Cheap hosting - always check first

cheap hosting
When we build a new website for a client, we insist that they register the domain - that's the 'www' bit - themselves; that way not only do they retain control over the domain for as long as they continue to renew it, but it's also their responsibility to make sure it's renewed in a timely fashion.

We do offer hosting and support however, using fast SSD-based servers located in the US that include the increasingly important (and Google-friendly) SSL certificate as standard, as well as the latest compression techniques to ensure that your site performs snappily when visitors come calling.

That's why our heart sinks when a client tells us that they've purchased hosting along with their domain name "because it was a good deal." Often, these "good deals" are based on using the domain registration company's own website builder - a glass half-full way of building a website yourself in a browser using a limited palette of templates and design tools. This kind of hosting is useless for the kind of website that we build - where we require full access to all the nuts and bolts in order the get the site humming along nicely; which means you've wasted your money.

There are good, inexpensive hosts out there and we're always happy to work with them. Just bear in mind that whatever hosting you choose, the chances are you'll need support of some description over the 12 months that follow, so take some time to make sure that the good deal you think you're getting is actually a good deal.

And if in doubt, always check with us first. We have a list of hosts we've worked with before that meet the minimum requirements for hosting a professional website - better to be safe than sorry.

When Flickr, Blogger, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook turn evil...

flickr-logo copy
Quite often when we build a website for a client, they'll already be locked into using another service. Some might have a Facebook page, others are in love with Instagram, a few are Twitter addicts, while some have their entire photo library stored on Flickr. (Note the absence of Pinterest - this is because none of our clients are 16 year old girls. Yet.)

We love services like Flickr and YouTube and Vimeo because they take the heavy lifting away from our own websites - handling both the storage of stuff that takes up a lot of space and the bandwidth required to serve it up to visitors.

But you can come a cropper when titans like Twitter or even mini-behemoths like Tumblr change the way they allow third parties like us to access their information. This is why Twitter widgets suddenly stop working, or blogs hosted on Tumblr refuse to show up without warning.

Putting your precious eggs into someone else's basket has advantages - usually in terms of cost because you save on hosting - but there are disadvantages too, mainly because you're no longer in charge of looking after your own data. And whether that data is pixels in a photo, frames in a video, words on a blog or zeroes and ones on an MP3 track, you may want to think about balancing the cost savings against retaining control over the content that you've created so lovingly.

Save money on your website #2: Photos

When it comes to building a website on time and therefore on budget, photos - good ones - are often the cause of an avoidable bottleneck. Your smartphone may have a 22 megapixel camera but it's still a cameraphone and it doesn't necessarily turn its owner into a photographer- no matter how clever the technology. Indeed with a few exceptions - outside shots in good light where the subject doesn't move - home produced photos will rarely be good enough to use on your website; and they certainly won't match the clarity and composition of those that come from the camera of a professional snapper. There are other exceptions of course - Instagram-style pictures that have been filtered up the wazoo can sometimes be effective, and deliberately scrappy photos in the naive style have their place - but on the whole if you want a professional job, then use a professional.

That can mean hiring a photographer (we know some great ones right here in Brighton and Hove) or using what's called a stock photo from a picture library. Although the latter have a bit of a reputation for cheesiness, there are so many libraries offering such a wide range of photos and photo styles that we can almost certainly find something that works for your website.

So here are our top photographic tips for your website:

  • use good quality, professional photos where possible - this is especially important for people shots
  • If you want a slideshow of images, try to pick ones that are the same dimensions (rather than all different shapes and sizes)
  • If you want a gallery of thumbnail images that appear in a lightbox when a visitor clicks or taps on them, then you can mix and match images of different proportions
  • If you've got a photo that looks a bit fuzzy to you, don't use it - it'll look fuzzy to everyone else as well!
  • label your photos, give them names that make sense so it's easier for us to work out which one is supposed to go where
  • if your photos are supposed to include a caption, make sure you provide one (and try and make sure it's roughly the right length)

If you can hit all these marks with your photos, incorporating them into a website will go much more smoothly and increase our chances of bringing everything in on time and on budget. Next time: text.

