Monday, November 17, 2008

Thumbs Up for Sphider

The model club site that I run has been steadily growing. We have been adding lots of great content - articles, tips and photos, lots of photos. Our gallery now contains nearly 5000 of them. I am using a gallery application called Coppermine (PHP front-end, MySQL back-end). It's very nice. Each photo has a title and many have more detailed descriptions.

With all this content I felt that the site really could benefit from having some kind of comprehensive search mechanism. Coppermine has its own search, which works fine, but I wanted a way to search the whole site at a go.

My first thought was to use Google Custom Search, which I had implemented with some success on another site. I was able to implement it on the club site without any trouble. The issue that I had was getting it to re-index in a timely fashion when I made changes. I decided that I wanted a mechanism that gave me more control over the indexing. As I have no budget for the club site, I also wanted something that was free.

I found no shortage of free search engines out there and tried a few. But the problem I kept running into was that the free versions had a limit on the number of pages they would index. The limit was high - usually several thousand - but I kept exceeding it. The reason I kept exceeding it was the photo gallery. Nearly 5000 photos, each of which gets indexed as it's own page, plus gallery sub-area pages, etc., etc. That ends up being a lot of pages to index.

I finally found a search engine that I could run locally on my site that was free and had no page limit - Sphider. Sphider uses PHP and requires a MySQL database to store it's indexes. It is really quite nice. Not only can you re-index at will, you can choose to index just certain parts of your site by setting up "sites" in the admin panel that limit their inclusion to just certain areas. This was especially useful for me because I often want to re-index everything except the gallery, which is pretty time consuming due to the sheer size of it.

It took me a little time to get the filters right for indexing the gallery. I had to keep it from indexing certain ancillary pages that had no business showing up in a search result. But Sphider has some decent include/exclude filtering mechanisms to facilitate that. It also respects any directives in your robots text file.

It provides some nice statistics on what search terms your visitors are entering, most popular searches and so on.

Implementation was fairly easy. It uses a template with a header, footer, etc., which gives you enough flexibility to make it a seamless part of your site. Once your MySQL database is in place, you just pass Spider's admin panel your db user credentials and it takes it from there.

All in all, really not bad. I have had it in place for about 2 months now and it seems to work really well.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Back in the Mud

After spending nearly 9 months on two airplane models, it's refreshing to be working on an armor subject again. My latest project is Tamiya's 1:35 scale M16 Half Track, US WWII. Here is a picture of the real deal:

It's a fun subject with a lot more detail to it than you would think at first glance.

It isn't that armor is easier. It has a whole set of challenges. Just a different set of challenges than building an aircraft subject. And there are a whole lot more possibilities for making it look like it has been in the field a while.

An airplane is fragile. There is a very finite limit to the amount of damage and dirt an airplane can endure before it just won't fly. So, if you want your model airplane to represent an operable subject, you have to use a light hand when it comes to weathering and simulated damage.

Not so with a tank or other armored vehicle. You can cover a tank in dust, dirt, mud, sand, snow, and just about anything else nature might throw at it. You can load it down with all manner of stowage: bags, tarps, infantry, and even random bits of civilian detritus. You can dent it up, rip parts of it off, shoot small holes in it, and basically just abuse it to no end and the odds are that the thing will still keep going. That makes for all sorts of fun possibilities when you model one because you can do all this stuff to it and it can still represent an operable front-line vehicle, albeit clearly one with a more interesting history. This is especially true if you model WWII subjects like I do.

I am still in the early stages of this project, so it is mostly building in preparation for the base paint coat. But it won't be long before I can break out the oils, pastels, washes, powder pigments, etc. and go to town.

Monday, November 3, 2008

New Window or Same Window?

Any time you create a link on a page, you have the option to launch the target page in the same window (the default option) or in a new window. We aren't talking about those obnoxious automatic pop-ups here. We are talking about links the visitor actually clicks on. There seem to be several schools of thought on when it is appropriate to launch a new window.

Some say you should never launch a link in a new window for a couple of reasons:
  • The user can always launch in a new window by choice by holding CTRL when they click the link or by middle-clicking the link with the mouse wheel.

  • By contrast, there is no easy way to make a link coded to launch in a new window launch in the same window. So, you are essentially taking the choice away from the visitor.

I'm not sure I agree with that. For one thing, many users don't know how to launch in a new window. Also, in many cases, a user may want to check out something you are linking to without leaving your site. I like the following rule of thumb, which seems to be the consensus from what I have read:

  • Make internal links (links to stuff on your site) open in the same window.

  • Make external links (links to other sites) open in a different window.

There are some exceptions to the first point. For example, if you are displaying a short form or a Flash piece or something and you want better control over the window like size or toolbar/no toolbar, etc. But for the most part I would think these rules would work.

I'd be curious if anyone agrees/disagrees either from a designer standpoint or from a user's standpoint. Let me know...