Low End Mac's Online Tech Journal

Planning the Automation Project

Website Automation with PHP and MySQL, Part 1

Dan Knight - 2002.04.23

I've been saying it for months, but I finally sat down and started to do it. We're automating site updates.

Yes, I've been doing all the updates manually for over last five years. I've simplified parts of the process using Server Side Includes and Cascading Style Sheets, but until last Friday, all of the content on Low End Mac has been put there manually.

The Plan

I have several projects to work on and a good idea of the order I want to do them in. All involve a fair bit of programming and should be feasible using PHP, one of the hottest programming languages on the Internet:

  1. Automate new links on home page and other indexes.
  2. Overhaul our mailing lists.
  3. Create a system where writers can submit articles online - maybe even write and edit.

There may be other projects, but these are the ones that are most important to Low End Mac. I've been giving a lot of thought to them; preplanning is an important part of programming.

Automatic Content

Right now we have our Mac of the day, email list of the day, and deal of the day. I manually added these Monday through Friday. Right now the Mac of the day and email list of the day are automated. I've created a database for each, and the server automatically updates them every morning (at 4:00 a.m. Eastern time). That's the first project, and I still have to set things up for the deal of the day.

The second project will be automating the new LEM content links and the "recent" section that appears with our editorial content. It shouldn't be too hard, but I want to go beyond that and eventually have the program track how many times each link is clicked - and then sort links according to date and popularity. This will be a bit more of a challenge. We may also ask for feedback later on.

The third project in automating the home page will handle the "Around the Web" section. This should be easier than the second project, but it's not as high a priority. I'd like to eventually expand this section so other LEM staffers could add links, then set up a cookie-based system where subscribers could choose which kind of links they do and don't wish to see. Eventually I'd like to track clicks and feedback, which could help us decide on precedence of new links based on their author and the site publishing them.

The Email Lists

I'm very grateful to Maclaunch.com for hosting our 30+ email lists, but the current system has some limitations. Once I've automated home page and link updates on the site, I want to address these limitations by creating a program to run the lists. Here's my brief feature list:

  • A single subscriber database. You have no idea how many times I receive "unsubscribe" or "please switch me to digest" messages with no indication of which list(s) the subscriber receives. A unified subscriber database would solve this. It could even store a subscriber preference for single message mode vs. digest as well as alternate versions of email addresses.
  • More secure archives. I want to make sure that if/when spiders search the archives they won't be able to harvest email addresses.
  • Better threading. Each posting on each list will be numbered, making it easier to figure out which specific message someone is replying to.
  • More user friendly. Right now we block HTML email, but PHP includes a command that can automatically strip HTML. Instead of sending such messages back as unacceptable, the server could clean them up. We could also clean up so-called smart quotes and other symbols that aren't strict ASCII.
  • Better filtering. Not only would such a program be able to filter based on words or phrases, it could also be set to remove things like the automatic footers some email services append to messages.
  • Online management. Each subscriber would be mailed a password and allowed to change their subscriptions using a Web browser or turn vacation mode on and off.

Overall, I'm very excited at the prospect of having a lot more control over the way the lists operate.


My biggest resources are probably my two middle sons, both of whom are already doing a lot of programming in PHP. I'll also be borrowing their PHP 4 Bible and PHP (from the Visual "Read Less, Learn More" series).

I'll share what I learn as we go along.

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