Travelvice Realignment: The Travelvice Compendium
Introducing the Travelvice Compendium— http://compendium.travelvice.com/
The Compendium marks the first large-scale expansion/enhancement of Travelvice.com since it launched on October 1, 2005. It is the first of several significant realignments to the site, which will continue over the next month or two.
A 'compendium' is defined as "a list or compilation of various items, encompassing a comprehensive, but brief, account of a subject." The Travelvice Compendium represents a collection of observations, oddities, travel tips and techniques, facts, foods, dangers, annoyances, and all-around interesting or enlightening stuff that's undoubtedly of value to someone, somewhere.
You might notice that I'm using the term 'realign' when talking about the new modifications to the site. That's because redesigners often rely on emotional responses to aesthetics in justifying a redesign, while realigners cite strategic objectives and user needs as reasons to consider a site overhaul. Simply put, the desire to redesign is aesthetic-driven, while the desire to realign is purpose-driven.
About the Design: The Engine
WordPress is the engine that powers the Compendium. The choice to adopt this system over any other was the price (free), control (hosted on my server), ease of use, flexibility, availability of support/documentation, and plentiful amount of user-created features/enhancements (referred to as plugins).
Upon my return to Lima in mid-November, I spent the first week or two setting up my new laptop and researching/brainstorming for the Compendium. I had an initial vision of what I wanted to accomplish with the expansion, both visually and technically, and ransacked the Internet for the WordPress application tweaks I needed to put them in motion.
As a result, I evaluated over 60 plugins on the copy of WordPress installed locally on my laptop, before settling on the 37 that I deemed operationally essential. Trust me when I say this isn't plugin bloat—they each do their own thing, and do it well.
For the curious, I've document the list of the WordPress plugins currently in use with the Compendium.
About the Design: The Layout
Once the plugins where generally finalized, I set about creating a completely new layout for the site. Everything that came out of the box was thrown away.
In WordPress, a site is a visual conglomeration of several task-specific style and template files that, as a whole, create a 'theme'. The default theme is called 'Kubrick'. I'm sure you've seen it.
Keeping in mind lessons learned from the past two+ years, my general Compendium design goals were to:
- create a simple, linear layout, without cluttering up the screen with things like a 'sidebar'
- create a site structure that can be built and redesigned quickly, using pure-CSS (cascading style sheets) layout techniques, not html tables
- create a design that can co-exist with the other layouts on Travelvice—different, but with enough of a visual cohesiveness/theme that visitors don't feel lost or confused when jumping between sections
- create a site that is not just search engine friendly, but search engine sexy
- create a layout that effectively incorporates Google AdSense adverts
- create a site that encourages and rewards constructive comments/commenters
- create an environment which keeps people on the pages, and in the site longer—what I refer to as a "wiki-trap", whereby users keep digging up information on the same site after entering it
It's been a few years since I did any significant Web design, but I found that it's a bicycle I was able to pick up, dust off, and start riding again in no time. Hacking away at the proprietary WordPress application markup was made easy, thanks the amount of information available online.
It took me a little over two weeks (of 15-hour days) to create the Compendium expansion of Travelvice. The entire site is visually formatted using the hand-coded markup found in the CSS include file. The Compendium may look rather simple (as that's its intent), but take a look at that file and remember that I wrote every line of it.
As with most every site that uses pure-CSS layout techniques, making it look good in the multitude of browsers out there is often a daunting task. The general school of thought is to build it for a standards-compliant browser like FireFox, and then fix it so that it works in Internet Explorer. For a detail-driven person (like myself), small discrepancies between browsers are like a splinter of wood stuck under a fingernail.
I used the aggregate visitor statistics gathered from 2007 to determine what browsers warranted what priority, and designed accordingly. FireFox users constitute over 1/3 of all traffic, with Internet Explorer (version 6 and 7) gobbling up 60% of the pie. The leftovers are folks surfing with their iPhones, Safari on the Macintosh, Opera on Linux, and even a handful from the PlayStation 3 (it has a browser?).
