Welcome to evolution of a blogger 2. I’ve been tracking design changes to see what kind of an impact they make, both positive and negative. Although I’ve been working with websites for years now, I’m always surprised by what I don’t know.
I converted back to WordPress about 2 years ago, and I’m happy with the experience. I use Divi by Elegant Themes to control the overall structure and design. I like it because of the flexibility it offers. I don’t have to struggle getting the site to do what I want it to do. I have always had a coherent notion of what I want the site to look like and am not afraid to let it change and evolve as my interests and content change.
Since Dec, I’ve been concentrating on improving the site’s overall structure and useability. Priority has been given to SEO and accessibility. Speed isn’t great at the moment but getting SEO and user friendliness right felt more important. No sense having a fast site if a substantial portion of the world can’t find it.
The tweaks that set off the latest changes – evolution of a blogger 2
So, what was I thinking?
This re-design iteration started out innocently. I wasn’t happy with my SEO and started fixing little issues, such as H1 H2 tags and fine-tuning key words. Along the way, I started to improve aspects that would make the site easier for people with mobility and vision issues use the site. It started with a few small fixes, then moved onto addressing systemic problems with the design. The one issue that bothered me the greatest was the menu. I couldn’t seem to get the mobile version right. I needed the hamburger menu to be touch sensitive and the plugins I used didn’t always trigger properly.
How to fix this? I started by tearing the navigation bar apart and rebuilding it. That led to an issue with the loading speed and visual impact of my header. Which in turn let me down a rabbit hole of incessant tweaks and fixes. I called a halt to changes a week ago. Going at things in such a hashed-up manner will create problems down the road. What I needed was a fresh approach and a modern design drawn from all the work I’ve put into improving the SEO, and accessibility. Nothing like building onto existing errors to guarantee future disasters.
So, what were my website design priorities?
consistent basics across the site
stronger attention to SEO minutia
focus on smart device design
conscious effort to improve accessibility features
design with an aim to improve speed
I know the basics of good design; I opted to ignore some of them in the past for expediency.
Cleaner navigation & improved accessibility
These two features are integral. As I said earlier, what started off this epic “tweak”, was dissatisfaction with the existing menu. It was ok but didn’t work on mobile devices (consistently) and felt cluttered. I rethought categories, merged a few and deleted one or two. That allowed the menu to shrink in size. I deleted the old one and built a new menu from scratch, without any bells or whistles. I didn’t use a plugin this time, just let Divi do the work. I tested it in different browsers, on a touch screen, tablet, and smart phone. It responded consistently.
Why was this important? I have a few customers with severe mobility issues, and they find touching menu very frustrating. Some of them pop up and down too quickly, or don’t respond to a touch. If you can’t handle a mouse properly, this becomes a major obstacle. From there I moved to improving key features across the site – same icons, cleaner, less cluttered layout that, hopefully, will allow audio to read the site better. That became the focus of this evolution of a blogger 2. Clean, simple, uncomplicated.
My accessibility score is only 80 now, but there are features I can continue to work on over the next weeks. Another feature I’ve begun to work through is better alt tags on all images. I’m guilty of plonking in bland text instead of properly descriptive tags. Given the sheer number of images I have on this site, this is going to take a lot of time. It’ll be time well spent.
Consistency in design
One of my greater design crimes has been the lack of attention in applying design basics across the site. If you cruise through now, you’ll see common elements and designs on every page. I broke down and created 2 new templates to work from and deleted everything else. Yes, I was starting the design from the ground up. I didn’t want to inherit any of the issues from previous work.
A good example of this is the bar using icons (at the bottom of this page). I created these around Christmas but was never happy with how I incorporated them. I removed them shortly after inserting them.
Wait, let’s make an index!
Buy stuff so the cat can have a box to sit in
Big index of stuff
I redid a few of the original designs to incorporate the little black cat in each image. He ties them all together. The only one I’m not happy with is the stick figure in the mailbox image. I’ll try and fix that next month. (Corrected the icon Wed, Feb 10, 2021) But the icons are fun and very visual. I tried to create strong alt tags as well for clarity. Hopefully, that will help some users.
