Services

Websites: ALVA

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ALVAThe ALVA team wanted a site where they could feature their news on the front page and update themselves very easily. With this in mind I kept this site as simple as possible; it also looks very fresh and clean. And the gallery I've used simply rocks. They have great fun at their events with photos to prove it, and the gallery allows them to show the pics off to advantage with very little client effort. Find the site at www.alva.org.au

Free websites – you get what you pay for.

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FreeThis year I've seen a couple of campaigns designed to get Aussie businesses online with free websites and free domain names or free lessons on building your own. I won't mention them by name simply because - well, it's bad for my business! I don't build sites for free (but mine ARE affordable). However with anything that's free, you get what you pay for. (Note that you can have a blog site with static pages hosted on WordPress, Typepad or Blogger, and you can access a range of templates, all for free, however you can't host these sites on your own standalone domain name, and this post discusses sites hosted on your own domain name.) Yes, you can get up and running with your own website all by yourself, but I would suggest that if you go down that route, contact someone like me for assistance with graphics, SEO, and as part of that SEO copywriting. These days anyone can put a website up. You might have the best product in the world, but unless you know a bit about how keyword analysis works, how search engines work, and how to write copy that will use the system to your advantage, you're not going to get found. SEO is a real art, and with search algorithms changing at a rapid pace in line with website evolution, you need to constantly tweak your copy and keywords. I've seen so many small business sites let down with poor grammar and punctuation over the years that I highly recommend having a copywriter help you with your website material. The worst offenders are apostrophes: often popped in where they don't need to be and left out where they do, incorrect tenses and misuse of plurals. Poor grammar and punctuation looks unprofessional. Competition is tough out there. As well as SEO-friendly copy on your site and great graphics and images, telling your own story could make the difference between people buying your product or someone else's. People remember stories; they engage with them. Simply saying "Buy my widget because it's the cheapest" won't differentiate you from the competition, even with a good price. Saying "Buy my widget - I developed my widget as a result of there being nothing on the market that quite did the job. It took me ten years of experimenting to get it right, to tailor it especially for our local market and local needs..." is far more memorable, human and compelling as a sales pitch. People can relate to you and trust you. Look and feel is also a big part of the web experience. You not only have to grab your readers' attention with copy in the first five seconds, your site has to look professional and coherent. With free websites you are often constricted as far as design goes; apart from your logo there won't be much to differentiate you graphically from another business which has taken up the free site offer. Most free sites have a very limited number of templates and unless you're a whiz with coding or know someone who is, a limited number of options you can do with those templates. Often too you may be limited as to the number of pages or menu items you can list on your free site. You might not be able to expand your site in the way you want down the track. Free sites mightn't let you feed in your twitter and facebook feeds or offer a range of widgets and plugins. These are all items to think about if you're considering taking up a free site offer with your own domain name. Unless you're a marketing, copywriting or graphic expert, consider spending some money and getting professional help with your free site, or take the plunge and have a unique site developed. Domain names are cheap at the moment - from $9 a year and hosting with the fab Crazy Domains guys starts at $54/year. I can start you off with a micro-site to which you can add your own pages and menu items from $495, and it won't look like a free site built on the same template 50,000 other Australian businesses are using.