The best friend of the Web developer in this case is to have several systems with which to test. I have Tatiana's laptop, which has IE6, and my laptop sporting FireFox 2 and IE7. "And what about the rest?", you might ask. Well, some outstanding services out there provide browser screen captures from systems setup with different operating systems, running common browser configurations.
A new one that has entered the scene since I last developed like this is browsershots.org. Depending on how long they cache results, you might be able to see the test page I ran through it when I had generally finalized the page layout.
About the Design: The Search Engines and AdSense
SEO: Search Engine Optimization. This is something that I really neglected when I built Travelvice in 2005. For as much as I knew (know?) about technical site design, I sort of glanced over the search side of things. This was probably less of an oversight and more of an uncertainty about what I was going to be writing about, how often I'd be writing, or if it was even something I wanted to continue doing after I got going. Making money off Travelvice wasn't something I was interested in, and generating traffic was not at the forefront of my mind.
Now, after a second year of writing about life and travel abroad, it bugs me that I didn't design with this aspect in mind. Well, lesson learned—the Compendium is as search engine optimized as I know how to make it.
For those without advert-block plugins on their browsers, you'll undoubtedly notice the advertising. And I feel I've got to level with you here: The Compendium is about making money. The number one goal of this enhancement is to make money, followed by distributing information.
I've found myself in a situation that is forcing me to reevaluate my financial standing a lot sooner than I anticipated. If I have any hopes of helping to financially support my soon-to-be-born son, daddy's got to start making some money—starting with getting his monthly-expenditure out of the red. As it stands today, I only receive US$3–7/week from advertisements placed (poorly) on the Travelogue and Snapshots gallery.
But making money with Web site advertisements is really less about page placement, and more about page views and visitor count. Only a small percentage of people are going to click on an advertisement, and the more people you get on the site and expose those advertisements to, the more clicks you're going to receive. The more clicks you get, the more money goes in the bank.
To do this I need to make pages that drive people to the site from 'organic searches' (keyword searches by people folks for a specific topic). Mathematically, the amount of pages necessary to achieve this is high—thousands. So that's ultimately what must be done. It has worked for my friend Andy (look at the collection of links on his home page to see the concept I'm working off), and hopefully will be a format that will succeed for me in the upcoming year.
Not all future pages will have the detailed content that's in the Compendium currently. Again, look to Andy's site to see the direction I'll probably be taking this in: Specific keyword phrases/topics, multiplied by every country in the world, with visitors adding fresh content to topics I know nothing about.
Interestingly, of all the content that will be available on the Compendium, there are only a few actual "real" pages. Everything is stored within a database, and pages are created, updated, and generated in real time when a visitor accesses the page. There isn't the footprint of hundreds and thousands of .html/.php files to maintain—just one database.
OK, enough about the technical details and motivation; let's talk features.
In an attempt to try and capture the curious who have land on the site find and their way to the Compendium home page, a brief list of the five most recent Compendium entries and comments is on display, as well as links to the top-five most popular posts.
The compendium is built off a structured hierarchy of categories and subcategories. Entries may be cross-referenced between categories, so that visitors looking at the 'Food' category find foods from Peru, as well as people looking at information about 'Peru' finding delicious food items related to that country. Another example might be everything filed under 'Vietnam' could probably also be found in the 'Annoyances' category.
Categories are only a piece of the Compendium's organization though. Each entry not only contains a related category (or more), but also keywords describing the content inside the article. Keywords aren't structured elements within the Compendium, though act like categories in the sense that they consolidate information on a given subject. This is another way for people searching for a particular topic to continue doing so within the site.
Another way I'm trying to encourage people to stay on the site is by offering up a list of related articles they might be interested in. If there aren't any matches, I'm displaying the top-seven most popular posts at that particular moment in time.