Save money on your website #1: Be prepared

checklist blog
If you really want to help us stick to a budget then you need to be prepared, be prepared and be prepared. We'll help you with the initial structure of the site if you need it. We've got a handy free Website Checklist that will help you to refine your ideas and really think about what you want from a website, why you want a website and what you think it might look like. We couch this is simple terms and ask you what you like and don't like, as well as suggesting various features you might find useful to incorporate on the site. This helps you to get organised and helps us to understand what's going to go on each page.

But before you press 'go', the most important thing is to have the material you want us to use, ready and waiting. That means:

  • a logo
  • any existing branding like a typeface/font or colour scheme
  • good quality photographs that are the right dimensions for the job (a banner slideshow that has photos that are the same size and shape will look better than one where they're all sorts of different shapes and sizes)
  • Links to any professional bodies or societies, so that we can source logos from them in the correct file format
  • And most important, the text you want to use on the site (this may not be perfect or finished, but the closer it is to the real thing, the quicker this will all go)

If you can have all these things ready to go when we start creating the site, we'll have a much better chance of sticking to the budget. Next time, we'll look at photographs in a bit more detail.

Want to save money on a website?

piggy bank
Of course you do. Everyone does. That's why we give you an estimate at the beginning of the process and do our level best to stick to it.

Now, whatever people may think, web development is an unpredictable science and various technical gotchas can lay in wait along the way, which may result in us having to spend more time on this or that than we'd originally anticipated.

This isn't helped by web technologies that are constantly changing and - sometimes anyway - evolving. That's because even when it turns out to be a change for the better, everything on a website tends to depend on everything else - and if you change the notches on the belt, the trousers may fall down.

But what clients don't often realise is how much they can affect the final bill - how much control they can exert over what they end up paying.

We're not going to name names, for obvious reasons but let's take two examples at opposite ends of the spectrum.

* client one has a firm idea of the new web site's purpose; they have the pictures and most of the text; they're routinely available by email; they make decisions quickly (not hastily, there's a difference) and they're engaged in the project. Result? The website comes in on time an bang on budget. No nasty surprises.

* client two has a firm idea of web site's purpose too - they've even got a written spec; but they change their mind a lot; they know what they don't like but are less certain of what they do; most significantly, they're completely blocked and unable to deliver any content at all; the site has now been in 'development' for a record 18 months. It won't come in on budget.

Over the next couple of blogs we're going to suggest some ways that you - as a client - can help us to ensure that a website comes in on budget. See you then.

Adding a blog to your site

Blog blog entry
Here at Hove Web Design, we're big fans of regular blogging and we've come up with a really simple way for you to add a blog to your website so you can add new content whenever you like - without having to pay for our time. Here's how it works.

We use an external free blogging service - Tumblr is our current favourite for blogs that suit individuals and small businesses, though Google's Blogger also works well - and then use some behind-the-scenes jiggery pokery to integrate that into your website so it looks and feels as though the blog is completely integrated into the rest of the site.

So what's the process?

Let's use Tumblr as an example.

  • We start by setting up a free Tumblr blog that allows you to add new content in date order (newest entry at the top) from any web browser using any device (yes, even your smartphone); this means you can blog from anywhere.
  • Next, we set up a blog page on your site, styled to fit in perfectly with all the other pages.
  • Then, we link that to your Tumblr blog.
  • This is the clever bit. From now on, whenever you sign into Tumblr, create a new blog entry and post it, that entry will be sucked into the blog page on your website automatically, using the same design, fonts and colour scheme as the rest of the site. You can add new content when it suits you, go back and edit old blog entries, delete short, you can do whatever you like and you won't get charged for it because you're adding the new content, not us. It's a great system and as we said before, means you can blog from pretty much any device at any time you like.

