Adventures in making this website:
static site generation

Published on 2022-11-15, last updated on 2022-11-28.

Making and managing this personal website has been an adventure. In this series, I go over the technical challenges I’ve encountered and philosophical decisions I’ve made, and I review some of the tools I’ve used along the way. This is part 1, followed by part 2 and part 3.

If you’ve ever taken a good look at HTML, it should be clear that it isn’t fun to write it all by hand. Therefore, we invented the Static Site Generator (SSG): a program that takes an HTML template and some text in a more human-friendly form (usually Markdown), and mashes them together, yielding a servable HTML file. Of course, it’s pretty clear what the best approach to do this is, so we only need one SSG, right?

Yeah… no, there are a lot of them. Frustratingly many, in fact. Although some of them are highly specialized or advanced, most are very similar in scope. The three SSGs I’m about to discuss are all intended for personal blogs, and for many people, there isn’t much reason to prefer one over the other. My SSG-hopping was due to my niche requirements and perfectionism.

Zola

The first SSG I used was Zola, which was started in late 2016 (making it the youngest SSG here), and advertizes itself as a “one-stop static site engine” that “gets out of your way so you can focus on your content”. Written in Rust, it’s fast and portable, and has convenient features like code syntax highlighting, support for multilingual sites, and an optional theme library. Similar to other SSGs, you can run zola serve to start a local HTTP server to test a webpage, which reloads itself each time you make changes; this makes development a breeze.

Demonstration

An example can say more than a thousand words, so, to give an idea of what it’s like to use Zola (other SSGs are similar), consider this HTML template, powered by Tera:

<html>
  <head>
    <title>Example</title>
  </head>
  <body>
    {% block content %}
      {{ section.content | safe }}
    {% endblock content %}
  </body>
</html>

This is a standard HTML document, except for the parts in curly braces: {% %} is for statements, and {{ }} inserts the value of an expression into the output. We’ve created a block content, and given it the default definition {{ section.content | safe }}, where section.content is the content of this “section” after Markdown-to-HTML conversion (Zola distinguishes sections and pages based on folder structure and file name). Then safe tells Tera that the string has been fully converted to HTML, so no more escaping is necessary.

The point of defining such blocks in the template is that you can override them. We thus create a page template which inherits the above structure ({% extends "default.html" %}) and redefines the content block. This example also highlights Zola’s neat table-of-contents generation:

{% extends "default.html" %}
{% block content %}
  <div id="title">{{ page.title }}</div>
  <p>
    <ul>{% for h1 in page.toc %}
      <li><a href="{{ h1.permalink | safe }}">{{ h1.title }}</a>
      {% if h1.children %}
        <ul>{% for h2 in h1.children %}
          <li><a href="{{ h2.permalink | safe }}">{{ h2.title }}</a></li>
        {% endfor %}</ul>
      {% endif %}</li>
    {% endfor %}</ul>
  </p>
  {{ page.content | safe }}
{% endblock content %}

Okay, enough templates, what if we actually want to write something? Well, then we just create a Markdown file in the appropriate place (I’m being vague, since this isn’t intended to be a tutorial) with contents like:

+++
title = "Example page"
+++

# Heading 1

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet...

The part surrounded by +++ is called the front matter, and is a common feature in SSGs, allowing you to set parameters that can be used by templates or the SSG itself. And that’s it! If we now run zola build, our Markdown will be converted to HTML and inserted into the template.

Review

Zola’s opinionated design pays off: it’s quite simple, fast and as flexible as your templates allow. Speaking of which, of the SSGs I’ve tried, Tera is in my opinion the cleanest and most powerful template engine. Zola’s main weakness is its obscurity: if you need help or want to do complex things, there aren’t many resources available other than the official documentation. But I also think its design is good enough that you can probably figure it out.

So, why did I stop using Zola? Due to a giant misunderstanding, that’s why. In late 2020 I started my knowledge base, for which I needed the ability to show maths formulas. There exist several solutions to put LaTeX maths on websites, but back then I didn’t understand how they worked and what their prerequisites were, so I mistakenly concluded that it wasn’t possible with Zola. Indeed, Zola doesn’t have built-in support for it, but it turns out I didn’t need that! And I only figured that out while writing this post…

I’ll go over my maths rendering journey in a future article. In the end, my misguided decision to migrate from Zola did have some benefits; otherwise my current offline solution wouldn’t have been possible. But in hindsight, I wish I’d spent more time with Zola, and I think it would be my first recommendation to a beginner.

