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I’m on social media — I don’t need a website, do I?

“In a couple years, websites are going to be history. It’ll all be about apps.” My friend was very convinced as he spoke those words.

In another conversation, a store owner told me how the sales rep for (insert one of several big online advertising/search companies here) told her that she needed to pay them to showcase all her store’s vital info, because “nobody goes to your actual website anymore”. Presumably they all go to his company’s curating solution instead.

Let’s be honest: Life hasn’t gotten any easier if you are a small business owner or non-profit trying to connect with your tribe (customers, constituents — those interested in what you have to offer).

Once upon a time you hung up your shingle in front of a physical store on Main Street and you put an ad in the yellow pages of a physical phone book.

Done. People heard about you and knew how to find you.

Oh, you might also put an ad in the local newspaper from time to time.

Now you were really done. Just relax and wait for customers to show up.

Then the world changed.

This internet thing came about.

So now you need a website, Facebook, Yellow Pages (online, does anybody actually use the paper version any more?), Google, Bing, Yelp, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram and a bunch of other social media. (Many of them insist that they are the only one you really need.)

Oh, let’s not forget your very own app. Because what could be better than an app where your customers will connect directly with you?

First things first

It really helps if you know where your customers are online and in the real world. Because that’s where you should go to connect with them. Not where some account rep says you must spend money (HINT: Ask the rep how you will know if their solution works? What are the objective measurements? Be prepared for some squirming.)

The elephant in the room

What all too frequently gets ignored with all these ways of connecting with your customers is that they’re all rented space. Somebody else owns the platform and you are on there, subject to their terms (which are subject to change).

Google can (and does) change the search algorithms and what was in the page one results yesterday may be buried on page 89 tomorrow.

Facebook also frequently changes the rules or costs to reach your fans. So you may have a model that works awesomely for bringing in leads today. But tomorrow they change what shows up in people’s feeds and guess what, your stuff is not included nearly as often as it used to be!

These are real examples that can very much affect your bottom line.

Old world example: Mike was a successful insurance agent for Big Insurance Company (not their actual names). Lots of clients, doing well. Until the day when the BIC pulled the plug. All of a sudden his customers were being assigned to other insurance agents and since the entire contact list was in the BIC database, Mike had no customers. Except the ones he could remember contact details for. It was not pretty. The good news is that Mike survived and rebuilt his agency as an independent agent.

If you rely on an online platform like Facebook, Google, Yellow Pages, etc to connect with your customers, you could find yourself in Mike’s position overnight: shut out from your contacts.

Let’s say you have 10,000 likes or 1,000 fans on Facebook. Awesome. Now, if Facebook went away tomorrow, how would you connect with those people? (Not picking on Facebook — it’s just realizing that you don’t actually own those relationships when you’re renting a platform.)

Own it

So what is a platform you actually own and can control 100%?

Your website. You own it. Your domain. You’re not fighting random advertising on there. You are not the product. Your website is about you. It’s your story and you choose how you invite your visitors to connect with you.

Sure, you say. That’s all good and well if the customers ever get there.

Good point. That’s where all the other platforms come in. When you know your customers, you know where they spend time. So you show up there (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.), but the conversation doesn’t end there. Those services are used to attract visitors to your website.

Hub and spoke

Hub and spoke — website is the hub and social media and search engines are the spokesIt’s a hub and spoke concept. Your website is the hub and everything else is spokes that lead back to your website. Once a visitor is there, you can connect with them and build trust in a way you won’t be able to in a casual visit on Facebook or Yelp.

And when the online world changes again tomorrow, your website is still there.

In this strategy, your messaging on the spokes (all the various social media and search directories you’ve chosen to be part of) gives visitors a taste and invites them to your website to learn more or shop. It’s at your website that the deal is closed or the contact information is collected so you can keep in touch. Once somebody gives you their email address, phone number or physical address there, you can follow up and connect further, building a relationship.

The future

So what about the prediction that in a few years we won’t need websites, because it will all be about having an app?

None of us know the future. We can only guess, based on trends we see.

Consider this: An app can be a great solution for an engaged audience.

They have already connected well enough to give you shelf space on their mobile device by downloading your app. And when the time comes that they want to engage or look up something related to your organization or business, they may very well go first to your app.

