Digital nomads. Flavour of the day. Looking for a better digital experience. Every reasons are good to move from one place to another in the digital world. It’s about having some fun.
I recently came across this blog post from Greg Morris where he writes: “I look at blog designs like Birchtree.me and think to myself “I want a blog like that” and then go out and try to build one.”. I often tell myself the exact same thing. But then, not long after, I came across another blog post but this time by Andy Nicolaides writing on his blog, The Dent:
“I’ve just gone through yet another blog migration, moving from Micro.Blog to Ghost (again). I was happily posting to Ghost a year or so ago, saw a nice looking blog on Micro.blog and jumped ship. I then sat there, not posting for half a year, before I saw Greg Morris’ updated site over on Ghost and my blog envy kicked off again. Let’s not even mention how incredible Matt Birchler’s Birchtree looks right now!”
Ghost has always been a source of curiosity for me, coming back to it from time to time to have a look and see how it is evolving over time. Following those two blog posts, I got back to one of my article about a past experience with Ghost for photo sharing. At the time, it didn’t go well. Furthermore, for unknown or clearly defined reasons, I started using Substack to host my newsletter. So, this time around, I came back to Ghost to look at it has an alternative to Substack. Why? After all, I was quite happy with Substack. And yet… If I look at Substack and Ghost, there are many things that made me dubious of my choices.
I don’t get any subscribers from Substack discovery or because Substack is very popular these days.
I prefer the way Ghost is handling the publishing process and the distinction between having a CMS and a newsletters publishing platform within the same platform.
Ghost’s API supports text editors like Ulysses which would help speed up the process of creating newsletter issues. By working directly in Ulysses each new issues would be much easier to put together as Ulysses supports templates., Substack doesn’t. Since the basic structure of my newsletter stays the same each month, using a template makes full of sense.
Substack offers some visual customization options, but they are quite limited. On the other hand, Ghost offers themes which helps a lot to make a more personal looking website.
Ghost supports Unsplash, which is a must for me.
Ghost provides better support for photos than in Substack with photo galleries. This could prove to be useful for my photo legend series, among other use cases.
Integration of Plausible analytics is easy something not possible with Substack. Another must-have for me.
Stripe integration which I already use for Medium payments if I ever chose to make a paid tier to my newsletter.
Commenting is possible by tweaking the theme and adding some integration code. Yet, I wish there was a better and easier way to add this to a website. In the future I could try to setup Commento for comments using this procedure. Ghost theme customization is available only on mid-tier and up paid plans. This feature could replace the thread feature available on Substack.
Good integration with Buffer via Zapier, IFTTT integration possible only via RSS feeds. As a paying member of IFTTT, I chose the latter.
Better RSS feeds support on posts, tags, pages just by adding /rss to any URL. On top of that, it is possible to customize the webpage referring to a tag by adding a header image and a description, just like here for the Photo Legend Series.
Selecting a fully featured theme is challenging, as Ghost doesn’t provide an easy way to filter themes by supported features.
I’ll leave my Substack account active just for the Substack Reader feature.
Easy migration path from Substack to Ghost using this procedure.
Should I import my content? After a short test run while using the 14-days evaluation period, it was clear that I had to.
How Ghost Could Be Improved for Me?
One of the most powerful and useful features of the Ghost editor is the ability to create and re-use content snippets. If you’ve ever used an email client with a concept of saved replies then this will be immediately intuitive.
Integration features and custom themes for the entry-level paid plan (access to the API admin token).
A customizable dashboard.
A native client on Mac or iPad.
Steps to Move From Substack to Ghost
Export my data from Substack — this took less than 10 minutes to complete. Substack makes this super easy to do.
Import my subscribers list into Ghost’s members list.
Download Xcode from the Mac App Store, launch it for default configuration (required for the next step).
Follow this procedure to import articles into Ghost CMS. This is done via command line. migrate substack numericcitizen-export-2021-11-14-m9k19kr99s/posts.csv --readPosts numericcitizen-export-2021-11-14-m9k19kr99s/posts --url https://numericcitizen.substack.com --useMetaImage --useMetaAuthor --drafts falseA lot of my decision to switch depended on the success of this step. If content was successfully imported without too much required tweaks, I would consider this a success and go with the next steps.
Import the created zip file (the migrate command generated a 230 mb zip file ready to import). This file was then imported using this procedure.
Once the import is complete and without error, configure site pages and tags.
Review imported content and set tags according to each post content. That step was tedious but was mandatory to recreate the same content structure currently on my Substack website.
Configure and write a contact page so that users can click from the bottom portion of my Ghost website in order to get in touch with me.
Connect my account Ghost to my Stripe account just in case even though my newsletter is free — you never know!
Configure Ulysses publishing options to publish content from within the application to Ghost. After all, this was one of the main reason I switched from Substack to Ghost, right?
Do a test run with a fake article, check RSS feed content generation.
Configure the support and reply-to email addresses.
Setup Plausible analytics and add it to my Ghost website using the customization feature, in the header section.
Update all my IFTTT automations for when a newsletter issue comes out for cross-posting to Twitter via Buffer.
