How to choose the right web host

web hosting serversIf you’re starting a new site, it’s very hard to know how to pick the right web host. Which company should you host your site with? How much should you be spending?

There are a number of factors to consider.

Disk Space
This is the actual physical space on the server for your files. If you’re just using text, screen resolution photos and a few icons and graphics then you really won’t need much space at all. A few megabytes will do. If you’re going to be working with high resolution photos, audio or video files then you might need more.

Data Transfer
This is the amount of data that is downloaded each month. It’s a combination of the sizes of files on the site and the number of visitors. If your site is well optimised and you’ve kept your files as small as can be then, again, you probably won’t need much data transfer. With a new site things are usually slow to start of with but then snowball as the site grows. YOu need to keep an eye on the monthly data transfer (your web host should give you this) and upgrade to a higher transfer limit only when you need to.

Reliability
Many web hosts talk about their “uptime” – the proportion of time that your site will be up. It’s usually 99.9% or higher. With greater reliability comes a higher price tag. YOu have to ask yourself if your site going offline for a short time is really such a bad thing and what it would cost you. Obviously, if you’re a massive site like Amazon then being offline for even a minute could cost you thousands but, in reality, for many new sites it’s probably better to risk a few minor outages and save money on the hosting.

Support
Finally, it’s worth weighing up what kind of support you will receive. If you’re new to working with web hosting, managing email accounts or have specialist requirements, e.g. working with ASP.NET, then knowing that there’s someone there to help you can be valuable.

With a new website my advice would be to start small and let the hosting grow with the site. As the numbers of visitors increases you can naturally afford to invest more in your hosting. Only pay for what you need. Start with a small hosting package on a shared server and upgrade as you need to.

How to pick the right domain name

How should you go about selecting the right domain name for your business?

Firstly, you need to find the free domain names available on the web. For this, you can take help of your web host. Some web hosting plans include a free domain name with their hosting plan.

So, once you know where to actually register a name, how do you pick the right one?

To help demonstrate some different selection methods I’ll use the ficticious example of P J Morris, a long established bookshop based in Ashford, Kent.*

In an ideal world where all possible domain names are available here are a few different ways of approaching it.

Firstly, you can just use the business name. Examples:

pjmorris.co.uk
p-j-morris.co.uk

This works well if your brand is already known to your audience. People in the town who already know the shop would recognise it online and easily remember the domain name.

If you’re looking to build a brand or attract visitors who are not familiar with your business, the domain would need to be very simple and memorable.

Some websites use abstract names, which don’t actually describe what the site has to offer, but they are very easy to remember, easy to spell and very brandable. Some examples of this might be Bing.com and Amazon.com.

Another approach might be to use the business’s activity as the main focus. Examples:

books.co.uk
bookshop.co.uk

(remember we’re assuming that everything’s available)

These two approaches can, of course, be combined to give the business’s name and its activity. Examples:

pjmorrisbooks.co.uk
pjmorris-bookshop.co.uk

Finally, you can use the business location in the domain name, either with the business name, the business activity or both. Examples:

pjmorrisashford.co.uk
pjmorriskent.co.uk
books-ashford.co.uk
kentbooks.co.uk
pjmorrisbooksashford.co.uk
pjmorris-books-ashford.co.uk

Using the business location may help match local searches but may also limit your business’s scope to local searchers.

In the real world, a new site for a book shop would have an enormous amount of competition so combining the name or activity with a geographical reference to successfully match more specific searches is probably a good strategy.

Some general tips:

  • It’s better to avoid using hyphens (-) if possible as people don’t remember them.
  • Try to keep domain names short. pjmorris.co.uk is easy to remember, talk about, give out over the phone and easy to include in any offline marketing, whereas, the other extreme, pjmorris-books-ashford.co.uk, becomes a bit of a mouthful and hard to use.

* Any resemblance to any real person or business of this name is purely coincidental.