But what about the person who just heard about you? How do they get the app they need to connect with you when they don’t know you exist? Do you expect them to choose to download the app and install it on their device so they can find out something about you and decide if they want more info? That’s a lot of thresholds to cross (=rather high entry barrier).

Some businesses/organizations try to do it both ways, so when I go to their website, they take me to their fully functional website, but also give me a gentle reminder that there is indeed an app available. Would I like to download it? First-time visitor — probably not. Regular visitor — maybe the app will be a good idea.

Bottom line

Build an online platform to connect with your tribe. A website is central in that concept because that’s where you own the real estate and fully control the message. It’s your brand with no distractions.

Then use social media, search engines, directories and other tools to draw people to your website which is where you provide the real value for them. Make them want to come back, again and again.

When you have a website you’re proud of, you’ll find that there are many ways to get people there and get them to talk about it so their friends come check you out.

But it all starts with your very own website. Be the hub.

Questions:
Do you have a plan for how your website and social media integrate?
Are you intentional about what content you post where?
If I go to your website, is the content fresh and relevant, so I want to come back?

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Help, my website is gone!

I got the call at 9:03am. Bob called to tell me that his website was down. Couldn’t get to it. That’s a bad thing on any day. Even worse for Bob who relies on people submitting orders on the website all during the day. No website, no orders.

So even while talking to Bob on the phone, I got on my computer. We’d just done a server migration a few days earlier. Everything worked last night.

I typed the URL in my browser and in a couple seconds the website loaded just fine. So the website wasn’t down after all. But Bob couldn’t get to it. The plot thickened, as they say.

Fortunately on that day, I was only minutes away from Bob’s office, so I went over there. Sure enough, he and his staff were staring at blank screens. Not only could they not get their website backend up, their email wasn’t working. So no orders coming in to them.

I tried to reassure Bob that people out there in the sunny rest of the world could indeed get to his website and place orders. Orders that went through the system and were safe on the server in a far-away place. The bad news: Bob couldn’t get to them.

With not getting to the orders, he wouldn’t be able to fill them and soon customers would come asking for their orders that hadn’t been filled, because the office couldn’t get to them. You get the idea.

Funny thing was, we could get to some websites, so there was internet access, but only some random sites and others, equally random sites, didn’t load.

A few mobile phones were tried, with no luck. Then I tried my phone and could pull up Bob’s website just fine. Of course, I was on my mobile carrier’s network and the other phones on local wifi, going over the same network that the computers that couldn’t get to the website.

The quarter dropped. It was a network issue. Now the next quarter dropped. Bob went in the back and reset the modem. No change. Then he did something totally unexpected: He unplugged the modem from the ethernet switch and grabbed a cable that had just been hanging there, plugging it in instead.

And now the missing website showed up on the computer screens. Bob explained: “We had issues with our internet provider, so we also have service from another internet provider. I just switched to the other guys.” And with that, the immediate issue was solved.

The rest of the story involved the first internet provider sending their guy out a couple times to fix what turned out to be a bad modem. But that was another day. The immediate day was saved.

So when this happens to you: You try to load a website and nothing shows up on the screen, what to do? The first conclusion tends to be that the website must be down. But that may not be the case, as Bob learned the hard way.

A few things to help narrow down the problem:

  • Can you get to other websites?
  • Try another browser: Firefox, Chrome, Safari
  • Have another computer around, or a mobile phone or tablet? Try accessing the website you want on one of those.
  • Try another network. You can do that easily by grabbing a mobile phone and turning off wifi to force it to use the carrier data network.
  • All of these are easy tests that will help eliminate some possible fault sources and can help you get closer to what’s causing the problem.
  • You can also call a friend to see if they can get to the website. If they can, find out who their internet provider is. It could be that you’re experiencing a problem with your internet provider.

Some possible reasons for why you would not be able to get to a website:

  • Browser cache (clear the cache, run browser in safe mode, try another browser)
  • Computer sluggishness (turn off the computer, wait a minute and turn it back on. Maybe boot in safe mode to see if that fixes things.
  • Is there a wifi signal if you’re connecting to your network wirelessly?
  • Is the ethernet cable plugged in to your computer if you use wired service and are switch and modem powered on?
  • Modem issue (go ahead, reset the modem — you know after you call your internet provider’s support and are on hold for a small eternity, that’s the first thing they’ll insist you do and then when you do and the problem is solved, you’ve just wasted a half hour or so of your life, so go ahead, reset the modem)
  • It could be your DNS service, usually provided by your internet provider. That’s the translation service that turns web addresses (URL) into the numbers that computers understand. Your website connection may be lost in translation! If this happens a lot, consider using another DNS service.
  • Your internet provider has a connection issue somewhere on the trunk lines or in the last mile to your place
  • The website is actually down, in which case if it’s your website you call your web developer if he/she also maintains the site for you or your hosting company if you’re on your own. If it’s not your site, you hope they’ll be back up soon and find something else to do.

