Joomla! A User's Guide

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This book review was published by Slashdot, 2008-06-11.

Joomla! A User's Guide

Of all the content management systems (CMSs) from which a Web developer can choose for creating a new website, Joomla is generally considered to be one of the top choices — partly because an experienced developer can create an attractive site faster with Joomla than with the majority of other CMSs. However, Joomla's online documentation leaves much to be desired, as is true for most if not all CMSs. Intermediate and especially new developers need a clear and comprehensive resource that can explain the terminology, customization, administrative panel, and other aspects of Joomla. A promising candidate is a book written by Barrie M. North, titled Joomla! A User's Guide: Building a Successful Joomla! Powered Website.

It was published by Prentice Hall, under the ISBN 978-0136135609, on 21 December 2007 (although page 233 confusingly suggests that the material was written in November 2006). The book is available not only in print, but in electronic form as well, as part of the Safari Books Online library. On the publisher's Web page for the book, visitors can read the table of contents, the preface, and the index. Also, they can download a sample chapter — "Creating a Pure CSS Template" — as a PDF file. Lastly, visitors can check for updates to the book's content, i.e., reported errata, of which there are more than half a dozen, as of this writing. Strangely, some of the "corrections" are identical to the errata themselves, e.g., "AdSense placement" and "Multiple site management". Also, the "Extras" page has an anchor tag missing its "<". In this case, the link is to the author's site for the book, which has a lot more to offer than the publisher's site. Visitors will find six working demo Joomla sites from the book; descriptions of the chapters; information about the author, with a picture; a forum where visitors can post questions about the book's material organized by chapter, and read the author's replies; seven downloadable Joomla templates used in the book; SQL export files for the websites built in chapters 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, and 12; and a link to the aforementioned free chapter. However, as of this writing, the author's link to the chapter generated a 404 error.

The majority of the book's 480 pages are organized into 12 chapters, covering a number of topics: an introduction to CMSs and Joomla; installing Joomla; administration basics; content management; menus; extensions; WYSIWYG editing of content; search engine optimization (SEO); building a table-less template; and how to build Joomla sites for a school, a restaurant, and a blog. Four appendices cover: getting help on your Joomla problems; case studies; SEO basics; and installing WAMP5. The book offers plenty of screenshots, which make it possible for someone to follow the discussion even when away from their computer. Sadly, much of the text shown in the illustrations is extremely small, and could prove very difficult to read for anyone with diminished vision. Even some of the captions are so small as to almost require the use of a magnifying glass. Moreover, the illustrations are printed in light gray, which makes the situation even worse.

The intended purpose of the book is "to guide a non-technical user step-by-step in learning how to create and manage a website powered by Joomla" (page 7). The book is definitely geared towards people new to Joomla, and even new to Web development, given the amount of elementary material covered, such as the author's explanation of Joomla's need for a Web server.

In the preface, the author touches upon the growing popularity of Joomla for a wide variety of websites. He also mentions that PHP and CSS are not prerequisites for understanding the book; however, readers not well experienced in those technologies will struggle in implementing everything described in the book — especially templates — and this is substantiated by readers' comments online. Admittedly, a book that provided adequate coverage of PHP, CSS, and then Joomla, would likely be overwhelming in length. Readers unfamiliar with PHP and CSS should first secure a basic grounding in those technologies, prior to trying to create their own templates or other Joomla extensions. On the other hand, if a reader has no intention of creating any extensions of their own, then they can still use Joomla to build a new website, and use this book to learn how to do so.

In the first chapter, the author provides a valuable introduction to CMSs and the advantages they offer in separating content from the Web pages themselves. However, he refers to Joomla as a rebranding of Mambo, while it would be much more accurate to characterize it as a derivative project, having forked from Mambo, which still exists (sort of). The author also lists Joomla's major features, and the basic elements of a Joomla-powered website. Installing and configuring a CMS — particularly for the first time — is oftentimes a major stumbling block for any Web development newbie. Chapter 2 steps the reader through the process of downloading and installing the latest version of Joomla (the book uses version 1.5 RC1).

In the third chapter, the author explains the most commonly used administrative tasks, and how to accomplish them in the Joomla 1.5 administrative panel. He intentionally does not cover all of the administrative settings, and this may prove frustrating to some readers who are looking for comprehensive coverage. Yet he does note that such readers should consult the official Joomla User Manual. Also available is the Administrator Manual. The fourth chapter describes in detail how Joomla displays content in pages, how it organizes that content in sections and categories, and the role played by the Front Page component. It concludes with a discussion of how to create menu items and how to connect them to components, as well as how to use module content. Especially valuable to Joomla beginners is the explanation of the two methods of deciding what content appears on a site's homepage.

As noted in the preface, the relationship among menus, menu items, pages, and modules, is one of the most confusing aspects of Joomla — even after the improvements with version 1.5. In Chapter 5, the author explains this relationship, and then the major menu layouts and how to control them using the various sets of parameters. He mentions the overriding of global settings, and this points up how, prior to this, the book should have explained where to change those global settings, and recommended values. The index is of no help, because they are not mentioned. In Chapter 6, the author shows how to install and manage extensions, which comprise components, modules, plug-ins, templates, and languages. (Templates were missing from his list presented in the book's preface.) Chapter 7 examines the use of WYSIWYG editors for changing content on the back-end and front-end.