Next came better navigation elements within each post. At the bottom of each article are clearer “previous”, “next” links to help readers scroll through articles. Two elements done – stronger navigation features and consistent design.
The second part of the consistency was correcting design sizing issues from page to page. By creating a template that every page used, it is easier to control everything. No idea why I didn’t bother simplifying the templates earlier. Chalk it up to laziness.
Major changes to improve SEO and visibility
I ditched the colourful headers on every page. It’s a simple one colour background and a clear word title. That’s it. No fuss. That did improve the sites load time a little bit. I left the only photo on the footer. It seemed to cap off the page. The other major change was the inclusion of more white space. I spent time looking at websites I liked and followed their lead. Lots of white space has allowed a better flow to the site.
The end result improved my SEO dramatically. Bitter Grounds now scores a consistent 93. With a few more minor changes, I can improve the number. I relied heavily on Google’s tools, and what my customers tend to complain about most when they cruise the internet. Lighthouse by Google was invaluable. Check it out here Lighthouse – Chrome Web Store (google.com) My new goal is to have accessibility in the 90s and inch the SEO above 95.
Speed is not good. I need to investigate plugins that will help. I tested about 7 or 8 over the last week and haven’t found one I’m happy with. At most they improved the speed score slightly. Once I get the SEO and accessibility up, I’ll invest in a speed/cache plugin and let it do its thing.
What’s next in the Evolution of a blogger 2
A few bits and pieces still need sorting. I’m looking for a better method of presenting search results and indexing the site. Right now, the index I use for each category is sluggish. Not sure where to go from here. For category indexes, I want icons, and flexible grid style layout. I’ll have to think about this.
Single post pages need to be adjusted to fit the rest of the site. I’m content for now, and will leave them as is, but within the month, I’ll move the framework closer in line with the master pages. I’ll stop tinkering for a bit so I can evaluate how the current round of changes have affected the site and readership. I’ll be interested in seeing if the changes improve traffic.
When I have more results to report, I’ll come back with another addition to the Evolution of a Blogger posts. In the meantime, check out the previous article on fixing up the website:
Ah, plugin problems. It’s official, I hate them. Yes, I do. Once again, I found myself spending an afternoon cleaning up a mess from a plugin conflict. I’m still not done with the cleanup. It’ll take rest of the week to repair the damage.
Here’s what happened. I use a great plugin called iThemes Security. It’s an excellent WordPress security plugin and has helped me lockdown the site for nearly 2 years. A few plugins were updated yesterday, but not iThemes. All seemed good when I turned everything off last night. When logged on to work on a new article, it was a mess.
Tues Jan 26, 2021 – still struggling to put all the images back. Please be patient. I fixed the primary issue and it cascaded into a bigger one, which was resolved. But that fix wiped out the repairs and I had to start over.
The path to the login page no longer existed. Either “a page not found”, or a broken link error appeared. After that familiar sinking feeling settled in, I flipped over and checked to make sure the site still existed. Bitter Grounds was running properly. But nothing I tried brought the login page back to life. I was effectively locked out of the Dashboard.
How to log in when WordPress login won’t load
When locked out of a WordPress site because of a plugin issue, there is a way of recovering the Dashboard:
Log into the site with either FTP or your web host’s file manager.
Locate public_html -> wp-content.
Rename the folder titled plugins. Usually it’s easiest to rename it to plugins_old.
Once you do this, log back into your WordPress site and test it. If it works properly, then comes the tedious part.
Back to FTP/File Manager rename plugins_old back to plugins.
Open the plugins folder and rename every folder, adding _old to each.
Try each folder, one at a time, by removing the _old from the name.
Return to WP and test. When you find the culprit, delete that folder.
Because of the type of error message that appeared, I thought it might be iThemes so I disabled the folder. Didn’t work. So I disabled the entire plugin folder. Still no login available.
I had to sit and ponder what was going on. I examined the login link carefully and figured it had something to do with one of the iThemes security features. So, I re-enabled the plugin folder and left iThemes disabled. I then tried a hybrid of the old changed login link and the default one. Bingo! The Dashboard let me in.