Why is blogging important? It's a great way to engage with people who visit your site, good content makes them stay for longer, it makes them keep coming back, it allows you to sign up subscribers, and it really helps your ranking on search engines, because they love new, relevant content.

Why you should blog

Whenever we're designing a new website we'll usually offer clients the ability to include a blog, and it's still surprising how few actually take us up on the offer. 

Some don't see the point. Some think they've got nothing to say while others agree that it's a good idea but don't think they'll ever be able to put aside the time to do it consistently; and the world knows that there's nothing that says 'unloved' as much as a blog that hasn't been updated for a year or two. 

But blogging doesn't have to be onerous or complicated, and it doesn't need to take up too much of your time. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • make your blog manageable by updating it just once a month
  • keep it short - between 200 and 300 words is usually plenty
  • keep it on topic - if your web site is about wedding hair and makeup then make sure that's front and centre of every post you write
  • include links to longer articles on the same subjects or videos or Facebook pages and Pinterest boards
  • remember that you can always write several blogs at once and then post them individually at a later date
  • if you get  a really good idea, try splitting it into two parts so your visitors come back for more
  • include an RSS feed in the sidebar so that visitors can subscribe to your blog
We know that those clients who blog see the benefit, both in terms of returning visitors and Google organic search rankings (the Googlemonster loves fresh content). 

So what are you waiting for?

Be Clear, be brief

When you sit down to write the text for your website you need to keep a few things in mind.

  • First, no-one is going to be as interested in your product or service as you are, so they're not going to want to read pages and pages about how you came up with the idea in the first place
  • Second, you need to emphasise what you can do for the people who visit your site, rather than focussing on your experience or qualifications; those are important but secondary
  • Third, you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors in a way that people can relate to. You can't slag them off (obviously) and you can't just blow your own trumpet at their expense.
  • Finally, you need to give visitors a reason to send that email or pick up the phone to make an enquiry.

Do all that on the front page of your website and you'll be generating business before you know it.

It's your job too

From time to time we'll get an email or phone message from a potential client that sets alarm bells ringing. It's usually along the lines of ‘I need a website. Just a few pages. How much?' We'll reply by trying to find out what the site's going to be used for, get an idea of the content, any technical features and so on; and to explaining that we'll be able to give an estimate after we've got some more information. Sometimes the prospective client comes back with more info and the job progresses; and sometimes the line goes dead.

We're usually grateful in either case. A client who's interested and engaged, who has an idea of why they need a website and what they're trying to achieve is serious about making it happen. Someone who 'needs a website, just a few pages, how much?' doesn't sound as though they're very serious at all.

Of course, you may understand that you need a website but are uncertain about where to start. That's understandable and it's why we created our Free Website Checklist. Download it and you'll find 20 simple questions that will help us understand what you're after and decide whether we can help or not.

Getting your own web site - what's involved?

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It's like building a house. A bit. You need three things. First, an address so that people can find you. Second, a plot of land to build on. Third, a house. In web terms, it goes a bit like this:

Step 1
Your address - or or .net - there's plenty of choice. Just like a real street address, you can't pick one that someone else already has so it may take a while to find one you like that's also available. When you find one, you register it and then rent it by paying a small fee every year. Typically, this costs between £5.00 and £20.00 a year.

Step 2
Your plot of land - you can't build a web site without having somewhere to put it. You rent out space by paying a fee every year to companies that make their living renting out space on huge computers called servers; the more space you want, the higher the fee. For a typical site that's suitable for an individual, a sole trader or a small business, this will cost between £30.00 and £100.00 a year.

Step 3
Your house - this is the actual web site itself, the pages, pictures, text, videos, a shop or whatever it is you want. Just like a real house, you can pay someone to come up with a one-in-a-million design, or you can choose something that's a bit more off-the-peg; and in the same way that houses come in all shapes and sizes, so do websites.

So, those are the three steps and those are the three things you need. In the next blog we'll look at some of the other bits and pieces you should consider when getting a website.

