How to REALLY check if the content is empty in WordPress

Problem: You want to check if the content in a WordPress post is empty. Seems easy, but do a Google search on the topic and you’ll see the question asked and — incorrectly — answered several times.

The fact is, I know how to do this. I was just hoping there was a built-in function in WordPress that I didn’t know about. Apparently not, so I wrote my own.

Why isn’t it easy and obvious how to check for the content being empty? Well, you could do this:

if ($post->post_content == '') { ... }

That will work. If the content is really empty. That means a zero-length string. As in strlen($post->post_content) == 0. Which it might be. But probably not.

If you’ve worked with real world site content, or even someone else’s Word documents before, you know that blank space is invisible, and a lot of times there’s a lot of blank space in a document that is not truly “empty.” Spaces, line breaks, HTML paragraphs with nothing but a non-breaking space in them. It all takes up space, and makes the content look empty, even when it’s not.

That last example is the critical one here. A WordPress post may look like it has no content, but if someone pressed Enter while the cursor was in the content box and then saved the page, it most likely has at least one <p>&nbsp;</p> in it.

So what you need is a function that takes all of that invisible cruft into account. Since it doesn’t seem like WordPress has such a function built in, I wrote my own, which I have made as compact as possible:

function empty_content($str) {
    return trim(str_replace('&nbsp;','',strip_tags($str))) == '';
}

This function takes the string you pass into it, strips out all HTML tags, then removes any non-breaking space entities, and then trims all whitespace. If there’s nothing but that stuff, then it becomes an empty string. If there’s any “real” content, the string won’t be empty. Then it just compares whatever it has left against an actual empty string, and returns the boolean result.

So now if you want to check if the WordPress content is really empty, you can do this:

if (empty_content($post->post_content)) { ... }

This will return true if the content is empty; false if it’s not.

How to really exclude the home page in the WordPress wp_page_menu() function

I’m posting this little tip for my future self as much as for anyone else.

The problem: It seems that in recent years WordPress has all-but-deprecated the wp_page_menu() function in favor of the wp_nav_menu() function, but the latter is primarily intended for Custom Menus, and there are some cases where Custom Menus aren’t what you want.

I’m working on a couple of sites right now that have a lot of pages, and I don’t want their editors to have to go over to Appearance > Menus every time they add or move a page. I’m relying on the CMS Tree Page View plugin on these sites to allow the clients to leverage the built in Parent / Order settings on pages to manage their primary navigation, rather than managing a separate Custom Menu.

Since I’m not using a Custom Menu, I don’t want to use wp_nav_menu() at all; I pretty much have to use wp_page_menu(). Which is fine. Except for the fact that the site designs do not call for having Home in the navigation.

No problem, right? After all, I can just add 'show_home' => false to the arguments passed to the function, and it will remove the home page.

But it doesn’t.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in the WordPress core here, but I suspect that show_home only works if you’re using the old school default configuration of WordPress that calls for the home page being the main “posts” page. And who does that anymore? If you’ve created a custom home page, even if you’ve configured WordPress properly to display it as the main page, this function doesn’t care. (Do functions “care” about anything? But I digress…)

Remember also that there’s an exclude argument, to which you can pass a comma-delimited string of post IDs to exclude. That works, but… ugh. You mean I really have to hardcode the post ID of the home page right into my header.php file?

Of course not. Use this: get_option('page_on_front') and it will automatically find the home page. This is great if you want to be able to reuse a theme or custom function on multiple sites or just not commit the transgression of hardcoding something that really doesn’t need to be hardcoded.

Here’s the complete code sample. Note there’s no need to bother with show_home at all.

wp_page_menu(array(
    'exclude' => get_option('page_on_front'),
));

Overriding WooCommerce (or any WordPress plugin) functions: a semi-solution

Here’s a question I’ve spent the past few days dealing with based on an issue a client had. How can you override a function in the WooCommerce core? The simple and dismissive answer is, you can’t. I tried a lot of different possible solutions. Eventually you may just be able to track down a solution that works in your specific case, but there’s no general rule that works universally. In this post I am going to discuss the specific problem that was the impetus for this journey, explore some of the challenges the situation presents, and describe the ugly but marginally tolerable solution that worked in this one narrow case.

What’s the problem?

Why would you ever want to override existing WooCommerce functionality? Well, maybe I need to start with a simpler question. What is WooCommerce? It’s a plugin for WordPress that adds extensive e-commerce capabilities. It’s hugely popular and, for the most part, really good. But it’s not perfect, and it’s not right for every possible scenario.

We have a client with a huge number of products, and a huge number of variants of those products. Sizes, colors, styles, etc. And as it happens, this client doesn’t give all of those variants their own SKU. But they do give some of them a SKU, and sometimes multiple variants share the same SKU.

