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February 11, 2013

Top 10 Brutal Website Truths from the Trenches

By Ross Gerring

Building and owning a website can and should be a positive and rewarding experience. But just like starting a new business, it’s tempting to focus on the easy and positive aspects of the new venture, and to ignore the hard (or even negative) parts!

Here’s our top 10 list of the “hard parts” that existing website owners know about, but new ones might not. Forewarned is forearmed!

  1. A website is never finished.
  2. Testing and bug fixing is a normal and necessary phase of your website. It will take longer than you expect.
  3. There’s no such thing as a bug-free website.
  4. There’s no such thing as an unhackable website, even when your site is fully updated with the latest security patches.
  5. Ensure your website is fully updated with the latest security patches. Either DIY (if you have the time and skills) or pay a professional to do it for you.
  6. Estimating (software development) is difficult. It’s not an exact science, even when your project is clearly defined.
  7. Even when your project is clearly defined, you will almost certainly want to change the scope during the project lifecycle.
  8. 100% future-proofing your site is impossible given the extreme pace of change of technology.
  9. Your site will likely have a lifespan of about 3-7 years before a major upgrade or rebuild is appropriate.
  10. If your website needs lots of people to visit your site to be successful, it will most likely require a marketing investment that is substantially greater than the initial cost to design and build it.

November 14, 2012

Why do websites break all by themselves?

By Ross Gerring

One of the most frustrating aspects of owning a website is that sometimes they “break”. One day something was working just fine, the next day not.

So for example, one day your ‘Contact Us’ form is successfully sending emails to your sales team, and the next day it’s not. Or yesterday customers could successfully complete a purchase on your e-commerce store, but today they can’t. Or today a link on your website to another website works just fine, but tomorrow it shows as a broken link. Annoying!

It can be time consuming and therefore expensive to fix a broken site. Cause and effect is, on occasions, far from obvious. For example, sometimes a coding change in one part of a site can have an undesirable knock-on effect in an apparently unrelated part of the site. Or perhaps a problem is being reported by one or more of your customers, but you’re struggling to reproduce the error yourself.

Particularly aggravating is where, apparently, no-one actually did anything to the site itself. It appeared to break all by itself. How is this possible?

The bottom line is that websites and related public-facing technologies operate in an extremely dynamic (some would say ‘hostile’!) environment. There are lots and lots of things going on around a website that can cause things to break, temporarily (yes, some issues appear to fix themselves!) or permanently, until a web developer or other IT professional is able to fix things up.

Here are a few reasons how and why websites sometimes appear to break all by themselves:

  1. Browser changes/versions, i.e. changes to the software that people use to view and interact with your website. A website can only be future-proofed to a degree. So your website might work just great on Internet Explorer 9, but a subtle difference when you upgrade to Internet Explorer 10 causes your site to misbehave. But don’t forget that there are multiple browsers (e.g. IE, Chrome, Firefox, Safari), multiple versions of those browsers, multiple operating systems and versions upon which these browser run (Windows, Mac, Linux), and multiple hardware platforms that run all this software (PCs, tablets, smartphones, etc.). Changes in *any* of these have a tiny but real potential to impact how a website behaves.
  2. Software updates, e.g. security patches. These can, and typically need to, occur directly to your site, and/or the software environment around them (e.g. to the web server, operating system, database, or programming language used by your site). Apparently innocent and well-intentioned updates to any of these components has the slight but real potential to break your site to some degree or another.
  3. User error. Today’s Content Management Systems (e.g. WordPress, Drupal) are powerful things! They can give potentially inexperienced users the ability to manipulate websites in a multitude of ways, i.e. far more than just managing text content. Despite the best of intentions, a CMS user might make a change to a site, unaware that it has unintended consequences for other parts (e.g. functionality) of a site. And sometimes it can be very challenging for a support person to trace the problem back to the actions of the CMS user.  Too many administrative users opens up the potential for errors on the site.  We suggest limiting the roles and permissions to one or two key people, with more ‘basic’ roles allocated to staff who only need to edit content etc.
  4. Changes/updates to 3rd party systems or software. Perhaps that ‘Contact Us’ form on your site is working just fine, but the mail server that receives and stores your email is misbehaving. Or maybe your site integrates with Twitter or Facebook, but Twitter or Facebook just made a fundamental change to the rules by which sites are allowed to integrate with them. Or maybe the 3rd party service that processes credit card payments on your site is experiencing technical difficulties. Or that page on another website that you were linking from your site is broken because the other site just had a major update with lots of renamed pages.
  5. Hardware failure, e.g. errors on a hard drive causing intermittent glitches.
  6. Computer viruses. A computer virus on a PC can make a web site do very strange things.
  7. Pop-up blockers, or other software specific to the IT environment of the website visitor. So things like anti-virus or parental control software (e.g. Net Nanny) can cause apparent problems on a website – such as making it appear completely unavailable  – but without the computer user understanding why.
  8. Firewalls. Some organisations – typically government – have very “locked down” IT environments. A website operates perfectly when viewed outside the organisation, but misbehaves when viewed inside the organisation.