The golden rule when adding content

When you’re adding content to one of our websites, it’s important to remember that - in the main - we’ve done the difficult part for you.

What does that actually mean?

Well, when we choose a theme for the website, it includes the key ingredient - styling. That means the text, font, colours, background, little bits of screen ‘furniture’ like icons, rules, drop shadows and so on have all been professionally designed to sit nicely together on the page. And it also means that it’s best if you don’t interfere with that by ‘fancying’ things up yourself when you add a news announcement or a new blog entry, for example. You’ll usually find that the theme styling takes care of emphasis and stuff like that so you don’t have to. It’s for the best really and is one of the reasons you came to us in the first place.

You take care of the content - it’s your website - and let us take care of the design.

(Of course, if you really want bright red text that’s twice the size of everything else on the site, knock yourself out. Driver’s rules and all that…)

How to add your own photos and videos

Although blogs are a great way to add all sorts of content to your web site - including photos and videos - there are circumstances when you need to present a group of photos or videos together in a portfolio. If that’s the case, you don’t necessarily need some fancy or complicated content management system. Instead, we can set up pages on your site that act as containers for content that’s stored on external services that you can update whenever you want.

Here’s an example:
  • create a free Flickr account
  • upload a series of photos there together with tags and captions
  • sit back as they appear automatically on your website, styled to look as if you’d uploaded them directly
  • add or remove photos whenever you like
  • also works with Picasa, 500px, Instagram and others

Here’s another example:
  • create a free YouTube account
  • upload some videos of your band playing together with a description of each one
  • after YouTube has done its stuff, they’ll appear on your website, styled to match the rest of your content
  • add new videos and get rid of old ones whenever you like
  • also works with Vimeo

Getting a web site blog

One of the best and easiest ways to add original content to your site - and to keep your visitors interested - is to have a blog. Popular blogs like Blogger, WordPress and Tumblr are all free to set up and use and each of them allows you to add all kinds of content like text, photos, videos, links and so on whenever you like. When we build a site using Rapidweaver, we usually recommend that clients try Blogger first because it’s one of the easiest to set up and also integrates with a Rapidweaver site really well. What does that mean? Well, here’s how the process works.

Your bit:
  • You go to Blogger and set up a free account
  • You choose a design and template for the blog (it doesn’t matter which one, so choose the most basic - we’ll explain why in a minute)
  • Start adding content to the blog from any computer or smartphone

Our bit:
  • We link your new blog to an empty page on your website
  • The blog is automatically styled to match the rest of the site - colours, fonts, layout and so on (this is why it doesn’t matter which Blogger design or template you use)
  • Every time you add something to the blog it automatically appears on your website.

The best bit:

Once a blog like this is set up it doesn’t cost you a penny to add new content to your website whenever you like. We don’t have to get involved (so there’s no hanging around waiting for us to update the site) and there are no fees (apart from a small initial charge to set things up) so you’re not dipping into your pocket every time you want to change the blog.

What about adding my own content?

What is content management? Some people seem to think it’s the ability to completely manage their own web site, adding, removing and editing content, creating new pages, re-jigging the design - in fact, letting rip at everything that visitors see when they land on the site.

Here at Hove Web Design, we’re not so sure.

It seems to us that content management should be exactly that - the ability to manage defined chunks of content, specified from the outset and integrated seamlessly into the site so that the owner can update the content that’s important to them without having to pay for the web designer’s time, but without disrupting the look and feel and organisation of the site. There are several ways you can do this.

  • add an external blog that can be edited from any web browser, styled to fit in with the look and feel of the site
  • add ‘hooks’ to external services like YouTube, Vimeo and Flickr that allow website owners to add new content to those services as usual and have that fed through to their own website automatically
  • add areas of the site - for example news or special offers or price lists - that can edited using external services like Google Docs or a DropBox-enabled text editor
  • add areas to the site that can be edited using a built-in editor accessible from any web browser.

In blog entries to come we’ll be looking at each of these in a bit more detail and explain how they work and how they can be used.