Rodney Campbell's Blog

Enhancing a WordPress Blog with Themes, Plugins and Widgets

by on Aug.07, 2006, under Technology

In a previous article (Choosing a Blogging Software Package) I went through my thinking in selecting WordPress for my blogging software package. In this follow up article I'll detail my selections for extending and enhancing my WordPress Blog site with a Theme as well as the Plugins and Widgets I use.

WordPress Themes

Fundamentally, the WordPress Theme system is a way to "skin" your weblog. Yet, it is more than just a "skin". Skinning your site implies that only the design is changed. WordPress Themes can provide much more control over the look and presentation of the material on your website.

A WordPress Theme is a collection of files that work together to produce a graphical interface with an underlying unifying design for a weblog. These files are called template files. A theme modifies the way the site is displayed, without modifying the underlying software. Themes may include customized template files, image files (*.jpg, *.gif), style sheets (*.css), custom Pages, as well as any necessary code files (*.php).

There are hundreds of WordPress Themes to choose from. All do basically the same thing but graphically present the information in a myriad of ways.

I found a number of good resources for previewing a large number of freely available themes which made the process of visually selecting an appropriate theme easier. I've listed what I think are the best of those below:

My main technical criteria for selecting a theme to use with WordPress was WordPress 2.0 and Widgets support, because I wanted to be able to easily extend and enhance my wordpress blog site with additional features and capabilities (some of which I already had in mind – not the exact plugins but an idea of what I wanted them to do). I also wanted a theme which was fairly simple looking without too much on screen clutter and preferably one which had mostly white (or at least lighter elements) – I didn't want a dark or black theme. I was primarily interested in a two column layout (a main text column with a sidebar). I was initially hoping for a theme which auto sized the width depending on the resolution of the browser window – however these were pretty uncommon (and none I liked) with the vast majority of themes designed for a standard fixed width.

Eventually I had shortlisted about ten themes which included Binary Blue, DFire and Lush. As you can see I eventually selected a Widescreen version of Lush

This theme includes support for a number of useful items including some ajaxy items like live search (type a search string into my search box at the top right but don't hit Enter – just wait and see), the customized table-less comment form and various visual effect enhancements. It also includes a print stylesheet, adjustable font size for improved readability (try clicking on the Large, Normal and Small links next to Readability at the top right) and it also has support for WordPress Widgets.

WordPress Plugins

Plugins are cool bits of programming scripts that add additional functionality to your blog. These are often features which either enhance already available features or add them to your site.

WordPress offers simple and easy ways of adding Plugins to your blog. From the Administraton Panel, there is a Plugin Page. Once you have uploaded a Plugin to your WordPress plugin directory, activate it from the Plugins Management SubPanel, and sit back and watch your Plugin work. Not all Plugins are so easily installed, but WordPress Plugin authors and developers make the process as easy as possible.

I found a number of good resources for finding a large number of freely available plugins which made the process of selecting appropriate plugins easier. I've listed what I think are the best of those below:

You will most lilkely notice a pattern to the plugins I selected to use on my site – many of them add Ajax capability to the site. Ajax (short for Asynchronous JavaScript + XML) is all the rage these days on the Web 2.0 and the technology offers all sorts of interesting interactive capabilities which make web based applications seem more like desktop applications.

The plugins I have installed and use on my blog include the following:

This plugin allows for the ability to expand the comments of a post below the main post content using ajax. To see what this works like just go to the main page for my blog and find an entry which has comments and click where it says "show comments inline".

Inline Ajax More is a plugin that displays content that is hidden by WP’s <!– more –> Tag on the same page using AJAX (instead of linking to another page).

A plugin that turns linked images into neat Javascript-powered overlay popups. This plugin integrates the cool javascript done by Lokesh Dhakar. Lightbox 2 is seriously good stuff and I'd already been using it for some of my recent web based photo albums so adding Lightbox 2 support to my blog was a no-brainer.

Try this javascript based page overlay image viewer now by clicking on one of the thumbnails below and then mouse over the displayed popup image to see the Next/Previous navigation links: here are a few pictures of my family:

There are actually a number of different Lightbox based plugins for WordPress. I tested about half a dozen different ones and finally settled on this one; however if you are keen to test out another one I found the Lightbox 2.2 plugin for WordPress to also be very good. 

Social bookmarking sites allow websurfers to save, catalog, and share interesting pages they find online. The Sociable plugin appends links (with icons) for your readers to use those sites to the end of each of your blog’s posts, increasing your potential audience.

Ultimate Tag Warrior allows you to add tags either through the Write Post page in wordpress in a tag box, on posts using an AJAXy box, and in posts using special syntax from external editors (or internally, if you’d like). From the write post page, you can also get suggestions for tags using the Tagyu service.

Once you’ve got your tags entered; you enter a realm of interesting ways of doing things with your tags – you can automagically have tags included at the top and bottom of your posts without making changes to themes and you can add a Tagcloud widget (built in) to your sidebar (which I have).

EditorMonkey for WordPress 2.0 supercharges the built-in rich editor with the latest version of TinyMCE. EditorMonkey also provides an easier way to configure the built-in rich editor and can replace the comment editing area with a WYSIWYG editing area.

Finally there is my own DropCapFirst Character plugin which DropCaps the first character of each post and page automatically.

WordPress Widgets

WordPress Widgets (WPW) is a plugin designed to provide a simple way to arrange the various elements of your sidebar content without having to change any code. Basically it breaks down the sidebars in themes into discrete blocks of goodness, and there is an interface for you to add, delete, and rearrange them by simply dragging and dropping.

The first thing you need is to install the Automattic » WordPress Widgets plugin – after that you can install widgets (like plugins) and activate and set them up in your sidebar.

I found a number of good resources for finding a large number of freely available plugins which made the process of selecting appropriate plugins easier. I've listed what I think are the best of those below:

The widgets I have installed and use on my blog include the following: 

LiveCalendar is a widget plugin for WordPress which energizes your calendar with the magic of Ajax. It allows for calendar navigation without refreshing the entire page.

Other Updates and Final Words 

A number of the plugins which I installed on the site make use of versions of the excellent and Prototype JavaScript Framework libraries (as does the Lush theme itself). Rather than having these javascript libraries being downloaded and sourced multiple times I made some modifications to the PHP code for any of these plugins which use these libraries to not pull in the prototype.js & effects.js javascript includes again because they already exist in the lush theme.

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