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14 June 2020

GitHub Pages and Jekyll

by Mike Krinkin

I’m mostly trying to stay away from any kind of front-end related engineering because I’ve never found it interesting enough to spend a reasonable amount of time to learn it.

That being said, on a subjective level I like the idea of keeping my posts in VCS close to the code, so I started looking at GitHub Pages. What follows is a very brief explanation of what I found with references to other sources.

Getting Started

Getting Started with GitHub Pages is a simple guide that explains how to start. The basic idea is rather simple:

  1. Create a GitHub repository for your documentation/blog/etc
  2. Pick the theme that suits your prefernce
  3. Commit the content you want to the repository in your prefered markup language
  4. GitHub handles the rest

It works great for static content, like documentation with cross references for easy navigation. It should also be enough to create a blog as well.

NOTE: It doesn’t mean that you cannot put any dynamic elements on GitHub Pages. You can probably put any JavaScript you want and use it to talk to some backend if you so desire, though I didn’t personally try it. However GitHub Pages will not host the backend.

However there are some features that you might want for a blog. For example, you can encode the list of all your posts manually, but it would be nice if the list of posts with links to them was generated automatically for you.

Going a little bit deeper

One you decided to go deeper, if you, like myself, are completely oblivious of the framework used under the hood you might get lost in a bunch of new terms. Let’s try to takcle new terms one at a time.


GitHub Pages uses Jekyll. Jekyll in simple terms is a tool that from a description generates a static site.

Why would we need this tool if we can just say create a bunch of interlinked HTML pages?

Well, Jekyll allows for some additional processing that may help to automate some manual tasks. Returning to the example below, Jekyll may automatically discover the list of posts you have and more or less generate the index page for you.

Moreover Jekyll supports customization in form of plugins. So you can extend it with already existing plugins or create a new one yourself. Just keep in mind, that in the end Jekyll should generate, more or less, a set of statically linked pages.

NOTE: While Jekyll is extensible, if you want to use GitHub Pages to host your content, not all plugins might be supported.

Jekyll has a bunch of assumptions built in. If you are creating a blog from scratch then you should get familiar with the directory structure used by Jekyll.

NOTE: Jekyll is built with blogging use case in mind and even supports converting blogs from popular blogging platforms to Jekyll. So if you already have a blog you may try to convert it instead of starting from scratch.


Liquid is the template language that Jekyll uses. What is template language? To understand that let’s return to the problem of automatically generating a list of posts in our blog.

A generator like Jekyll allows us to generate static content based on description. For example, Jekyll may look at the list of files in the _posts directory to find all the posts. However it still lives the question of how the list of posts should be presented?

Potentially, Jekyll could have just hardcoded the way the list of posts should be presented. However the creators of Jekyll went for a more customizable approach.

You, the user of Jekyll, have to describe how the list of posts should look in your favorite markup language by creating a template with a bunch of placeholders. Jekyll will take the template and replace all the placeholders with the actual list of posts and generate a complete page.

The language used to describe the template and placeholders inside the template is called a template language. There are multiple different template languages around, but the one used by Jekyll is Liquid.

Liquid is a rather reach template language that contains a bunch of different operators, including conditions and loops.

Let’s take a look at the following markdown template for the list of posts page using Liquid:

layout: default

{% for post in site.posts %}

# {{ post.title }}]

{{ post.excerpt }}

[Read More]({{ post.url }})

{% endfor %}

The document starts with so called Front Matter. Front Matter tells Jekyll how the file must be processed. I defer you to the Jekyll documentation for the details on this.

What follows is a markdown document with a bunch of special directives inside either {{ }} or {% %} . Those are Liquid objects and tags or, in other words, placeholders that need to be populated by Jekyll.

Indeside Liquid objects and tags you can refer to a set of variables that Jekyll creates. And specifically for the list of available posts you need to refer to site.posts.

That’s what the template above does - it iterates over the list of posts and for each of the posts, Jekyll is instructed to generate a markdown snippet that describes it. Jekyll documentation contains a bit more detailed description of the variables available for posts here.

NOTE: Liquid just defines the syntax of the template language. The variables refered inside the template are provided by the Jekyll itself. So hypothetically, if you decide to use a different generator instead of Jekyll that happen to also use Liquid, you may find that while the overall template syntax is similar the variables may change.

Creating a new post

Creating a new post is as simple as adding a new file with a special name to the _posts directory as described here. Jekyll will be able to find the file and if it’s correctly named and starts with the correct Front Matter will identify it as a post.


None of the information provided here is in any way new or hard to discover. It doesn’t even go into great details about Jekyll, Liquid or GitHub Pages for that matter.

The value of this post is twofold:

  1. I need a post to test how it works, since I’m new to this.
  2. It provides a structure that makes it easier for me personally to think about the whole thing. With this structure in my head I can use the documentation effectively.
tags: github-pages - jekyll