Technology Tales

Adventures & experiences in contemporary technology

Moves to Hugo

30th November 2022

What amazes me is how things can become more complicated over time. As long as you knew HTML, CSS and JavaScript, building a website was not as onerous as long as web browsers played ball with it. Since then, things have got easier to use but more complex at the same time. One example is WordPress: in the early days, themes were much simpler than they are now. The web also has got more insecure over time, and that adds to complexity as well. It sometimes feels as if there is a choice to make between ease of use and simplicity.

It is against that background that I reassessed the technology that I was using on my public transport and Irish history websites. The former used WordPress, while the latter used Drupal. The irony was that the simpler website was using the more complex platform, so the act of going simpler probably was not before time. Alternatives to WordPress were being surveyed for the first of the pair, but none had quite the flexibility, pervasiveness and ease of use that WordPress offers.

There is another approach that has been gaining notice recently. One part of this is the use of Markdown for web publishing. This is a simple and distraction-free plain text format that can be transformed into something more readable. It sees usage in blogs hosted on GitHub, but also facilitates the generation of static websites. The clutter is absent for those who have no need of the Gutenberg Editor on WordPress.

With the content written in Markdown, it can be fed to a static website generator like Hugo. Using defined templates and fixed assets like CSS together with images and other static files, it can slot the content into HTML files very speedily since it is written in the Go programming language. Once you get acclimatised, there are no folder structures that cannot be used, so you get full flexibility in how you build out your website. Sitemaps and RSS feeds can be built at the same time, both using the same input as the HTML files.

In a nutshell, it automates what once needed manual effort used a code editor or a visual web page editor. The use of HTML snippets and layouts means that there is no necessity for hand-coding content, like there was at the start of the web. It also helps that Bootstrap can be built in using Node, so that gives a basis for any styling. Then, SCSS can take care of things, giving even more automation.

Given that there is no database involved in any of this, the required information has to be stored somewhere, and neither the Markdown content nor the layout files contain all that is needed. The main site configuration is defined in a single TOML file, and you can have a single one of these for every publishing destination; I have development and production servers, which makes this a very handy feature. Otherwise, every Markdown file needs a YAML header where titles, template references, publishing status and other similar information gets defined. The layouts then are linked to their components, and control logic and other advanced functionality can be added too.

Because static files are being created, it does mean that site searching and commenting or contact pages cannot work they would on a dynamic web platform. Often, external services are plugged in using JavaScript. One that I use for contact forms is Getform.io. Then, Zapier has had its uses in using the RSS feed to tweet site updates on Twitter when new content gets added. Though I made different choices, Disqus can be used for comments and Algolia for site searching. Generally, though, you can find yourself needing to pay, particularly if you need to remove advertising or gain advanced features.

Some comments service providers offer open source self-hosted options, but I found these difficult to set up and ended up not offering commenting at all. That was after I tried out Cactus Comments only to find that it was not discriminating between pages, so it showed the same comments everywhere. There are numerous alternatives like Remark42, Hyvor Talk, Commento, FastComments, Utterances, Isso, Mouthful, Muut and HyperComments but trying them all out was too time-consuming for what commenting was worth to me. It also explains why some static websites even send readers to Twitter if they have something to say, though I have not followed this way of working.

For searching, I added a JavaScript/JSON self-hosted component to the transport website, and it works well. However, it adds to the size of what a browser needs to download. That is not a major issue for desktop browsers, but the situation with mobile browsers is such that it has a sizeable effect. Testing with PageSpeed and Lighthouse highlighted this, even if I left things as they are. The solution works well in any case.

One thing that I have yet to work out is how to edit or add content while away from home. Editing files using an SSH connection is as much a possibility as setting up a Hugo publishing setup on a laptop. After that, there is the question of using a tablet or phone, since content management systems make everything web based. These are points that I have yet to explore.

As is natural with a code-based solution, there is a learning curve with Hugo. Reading a book provided some orientation, and looking on the web resolved many conundrums. There is good documentation on the project website, while forum discussions turn up on many a web search. Following any research, there was next to nothing that could not be done in some way.

Migration of content takes some forethought and took quite a bit of time, though there was an opportunity to carry some housekeeping as well. The history website was small, so copying and pasting sufficed. For the transport website, I used Python to convert what was on the database into Markdown files before refining the result. That provided some automation, but left a lot of work to be done afterwards.

The results were satisfactory, and I like the associated simplicity and efficiency. That Hugo works so fast means that it can handle large websites, so it is scalable. The new Markdown method for content production is not problematical so far apart from the need to make it more portable, and it helps that I found a setup that works for me. This also avoids any potential dealbreakers that continued development of publishing platforms like WordPress or Drupal could bring. For the former, I hope to remain with the Classic Editor indefinitely, but now have another option in case things go too far.

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