What’s the solution? In the first instance it’s about education so that people have a better understanding of the challenges. After that it’s all about the speed and efficiency with which issues are identified, reported and, ultimately, resolved. And ideally, whatever is learned from each experience, should be used to build more robust systems in the future.


August 23, 2011

On Websites and Business Success

By Ross Gerring

Here at Itomic we love helping people and companies achieve new or improved business success. It’s a given in business these days that good looking, highly functional, integrated, and well-marketed websites and associated services are key – if not critical – business success enablers.

Most websites we provide consultancy, design, development and hosting services for are in support of existing ‘bricks and mortar’ businesses. Sometimes we provide services for new, fully online (‘virtual’) businesses. They might be original ideas, or they might be copy-cat versions, or variations, of existing websites.

What if we think your idea isn’t commercially viable*?

(*My septuagenarian Dad just read this article and didn’t approve of the work “sucks”, so I changed it to “commercially viable”. Thanks Dad!)

Is it our ethical or moral obligation to advise you of this – and if so, how forcibly, and when? Should we decline to work on your project because we don’t think it’ll be a success? If a big, overweight bloke goes into a top mountaineering supplies store and announces “I want to climb Everest, and I want you guys to kit me out with the best gear for the job”, should they refuse to serve him because you think his chances of summiting are low to zero?

Or perhaps what we think about the commercial viability of your project is irrelevant? Our #1 responsibility is always to do everything we can, using the skills and experiences we have available, to give your project the very best chance of success, irrespective of our own personal evaluation of commercial viability. So if we truly believe that we are a great service provider (we do!), then surely it’s better that we give it our very best shot at helping you achieve business success, than throwing in the towel and encouraging you to choose a potentially less capable, less experienced provider of web services?

Here’s a supporting argument in favour of the second approach: unless explicitly stated and (better still!) suitably qualified, website consultants/designers/developers are not business advisers/consultants. Neither are we angel investors who would comprehensively evaluate your idea before risking their investment dollars. In short, your website developer is not qualified to give you a truly holistic assessment of the likelihood of the success of your online venture, and it’s a healthy sign when they recognise this in themselves!

It’s our opinion and recommendation that all owners/shareholders of online business ventures recognise that *they* are the primary entrepreneurs / risk takers in their ventures, and not the persons or companies who provide services towards (hopefully!) making their ventures a great success. By all means ask the opinions of multiple service providers in terms of the commercial viability of your venture. But it’s essential that you give appropriate weight to the opinions you receive based on the skills, experience, specialities, track record – and biases – of those giving it. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the euphoria of entrepreneurship and opportunity, thereby losing commercial perspective. At the end of the day, the decision on whether or not to “screw it, let’s do it” (in the words of Richard Branson!) is yours to make. You wear the costs, you reap the rewards.

To this end, we’re very happy to share our clause on this issue in our standard terms and conditions document. Feel free to use in yours:

Itomic builds websites with a view to maximising the likelihood of successful outcomes.  However we make no predictions or guarantees about the commercial viability of a website venture. Success is the result of multiple factors, a great website being one of them. In the event that our opinion on the commercial viability of a website venture is asked for, then our opinion should be obtained in written form and authorised by a company representative. This opinion should be weighed against advice from other expert consultants such as accountants, business advisers, entrepreneurs, marketing firms, etc.

