Archive for the 'design' Category

Definition: Shared Hosting

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

Shared hosting means a website is hosted on a server which also hosts other (typically dozens if not hundreds) websites.

Every website needs a certain amount of hard disk space for storing files (e.g. html, image jpegs, php or other scripting languages). It also needs a certain amount of computer processing from the server’s cpu and it needs a certain amount of bandwidth to send webpages out to the website visitors over the Internet.

The amount of hard disk space needed is simply a function of the size and complexity of the site. The computer processing load and bandwidth are a function of the number of visitors to the site and whether it has a lot of image files or a lot of programmatic functions (Imagine how many financial transactions are being handled by Amazon at any given moment).

The vast majority of the websites on the Internet are neither large enough nor get enough visitors to justify having their own dedicated server. So the vast majority of websites use shared hosting.

Shared hosting has the following advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages

  • Less expensive: because one is sharing the cost of the server with many other websites, the cost per website is much reduced. A typical cost for a shared hosting account would be $10 per month, a dedicated server would cost on the order of $300 per month.
  • Preconfigured: the company providing the shared account will have provided the tools and capabilities needed by a typical website including a control panel, email services, webstatistics, means of installing various web applications (e.g. blogs, image galleries, etc.) With a dedicated server, it is assumed that you want to, and are capable of, configuring the server yourself.
  • Security: the company providing the shared hosting server will be responsible for maintaining a secure environment, and making sure that the operating system is properly patched. With a dedicated server, you will get some support from the hosting service but you will share the responsibility of keeping the server secure.
  • Reliability: because the shared hosting server is hosting dozens of websites, it is in the interest of the hosting service to ensure that the server stays operational and that it is returned to service ASAP if there is a failure. With a dedicated server, the hosting company will certainly assist you with problems but, since you will be the only customer involved, they may not give you priority if there are problems on their other servers.
  • Availability: there are literally thousands of companies offering shared hosting which is one of the reasons the cost is so affordable.

Disadvantages

  • Flexibility: because a share hosting server is pre-configured for the “average” website, one may find that it lacks certain capabilities that one needs… And that it may be difficult or impossible to add them. Typically this will be in the area of scripting languages. For example, most shared hosting will not have python or ruby (scripting languages) integrated with the webserver… Or the shared hosting server may not use the latest version of PHP.
  • Security: even though the hosting company takes responsibility for overall security, the fact that there are dozens of websites on the server means that each one constitutes a potential vulnerability. The entire shared hosting server (and all the sites it hosts) can be brought down by a vulnerability on a single site.
  • Reliability: as mentioned above, there are thousands of companies offering shared hosting at very low prices but finding a reliable hosting company can be very challenging.

On balance, of course, shared hosting is the best option for most websites. It is important to find a reliable hosting service and it is important to review the various packages offered to make sure they meet your needs.

Definition: Intranet

Friday, January 26th, 2007

An Intranet is a website residing on a computer on a local area network or LAN. It is usually not accessible from the outside world (i.e. the rest of the Internet) either because the local network is not connected to the Internet or, more commonly, because it is protected behind a firewall.

An Intranet is typically used to provide information to employees or members of the organization owning the local area network. The Intranet might be used to post company announcements and policies or run web applications (e.g. shared calendars or CRM software).

A common practice in small business is to take an obsolete Windows PC, install Linux and set it up as in inexpensive web server for the Intranet.

See also Extranet.

Search Engine Optimization: There are No Free Lunches

Friday, January 12th, 2007

I don’t think there is any area of the web which has more snake oil being peddled than the area of Search Engine Optimization, aka SEO.

I get emails every day from outfits guaranteeing that I will get top-ten listing on Google, Yahoo, and MSN… All I need to do is sign up with these guys and pay them a lot of money. Amazing… they don’t know what I am selling, what my website content looks like, or how much competition I have… But they can still guaranty me top-ten listing. How can they do that?

The answer, of course, is they can’t. This is the web-age equivalent of the old UHF TV ad’s for veggiematics or some other poorly manufactured household product. You will pay them some amount (and it will vary all over the map… from a few bucks to thousands of dollars depending on how dumb you are) and, wonder of wonders, you won’t get top-ten listing Google, Yahoo, or MSN. The only difference between the ten dollar haircut and the thousand dollar one will be the ingenuity and creativity of their explanations of what went wrong.

So now you are both ripped off and ticked off… Are you going to sue them? If you only paid a few hundred it’s not worth it… If you paid them thousands then either they’re long gone to some South American country or they’ve put half their ill-gotten gains into hiring fancy lawyers to defend themselves.

The actual ranking algorithms of the major search engines are closely guarded secrets and there is a whole industry of folks reading tea leaves trying to reverse-engineer them.

