When we were approached by Informa Telecoms & Media Ltd (part of Informa plc) about whether WordPress could be used as a fully fledged news platform suitable for replacing their Telecoms.com site, we hesitated, but not for very long. Following a full analysis of their requirements we were able to confirm that in combination with some of our own technology, plus some new development, we could create a very flexible WordPress based news platform that allowed for excellent productivity for the Telecoms.com team.
One of the biggest problems that Telecoms.com had experienced with their previous Java based system was that there was relatively little flexibility built into the system. Most changes meant going back to the developers with a formal request. This was both expensive (developers usually are), time consuming and, worst of all, meant that the site could not respond quickly to events in the market place.
What was needed was an ability to create new sections on the site, quickly, without use of expensive development staff. We had already proven this technology with our Caribou News Theme that we offer freely as a GPL project through our WordPress.org contributions, and this helped us to assure the Informa TM team that we were able to match their requirements.
Planning & Design
We worked with the Telecoms.com team initially to supply a range of mock-ups. However, although they were effective, they weren’t exactly what was wanted by the team. In order to expedite matters we agreed to work with a third party design agency, Coast Digital, who supplied excellent designs in Fireworks format. These took some of our ideas and built upon them to create the sophisticated and attractive site that is now visible.
At the same time, we planned the structure of the site and how its framework would allow the client to manage content. We decided that although the Caribou sections system is useful the full requirements as planned meant that we decided to use a page based widget driven system for the site. This would allow the client to create pages using the section page template that is part of the theme and this would initiate a series of widget spaces which would become available in the WordPress back-end. Once available, various standard and custom widgets, appropriately styled, could be dropped in place.
The Sections System
The ability to create sections full of widget spaces is only useful if you have suitable widgets to place there. One of the biggest parts of the project was creating and styling a wide range of widgets that allowed the site adminstrators to quickly create a new section and populate it with content. The primary key to this is Interconnect IT’s Category Lister Widget which allows a client to select content according to logical category criteria. You could have a set of regional categories and a set of format categories and choose items that are in both.
In this case, there are a range of format categories such as News, Opinion and so on, and a continental based region categorisation. If the client wishes to select content that is news based from America, they simply choose those two categories and any content that matches the criteria will be displayed.
The key advantage to this is that a new section can be created within minutes. For example, should there be a business need to create a Nokia section, the client could create a category for Nokia, and then select content that is News and Nokia for one widget, Opinion and Nokia for another, and so on. They then add the navigation to the section using the menu builder plugin we modified for the purpose, and the section becomes ‘live’. The whole job of creating a Nokia news and information section could be carried it in less than quarter of a section. For a responsive news site this facility is extremely important.
Getting a new section built would take weeks and was a complicated task. Now we can do it on the fly. It allows us so much more freedom and opportunity to do innovative things, and neatly get rid of stuff that doesn’t work out.
James Middleton, Managing Editor of Telecoms.com.
One thing we warn all sites against is something we call ‘pluginitis’ which is where a site owner keeps adding various plugins, some of which may interact with one another in unexpected ways. We believe that most sites rarely need more than ten or so plugins to function in a way that is suitable for needs.
We supply a set of Interconnect IT only plugins, which add news specific functionality and optimisations to WordPress, such as theme specific image resizing, alternative post titles, category selection, and standfirst capabilities. These plugins are only available from Interconnect IT for projects that we lead, and are not available through third parties.
We also selected various plugins which were already available in the GPL sphere which added appropriate functionality, such as Lester Chan’s popular WP-Polls Plugin, the Add This social bookmarking plugin, and WordPress Popular Posts amongst others. All were selected and tested for performance, reliability and quality before being applied. Other plugins were also used, but most required modification to fulfil their requirements and we expect to feed this code back into the community in due course.
One thing that we never do, and for which there is rarely any need, is to modify the WordPress core. This helps reduce maintenance issues and costs in the future.
Hosting & Performance
For hosting, systems administration and load testing we worked with Kumina N.L. who have since become a company with which we partner by choice. They provided a robust four way, load balanced hosting solution and carried out load-testing to ensure the servers were capable of handling peak traffics that can come to any news site. The infrastructure relies on a Debian based AMP stack and has proven to be extremely robust.
One thing we did learn is that when content is pulled from a third party site (for example, adverts) site loading times can be slowed by factors outside your control. To resolve this in future implementations of such sites Interconnect IT is in the process of developing post-loading technology which will create a widget that seeks external content only after all other important content has been loaded rather than using the conventional approach of loading content in strict order.
Although actual figures for Telecoms.com’s traffic are confidential business information, they have told us that after two months visitor numbers and page views have grown by approximately 30% to 50%, depending on the metrics used. The analytics suggest that site ‘stickiness’ and engagement have increased markedly thanks to the improved design, adoption of threaded comments (allowing for discussions to take place on news), most popular news information, and related content teasers.
WordPress has succeeded in becoming a successful blogging platform over the past six years, but beyond that it has started to show the flexibility of the framework it provides. The ease of use required by bloggers, coupled with a sophisticated theme and plugin framework has allowed the system to go far beyond its original means.
When good developers mix with WordPress the results can be impressive and help to create professional news sites for budgets that, including development and implementation, often cost less than the traditional CMS systems once used. As a consequence interest in WordPress has mushroomed significantly. While interest is still primarily focussed on use of WordPress for blogging platforms, Telecoms.com has shown its power when used as a news platform also.
By comparison [to the previous system], WordPress is a dream, and the best thing is, less technical users find it intuitive and easy to get along with. As a successful blogging platform you can tell a lot of time and effort has been invested in making it a slick and productive tool, and that translates well when using it as a business CMS too.
Support & Maintenance
Since going live the system has proven to be robust and simple to use. In fact, it proved so robust that there was no need for an ongoing support contract from us for our code. This is often the case with our work and we make little money from support – while this may seem like poor business sense, we believe that building for reliability and performance helps us to keep our clients coming back to us time and time again. We anticipate working with Informa on future projects.
WordPress, coupled with Interconnect IT’s additional technology has led to a strong, high-performance website which has significantly exceeded the expectations of the client. WordPress has now proven itself as a platform for content far beyond blogging at Informa and we believe they are now likely to use the platform on future projects. Since then, Interconnect IT has been approached by, and entered into discussions with, a number of other news organisations with a view to developing WordPress usage within their organisations.