The most functional and attractive Joomla-powered website will be of little value if it receives few visitors. Thus, search engine marketing (SEM), discussed in the eighth chapter, is of critical importance, and the author's largely sensible advice is worth reading — despite the nonsensical reference to cowboys and cowgirls (on page 198), and his reference to the "miserable failure" Google bomb, which was diffused back in January 2007. Note that the links provided to the SEM tools strongly recommended by the author — WordTracker, PR Prowler, and Perry Marshall — are affiliate referral links. Thus it seems disingenuous when he writes "...this might be the place I would have a few affiliate links!" (emphasis added). Speaking of emphasis, it seems as if too much weight is given to resources from which the author would receive affiliate compensation. This is not what readers typically expect in a book for which they have paid good money. Also discussed in the chapter are the important topics of Web standards, accessibility, keywords, referral traffic, pay-per-click traffic, Google AdWords, e-mail traffic, and common SEM mistakes. He correctly points out the low SEM value of Joomla's native "Read more..." anchor text. But his recommended solution, a mambot from Run Digital, does not appear to work with Joomla version 1.5.

Most of the templates written for Joomla and Mambo have used tables for page layout, instead of the more accessible and efficient CSS approach. CSS- based templates are only now becoming increasingly available, and Chapter 9 furthers this worthy goal by stepping the reader through the development of a pure CSS template. As noted earlier, readers unfamiliar with CSS will most likely find this chapter quite daunting, if not disheartening. The book's overall tutorial approach kicks into full gear in the last three chapters, in which the author shows in great detail how to create websites for a school, a restaurant, and a blog site. This material could prove very helpful to readers who wish to review and put into practice the more theoretical ideas introduced in the earlier chapters.

In general, readers should be pleased with this book. Even though the author is clearly a fan of Joomla, and the tone of the book is positive, he does not hesitate to point out Joomla's flaws, such as the misleading name of a module type. This is rare among technical authors nowadays, and for this Barrie North should be commended. Yet it is odd that he does not mention the obvious misspelling, "Imagess", in Extensions > Module Manager > module > Other Parameters.

Sprinkled throughout all of the chapters, the reader will find short paragraphs, with a dark background, labeled "The Least You Need to Know". These summarize the preceding paragraphs. This could perhaps be justified after a significant number of paragraphs, but unfortunately they also appear after just a couple paragraphs, which makes these "LYNTK" boxes redundant and unnecessary. Even worse, every chapter ends with a summary, which further repeats the boxes' content. With the book nearing 500 pages, the chapter summaries and even the LYNTK boxes should be excised, to good effect. Also, most of the chapters contain at least one footnote, which are not located at the bottom of the page or collected in a special section at the end of the book (as is traditional), but instead listed at the end of the chapter. Such material should instead be integrated into the text, if it is important enough to be included in the book, or left out entirely.

The writing quality of the book is generally solid, and the writing style is straightforward and friendly. Yet it does contain some blemishes that should have been caught by the publisher's editors, e.g., multi-word adjectives missing hyphens; misuse of the terms "that" versus "who"; inconsistent use of lowercase and title case for Joomla roles, even in the same paragraph; the same inconsistency in menu names, such as in Chapter 4; and the inexcusable "try and explain" (should read "try to explain"; page 19, among others). Thankfully, the author intentionally leaves off the silly exclamation mark from the Joomla name, starting after the preface, for greater readability. The book contains some misspellings/errata, such as "eXtensible" (page 2), "Wordpress" (pages 7 and 8), "over writing" (page 22), "Cpanel" (pages 27 and 29), "php html" (page 148), "api" (page 150), "flash" (page 209), "sight" (should read "site"; page 221), and "add fee" (should read "ad fee"; page 225). The author incorrectly states that the acronym PHP stands for only "Hypertext Preprocessor", but it actually is now a recursive acronym of "PHP Hypertext Preprocessor".

Overall, the book's production quality is up to snuff. The book stays open fairly well, despite the absence of any special lay-flat binding. The pages were produced using recycled paper, which is always encouraging to see. Unfortunately, the pages are thinner than in any other technical book I have ever seen, thereby allowing the text on the other side of each page to show through. This exacerbates the aforementioned problem of the text within the figures being difficult to read. Moreover, all of the copies that I have seen have an unusual diagonal ridge along the bottom edge, suggesting that the page cutting machinery was malfunctioning — at least for one batch of copies produced, and perhaps more. In addition, some of the pages have small ink blotches. At a list price of almost $45, the book might seem a bit pricey. But online bookstores are fully discounting it, such as Amazon.com's current price of under $30.

The book may have some minor weaknesses, noted above, but otherwise, Joomla! A User's Guide is a logically organized and potentially quite valuable resource for beginning and intermediate Joomla developers — perhaps the best Joomla book currently available.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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