Anatomy of a site makeover

It’s been about a month since I began working on updating the Southern York County Life web site.  I thought some of you might be interested in what is driving this makeover, and a few of the more technically inclined might enjoy stepping through what this has involved so far (besides long evenings and short nights!). 

SYC Life has been a bit of an experiment for me.  My dream has been to someday pull it together into a geographically broader version of the successful Stewartstown.com web site that I created way back in 1999.  The Stewartstown community really embraced Stewartstown.com, making it a valuable community resource.  One thing I noticed with Stewartstown.com was that it attracted a broader area than just Stewartstown, which prompted the whole Southern York County idea.

A few years ago I also began a weblog, more popularly referred to as a blog.  It was just my place to comment on whatever interested me.  When I started experimenting with SYC Life I decided to integrate my blog into it to reduce the number of sites I was handling (and the cost involved), and to add a little more content to SYC Life.  I guess it’s kind of like my editorial area!

That brings me to now.  I really want to launch SYC Life beyond just “accidental” traffic, and provide the functionality that will support a thriving online community.  It’s a big effort and a major ongoing time commitment.  At the same time I have the Stewartstown.com site, and I really can’t spare the time to run two separate community sites.  Additionally, Stewartstown.com uses the PostNuke community software, which while not too bad, is not as secure as I’d like (Stewartstown.com has been hacked several times in the last few months--what a headache!), is a pain to upgrade, and is deficient in some important areas, such as a relatively weak forums module and anemic private messages functionality.

SYC Life on the other hand uses a professionally developed content management engine that is outstanding from a site developer and administrator perspective, and the functionality is very strong.  The newer forums module and private messaging system are much more robust.  While certainly more expensive than the free PostNuke system, it’s worth every dollar.

So after months of pondering, I decided to throw my effort behind SYC Life, develop the site into a feature-rich community portal, and incorporate Stewartstown.com into it.  There are certainly some tradeoffs here, but I think the advantages exceed the disadvantages, even for Stewartstown residents.  The main place where a more local focus can be important is in the forums, and I’ve tried to provide enough granularity there to support that without creating a separate forum for every town and township.  Over time I will adjust the forum structure as it becomes necessary.

The end result will have the features that I think are most important, and be something I can manage.  Residents of Southern York County have a lot of common interests, and hopefully this site will help us draw together.

What’s happened so far

Week 1: I upgraded the CMS software to the most recent version.  It was painless.  Then I tackled basic site layout.  I already knew what content areas I needed and had an idea where I wanted them to appear.  This brought me into the strange world of cascading style sheets (CSS) for such things as formatting and site layout.  I’ve used CSS off and on over the years.  It was supposed to make layout easier, but due to differences in how different browsers render pages, it’s not always easy.  Internet Explorer is especially problematic.  By the way, I recommend Firefox as a good alternative to IE.  It’s a pretty nice piece of software.  Anyway, I got the basic layout done, integrated it into the the content system, and got the new home page working.  So far so good.

Week 2: At this point I created templates for the content areas I already had in SYC Life, such as the blog, area directory, site information pages, and various navigation structures.  I also performed a successful transfer of user accounts from Stewartstown.com by exporting tables to a text format, importing them into Excel, massaging the data, and exporting into the SYC Life site database.  It was tedious and manual, but it worked, and proved to me that combining sites was doable technologically with reasonable effort.  I took the new design live during week 2.

Week 3: This was a productive week.  I created the data structures and display templates for new sections of SYC Life, including stories, events calendar, and FAQs.  Then I built the forms and processes that allow users to make submissions to the appropriate content areas.  These are inserted into the content database awaiting approval prior to appearing on the site.  I moved many stories from Stewartstown.com the old fashioned cut-and-paste way.  There were about 60 of them, so it really only took an evening to do that.  I chose not to move all articles, instead selecting those that I thought people might on occasion have reason to go back to.

Week 4: Last week was focused on the forums module.  I purchased and installed this module and began looking at the underlying database structure to see what it would take to convert the Stewartstown.com forums.  It quickly became obvious that this would require me to write a conversion script.  So I dug in and began writing the script one section at a time.  It’s amazing how different two forums can be structured!  It took over 400 lines of code to handle the conversion process, but I finally got it done.  Part of the work was to design the new forum structure.  It needed to be somewhat different than the old forums.  I also decided to write a script to update the user conversions from Stewartstown.com.  That way I can quickly bring the newest members into SYC Life at any time.  No re-registering will be needed!

Week 5: I’m now in week 5, and have mainly worked on some testing, made a few minor conversion tweaks, and cleaned up the appearance a bit.  I’ve also started to look at new hosting options.  My current host is great, if a bit expensive for what I currently have.  I could move to a virtual private server (VPS) with the same host for a good price if I don’t mind taking over some of my own server management.  There’s also another option that is less costly, but I’m leery of moving to an unproven host when my current host has been very good over the years I’ve been with them.  I need to decide soon so that I can move to a new host before combining the sites, when it would be more disruptive.

I’m now thinking about communication.  There are several communication things I need to take care of, including alerting Stewartstown.com members so they are prepared.  For example, I decided not to convert private messages, so if anyone has something in their PM box they don’t want to lose they will need to copy it to their computer.

My goal has been to bring the site live between Christmas and New Years, traditionally a low-traffic time.  I’m actually ahead of schedule, but that could change, especially if I have host issues!  If all goes smoothly I could convert the week before Christmas.  Wouldn’t that be something...a development project that finishes up ahead of schedule!  Don’t count on it though.  December is always a busy month!

Posted by Dan Baldwin on 11/30/2005 at 09:44 PM in Miscellaneous
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