I disabled and re-enabled plugins but can’t trace the conflict. I keep getting the same errors, so I removed iThemes completely. I installed a new plugin for the two-factor authentication and tweaked a few new plugins to ensure security is strong. But I’m disappointed because I love iThemes and hate to say goodbye to it, especially when the root of the problem was a conflict with a different plugin. When I have time, I’ll go back to iThemes and do a fresh re-install.
New plugin problems created
Removing iThemes created a new problem though and this one pisses me off. At least 2/3 of the links to images were wiped out. I spent the last 3 hours reconnecting them. I have over 570 articles to check and it’s tedious. It could have been far worse. I haven’t finished yet, so if you run into a page with place holders instead of photos, be patient. I’ll get to them this week. I’ve done as many as I can today, and my brain just can’t do any more.
I tried my hand at a little close-up photography again. Everyone seemed to enjoy my night photography experiments, so I thought I’d be a bit more adventurous. Too cold to wander around outside, ok, I’m too lazy to wander outside and freeze my tail off so I set the tripod up inside and dimmed the lights. This photography experiment turned out to be more fun than I anticipated.
My original aim was to capture smoke curling up from a candle. This didn’t work out at all. The smoke was too wispy and fleeting and I experienced a lot of difficulties focusing the camera on it. Not to be deterred, I shifted gears and decided to move everything up close and play around with getting the flame and candle. I created a makeshift lightbox, turned off all the lights and played with various camera settings and lighting.
Many shots had horrible glares or odd flashes on the lens from the flame flickers. I kept moving the candle about until the camera focused correctly. As you can see in the first photo, I never achieved a sharp focus, which is annoying. I prefer super sharp edges, so this was a frustrating experience. I kept the photos and soldiered on. If nothing else, they offered me a chance to learn where I went wrong.
Here’s the mostly untouched photo
Except for a bit of cropping and lens correction, not much was done to this.
Original closeup photograph
Lopsided, but good. I was happy with the framing in this photograph. It took 12 tries before the light and black balance was achieved. Not able or willing to leave well enough alone, I fired up Photoshop and decided to experiment with filters to see if I could make the candle pop a bit.
Close-up photography – part two
See the difference?
I adjusted the vibrance and leveled the photo. Next came Bas relief overlaid on the original. This gave the candle a three-dimensional feel. Not as sharp as I prefer, but this is a good start. Yea, it did start to break down, but I was willing to live with that for this experiment.
Finally found a use for diffuse glow
The candle looked good, but the flame was weak in comparison. The gentle application of diffuse glow made the flame shimmer.
I didn’t pull the orange down because I liked the glowing effect it gave the wax. Still a little heavy handed, but far better than previous attempts at close-up photography. I’m not sure how to handle the flame correctly yet. More experimentation is going to be needed. I’ll also finish off my little light box. Not so sure it’s a light box, it’s more a containment box that will reflect the light the way I want it to. A bit of tinfoil on one side creates interesting effects that I will investigate. If I perfect the technique, I’ll post the photos. I’ll also wander out to get some incense to play with. The wind is rattling the windows and Covid is making it difficult to go anywhere, so I’ll make do with fusting about indoors.
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Here are a few more photos I took along the streets of Toronto last week. Was it last week? Time is melting into one big mess at the moment. Anyway, after looking through the photos I took at dusk, I realised some of the ones I thought were great, weren’t, but a little work with Photoshop brought them back to life.
The work I’ve done in understanding the camera’s histogram and using it to avoid blowing out the highlights and blacks has paid off. I was able to tweak the photos and bring back the colours and balance. It’s all a learning experience.
Picking over the photos, I realised even with a tripod, I still have issues getting a photo straight. No idea how I managed it, but I had to correct quite a few. They weren’t as bad as usual, but I think I’ll have to start paying closer attention to that little bubble on the tripod’s level. Sigh. I’m planning a trip out later this week, so fingers crossed I manage to get things right.