Final thought: whenever I catch myself “judging” the commercial viability of project pitched to me, I always remind myself that when I first saw Google, I thought to myself “No chance! Too little, too late.”. Need I say more?

P.s. I just read on Wikipedia that “early in 1999, while still graduate student, [Larry] Page and [Sergey] Brin decided that the search engine they had developed [Google] was taking up too much of their time from academic pursuits. They went to Excite CEO George Bell and offered to sell it to him for $1 million. He rejected the offer“. That makes me feel much better!


February 18, 2011

SEO predictions for 2011

By Ross Gerring

What a year 2010 was for SEO and the internet. In 2010 we saw the introduction of Google Instant. We saw the release of the iPad and saw it sell 15 million units in its first calendar year, putting mobile Internet in the hands of an increasingly large user base (and the obvious implications for a well ranked website). We saw Facebook not only reach 500 million users (not bad a for a website banned in China) but become bigger than Google (at least in terms of traffic). Have you implemented or considered a strategy to better use Facebook? We also saw more and more content from social media sources such as Youtube, Twitter and Flickr begin to play a greater role in website visibility and overall online marketing strategy.

So what lies ahead in 2011?

Clicks/Visits begin to influence search engine rankings

We have already hadconfirmation from Bing that they are using click through rate to aid their rankings, but we have also seen this month that Bing copies Google search results (link) so they can hardly be considered the authority on such matters.

What better measure than the relevance of a website presented in a search result than its click through rate? This would begin to weed out sites that are not so relevant to the terms they rank so highly for.

The result will be that these sites which are often ignored by a searcher (yet still rank highly) would start to move down the rankings and the more relevant sites further down which receive greater clicks would rise to the top.

The rise and rise of social media will continue

There are currently more than 500 million activeFacebook users with an average of 130 friends spending 700 billion minutes per month onwww.facebook.com. 200 million+ Twitter users tweeting more than 70 million times per day. Now imagine that Google works out a way to rank content to present to you based on what your Facebook friends or Twitter followers have already consumed?

It may begin slowly, with, for example, the ability to limit search results to articles your friends have liked/tweeted, but we believe it will only grow from here.

Google Places and Reviews to become increasingly important

Creating and optimising a Google Places account will be even more important in 2011. It is our prediction that Google Places listings will continue to find their way into and up search engine rankings and the reviews that have been collated from sites such as True Local will either tell a good or bad story about customer experiences.

Companies should definitely start to encourage reviews from their clients, not just as on-site testimonials, but also as Google Reviews.

Set and forget websites are no more

The Internet has now become the first place many people go to for information on products and services and this will only continue to occur at an increasingly rapid rate in 2011. Couple this with the power of a referral provided to a potential client through their friends on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and you have a very strong proposition that many businesses continue to overlook.

A website needs just as much, if not more, attention as your offline activities receive. It needs fresh, relevant and informative content in order to add value to your website visitors and keep the site up to date.

So there you have it, a few predictions from Itomic for the ever evolving field that is search engine optimisation. How accurate will they prove? We look forward to finding out.


January 25, 2011

Meet and Greet with Dries Buytaert

By Ross Gerring

Itomic together with Previous Next sponsored an informal meet and greet with the creator of Drupal, Dries Buytaert on Monday night.

For those who missed Drupal Down Under, or those who just can’t get enough; this was a chance to meet Dries in a more intimate setting.

Itomic’s Nick Santamaria was one of nearly 40 Drupal developers who enjoyed the opportunity to personally exchange ideas with Dries. The two spoke briefly about the Drupal Down Under Conference before moving on to more serious topics: the powder conditions in Vermont last week.

Dries made an effort to chat with everyone and was nothing but complementary about Australia; which he described as a blend of the best of Europe and the States. He even joked that he might just stay.

From Itomic to Dries: you’re welcome back anytime.

A big thank you to Brian Gilbert of Realityloop for arranging the logistics of the evening.