Archive for the ‘Website Design & Development’ Category

Two Point Oh

If you’ve spent much time around me in the past year or so and our conversation shifts to business-related matters, you’ve likely heard me talk about this mythical redesigned website that I was working on. Ten minutes here, an evening there…slowly but surely it was going to get done. My old website had served me well and generated a good amount of business, but it was time for a new look and updated content. Well friends, that day has finally arrived – welcome to my new and improved home on the web.

As of right now I have every intention to post regularly to the blog with WordPress tips and tricks, industry commentary, photography and general thoughts on things going on around town (something I’ve been terrible at to this point). I’m also going to do my best to keep the portfolio up to date.

Take some time to surf around and, as always, let me know if there’s ever anything I can do for you.

» You know what they say about the cobbler’s children – photo by Oldmanmat

Web Basics: Domain Names

I’m starting off a series of posts about “web basics,” where I talk through a topic to help clear up some of the questions I routinely receive when working through a web design project. First up, I’m going to be talking about domain names – your home on the world wide web.

Domain Names

Domain names, also called your URL, are very similar to the address of your brick and mortar building – you give your web address out to your customers so they know where your business or organization can be located on the web. More specifically, your domain name is the address that you type in to be directed to a particular website.

Domains are usually reserved on a per-year basis from a service like GoDaddy* for between $7.50 (you can usually find coupons online to get this lower price) and $12 a year. There are also some select domains that the powers that be have deemed to be “premium” and can be very expensive to purchase – you’ll know pretty quickly if you run across one of those when searching for a domain.

Typically .com, .net and .org domains are the most commonly used and recognized, but there are many other extensions that can be used. Take this website for example, which is JimFerguson.me – I get a lot of funny looks when telling people my URL. But I like the .me extension for a portfolio website for an individual, because the website is specifically about that person and the services they offer. For me, it’s different, easy to remember and describes what the website is about. These alternate extensions can also be considered when the .com version of a domain has been taken. Some alternate extensions have certain requirements that must be met in order to purchase, such as .gov websites must be affiliated with the government or certain country-specific extensions require that you have an address in that country. Wikipedia has a complete list of available domain extensions.

From a search engine standpoint, I often get asked if owning an exact phrase match would help a company show up better in searches. In short, the answer is yes, they can – but for the time being. Recent studies have shown that this factor has started to slip in importance when search engines consider rankings. So if it came down to owning the domain for name of your brand or owning the exact phrase match of what you do, I would almost always recommend going with your brand name.

Another question that comes up is whether or not you should own several versions of a domain and redirect them to the primary URL. The answer here would be that it really depends. If you are concerned with protecting your brand name, then I would say go ahead and buy them up. Otherwise, don’t worry about it. Some companies go to a bit of an extreme here and also register variants and misspellings of their brand name. Registering a domain name and redirecting it to point to your primary URL does not help with searches though, so buying and redirecting the domain greenvillescwebdesignbyjimferguson.com or jimfergusonisthebomb.com wouldn’t help me out much.

So that’s a pretty good top-level overview on domain names. If you’ve got additional questions or comments on domains, leave them in the comments section and I’ll follow up. Or if you’d like some help in choosing a domain name, let me know and we’ll work through it together.

*I’m not endorsing GoDaddy here, they’re just one of the largest and most well-known domain registrars.

SEO & Quality Content Considerations

Your website lives and dies by the content found within its pages and posts – plain and simple. I can design and code up the best looking website for your company, but if the content is thin and doesn’t speak to your customers, then the website will fall flat (both in conversions and in the search engines). Quality content also plays a major role in your placement in search engines.

