Being a digital nomad is about breaking from routine and discovering what works and what doesn’t.
Every time I build a new website, I apply that same principle. Each website has a unique purpose and audience, reached with a different set of tools and features.
As I built Roadbits.net, I asked myself: how will I take this opportunity to learn and do something new?
This post is the answer to that question. If you’re here for travelogues and introspection, you can skip this one. But if you’re interested in website development or content marketing, read on.
A disclaimer: I built this site, and all my sites, in WordPress. I also work for Automattic, the developers of WordPress.com. That’s not a coincidence, but don’t confuse which is the cause and which is the effect. I’ve been using WordPress since 2006, and I’ve been working for Automattic since 2018. I don’t love WordPress because I work for Automattic; I work for Automattic because I love WordPress.
Here’s how I’m using WordPress to chronicle my adventures as a digital nomad.
I learned HTML, the formatting language of the World Wide Web, last millennium on my Apple II. As such, I’ve historically had the visual editor in WordPress disabled, preferring to edit my code directly in MarsEdit, a blogging client for the Mac.
But in December 2018, WordPress 5.0 introduced a new block-based editor, codenamed Gutenberg. I’d had positive experiences with it, but I wasn’t sure how well it would fit my workflows. Roadbits is the first personal site where I’ve tried using it exclusively.
I’ve been delighted with how much faster and easier it is to write and preview my posts. Hyperlinks can be added just by highlighting text and pasting a URL. Images can be aligned without custom CSS. And embedded content, like tweets and videos, are displayed in the editor just like they would be in the published post; I no longer need to alternate between the editor and a separate “preview” tab. Gutenberg is truly a WYSIWYG editor.
Ensuring a website is discoverable by search engines and attractive to users who find it on social media is known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Social Media Optimization (SMO). I’ve always used the All-in-One SEO Pack plugin for this purpose, but Yoast is what we recommend at work, so I’m giving it a try.
Yoast’s biggest advantage over AIOSEOP is a real-time analysis of one’s writing, pointing out redundant sentence structures, paragraphs that are too long, and passive voice. Its reminders to add internal links (from one blog post to another on the same site) are also helpful.
Yoast lacks some features AIOSEOP does, like Google Analytics (Jetpack Premium can do this), and its feature set overlaps with some other common plugins, like XML sitemaps (Jetpack also does this for free). But the core features I installed Yoast for work excellently, and I’m now better versed in what my clients are using, too.
I’m active on Twitter, and I want to share links to Roadbits posts there. At first I tried the third-party service Hootsuite, manually scheduling tweets to be published at the same time as my posts — but Hootsuite didn’t integrate with WordPress, so anytime I rescheduled a post, I had to reschedule the tweets, too.
Next I tried the Jetpack plugin’s Publicize feature, writing the tweets directly in the WordPress editor. As a prerequisite, last month’s release of Jetpack 8.5 introduced support for Twitter cards, which increase the click rate of the resulting tweets. This worked well, though tweets would be published simultaneously with the post and couldn’t be scheduled for later.
Then my colleague Joe O’Shea recommended I also share my posts on LinkedIn. Jetpack could do this, too — but it would use the same text for both Twitter and LinkedIn, preventing me from customizing the message and choosing unique hashtags.
I finally settled on CoSchedule, a premium service that integrates with WordPress. With CoSchedule, I can craft many social media messages (even multiple tweets) for each post and schedule them for minutes, days, weeks, or months after the original publication, constituting an entire social media campaign.
On CoSchedule’s cheapest tier, the calendar view is rubbish, since it shows all my social media posts, whether or not they are pertinent to Roadbits. But for planning the future, its drag-and-drop interface is a useful tool.
Social media platforms come and go; email is here to stay. I’d much prefer to have that direct relationship with my readers than hope I can squeeze through the filter of a social media algorithm. That’s why I offer email subscriptions to my blog, powered by sending my site’s RSS feed to Mailchimp.
But it’s not enough to have an email list; one has to grow it, too. What I learned in my short time in a mastermind group for Internet entrepreneurs is that pop-up forms, while annoying, are effective. I first tried implementing them via an annual subscription to OptinMonster, which offered plenty of design and implementation choices — even if the feature I really wanted, exit detection (which waits to pop up the form until the reader is about to navigate away from the page/tab), is available only at the more expensive tiers.
Then I realized the Jetpack plugin offers similar functionality for free. It lacks the options and analytics of OptinMonster, but for my small, personal, non-monetized site, Jetpack suits my needs.
Inspired by my co-worker Kristin’s digital nomad blog, I wanted to label my posts based on what state they occurred in. But I didn’t want to muddle the existing categories and tags with that information.
With some coaching from my co-worker Hannah, I implemented a custom taxonomy. I used the Custom Post Type UI plugin, which allows me to have “States” as a separate field from categories and tags. Then I used the List Custom Taxonomy Widget plugin to display them in the site’s sidebar, allowing visitors to select a state and see all my stories that are set there.
The best part? No coding! I always thought custom taxonomies would require PHP programming, but using plugins removed that dependency. It was so simple, even I could do it!
Last year, I was invited to speak at the monthly Boston WordPress meetup on the topic of website management tools. Among my suggestions were Pixabay and Unsplash, sites that offer free stock photography, even though I’d never used them myself; stock photos always seemed too generic for my niche writing.
My writing isn’t so niche anymore, allowing me to find fitting photos from the millions in these services’ libraries.
Stock photography is also produced by professionals, far outclassing anything I can shoot. While I always use my own photos when available, such as when sharing a specific adventure, I no longer shy from using slick stock photos to represent more general or abstract topics.
Some other plugins I’m using for the first time:
- 404page: Since I write posts weeks in advance, I sometimes include an internal link to something that hasn’t been published yet. When a reader clicks on one of those links, this plugin generates a custom 404 page that invites them to sign up for the newsletter. (I considered putting those internal links in a Scheduled Content Block, but meh)
- Edit Flow: Allows me to reschedule upcoming posts using a drag-and-drop calendar interface.
- LH Wayback Machine: Automatically submits all new posts to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
- Very Simple Event List: Until I implement “nomad map”, this plugin is what powers my itinerary.
- Visualizer: For that one bar graph in the post “What do I do for a living?“
- WP-Strava: Adds a Gutenberg block for embedding Strava activities and maps, as when I hiked to Mount Rushmore.
Farther down the road
I’ve learned a lot about WordPress and how to expand it to better serve the digital nomad lifestyle. But there’s just one feature I haven’t figured out how to implement.
My itinerary page is a simple, textual list of the stops along my route; it’s easy to reference and digest. But it’s not very visual, and it’s certainly not fun. I’d love to also have a map that visitors can explore, with a pin indicating each place I’ve visited or will visit, with the dates I was or will be there.
The closest plugin I’ve found that would do this is Nomad World Map, though it is four years old, and the developers have disappeared; I can’t be sure it still works or is safe to use. An alternative plugin, MapBox, is eight (!) years old; and bypassing the plugin to use the Mapbox service directly is far too complicated.
There are still opportunities for this site to grow along with me; in the meantime, I hope my experiences guide you in your own adventures with WordPress!
Is there something you wish WordPress could do, or a feature you’d like to see on Roadbits? Let me know with a comment!