Bobby Smith

Bobby Smith

Experience Designer.

Creating a fast and mobile-friendly website with Jekyll

21 June, 2013

This is a full walkthrough of how I created a static website with Jekyll, keeping it fast and mobile-friendly.

Jekyll is a static site generator: it transforms plain text files (in Markdown for content, Liquid for templates) into an HTML, CSS, and JavaScript website ready for deployment.

There are other options out there to create a website or blog, like the popular Wordpress, or the more recent Squarespace and Ghost. These are dynamic, which means your content is stored in a database and is filled in templates when a user visits the site. They also have an administration section, which allows you to log in and edit your content. That usually makes the website or blog easier to update, especially for less technical people.

But using a static site generator like Jekyll has a few advantages over these other solutions:

Building a website "from scratch" using Jekyll might feel a little complicated at first, as there are a lot of moving parts, things to configure, etc. In this post, I'd like to walk you through how I went about it, and hopefully that will help you get started more quickly and serve as a checklist of the things you need to think about for your website. Keep in mind that this is just one way of doing things. You are more than welcome to adapt this workflow to your liking!

This is also a fairly long read, since I wanted to include the end-to-end process from installing the tools to deploying the site. The table of contents below will help you jump to different sections.

If you want, you can follow along with this source code.

Table of contents

Installing Jekyll

We will use Jekyll (Ruby) to generate the HTML files, the Grunt build tool (Node.js) to compile and minify CSS and JavaScript files, and Pygments (Python) for code syntax highlighting in our posts.

This means you will need to have installed:

If you don't have all of these installed and are using a Mac, you can check out my Mac Dev Setup guide for help.

Install Jekyll with:

$ gem install jekyll

Jekyll has great documentation to help you learn how to use it.

A basic directory structure looks something like this:

.
├── _includes/
|   ├── footer.html
|   ├── header.html
|   └── posts.html
├── _plugins/
|   ├── asset_url.rb
|   └── image_tag.rb
├── _layouts/
|   ├── default.html
|   ├── page.html
|   └── post.html
├── _posts/
|   ├── 2013-02-11-pictures-of-cats.md
|   └── 2013-01-31-hello-world.md
├── _site/
├── _config.yml
└── index.html

The static website is generated in the _site folder. Any other file or directory than the ones listed above (like CSS and JavaScript files) will be copied over into the _site directory, except if you explicitly exclude them in _config.yml.

We use Git for version control, so let's immediately add _site to our .gitignore file.

Installing Grunt

Jekyll processes our layout and content text files into HTML. We will use Grunt to process our CSS and JavaScript files.

Install the Grunt command line tool with:

$ npm install -g grunt-cli

Let's create directories for our source files, and add them to the exclude list in _config.yml so they are not copied to the site:

...
├── css/
└── js/

If you use preprocessors, like Sass, LESS, or CoffeeScript, you can add corresponding sass/, less/, or coffee/ directories.

We also create directories for our concatenated (debug/) and minified (build/) files, which will be copied to the site, and add them to .gitignore so they are not tracked in version control:

...
├── debug/
└── build/

Finally, we create an assets/ directory for larger files such as images, also excluded from version control in .gitignore:

...
└── assets/

A word of explanation: we will create our stylesheets and scripts in their source directories, using as many files as we like to keep the code maintainable. We then combine those files into one CSS file style.css and one JavaScript file main.js in the debug/ directory, which keeps the number of HTTP requests to a minimum for best performance. To do so, we can use the following Grunt plugins, depending on which tools you use (I like Compass for CSS and Browserify for JavaScript):

For deployment, we will also minify the files into style.min.css and main.min.js in the build/ directory, using:

All these tasks are defined in the Gruntfile.js of your project. You can check out Grunt's documentation and my example Gruntfile.js for help setting it up.

Workflow

I set up some Grunt tasks to help me automate my workflow. During development, when I'm modifying my site layout, writing content, changing CSS, etc., I open up a first terminal and run:

$ grunt debug

This tasks watches for changes in CSS and JS files (and/or Sass, LESS, CoffeeScript), compiles and concatenates source files in the debug/ directory. In a second terminal I run:

$ grunt server

This task is basically an alias for jekyll serve --watch, which runs the development server on http://localhost:4000/ and also watches for changes in Liquid layout or Markdown content files and rebuilds the site.