For mid-tier paid plans only: Add Twitter Revue new sign up to Ghost via Zapier (this requires the Admin API token which is not available in the entry-level paid tier.)
For mid-tier paid plans only: Add Ghost cross posting to Buffer via Zapier (this requires the Admin API token which is not available in the entry-level paid tier.) It took me about a day of work to accomplish all this, from the trigger to the final announcement post on Substack. I’m super happy with the end results. You can subscribe to my free newsletter by going to the website: https://numericcitizen-introspection.blog.
Notion Releases Their Public APIs — Here Is Why I’m Excited
It’s now official: Notion offers APIs ([currently in beta]). This is good news for Craft users like me who is awaiting for a way to move my Notion data into Craft. I don’t have a lot of data but the data that I’ve got, I’d like to move it out. According to my sources close to the Craft team, they are looking at it. No timeline was given. I’m patient.
Yesterday, I put an end to my HEY World experiment. After making the call, I wanted to keep my content and migrate it to Substack. So, I tried the Substack RSS feed import feature, but it wasn’t working. As shown in the following screenshot, the error wasn’t explicit enough to pinpoint the cause of the problem.
I had 23 posts to import, not a big deal, but I preferred not to move my content manually. Trying different variations of the URL didn’t help. Substack simply wouldn’t detect any feeds from HEY World. Here is my solution.
HEY World uses ATOMRSS feed format. I thought Substack couldn’t parse those. The idea was to transform the ATOMRSS feed into something else. After googling for a solution, I remembered about RSSMix. This free web service enables merging many feeds into one. I use it to merge all my personal RSS feeds into a single one to build a publishing timeline. It’s pretty cool1. For my HEY World content migration, I took the ATOMRSS feed with another one and merged the content2. The end-result is another feed but this time in XML format. I went to Substack again and sure enough, the resulting feed could be imported. After the import was completed, all I had to do was to delete posts from the second feed content which wasn’t part of HEY World3. Simple as that.
Nearly a year ago, I introduced my Numeric Citizen Visual Space, a website made with Universe, a website creation application running on iPhone, iPad and macOS. This space never really took off, never attracted trafic, probably because of the lack of a social network dimension to it. In retrospective, this was an experiment more than any thing else. The tool took all the place. Universe is a special application where website are built by using a visual block metaphor. There is nothing like it. I was seduced by it and forgot the end goal of building a web presence to expose my urban exploration photography work. Eventually, I stopped updating my website. I decided to cancel my expensive subscription (159.99$ CAN per year). If there was a free tier, I wold probably keep it, but that’s not the case.
I’m still looking for a better photo sharing solution besides the usual suspects. Glass? Bokeh? Both of these are still under wrap and their future is uncertain. As I’m waiting, I decided to “park” my work on a lesser-known place called “Ello”. Ello is a lot like Tumblr. It’s free and does the job for now.
You can still have a look at my Visual Space up until my subscription expiration date, on May, 17th, 2021. After that date, my work will vanish forever.
Getting Ready for Google’s May 2021 Algorithm Update
Coming in May, Google is going to tweak their ranking algorithm, yet again, by including new experience metrics into the equation. Those changes were first announced back in May 2020. According to a recent post on Yoast’s blog:
In May 2021, Google will add Core Web Vitals as ranking factors in its algorithm. This means your site’s page speed and page loading time will impact your rankings.
…these “page experience signals” will be rolling out in May 2021 as part of an algorithm update, meaning how well you measure up against these page experience factors will positively or negatively affect your rankings after this update takes effect.
After reading this, I was expecting the worst. I felt like it was like a storm waiting to strike. The feeling is not really cool, a feeling of “deja vue”. On November 2019, something happened to my blog visitors analytics: it dropped by more than 50% in just a few days. I was astonished, and didn’t really know what happened or if I broke something with my blog. I did some research and found out that it was the consequence of a ranking algorithm change by Google1, an update that put my blog at disadvantage2.
Preparing for this upcoming change, I had to look for ways to minimize the impacts on my main blog, fearing I would lose traffic, again.
The Starting Point
At first, when I started to look into this matter, I discovered the pagespeed insights tool from Google3. Don’t miss this insightful article about why PageSpeed Insights is an important tool. As you might expect, I tried it against my websites. According to this tool, my main blog didn’t score well, both from a mobile user perspective and from a desktop user perspective, albeit it did fair a bit better for the latter. Both scores weren’t in the “green range”. I ran the test many times, and sure enough, on average, the scores were bad. Consider the following two scorecards.
That’s not good, but it serves as the starting point. I had to make improvements on all fronts. Does all WordPress websites need to be slow? They certainly have a bad reputation in that respect. As a Business Plan subscriber on WordPress.com, I get to run my website on its own virtual instance, this makes a big difference. Yet, the next steps weren’t clear to me.
Improving the Mobile Experience
The worst score shows that mobile users were the most affected. How many visitors come from the desktop and how many come from mobile devices? According to my Plausible analytics, the vast majority of my visitors are surprisingly coming from the desktop, not from mobile devices, as shown in the following table. Yet, the score needed some improvements.