Streets of Toronto – Looking south on Yonge
Yonge near Front St
I enjoy playing with cropping. Adjusting the length and widths changes the focus points dramatically. This was an ok photo on Yonge, but when I cropped it, the focus shifted from all the buildings and glass to the lights rushing along Yonge. The eye immediately hits the red lights and then follows up and down the street. I love narrow views like this. I’m eager to go out again and try more street scenes.
What got me the most are the lights in the corner building. The windows look crisp and warm, just the way they were that night.
Looking South on Yonge
Looking South near the hockey hall of fame
This one was ok. I’m a bit unhappy with the overall sharpness, so that’s another area I’ll have to focus on. I’m not a fan of soft-focus photos, I prefer HDR stylings. I used a mix of AV settings and full manual for all the shots. I did a couple of tests with full auto and was not impressed. The streaming lights weren’t captured, and the camera focused on all the wrong light centres. I guess that’s what it’s about. I know what I’m trying to say with the photos. Automatic is just a mindless function and doesn’t share a vision.
I wish I’d waited a little longer so the lights at the bottom left were moving. The glare is too much and spoils a bit of the balance. But I’m content with it.
Last shot – another look at the Hockey Hall of Fame
Hockey Hall of Fame
For some reason, the Hockey Hall of Fame has been my white whale. I must have close to 200 photos of it, taken over the years. None, until this batch, were satisfying. The balance was always off, the lighting and shadows were wrong. It became a mind-numbing experience, but I couldn’t stop trying. Not sure why everything clicked this time. I suspect it’s because I was far more patient than previous expeditions.
I did play around with this photograph in Photoshop before I was satisfied. I used the software’s autocorrect to bring a better perspective to the image first. After that, I pulled down the amount of yellow. I need to explore the camera’s settings a bit more to understand why everything was so yellow and how to prevent it in the future. Once the colour balance was corrected, the building’s shadows popped out.
The sharp lines and clarity in this photo surprised me. I must be brutally honest; I didn’t expect it. I’m used to slightly fuzzy edges in any of my night photos. The lesson is clear – tripod & patience are the keys.
Don’t forget to look at my previous post on night photography. These are more from the same batch of street photos so enjoy.
After 580 + articles, I’ve been thinking about the evolution of a blogger. More precisely, the changes I’ve made to the structure of this website and the content that drives it. It’s interesting going through older posts and re-editing them. That act has provided some insight into how Bitter Grounds Magazine has unfolded over the decades.
Evolution of a blogger – 1994 to Catpaw’s Blog
I started in 1994, or there abouts, with a simple one-page website. This was in the Netscape 1, pre-tables days. I wasn’t using the Catpaw moniker yet, that came shortly after I set the site up. I tried to find it on the Wayback Machine, but unfortunately it seems to have melted into the ether. As I was writing this, I realised in 2024, I’ll have been blogging for 30 years. I’ll have to throw a party. At first, it was simply a fun little space to post random thoughts and silly things. That’s back in the tilde days when most of our sites were attached to an internet provider and looked like this www.internetprovider.com/ ~catpaw. The addresses weren’t elegant.
I was among the first customers to sign up for the shiny new internet service. The fellow who ran the ISP was good. He helped me get my first design job and taught me a lot about the basics of the both the Internet & the fledgling web design business. He loved sharing his knowledge with anyone who wanted to listen. Total, wonderful tech geek.
I purchased my first full-fledged web site sometime after the turn of the century. It was at that time I switched to using catpaw, a name I acquired during my BBS days. It took me awhile, but I found the site on the Wayback Machine and scooped my old logo.
I was damned proud of this logo
I don’t use the venerable cat silhouette any longer but occasionally think I should dust him off. He no longer fits into the format though. It was at this point I was trying to structure the site and bring a bit of planning to both the design and content. This was pre-WordPress days, so each post was created as an individual page. It wasn’t as simple as the big backend database holding and sorting all the content and formatting, we use now. It was all done manually.
Lot of content was lost because every change meant deciding what to do with older stuff. Websites could quickly descend into an unwieldy mess. I knew I wanted to run a magazine format but couldn’t quite get there. The content remained static until I tried Blogger for a while. It allowed me to setup a fledgling structure and play around with the vision I had for a website.
