Web Design

Web Design, navigation, graphics, web copy, and seo topics

Not All Hosting is Created Equal

Hosting is just web space. You throw your site in there, and your site shows up. You create an email account, and the email works. What does it matter how good the hosting is, there is little difference between features and conveniences, right?

If you are a site owner, that is wrong. Hosting can be the difference between a site that works, and one that doesn’t. Charges by a webmaster for extra time spent dealing with hosting flakiness, or paying only minimum fees. Backups that save you from catastrophy, or those that just shrug and look puzzled when you need them.

If you are a webmaster, hosting is even more important. You may spend hours of time troubleshooting site systems, and never realize it is due to the way a web host has configured their server. You may spend time troubleshooting or setting file permissions and think it is normal and required (it isn’t). You may have to deal with delays and problems that you just can’t solve, and spend time bouncing back and forth with support emails trying to figure out why things keep breaking, and not even realize that these things DON’T happen with all web hosts.

The problem is, most of the problems DO happen with 75% of web hosts. Finding the good ones is really difficult. It takes a lot of experience, trial and error, and then paying attention to what is efficient and what is not.

For the site owner, they may only know what their webmaster tells them – that it always is this hard, that it is always this costly, etc. And many webmasters simply never reach the point of doing high volume business, because they spend their time fussing around with things they don’t need to be dealing with at all. They land with a host, and never change, because they never realize there is anything better available.

Today, I helped a student move a website from our hosting to another web host. They used the same control panel that we do, which was a blessing, but that is where the simplicity ended. She had to move the site, test it and troubleshoot file permissions, and then re-move it within the site to activate it. We got as far as moving it and testing it. We knew we’d have file permission issues, but we didn’t expect database issues. Ones that completely stopped us, necessitating a call for help to Support.

That is actually pretty typical. Problems tend to land in several predictable categories, and one huge unpredictable one:

1. Unfamiliar and disorganized control panels. If you use one of these, you may not even realize you do. You may love it. But you also may not realize what is really possible – and you may not realize the value of functions that your control panel doesn’t even have. We love Cpanel. It is easy to find anything we need, and it just DOES things other Cpanels don’t. Don’t believe me? Try finding a way to compress a batch of files for fast and accurate download (large batches of files download faster and more accurately when compressed – almost no file truncation issues). Try finding a way to decompress a site package after upload through your hosting panel (again, this is more accurate, not to mention WAY faster, and reduces the number of broken file issues). Since file truncation is a prime reason for site malfunction, those two features alone are worth real money. They save us time coming and going. AWStats and Fantastico are just icing.

2. File Permissions. If your server is set up the “classic” way, you have to set file permissions on dynamic site structures. This is a waste of your time – and troubleshooting them is even more of a waste of your time. This kind of system also presents higher security risks, and is now NOT recommended in the better web service circles. The alternative is to use a host that uses PHPsu, or SuExec (essentially the same thing). PHP is run in a different way, so file permissions work differently. They are never set higher than 755 for a folder, or 644 for a file. If they are, you get a 500 Internal Server Error. Fixing that is EASY, you don’t even have to find the culprit! Just use an FTP program (FireFTP does this nicely) to set ALL of the folders and the folders inside them to 755, and then to set ALL of the files in the site to 644, and you are done. Never troubleshoot file permissions again! And Joomla runs nicely without having file ownership issues too (you know, when you can’t delete a file because you are not the file owner?). This factor has saved us literally WEEKS of time over the last two years.

3. Server settings. Many hosts disable functions for “security” reasons, or for “resource management” reasons. In other words, they think  the function might allow someone to exploit the server, or that if they let you use the function, you will use too much of the server’s resources. This can involve turning off functions so you cannot use them (so programs just don’t run at all on your server), lowering resource limits (so things don’t function, or function badly), or not having required support programs installed (causing your programs to not run). If you don’t know why these things are happening, you may spend hours or days troubleshooting, and get nowhere. Many VERY large webhosts do this. We’ve experienced it personally with GoDaddy, Netfirms, IMhosted, and a little company called 500MegsWebHosting.

4. Server overload. Ok, so most of the big hosting companies do something called “overselling”. They sell you an “unlimited” package. They are banking on the fact that most people never use more than a tiny bit of hosting space and bandwidth (the average site for startups is less than 100MB and takes well under 2000 MB of Bandwidth per month). But you really AREN’T unlimited! They just don’t tell you what the real limits are. The real limits are hidden limits – resource limits that you will hit if your site gets very busy. It also means they are loading a LOT of sites onto that server – as many as it will hold. The more loaded it is, the slower it gets.

5. Issues with Backups. Most hosting companies do weekly overwrites. That means they backup once a week, and overwrite the last backup. So if your site is hacked on Saturday, and you discover it on Sunday, too bad. The problems from Saturday have already been backed up, and are now the only copy. Good server backups can save you all kinds of time. Much easier to restore from the day before than to diagnose and repair catastrophic issues with a site. Sure, you can do manual backups, and you SHOULD, at least once a month, even if your hosting does do good backups. But having that safety net there can save you oodles of time and grief. We’ve had to completely rebuild complicated sites when disasters occurred, before we implemented better backups. Not only no fun, but again, a colossal waste of time.

