There are countless content management systems (CMSs) available for building websites, and they offer varying levels of built-in functionality. But once a site developer has successfully installed any given CMS, a critical form of help (or hindrance) is the CMS's documentation, which for some CMSs is quite impressive, and for others absolutely atrocious. Joomla is a powerful and popular choice for Web developers, but can be daunting to newbies confused by its non-intuitive menu structure and restrictive content hierarchy. The documentation for Joomla is frequently criticized, for various reasons, and that may largely account for the popularity of third-party books — such as Barrie M. North's Joomla! 1.5: A User's Guide, now in its second edition.
The book was published by Prentice Hall, on 1 June 2009, under the ISBN 978-0137012312. Just as with its predecessor, this updated edition spans 480 pages, and the material is grouped into 12 chapters: an introduction to CMSs in general and Joomla in particular; downloading and installing Joomla; basic Joomla administration; content management using Joomla; menus and navigation; enhancing Joomla functionality with extensions, components, modules, plugins, and templates; creation of content via the back-end and front-end; attracting Web traffic using SEO, referrals, and other techniques; how to create pure CSS templates; and building example websites for a school, a restaurant, and a blog. The book wraps up with four appendices on getting assistance with any Joomla development hurdles; four separate Joomla case studies; an introduction to SEO concepts; and installing WampServer.
On the book's Web page, the publisher makes available a description of the book, excerpts from Amazon.com reviews, the table of contents, and a sample chapter — "Creating Pure CSS Templates in Joomla!" — as both an online article and as a downloadable PDF file. There are also links for purchasing the print version, and for reading the Safari Books online version.
In conjunction with the book, Prentice Hall has published a DVD training course, titled Fundamentals of Joomla!, under the ISBN 978-0137017812. It consists of 13 lessons, spanning more than nine hours of video instruction. The DVD includes a bonus chapter explaining how to set up a membership site, not covered in the print book. The DVD disc is accompanied by a 128-page book, which includes all of the PHP and CSS code used in the training, plus additional material. As of this writing, Barnes & Noble is selling Joomla! 1.5: A User's Guide, 2nd Edition and the video training course bundled together. Anyone purchasing the video course should be aware that Lesson #6 on the DVD has a compression problem, which causes a small lag between the audio and video streams. In response to this, Prentice Hall uploaded that particular lesson as a free download to the product's site, under the "Updates" tab. A multimedia training course such as this may be the ideal tool for someone who finds printed technical books to be rather dry, and prefers learning from audiovisual material.
In this review, I will be examining both the book and the DVD training course, as the two complement one another.
Barrie North is well regarded in the Joomla community, and for good reason. He frequently blogs about Joomla on the website of Compass Design, a consulting firm specializing in Joomla Web design and SEO. Joomla developers consider Compass Design's site a source for some of the most up-to-date information on the subject. Barrie also founded Joomlashack, a noted provider of Joomla templates and customization services. He has more than 15 years of Internet experience as a Web designer, plus over a decade of classroom teaching experience and curriculum development expertise. He consults on Web marketing, search engine optimization, usability, and standards compliance for Joomla. He's also a former member of the Joomla Design and Documentation Working Groups.
The title of his book's first chapter, "Content Management Systems and an Introduction to Joomla!", fairly describes what the reader will find. As a CMS, Joomla's primary function is to organize and present all the content stored in a site's database, avoiding the problems in the past of static HTML files. This chapter presents Joomla's out-of-the-box features and delineates its various parts, templates, and modules. The DVD mentioned above shows the differences between constructing an ordinary Web page with Dreamweaver and constructing one with Joomla. People who learn best visually should be pleased with this demonstration, as well as Barrie North's teaching approach. He holds one's attention with a friendly yet informative conversational style. This first chapter provides an in-depth tutorial that explains how Joomla displays its content articles, and how the developer can organize them into a hierarchical structure. It details how to plan and organize the content and user experience for the site. It also explains the hierarchy structure currently used in Joomla — sections and categories — and how to best structure content into them for small and large sites.
The second chapter, "Downloading and Installing Joomla!", gives the reader a very detailed explanation on how to get up and running with Joomla. It explains where one can find the most current Joomla files; how to unpack these files on a home computer or into a remote Web hosting account; how to use the Joomla Installation Wizard; and how one can support the Joomla project. Barrie states that the worst part of the Joomla installation process is setting up the MySQL database, and uploading all the files to a remote server. But for anyone who has performed those tasks with other software technologies, the process should not pose a problem.
Chapter 3, "Joomla! Administration Basics", shows how the power of the Joomla site administration system, despite its simplicity. Compared to such site administration systems as those for WebLogic and Oracle AS, Joomla's system is a piece of cake. Reader should find the DVD especially helpful during the presentation of the back-end, front-end, control panels, and menus — especially the demonstration and explanation of such topics as articles, the front page, sections, categories, and modules. Barrie also gives tips on how to import and export users to Joomla, and about language extensions.
