WordPress is a great content management system. I’ve used it for document management, as a brochure site for organizations I work with, for ebooks, and for this blog. I’ve recently turned on Automattic’s TwentySeventeen theme and ran into some presentation challenges. In hindsight, it made me realize – again – that you should populate some elements of WordPress posts even if you aren’t using them.
You might call it the voice of experience. Actually, it’s the voice of inexperience. When I started blogging on WordPress in 2012, I’d been blogging on a different platform prior to that. Some of the things you want to do when adding content – setting categories, adding tags – are obvious and universal.
But not everything is. There are some things that, as Emperor Palpatine said, you should do now.
Unless you have access to a lot of free images or take your own, you may avoid using WordPress’ featured image function. Not all themes support it. But if you don’t include images at the start, and you change themes, you may have a mixture of posts with or without images.
Librarians may shudder at the thought of retrospective conversion. This isn’t quite the same, but no-one wants to touch content twice. As the web has become faster and more media has been supported, it’s not surprising that using featured images is now common place.
Do it at the beginning. If you don’t, you may face what I do. When I link back to older content, or when I see it accessed through my analytics, I open it up and add an image. It’s not time consuming – most of my content ages out and is kept for posterity, not for regular re-use. But there’s no reason not to just give every post an image unless your web host’s storage limits prohibit it.
This makes me feel stupid. If you’ve used WordPress for any amount of time and dug into the guts of it, you know that there are two main ways to display content: the_content() and the_excerpt(). The first is the full content object, and the second is a portion of it.
Some themes allow you to define how long the excerpt is or you can edit it yourself. By default it’s 55 words. Displaying the_excerpt can lead to truncated content, since it will arbitrarily chop.
But I like the snippet approach for a home page rather than a more traditional blog approach, which just lays out the entire post. And there are two things you can do to make the excerpt work better.
First, it took me 5 years to realize that there is an excerpt box here on my post editing page. At the top right of your editing interface, where it says Howdy, there is a little drop down called Screen Options.
Like Featured Images, some plugins and themes will use this excerpt. Unlike the manual 55-word random slice of content, you can create a more tailored excerpt for your content in this excerpt box. I use Mark Wiley’s Feature a Page plugin and it calls on the excerpt. In fact, it was because I used his widget – which warns when a featured page doesn’t have an excerpt – that I found out about this functionality.
The other part of this is the Insert Read More option. This is an option on the default WYSIWYG toolbar in WordPress. Normally, by calling the_excerpt, a Read More link is automatically generated below the content. When I decided to change my default TwentySeventeen home page to show excerpts instead of content (using a child theme, of course), that’s what happened.
Except …. If I had no manual excerpt, it included a Read Me link. If I had a manually created excerpt, there was no link. A reader would need to know to click the title, which may not always be obvious.
You can use plugins but I really try to avoid a plugin unless I can’t do it more easily. In this case, it was really a matter of clicking the toolbar and inserting a Read More break in the post. This is invisible to the visitor when they are reading the full post (the_content). But the TwentySeventeen theme will grab the content above it – giving you more control on the excerpt – and show it as an excerpt on the home page, with a Read More link.
Another benefit is that the Read More excerpt is a rich piece of content. An excerpt is just text. But the Read More excerpt takes the content from the post, so if there are hyperlinks in that first well-written paragraph, they are live in the excerpt as well.
Which leads to why you would still manually add an excerpt? Because I use the Feature a Page plugin and because, in the future, I may use something else that relies on the excerpt function rather than the read more function.
I’ve gone back over the last half dozen posts to add the Read More break but am glad I won’t need to go back any further. It shows that sometimes, when you’re getting into a new technology, you need to have considered all the things you should add – metadata, images, descriptions, schema content – so that, as your site inevitably changes over time, you have the foundation to adapt easily to those changes.