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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.


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.


January 6, 2011

Bing using click through rate. Will Google be next?

By Ross Gerring

In October last year at SMX East, a representative of the search engine Bing confirmed that they are actively using click through rate (CTR) to aid their organic ranking of websites.

A quick definition of click through rate would be that it is a measure of how many clicks a site has received divided by how many times that site had been displayed in the search results.

To provide a little background to this article, as of August 2009, Microsoft (Bing) and Yahoo entered into an arrangement that saw Yahoo’s search engine powered by Bing’s index. In the United States this saw Bing’s market share increase to 28% against Google’s estimated 68%. Here in Australia however, Bing is a distant 2nd (according to hitwise data) with only 7% of users preferring its offering (combined with Yahoo), over the 85% enjoyed by Google Australia.

Justifiably then, the focus of businesses and SEM (search engine marketing) companies in Australia has been on Google and its stable of offerings. So what has all this got to do with Bing using click through rate in its ranking algorithm and what is the significance of this move? The answer is two fold.

Firstly Google has stated that Bing is its biggest competitive threat in the search engine arena and both are US based companies. Therefore it makes good business sense that anything that could potentially improve the quality of the search results (CTR in this case) and lead users to gravitate towards one offering over the other is something that cannot be ignored.

The second part of the answer lies in the significance of using the click through rate to businesses and their online presence. By using click through rate, albeit as “one of” its ranking factors not its only factor, Bing is telling companies that “unless your website is compelling to our users from the get go then you will go down the organic rankings”. That means each website will not only need new, compelling content often, but it will also need to have compelling description and title tags for each and every page to ensure that when a searcher inputs their query and your site is displayed, it gets clicked on. If, as many are predicting, Google follows suit, businesses will need to also ensure that they have a properly configured Google Places account, that they have investigated using Google Adwords and that they are taking advantage of every opportunity to improve their CTR.

So as 2011 dawns, start thinking about your website. Is it a compelling, interactive and informative representation of who your business is? Or is it simply a brochure, a business card online or does it represent only a fraction of what you are capable of. If it is the former you will have nothing to fear as CTR measures as a method of ranking websites, becomes more widespread. If it is the latter chances are you will likely see your website traffic and rankings drop.


September 28, 2010

What is and why do you need an Online Marketing Strategic Plan?

By Ross Gerring

What is Online Marketing?

Online marketing is the marketing of products or services using the Internet. Online marketing is conducted through such services as SEO (search engine optimisation), SEM (search engine marketing), Social Media optimisation, PPC (pay per click) and banner advertisements, to name but a few options.

Traditional Marketing can be viewed as:

Brand Name + Marketing Efforts + Quality = Potential Customer

For example the iPod (brand name) is a popular brand that is heavily promoted (marketing efforts) as a high quality product (quality) and will garner business as a result of the perception generated (potential customer) by traditional marketing.

Online Marketing can be viewed as:

Definite Customer + Search Engine + Quality = Brand Name

In this example a pre-qualified searcher (definite customer) is online (search engine) searching for “Best MP3 Player” (quality). If any company selling iPods has a strong online marketing presence they will have these pre-qualified customers delivered to them on a silver platter. They become theirs to lose.

Online marketing ties together creative and technical aspects of the Internet, including: design, development, advertising, and sales.

A little overwhelming, isn’t it? It needn’t be. Any experienced web design company should (these days) create a website that will be fundamentally search engine friendly. What this means is that the ‘foundations’ of the website will be setup in such a way that, if you do nothing, there’s a good chance that, over time (6 months? A year?), your website will rank well for appropriate keyword searches in Google.

Your friendly neighbourhood web design company will ensure that your website is W3C compliant, that you have access to all relevant fields (such as meta and title tags) to SEO (search engine optimise) your own website, and that you have access to your websites traffic reports, preferably through a system such as Google Analytics.

BUT is that enough? For most businesses who want to maximise the return on their website – and sooner rather than later – it’s not. Although ‘success’ in Google is usually an important factor, there are an array of *potential* opportunities to drive more visitors to your business and dramatically increase sales, e.g.

  • Google Adwords
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Banner advertising
  • Keyword optimisation
  • Google analytics reporting, advanced configuration and analysis.
  • Google local maps
  • and many, many more

But which of the above should a company choose, and how much is enough to see a worthwhile return on investment?

Here’s how to make sense of it all:

An Online Marketing Strategic PlanThink of it as a business plan for your online marketing strategy.

One of our consultants will thoroughly review and document your existing site’s configuration, your competitors, your company aims and objectives, the industry you operate in… and make clear written recommendations and suggestions about an online marketing strategy for your business for the future.

You can then make an informed decision about where and when to best allocate your online marketing spend.

Online Marketing Strategic Plan

What is an Online Marketing Strategic Plan?

A typical online marketing strategic plan is essential in establishing what it is a company wishes to achieve from their online activity. Consultation begins with an initial consultation session to establish the following:

  • Goals for the Website
  • Situation Analysis
    • Where are you currently as a company online?
  • Customer Analysis
    • Who are they? What do you think they want from your website?
  • Online marketing plans
    • Do you currently undertake any online activities
    • Recommendations from your chosen web specialist for activities to undertake
  • SEO requirements
    • What industry does the website target
    • What terms do potential clients search for?
    • What SEO based activities if any are appropriate for this website

So what next?

With an Online Marketing strategic plan, a business owner will be presented with all options available to them to market their website online – a medium that has consistently demonstrated superior returns on investment. This plan could be implemented in full or selectively, as resources permit.

Would you build a house without having a plan? The answer to this question should definitely be no. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. For your new website to truly be a success, put in place a strategic plan to market, improve and promote your website, now and into the future.