Hugo

I migrated to Hugo, an SSG written in Go, which also markets itself as being fast and flexible, and is pretty much feature-equivalent to Zola. Hugo is much more popular than Zola; in fact, it seems to be one of the most-used SSGs out there.

The reason I chose it is that it allows page contents to be written in one of several formats, one of which is pandoc’s Markdown dialect that has built-in support for LaTeX maths. So when Hugo is building the site, it passes my .pdc file to the external pandoc program, which converts it to HTML to insert into the template. With how Hugo sets this up, the result is that all maths get wrapped in HTML <span> tags with certain classes, which I (wrongly) thought was necessary.

Demonstration

The previous page template example would look like this in Hugo, after a few small tweaks like adding a navigation bar at the top of the page:

<html>
  <head>
    <title>{{ .Title }} | {{ .Site.Title }}</title>
  </head>
  <body>
    {{ partial "navbar.html" . }}
    <div id="title">{{ .Title }}</div>
    {{ .TableOfContents }}
    {{ .Content }}
  </body>
</html>

On the one hand, Hugo provides the convenient .TableOfContents variable at the cost of control, unlike Zola, where we had to do it manually. On the other hand, Hugo doesn’t use block-based templates and hence lacks a nice inheritance system like Zola’s I stand corrected, Hugo can do Zola-style blocks, but it’s hard to figure this out on your own. If you want to reuse a snippet, you typically put it in a file e.g. navbar.html and include it as {{ partial "navbar.html" . }}. Note the dot at the end… I’ll get to that. Overall, Hugo’s template organization feels “dumber” than Zola’s, although my requirements had become a lot more complicated by then.

Like most SSGs, Hugo uses an external template engine, namely the text/template Go package. Disclaimer: I’m not a Go developer, so I don’t know how nice this library is for various use-cases; here I’m just reviewing whether it’s good for HTML templates in Hugo.

Okay, here comes my review: it’s awful. No, it isn’t a good fit here: the whole point of an SSG is to have a pretty sophisticated template language to avoid needing to program a custom solution. This package is just too primitive, so Hugo has shoehorned all sorts of extensions into it to make it usable; the result is an opaque mess with still too little flexibility. For simple stuff like inserting the site’s title somewhere it’s fine, but I need some pretty non-trivial templates.

To give you a taste, consider the following snippet I wrote, which lists the 10 most recent articles from newest to oldest, as seen on my knowledge base’ front page:

<p>Most recent articles:
  <ol>
    {{ $concepts := where .RegularPagesRecursive "File.Dir" ">" "know/concept/" }}
    {{ range first 10 $concepts.ByPublishDate.Reverse }}
      <li><a href="{{ .RelPermalink }}">{{ .Title | title }}</a></li>
    {{ end }}
  </ol>
</p>

This example captures the messiness of Hugo templates. But on a more serious note, there are some questionable design decisions here, in no particular order:

Maybe, if you’re a Go/Hugo veteran, this all just makes sense to you (then I’m both jealous and scared of you). I just want you to keep my comments in mind when I compare the same piece of templating code in the next SSG.

Review

I don’t mean to shame Hugo’s developers with my complaints. I suspect it started as a private experiment (which would explain their choice of Go’s template package for quick development) that became too popular too fast. Looking at Jamstack’s ranking of SSGs, we see that Hugo is the only compiled program anywhere near the top, and I think that explains its popularity: there are a lot of performance-focused programmers out there, who don’t want an SSG in an interpreted language like JS or Python. So when Hugo was released, it quickly attracted many users, and also many contributors wanting various features. The result is its current messy feel.

But for all my complaining, Hugo’s popularity is a big advantage, with many tutorials available online in addition to the extensive official documentation. And, as it claims, Hugo is indeed fast and flexible. In practice, you only really interact with an SSG when writing your templates, and after that most of your time is spent on actual content, so although Hugo may sometimes get in your way during development, it might not be a problem for you.

Towards the end of 2022, my maths rendering solution required fetching 450KB of compressed JS on page load, leading to a visible delay, which I wasn’t happy with. I’d discovered it was possible to render maths offline, so no JS would need to be loaded, but this couldn’t reasonably be done with Hugo, unless I forked it like this guy did… No thanks. It was time to change.