Don’t get all principled about the definition of a SKU. They’re totally arbitrary and different businesses will use them in different ways. It’s not my job to police my clients’ SKU conventions, just to give them a way to use them within WooCommerce.

So now, here’s the problem. The client had been able to give multiple variants the same SKU. But a couple months back, we ran an available WooCommerce update, and it “broke” this “feature” for them. As it happens it was really fixing this bug in the system that allowed variants with duplicate SKUs. At least that was the argument in favor of the change. Even though I agree with coenjacobs who wrote: “I can think of use cases where this might be expected behaviour. Variations don’t necessarily require a product to be completely different, therefore duplicate SKUs might be required.”

Yes, I can think of use cases like that… my client’s website! Unfortunately there’s no turning back, so we need to find a solution.

The solution, on the surface, is extremely simple. Inside the WooCommerce plugin there’s a deeply buried file called includes/admin/meta-boxes/class-wc-meta-box-product-data.php that has this bit of code at line 1547:

$unique_sku = wc_product_has_unique_sku( $variation_id, $new_sku );

That code happens inside a method that saves variant data. It’s calling a function that checks that the SKU on the variant is unique. This block of code was apparently added in version 2.1.12 of WooCommerce. All you really need to do to “fix” the problem and restore the old functionality that allowed duplicates is to comment out that line of code, and replace it with this:

$unique_sku = true;

(OK, technically it would probably be better to write another function that makes sure that the SKU is unique in the system except within variants of this particular product, but that’s a topic for another day… or at least a passing mention again at the end of this post.)

I put “fix” in quotation marks up above because, trust me, you’re not fixing anything by editing the core files of a plugin directly. You’re just setting yourself up for future problems. Next time there’s an update, and a well-meaning person runs it — say, oh, I don’t know… you — your changes will get wiped out. You need a way to make your changes somewhere else. You need to be able to override this functionality without changing the plugin itself. This is WordPress 101, people. Maybe you need a refresher course. (It’s all ball bearings nowadays!)

What makes this so difficult?

As it happens, there are a number of exacerbating factors that make fixing this particular problem in a safe way incredibly challenging.

1) PHP doesn’t let you override functions that have already been declared. If it did, I could very easily just redefine wc_product_has_unique_sku() in my own way, a way that does mostly what it currently does, but with the added allowance for duplicate SKUs for variants of the same product.

One potential solution I tried pursuing, even though I knew it wouldn’t work, was to “redefine” the function inside an if (function_exists()) conditional. This is a fairly common feature of WordPress and some plugins that is called making functions “pluggable”. The idea is that if you declare your function inside that conditional, and it’s already been declared somewhere else earlier, no problem. Files inside your theme are loaded first, so this allows you to write your own versions of pluggable functions and override the defaults.

But this “pluggable” conditional has to be in the core files in order to work. I can’t put that conditional into my functions.php file, because either it loads after the plugin (it doesn’t, but bear with me for sake of argument) and doesn’t do anything, or (as it actually happens) it loads before the plugin, declares the function, and then when the plugin loads PHP throws a fatal error.

Like I said, I knew this wouldn’t work, for the exact reasons described above. But I tried it anyway. Guess what. It didn’t work. Fatal error. Moving on…

2) WordPress offers “hooks” to allow you to override functionality, but only if that functionality uses a hook. Not every function call in WordPress, or in plugins, uses hooks. A lot of them do, and that’s great. But the call to wc_product_has_unique_sku() at line 1547 in the save_variations() method of the WC_Meta_Box_Product_Data class, found inside that aforementioned class-wc-meta-box-product-data.php file, does not. At least not directly. So the only way this solution will work (hint, hint) is if you can find a place farther up the logic chain that does.

3) The one way PHP does let you override functions is through a PECL extension that is probably not installed on your web server. If I were hosting this client’s site myself, on my own server, I’d just install the necessary PECL extension so the override_function() function was available to me. But I’m not, so I can’t.

4) As designed, WooCommerce only allows you to override files inside its templates subdirectory. You may see a lot out there about solving all of these kinds of problems I’m describing by simply creating a woocommerce directory inside your theme and replicating files from WooCommerce there. Yeah, you can do that, and it works great. As long as the file you’re trying to override is in the templates directory of the main WooCommerce plugin. Anything else is untouchable. Trust me. I tried.

But… you said you found a solution, right?

Yes. I did.

Well… what is it?

You’re not going to like it.

A solution is a solution. C’mon, just tell me!

OK, fine. I found a solution that is ugly and messy, and only works in my specific case. And it’s not at all the kind of ideal “replace this function with my own” solution I wanted.

I did a manual backtrace-of-sorts on the functionality surrounding line 1547 in class-wc-meta-box-product-data.php to see if I could find an action, somewhere, that I could hook into. And I did. But it isn’t pretty.