Photos related to a specific topic have been given priority on Compendium pages. Images are uploaded within WordPress, managed by the system, and displayed accordingly (after I hacked away at its functionality).
A step above merely linking thumbnails of photos to files in a server directory, every photo has been given its own page. From an SEO perspective, this is great, as the URL (site address) not only reflects the title of the image, but it creates another landing page for searching visitors. Clicking again on the image displayed on the photo-page brings up the full version. A link at the bottom of the page brings people who landed on the site via the photo page back to the article associated with it.
Jumping on the video bandwagon, a section on the Compendium pages has been designed for inline videos. I'm currently using YouTube, the most popular service out there, because it's just that, and because Google-owned sites are going to be disappearing anytime soon. All uploaded videos are available at http://youtube.com/travelvice.
Next to AdSense placement, commenting was the most important design concern. I wanted to create a submission form that encouraged just that, submissions. Placing the comment box above the required user fields was a must—I myself have been discouraged from commenting when I have to enter my information first. Following through with the minor details after a comment is written is a battle that will be always be won.
I'm a visual kind of guy, and making the commenting process attractive and intuitive was a key issue—as was rewarding people who comment regularly. Only first-time commenters (or those submitting a URL) will see their messages enter moderation limbo. Additionally, I wanted to encourage and give reason for people to enter a legitimate e-mail address when submitting. Tying the address to something like an avatar adds a purpose to a field that folks are hesitant to fill out truthfully, if at all.
What visitors will see when they access a page with comments is a humanized approach to commenting. Avatars will be displayed, when applicable, and the country name and flag of the commenter at the time of his submission will be displayed alongside their comment. Instant gratification for commenters is obtained by displaying their submission on the page, even if it's only visible to them because it's awaiting moderation.
Additionally, an RSS feed is available for the comments on every article in the Compendium, as well as aggregate feeds for both new entries and new comments made to any post.
A "help center" has been incorporated into the Compendium, which will be a permanent repository and reference point of e-mails answered, as well as place to share technical details about Travelvice. The section will grow as e-mails are received, with the hopes of answering common questions without the need for visitors to e-mail me directly, as well as sparking new questions that visitors hadn't thought of.
Travelvice Realignment: Searching for Content
Although indirectly related to today's Compendium launch, the inception of a unified search portal (independent of any one system on Travelvice) is something that has needed to be implemented for some time now. Keeping people on the site and helping folks to find the information they're looking for is a priority for me, and I'll do whatever I can to facilitate the exposure of that information. I'm excited to be releasing this addition to the site today, in tandem with the Compendium.
Final Compendium Thoughts
The Compendium marks a significant shift in the demeanor of Travelvice—not only from a monetary standpoint, but from one of content compartmentalization. The Compendium represents a bottomless container for me to fill with specific details that have traditionally been lost inside the Travelogue. Some people are really interested in knowing about prices and timetables for buses, but incorporating this information into Travelogue entries adds boring bloat to stories, and never gets indexed effectively by search engines anyways.
The Travelvice Travelogue will continue to develop as a raw, in-the-moment type of outlet that I, as a perpetual traveler, have grown to love. I'm feeling a pull towards documenting interesting tidbits found on the Internet, as well as continuing to document my life and travels abroad. Some of this stuff is boring; some is provocative; and some is just plain weird. But to me, it's all worth noting, because I love looking back at what I was doing, thinking, and feeling a year, or several years, prior.
The Continuing Realignment
So what's coming down the pipe for 2008, you might ask? Well, you'll see push to move the Travelogue off the Blogger system, and over to WordPress. I've had a very pleasant experience with it thus far, and see no reason not to develop a conversion strategy.
Closer to the start of the New Year will be the redesign/realignment of the Travelvice.com home page, and the optimization of existing pages on the site (including both the Travelogue and Snapshots gallery). It's going to continue to be a lot of work, but I look forward to the results.