Fighting Spam

No SpamJunk email and blog posts are a constant problem. Here are a few ways to help spoil the spammers’ fun.

Email Spam

There are a lot of anti-spam or spam filter products around these days, many included in mail software but the sad fact is that once you’re getting spam you’re likely to keep getting spam regardless of these filters.

Spammers are able to change the sender’s email address, subject and body of an email so easily that if you block them they can still mail you just using a different mail account.

Anti-spam software like anti-virus software can only deal with what it knows to be harmful or unwanted. Anything new or unknown will slip through the net.

The way to avoid spam is never to let your email address get into the wrong hands. Once a spammer has got your email address they can not only use it to send you junk email but also sell it on to other spammers. Once you’re address is out there you’ve no hope of keeping the spam at bay.

If we understand how the spammers get our email addresses we can avoid them.

Unscrupulous Websites

This is an obvious one but when giving your email address as part of registration on a website be careful to check the terms and conditions or privacy policy as you may be agreeing to have your details passed to a third party. You just have to judge carefully how trustworthy you think the site is.

Unwanted Newsletters

At times it can be risky signing up to newsletters by email. Even though they offer you the option to unsubscribe at ay time they may also subscribe you to other similar newsletters without your express permission. You might sign up to receive newsletters from one site and start receiving them from another related site. Often where companies own several websites with subscription services they can try to cross-promote. Check the terms and conditions or privacy policy carefully.

Harvesting Web Pages

This is a common process used to gather email addresses. Robots trawl through websites looking for email addresses and feeding them back to the spammer. In short, never give an email address on a web page. Instead use a contact form which delivers the message to your inbox without ever revealing the address.

Guessing Common Recipient Names

Many spammers will not even try to find email addresses but will just try their luck at guessing them. If they know the domain name and send emails to info@ or sales@ there’s a good chance some of them will get through. If you try to use email addresses that are less obvious you shouldn’t get as much spam.

Email Scams

At one time or another you’ve probably had an email from a friend or colleague with some “too good to be true” offer or superstitious nonsense. These scams are easy to spot as they usually ask you to forward the message to a certain number of people and CC a particular email address.

The offers are never real. What is actually happeneing is the spammers are relying on people’s naivety to spread the email. Each time the email is forwarded to 10 people the spammer will get an email back (the CC address) and have 10 new email addresses to add to his/her spam database.

The difficulty with this is that to a certain degree it’s beyond your control. You just need to make sure that you’re never taken in by these scams and do your best to make your friends and colleagues aware of this scamming technique so that you don’t appear on their forwarding list.

Forms and Blogs

Contact forms, blogs and other Web 2.0 applications invite visitors to a webpage to leave comments or provide feedback. Spammers see this a an opportunity to leave spam messages usually containing links to their websites.

Comments can often be set so that they have to be moderated and manually approved by the owner before being published but even then huge amounts of spam can become a problem with moderation becoming unmanageable.

There are two answers to this – use clever scripting to fool spam robots or use a CAPTCHA control in your page.

Spam robots visit pages and look for opportunities to enter content. They cannot do things that a human user can do such as answer questions or interpret images. By forcing the page visitor to act like a human in order to leave a message we can reduce spam to only that manually left by real people.

Spam robots can easily be fooled by using fake fields in a form. Include a field for some bit of information you don’t actually need and hide it using CSS. Only allow the message to be left if the field is blank. The spam robot will complete it.

You’ve probably come across CAPTCHA controls but may not know them by this name. You’re shown a fuzzy image containing a word or letters and numbers and then asked to type the characters into a text field. Spam robots can’t do this.

If you’re having problems with spam coming from your website ask your web developer to use some of these measures and you should see a difference within a short time.