6. Unpredictable, random things. These are the worst. You just never know what might not work, when it might not work, and what kind of thing you may have to deal with. I run into odd things all the time, and the variety of configurations for a server are huge! We market a piece of software with two basic requirements: It needs Cpanel, and WHMCS. Ok, so we already know the users are using a Linux server, and the control panel they are using is the same. But the varieties of configurations means that literally 50% of the installs of our software have to have some kind of adjustment made to make them work on someone else’s server configuration! And that is DOWN from 80% when we first launched the software! There are just a LOT of variables, that can be set in any number of combinations, which can cause effects that you just cannot predict. This means that the amount of your time that a hosting company can waste can never be FULLY predicted when you are dealing with a new company. You can only pre-assess a certain amount of pending problems. The rest will lurk like gremlins to sabotage your day when you least expect it.

So I can tell you about this, and you probably won’t really even believe that it can be a hassle until you experience it. When I tell my students that they really don’t want to have to handle other hosting companies, they say, “Yeah, well this is what the client wants, what am I gonna do?” But after the issues today, my student said, “What a pain! I’m going to charge them a $100 surcharge if they use their own hosting!” Suddenly, after experiencing it, she knew exactly what I meant, and exactly how much it could cost her!

We found a company that we absolutely LOVE, for their server setup, and for their good support and helpfulness. When we went to our own dedicated server, we went through this same company, to ensure that the functions were configured the same. We then tweaked a few settings to more closely meet our needs, and to enhance security without compromising function. Having found a good thing, we did not want to have to figure it out all over, or end up losing ground when we should have been moving up.

I have realized that I simply do not have the time in my life to spend troubleshooting completely needless problems. I don’t have the time to fuss with things when I could move it to another server and simply never have to deal with similar issues. Sure, I can charge extra, but why do I want to spend my time doing things that are completely useless to myself, and to the client? Why do I want to keep wasting my time and the client’s resources?

I charge a surcharge to install anything onto another hosting company’s space, and it is a hefty one. Because every time I take it on, I’m gambling with my schedule.

This is so important to us, we even offer free hosting to our clients. Because it is worth the savings in time and frustration.

All hosting isn’t created equal, and you DON’T have to just choose your set of evils. You CAN have hosting that saves time and hassles.

Creating Online Lessons

It is just so much more complicated than I thought it would be! Learning to use an LMS is just another learning curve for me. I managed to figure that out. But figuring out how to do a brain dump, in a combination of text, images, videos, audios, site links, and software downloads, is downright hard. How to organize it all so that people can move through the courses in a logical manner, get their questions answered, and look up reference material?

Online courses can happen in a variety of ways. They can be anything from simple “pay to access” online content, to content plus quizzes, to emails loaded into an auto-responder, to a full fledged Learning Management System with prerequisites, forums, quizzes and certifications. We went with the last option, because we want certifications to be part of the picture. But it is important to realize that you may not NEED a full scale LMS to do online lessons or protected content. Often a much simpler structure will be enough.

I’m finally well into the process of creating short courses. I have several long multi-segment courses to upload eventually, but decided to start with the short ones that have only 8-10 lessons. I am not sure how capable I’ll be of tackling the big ones, but figure the experience from the small ones will be a help.

An LMS allows you to group things together in a fairly granular way. I have the following options:

  • Categories. I can group Courses together into categories.
  • Courses. A course can contain multiple lessons. A course contains lessons on a single topic, or single group of related topics, usually.
  • Lessons. A lesson should be a fairly well defined learning concept. It can be further broken down if needed, but is often the lowest element in the tree.
  • Units. A lesson can have multiple units, if you need to assign additional study on a concept.
  • Examples. I can put in examples for any given lesson.
  • Assignments. I can create assignments to complete for any lesson.
  • Videos or Documents. These can be attached to a lesson.
  • Quizzes. Each lesson can have a completion quiz.
  • Tests. Courses can have final tests.

A course can have a forum attached as well. So the learning options are fairly flexible. But it also means that setting it up is a VERY involved process.

Oh, anyone can go in and create a lesson and paste some instructions into the page. But to create a real online course, that someone can actually learn from, and then demonstrate that they have learned, is much more difficult! All the pieces have to be found, created, and set to work the way you want them to.

I think it will be worth it though, because it doesn’t just teach people. It does so in a way that frees the teacher to reach more people at one time.

Hard. But worth the learning curve and time.

Protecting Websites and Domain Names for Non-Profits

Many people think that because their website was the most expensive thing they paid for, that it is their most valuable web asset. It isn’t. A website can be reconstructed.

The domain name is actually the most valuable thing you have. For $10 per year, the domain name is the repository of your online reputation, of your online marketing efforts, of repeat traffic, and of your search momentum. And once lost, a domain name can rarely be regained.

There are things that can threaten this, and non-profits seem to be particularly vulnerable. One reason is because of the rapid turnover of leadership – the chance that someone will do something ill considered, ignorant, or unethical, is much higher, because there are more players over time, and most people who come into leadership in a non-profit do not have existing knowledge about protecting a website, and unfortunately, do not want to bother with getting that knowledge.

We’ve experienced several situations where poor decisions on the part of one individual caused long term problems for others and either fatally compromised, or seriously threatened the ownership of a domain name.