I also dabbled in WordPress, but at the time it lacked flexibility. I wanted multiple categories with constantly changing content. WP didn’t allow for it. We didn’t have the option to post to multiple categories. It was around 2008 I discovered Joomla and its amazing abilities to let me setup a magazine style site. I never really mastered it, but I had a hell of a lot of fun. Over the next couple of years, the content began changing. I was doing more than posting periodic thoughts and explored topics I loved to share with people.
Bitter Grounds is born & nothing happens
Oh, and the name Bitter Grounds? I had just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s Bitter Grounds and thought “that would make a great name for a magazine”. It can be interpreted in several ways. I was sure the title was taken, so colour me surprised when I found out no one had. I paid my money and switched everything over to bittergrounds.com sometime in 2014. I think. Time has a habit of playing games with memory, so I might be a little off in my dates.
One odd thing happened. By 2015 I stopped writing about politics. By nature, I’m a political animal. but it had become too exhausting and divisive. I guess, it ceased being fun discussing. In the process, my writing started to become erratic. I’d get a big surge of energy and write like mad and then peter off. Consistency is important if you want a successful website and I just couldn’t maintain momentum.
I started rethinking what I was interested in writing about – stamps, history, technology, design and eventually photography. I remember sitting on the balcony mulling over my limitations when it came to creating a magazine. It wasn’t Joomla, it was my lack of skills with the backend of the software and time commitments to master it.
The crisis that triggered change
In the summer of 2016 Mom was diagnosed with cancer and everything turned upside down. If you’ve ever dealt with a cancer diagnosis, then you know it’s like being swept up in a tsunami. Life is no longer your own, it is dictated by endless visits to hospitals and appointments. I stopped writing for a long time. I just had nothing to say.
Looking back on the past four years has made me rethink a lot of my views. I’m surprised by the combination of inertia and despair and what a toll it took. Now? I have lots to say, including what I was thinking at the time but couldn’t put it into words. I think, for the first time in my life, words were not available to me during that time span. And that’s a scary thing for me. Words are something I always found strength in, a source of joy. When I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted, I felt like a large part of me was missing. So, I stopped trying.
In 2018, during a good period in Mom’s cancer care, she suggested I start getting serious about writing again. She knew something I wasn’t fully aware of – that I’m happiest when I’m writing. I still laugh when I remember her telling me I get grumpy when I don’t write.
Once again, Mom was crucial in the change. It was her suggestion that I try to be more personal, bring more of myself into the site. No, not the politics, which I well and truly torpedoed in the re-design. She meant, express more excitement about things I loved. Allow readers to “hear” what she hears when I talk about various topics. Also, let people know who I am, make the website more personal. She was right. Things became fun to again.
I wanted a magazine. Not a site where I complain about shit in life. I wanted to explore ideas and share my excitement about drawing, photography, stamps – oh the stamps I love – and technology. That’s what had been missing, that sense of exploration and unbridled joy at learning something new.
Was it too much to tackle?
Onwards to a Bitter Grounds Magazine remake & 580 articles later
I sat down with paper and pencil and drew up how I wanted Bitter Grounds Magazine to look. All fine and dandy, but I felt that old sense of frustration with Joomla creep back in. I lacked certain skills in using it and quite honestly, was too tired to try and learn how to change the back end. It felt cumbersome. I wasn’t happy with ready-made templates though because they didn’t share my vision.
Then a friend stepped in. Cory suggested I try WordPress again but use Divi to make it create the structure I so desperately wanted. He’s a skilled craftsman who gave me a lift when I needed it. Website Creation, Design, Maintenance, and More – MidState Design <- that’s him. He doesn’t know I’ve added this, but he was instrumental in kick starting Bitter Grounds Magazine back into life.
Devastating loss & an epiphany about the website
2019 started off badly but there were still rays of hope. 2020 came and blew that out the door. When Mom died in April, I was crushed. I still haven’t gotten over it. I still cry. And feel lost at times.
While I sat by mom’s bed, I debated about ending the website permanently. The idea of continuing seemed impossible. I kept thinking why bother. It’s funny the things your brain latches onto when it’s trying to anchor itself. I emailed back and forth with a friend throughout the long week and she told me “NO” that was not acceptable. That’s what friends are for – to stop you from doing stupid things. I kept it and wrote sporadically, and quite honestly, half-heartedly throughout spring and summer.