What exactly is quality content? Well, I would loosely define it as original information or graphics that, first – and most importantly, satisfies the needs of the visitor and secondly, interests them to the point where they want to share it with their peers. As it relates to the web, sharing usually means that someone links to your content either from their own website or from their social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc). It  just so happens that search engines place a good bit of emphasis on these links (actually, in SEO circles they’re called backlinks). So how is this type of content developed? Well, there isn’t one clear and simple answer to that question, but the best strategy is to write relevant content with your visitors in mind. Here is one strategy that I like to use…

Not too long ago, an Apple store opened here in Greenville. I worked for an agency at the time and we, being the good Mac geeks that we were, kept our company blog updated with any of the chatter we were hearing. After months of speculation and rumors, Apple opened a store at the Haywood Mall. Over the course of several months leading up to the grand opening, and for some time afterwards, those blog posts got a ton of search traffic. Why, you ask? Well, the posts fell into three categories:

  • They were recent
  • They were regional
  • They were relative to our industry

Brainstorming topics for your site that fall into at least one of those categories is a great starting point for writing quality content. You get bonus points if you can generate something that falls into more than one. The Apple store was opening soon, in Greenville, and a large percentage of creatives rely on Mac computers/software to perform our jobs. There’s your trifecta.

Daisy Cakes & a few Lessons from the Shark Tank

One of my favorite shows on television right now is ABC’s Shark Tank. If you’ve never seen the show before, the basic concept is that hopeful entrepreneurs come on the show and pitch their business idea to a panel of investors (“the Sharks”). If the idea and pitch are appealing to the investors, they will agree to give a specified dollar amount for a certain percentage stake in the company.

On last week’s episode, there was a charming lady named Kim Adams from right down the road in Spartanburg, SC pitching her high-end, homemade cake business called Daisy Cakes. After Kim’s presentation, most of the Sharks felt like the business was too small for them and declined to invest. However the last available Shark, real-estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, came through and made a deal to help fund Daisy Cakes. Perhaps more important than the monetary investment were the raving reviews all of the Sharks gave to the cakes themselves – mainly from the guys on the panel who were quick to decline an investment. Now, you can imagine the interest this drove to the Daisy Cakes website…

Daisy Cakes website crashThat’s unfortunate – the traffic to the website from the national television exposure brought the hosting server to its knees. On perhaps the most important night for the young business, at that. I’m sure Kim is still overwhelmed by orders at the moment, but just imagine how many potential customers turned away and forgot about her when they went to the website and got a bunch of errors. Thankfully, she’s back up and running now and her Facebook wall is flooded with comments and cake requests.

It was really cool to see a local person come through and score a deal with the Sharks. Score one for the little guy (or gal, in this case)! Here are a few pieces of advice you can take away from the Daisy Cakes story that can be applied in your own business:

  1. Be ready – If you are expecting a sudden, significant increase in traffic, let your web hosting provider know when you expect the traffic to begin and how many visitors are anticipated. Granted, 75,000 visitors in a span of 3 minutes is a lot for any website, but your host may be able to work with you to make some preparations to keep you up and running through the surge if they know the spike is coming.
  2. Use caching – Sometimes web traffic unexpectedly hits you out of the blue – then what? It is a wise idea to implement some type of caching on your website if you have any chance of receiving a substantial increase in traffic, or at least have a strategy in place if you begin to notice a spike. Caching can speed up your website across the board and take some of the load off of your servers. For those of you on WordPress powered websites and blogs, you should check out the W3 Total Cache plugin or the WP Super Cache plugin.
  3. Assemble a team – If I were expecting this level of exposure, I would have had a team assembled for the next several days to handle the response both online and on the phones. It can be overwhelming to field a sudden influx of attention like that on your own. Having some trusted folks monitoring and quickly following up with your phone calls and online/social media presence will take some of that burden away and go a long way in establishing good public relations with new potential customers.
  4. Personality matters - I tend to agree with most of the Sharks about Daisy Cakes – it’s a small business and getting a return on their investment may take a while. Being a hard working, authentically passionate and generally likeable person doesn’t mean you’re going to win 100% of the time, but it sure does go a long way. I feel confident that this was one of the main reasons why Barbara decided to invest in Kim’s business.

QR Codes Explained

I have had several clients approach me over the past week about QR codes, so I thought it would be good to do a quick little writeup on what QR codes are, what they do and some practical examples of how they can be used.