Before deployment, I run:

$ grunt build

This compiles, concatenates, and minifies styles and scripts, as well as re-generates the whole Jekyll site, and uses the environment variable JEKYLL_ENV by setting it to "production" to tell my Jekyll templates to point to the minified files in the build/ directory instead of debug/.

We will see later, but to deploy the website and publish changes, I use the command:

$ jekyll-s3

The Grunt tasks described above use a combination of the plugins mentioned earlier. I invite you to check out my Gruntfile.js and use it as inspiration for your own workflow.

CSS

Writing plain CSS has its limits, and there are preprocessors like Sass (Ruby) and LESS (Node.js) that help you overcome them. There are also frameworks like Bootstrap (LESS) and Foundation (Sass) that give you a head start with styles for elements like grids, buttons, typography, etc.

Personally, I use Sass with Compass. I also like Inuit.css as a lightweight, extensible framework. I will explain how to set those up, but you can use whichever tool you prefer.

To install Compass and its Inuit framework plugin:

$ gem install compass compass-inuit

I then configure the Grunt plugin grunt-contrib-compass in my Gruntfile.js and add it to my grunt debug and grunt build tasks.

Using preprocessors helps you keep your CSS maintainable and modular. If interested, you can dive into the work around Object-Oriented CSS (OOCSS) or SMACS. To start simple, I find it a good practice to separate styles specific to certain parts your website in different files, and prefix the CSS rules with those "module" names. For example:

sass/
├── ui/
|   ├── _footer.scss
|   ├── _header.scss
|   ├── _page.scss
|   └── _scaffolding.scss
├── _config.scss
└── main.scss
// _header.scss

.header--nav {
  @extend .nav;
  @extend .nav--banner;

  margin-bottom: 0;
}

// ...

Now is a good time to say a few words on building a mobile-friendly website. It has a become best practice to use Responsive Web Design, i.e. building a site that adapts nicely to different device screen sizes. To do so, add the following in your <head> HTML tag:

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0">

You can then use CSS3 media queries to define rules for certain screen sizes. I like the mobile-first approach, so I often design my site for the smallest screen size first, then add rules to complement or override the styles as the screen gets bigger. For example:

body {
  max-width: 700px;
  padding: 12px;
  padding-bottom: 0;
}

@media only screen and (min-width: 481px) {
  body {
    padding-top: 24px;
    padding-right: 24px;
    padding-left: 24px;
  }
}

Finally, include the link to the concatenated stylesheet in the <head> tag of _layouts/default.html:

{% if site.env == 'production' %}
  <link rel="stylesheet" href="/build/style.min.css">
{% else %}
  <link rel="stylesheet" href="/debug/style.css">
{% endif %}

JavaScript

I use the Bower package manager to install front-end JS libraries, like jQuery. It has a pretty extensive registry of these front-end components. Some front-end libraries can also be found on NPM.

Bower will install libraries in the components/ directory. For example:

$ bower install jquery fastclick

I then use Browserify and the Grunt plugin grunt-browserify2 to combine these different libraries into one single JS file. My main JS file will look something like:

// js/main.js

var $ = require('jquery')
  , FastClick = require('fastclick');

// On DOM ready
$(function() {

  // Eliminates the 300ms delay between a physical tap and the firing of a
  // click event on mobile browsers
  new FastClick(document.body);

  // ...

});

To be able to write require('jquery'), you need to use browserify-shim in your Gruntfile.js and provide the path to each component.

In your default.html layout, link to the concatenated JS file just before the closing </body> tag (for best performance):

  <!-- ... -->
  {% if site.env == 'production' %}
    <script src="/build/app.min.js"></script>
  {% else %}
    <script src="/debug/app.js"></script>
  {% endif %}
</body>

Images

Regarding website performance, images are a tricky thing. We took the time to concatenate and minify our CSS and JS files, but a single image can weight more kilobytes than both files combined.

As Dave Rupert's article "Ughck. Images." shows, the solution to "Responsive Images" isn't quite here yet.

In the meantime, I needed something relatively simple that would allow me to include images on a website in a way that keeps it loading fast. I focused on two things:

After installing and setting up the JavaScript libraries, I create a Jekyll plugin called image_tag.rb, that allows me to easily insert images in my Markdown files with a custom Liquid tag:

{% image my-image.png "Image alt text" "Optional image caption" %}

With this in place, pages of the website should feel faster as images aren't loaded until they become visible in the browser viewport.

I chose this solution because it is simple, and my website doesn't use images much, but there are other options out there. For instance, Paul Stamatiou, who also does photograpy, offers a more sophisticated solution in his article "Developing a responsive, Retina-friendly site".

