Five Tips for the Drupal Beginner

Posted: December 16, 2012 under Drupal

When you're first getting started with any content management system there is a lot to learn and Drupal's past has given it an undeserved reputation as being especially challenging. Here's some quick advice to set beginners on an easier path.

Skip Drupal Core

When you first go to the Drupal website, you'll most often get started by downloading Drupal core. This is usually a mistake. You see, Drupal core isn't really a complete content management system, but rather a framework for building one. For starters, it's missing a WYSIWYG content editor. It's also missing the powerful Views module, one of the main reasons many people select Drupal as their CMS in the first place.

The point is, you'll have lots of work to do before actually being able to use Drupal in the way that you were likely expecting, and if you don't know how to code HTML, you won't even be able to create a page with links or images.

What I suggest instead is beginning with a distribution or installation profile. They offer a much easier introduction to Drupal. An experienced hand has selected and configured modules and in the best case scenario added a rich text editor as well as some sample content.

All of these things will tremendously help the new Drupal site builder see how all the pieces are put together, maybe play about with some pre-configured Views and generally have an easier time than if they went through the long process of trial and error. It's very useful to see how to do it properly rather than just wing it and hope for the best, right?

So which distribution should you choose? Well, it depends. If you're looking to quickly get a website going, then I would definitely go with a "premium" Drupal theme. Most everything will have been taken care of and you'll be able to get a website up very fast and without much fuss.

Beyond that, the answer is less simple. If you take a look at the distributions that are available, you'll see loads of good options. Your choice will be determined by what you want to focus on first. Most people have an idea of the type of site they'd like to create, so let that be your guide.  By the way, if you're interested in a site that uses Omega theme, I've made an installation profile that may be helpful to you.

Use Backup and Migrate

To err is human, and fortunately there is a wonderful module available called Backup and Migrate to bail you out when you do. After you install it you can easily backup your site's database prior to making any big changes. You can also download the backup file or optionally create a regular backup schedule with the copies stored in your site's private files location. 

With all of the themes here at Friendly Machine, the Backup and Migrate module is pre-configured to run daily backups that are kept for a week. I suggest setting up something similar for your own site. It will really help in those moments when that small change turns into an unexpected mess.

Don't Forget Performance

Beginners will often launch their sites without having the performance options enabled. The basic Drupal performance settings will really help speed up your site, so be sure to flip those little switches once you're ready to launch. Keep in mind, however, that subsequent changes you make to your configuration may not immediately appear on your site.

I've seen many discussion threads where a new Drupal user is asking for help saying that they are making various changes, but nothing is happening. What they are experiencing is Drupal's caching mechanisms working properly. So, after your caching is turned on be sure to clear the cache after you make any changes, particularly if they don't seem to be taking effect.

I wouldn't stop with Drupal's default performance options, however. There is another module that I highly recommend called Boost. It can make a huge difference in your site's performance and it's easy to install and configure. What it essentially does is store versions of your site's pages as HTML files rather than processing the PHP code that usually occurs when a visitor lands on a page. 

If you're interested in learning more about Boost, I wrote a post on it a while back you may find of interest.

Go Easy with the Modules

Drupal has loads of modules available and it can be tempting to go a little overboard when you're just getting started. But limiting the number of modules can help with performance and avoid the conflicts that sometimes arise between them. 

I also recommend that when trying out competing modules, be sure to completely uninstall any that you decided not to use. You will avoid inadvertently creating conflicts between them if the ones you aren't using are completely removed. Adding lots of modules that do the same thing is a problem waiting to happen.

And Finally...

Remember to have fun with Drupal! It really is an outstanding platform for building websites. And in those inevitable moments of frustration that come in any learning process, keep in mind you're not alone. There is a wonderful Drupal community that is ready and willing to help you out when you hit a rough spot. 

About the Author

John Hannah

I’m John Hannah, a front-end developer at Lullabot. When I'm not building websites, I travel as much as possible and enjoy hanging out with my wonderful family. My favorite place to spend my coffee breaks is Twitter, so please feel free to connect with me there.