When good sites turn bad. Canonical loops, white screens of death and more

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Until now I've managed to avoid the dreaded 'WordPress loop' which, like a naughty imp, attacks WordPress sites for a variety of reasons including website builders like me trying to get too clever. There are several loops you can get caught in - the Canonical redirect infinity loop is a popular (and very UNpopular with us lot) example. Add one plugin too many, or indeed change from standard permalinks to pretty permalinks, and you might get a message like this: “Firefox has detected that the server is redirecting the request for this address in a way that will never complete.” Or this one in Safari: “Too many redirects occurred trying to open this document.” There are some excellent plugins around that help fix this dire loop. Mark Jaquith's Disable Canonical Redirects plugin is probably the best and easiest to use. So when a client's site starting looping last weekend after I upgraded to the latest version of WordPress, I confidently installed the plugin and thought all would be well. After all, I'd backed up the database. Or so I thought. Things went from bad to worse. The initial site Canonical loops were all fixed up, with internal links working perfectly, but neither the client or I could log into the site. We were caught in a login loop. No matter how many times we cleared caches and history, at each attempt at logging in we were simply redirected back to the login screen. Nothing I could find online seemed to solve the problem no matter which browser I used. I got into the back end via FTP and removed all plugins, including the Canonical Redirect one. So then the site crashed. Big time. White screen of death. Nothing. Except my extremely red face. I contacted the host, a US-based company which shall remain nameless, but they were little help and didn't respond to my help desk emails. In the meantime my client had bought hosting at Crazy Domains as we'd intended to shift the site there anyway. It's local, the help desk is local, the backend system is CPanel X which is fantastic for maintaining your site, and the hosting rates are very affordable for small business. I recommend Crazy Domains to all my clients; if you need help those guys are really on the ball. So we pointed the domain name to the IP address at CD, and I installed WordPress. I jumped onto PHPMyAdmin and uploaded the backed up database. Or tried to. The system wouldn't accept it.  By now I was getting nervous. We'd wasted nearly a day already trying to fix the site up. Moving the WordPress site database should have been an easy process. Rather stressed and furious, a male version of meThe guys at CD help tried everything for another day to get the old database to talk to the new, and I had visions of burning the midnight oil rebuilding the entire site from scratch. Finally their head techy told me the old database wasn't a proper backup. Simply exporting from PHPMyAdmin doesn't create a backup of a WordPress site that PHPMyAdmin can read when it tries to reinstall it. Poor Crazy Domains, they must hate me; up to six calls a day for three days trying to get this wretched thing to work. So... back to the US host I went, this time using an online chat facility where all they could recommend was exporting from PHPMyAdmin. I explained why that didn't work and they suggested trying Navicat in the end. I downloaded a free trial of Navicat for My SQL and it's seriously good. $500 worth but I have it free to try for 30 days. There's plenty of documentation, and it's a simple to use, quality product. Realistically I didn't have to do much in the way of RTFM, it's quite intuitive. It took another chat line conversation to find out what the US host's port for the SQL server was, and finally, oh finally, I had a proper, working backup that the Crazy Domains server accepted with open arms. (By the way, Crazy Domains and any host using CPanel X provides you with a proper backup facility via CPanel X. For free. Great if you are doing single site backups.) But I still couldn't log in and the site's home page and all other pages were still glowing white with nothing on them. The air around my Mac was turning blue in response. Finally I reinstalled WordPress, crossed my fingers that the backup would upload again safely (it did), and all was well. The site was back online. My widgets hadn't kept their place in my sidebars, but that was the only difficulty I had. I could feel my blood pressure falling gracefully.

How do you protect your website images from theft?

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Client's image I've recently completed a rebuild of a client's site at www.gel-ice.com.au. If you look at it you'll see the images on the site all sport a large watermark in the middle. My client has been the subject of image theft in the last twelve months, with his images appearing (along with all his text) on someone's else's site. His images and text have been stolen and his copyright violated. The thief had set up a site to sell very similar if not identical products. My client pursued the other company both with a local solicitor and one in the country where the thief's business is located, with pretty good results. I notice one of my client's original photos is still being used on the thief's site, but the website copy has been changed. My client isn't alone. The very nature of the internet is sharing information. In my previous post I talked about content farms, which take what's not theirs and blatantly repost it. So how do you protect what's yours? Putting the copyright symbol on every page, or even the word copyright on every page should theoretically protect you, however copyright laws vary slightly from country to country. In order to protect my friend at the Gel Ice company, I decided to put a large watermark on each image using a simple action I created in Photoshop. Watermarking is probably the most effective way to stop your images being used by the unscrupulous. I considered the following options first:
  • stopping viewers from right-clicking and downloading an image. Well, yes, you can do that, but people can still click on Print Screen and grab an albeit low res copy of your image. However as I'm using WordPress, that little bit of javascript isn't compatible with my system
  • using Digimarc digital watermarking. Again, there's the Print Screen option. And the truly devious out there know how to get around Digimarc should they download a Digimarc image
I could have put a watermark indiscreetly along the bottom of each image, but if anyone wanted to steal the image and use it, most of the images could be cropped without interfering with the key object in them - the gel ice pacs. So it was all guns blazing with the watermark. It ain't pretty by any means but if it protects my client's intellectual property, that's a good thing.  

New CamCard app could make saving business cards a thing of the past, unless you’re an iPhone 3 user

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I read this article in the Australian today about a clever new smartphone app that could make hoarding cardboard business cards a thing of the past.  This clever little chap is called CamCard. To quote The Oz, "This app streamlines the tiresome task of taking contact information from cards and entering it into an electronic contact book. It uses a smartphone's inbuilt camera to capture an image of each card and then applies clever character recognition algorithms to extract details and store them in the phone's address book.   "During a test, CamCard recognised a variety of business cards, including some with dark backgrounds and dominant logos. After taking a photo of a card, the software took about three seconds to process it and populate a new contact book entry. Occasionally the app struggled to differentiate between titles and company names, however its character and number recognition capabilities are excellent. The app also allows you to dial, send a text or email a contact while viewing their card's image. The "lite" version retains a limited number of cards, a full version is available for $11.99." I like a new gadget, I do. So I downloaded the CamCard Lite version (saves three contacts in the first week and one per week thereafter) and set to work with my iPhone 3. Everyone who has an iPhone 3 knows the worst thing about this phone is its camera. Try as I might, I couldn't take a decent photo of a clean, clear, white background business card with my phone. One has to have the phone close enough to fill the screen with the card. The downside of this is that with the iPhone 3 it appeared to be too close to focus on the card. CamCard told me the text on the card was unrecognisable at every attempt I made. I was taking the images in clear light, too. So it's back to typing in contacts manually for me. I'd be interested in hearing from really truly users who have downloaded this app and are trying it on their smartphones. Drop me a line if you think it works just fine. Especially if you too have an iPhone 3!

