Monday, November 13, 2006

Web Hosting

In the last post we looked at promoting your site but of course to reach that stage you first have to purchase web hosting (and of course a domain name) to place your site on the Internet. For many people the first time they purchase a domain or hosting can be very daunting, there's lots of technical jargon about the features and many automatically assume that you receive both a domain and hosting.

So first lets clear up the difference:

The hosting is where your website is physically stored, the domain name is an address that the browser uses to get there. Normally you would purchase a domain name for your site first (we’ll be looking at this at a later date) and then find somewhere to place your site, its probably a lot easier if you buy both from the same place, particularly if it’s the first time you have set up your own site.

But there is more to web hosting that just placing your site on the internet, there are many hidden costs, ambiguous prices and pitfalls.

If you’ve ever been in the market for web hosting you’ll have noticed the odd pricing structure that most of the big names seem to employ. Not only does it make comparing prices to ensure you get the best deal difficult but it also invariably means that you end up paying more for your web hosting that you had originally planned. What am I talking about?

Let me give you an example:

You’re looking for web hosting in the UK, you have a small site and want a simple package. You find just the package you are looking for with a reputable company and at only £1.99 per month. You naturally assume that as you’re paying monthly you’ll be able to cancel at any time if the package isn’t what you expected and you also assume that should you stick with the package over the year you’ll just pay £23.88.

Which of course is incorrect. If you read the small print you’ll see:

“All fees paid annually..”

Which means that you pay the full amount up front, no monthly fee and most of the time you’re in a 12 month contract. Even so, its not a bad deal at £23.88 for a full years hosting. But again that isn’t quite right, checking the small print again will reveal…

“All prices exclude VAT and a one off set-up fee of £9.99.”

Which then means some simple maths:-

1.99 x 12 = 23.88

23.88 + 17.5% = 28.06

28.06 + 9.99 = 38.05

Meaning the final price for our simple package is actually £38.05 for the year, an increase of almost 60% on the first glance price. This is the first pitfall than many first timers fall into, as typically you don’t see the final price until the latter stages of the checkout process. This is why at Horizon Web Development we employ a clear pricing policy, the price you see is all you pay, so you know where you stand at first glance and without a calculator!

Of course the prices could mean anything if you’re not sure what the features you are paying for are or even what features you need so here is a simple breakdown of the common features of web hosting, what they actually mean and when you’re likely to need them.

Webspace: This is usually first on the list and also known as storage space. This is how much space the web hosting company is going to give you on their server, typically this is about 100MB for a Starter Package. If you have a one page website or even a small site this would be ample, web pages are very small as they were (at least initially) intended to travel over old phone lines; you could fit 5,000 pages the size of the Horizon Web Development homepage (excluding pictures) into that 100MB.

The whole Horizon Web Development site is less than 40MB so 100MB (and especially the 750MB offered by Horizon Web Development in our Starter Package) would be more than enough for most sites, unless you have planning to store lots of pictures, music or video footage on the site. You will also need more space if you are planning on having a large database.

Data Transfer: Also known as bandwidth, is how much data your web host will allow you to transfer per month. This normally includes anything you upload or download yourself but is mainly made up of the amount of information visitors download when viewing the information on your site. A typical bandwidth value would be about 1.5GB per month, this seems a high figure but to follow on from the above example, if the whole Horizon Web Development site is 40MB in size, a visitor would therefore need to download 40MB in order to view the whole site. That would mean with 1.5GB bandwidth the site could only be viewed in its entirety around 38 times. Of course few visitors will view every single page and picture on your website, most just look at the first page and move on, but its worth considering just how many visitors you’ll get, how much of your site they are likely to view and so on.

Many web hosts charge extra if you exceed your allocated bandwidth so it can be expensive to under estimate this. The Starter Package at Horizon Web Development offers a generous 5GB of bandwidth a month to help avoid this happening.

Scripting: This usually includes the scripting languages CGI and Perl but may also include PHP, ASP and Frontpage extensions. Basically you should avoid any hosting account that doesn’t allow any kind of scripting as that would leave you with a very limited website, things such as Guest Books and Online forms wouldn’t be possible.

Ideally you’d like your hosting account to have as many of the above scripting features included free as possible, at the very least CGI and Perl, to give you more scope for improving your website in the future. However you should only purchase additional Server Side Scripting facilities, such as PHP, ASP and FrontPage Extensions if you are sure you’re going to use them.

Email: Another must have feature when you buying hosting are email accounts. These allow you to have email addresses at your domain and the more the better, a typical value is 20 POP3 email accounts (Horizon Web Development currently offers 200 POP3 email addresses in our Starter Package). POP3 means that the email can be accessed via Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird and similar email applications.