In the first instance, a director made a deal with a local web designer to build a site. Knowing little about it, the director did not ensure that any precautions were taken to protect the ownership of the domain name.  The domain name was bought by, and registered in the name of, the website builder.  This oversight was not discovered until a few years later, when the company wished to rebuild the site. The web designer kindly offered it to them – for the extortionate price of $1500. The domain name did not have enough value to warrant a $50 charge, let alone $1500. The non-profit had to start over, but the premium domain name they had once used was gone.

We are currently working with another non-profit. The website was set up several years ago by a previous director. Fortunately the domain name was registered under the corporate name, but the contact was still the director. This is typical, and usually not a problem, though it was this time, because the access information was not tracked properly. We found old documents referring to the ownership of the domain name, but the username, password, and even the access URL for the domain manager had been changed when the company changed to a different billing manager. The phone number in the documents was also out of date. What should have been a simple process, ended up taking weeks, sorting out just where the domain name was, and how to contact them. A Whois search helped, but wasn’t enough to solve the problems.

The last problem we encountered was that the domain name was registered through Enom. I always groan when I hear that, because Enom is a domain name wholesaler. They do not handle direct contact with the customers. They expect their resellers to do so. It can be challenging discovering just who the reseller IS, and sometimes the ability to make changes to the domain name is dependent upon that reseller’s good will. Some will stall or refuse to cooperate when changes are needed.

These kinds of issues are not uncommon with sole proprietors, or even small corporations, but they seem to be more prevalent with non-profits – especially small ones that feel that they don’t have time for proper documentation of website access info, nor the budget to pay for someone else to do it. Silly, because it takes WAY more time to solve problems caused later, and they can be MUCH more costly.

The only real solution to this is to keep good documentation of what was done, with whom, and who has current information. A good webmaster who knows your website inside and out can be an asset, but don’t rely on them completely! A non-profit MUST keep track of the access information themselves, in such a way that if someone disappears, they can still continue to manage their online assets.

A record should be kept of the following information:

1. Domain name access info.

2. Hosting access info, and instructions for accessing stats or backups.

3. Website Admin area access info (if applicable).

4. Any particular policies for use and access.

Without this, an organization is playing Russian Roulette with their website.

If you are a webmaster, it is your obligation to set up a site for your client that does not have these problems built in, and to inform them of the need to document this information. It is your obligation to give them full management to their domain name, and to cooperate if they wish to move it.

If you are a director of a small organization, it is your job to ensure that the website will go forward if you move on to another job.

Failing to do this is not just costly, it is also time consuming and very frustrating to have to deal with. No honorable person will leave that kind of mess behind them for someone else to clean up.

SERPs Become Irrelevant

Google has been moving more and more toward individual search results. This means that website owners who watch their own search engine rank positions are not seeing what they think they are seeing.

Google tracks YOUR preferences. So if you Google your own website, then click on the link, you’ll rise in the search results – but ONLY on YOUR computer.

If you Google your search terms, and click on your competitor’s site, then you’ll drop in the rankings. But again, ONLY on your computer.

This means you CAN’T get an accurate ranking by searching. And it means that SERPs are becoming less relevant as a means of measuring your marketing and SEO efforts. Because the past browser history on that computer will skew the results, and make them almost meaningless.

We have clients that watch these results and obsess over them. If they drop a position, they’ll call in a panic and worry over what they did wrong. If they rise a point, they’ll clasp their hands in glee and celebrate for a week. And while I’m all for celebrating achievements, this is no longer anything worth celebrating – because it doesn’t MEAN anything anymore. It kind of never did – I mean, you can rank high and still not get traffic, get traffic and still not get sales, so it was measuring the wrong thing in the first place.

So we, as webmasters, now get to explain to our clients over and over, why rising and falling in the search results has no value in measuring anything. We get to tell them what we’ve always told them – SERPs are irrelevant, don’t watch search engine positions, watch TRAFFIC and SALES numbers. Because those are the only things that really matter anyway.

But there are people who just don’t get this. So we’ve come up with a solution for them…

We can tell them, “Just don’t ever click your competitor’s links in the search engine results, because that will push them up! Click your link instead!”

Of course, I’m joking – but with some clients, you just know that no matter how you explain it, they aren’t going to get it, so you really FEEL like telling them that, just to get them to take their obsession elsewhere.

The point? Measure sales. Search engine position is totally meaningless, and TRAFFIC is also a meaningless number without sales. Sales numbers are what tell you whether you’ve really got it right or not. And watch TRENDS, not just numbers. If your sales are rising, even slowly, then you’ve got something right, and you’ll eventually get where you want to be. If they’ve plateaued, or never even got started, then something needs to be tweaked. If they are declining, then something needs to be adjusted.

Measure what matters, and don’t obsess about things that are not essential to success.

I’m Not Working with Non-Profits Anymore

As a business grows, you really start to discover what is sustainable, and what is not, and who your time wasters are, and who your good clients are. Over time, it is only natural to want to have more of the good clients, and fewer of the bad ones.

