Hello and welcome to the brand-new Wildlife Online.
For a few years now, Wildlife Online has been failing to live up to its potential. Many of the articles were out of date and the platform was, being generous, rather dated. A website must be responsive and adapt quickly to a range of evolving interfaces. Wildlife Online had been left behind.
Start your engines
I first conceived Wildlife Online in 2002, shortly after I completed my MSc. My goal was to provide a useful resource on British wildlife. When the site went live the following year, it consisted of 17 pages I had created in FrontPage. At the time it was perfectly sufficient and, dare I say, even looked quite modern. Initially the content was limited to three species. In the years that followed, coverage expanded, and a few somewhat ham-fisted attempts at redesign on my part led to minor updates in the layout.
It wasn’t until 2006 that I switched to Expression Web and completely overhauled the look of the site, at the same time further expanding the scope. That’s more or less where the site has been since then. New articles have been added from time to time, but the design hasn’t changed. My focus has always been primarily on content, and I’ve shamefully neglected other aspects of the user experience. Consequently, Wildlife Online came to look dated and tired, was peppered with redundant code that slowed page loading, had many low resolution images, and was sometimes challenging to use, particularly on mobile devices.
Winds of change
In 2015, I finished my article on deterring foxes and took some time to reassess. I realized that I could no longer overlook the design issue, and decided on an overhaul. I considered doing it myself, but it wasn’t just the site that was stuck in 2005 HTML coding; so was I! This was a job for a professional. I commissioned a friend of a friend to create me a new site on WordPress, figuring that I could do most of the configuration and formatting myself if an expert created the skeleton. I was wrong. The WordPress template suggested by the designer was installed in November 2016, and I spent nearly five months struggling to get some content up. Some people rave about WordPress, and maybe it’s just a reflection of how my mind works, but I didn’t find the interface to be intuitive and I had protracted and frustrating problems with formatting. The long and the short of it is that I gave up.
By coincidence, while trawling web design forums looking for help, I met Rob Allen, professional web designer and manager of Blue Dreamer Web Design. Initially, I asked Rob if he could help me get to grips with WordPress, but his immediate response was that much of his time is spent migrating people away from that platform. Based on the previous five months, I could see why. So, instead, we came to an arrangement for Rob to build me a new site on the Expression Engine platform. The guys at EE were great and, because they liked my site and Rob was working at a reduced rate because Wildlife Online is a hobby site rather than a commercial one, they agreed to an excellent deal on the licence cost. Rob quickly built the skeleton and in November 2017 I began migrating the content across.
From the ground up
Since that fateful epiphany in 2015, I have worked hard behind the scenes to not only move the site to a more modern, responsive platform, but also to update the content. I spent the best part of a year completely revising and augmenting most of the species articles. The hedgehog and squirrel profiles have, for example, roughly doubled in size, while red fox profile currently holds the crown of most comprehensive on the site, standing at nearly 170 pages. All the other profiles have at the very least been proof-read to ensure consistency and accuracy. Some, such as those covering sharks and bats, are essentially legacy content, but both have been reviewed and clarified, with outdated science removed and a few new discoveries added.
The site redesign process made it clear that the original structure no longer really worked, and that it made more sense to split profiles up into individual sections rather than having one long page with anchors. Consequently, the site increased from about 50 pages to nearly 260, which makes it much easier for people to navigate and read. I have also tried to settle on an eye-friendly text-to-photo ratio. As always, I’d love to hear your opinion on what I’ve done.
Room to grow
My wish has always been that Wildlife Online would be a useful resource, and it certainly seems to be filling a need, with some articles standing out in particular. The article on red fox natural history has always been the most popular piece on the site. Articles on badgers, the phenomenon of white sharks in British waters, and caring for hedgehogs and bats also rank highly, but in 2007, the fox article accounted for about one-third of the site’s page traffic; ten years later (2015-2017) it accounts for just over half. In 2017, the page was called almost 64,000 times. The article has been revised and expanded significantly as part of this upgrade, and I hope it’ll continue to generate significant interest, particularly given that foxes are among the most misunderstood of our wild neighbours. Caring for hedgehogs and deterring foxes were the next most popular pages in that year, each receiving about 33,000 hits. Again, both of these have also been refreshed.
Overall, the number of visitors to Wildlife Online has climbed steadily, and I really hope that the new platform, which makes it much more accessible, will see that trend continue. In 2005, the site had just over 97,000 visitors; in 2017 that had tripled to 303,000. As a friend of mine once put it: “That’s pretty good for a site without any porn.” I’ve also changed servers to UK-based hosting with lower latency, so hopefully site performance will improve as well. This improvement in accessibility and performance is all the more important because there’s been a dramatic change in the way people access the website. Back in 2007, mobile apps/browsers accounted for about 0.5% of the total website traffic – 72% of visitors accessed the site using the Internet Explorer desktop browser. In 2017, almost 30% of visitors are accessing the site on a mobile browser and IE accounts for only about 6% of visitors – most visitors used either Firefox (29%) or Chrome (19%) and even Edge, Microsoft’s replacement for IE was used by only 1.5% of guests.
Social media plays an increasing role in linking web content, and this has become even more apparent in the last couple of years. In 2015, for example, about 670 (0.5%) of visitors to the site came via social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.); in 2017 7,231 (1.5%) of traffic came this way. The new site will have better social media connections, allowing posts and articles to be more easily linked to and shared.
So many people have helped with the development of Wildlife Online it’s hard to keep track. I have, I hope, captured everyone who has played a role or donated a photo in the Credits, but there are a few people that I wanted to call out especially for their help with the creation of the new site.
First and foremost, I must thank my long-suffering partner Steph. She’s tolerated being woken up at half-five in the morning as I got up to try and get some bits done before work and taken the stress, cursing and, at times, despondency, with good humour – she’s played a bigger role than she knows in making this happen.
I also want to thank my proof-reader Ali Magnum, who brushes up the readability of my articles. She has been eagerly waiting for some substantive new articles to red-pen, having had to make do with homepage updates for the last couple of years. With this overhaul now complete, my attention will at last turn to new content.
Photography-wise, I am indebted to Tony McLean, Kevin Robson, Ken McInnes, Maggie Bruce, Mary Lee Agnew, Dave Webb, Alan Woodgate, Fiona Ems, Caroline Gould, Jayne Morgan, Gill Lucraft, Dave Pressland, Peter Trimming, Paul Cecil and Pauline & Ian Greenhalgh, who allowed me free range on their photo albums. I must also thank Caroline Boxall, Sharon Merrill and Alan Baldry for supplying me with a great many of their trailcam videos that provide excellent examples of mammal behaviour. If it hadn’t been for the generosity of these brilliant photographers and dedicated nature watchers, Wildlife Online would be a far less vibrant and interesting resource. Many others have also contributed images and each and every one has my unwavering gratitude. The site also relies heavily on Creative Commons images from Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.
I’d also like to thank Rob Allen for building the site and his support and input, even late on a Sunday evening over Skype, and the early site reviewers Roger Powley, Philip Jones and The Carspeckens, whose feedback was invaluable.
Finally, I’d like to thank you, dear reader, for being the reason Wildlife Online exists. I hope you approve of the new design and that the website continues to be an interesting and useful resource for many years to come. There’s plenty of new content on the horizon, so I hope you’ll check back regularly.