Wrestling With Joomla 3.1.5

This past weekend, I decided to create a new Joomla site. Partly, I missed working with it since my dabbles back in 2011 doing some freelance work (which turned out to be less than a pleasant experience). Also, I guess I felt very empowered by my recent update and redesign of my own site, that I figured I would keep the ball rolling. Needless to say, I probably bit off a wee bit more than I could chew (also, it may be interesting to re-read what I wrote about Joomla vs. WordPress two years ago).

First of all, for those who may stumble upon this article, I am not a professional web developer. I am simply a hobbyist. I wouldn’t say I’m a true beginner…because I’ve been creating websites with Joomla since 2006. I know enough to go in and change CSS, PHP, or Javascript files if I need to. But I do not do tons of customization and hacking into the Joomla core. My goal is to simply get a site up…get it running…and to make sure it is reliable. Due to my inherent right-brain thinking however, Joomla newbies will probably appreciate this post!

Now, with that short disclaimer out of the way, I’ll move on to listing my major struggles with Joomla over these last two days.

  1. Installation. I use Hostmonster as my webhost. Their C-Panel has a very clear link to install WordPress. Not so with Joomla. It turns out that Joomla was available for a one-click install via the Mojo Marketplace . Something that took me a bit longer to discover than I would like to admit. 🙁CpanelNow prior to this, I did “prepare” to install Joomla by creating a new database and database using in MySQL using MySQL Database Wizard. You’ll see later on why this was important. Installing Joomla 3.1.5 (the latest version) via the Mojo Marketplace was a snap. However, the default template was beyond plain. Also, I never saw any option to install sample data; which left me with a skeletal site. So even if I did find an awesome template, I would need to populate the entire thing with content. Hmmm…So I decided to uninstall (via the Mojo Marketplace script) and start from scratch…almost. I found a great free template over at GavickPro. Which brings me to another important side point; I was determined not to spend any money (except for the $10 I spent on creating the domain). Like most template developers nowadays, they offered a quickstart package of the template, where basically a zip file contains all the files (with all of the settings) you need to launch a live site that looks comparable to their demo. I’ve done this before, so I didn’t go into it so worried. However, I could not figure out how to set up ftp permissions on my HostMonster account. What they did have was a JVM (Java Virtual Machine) tool where you could upload files. It was easy enough…but very slow. I would say that it took about an hour for me to upload all of the quickstart files to begin the installation. Oh, and it was good that I did create that database earlier. Unlike the Mojo Marketplace script, the quickstart will not create your database for you.
  2. Logging In. Ok, once I was installed, I started feeling good again. But I soon realized that the administration area felt “off” to me. I can’t give specifics…but I had the feeling that I couldn’t find anything. I eventually changed the default administrator template to the only other option they give you. That helped. But it still took me a while to get accustomed to it all. I immediately missed the FrontPage Manager (which Joomla 3 doesn’t have) and those little arrows next to your item and category lists which let you arrange the order in a single click. Also you used to be able to edit the CSS and HTML files for your theme right from the administration (Theme Manager) area. Maybe you still can, but I wasn’t able to pinpoint how to get to these files. So the only visual adjustment I made to the site was to change to the default Google font for the site text. I wanted to do more, but didn’t want to spend so much time trying to figure it out.
  3. Finding extensions. Without a doubt, this was the most frustrating part of the entire site launch. I mean, I had been down this road before…but that doesn’t make it any easier! Basically there are a ton of great Joomla extensions out there, that you have to pay for. Free extensions tend to be something of the ‘ok enough to get the job done, but nothing to write home about’ brand. And for Joomla 3.x…the options are few and far in between. Even super popular extensions, like Extended User Fields for K2 are not available for Joomla 3.x; which is sort of frustrating being that it’s been out for about a year. So I spent a lot of time looking for extensions to do a job, then in the end just skipping it and finding a work around. For example, I really wanted an extension to play Spotify playlists. Couldn’t find a free one, so I just ended up learning how to find their embed code, and putting that into the K2 media field. The results aren’t pretty, but it works!
  4. Personalizing the site. The quickstart package didn’t come with any real graphics or text; just placeholder pictures and dummy content. Because I have K2 installed, I really have two sources of content to check to see what publishes where. While I understand that my template was free, I found the documentation to be pretty bad. They have a forum on a third party site, and the documentation in the demo site. Through hunting and pecking, I was able to find the solution to some bugs (i.e. thumbnails won’t be created for modules from article images unless you activate RTL character encoding {oh yes, that makes sense!}). For other ones, I am still scratching my head (the dropdown for thumbnail settings on the module administration area doesn’t work. The solution offered by the developer was to uninstall and then re-install the plugin, but I find that to be a big cop-out.). I still am not clear on how to control module animation and all of the menu parameters.Joomla Bug

In spite of all these challenges, it is refreshing to work with Joomla again. There are so many options in regards to how your site is published, how your content is generated, and the opportunity to put meta data everywhere. It’s a far more liberating web development experience than you get working with WordPress. Although right now, I feel like the kid who’s been released from the confines of the hospital, just to find out that they still aren’t ready to play with the kids on the playground [just yet].

So in a nutshell, here is what I think. I think that people who want to get a nice looking, functional website up fast should steer clear of Joomla. In spite of all the good reviews and expert opinions and accolades, WordPress is still much more intuitive, and much more user-friendly. It is also cheaper in that there are more free plugins available, and less of a chance that you’ll need professional help at some point. The main exception I would give to this is if you know that you are going to have a multi-authored site (like a magazine or an online community of some sorts). In this way, Joomla really stands out and setting up new users, customizing content and attaching SEO data to your content is really straightforward.