About a year and a half ago, we stopped doing HTML sites. Because we discovered that the clients for those sites tended to be some of the more difficult ones to work with. They are less progressive, less decisive, and wanted more, for much less. And they tended to be less able to grasp that the site type they’d chosen had limitations that they did not want (in spite of our having warned them ahead of time). So, lower profit, higher hassle factor, and no benefit to anyone for the extra annoyance. Some quick analysis revealed that of about 20 contracts in progress, the 5 HTML sites we were working on accounted for more than half the time expenditures, but only a fifth of the income. We dropped those services. It was a good decision, we’ve never regretted it.

Lately, we’ve looked at our Non-Profit clients, and have come to a similar conclusion about them – they simply are not worth the hassle.

  • They want more, for less.
  • They are operated by boards which have a hard time making up their collective minds – so decisions take a VERY long time to get.
  • The chief decisionmaker tends to be a director, and the non-profits we have dealt with have had changes to the directors so often that no decision has any degree of permanency. If a director makes a bad decision about the site, WE get the blame.
  • They tend to be run by overworked people who never have the time to do their part of things – so we never have a satisfactory closing to the work we do – instead, it sits there half-finished, and the organization tends to want to blame us for the fact that their website is incomplete, when it is due to their inability to provide their part of things.
  • The board members turn over so fast that nobody ever knows what was set up before, and what the terms were. They are too cheap to pay to have a manual written that would keep a record of it, and too hasty to ask – they are too busy trying to sweep out the old administration and make a clean slate to even try to move forward with what they have, they want to completely redo everything.

We dealt with a local organization, with this experience:

We met with them to discuss their situation. They had FOUR tacky websites out on the web (built in free web space, or donated by other individuals) – all incomplete, all started by one director or another, none of them done intellligently, all of them making them look bad. They stated their intention to make having a functional and useful website a priority.

It took over a year to get the initial contract. We presented the initial proposal in March of one year, met with them in October, and they finally signed the contract and check the following June.

We created the site design, and it was approved by the director and the board – ENTHUSIASTICALLY approved, I might add.

A month later, the director committed suicide. A new director was hired and came in, announcing she had a graphic design background, and stating that the website design just would not do. She redesigned it herself, and we coded it in. No financial compensation was made for our wasted time.

She declared her intention to make the website her FIRST priority, and was given a training session on the site. We gave an extra session, without compensation also.

She then asked us why we weren’t putting things in, and handed us a listing of organization members when we informed her that in order to put things in, we needed things to put in. Kevin spent three days entering them into the database. We told her that according to the contract, that took up the available content entry time. She said she’d never read the contract, so she had no idea what was included or not, and seemed put out that we would expect her to actually do any of the content entry (which makes one wonder just what she thought the training was for).

Two months later, they revised their member list, and sent it to us. We informed them that updating the list was not part of the contract – she again said she’d never read it. She and the office manager seemed shocked that we would not just update the list. We instructed them again in how to do it.

Six months later, no further progress had been made, but the director was let go. Somewhere along the line, they stopped paying their monthly fees. The new director came on board, we had a nice conversation with him about the state of things, and one bill was paid (no past dues were paid, only a single current payment was made). Payments then ceased again, and we learned later that the director went off to hire another web designer to rebuild a new site. Dumb – if they didn’t like it, all they had to do was FINISH it. If they didn’t like the template, it was switchable for a low fee. Instead, they decided to reinvent the wheel because they’d not finished putting the spokes on the first model and they didn’t like that it was crooked.

Eight months after this director took office, he resigned. A new director came in. We met with her, she told us the site was being handled elsewhere, but promised to pay something when we said that if the hosting was not paid we’d have to suspend the site. They assured us they’d never received ANY invoices, and that if they had, they’d have paid them.

In the mean time, our name is vilified because the website we built “doesn’t look good”, when all that is wrong is that they never put the content into the pages where it is needed (the contract stated that this was their responsibility to provide it, and that we would put in part, but they’d need to either put in the rest, or pay for us to do it). When the new director came in, he had a firm he wanted to work with, he never asked us whether there were simple solutions, and the other company just wanted to sell the new service.

They are no better off now than they were three years ago – they are considerably poorer financially, having paid now for two additional websites, neither one of which is fully functional, due to their own inability to focus on what needed done, and to consistently pursue the goal until it was completed. Their board is too short sighted to want to do anything more than slap a bandaid on the surface, they have no desire to actually solve the problem and find a sustainable solution.

The thing is, this is NOT an isolated experience, it is, sadly, fairly typical. We find things in common with all of the non-profits we work with, and it ends up being just too much of a hassle to keep the work, and too much of a risk that bad decisions on the part of one director will take our reputation down with it.

I just don’t have time in my life to have to pursue a contract for months on end, just to get a parsimonious contract where the organization pays less than everyone else, expects way more for it, and then assumes that we should be glad to get their patronage. I don’t have time to monitor their board and their directors so I can jump in every time something changes and tell them all the same thing we’ve already said 20 times before.

I have no patience anymore with trying to help solve problems for organizations that are carelessly causing the problems, and have no intention of ever doing things differently. There is no profit in it, but even if there were, I’d rather be working with people for whom a genuine difference is possible.

I like working with owner operators. I like working with webmasters. I like that they can remember what they have, and that they are careful about how they use it and about making the most of it.