But I think one can establish some pretty good guidelines based on simple common sense. So here are Denholm’s Common Sense Laws of Search Engine Optimization:

  1. The major search engines are genuinely trying to produce search results that are as useful as possible to their user base.
  2. What makes a website useful to their user base is content.
  3. The only thing that search engine spiders and crawlers can analyze is text. So it is only text (and not images) that matters.
  4. Apart from the content itself, the only thing that will matter to search engines in terms of ranking will be the number and quality of other sites that link to yours.
  5. The only additional thing you can do is to make sure that your content is properly indexed using metatags and h1, h2, h3 element tags.

Any attempt to “game the system” will only have temporary success and will, ultimately, backfire once the search engines figure out how the gaming works. Note that I am talking about “natural ranking”, not sponsored links or pay-for-click. The latter are, indeed, available to the highest bidder. But it is the natural rank that matters. Most search engine users either knowingly or instinctively ignore sponsored and pay-for-click listings.

So, the bottom line is that you want to have your website filled with as much useful text content as possible. Use meta-tags and h# tags to highlight for the search engines which keywords best describe your content. Get authoritative incoming links that tell the search engines that others find your content of value. Do not establish reciprocal links with sites which have no logical connection to yours. That is merely the latest form of gaming the system and it will not help… And it probably hurts.

Good incoming links are likely to be those from professional organizations, chambers of commerce, trade groups, large companies, government agencies, universities, etc. One of our customers is a kayak dealer. He has incoming links from about 20 kayak manufacturers. My belief is that has a serious, positive impact on his search engine ranking.

And even if you have all the above in place, your ranking will still depend on how many other websites are competing in the same conceptual space and how good their content is, and their incoming links, and their keyword indexing.

There are no magic bullets and anyone who claims they can guarantee a high search engine ranking on the major search engines is blowing smoke.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t try to optimize your site for search engine visibility. I frequently see sites that seemed to have been designed for stealth instead of visibility.

Apart from having good content, good indexing of said content, and incoming links from good sites that have a logical content-based reason to link to you, there are some things that you can do and some things you can avoid:

  • Do not create entire sites using Macromedia Flash (or any other dynamic architecture such as PHP/MySQL, Cold Fusion, or ASP). The search engines cannot be bothered figuring out how to analyze websites where navigation is dynamic and all content delivered dynamically will be ignored. The sole exception to this is where your dynamic mechanism uses mod_rewrite (or an equivalent) to mimic static links. (Note that Flash is fine for individual animated images… Just don’t build the site navigation using it.)
  • Do write compliant, valid HTML or XHTML and do validate your HTML/XHTML against the W3C validation engines. The search engine spiders and ranking algorithms depend on your code being correctly written in order to analyze your site. If your code is poorly written and incorrect, they will ignore your site. Note that your site can look fine to a human viewer using a browser and still be “broken” from a spider’s point of view.
  • Do use alt-tags if your site is based on image content. The search engines “like” images but the alt-tags are the only way they “understand” what the images represent.
  • Do submit your websites to the search engines when you first create them and after major changes or updates.
  • Do promote your website address in non-web channels. Use it in print advertising, your letterhead, business cards, press-releases. This does not help directly with your ranking but it does increase traffic to your site… And a surprising number of people actually search for a web address rather than enter it directly in the browser.

Do you (Salem Design) only work with customers in your local area?

Monday, April 17th, 2006

The short answer is we can help your with your web design and development needs regardless of far you are from our location (Salem, Massachusetts). Most of our customers are relatively local (i.e. within Massachusetts) but that is primarily a function of how we find each other.

The Internet and Web are great means of working at long distances and we have developed websites for customers as far away as Minnesota and we currently have customers in Maine and New York.

And even with local customers we have done web projects where we never met the client in person but communicated solely by email, telephone, and the web.

If you want support for your home or office computing environment then location is more of an issue. We can provide some assistance by phone but any serious troubleshooting or setup of your home or office systems will require an onsite visit.

What can we do to make our website successful?

Sunday, February 5th, 2006
  • You need a clear idea of what you or your organization are trying to accomplish. If you are a non-profit (e.g. an art association or a little league) then you may want the website to publicize your organization and/or communicate (events, schedules, announcements) with your members. If you run a small business you may want to publicize your products or services more widely. If you are an individual artist, you may want to use the website as an online portfolio of your art… Or you may want to publicize your work to the whole world.
  • You need good, interesting, useful, appealing content. The website is ultimately about you and your organization, products, services, art, whatever and you have to give us good descriptive text, drawings, photographs that we can use to get that across to the people that will visit the site.
  • You need to get your website listed elsewhere on the web, e.g. local business directories or art associations. This helps with getting your website found by people surfing the web. We will help get the site indexed by the search engines but these sort of incoming links help your rankings with the search engines.
  • You need to read and respond to your email. People do not expect an instantaneous response to an email but they do expect one within 12 to 24 hours.

You need to have a good business model to start with. A website is not a magic bullet. The most successful websites we have built were for customers who had already established that there was a market for their products or services. The website then substantially increased their business.