Categories come; categories go
You may notice how many posts are shorter than in previous years. I stopped trying to write War and Peace and started working towards producing, briefer, focused articles. (Except for this one.) I have 28 drafts ready for formatting and proofing, so I always have something to post even during those periods when I’m not in the mood to write.
I also made changes in categories and altered the design … again. Oct to Dec were productive months. I kept tweaking the design until I felt I was approaching what I have been looking for. Some categories were merged, and a few new ones created. I’m not afraid to change things up now. If something isn’t working don’t hang onto it. Remove or change it. What’s the sense in keeping a format or category that no longer fits?
It’s nice to have that sense of joy in writing return. I didn’t realise it was missing until it was nearly too late. The most powerful tool a blogger has is insight into why they create. Had it not been for friends, I would never have achieved it. So, to all of you, thank you.
I love taking construction site photos. I was digging through my archive, looking for something interesting to share and remembered a series I took a few years back. St Clair W, here in Toronto, has had its share of building projects. I haven’t gone back to them lately to see the progress. Maybe when I stop feeling so lazy, I’ll check them out.
Learning to make do with a kit lens
Church to condo
I took this series in 2018 and didn’t do much with them. I did a better job than I thought on capturing the clouds. I had to do a little adjusting to bring out the brickworks and highlights, but other than that, this is the shot as it came out of my Canon. Not a clue how I managed to do it. The camera was still new and I just trying to master holding it steady. The details are outstanding. The photo is a little on the dark side, but when i tried to adjust lights and darks, the highlights blew out and destroyed the symmetry. I like the light bouncing off the roof and windows. Without that, this would be a bit generic.
Occasionally I wistfully look at camera lenses and dream about buying them. I had budgeted to purchase a good quality lens, waffling between a 24mm lens or a pricier zoom lens but the lockdowns and mom’s death put the kibosh on that. Priorities changed.
After looking at these earlier photos, I’m not so disappointed. I need to continue working further with the basic kit lens and explore how I can get strong photos with it before obsessing about upgrading. It’s easy to get wrapped up chasing new hardware and neglect the basics. More attention is needed on gaining a stronger understanding of light and dark settings. Right now, taking a good photo is still hit and miss. Although I’ve progressed (despite the past few months idleness), there is so much more to master.
Diggers and hardhats – Construction site photos
Diggers and hard hats
I stood outside the fenced area to grab a bunch of shots of the site. I went so often some of the workers waved at me when I walked by. This was one of the better ones. Most photos were garbage – not in focus, askew or distorted, the usual sins. While looking at the 2018 photos, I realised how often I get a tilted image. I still do and I’m not sure how to correct the problem. Even the recent balcony photos have a noticeable lean. Everything looks fine in the window, but when I process the photos, they list to one side. It’s annoying, to say the least.
Just a shell left
These photos were taken before I began to understand how the camera settings worked. Although I’m still shaky in my comprehension, I primarily use full manual now. Photos are crisper, more vibrant, still tilted, but oh well. The last couple batches of photos required fewer adjustments before posting them. I’m getting there.
Night lights on a crane
Construction as art
Different construction site this time. The crane has long gone from the landscape and a nice-looking condominium replaced it. I do miss looking out the window to watch the work. It took about 10 photos at this spot before I got the light correct. If I’d used the tripod, the crane would have been sharper, but a decent shot none the less.
I get weirdly self-conscious when I use the tripod. Maybe it has something to do with the hassles I’ve had with officious types who have demanded I “move along, no photos in this area” (with no tripod, just my Canon) all the while people around me are madly snapping with their cell phones. The idiocy of these encounters discouraged me for a bit.
I bought a couple of filters over the last few months and hope they will mute the glares and increase colour intensity. I know what I’m looking for, what I’m trying to express in my photos. They aren’t just random shots; each has a reason. Sometimes it takes upwards to 20 attempts to get what I want, but it’s been worth the effort.