The fourth chapter, "Content Is King: Organizing Your Content", is a substantial and key chapter for those building a site with Joomla. It delves into Joomla's so-called "managers": the Article Manager, Frontpage Manager, Section Manager, Category Manager, and Module Manager. The author explains how to organize content logically, and the role of components and modules. Someone new to Joomla could otherwise find the many components and modules confusing. Of course, one can play around with them, but it is much more efficient to learn what one is doing from an expert. He demonstrates the Custom HTML module very well, and in the DVD walks the viewer through the development of a site using it.
Creating menus and navigation in a CMS is often perplexing to the uninitiated, and that's the topic of Chapter 5. It covers how to work with menu items, and clears up the issue about how to get rid of the dreaded "Welcome to the Frontpage". It also gets into managing modules (as opposed to Chapter 4's managing module content). Barrie North states that menus are perhaps the core of a Joomla site. In a static HTML site, they merely serve as navigation; in a Joomla site, they not only serve that purpose, but also determine the layout of what a dynamic page will look like and what content will appear on that page when the visitor navigates to it. The relationships among menus, menu items, pages, and modules, are perhaps the most confusing aspect of Joomla. Newbies can find daunting why some menu content shows up in articles, and then how to get rid of it. In this chapter, the reader learns how to create a navigation scheme that works for a new site.
Chapter 6, "Extending Joomla!", explains why extensions are essential to any well-functioning Joomla site. Rare is the Joomla-powered website that has no additional functionality, beyond the basics. In the world of Joomla, the term "extension" collectively describes components, modules, plugins, and languages. There are many hundreds available, both free and commercially from third-party providers. This chapter covers the Joomla 1.5 core templates — Khepri, Milkyway, JA Purity, and Beez — as well as how to use third-party templates.
In Chapter 7, "Expanding Your Content: Articles and Editors", the author returns to the critical topic of content management — specifically, WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editing, and how it relates to the backend with what Joomla refers to as Managers, Administrators, and Super Administrators. Barrie North then examines how authors, editors, and publishers can manage content through the front-end, as well as how administrators can set various permissions through the Menu Managers. This is critical for the site developer who wants users to be able to update content in a controlled manner, without breaking other things (inadvertently or otherwise!). Quite useful is Joomla's "global checkout" feature, which allows only one user at a time the ability to lock and then edit articles, and, if necessary, fix problems with checked-out articles.
The most attractive and powerful Joomla site in the world will be useless without visitors. Chapter 8, "Getting Traffic to Your Site", benefits from the author's knowledge and experience in online marketing and search engine optimization. For instance, he explains why the developer should discourage clients who ask for Flash-heavy sites, because pages loaded down with Flash elements can discourage traffic, for various reasons. In the DVD training material, he presents a step-by-step process of bringing traffic to an example site, using Wordtracker and Google tools. He also shows how to use Google advertising tools such as AdWords and AdSense. Interestingly, Barrie North does not put too much stock in keywords and metadata, but rather emphasizes the use of page titles as traffic magnets. He argues in both the DVD and the book that while email blasts may be effective and popular marketing tools, they should be used with caution. He also covers how blogs are another useful method for bringing traffic to one's sites.
The final four chapters in the book are all hands-on application of concepts and lessons covered in the earlier part of the book — specifically, how to create pure CSS templates, and how to create the three sample sites (for a school, a restaurant, and a blog).
Appendix A provides information on getting help with Joomla. If one is interested in seeing how Joomla is used in the real world, then Appendix B should prove valuable, because it offers information on Joomla's usage for commercial and government websites. Appendix C provides a quick overview of search engine optimization. Appendix D goes into detail on WampServer installation, with corresponding illustrations.
The book contains some errata: "Cpanel" (pages 25, 27, and 289), and "add fee" (should read "ad fee"; page 218). Those errata were present in the first edition, and even pointed out to the publisher in an earlier review.
The book's material is organized so that the reader can utilize it as a tutorial, reading from cover to cover, or skim through and take what is needed at the moment. The introductory ideas in the earlier chapters are developed and built upon to help the reader understand more advanced concepts later on. The book can also be used as a reference. For instance, if the reader desires a quick overview of what newsletter extensions are available, Chapter 6 provides that information. Lastly, the appendices contain valuable extra information about various aspects of Joomla. The target audience does not have to understand PHP in order to read this book or work through the many examples. Each example is presented in a clear step-by-step fashion. If a reader were to implement all of the examples in her development environment, then she would gain the skills to be able to build a substantial website. The DVD has an extra chapter on building a membership site. If the reader would like to go into the business of creating Joomla templates, the author even has a chapter showing how to do just that.
Joomla! 1.5: A User's Guide, 2nd Edition is to be recommended, particularly when matched with the DVD training course. Together they form a valuable reference guide and self-teaching tool, for newbies as well as seasoned website developers.