We have one more site migration and redesign to do for a local non-profit, and ongoing maintenance and hosting for them, and for two other non-profits. We won’t be taking on any more.

Two Bad Apples

So a few months ago, someone tried stealing one of our site systems. Yesterday, we discovered another lazy individual who is attempting a similar thing. I find it pretty ludicrous, actually, and while it is irritating that they’d try to steal what we’ve built up, my typical response is, “I wish them luck with that!”.

Early on in business, I’d see a good idea, and try to replicate it (I never stole, but I did rebuild things in a similar manner). I learned that duplicating a structure is far easier than duplicating success with that structure. So they start out disadvantaged in the first place. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing, am already at the top of the search engines, and already have an established satisfied customer base. Anyone trying to duplicate my success without my help is going to be fighting an uphill battle to begin with, and is more likely to crash and burn than to succeed. So I really don’t have to fear them as serious competition.

Secondly, we have structures they cannot see, and CANNOT steal. We have proprietary software that they cannot access. They don’t even know that it exists, and there is no access to it. I suppose they could buy it along with our other customers who purchase our proprietary software, but I’ve learned that most people who will steal a site structure won’t invest anything else in their business – if they aren’t willing to invest the time to do their own, they don’t invest money to do it right, either.

Our software is a HUGE key to our success. It allows us to streamline our operations and profit where others burn out. Our auto-installer saves us about half an hour per contract. We are implementing elements in it that will save us an additional 2 hours per contract.

We also use special systems and methods for creating the custom parts of the contract. These methods speed up the personalization process, saving an us an additional 2-4 hours per contract.

We have more automation in the works – to speed up site updates, and to speed up maintenance of the automation itself.

These investments mean that we can AFFORD to keep our prices reasonable, and we won’t burn out under a workload that is higher than we estimated. Everyone else has to match our pricing to compete – and if they do so, they’ll go under, because the workload is just too high for anyone who has more than a handful of sites to administrate. Our prices are such that you CANNOT profit by offering the same things we do, unless you do it the SAME WAY we do. And they can’t do that – because they are unwilling to invest either the work, or the money.

We have also invested in making our structure more functional. This is the part they see, and the part they want to steal. We’ll be encoding some of the source, and using other options to protect it, though we’d rather not have to.

Because of those two individuals, and because of other lazy individuals like them, we have to make our Terms of Service stricter for everyone. We have to encode our source code, and we have to do other things that we’d rather not do. Sad, really. They make it worse for everyone.

The only hope is that they’ll learn from their mistake. Because I have no doubt that they are in for a rude awakening.

Google AdWords – Just Do the Math

A client asked this morning whether Google AdWords would be a reasonable option for her. I told her what we tell every client who asks this.

Do the math…

  • What is your average profit per sale?
  • How many TOTAL UNIQUE (new) visitors to your site per month?
  • How many ORDERS from your site per month?

Use that info to come up with the average PROFIT PER VISITOR.

If that number is below $1-2.00, then Google AdWords is almost certainly a losing proposition. This means, for stores that sell small items, one or two at a time, it is almost always a bad idea.

With GA, you pay for EVERY visitor it delivers. You can’t get clicks for less than $.05 each, and the good ones usually cost near a dollar each (the price on clicks has steadily risen in the last few years). Highly competitive industries have higher costs per click – often several dollars each.

You pay whether they buy or not. And we’ve noticed lower conversion rates between GA and organic traffic (some users say otherwise, but this has been our experience).

GA is also like a faucet. Turn it on (pay), and the traffic comes. Turn it off, and it stops. No residual effect at all, no help to SEO, no other benefit. Tweaking it to get it to be effective (to bring buyers instead of browsers) is also tricky and time consuming. We generally do not recommend that a site owner use it if they do not have a few hundred dollars that they can invest in the experimentation process (and even an expert at GA has to experiment to find the right combination with each new site).

You can use Pay Per Click ads through other venues also – FaceBook Ads are just one example. Each venue has particular rules to making it work successfully.

We have a few clients who use PPC successfully, but it is not profitable for most of our clients, because of the nature of their business and their product lines. If you do the math, that will pretty much tell you right off whether it is even worth considering or not. The right calculations can help you make an educated decision before you risk money you may not have to lose.

Big Deal, So I Have Another Website

Back when I created my first website, it was a big deal. I think the second and third ones were a big deal too. But by the time I reached 30, my friends and family were saying, “So what?” if I said I created another website.

I think about three years ago I had 50 websites, and decided that was too many to keep up with, so we sold off a bunch. I think we sold about 30 of them. Somehow, selling them off did not really decrease the number! I think I passed 100 sometime about a year later – of course, some of them were test sites, and Master Sites (sites that we create to use as a clone base for auto-installed sites). But only about 10 or 15 of them.

I started to give sites away. Managed to give away a few, sold a few more. But our server is still pretty loaded.

Then today, I built a new website…. Again. It was needed, we needed a single URL that we could use for promotion of our Seminars and Workshops. So WebsiteSuccessSeminars.com was born. I’m still sort of torn between blue and tan block headers, but overall liking how it turned out.

So, my friends and family have my permission to say, “Big deal… you’ve got another website.”

VAs and Webmasters

Many VAs fancy themselves web designers. Or they promote themselves as being able to do work on websites.

