My Website is So Much Better Now That I Wrecked It!

Everything was working fine here for a very long time, which was exactly why it was time to burn it all down.

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A campfire during autumn in Newport, Minnesota

When my four-day weekend came for President’s Day, I scaled the highest snowbank in sight and declared “I am doing nothing this weekend!” I was going to loaf on the couch. I was going to watch crappy movies on purpose. I was going to spend 15 hours in one day breaking my website and trying to fix it. I was going to take a long walk.

I wound up doing only one of those things.

My website was fine, sure, but I’m rarely more worried about something than I am when it’s “fine.” That means it’s a) pressed against a low ceiling; or b) overdue for catastrophe. In this case, it was A. It lacked the user-friendliness or customization options I wanted, and there were things that annoyed me, but it wasn’t bad. I had workarounds. No readers ever complained. For the past two years, nothing had gone awry.

So, finally, I decided to make everything go awry.

I purchased a new theme with limitless customization options. You should’ve seen the download page for this thing. The list of features was a mile long. I read the whole damn thing Sunday, twice, face glowing like I’d found some weird ancient fountain. I took the water into my hands, took a big ol’ slurpy chug, then watched in horror as The Minnesota Skinny melted down into a neon blue puddle. Oops.

Over the ensuing 14 hours or so, I discovered nuts and bolts in my control panel that hadn’t been tightened in years. I discovered checkboxes and drop-down menus in my dashboards I’d never even scrolled my mouse over before. Some of them are kind of important, turns out. The 24/7 support InMotion Hosting advertises? It’s real! I have that number saved in my phone now.

The valuable nuggets I dug up, however, weren’t enough to get the new theme live on my own. I went to bed Sunday night with two options: crawl back to my perfectly fine setup, or pay someone to untangle this mess.

I hired a developer Monday morning to rebuild the website in a staging environment – which, did you know about staging environments?! I didn’t! Get this: you can actually build a website in a test environment instead of doin’ it live! on a live site. How ‘bout that, eh?

This let me keep the site “fine” while I got new visuals ready (logos, color codes, etc) and the developer did his thing in the background. When the developer punched out Monday night, I had a working website with all the bells and whistles I was promised. Purchasing this theme and hiring the developer cost me $150.

But the battle wasn’t over. My Google Analytics was broken, and – even worse – some of my pages were being butchered on mobile devices by Google AMP. Google AMP-enabled pages are served up on mobile devices faster, but they look the way Spirit Airlines flights feel. My posts were stripped down, skeletal, and weren’t even linking to my website. They were being shown on a Google URL. WTF?

I promptly disabled AMP, which led to a few days of readers landing on 404 pages while Google caught up. I was able to work the kinks out of my analytics over my lunch break Tuesday, but the waiting game couldn’t be circumvented. Luckily, only a few pages were affected.

A whippet dog and I outside Sandcastle restaurant on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Familiarizing myself with page templates was a more leisurely battle, but it took time. Do I want a row of three picture boxes for posts? How about one big one? Do I want text? I’d never checked this before, but two-thirds of my readers do so on mobile devices. This made me even happier about disabling AMP, but this also meant I had to prioritize my design differently. Navigation on mobile became more important than having an aesthetically pleasing desktop front page. I spent more time than I needed to on this – I’d guess an hour or two per night last week – but I enjoyed it. I always enjoyed laying out newspaper front pages, too. It took me back, y’know?

So, how does this all help you? The big one: instead of showing you one entire post at a time, category tabs now show you all of them in chronological order. No scrolling forever or clicking through 12 pages. As much as I’m going to miss seeing someone in Florida on Page 17 of my Food category, I think most readers will be happy for this. Similarly, the front page has more for you than four big squares and a full post.

The annoying scroll menu, and the “GO HOME” button that would get blown up whenever my website was shared on Facebook? GONE! That’s the third grave I’ve ever wanted to piss on. Just as the front page no longer bogs down my social media, my social media doesn’t bog down the front page. Social media links are in individual posts, but I took them off the front page. People share posts, not entire pages, least here.

I’ve got a plugin now that evaluates posts for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and readability. That won’t change the way I write, but it’s nice to have.

I’d say I’m 95 percent there on both formats. I just need to figure That One Last Thing out on both. It’ll take a little more time, I’m sure, but the days of wonky pages and 404 errors are long gone at least. I’m built for today and for the foreseeable future. It’s better than it’s ever been, and I got there by breaking it.

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