You see, like I said, line 1547, the one and only line in the entire body of WooCommerce that I want to change — I don’t even want to edit the wc_product_has_unique_sku() function because it’s necessary elsewhere; I just want to not run it right here — is deeply nestled inside a delightfully complex method called save_variations() that weighs in at 263 lines of code. What’s worse, this method is only called in one place in the entirety of WooCommerce, and that’s in the save() method within the same file. Guess what… the save() method is 434 lines of code. Yikes.

Next up, I needed to find any places in the WooCommerce code base where that method appears. And as it happens it only appears in one place… and it’s an add_action() call! At last, we have a hook!

In the file includes/admin/class-wc-admin-meta-boxes.php, at line 50, we have the following:

add_action( ‘woocommerce_process_product_meta’, ‘WC_Meta_Box_Product_Data::save’, 10, 2 );

That’s it. One static instance of the method, inside an action. That’s something we can use, but… oh, no. Does that really mean… but wait, you’re sure there’s… uh… oh.

Yes, we can override this method by creating our own class that extends WC_Meta_Box_Product_Data, and then removing this action and replacing it with another one that runs the save() method inside our class instead. And we can change anything we want inside that save() class. And it will work. I tried it.

But it means we have to replicate all of the rest of that code inside our custom class. We don’t have to replace any of the methods of the parent class that we’re not changing. But we have to replace both the save_variations() method and the save() method that calls it, because at line 1442, there’s… this:

self::save_variations( $post_id, $post );

That self means that if we just change save_variations() in our class, it’ll never run. We need to bring over the entirety of both of those methods into our class — all combined 697 lines of code — just to replace that one line.

That said… it does work. And it’s safe from future WooCommerce plugin updates. As long as nothing else in those two methods gets changed.

Practically speaking, it means remembering before every WooCommerce update to do a diff on class-wc-admin-meta-boxes.php between the new version and the version you’re currently running, then making sure any changes that appear in those two methods get copied over into your child class.

Is this really any better than editing the core and just remembering to redo your change every time there’s an update? I think you could argue that it’s not, but I’ll still say it is, because at least your code won’t disappear when the update gets run. Something still might break… but if this file hasn’t been changed, it won’t. Editing the core file directly guarantees your fix will break when an update runs, and it’s much harder to get your code back. (Hope you kept a backup.)

Let’s put it all together

Now that you’ve seen what we need to do, let’s do it. This goes into your functions.php file in your theme, or, as I have it, into a separate file that gets include()’d into your functions.php file.

<?php

class My_WC_Meta_Box_Product_Data extends WC_Meta_Box_Product_Data {

  public static function save( $post_id, $post ) {
    // Yes, put the ENTIRE WC_Meta_Box_Product_Data::save() method in here, unchanged.
  }

  public static function save_variations( $post_id, $post ) {
    // Again, the ENTIRE WC_Meta_Box_Product_Data::save_variations() method goes in here,
    // unchanged EXCEPT for this line, which you comment out and replace with the next:
    // $unique_sku = wc_product_has_unique_sku( $variation_id, $new_sku );
    $unique_sku = true;
    // Everything else that came after in the original method goes here too.
  }
}

remove_action('woocommerce_process_product_meta', 'WC_Meta_Box_Product_Data::save', 10);
add_action('woocommerce_process_product_meta', 'My_WC_Meta_Box_Product_Data::save', 10);

?>

Well, that’s profoundly unsatisfying

I agree. This is not the solution I was looking for. I’m sure it’s not the solution you’re looking for. But for now at least it seems like the best only way.

What I would really like as a solution requires changes to the WooCommerce core:

1) This would really be great: a checkbox option in the WooCommerce settings to allow duplicate SKUs for variants. I built my own CMS and used it for almost every project for years before fully embracing WordPress as a general purpose CMS. Eventually, it got to a point where some clients were asking for functionality changes that might conflict with ways other clients were using the system. Any time I introduced a significant functionality change, even if it was fixing a “bug” that some clients might assume was a “feature”, I always set it up as a configurable option in the system, with the default setting being the way it already was.

2) Not as great, but this would still help: all WooCommerce functions being made “pluggable”. If only the declaration of the wc_product_has_unique_sku() function inside wc-product-functions.php were wrapped inside an if (function_exists()) conditional, I would be able to write my own version of that function that allowed duplicate variant SKUs. In fact that would be a much more powerful solution than what I’ve done, because I could write it to make sure the variants’ SKUs were only duplicates within the same product. I haven’t tested it thoroughly yet, but I’m pretty sure my actual solution will do nothing to prevent duplicate SKUs for variants of different products, as well as the same product.