The internet is a complicated maze and honestly, it’s pretty amazing that it works as well as it does. But when things don’t work right, it helps to have a checklist to help eliminate some possible error sources.

Questions: If you own a website, do you have a plan for what to do if (when) it goes down? Do you know what the cost is to your business or organization if your website goes down?

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Is your website secure?

Would you put your bank account information on a postcard and drop it in the nearest mailbox? For that card to wind its way though local and regional sorting and handling to be delivered to the intended recipient on the other end of the country. Of course not. We all know that postal workers are not supposed to read mail or divulge anything they may see. But common sense tells you that putting sensitive information out there for anyone to see (and possibly copy or steal) is not a good idea.

Yet, that’s pretty much how regular websites work. Content going from the server to your browser and from your browser to the server travels unencrypted. That means anyone so inclined can peek in at that stream of data and see what is being sent. While that may not be a big deal for regular content on a web page that is already intended to be public information, what about when you submit a message on an online form? Or submit a password to log in somewhere? Or do online banking?

You’ll probably say that banks already use secure websites with encrypted communication and you’d be right. But today we send so much more information back and forth across the internet. And there are more attempts to steal that information than ever

That’s why having a secure connection from your browser to the far away web server is more important than ever. And not just when you do online banking. When I wrote the ebook “7 Deadly Website Mistakes” last winter, I put having a non-secure website as the #1 mistake. Almost nothing you do will drive away customers faster.

Chrome web browser displaying "not secure" warningGoogle agrees. Currently if you go to a regular, non-secure website using the Chrome browser and click on the info button in front of the URL in the address bar, you’ll see this warning about this being a “not secure” connection. Contrast that with how Chrome handles a secure connection. The Google wants you to get the difference.Chrome browser secure site

The stakes are getting higher. Google has told us for a while that whether a website is secure or not plays into its ranking in searches. (Along with a boatload of other things.) Now they are about to make that clear as day, by showing a “NOT SECURE” warning if you try to enter anything into a form on an HTTP page. If you use their Incognito mode, ALL HTTP pages will get “NOT SECURE” warnings. Will that scare away your visitors? You bet.

Wait a minute! What is a secure web page and what is a not secure page?

If you look at at full web address (URL), it will look like this: http://yourgreatsite.com HTTP stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol. It’s the foundation of data communication on the web. And it does its work in the open. So it’s easy to snoop or even interrupt the data flow. You may have heard of man-in-the-middle attacks. That’s when someone jumps into the communication between browser and server and diverts the traffic to another server to steal information or to make you think that you are connected to the intended server, but you are really giving all your information to somebody else. (Think of it as placing a call to your local Girl Scouts to order some cookies and instead it’s the Russian Mafia answering, but in their sweetest voice, so you don’t suspect a thing.)

To fix that problem, a secure protocol was developed: HTTPS. If you look at a full web address, it would be https://yourgreatsite.com. This protocol encrypts the traffic from your browser to the server and keeps prying eyes out. Instead of sending all your communication in big letters on postcards, you’re using thick envelopes that can’t be seen through.

SSL certificateIt definitely means getting a SSL Certificate (Secure Sockets Layer). This is the bit of magic that creates the encrypted connection from browser to server and establishes trust. Depending on where you get the SLL certificate it could be free or cost $30-$100 for a basic SSL certificate. All SSL certificates have an expiration date and must either be renewed manually (including payment) or be auto-renewing. If the SSL certificate is expired or invalid, the connection from browser to server is not encrypted.

For a website owner, changing from using HTTP to using HTTPS may mean needing to upgrade the hosting package:

Shared hosting
Many bloggers, small business and nonprofit websites use shared hosting, which is the cheapest form of hosting. Take one server and cram 1000s of websites on it (which is why it’s so cheap) and you have shared hosting. But just like stuffing 24 college kids into a VW Beetle may be possible, it’s not a good idea nor will the car actually drive (or at least drive safely).