Code blocks

With a blog on programming, I'm going to be using a lot of code examples. It's important that they look good, both on desktop and mobile.

For syntax highlighting, Jekyll has a nice integration with Pygments. To install, run:

$ pip install pygments

And add to your _config.yml file:

pygments: true

I like using fenced code blocks, as found in GitHub-Flavored Markdown, instead of Liquid highlight tags. To do so, I switched my Jekyll Markdown parser to redcarpet:

$ gem install redcarpet

And add to the _config.yml file:

markdown: redcarpet

And now you can include code blocks with:

```javascript
var msg = 'Hello world!';
```

For me, this also has the benefit of making the Markdown files of my blog posts compatible with Marked (also check "Strip YAML Front Matter" in Marked's preferences).

As I said, I find it important that the code blocks look good on a small mobile screen as well as the desktop. To achieve this, I first use the following CSS rule:

pre {
  white-space: pre-wrap;
}

This will wrap the code when a line is longer than the screen size, instead of displaying a horizontal scroll bar (I find horizontal scrolling awkward, but that might be just me). Wrapped code isn't great though, and a little difficult to read. To limit this on small screens, diminish the font-size to make as much code as possible fit on one line, using media queries:

pre, pre > code {
  /* Make more code fit on small screens */
  font-size: 14px;
}

@media only screen and (min-width: 481px) {
  pre, pre > code {
    /* Bigger font on bigger screens */
    font-size: 16px;
  }
}

Finally, for the colors of the syntax highlighting, I like the Solarized theme. I put together two CSS stylesheets to use with Pygments and Jekyll, the "Light" and "Dark" versions.

Here I realized the importance of testing a website on an actual mobile device (versus just in a resized desktop browser). Indeed, the Solarized Dark theme was fine on the bright screen of my MacBook Air, but too dark and diffictult to read on my iPhone screen. That's one of the reasons I opted for Solarized Light.

Comments

Many blogs and websites use Disqus to manage their comments. Setting it up with Jekyll is very easy.

First you need to create a Disqus account if you don't have one already, then register your site.

Once that is done, paste the universal code Disqus gives you into a Jekll include, _includes/disqus.html, and replace the shortname with a Liquid output:

var disqus_shortname = '{{ site.disqus.shortname }}'; 

Then, in your _config.yml, insert your Disqus shortname:

disqus:
    shortname: 'b00y0h'

Now, anywhere on your site you want to add Disqus comments (for instance, in _layouts/post.html), all you have to do is include disqus.html with the Liquid tag:

{% include disqus.html %}

SEO

I'll be honest, I don't know much about Search Engine Optimization. This might be a bit naive, but to me the best way to be on top of search results is to have great content, tell people about it, and if they like it they will link to your content, and that will bring more people and help your ranking.

I did learn however, mostly thanks to Segment.io's article "The Quickest Wins in SEO", that there are a couple basic steps you should take.

First, it is good to include a short meta description in the <head> tag of your page, as Google will display that under the link to your site in the search results:

<meta name="description" content="Short description of my website that will appear in search results.">

Next, add a robots.txt file in your root directory, which tells crawlers (but doesn't force them to) which parts of the site they should index or not. Don't worry about it too much, just use the simplest form of robots.txt:

User-agent: *
Allow: /

I'm not sure if this is really SEO-related, but it's also good practice to include an error.html or 404.html file in the root directory, that will be displayed for example if a user mistypes a link to your site. Usually that page displays a short "Not Found" message with a link to other parts of the site (example: GitHub 404).

Finally, include a Sitemap, which is an XML file that helps crawlers find content to index on your site. With Jekyll, all you need to do is copy the sitemap_generator.rb plugin to your _plugins folder. Re-generate the site, and a sitemap.xml file will appear in the _site folder.

RSS feed

An RSS feed is a good way for visitors to keep updated on new blog posts when they add it to their feed reader.

To generate the XML file for your RSS feed, just copy the feed.xml template to your project root directory, and add a link to /feed.xml somewhere on your site.

Analytics

I'm going to explain how to set up Google Analytics on the site, but you can adapt this to other analytics services like Mixpanel, GoSquared, etc. (for a nice list of different services out there, see the Segment.io documentation).

First, register for Google Analytics with your Google account, if you haven't done so already.