Here’s hoping someone with commit rights on the WooCommerce project sees these suggestions and acts on them. In the meantime, I’ll have to live with my convoluted solution. I hope this helps shed some light on ways you might be able to find your own way around this sticky problem.

Very useful WordPress tip for editing systemwide options

In the process of searching for a solution to a very specific WordPress problem (getting the “Add Media” overlay to default to “none” for the link — no one I know ever wants it to default to inserting a link), I came upon a very useful general tip for WordPress.

WordPress stores a ton of settings in the wp_options data table. But a lot of those settings are not directly accessible for editing in WordPress admin. Or so I thought.

Turns out, it’s not linked anywhere in the admin interface, but if you have the Administrator role, you can access an All Settings page that allows you to edit any record in that table (except serialized data) by going to this URL:

http://YOUR_URL/wp-admin/options.php

Watch out… you have the potential to really mess things up here, which is why it’s not easier to get to. But it’s a handy way to easily update an option, if you know what you’re doing, without having to log into the database directly.

Oh… and if you want to fix the specific problem I was trying to solve at the beginning of this post, look for image_default_link_type and set it to “none”.

Responsive images with srcset in WordPress

As a developer, I am somewhat conservative. I believe strongly in the importance of web standards, and I am reluctant to be an early adopter of any new techniques or, even worse, non-standard workarounds for limitations in existing standards. I’d rather live with the limitations until a proper standard — or at least a de facto standard — takes hold.

One of the latest issues to challenge my approach has been responsive images. I’ve settled into a pattern of going with “1.5x” quality images, trying to strike a balance between quality on large high-res displays and a reasonable file size. But it really doesn’t do either very well.

Today’s issue of A List Apart features an exciting article:

Responsive Images in Practice

Yes! In practice! Let’s do this!

There have been a couple of competing proposals for handling responsive image sets, and I am pleased to see the srcset attribute begin to emerge as the winner. The biggest plus it has for me is that it degrades gracefully for older browsers that don’t support it.

Well, before I had even finished reading the article I started thinking about how I could leverage the build-in image sizing mechanism in WordPress to use srcset. I haven’t looked around — I’m sure someone else has already created a plugin that perfectly nails what I am attempting to do here. And, to be honest, I haven’t extensively tested this code yet, although I did drop it into a site I’m currently working on, just to be sure it doesn’t throw a fatal error and that it actually does render the HTML <img> tag as advertised.

function img_with_srcset($attachment_id, $default_size='medium', $echo=true) {
  $output = null;

  // Get image metadata
  $image = wp_get_attachment_metadata($attachment_id);

  // Set upload directory for image URLs
  $upload_dir = wp_upload_dir();
  $upload_url = $upload_dir['baseurl'] . '/' . dirname($image['file']) . '/';

  // Build array of sizes for srcset attribute
  $sizes = array();
  foreach ($image['sizes'] as $size) {
    $sizes[$size['width']] = $upload_url . $size['file'] . ' ' . $size['width'] . 'w';
  }
  
  // Sort sizes, largest first
  krsort($sizes);

  // Get image alt text
  $image_alt = get_post_meta($attachment_id, '_wp_attachment_image_alt', true);

  // Generate output <img> tag
  if (!empty($sizes)) {
    $output =  '<img srcset="' . implode(', ', $sizes) . '" ' .
               'src="' . $upload_url . $image['sizes'][$default_size]['file'] . '" ' .
               'alt="' . esc_html($image_alt) . '" />';
  }
  
  // Return/echo output
  if ($echo) {
    echo $output;
    return true;
  }
  else {
    return $output;
  }
}

Let’s just examine what’s going on here.

The function takes three input parameters. An attachment ID, a default size (for the old school src attribute), and a boolean for whether to echo the output or just return it.

First, we get the attachment metadata and put it into $image. You can see more about what the wp_get_attachment_metadata() function does here.

Next, we set up the $upload_url variable to be the full base URL to the WordPress uploads directory. That’s because the metadata output only includes the filename of each sized image, not its full URL.

Then we loop through all of the sizes in the metadata output, generating a series of strings containing the image URL and its width, for use in the srcset attribute. We put these into an array because we need to manipulate the list a bit: we need to sort it so the largest images come first, and then later we need to implode() this into a comma-separated string.

Of course we also need the image’s alt text, so we grab that with get_post_meta() which you can read more about here.

Finally, assuming we actually have some size data, we build the <img> tag, complete with srcset attribute! Then we either echo or return it, as determined by the $echo input parameter.

Something else I’d like to try with this is taking it a step further by adding a filter that processes page content, looking for <img> tags, and automatically inserts the appropriate srcset attribute.

There you have it. I welcome anyone who’s reading this to give the function a try in your WordPress site, and let me know how it goes!