Shared hosting means every website on that server shares the processor and memory of that server. If one site all of a sudden has a ton of visitors, or runs a process that uses more resources, there’s less for the other sites and service may crash. So it’s not a very robust system. The hosting company counts on most sites not having that much traffic!

Many hosting providers also either don’t provide the option to change your site on shared hosting to HTTPS without going to a more expensive plan or they sell you one type of SSL certificate only. Either way, you’re stuck with lower performance.

Your own VPS (Virtual Private Server)
VPS is the next step up. Instead of a thin slice of the pie that can get thinner at a moment’s notice, you get a designated portion of the resources of the server box. For instance, if the physical server has 8 processor cores and 400GB of disk space, you can get a VPS that uses 2 cores and 100GB of disk space and that will all be yours. A VPS costs more than shared hosting, but your site loads faster and the service is more reliable. Plus tech support should be much more responsive.

Most VPSs allow you to use Let’s Encrypt to secure your website. Let’s Encrypt was created by companies in the tech arena to bring free SSL certificates to folks like you and me, so that the web will be a safer place. Instead of paying extra $$ for a SSL certificate that has to be renewed, you can get a free, auto-renewing Let’s Encrypt SSL certificate on your website with a few clicks.

Depending on the size and resources allocated to a VPS, it can safely run from 10 to 100 websites.

Buy space on your web designer’s VPS
For the small business or non-profit that only has one website, the resources of a VPS may be overkill. (Like getting a brand new computer with the latest graphics card just to do some email and word processing.) Maybe you really don’t need all that power and would be a good candidate for getting a portion of a VPS.

Like many other web designers and developers, I sell hosting on my VPS to my clients. You get all the benefits of a VPS (faster server, dedicated resources, safer environment, free SSL) at a fraction of the cost of your own VPS. I provide that option when you subscribe to Website Minder, my ongoing website monitoring and maintenance package.

The internet is ever changing. A year from now, we’ll probably wonder why anyone was ever silly enough to have their website send all information in the clear.

But as I write this, we’re in the middle of a transition. If you care about your website and your website visitors, you’ll get it moved over to use HTTPS for safer browsing. Sooner, rather than later.

Your website visitors may or may not verbally thank you, but more importantly, they will trust you when your site shows up with a padlock in their browser. And that, as the commercials go, is priceless.

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, what about a wall full of them?

Who do you call when you have a store with some very big, very blank spaces? Your web designer of course! At least that’s what Holly and Phillip Judd, owners of the Drug Store, Inc. in Little Rock, Arkansas, did.

In late 2015, the Drug Store moved to a new home, leaving the old space they’d been in for almost 30 years. The new space is bigger, brighter and they were able to design the interior the way they wanted it. Except, there were these 2 walls that when all was moved in were still blank. Very empty. Holly commented to me that she really wanted to do something unique there. Just didn’t know what yet. But it should be noticeable and unique. Did I have some ideas?

Ideas were floated and dropped. At some point we landed on a collection of retro-styled images of drugstore related items for the smaller blank wall. I found 9 suitable images and processed to all harmonize together in an arrangement with 3 signs that were already there.

The Drug Store, wall picture arrangement on smaller wall space

That was the easy wall space. The other wall was over 30’ long and 4.5’ high. The space over a long rack of greeting cards.

We talked mural painted on directly on the wall. There was an artist whose work I’d seen photographing the interior of a mansion and knew that could be a spectacular solution.

We talked about a photographic montage of images and words that would fill the wall. Even tested that the vinyl carrier would stick to the wall properly. We looked for image ideas and words or phrases related to pharmacies that could go on there. A few sketches didn’t produce anything really memorable.

Such a wide space with relatively little height is challenging to fill with an image. Holly mentioned using a night image of the store front I’d shot for the website, but filling the entire width of the wall, it would look really strange, as if viewing a scene through a very narrow horizontal slit.

What about multiple images on the wall? I did another night shoot of the store, with all lights and signs lit and we selected several images: showing the store from different angles, a shot of the bottle chandeliers Holly had custom made for the store, a neon sign that came from the old store and still there was some space left.

What about a shot of the old store front, in the old location? I pulled out an image from a photo shoot I’d done there. But the building had been repainted at some point. So when the store opened back in 1986 it was more colorful than the uniform gray in the picture I had of it. And lots of other things were different.