Another email feature to look out for is Webmail or Web based email. This allows you to check your email from any computer, anywhere in the world using a web browser similar to the way Hotmail and Yahoo work. Invaluable if you want to check your email whilst on holiday or on the move.

Web Stats: This is another handy feature for your hosting, this will allow you to track visitors to your site, showing who visits, from what country and how they found your site. very useful for a business website.

Platform: This is the operating system that the Web Server that stores your site uses. Basically there are two choices, Linux/Unix or Windows. I am probably sailing into a bit of a storm by saying this but I have to say that generally the best platform to go for is Linux/Unix. There are many people that will likely disagree but if you’ve used a Windows Operating System in the past you know that it is prone to two things, crashing and security holes. Linux/Unix is more stable, more reliable and faster.

This is evident in the fact that most of the big names in Web Hosting use only Linux, some offer Linux and Windows but very few offer only Windows.

Hopefully after reading this you’ll be at least more aware of what you need to look for in a web host and also better prepared for what’s involved.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Promoting your new site

OK so you have your new website, but how do you guarantee that people will visit your site and that you'll get a return on your investment?

Firstly and this really is the most important thing, you must have good (or better yet great!) content. Content that people in your industry or particular field are going to want to read and tell others about and of course products that people want to buy.

Assuming you have that, the next step is to ensure that people can actually find your site using the major search engines, this may mean improving or optimising your site to get it higher in the rankings. One of the best ways to be well ranked is to have not only interesting content and products as mentioned above but to also have varying content. Your site will soon look stagnant, repetitive and boring to regular visitors if nothing ever changes on your pages and the search engines will also notice if your content doesn't change between visits. This can be achieved with something as simple as a News section, a special offers section or even a blog. If possible try and add something everyday, failing that at least once a week.

OK so you have great content and products and you're able to vary them regularly, so now you should look at how you expect visitors to reach your site. Think of the search terms that you would use to find your service on the Internet. Its simple to enter Horizon Web Development into a search engine and find the site but what if you are looking for a particular service or product rather than a company? By putting yourself in the position of a potential customer you should be able to come up with a list of at least 25 keywords or phrases that they would use to find your product or service. You should also look for things that would distinguish you from the competition. For example if you were a Chinese Restaurant you'd want to use your location as a keyword so people searching for "Chinese food Nottingham" or even "Chinese food Mapperley" would find your site and you wouldn't just end up as one of the many thousands of hits under "Chinese Food."

Once you have these keywords you should make sure that they are evenly distributed throughout your pages in sentences and paragraphs, remember that it is the text on your pages that will be used to find your site, no-one will find your site using a word or phrase that isn't on your pages. For example, searching for "haberdashery Nottingham" will never turn up the Horizon Web Development page as that phrase isn't mentioned anywhere on our site (until now!)

You should also look to have at least 300 words on your homepage with your keywords or phrases scattered in there, if you don't have enough information to put on the homepage try using it to summarise what's on the other pages or sections. Remember this is the only page people will see most of the time so you have to give visitors and search engines enough information about your company and services on this page.

Now that your site is complete you should make sure you submit it to the search engines. Don't bother with any promotions you see saying that they'll submit your site to 50,000 search engines etc, on the internet there are only really three search engines that count, Google, MSN and Yahoo. They account for around 96% of the searches on the internet each day and most likely those promotions are just collecting email addresses for spamming anyway. You can save yourself on spam email by submitting your site to the big three, completely free at these addresses, Google, MSN and Yahoo.

Of the big three search engines Google is the biggest, accounting for around 50% of the searches made each day, they also offer some tools that are invaluable to webmasters and can help you improve your site's ranking. Firstly I'd recommend you sign up for Google Sitemaps, this will give you great information on how Google sees your site and on how often it crawls it looking for new content. You can also use this to inform Google when you have added new content to your site.

Another great tool from Google is Google Analytics, which allows you to analyse your visitors, where they come from, the keywords that they used to find you and much more. A site that offers a similar service, also for free, is StatCounter.com, I've used this site many times myself and found it extremely useful for discovering what pages/sites are working well and which are not.

Finally, something else that may help with your search engine rankings is an RSS (or atom) Feed or a blog, search engines seem to love this kind of thing at the moment, they are easy to set up and free.


Monday, November 06, 2006

Coming Soon…

The free hosting package has finally ended this week and unfortunately it won't be back for the foreseeable future. There will however be other special offers coming up including at least one more eBay auction giving you a five page website for just £9.99 and there is also the possibility of some free domain names. Keep checking back for further details.

You may also notice a change to the blog layout and design, this is a work in progress and depending how things work out with it we may start offering free blogger and possibly WordPress templates to download on the site.