Improving WordPress Search

One thing that’s always niggled me about WordPress is the search capability. While other area’s within the platform have improved over the years, especially in the back end, search has always felt a bit unloved. I’ve used plugin’s like the excellent Search Everything to allow for wider and deeper searching of my blog but I still wanted more, especially as content like my images are hosted elsewhere on Flickr. I’m now trying a new search solution, Viewzi Site Search, which in my opinion delivers a far better search tool than default WordPress. To see Viewzi in action type a word into the search box at the top of this page (if you visit the site that is RSS fans) and press return or click on Search.

Viewzi blog search

The search results will be returned in a far more visually rich style as seen in the screenshot above. Extracts for each post are shown with your search term highlighted. Comments and posts are also easily distinguished and you can easily turn off comment searching if you only want pages and posts to be searched. The results appear in a modal window above your blog page – click on a post title to jump to that page in the blog. So far I’m really pleased with the testing I’ve done and the accuracy of the search results.

There are four blog ‘views’ currently available. The standard blog search works against your blog but you can also set up views for Video, Photo and Timeline. Video currently supports YouTube and Viddler accounts with more coming soon. Photo supports Flickr, SmugMug or Picassa.

Viewzi flickr search

Clicking on Blog Photo will run a search against my Flickr photo’s, returning popular images in the modal window. Mouse over the image to display a higher resolution picture and click on the picture to go directly to the Flickr page for the image. Really pleased with how this works and beats having a local gallery installed on the blog.

As a side note, the picture highlighted was taken in Aug 2007, the day the Apple store opened in Glasgow and also the day that Roy picked up his first Apple computer. It’s also one of the last images of me before I started losing some weight. What a difference! I look really fat in that picture compared to now. Anyway, enough about me.

The Blog Timeline displays a nice scrolling timeline view of the search. This is really a nice to have compared to the other two views but it’s a view that I’ve looked at having before on the blog via a couple of plugin’s so it’s good to see it incorporated in Viewzi. Within the plugin settings you have some search stats available – number of searches per day, topics searched for etc. Standard fare really.

One issue that may put people off is that adverts are displayed amongst the search results. These are adverts placed by Viewzi. i don’t have an issue and they are working on ways of incorporating your own adverts into the search results. Once in place your adverts will be displayed 50% of the time and theirs 50% of the time. Sounds fair and if your desperate to set that up now you can contact them for more info and help.

Some features that I’d like to see added through time:

  • Search results return tags and categories associated to posts that can be clicked on for more deeper browsing.
  • Support of additional search views – my comments from other sites through Intense Debate, del.icio.us links, Google Reader shares etc.
  • Ability to search across all views via one search, returning results based on priority and relevance.
  • Greater control over the modal form – CSS styling to allow alignment with blog design.

As a package I’m really impressed so far. Easy to set-up, no styling required and search results delivered quickly with hopefully more sources covered soon. I did also look at Lijit which offers much the same promise as Viewzi with many more supported sources but the results returned weren’t as well styled as with Viewzi or as well integrated. Overall Viewzi is a plug-in that is well worth trying if the default WordPress search isn’t quite doing it for you.

Blog Updates

With work finished for the year (and by that I mean I’m not dialling in to work again as I would end up doing ‘stuff’) it’s given me time to make a few tweaks to the blog. So, in no particular order:

  • On the hosting side moved from PHP 4 to PHP 5. No noticeable improvements or issues except that I can now run a few extra plugins that were PHP 5 only.
  • New WordPress, new theme. I’ve moved to using Depo Clean which I’ve always liked. Hardly any tweaks – made it slightly wider and gave the sidebar slightly more room and that’s it. Still need to think of a catchy tagline.
  • Dropped the number of plugins I was using which has speeded things up a bit.
  • Added Lifestream plugin which I really like. Seems to work quickly and so far without errors.
  • WordPress 2.7 back end is very different. I actually like this over 2.6 except it still feels sluggish. So I’ve removed some dashboard entries which has helped and also moved to turbo mode using Google Gears. This install, for me, was really messy and I constantly had to enable/disable gears and refresh the install page. Now that it’s complete there is a small but worthwhile performance increase.