I don’t have any problem with that – I have many friends who are VAs who also work on websites.  But I do have a problem with clients who hire a webmaster, and then hire a VA, who does not know how to work on the kind of site they actually have.

We’ve run into this a lot lately. Primarily with coaching clients. Coaches hire VAs. Many VAs specialize in working with coaches. A coach will hire a VA, asking them only if they know how to work on websites, the VA will assure them they do. If they ask about the specific type of site they have, the VA may express a willingness to learn it.

Unfortunately, once the working relationship begins, the VA admits they haven’t a clue how to work on the kind of site the coach has. The Webmaster will advise one thing, the VA will insist on another, the client gets caught in the middle. We can usually predict what will happen…

Eventually the VA insists that they know better than the webmaster, they cry that their way is faster, cheaper, better, and there is no need to hire a webmaster at all, and the coach soon finds themselves paying all over to have another website set up. A very costly enterprise.

Unfortunately, the client will continue to pay. Because while the site may seem cheaper to operate, it is rarely equivalent. A good webmaster is a specialist in all things related to websites. A good VA may be a specialist in keeping up with the routine tasks, but they are rarely a diversified expert in technical issues, they often recommend things that have hidden costs, or hidden risks that the VA is completely unaware of (many VAs use insecure forms, simplified structures that won’t grow with a business, or still recommend HTML websites, and most are not familiar with basic security issues, ecommerce legal or regulatory issues). Such has been our experience recently in working with several VAs who dug in their heels and insisted that the client work their way or none (we were actually shocked when one client allowed the VA to bully them and dictate to them, sort of wondered who was hiring whom).

This really isn’t a rant. Just a caution… If you are going to hire a webmaster, and then hire a VA, you need to make sure that the VA really does know how to work with the website system that your webmaster has helped you establish. Because if they don’t know how, they are likely to be resistant to learning.

Now most VAs will swear that they are perfectly willing to learn something new. But in fact, most are not. Website structures require layers of learning, and after someone (webmaster OR VA) has learned one, they often feel they simply do not want to have to learn another. They will accept huge complexities in something familiar, while refusing to learn a simpler way just because it is unfamiliar. That is human nature.

If your VA really wants to use one thing, and your webmaster has recommended something else as being more suited to the long term growth of your business, a conflict may arise that ends up costing YOU money. Some understanding as you are hiring help, to ensure that you hire people who CAN work together, and who can smoothly advise you in ways that take you forward, rather than muddling along with one person recommending one thing, another insisting on another, will save you a good deal of grief, and money, in the long term.

On the other hand, when you get a good VA, who actually CAN work with your webmaster, the situation is hard to beat. You gain the technical expertise, a second marketing perspective, and the advantages of having a website specialist, along with the advantages of having an experienced assistant to handle site updating and other administrative tasks. This arrangement can actually SAVE you money when you get the right VA, who actually CAN work successfully with a webmaster and your site structure.

Perhaps the best way to GET a good VA, is to ask your webmaster for a recommendation. Most will have a list of people whom they regularly work with, and whom they know are skilled at working with the systems they regularly use.

Good communication is essential. Keep your webmaster in the loop, and let them know if you are seeking a VA. It may save you a good deal of money, and hassle.

The Parable of the Donkey

A traveler bought a donkey to haul his belongings. He had a long way to go, and could not carry all of his belongings himself. He chose a fine, strong donkey, from a breeder who was known for breeding sturdy pack animals.

The man loaded his belongings onto the donkey, and set out upon his journey. After a number of days, he reached a city. He entered the marketplace, and there he saw many merchants, selling all sorts of wares. One merchant caught his eye. He sold hats, for donkeys. The traveler thought the hat so interesting he just had to have it. He bought it and put it upon his donkey. It covered the donkey’s ears, and made it harder for the donkey to hear, but the man liked the hat so much, he hardly considered it. He did wonder why his donkey was less responsive to his commands, but blamed it on the animal.

He traveled on. In the next city, his attention was taken by a merchant selling leg decorations for donkeys. This he had to have! He quickly bought a set of four and fastened them onto the donkey. He thought they looked very fetching. His donkey adopted a funny walk to keep from bashing the leggings into each other, and the man found himself criticizing the donkey for being awkward.

In the next city on his route, he discovered a decorative pack saddle. It was far heavier than the plain one he had been using, and it did not accommodate the burden as easily. But he liked it so well, he strapped it to his donkey, and loaded his goods onto the pack saddle. The load was somewhat unbalanced, and some items had to be tied to the side with ropes, where they dangled and beat upon the donkey’s legs. At the end of the day, some goods were damaged, and the man was angry with the donkey.

A city later, he found a full body blanket for his donkey. It was meant for night use, but he liked it so well that he unloaded the donkey, put the blanket on, and reloaded the animal. During the hot day, the poor beast overheated, and had to rest more frequently than usual. The man cursed his donkey for being slow and lazy.

Traveling on, the man found a merchant selling shoes for his donkey. Not the typical iron shoes, but full covering, lace up shoes. He thought them so clever that he immediately put them on his donkey and happily paid a high price for them. The donkey could no longer feel the earth beneath it’s feet. It stumbled and plodded instead of stepping lightly. The man found he needed to hit his donkey to keep him moving fast enough.

