Building a Magazine Style Homepage for a Multisite Network
Multisite network homepages often look messy, robotic, and unattended to. They’re often littered with anonymous avatars, title links for spam or test posts, and excerpts that look as if they were written in a language that doesn’t even exist.
Wouldn’t it be better if you had a homepage for your network that looked like a bright, shiny, well-edited magazine?
That’s what we’ll be aiming for in this post.
The plugins we’ll be referring to below are mostly WPMU DEV plugins. And while you may be able to find some similar free solutions out there, let’s be honest – if you’re running a multisite network, you should already be a member of WPMU DEV anyway. :)
Our Hypothetical Food Bloggers Network
In order to give examples below, we’ll be referring to a hypothetical network of food bloggers.
On the homepage of this network, we’re going to organize a number of the sections by geographical areas. For example, individual sites about Chinese food and Japanese food will be grouped together under one category for “Asian” food.
Of course you could make individual sections for Chinese food and Japanese food too. But we’re going in this direction in order to show some possibilities – to show how you could group individual sites under a larger heading.
In some of the examples below, we’ll also be taking the opposite tack. For example, we’ll have a section for “Desserts.” But of course there are Chinese desserts and Italian desserts, and so we’ll have to separate out individual parts of those blogs in order to get a category for all desserts.
Your Style and Options
The way your homepage appears and the different options you have with it are, of course, controlled by the theme you use. There are lots of magazine themes out there, so the one you choose or your ability to manipulate it will determine a lot in the end.
The theme I’m using in the example below is Manifesto from WPZoom. Unfortunately, this theme is not responsive. But I’ve chosen to use it here because it allows me to easily illustrate different sections on the homepage.
To give you an overview, here’s a bird’s eye look at the sample site’s homepage.
I’ll also be going over a few different ways to go about creating this homepage. The main differences between them come down to automation.
One way is less work in the setting up phase, but more work for each individual post. The other way is just the opposite – a little more work in the beginning, but more automated down the road.
We’ll start with the method that’s less work in the beginning but more work later on.
The Somewhat Manual Method
This first method we’ll call the “somewhat manual” method in that you’ll need to do a little more copying, pasting, and finding images, etc.
A Feed for the Entire Network
Of course, before you can start putting things on the homepage, you’ll need to know what’s available across your network.
An easy way to do that is to install the Post Indexer plugin. The Post Indexer plugin indexes all the posts from across your network.
For the most part, the Post Indexer plugin is a behind-the-scenes plugin. Once the Indexer brings the posts together, other WPMU DEV plugins can access that index and display them in different ways – in a widget, with a shortcode, etc.
That said, for the purposes here, you could actually just use the Post Indexer by itself. Once activated, it gives you a section in the backend of your network with stats about the posts, but also with links to those posts.
Therefore, you could just go there, click on the links that look good, and then decide which ones you want to feature on the homepage. (More on that later.)
Here’s a look at some recently indexed posts.
In addition to the Post Indexer plugin, you could install the Recent Posts plugin. This plugin lets you display the most recent posts with a shortcode.
Of course, you could work that onto the public end of your site if you liked, but if you’re just looking for a personal feed in order to see what’s new on your network, you could create a new Page, make it private, and then place your shortcode there.
Another option is the Recent Global Post Feed. This will give you an RSS feed of all the posts on your network. Once you have that feed, you could even pop it into an RSS reader if you like.
Once you have a system set up for viewing posts, you’ll want to go through them and find the best ones.
If you find a good one, for example, on a blog that discusses Vietnamese food, then you simply go back to your homepage blog, create a post, grab the featured image, grab (or create) an excerpt, and then put that newly created post into whatever category you’d like on your homepage (e.g. the featured section and also the section for Vietnamese food, which could be a child of the parent “Asian” food category).
While that will get your homepage looking nice, there’s still a problem. That post you’ve created rests on the homepage blog and not the site that blogs about Vietnamese food.
You can easily take care of that with one of the many redirection plugins out there like Redirection.
Once you redirect that post on your network’s homepage site, the images and titles will remain on the homepage, but when a user clicks on it, they will go to the original post (the one you redirected to).
The More Automatic Method
As you can see above, the “somewhat manual” method is, well, somewhat manual. It requires that you create a new post on the homepage blog, go get the featured image, copy the excerpt, and then set up redirection for the post you created to the original post.
Consolidating with Autoblog
A more automated way to go about this would be to use WPMU DEV’s Autoblog plugin.
With the Autoblog plugin, you can simply pull in the RSS feeds of all the blogs on your network.
While this is more automated in the end, it will actually be a little more manual in the beginning because you will need to go grab the feed of each blog and set it up.
Once you have the first feed set up, it will be easy to do all the others in a similar way; however, you will still need to go and grab the feeds.
Once you have those feeds, however, the plugin will automatically create a post for you in whatever category you choose; it will import and attach the featured image for; it will automatically insert the excerpt for you, and it will even automatically link the title of the post to the original for you.
Here, for example, is how you can choose to put a feed in a specific category.
You might then have your theme set up to automatically feed all the Chinese category posts to the Asian section, for example.
But you might also have your site set up to also have a section dedicated specifically to Chinese food as well.
Again, all this will depend on the theme you’re using and the options it gives you.
The only thing you need to decide is whether you actually want to publish that post on your homepage or not. Unless you can be sure of its quality (and that will depend on your network, of course), then you can set Autoblog to keep posts as Drafts or Pending until you publish them.
Getting Feeds for Categories on Sites
Something else that the Autoblog plugin is good for is getting only certain posts on a specific blog.
We mentioned before that we might want to have a category for desserts – all desserts. So that would include desserts from the Chinese food blog, desserts from the Mexican food blog, desserts from the French food blog, etc.
Of course in WordPress, you can easily get a feed for any category (or even any tag) simply by adding “feed” to the end of the URL of that category (or tag page), like this: mynetwork.com/chinese-food-blog/category/dessert/feed/.
So again, this will take some setting up in the beginning, but if you wanted to, you could feed each blog’s Dessert category (provided they had one) into one main Dessert category on the homepage site. But you could still have Chinese desserts go into the Chinese/Asian section as well.
A Few Other Autoblog Possibilities
Something else to consider is setting some sites up as “trusted” sites and some you’ll need to check. For example, you might have a few blogs that put out quality all the time. With the Autoblog plugin, you could set posts from those blogs to publish on your homepage automatically while setting posts from other blogs to go to Draft mode.
Another option is publishing all posts automatically, but making them Private. This will let you see all the posts as if they’ve already been published, but the public wouldn’t actually see them unless you went in and set the post to Public.
Or, you might even set up a completely different site for this purpose, and then just peruse it each day, finding the best posts and then going to “real” blog and marking those published.
Once you get working with this stuff, there are all sorts of directions you could go in. The only thing to remember is that you will need to set each one of these feeds up manually in the beginning. If you have a smaller network, it might very well be worth your time.
If you’re interested in more details about using the Autoblog plugin, see this post on setting up a news aggregation site.
Curation is the Name of the Game
Obviously, the solutions above require some curation. But unless you’re sure of the quality of each site in your network, and you believe each post is deserving of a top spot when it comes along, then that’s the only way you’re truly going to get a homepage that’s worth its salt.
And, of course, if you are sure of your network’s quality, then you could simply set up the Autoblog to automatically publish posts instead of holding them in Draft mode.
Either way, when people come to a network, they want it to look cared after. Messy, robotic, and unattended is an immediate turn off. A good homepage theme and a little TLC can solve that problem relatively easily.
Photo credit: magazines