That’s about it really. Now onto the important matter – content. I’ve got a handful of draft posts that I either need to finish, but they might not exactly be relevant now, or ditch and move on. Finding time to blog has been difficult. Even knowing what to blog has been difficult, especially as Twitter works so well for firing off quick one liners and links. Still, I’ve a few posts that I do need to get completed over the next couple of weeks so we’ll see how it goes after that. I can never see me shutting the site down but I would like to post more so it doesn’t feel so stale. Ahh, so fuck- who cares if it’s stale. It’s my site, I’ll blog when i want to! Mmmm – there’s a tagline in there methinks.

Intense Debate

IntenseDebate is a service for improving and managing your blog comments, not only on your own blog but across any blog supporting their service. I’ve always been frustrated that the comments on the blog are:

  • Basic with no threading support
  • Ask for a lot of details when people visit
  • No way of keeping track of my comments in one central place – i.e. posting elsewhere – you can’t see when those posts are updated

I tried CoComment a couple of years ago but was never satisfied with the service. Disqus and IntenseDebate looked to be better options but I never liked that the comments were stored elsewhere and not on my site. For me to commit to a service I wanted to be more in control of comments and be in a position to move them to where I wanted at and time. However there’s been a couple of changes recently which has made me move to installing IntenseDebate on the site.

Firstly IntenseDebate have been bought by Automattic, the people behind WordPress and a few other services. This gives me a lot more reassurance that the service will be around to stay and that it will be enabled on a lot more blogs in the near future. This should make it easier to track conversations across the many sites I read. Secondly, both Disqus and IntenseDebate now support syncing of comments so that the comment exists not only on a remote server but on your local blog installation.

There are many features within the IntenseDebate pluging – threading, comment moderation, commenter profiles including reputation points and many more that are covered on their website. There is also an excellent dashboard that pulls together comments on your own posts and comments you have made elsewhere, but only on those sites that have also signed up to IntenseDebate.

I’m hoping that with WordPress 2.7 coming out soon which starts to include some of the functionality of IntenseDebate and also the availability of the new plugin will lead to an increase in the services support across many more sites. However please do let me know if you hit any snags when commenting – at the slightest wiff on any problems I’ll move back to the old system. However there are no issues so far for me so here’s hoping for plain sailing.

WPtouch

The iPhone allows you to view all the internet. It must do, the adverts say so. While the Safari browser is excellent you can’t view Flash content and some websites will load slower than you’d like due to the resources available on the iPhone. I stumbled on an excellent WordPress plugin called WPtouch which will render an iPhone specific version of your WordPress blog.

WPtouch
WPtouch

As you can see in the screens above the plugin renders the site so it fits perfectly on the iPhone. It also shows the comment count and selecting a post and then one more click and I can see the comments and make a reply. The plugin comes with lot’s of configuration options that allow you to change colours, icon’s used etc and also supports other plugins rendering a photo’s page if FlickRSS is setup correctly for example. I’m impressed with the plugin and it certainly makes my site more usable on the iPhone.

From the iphone

So I’m writing this from the iPhone. The WordPress app for the iPhone came out this morning which I installed over 3G onto the phone. I can now write up posts on the move, adding tags and categories too.

Seems to be working well so far although will only truly work if it posts to the blog successfully. The over the air app install was a bit hairy though. Two resets required before it finally installed. That’s what I get for adopting early.

WordPress 2.5

WordPress has just updated to 2.5 and despite having reservations the test blog worked fine so I upgraded this site just a few minute ago. Functionality wise there isn’t a tremendous amount changed on first inspection. However digging deeper reveals some major changes that make running a blog easier and have also meant a reduction on plugin dependency which is always a good thing.

Wordpress DashboardYou’ll first notice the changed admin and dashboard screens. I still feel pretty mixed about the changes. I think the dashboard is a lot better and now allows you to control what feeds to display without hacking the back end. Plugins, options and management screen layouts are also improved. One nice little add-on is that the dahsboard can now be skinned too and no doubt we’ll see some great colour scheme’s over the coming weeks.

Write Page

I’m not sold on the write page though. Previously you could drag and drop panes to show/hide the options you needed. This meant I could have tags and categories where I couldn’t miss them. Now they are pushed down the page and I know I will miss setting them from time to time. I guess in the grand scheme it’s not a major issue but it feels like a backward step. Another nice add-on is better tag management so I’ve disabled the plugin I was using to help with tags. Feeds should also no longer break at the more tag, reversing an unpopular change…and again removing a plugin I was using.

