WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THESE TOOLS
If you’ve been following along with this series, you’ve got a functional website up and running as you read this. Even if you haven’t been following along, if you’ve got a new website and would like to learn about some simple, free tools and resources you might find useful for customizing your site, this should be worth your time. These are tools you can use to customize your site and make it your own.
This is the third installment of this series, in which I’m sharing what it takes to start your own online magazine (or forum or wiki or website in general). Once you’ve figured out why you want to do it and what you’re going to write about, and got yourself up and running, it’s time to start personalizing the site. Here’s why I’m doing this.
Step 3 is broken into two parts: tools & resources, and techniques. Today we’re going to start with the tools & resources.
WHY WE NEED GRAPHICS/IMAGE TOOLS
A picture is worth 1,000 words. You want every picture to count. Here’s some situations where graphics tools can come in handy.
- Design your logo!
- Add your watermark (logo) to images
- Add text to images (like the main image up above)
- Crop pictures to remove distractions or better position your subject
- Adjust colors where the picture just didn’t quite turn out right
- Remove colors where you want a classy, black & white look
- Apply special effects just because they look cool
You need the ability to tweak images to fit your needs, but you’re not quite ready to drop US$700 on Photoshop CS6 and don’t really want to spend $20/month on Photoshop online, either. That’s okay! Here’s a couple options to play with.
GIMP: THE GNU IMAGE MANIPULATION PROGRAM
As far as I know, GIMP will pretty much do everything Photoshop will do. The only reason you might not have heard about it is because it’s designed to run on Linux. That’s clearly not a problem, though, as the screenshot below was taken on my Windows 7-powered PC at the office. I’ve been using Photoshop so many years, I’m not really skilled with GIMP, but I know it will do pretty much anything you might need it to do to pictures you want to use on your new site and I’ve been trying to get more familiar with using it lately. There are plenty of tutorials online if you want to try it out. You can download GIMP here.
Perhaps the least powerful of all Photoshop versions, Photoshop.com merely requires you to register to gain access to a solid battery of popular image manipulation tools for free. Crop, resize, black & white, et al.. It’s all there. This can be a lifesaver when you’re away from your usual computer and need to get a picture tweaked for publishing.
AN IMPORTANT WORD ON IMAGE RESOURCES
You’ve worked hard on your website and the content you publish there. Now imagine how you’d feel if you learned someone used some of your work on their own site, but didn’t ask your permission. You’d be pissed, right? Well, that’s often the case for photographers. You need to give credit where it is due, but there’s more to it than that. You can’t just use any old picture you find on Google. That’s not cool. You want to do the right thing. You want to use pictures you either own, yourself, or have express permission to use.
At first glance, the address looks like a spam site – sxc.hu – but it’s a fantastic place to find all kinds of images. In fact, the pictures you see in the GIMP and Photoshop.com captures above both came from SXC. As with any collection of free, public use imagery, you might not immediately find what you’re looking for – a specific year/make/model vehicle, for example – but if you do a little brainstorming and try searching other keywords, you should find something you can use. Pretty much everything on SXC is fair game, but keep in mind that pictures of people will generally require a release for their permission to have their likenesses used, so you might want to stay away from pictures which could be considered “of somebody.”
TIP: On SXC, hover your mouse over Browse, then select Advanced search to get a more powerful search engine. Check out the categories available. Some of the abstract and playing with light pictures are pretty cool.
TIP: As you browse the search results on SXC, CTRL+CLICK on the thumbnails that interest you. This will open them in new browser tabs, allowing you to quickly find a bunch of pictures to come back to and look at more carefully.
Flickr has a really nice area where you can search for Creative Commons images (see note below). It’s just like searching Flickr for any other pictures, but these are pictures photographers have shared so other people can use them. You can see some of the ways images can – and cannot – be used in the screenshot below.
As we’ve mentioned previously, anything you put online is pretty much considered published. That means you have some copy rights. Creative Commons licenses help you get more mileage out of your work. Take a look back at the Flickr screenshot above. Let’s say you go to a race and get a really awesome picture of something. Of course you want to share that picture on your own website, right? Would you be cool with someone else using that picture if they mentioned your site when they did? What if you published an authoritative article on rebuilding a turbo or something and a popular forum re-published it on their home page with a link back to you as the source?