Then, add the code snippet provided in the documentation into a Jekyll include, like _includes/google_analytics.html. Replace the tracking code with a Liquid output:

_gaq.push(['_setAccount', '{{ site.google_analytics_id }}']);

You could put your Google Analytics ID in the _config.yml, but it's best not to commit these kind of tokens inside the Git repository. Instead, I set it as an environment variable in the terminal that's running the Jekyll build. In order to do this, I created a simple environment_variables.rb plugin in which I add the line:

site.config['google_analytics_id'] = ENV['GOOGLE_ANALYTICS_ID']

That way I can run:

$ export GOOGLE_ANALYTICS_ID='UA-XXXXX-Y'
$ grunt build

Which will make the environment variable's value available to the Liquid template through site.google_analytics_id.

As explained in Google's documentation, include the snippet just before the closing </head> tag with:

  <!-- ... -->
  {% include google_analytics.html %}
</head>

Deployment

Deploying has a few different pieces that we'll need to select:

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, one advantage of a static website is that it can be deployed to just about any host that can serve static files. Here I'll explain how to deploy to Amazon S3, which has a "pay-according-to-traffic" pricing model (it ends up being pretty cheap, unless you really have a ton of traffic). If you don't have many images or other big files, GitHub Pages is also a nice option.

I'm also going to explain how to host your site at the "root" (or "naked" or "apex") domain (i.e. "reversetype.com" instead of "www.reversetype.com"), which is a little more tricky. This is my preference, but if you'd like to host at the "www" domain, you should be able to adapt these instructions fairly easily.

Pushing a Jekyll website to Amazon S3 is really easy, thanks to the jekyll-s3 tool. Create an Amazon Web Services (AWS) account if you don't have one already, then install the tool with:

$ gem install jekyll-s3

In the Amazon S3 console, create a bucket (select the "US Standard" region) with a name that matches your domain name, (in my case "reversetype.com").

Note: Since I'm hosting at the root domain "reversetype.com", I will also create a second bucket "www.reversetype.com" that I will leave empty, and configure it to redirect all requests to "reversetype.com", as explained in the AWS documentation.

Next, create a _jekyll_s3.yml file with your Amazon credentials declared as environment variables:

s3_id: <%= ENV['S3_ID'] %>
s3_secret: <%= ENV['S3_SECRET'] %>
s3_bucket: reversetype.com
gzip: true

Obtain your Amazon credentials from the AWS console (click on your name in the top right and "Security Credentials"), and set the environment variables:

$ export S3_ID='YOUR_AWS_S3_ACCESS_KEY_ID'
$ export S3_SECRET='YOUR_AWS_S3_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY'

Once that is done, run the S3 bucket configuration tool provided with jekyll-s3, which will prepare it to host a static website (for now, say "no" when it asks you if you want to configure it for the CloudFront CDN):

configure-s3-website --config-file _jekyll_s3.yml

Finally, build your site for production and deploy to Amazon S3 with:

$ grunt build
$ jekyll-s3

You can already visit the live site with the example.com.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com address provided (replace "example.com" with your domain of course).

To point our domain name to this Amazon S3 bucket, we need to configure its DNS records. If we were hosting at the "www.example.com" domain, all we would need to do is create a CNAME record:

CNAME www.example.com www.example.com.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com

However, we are hosting at the root domain "example.com", which requires an A record that has to point to an IP address. This is where it gets tricky: the IP address of our Amazon S3 can change.

To work around that, we need to use a separate DNS provider, DNSimple or Amazon Route 53. They both have special ALIAS records (DNSimple ALIAS, Route 53 ALIAS) that allow you to point a root domain ("example.com") to another domain, much like a CNAME.

In the case of DNSimple, we create two records:

ALIAS example.com example.com.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com
CNAME www.example.com www.example.com.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com

To use a separate DNS provider, you need to configure your registrar (mine is Gandi) to point to its DNS servers.

I won't dive right now into how to configure a CDN like CloudFront. Different CDN, DNS, host combinations could be a whole other article. Feel free to read through the CloudFront documentation, it should be pretty straighforward to set up using jekyll-s3 and Route 53.

Conclusion

Using Jekyll does require a bit of tinkering and setting up, but hopefully this walkthrough will help you get started faster.

I like the fact that creating "from scratch" forces you to learn and understand what goes into making a fast and modern website. I also appreaciate the flexibility it gives you, since you can use plugins and other tools like Grunt to adapt it to what's specific about your project.

Did you find this article helpful? Do you use Jekyll and have a different workflow you'd like to share? Feel free to reach out!