The man was angry that his donkey was no longer the sturdy and sure animal he had bought. It frustrated him. He beat the animal to make it go faster, and to punish it when it stumbled, and hollered and cursed it when it did not obey his commands.

Finally, he could take it no longer. Arriving in a small desert town, he determined to sell his donkey for what he could get, and purchase a new one. In a hurry, and frustrated with his animal, he sold it and only removed his original traveling packs, leaving the animal to the new owner with all the trappings in place, and set off with his new donkey (a quick and responsive beast), with his eye out for new accessories to bestow on this new and “better” animal.

The new owner of his old donkey patiently removed the blanket, the pack saddle, the hat, the shoes and leggings, and rubbed down the tired animal. He fed it a good meal and rested it for several days. Then he placed a plain and simple pack saddle on it, loaded it with a sizeable burden, and marveled at the strength and sure-footedness of this donkey that had been described as a weak and clumsy thing. He set out on the road, soon passing the first traveler, who was making his way with his new donkey, slower and slower, as he again loaded it with unnecessary trappings.

It seems so clear when it is choices someone else is making regarding a donkey. But when it is our own website, and we think the next new gadget is “really cool”, we have a harder time making wise choices.

The rule is simple… If it does not help achieve the primary goal, don’t do it.

If you want your website to SELL, then don’t put things on that get in the way of that. Otherwise, your website will be less responsive, slower, and will stumble and fail to perform effectively.

Don’t Be a “Harry”

That isn’t his real name. But we’ll call him “Harry” (no offense to anyone named “Harry”).

He seemed like a nice guy. Eager to get started with the project. We proceeded to install the site and work on the design. “I like this style” he said. We created that style. “Change that.” We changed it. This is normal. Harry liked to email every morning, demanding a status update for the day. This isn’t normal, but we replied anyway.

Harry also liked browsing the web, looking at his competitor’s websites and at other service provider websites. And it gave him ideas. Soon he began saying things like, “This site has THAT. I want it too.” Never mind that that business owner paid tens of thousands for their site, and his was a budget site. I made changes to the design when possible – some were deep coding changes, very difficult to do. One month into the project, the time was already over what we normally spend on a flat rate project. He added in another saying, “This site has THAT, and it will look great on my site!”. I’m sure it would, if he had the budget to afford it. When I protested, he said, “But you said satisfaction guaranteed, you have to do it!” I said, “I also said there were limits, and I’d tell you when you hit them, and this is one.”

With flat rate projects, setting limits is always subjective. If we have a motive for being willing to try something (so we can learn how to do it if it is new), or if we think the results may be terrific and look good in our portfolio, we may go beyond what is typically reasonable, and make exceptions. Project creep has a different meaning here, and it is always hard to know where to draw lines. If they are small things, we usually just shrug and do them.

With this client though, small things never STAYED small things. Harry liked to change his mind. And he wasn’t very good at making decisions either. “Let me see it this way.” “No, I guess I liked it better the first way.” “Change that color.” “Change it some more.” “Ok, that’s good.” “No, wait, I guess I don’t like it after all.” A simple thing would take DAYS to get exactly how he wanted it. He fussed over 1 pixel differences, the length of gradients, the precise angle of things, the thickness, the shade of the colors in a bevel, the depth of the shadow. EVERY single aspect of every single element was subjected to minute examination and criticism.

We really do try to please our clients. But Harry’s demands never ended. When he was informed that his home page content was part of Phase 2, and not part of Phase 1, he complained that if the content was not in, how could he tell the design was good? He demanded more and more, refused to pay the second Phase fee, and kept changing his mind. We have never, in more than 10 years of web design, EVER had a pickier, more demanding, more indecisive client. He didn’t just set a new record, he was so far beyond any other client demands that I doubt we’ll ever see his equal.

Our graphic designer created a logo for him. A painstaking process that took a week before he was satisfied – understand, he started by telling her EXACTLY what he wanted. She created EXACTLY that, and he still fussed, and agonized over the placement, shape, size, and edging on every single item, even becoming crude at one point. He finally declared it finished. One week later, he went back to her and told he he wanted something else instead – no mention to us that he was doing so, no mention to her of any kind of compensation for doing so. I think he thought we’d pay for it. When things finally fell apart (a month later) he was still picking and fussing over the second logo.

Two months into the project he began to complain. Why weren’t we done yet? How much longer was it going to take? I told him that as long as he had additional things for us to do, and as long as they were technically complex, it would take time. He began demanding a deadline. I told him that unless he could tell me definitively when he’d be satisfied, I could not tell him when we’d be done.

His demands begin to get silly – “I don’t have a link to my blog, just put in a dummy so I can see what it looks like.”, and “Don’t put the image on the site, email it to me so I can see it first.” That, even though the site isn’t live yet so there is NO reason not to put it up, and if I DID email it to him, he’d just say, “I don’t know, let me see it on the site.” On a frugal contract, every bit of wasted time counts, and he loved wasting time. He’d often say, “I don’t know which I like, make both and let me see.”

By now, I’m feeling dread each time I check my email. I’m waking up feeling dread over working because of him. I’m behind on my other clients because of the time he is taking. There were many reasons why we let it go on that long – partly because I gained some valuable reusable code from his requests, partly because it always seemed each was the last. I still sort of felt he was basically a nice guy, just indecisive and a penny pincher because of the industry he was in.

