Lessons Learned From Yet Another Jekyll Convert

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I recently converted my blog hosted on wordpress.com to use the Jekyll static blog generator. I'm pretty happy with the results, and it was a fun process getting here, so I thought I would share my lessons learned.

Lesson #1 - The Docs Aren't Great

First, let me say that Jekyll was not intended to be a commercial product. Hell, it wasn't even designed to be a terribly popular project. It was a side-project of one of the Github creators, Tom Preston-Warner. So it's easy to understand why there isn't a ton of good documentation.

So what do we have? Well, we have a lot of great tutorials from bloggers who have learned to use Jekyll. After reading a few of the better ones, you should be on your way to rolling your own awesome blog. Here are some of the ones that I really liked:

Lesson #2 - There's No Official Jekyll Skeleton

So what questions are left unanswered? Well, for starters, how do you create a site?!? The Jekyll usage guide does a decent job showing you which files are necessary, but it doesn't actually tell you what those files need to contain. Instead, you're supposed to clone the source for someone else's site on Github (or Bitbucket or whatever) and then change it to fit your needs.

So here's basically how I created my "base" Jekyll site, which didn't include any blog content:

  1. I cloned Tom Preston-Warner's site from Github.
  2. I deleted his CSS files (because I wanted a site that looked very different).
  3. I deleted his blog entries.

I also had to install the following gems:

  • redcloth
  • RDiscount

That's it! Of course, I had a very ugly and empty blog at this point, but I had the bare essentials that I needed to start using Jekyll.

Lesson #3 - Converting HTML to Markdown Is Tricky

Remember, my blog was previously hosted on Wordpress.com, which means that I have to save mys as HTML. I'm not a huge fan of writing my blog posts using HTML, so I decided to switch to one of the other markup languages that Jekyll supports, Markdown.

This was great for all news, but did I really need to convert my old posts? Doesn't Jekyll support HTML too? Well yes, it does, but the HTML that I was able to extract using the converter that came with the Jekyll gem was pretty messy.

So I decided to make every blog use Markdown, hell or high water. Not only would it make all of mys compatible with Jekyll, but it would make it easier to edit or convert my olds in the future.

The Script

I therefore wrote the following script to help:

This script basically does the following:

  1. It writes the YAML front matter to a .md file.
  2. It then tries to convert the HTML content to Markdown using html2text.py. This script does a very good job of converting HTML to Markdown, but it failed for me about 40% of the time.
  3. It html2text.py does fail, then convert the HTML using pandoc, which is much more reliable but worse at generating perfect output.
  4. Write the Markdown output to the same .md file that contains your YAML front matter.

I stored all of my exported HTML files in a folder called _archivedposts. Here's how I generated my blog's content:

$ cd _archivedposts
$ for f in $(ls *.html); do ../htmlplusyml2mkd.sh $f; done
$ mv *.md ../_posts


Of course, neither html2text.py or pandoc are perfect so a lot of my blogs were a little mixed up. Manually cleaning up every single one of my blogs would have been a major waste of time and effort for me, so I did the following:

  1. I checked my Wordpress stats to see what my most "popular"s were.
  2. I made a list of every had more than 50 page views (which ain't bad for my site).
  3. I manually made the final touches on those files and ignored the rest.

If you do find a on my blog that looks a bit jumbled, then I apologize, but it just wasn't worth my time to fix it manually.

Lesson #4 - Creating Your Own Website From Scratch Is Fun

I used to spend hours every week in college manually tweaking the HTML and JavaScript in my web sites in the Sun lab. It was lots of fun creating something that I could share with the entire world these new and exciting (at the time) technologies.

Then I got a little older and busier, and while I still loved to write on my web site, I didn't want to have do take care of every single aspect of it any more. So I started using tools like Plone and Wordpress to author content. They had nice little WYSIWYG editors, and someone else worried about things like style, usability, and performance.

Making my new blog from (near) scratch forced me to think outside of my usual box about those icky things, and I'm really glad it did. For starters, it gave me an opportunity to use the underused, more artistic part of my brain. Also, it gave me an opportunity to learn about new web standards and tools for managing and creating a modern web site, such as:

  • *Chrome's "Developer Tools"*: Chrome has a built-in module that helps you do things like design and profile a web site. This tool was especially useful to me when I was tweaking my CSS.
  • Google Web Fonts: Did you know that there were web apps that did nothing but serve up pretty fonts that could be used by other web sites? Me neither, until I started looking into Typekit and Google Web Fonts.
  • Google Analytics: One of my favorite things about Wordpress.com is that they have a great statistics page that you can use go gauge the popularity of your blog. However, you can also use Google Analytics to gather the same basic statistics (and more) for your static blog. And you can do this all for free.

Lesson #5 - Converting Comments Is Hard

Simply put, Disqus choked every time I tried to convert my Wordpress.com comments over, so I just skipped this step. I hope that I don't offend anyone who's left a comment on my blog in the past, but I only had a handful in the first place.

Lesson #6 - There's A Jekyll Fork That Makes Some Of These Hard

Things Easier

There are lots of Jekyll forks out there that take care of a lot of the gripes that you see above, but I'm sticking with the canonical copy for now to make things a little simpler.

Awestruct does look especially compelling to me, and it seems to be pretty well supported. Once I'm a little more comfortable with my new site and Jekyll in general, I'll give it a second look.

My Repo

I published the source for my blog here:

It's a little rough, but hopefully it's a good jumping off point.

Good luck!

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