Jekyll

Compared to Zola and Hugo, Jekyll’s feature set is fairly basic: things like an automatic table of contents or multilingual pages need to be added using plugins. But on the upside it supports plugins at all, thanks to being written in Ruby, an interpreted programming language, unlike its compiled competitors. It’s quite mature compared to other popular SSGs, and is what I’m using right now, since I was able to get statically-rendered maths thanks to a plugin.

Demonstration

At first sight, Jekyll’s Liquid templates look very similar to Hugo’s, due to its inclusion system:

<html>
  <head>
    <title>{{ page.title }} | {{ site.title }}</title>
  </head>
  <body>
    {% include navbar.html %}
    {{ content }}
  </body>
</html>

But where did our table of contents go? For that, we need the jekyll-toc extension and pipe all our content through the toc filter. Compared to Hugo, Jekyll has a trick up its sleeve here: you can nest templates inside the {{ content }} object. So, let the above default.html be a skeleton for the actual page template, which we then define as:

---
layout: "default"
---

<div id="title">{{ page.title }}</div>

{{ content | toc }}

Another template could be nested in {{ content }}, and so on, until the innermost block is filled with the converted Markdown, which, unlike for Zola and Hugo, can also contain template code. This approach is brilliant in my opinion: it’s more flexible than Hugo and needs less boilerplate than Zola. Also, Jekyll doesn’t try to guess which template should be used for what.

A standard feature of Markdown is that you can write HTML directly, which gets copied verbatim while the rest is converted to HTML too. A minor annoyance is that kramdown, Jekyll’s converter, insists on parsing the HTML I write, but isn’t very good at it: for the image on this page, why did it generate a closing </source> tag? That isn’t valid! Fortunately, modern browsers are accustomed to this, so it gets interpreted correctly anyway.

And what about my snippet to list the 10 most recent articles? In Jekyll it looks like this:

{% assign concepts = site.pages | where_exp: "item", "item.layout == 'concept'" %}
{% assign newest = concepts | sort: "date" | reverse | slice: 0, 10 %}
<p>Most recent articles:
  <ol>
    {% for item in newest %}
      <li><a href="{{ item.url }}">{{ item.title }}</a></li>
    {% endfor %}
  </ol>
</p>

There, isn’t that much better? Yes, it’s a bit more verbose than Hugo, but at least it’s pretty clear what’s going on; with the documentation’s help, you could write this yourself. Now it’s bearable for me to write complex templates… although sometimes I maybe take it a bit too far.

Review

Jekyll has been consistently popular for many years, and I can see why. Its templating system is elegantly organized and flexible enough for most use-cases, it’s infinitely extensible with plugins and plenty fast despite being written in Ruby. Although 5 years older than Hugo, it doesn’t feel nearly as messy.

Jekyll deserves some criticism for how it wants you to organize your files by default: in both Zola and Hugo, you put your markdown into a dedicated content folder, but in Jekyll you just dump it all directly into the root, meaning that configuration and content aren’t clearly separated, which I don’t like. Fortunately, you can fix this in _config.yml by setting source.

I’m happy with my choice to move to Jekyll, and I don’t want to do another migration ever again (~200 files would need to be converted). My site feels organized now, and it builds in seconds, even including the process of rendering all LaTeX maths into HTML. In fact, I’m so satisfied that I’ve even published my source code!

Conclusion

Making a functioning website isn’t as hard as it seems, but making a good one does take time. Most of that time is spent writing HTML templates and especially CSS, and realistically, both will need to be tweaked again and again over time. But, in my humble opinion, it’s worth the effort: it’s a constructive activity with tangible results. I like seeing my work appear in a browser.

Do you want to build your own website using an SSG? I recommend that you look at Zola first, with Jekyll a close second, if you can deal with its higher complexity. Personally, compared to those two, I wouldn’t recommend Hugo, but for some people (probably Go developers) it just might be what they’re looking for.

EDIT: There exists an SSG called Soupault that has interesting alternative take on site generation. Its creator pitched it to me, and coincidentally its website includes this comparison with the SSGs discussed in this article. Like I said, I don’t intend to migrate again, like, ever, so I’m writing this to spread the word about an, in my opinion, intriguing project.


© Marcus R.A. Newman, CC BY-SA 4.0.
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