We Have Augmented Catalyst to Accept Emails for Our Daily Links

If you visit visuallizard.com with any regularity, you know that we post up interesting links for each other in the Daily Links portion of our blog. A little while ago, we were discussing what we could do to make the posting of these links easier. Posting a link wasn't complicated, but we wondered, "Could we make it easier? How about faster? Maybe both?"

Never ones to shy away from a challenge, we set to work armed with the following goal: how can we make this simpler?

Our current process goes something like this:

  1. login to Catalyst
  2. visit the blog area of admin system
  3. find Daily Links section
  4. add a new link and fill in the required fields
  5. save

In reality, this only takes 3 or 4 minutes at most. But given our nature, we wanted to try to shave it down to 60 seconds or less. How?

With the above process, no matter what we do, we will always have to do Step #4. There is no way to provide a link without providing some data. Over the years, we have distilled the information needed for links down to a bare minimum: link title, URL, image (optional), description (optional), and appearance date (auto set to the current day). The appearance date is only there so we can cue up Daily Links in the future if we know we are going to be away. This leaves us with the required minimum of a title and a URL in order to post a link.

Our highly technical flowchart showing our old link-posting process.

The next thing we discussed was how most of us consume the web. Of the seven of us in the office, everyone has a smartphone of some sort, five of us have tablets, and all of us have laptops. Since we have ready-built tools for posting from our laptop, and we all have smart/mobile devices of some sort, we decided to concentrate on posting from our phones. What would be the fastest way?

Text messaging would be quickest, and given that we have a good partner in Twilio, we explored this. The problem is the 144 character limit. That is not enough space for some URLs even, let alone a description and title.

Email seemed the better choice. In order to facilitate this, we needed to ensure we had the php-imap functions enabled. Once those where in place, we decided to test our plan by creating a new mailbox that would collect the emails for our Daily Links. Email is pretty simple by nature and we wanted to retain that simplicity as much as possible. We used the subject field as the title, the first line of the body as the URL, and everything after as the description. The final piece is a little secret code for each of us, that when paired with our at-visuallizard-dot-com mail accounts, act as a the security check and allows the post to be published onto the site.

Once we tested everything, we setup a cron job that runs our "read inbox" routine and writes the contents of valid, security-checked emails over to our database. Voila! Quick Daily Links can now be posted from wherever you consume the web.

In our extremely-rough calculations, we have seen link posting times of around 60 seconds with this email routine versus the 180-240 seconds observed with the login-navigate-post routine. That might not seem like a big gain on the surface, but over the long haul you could end up saving an hour here or there, which really adds up.

A few things to keep in mind if you are going to try this on your own:

  • Hosting your own stuff certainly helps, as not all hosts will allow you to add functions to php and create virtual paths in your hosting setup.
  • Ensure you have at least 2 security checks to validate the emails before you post them. Restricted from-addresses, secret codes, or even manual approval processes.
  • Be aware that spelling, sloppy grammar, typos and the like are part and parcel of email, so you should have another tool for editing posted links. We do in our Catalyst CMS, but you shouldn't look to email posting as your only avenue.
  • Never publish the email address you want to send these links to. Never!
  • Be prepared to destroy and reset your mailbox if/when the spammers find it. This would of course mean modifying all your scripts as well.

If you are a client of ours and you use our Catalyst CMS, we now have a pretty awesome method for posting to it through email. Contact us if this is something you are interested in and we can make it happen. If you aren't a client of ours but would like to be, we are happy to talk to you about anything you might need.

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