Another step in making things easier is plugin installs. Instead of just informing you when a new plugin is available you can now install the updated plugin from the dashboard. This only works for WordPress hosted plugins but is a really nice feature. Gravatar support is also built in so no need for separate plugins although some changes to themes are required to support this.

Although there are many more changes the final ones that may affect you are to the visual post editor. It now doesn’t break your HTML code anymore and it also has a declutter mode which allows you to focus on the writing.

Overall there are more +ve’s than -ve’s and I’m sure plugins will help to tidy up the write screen so I can get it just the way I like it. Get 2.5 here. Note the WordPress site has also had a lick of paint too. Nice.

New Look

New year, new blog skin. I made some small changes to the wonderful Grid Focus over the weekend, enough to actually roll it out to the blog tonight. There’s still a few changes to make and there’s some rough edges here and there but I’m pleased with how it looks and works at the moment.

One thing I can’t take to is widgets. I’m just never happy with how they work. Some do work well, others enforce there own styling which is difficult to undo. That’s what I love about Grid Focus. You need to edit a few php files to get what you want and it gives me a lot more control over what I want and where it is positioned.

I keep saying it but I’m hoping to spend some time crafting my own blog template for the next update but that’s months away. Anyway, if you spot anything a bit funky then please let me know.

Random Stuff

  • Picked up a new router as the old Linksys was starting to misbehave with Xbox Live. The D-Link DIR-655 has performed admirably since purchase with no issues to report. The wireless N has also increased speed for the laptop and has a far better range than the G Linksys. Gigabit ethernet has also increased speeds from the NAS and web sites and downloads are also a lot snappier. A great purchase!
  • Turned 34 last week. Getting old. Fast.
  • Spaces on the laptop works really well.
  • Still not bought an iPhone 🙂 Getting over the initial urge is the biggest hurdle on holding off for version 2. Christmas is next followed by official app’s in Feb.
  • Leopard is performing well although there are a few niggles here and there like images not dismounting or Finder taking a while to refresh. Nothing big really.
  • Four shopping weekends to Christmas – not got a clue what to get.
  • Weight loss still progressing well. I’ll do a proper progress post later in the year.
  • Some job changes at work are in progress. Hopefully. Maybe. Probably.
  • If you miss OS X hierarchical folders then OldFolder is for you.
  • The new Worpdress plugin update feature is great. Makes managing plugins a lot easier than it used to be.
  • Shut down Forza Leagues this weekend. We put a lot of effort into it but unfortunately the game and the small community let us down really. It still niggles just how much people demanded from the site and the admin team but put little back in themselves. It’s the first time I helped to run a community site and it’s an experience I don’t fancy repeating soon. Once bitten.
  • Still got a really nasty cold. Tiredness now gone but the snot hasn’t.
  • COD4 is the new Halo 2. The abuse and shouting before a game is tiring. If the dev’s could have picked up one thing from the beta or Halo 3 it should have been a quick method of muting and no way of hearing the other team until AFTER the match. Still, it’s a great game and the upcoming patch should address the small issues the game currently has.
  • OmniFocus now available. Looks nice and integrates well with iCal and Mail. Need to see how it stacks up against iGTD which is free and includes .Mac syncing.
  • Car passed it’s MOT with little trouble. I’ve had the Focus for six years now. While I’d like a new car, I don’t really need one so I’ll have it for a while yet I’d imagine.
  • Only four more weeks at work before I stop for Christmas break….and three weeks off. Bliss.

Blog Comments

Looks like there is some competition for your blog comments. Disqus and Intense Debate are both offering plug-in’s which really will change how your blog comments look and feel. User profiles, threaded comments, comment rating and even a forum for your comments are offered by both. I’ve not tried either as I would have two main worries.

1) Where are the comments held and could I move to another service with ease or just back to WordPress?

2) Spam!

Ultimately one of these (there are other services too) will start to dominate and maybe then I’ll take a look. It would be great if some of the bigger sites like Digg or BBC supported one of these services so you could have a standardised commenting system to use on any site. Certainly Intense Debate seems to have the most features, including OpenID support but their name is really bad. One to keep an eye on.