6 Quick Tips

1. Never open spam emails – if in doubt, delete it
2. Never reply to spam emails – you’re just confirming delivery
3. Never forward suspicious emails – don’t spread the problem
4. Check terms or privacy policy when giving your email address
5. Never publish an email address on a web page
6. Use scripting or a CAPTCHA control on web forms – don’t allow spam robots to post

Twitter explained simply

twitterTwitter keeps hitting the headlines at the moment but a lot of people don’t seem to understand what it really is and how it differs from other Social Networks. I’ll try to explain it in terms more people can understand.

Twitter is basically about posting short messages, much like SMS texting on mobiles. Each post is called a “tweet” and is limited to 140 characters. It can’t include other media as such but it can include hyperlinks so anything you wish to share is only a click away.

It doesn’t work like email where you choose the recipients of your messages but more like a subscription service. You put your message out there and it’s read by your subscribers. In many ways it’s more like broadcasting.

As a Twitter user, or “Twitterer”, you have the option to “follow” other users meaning you subscribe to their broadcasts. Each user has lists of “following” – who he/she has chosen to follow and “followers” – who is following him/her.

Twitter has 2 real strengths which differentiate it from other networks.

Firstly, the 140 characters limit means it is highly portable and works well with mobile phone applications. For example, it’s very easy to let your followers know what you’re doing whilst on the move.

Secondly, when you read someone else’s “tweet” there’s a facility to “retweet” it, which means instantly broadcasting it to all of your followers. This means that something written by one person can reach millions within a very short time frame. This is what tends to happen with big breaking news stories and this is why it is becoming such a powerful tool for marketing and PR.

If anyone wants to follow me and be alerted to new articles I’m @chris22smith.

Hits schmits! What do Web Statistics really mean?

Pie ChartWith web technologies it’s very easy to quote and manipulate the statistics to make things sound better or worse than they actually are. There are some grey areas in the terminology used and it’s very easy to get lost and not understand precisely what you’re being told. Here is a guide to help explain some of the more commonly used terms.

Back in the nineties everyone would talk about hits, how many hits they were getting, hit counts, they’d even have a little hit counter on their home page.

So, what is a hit? A hit means a file that is retrieved from the web server. The key thing to note here is that it’s a file, not a page but a file. Therefore, if someone visits a page with 3 image files that’s 4 hits, the HTML file plus the 3 image files. A photo gallery page might have 60 thumbnail images in it – that’s 61 hits. It’s very easy to rack up huge numbers of hits and make it sound like you’re getting far more traffic than you are. This is because a lot of people misunderstand hits to mean visits.

A visit, sometimes called a page impression or page view, means one retrieval of a web page from the web server. This term is, at least, what it sounds like. Measuring visits does not take into account the same person visiting multiple times. This is an area to be wary of when paying for advertising on a per thousand impressions or CPM basis. You may get 1,000 impressions, views or visits in a month but it could be only 100 real people who access your page 10 times each. Do not mistake visits for visitors.

“88.2% of statistics are made up on the spot.”
– Vic Reeves

A visitor is a real person, most of the time. As well as people your site may be visited by search engine spiders or robots performing information retrieval tasks. These will all count so you need to be aware that what you see is not 100% what you get.

Another term that is used is unique visits and unique visitors. The idea behind labelling them unique is that they are not counted twice. It works either by using cookies or logging IP addresses or often both. It’s not perfect as I can visit the same web page from work and home in the same day and be double counted but it’s as close as can be realistically expected. The danger with the term unique is that it can have different parameters. Some people use the term unique to mean that the visitor is only counted once for the duration being discussed, e.g. per calendar month. Others use the term unique to mean that each visitor is only counted once in every 24 hour period within the duration. So, if I visit your web page every day in June you could get 1 unique visitor or 30. Quite a difference.

Before buying a website, domain name, advertising space or anything else where stats are quoted at you, be sure to nail down exactly what you’re talking about.

On the flip side, when trying to sell advertising space, a good solution to overcome any misunderstandings is to use Google Analytics on your website. This presents visitor data under clear headings in a way which many webmasters or website owners will understand.