Not saying you have to put a Creative Commons license on your site, but you can see how using a CC license can help you attract new visitors over time. If you go to the Creative Commons Choose a License page, you can answer some questions to help figure out which CC license is best for you, as well as get a neat little logo to put on your site somewhere to document your decision.
POP QUIZ: Have you noticed our Creative Commons license? When you get to the bottom of this page, check out the footer. What might our license choice mean for you and your new website?
Congratulations! You’ve reached the halfway point of this article!
WordPress – and, to lesser extent, forums – make use of what are called plugins. Think of these like the apps you might install on your smart phone. Just as apps add functionality to your mobile devices, plugins add functionality to your website. Here’s a handful of some of my favorites and why I’ve installed them.
NOTE: There are thousands of ways to customize websites with plugins, so there’s no way I could possibly cover them all. These are for WordPress, as that’s the original spirit of this series, but I would encourage you to Google around a bit for plugins and mods for whatever platform you’ve selected for your site.
DISQUS – This is the first plugin I install on any WordPress site. You have to create an account on Disqus (pronounced “discuss”) to use it, but it handles the comments. Why? When you comment, I get an email. I can reply, moderate, or even delete it right from my phone from anywhere in the world. If people take the time to leave a comment, I want to be sure they know it is appreciated. Disqus makes that happen.
BJ LAZY LOAD – Does it seem like the pictures on this site seem to load just a half second after you scroll past them? That’s BJ Lazy Load in action. Why? It helps the page load faster for you! Only the images you scroll to are loaded.
WORDPRESS SEO – Also known as “Yoast,” this powerful plugin helps you do a better job at SEO – search engine optimization. Why? The easier it is to find your work, the more people will actually find it! There are solid tutorials on the web which will walk you, step-by-step through the setup.
WP SUPER CACHE – It’s all about speed. Why? You’ve got less than 5 seconds to convince the person who just landed on your website that they want to stick around. This plugin caches the pages they visit, so when they click back, BAM! The pages load instantly, making sure your content has as much time as possible to convince them to stay.
RELEVANSSI – This is a recent favorite. It supercharges the search on your WordPress site. Why? If someone takes the time to try searching for something on your website, you kinda want them to have a pretty good chance of finding it.
LOCKER – From Code Garage, this one will cost you another $10/month, BUT a year from now, when you Google something you wrote because you can’t find it and Google shows you a bunch of phrama-spam links in the result because your site was hacked without your knowledge (they seldom ask permission, after all) and you’re filled with furious rage, or three years from now, when you try fixing something on the back end and accidentally wipe the database, completely erasing everything you’ve ever done, and now you’re trying not to throw up all over your desk, you’ll be glad you’ve got a Locker subscription. Trust me. All of the above has happened to Gearbox Magazine in the last SIX MONTHS.
HOW DO I INSTALL THESE PLUGINS?
Good question. From your WordPress dashboard, simply click on the Add New link under the Plugins sub-menu. Then it’s just a question of searching for the plugins mentioned above, installing and activating them, and customizing the settings to your liking. (Don’t forget to Google for setup tutorials, which the plugin publishers often provide.) You can also install plugins via FTP.
FTP = FILE TRANSFER PROTOCOL
Windows has an FTP application built-in. Linux does too. I suspect Apple products are similarly equipped. I find it’s easier to just download Filezilla on all my machines so I can use the same application when/if I need FTP access to the server. There are a number of reasons why this is useful. Here are a couple.
- uploading a large number of files at a time
- overwriting default logos without changing code
- creating a folder for pictures used across the web (like forum signatures & avatars)
THAT ENOUGH TO GET YOU STARTED?
This is all stuff I use to make this magazine (and my other, personal sites) happen. Some of it, like the plugins, runs quietly in the background, seamlessly taking care of business. Some of it gets used a few times a week, such as Photoshop. Some of it gets used less frequently, like GIMP or Photoshop.com or Filezilla, but I eventually use it all. You might too, so I hope this is useful to you.
It’s hard for me to determine where to wrap this one up, as I’ve learned a lot in doing this for so many years. A guy could do an entire magazine on nothing BUT how to start your own website (and, in fact, thousands do), but this is a car magazine. Just like the way many of us started out playing with cars, it just takes a little bit of knowledge to get things moving. Next time out, we’ll cover some of the processes I run into pretty regularly which might help you out.
Thanks for sticking with it. The stories of gearheads must be told. Will you help us tell them?