We talked about doing a painting to capture the original store. In the end, Photoshop came to the rescue. Carefully recoloring the image, the gray gave way to burnt orange and green. Metal awnings were replaced with fabric awnings and the modernized store signs were swapped out with replicas of the original signs. Turning the time back, even if only in a photograph.

Now we had images ready to print. In sizing each image, I made sure to keep them within the limits of what could be output and mounted for us. FastSigns did the large format printing and mounted the images on 1″ foamcore to make them stand out from the wall and keep them stable, yet lightweight.

Then came the day when we could pick them up.

Now for getting them all up on the wall. I created a hanging system relying on brackets glued to the back of each picture and a hanging rail mounted on the wall. This makes it easy to put images up and take them down, as well as adjust their spacing, while keeping them on the wall rock solid.

Claes installing the new picture wall

When the last image was placed on the wall, we all stood back and took in the scene. Not just the wall, but the entire store looked different. But that was of course the intention. No more bare walls, but instead a visually interesting environment, with walls that help tell the Drug Store’s story, as well as connect into its heritage, both of this store and pharmacies back through time.

Stop by the Drug Store and take a look for yourself. 11121 N. Rodney Parham in the Market Place Shopping Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. TheDrugStoreLR.com

Phillip and Holly Judd of The Drug Store, with the new picture wall in the background

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And then it was gone…

Step back in time with me to the ancient days of 2007. The iPhone had just been released and it ushered in the era of truly accessing websites from mobile devices. Before the iPhone, visiting a website from a mobile phone was a painful and very limited experience. It, pardon my French, sucked.

Then along came the iPhone with a real web browser and you could visit real websites. Except the iPhone didn’t do Flash.

Flash, from Adobe, is the tool that brought powerful (and often visually stunning) animations and video to websites. Around 2007, it was the way to make a website really drool-worthy and some predicted that it would soon rule the world of web design.

A friend started into web development around that time and dove head first into the Flash universe. I have to admit, he created some really cool things.

But if you went to one of those Flash websites from your new iPhone, you didn’t see all that goodness. Just a big, fat error message. Steve Jobs at Apple held no promise that Flash in any form would come to the iPhone. His reasoning was simple: Flash is a resource hog and drains batteries faster than you can down a 64oz Slurpee®.

Other phone makers experimented with the mobile Flash that Adobe came up with. They claimed to have it working, but those who used it were not impressed.

Then as so often happens in life, time moved on. New web standards came along and in 2011 Adobe announced that they were ending development of mobile Flash.

I wrote on my blog back then:

“In a world where websites are accessed not only from desktop computers connected to a fast network, but increasingly from mobile devices, it makes sense to create a website such that it displays well on the largest number of devices. Obviously Adobe is finally admitting that the user experience of Flash is not going to be optimal in the reasonable future and so they are pulling back. That has to raise the question if this pull back is the beginning of the end for Flash.”

Turns out it was indeed the beginning of the end.

It’s now 2017 and on all the websites I’ve designed and developed, there has never been a need to use Flash. Video, yes. Animation, sure. Just not powered by Flash.

And my prediction that it makes sense to develop websites that display well on the largest number of devices is the foundational principle behind the concepts of “mobile first” web development and responsive websites.

(Mobile first means that the website is designed for the smallest screen first and then you work your way up, until the site looks awesome on all screen sizes. Responsive websites automatically change how their content is presented to fit the device the site is viewed on.)

What makes all this of interest today is that Adobe just announced that they will end support for Flash in 2020, a mere 3 years from now.

For many of us, that day can’t come too soon. Along with being a resource hog, Flash has also been a black hole of security, requiring endless patches and updates to stay reasonably secure. For that reason, I keep it turned off on my computers, unless I really need to use it to access content on a particular website.

I’m just looking forward to a world without Flash. One thing we’ve learned in web design with the rise of mobile browsing (60%+ of all web browsing is from mobile devices now) is that good content, delivered well to meet the visitor’s needs, beats lots of moving thingies and effects that would dazzle even the proverbial unicorn. Because all that shiny, jingling, jangling razzlement does is keep you from taking action on the website!

Adobe itself doesn’t seem to cry over the spilled milk. They’re happily and busily providing tools (and good ones at that) to help us make use of all the capabilities of open web standards that are replacing the need for Flash.

Sometimes its nice when your predictions come true. It’s looking to be a good day out there in web land.

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