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Nov 2011

Is it worth learning webmaster skills as a business owner?

Posted in Business tactics, Technology | 0 Comments

A lot of online businesses are run by a small team of people – and in some cases, just one person. That’s a lot of responsibility, but with hired help for coding and building the site, creating something that practically runs itself is going to prove to be an advantage in the long run. But sites will break, and not having the right skill-set to fix anything can really let you down in 2011.

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free,” states the Joker, in The Dark Knight. Odd place to source your advice, but I couldn’t agree more. If you’re doing something for free – i.e. fixing someone’s broken HTML – then you better be getting something great in return, or you’re costing yourself time you could be a) sleeping, b) making money, or c) not doing endless amounts of people favours with no rewards. But sadly that also means that those who are computer illiterate and trying to run a site will often run into difficulties – specifically, ones they can’t fix without forking out for a second salary.

Learning basic skills doesn’t take long at all – HTML and CSS are not impervious to the almost beginner – and even learning how to set up and manage a WordPress blog is going to help when it comes to making sure the small business you’re trying to get off the ground doesn’t falter in the early stages. After all, you don’t want to have to run to an IT-knowledgeable friend or relative (or worse, expensive freelancer) when you could be Googling and problem-solving.

The Google aversion is probably the source of 90% of the tech problems I hear. It’s so simple to Google your answer, and people are vocal and knowledgeable enough to have written about it years before you’re wanting questions answered and problems solved. Sometimes I ask questions on Twitter despite knowing I should be Googling, but it’s this knowledge – that the info I need is out there, waiting to be read, that means all is not lost if those I know personally can’t help me out.

Being a self-starter is all about being driven and committed, and making sure you can accomplish what you need to in a self-reliant manner is part of that. Starting a business means saying goodbye to the nine-to-five, and if you think any different then you’re kidding yourself. In the beginning, everything is down to you, from the accounting to getting the office internet connection set up. You don’t turn up for eight hours a day and claim a salary each month.

Sound daunting? It’s not – learning how to craft sites, deal with Paypal and forgo paid themes in favour of your own CSS artistry can actually be an enjoyable and empowering experience. It certainly has been for me – I know that after learning, Googling, asking questions and making mistakes, I can take a great site idea and actually build it into a working prototype. For every person who’ll call you a “noob” or claim you’ve no business, well, running a business, there’s someone who’s willing to walk you through the basics. Don’t get left behind – be one of the people leading the way.

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Jun 2010

Use your head

Posted in Business tactics, Social Media, Usability, Web 2.0, Web Design and Usability | 0 Comments

It’s here; the final frontier. The Big One. The moment everyone’s been waiting for – Web 2.0. Hold on, what’s that? It’s already been and gone? Well, I’ll be damned. I guess my text-only, black-and-grey page with endless raw URLs and no .gif files is going to do down fairly badly. As are all the business sites who are still refusing to embrace the amazing impact web design can have on their traffic, business image and message in a world that’s all about the online.

It’s a tricky business, reorganising and redesigning a site. If it’s essentially an address and a floating logo, it’s no big deal to have it prettied up on the sly while you keep working away in the office. But if you’re always blogging and dealing with customers through it, it’s the equivalent of a White Van Man’s MOT – he can’t get work without the van, but the van can’t work without the MOT, and he can’t pay for the MOT without the work that comes from owning the van. You follow? Losing a site can be like losing a limb, even if it’s only for a week, but the benefits are huge. Everyone needs to do everything they can to stand out in the digital popularity contest that is 2010′s World Wide Web, and if you’re not flashing your widgets, you’re going down.

Pruning the hedges

First off, you’ve got to look at the aesthetic side of your website, and whether it’s really as good-looking as all its siblings in the same industry. If you’re an IFA and offering a bare-bones Blogspot domain as a means of communicating with your clients, sitting alongside your biggest competitor who’s fully Flash enabled and has Facebook and Twitter integrated into the footer, then it’s likely most people will gravitate to the one that allows them to play Asteroids while the site calculates their service fees. You’ve also got to factor in the realistic prospect of optimising your site for a multitude of different browsers, some of them no bigger than the iPhone’s resolution. Not everyone’s on dual-monitor setups; most are going to be on home laptops, netbooks, and smartphones, so think about this when you’re designing.

I know I’m promoting Flash and Apple’s wonder-phone (Flash doesn’t work on the iPhone, well done Steve Jobs) but the point still stands. There are a lot of people looking for multi-browser and even multi-platform sites becoming the norm, taking it as far as utilising internet campaigns in order to reach their goal. It’s long-term, sure, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take part. Look at the way most businesses are communicating via social networking – most of these operate through smartphones and are optimised for Macs, netbooks and Chrome (the SEO expert’s choice, in my opinion). Giving them the ability to double-check your figures against that press release you just tweeted is a seriously positive bit of functionality.

It’s also worth checking out what you can do with your GUI. If you’ve got a landing page full of adverts, sidebars and endless widgets, most people aren’t going to picture you as the most informative site in the world. If your website looks like this rather than this, then you’ve got a serious problem. In fact, make sure you click the first link – we’ll go forward from there.

From what we can tell, it’s a political news site, though why it’s called Haven Works is unclear. It’s also a complete mess; I asked a web designer friend of mine to take a look and make some suggestions. He stared at it for a few moments, and I turned to him as he sat, pensive, looking at the mess of HTML and horrible, clashing colours. “Strip it out and start again?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”

Some sites aren’t salvageable, and if yours looks anything like that monstrosity, let me offer some advice: delete. Wipe everything, get a basic WordPress site running as a temporary replacement, and seek help. Now, that probably gets a fair amount of traffic simply because of the amount of aggregate articles and traffic it absorbs, rather like the Blob. But it’s not something you’d visit unless you, like myself, are passing it around to your friends and loved ones as a “get a load of this” site, and that doesn’t rake in the customers.

Behind the scenes

When designing a website, a lot of people seem to forget it’s not just shoving a bunch of stuff together in MS Paint and clicking on it. A lot of code and very heavy maths can sometimes go into very slick websites, and programmers work alongside designers to make this happen (though most designers have a wealth of HTML and CSS skills at their disposal as an unofficial industry standard). Breadcrumb trails, clean source code and good loading times are all factors that are managed by people working in hosting, administration and coding, and not the people who’re putting that sun-glare effect on the side of your logo.

Breadcrumb trails are also seriously important – if you’re looking to optimise for social media, think about the length of your URL. is great if you’re wanting people to fit it into a tiny Twitter window. However, it’s not very easy to just reel off verbally, and you might be better off with instead. The difference? Not much. Most people use Tiny URL and similar online services when linking to your content anyway – even we do it, sometimes. The point of a clean breadcrumb trail is that it looks nicer. Having is just sloppy and makes your business’ approach to its web presence look the same. However, if you clean that up and simply give each page its own page without a wealth of parent pages or categories, then you’re more likely to have people remember where they were, and continue from there, if they’ve forgotten to bookmark. Humans can remember “this just in” on a predictive-search browser like Google Chrome. They can’t remember an eight-digit number they saw last Thursday.

My point to you is this – there’s a lot that goes into coding a site, building it up and making it look good, and these are a few points a lot of people (like good old Haven Works) seem to miss. This isn’t the last you’ve heard from me on this topic, though, you’ve been warned. Next week I’ll be tackling widgets and sidebars, and heaven help anyone in social media who’s staring at this sentence with glazed-over eyes. Here’s a tip for popular web-design techniques – if you don’t know it – get it. If you don’t get it, the people who do and their users won’t get you.

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