Then one morning he demanded a deadline, said that I WOULD give him one, and that I’d finish it up within this amount of time.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, business is good, and by now I’m thinking a refund will be a relief. I no longer care whether I please this client or not. I just want it to end, one way or another. I emailed back and said that there were three things left to finish. I would do them, and then I was DONE with Phase 1. Nothing more. That he could pay for Phase 2, or not. If he did pay for Phase 2, I would limit the time available. He replied that I could not do that, that the contract stated that satisfaction was guaranteed and that I had to do what he said.

Up until that point, I still thought he was just basically an indecisive, but decent person. At this point, it became clear to me that he was a manipulator, who had intended from the outset to try to push a low budget contract into a high end service by being demanding. I don’t like to believe bad of people. But his actions since then have left me little other conclusion.

Primarily the fact that he takes no responsibility for his own actions. He made choices, and those choices had consequences. When the consequences were not what he wanted, it was someone else’s fault. That is classic for manipulators.

This is NOT a typical response for our clients. We have VERY few clients who request refunds. If we had a lot – or if we had a lot of clients who complained of the things he was complaining of, I’d know we had something to fix.

He now informed me that I could not change the contract in the middle. I pointed to the termination clause, and said, “Yes, I can.” The contract allows me to terminate the contract in writing – he has the same right. He then has three choices – he can renegotiate for another phase, or he can go elsewhere and take it with him, or he can request a refund and have no rights to any of the items created so far. After sending that email, he disappeared for several weeks. I finished what I said I’d finish, and moved on with life. He has since requested a refund, demanding more than what is covered in the contract. We will issue what IS covered in the contract. His stated reasons for requesting the refund are unreasonable delays, lack of communication (daily emails weren’t enough), and failure to deliver a satisfactory result. Ummmmm Yeah…..

This client was the all time most difficult to deal with for us. So much so that his behavior has become an example in our training classes (name withheld), for spotting and dealing with difficult clients. His inability to make a choice, his unwillingness to be satisfied, and his inability to accept the consequences of his own choices caused problems that we, as service providers, dislike having to deal with – they are costly and emotionally difficult to deal with. Among our subcontractors, his name is legendary – they all know him by his first name, and when someone is being difficult, they will say, “I hope this isn’t another Harry.”, or if they are picky but not unmanageable, “At least this isn’t a Harry.” Sad, really.

The moral? When things are breaking down around you, and you are looking for someone to blame, look to yourself first. See what your part was in contributing to the problem – I recognize that I gave in at times when I should have set a limit early on with this client, but I also know there was little else I could have done to avoid things getting ugly. If things keep breaking down on you, and “People” keep failing to meet your expectations, it may be your expectations that are the issue. Own your part of the problem, and do something about it.

It is pretty sad to become the bad example, to have your name known and remembered with a shudder.

Don’t be a Harry.

WildFire DSI Released Today

I rarely make product announcements, but am taking the liberty of doing so today. We’ve been working on a nifty little script for about 9 months now, and it is finally ready for prime time.

WildFire DSI is an auto-installer for Open Source or Custom website Scripts. DSI stands for “dynamic script installer”.

It works with our hosting billing manager (WHMCS), and on Cpanel/WHM reseller accounts, VPS, or dedicated servers. It has a lot of features which make it really cool, if you don’t mind my tooting my own horn for a bit.

The neatest thing is, that it can install just about anything. We have templated install files for Joomla, Joomla with VirtueMart, WordPress, and CRE Loaded/OSC. If it will install those, it will install practically anything. And it can install as many different ones as the web service provider wants to install.

In plain English, this means a client can go to the ordering system, choose from a list of website packages, for example:

  • Joomla with no frills
  • Joomla with a directory
  • Joomla with Virtuemart
  • CRE Loaded
  • WordPress
  • Joomla AND WordPress together
  • Magento
  • Or just about anything you want to offer them.

When the client purchases the site structure, the system identifies the one that was chosen, and automatically installs it. Instant website.

Our coder was truly brilliant about how he created the functionality. It is so flexible you can even make it personalize an install for the client.

We love this, we’ve been using it in our own business, in one form or another, for about 6 months. It allows us to pre-configure the install packages, which saves us so much time on the installations we do most often. It has also allowed us to tap into some fairly lucrative vertical markets (targeting a website service for a specific industry).

It went live today, at http://www.dynamicsiteinstaller.com, complete with affiliate program.

I really didn’t even want to sell this. It is such an advantage for our business, and such a powerful tool, I wasn’t sure I wanted to let to go to empower my competition. I sort of wanted to keep it just for our students and our own business. People keep asking for it though. And I guess I want to share my knowledge and tools more than I want to hoard them.

Grow a Garden!

Gardening doesn't have to be that hard! No matter where you live, no matter how difficult your circumstances, you CAN grow a successful garden.

Life from the Garden: Grow Your Own Food Anywhere Practical and low cost options for container gardening, sprouting, small yards, edible landscaping, winter gardening, shady yards, and help for people who are getting started too late. Plenty of tips to simplify, save on work and expense.