do you wish to keep?

12) Do you have a logo? Can you provide us with the original design files? Sometimes these are called “layered files,” or “vector files.” Common file extensions are “.eps” or “.ai”

One of the biggest hang-ups I’ve encountered working with small businesses is that they don’t have the original files from their logo design.  I’ve actually had someone send me a a photograph they took of their business card and asked if we could use that!  Having a layered version of the logo is helpful, not only for the quality of the image, but also it might enable you to use elements of their logo in creative ways in the design.  This all depends on whether their logo design is amenable to this and if their corporate branding guidelines will allow it.

13) Who are the decision makers on this project?

If #8 was the most important question, this might just be second!  You’ve got to know who’s calling the shots.  If it’s a committee, brace yourself!  But, if you’re dealing with a company representative who won’t be making the final call on design, you owe it to yourself (and them) to get this straight from the start.

14) Will other staff will be involved in the design process? If so, what are their roles? Is there a webmaster on your staff?

This is another way of discovering the answer to #13.  The designer or design team needs to understand the working relationships up front.  And you need to know if “that IT guy” works there — you know, the IT guy who thinks he’s a web designer because he’s updated the company’s website for the last 18 months!  If you haven’t met him, you will!

So, what have I left out.  I’m always looking to clarify the process and make it better, so I’d love your input.  What questions should you ask at the outset of the design process?  Or, if you’ve been through a website design, what questions do you wish you’d been asked?

 

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When Web Design Gets in the Way

Web design as part of inbound marketing strategyDon’t let design get in the way of your company website — that is, if you’re website is designed to grow your audience, generate leads, and build your business. If your website is there as nothing more than a brochure to convey static information about the company, then go ahead, spend 9 months on the design … heck, spend 2 years on the design. It won’t matter, no one’s going to find it anyway!

The best business websites serve as a hub for the overall online presence of the organization. The website-as-marketing-engine is home to a blog (with steady, valuable content), landing pages to reduce distraction, crystalizing the point of conversion, and well thought-out calls to action making it easy for users to move toward becoming customers. If this is the kind of website you want, don’t let design get in the way. And this is coming from someone who makes a living designing websites!

I work for an internet marketing firm and we see it too often — the client gets excited about the site design (or redesign) process and all their mental energy goes into the shade of green in the background or whether the lower-third of the home page should be 270 or 290 pixels wide. What was intended to be the first step of a larger content marketing program is still lingering two months in. I get it, design is intensely personal, whether it’s the color of paint in your living room, choosing the scarf or the necklace, or putting out a new website to represent your company. But you’ve got to decide what your website is for … if it’s the static brochure, go ahead and mull over the gradient behind your menu navigation, but if it’s website-as-marketing-engine, move on.

Design matters. Don’t think I’m saying you should just throw anything up on the web. A good user experience and strategically mapping out a site visitor’s path to conversion is determined, in many ways, at the design stage. I always start with a targeted design questionnaire and spend time figuring out the preferences of the customer. In the end, we hopefully come up with a site that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but instead exists to host all the elements of good inbound marketing program.  Simple, professional, functional web design is just a first step — then, you can get on to what really matters — publishing great content, increasing traffic, and growing your online community.  Just don’t fall into the design trap and trip on the first step!

Next up, I want to explore what makes for a great website design questionnaire. What are the questions that need to be asked to facilitate a good design process? If you’ve not already subscribed, take a second and do it here if you want the RSS feed, or over to the right you can enter your email address to receive updates.

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Being a Digital Citizen in an Information Society

What does it mean to be a citizen? The sociologist, T.H. Marshall wrote: “Citizenship is a status that is bestowed on those who are full members of a community … [it is] the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society.”

digital citizenship, information societyWhen I say I’m a “digital citizen,” I am defining myself within our society in terms of my participation on the internet and through the use of technology. I do not think digital engagement alone equates to “sharing to the full” in society, and I am still committed to the face-to-face, physical relationships experienced in local community. However, I acknowledge that the “standards prevailing in the society” are increasingly leading us to online spaces and technologically facilitated connections. So, in embracing the label, digital citizen, I am attempting to locate myself in our information society — or, if you like, “post-industrial society” — and establishing a starting point for how I participate and contribute.

Then and Now

According to the International Telecommunications Union, nearly 80% of the U.S. population use the internet — up from 44% in 2000. Nearly 70% of the population (over 13 years old) use social networks. One third of U.S. consumers spend more than 3 hours online every day. And the statistics could go on … Check out The Pew Research Center’s list of reports on the social impact of the internet and other technology trends, including the effect of our digital world on education, politics, and civic engagement.

In the industrial society, steam power and machines with moving parts were the catalysts for change. Today, information technology sets the pulse of our society. Participation in the industrial society meant, among other things, contributing to the production of material things — goods and products. While participation today may mean curating or producing exclusively immaterial things like information, ideas, and online spaces. In my adult life, I’ve never worked in a job where I produced a physical object of any kind — it’s always been about the development of ideas, the transmission of knowledge, or the delivery of a service. This used to bother me. A lot! I recognized and valued in my parents and their generation the instinct to make the tangible thing that would fix the problem. What counted was raw muscle power and assembly-line efficiency. Now, I’m coming to accept that what counts, more and more in our society, is information, services, and increasingly intangible solutions.

In taking on the label, digital citizen, you should know I’m not saying that I think the information society is right or better than what has come before (as though my opinion on that would matter!). I’m just trying to articulate where I see the world and how I might find myself within it.

What do you think of my assessment of our society? Have I missed it? How do you define yourself as a citizen? If you’d call yourself a “digital citizen,” what’s it mean to be a good citizen? How does personal responsibility, an orientation toward justice, and social participation play out in an information society?

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A Lighter Look at Being a Digital Citizen

Later today, I’ll post some thoughts on what it means to be a “digital citizen.” It’s going to be all about trying to locate myself in the current information society and asking questions about how to participate and contribute.

But, before I explore those questions, I wanted to share a pretty fun clip from the first episode of Portlandia. Enjoy! If you identify with this scene, you might want to stop by this afternoon or subscribe to be notified when I post my further reflections.

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My Blog About Effective Web Design

With this post, I begin a blog about web design, especially as it relates to the web user’s experience. My interest is in design that improves results and converts on the goals of a website. Everything else is just decorating!

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
~ Steve Jobs

“To dismiss front-end design as mere ‘icing’ is to jeopardize the success of any site.”
~ Curt Cloninger

“Design is directed toward human beings. To design is to solve human problems by identifying them and executing the best solution.”
~ Ivan Chermayeff

Kick-Off in February

I’ll begin blogging regularly in February and I invite you to subscribe or follow me on Twitter to find out about new posts. You can also get updates via email using the link to the right.