A big change was to remove support for Google’s AMP page format. AMP pages aren’t the best idea for the open web and made my website run slower according to my testing. Disabling AMP support in WordPress.com is as simple as turning off a switch. After doing do, I could already observe big improvements in loading time, but that wasn’t enough to get my score into the green zone. What else could I do?
Revisiting My WordPress Plug-In Usage
WordPress is well-known for its support of plug-ins. The more plug-ins installed, the higher the possibility of a slower than normal website. It’s easy to have a plug-ins overload. For my optimization work, I had to revisit the usefulness of each of them.
I simplified my blog’s main page a bit by removing a rarely used footer widget. This widget allowed people to subscribe to my Mailbrew newsletter. This change did improve response time quite a bit. For some reasons, the Mailbrew widget contained many scripts calling Mailbrew’s home which was increasing latency.
The Twitter timeline widget was removed too; I don’t think people cared much about my latest tweets showing up there4. By removing the sidebar on the main page, content retakes the center stage in a cleaner page layout.
The IndieWeb support plug-ins (three in total: IndieWeb, Micropub, IndieAuth) were disabled as I suspected they could negatively impact the performance. After re-testing the website, speed didn’t change much, those plugins were re-enabled5. Media Cleaner, Mailchimp support were no longer needed and were removed too, but I don’t think they were negatively impacting my website loading time, though.
There are other plug-ins in use like CoBlocks, which adds a richer set of block types in the WordPress editor. This plug-in adds a few scripts and CSS according to my research. By disabling this plug-in, some of my posts would break, not that there are many of them but still, some care is required here.
After reading on WP Rocket capabilities, I went ahead installing the plug-in. After installing the plug-in, WP Rockets does many optimizations behind the scene without any intervention. Then, I poked around the provided features and started to enable options one-by-one, carefully testing my website at each step, as suggested in the plug-in documentation, to catch if anything was broken. At each step, everything was loading perfectly. At the end of this process, I did a new round of performance testing using the page insight tool, and to my delight, my score went up even more.
In summary, the following options in WP Rocket were enabled:
Cache / Enable caching for mobile devices
Cache / Enable caching for logged-in WordPress users
File Optimization / Minify CSS files
File Optimization / Optimize CSS delivery
Media / LazyLoad for images
Media / LazyLoad for iframes and videos
Media / Add missing image dimensions
All in all, I’m pleased with WP Rocket. The optimizations may not provide a night and day difference, but they do add up to make my website a better web citizen.
Next up, is a companion service to WB Rocket, Imagify. It is simple to install and configure. The free version allows for 500 mb of image content to be optimized. I went with the unlimited version, so I could process all my published content. It took 12 hours to process about 5 GB of images. The end-result is that my image library size was reduced by 62%. That’s a big improvement. As expected, optimized images look pretty much the same as before.
I considered using a content delivery network service (CDN), but after much thought, some internet research, I decided not to do so. My blog isn’t using a lot of heavy content like videos, only some pictures and many screenshots. I don’t think this would have made much of a difference6 for the majority of my visitors7. The following is a Lighthouse test result for speed access according to geographic locations. The next graphic shows where my visitors are coming from.
My WordPress theme is flexible and allows for many customizations. This means a lot CSS is involved. I’m also using custom fonts which also add some weight to the website. According to SolarWinds’ Pingdom tool, the main page of my blog weights about 784K, where 40% is for the fonts, 27% for images and 26% is for scripts and CSS. Repeated tests show the main page loads in about 3 seconds or less. This doesn’t fit with own observation when I’m visiting my website from my machine, which seems to load a bit faster than in 3 seconds. Three seconds isn’t bad, isn’t? Anyway, I’m not planning to undo my fonts selection as the standard ones are ugly as hell.
Another step was to look at Google-related stuff. Since I’m using Plausible analytics, references to Google Analytics were no longer needed and were removed from WordPress.com configuration settings found in the JetPack settings. Good riddance.
Final Scores and Looking Forward
I’m happy with all the improvements I’ve made to my website. The mobile version is where the improvements were the most impressive. It could be better, but I’m utterly happy about where the score stands now.
Keep in mind that WordPress-based sites are dynamically generated. A lot of processing happens behind the scene when hitting the homepage with a browser. My microblog and the site you are reading now are static-generated and are really fast to load. But, if you compare the loading time of all these sites, you’ll find that they are comparable.
Now, the big question: am I ready for Google’s 2021 algorithm update? I think so. Will my optimization efforts be rewarded? Who knows? Google is like a beast that we have to feed and please, who knows if he will like the served meal this time.
By increasing the score of my website for mobile users by as much as 225% and by more than 25% for the desktop users, by meeting most of Google’s requirements for “website providing a great user experience”, I hope that the upcoming Google changes in May could be beneficial.
My beloved Google Analytics replacement, Plausible, just announced that their APIs are now out of beta, and ready for consumption. As much as I find this news exciting, I’m turning to the developers community to come up with native applications. I’m really hoping that developers behind applications like Numerico will come up with something for those who no longer trust Google for their analytics needs. See Numerico in action in the following promotional YouTube video.