So what are QR codes?

QR is short for “quick response,” and these codes are sort of like a barcode that can be scanned using a reader, usually on the viewer’s smart phone. I personally have the free iPhone application called Bakodo installed to test/scan QR codes.

Instead of a traditional stripe patterned barcode that we are used to seeing on product packaging, QR codes use a pixelated looking pattern and are often arranged in a square shape. While they are being used quite commonly overseas, QR codes have yet to really break into the mainstream here in the states. With more and more people starting to use smart phones, I expect that to change in the next several years.

What are they used for?

QR codes can be used to contain several types of data, such as web addresses, text messages, calendar events and vCard information. There are a ton of uses out there for QR codes, but here are three examples of practical uses that I am currently working on or have used in conversation this week:

  1. Business Cards – this particular client is adding a QR code to the back of their business card that, when scanned, will download their vCard information straight to the user’s phone. A simple, yet time saving application.
  2. Posters – another client that does regular promotional pieces for their events. For these pieces, it would be cool if someone could scan the code and create a calendar even to remind them of the time, place and location of the event. Or perhaps they could link the user to a page on their website that would allow them to read more information about the event and RSVP. I’ll also mention here that when linking to a website from a QR code, it would be a good idea to lead the user to a page that’s specifically set up for them. In other words, even if the page contains duplicate information about an event, give it a unique URL so that you can track how many visitors entered the site via the QR code.
  3. Trade Shows – the next client regularly attends trade shows and they could use a QR code to send attendees show specials or promotional codes via text message – something they could take with them and apply discounts to orders placed online once they returned to the office.

To show you a live example, if you scan the QR code found below, you will download my vCard information to your address book. Go ahead, you know you want to try it out!

Jim Ferguson vCard QR code

So are QR codes something I should use?

Well, that depends. Like I mentioned above, QR codes aren’t exactly in the mainstream here in the states yet. You need to examine your audience to determine whether or not the QR code is something that they would find useful (or even understand the concept), or if you would just be confusing them by adding them to your piece. I know they sound neat, but if your target audience is unlikely to own a smart phone in the first place or are unlikely to be savvy enough to use the scanning software, then I wouldn’t recommend using QR codes.

So in a nutshell, that’s it. I hope that was informative enough without getting too technical. Feel free to follow up with any further questions in the comments area.

The Dark Side of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

In the world of search engine optimization (also called SEO) there are good ways to improve your search engine rankings and then there are bad ways.

If you’ve had an email address for long, chances are that you’ve been spammed by a SEO company promising you placement at the top of search results for whatever category your business falls under. They’ll be right there, hopefully in your spam folder along with various anatomy enhancement offers and letters from long lost relatives overseas that want you to help them transfer their newly acquired fortune. Sometimes they’re even bold enough to call you. These guys are relentless and non-discriminative in peddling their services – you get these solicitations, I get these solicitations, big web companies get them, etc. Such a promise may be tempting, especially if you’re launching a brand new site and want to make an immediate impact. But the long-term effects can be crushing to your online presence.

There are several unethical tactics (referred to as black hat SEO techniques) that Google and the other search engines frown on. These include link farms (I’m sure you have seen pages that have nothing but a ton of links on them), buying links, masking content, stuffing keywords, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, these tactics can work in the short term. For example, JC Penny was recently busted for participating in link farms, but not until after they had cashed in during the holiday shopping season. I can see them now, towering over their competition, grinning and blasting them with force lightning…completely oblivious to the fact that they are about to be thrown into the bottomless abyss. Google is quite good at weeding out this type of thing and doesn’t hesitate to lay down the law.

As a result of their shady dealings, JC Penny’s positions in Google rankings were significantly reduced. I have full confidence that JC Penny can and will recover because of their size and reputation, but could your company? Is that a risk even worth taking?

We’ll cover some good search engine optimization techniques (white hat SEO) a little later. But in the meantime, avoid any SEO company that contacts you with promises of fame, fortune and top placement.