When YOU are IT

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The majority of my clients are small- or micro-business owners, and most of them, like me, escaped from the corporate world in search of freedom, fame, fortune or at least a decent income and the option to work in pyjamas should they feel like it. Few of us regret our moves. Most of us drop a bundle in salary at least in the first few years; it's a small sacrifice to pay for being your own boss. There are cons as well as pros - for example there's no IT department when you're on your own and things go wrong. No hassles there, there are many computer repair places around or if your computer is new, there's a warranty claim. Best of all, if you have a teenager in the house that may solve some of your problems. Having a friend who loves building and fixing computers can be a boon too. Just remember to back up on a daily basis in case things go horribly wrong. If you, like me, are an Apple user an appointment at the Genius Bar at your nearest Apple shop could fix your problem on the spot, depending on the problem. If you're a member of a business association (and I belong to Ryde Business Forum) you'll find there will undoubtedly be a fellow member in the IT category, either sales or repair or both. Seek this person out and get to know them. You'll be supporting the local economy if you use them, and that's always a good thing. Remember placing a call to the IT department and waiting for hours or days for someone to come to your desk, spend all of 90 seconds sighing and clattering away on the keyboard and fixing your problem, then giving you a tired, knowing look that said you just didn't 'get' computers? These days if you have a smallish issue - let's say you've lost a printer driver - chances are you can find the answer on the internet. And if your computer has bigger issues and is not responding why not use your smart phone or iPad to try a solution before you head to the repair shop? Time is money as we know, and if it takes you an hour to sort the thing out yourself, rather than leaving your computer in a repair shop for a couple of days, that's money saved. There's the pro side to no IT department, too. You can choose your own computer and the software that goes on it (paying for all this definitely falls in the con bucket, but consider leasing as everything bar the stamp duty is a tax deduction). In the corporate that I worked for, asking the company to buy you new software required a three-page Investment Proposal to be completed. Your justification had to be mighty to be allowed have anything more than Microsoft Office. As a solo flyer, if you can afford it, you can buy it. And I mean buy it. Don't get tempted to download a pirate copy or borrow your friend's version of Office or Photoshop. It's not worth the risk, and pirated copies can crash your system. Once you've lashed out on OEM software, the upgrades are reasonably priced. The main thing to remember as a micro business owner is that you are not alone. Whether it's a contact from a business association or help you've found on an internet forum, you have an IT department you can call on. YOU don't have to be IT. What tips do you have for managing your IT needs? Are there websites which you have found invaluable? Sites or shops with fantastic bargains and service? Software you just can't do without? And what are some of your horror stories? (Come on, we all have them. You can be anonymous!) Answers on a postcard please, or simply leave a comment below.

What makes a compelling contact page?

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Just found this excellent article on creating a compelling Contact Page on the Flying Solo site: http://www.flyingsolo.com.au/technology/business-websites/the-dos-and-donts-of-website-contact-pages Lots of sensible, practical, easy-to-implement ideas (which is true of many articles on Flying Solo), which I've already implemented for my clients across a number of websites. If you're unsure what to put on your own contact page, do read it. Most small businesses are very forwarding in providing contact details to their readers. But it's surprising just how hard it is to find relevant contact details for larger organisations. It's almost as if some of the behemoths only want to you contact them via Liking their Facebook page or following them on Twitter. Sometimes you only find the Contact link in the footer rather than logically in the menu. When I come across sites who don't make their contact details obvious - or worse, don't provide any contact alternative other than an email form - I'm suspicious about their commitment to customer service. The page with only an email form says, "Yes, I'll reply to your enquiry - sometime. But I don't want you, my customer, ringing me up and asking questions. That would be a bore for my staff. They're too busy to deal with you and I don't want to put any extra staff on just to man the phones." Think carefully about what your contact page says about you and your organisation and how you are prepared for people to contact you. Many of us, me included, are wary of putting our email addresses on the web as spammers harvest them and bombard our inboxes. While there are ways of obfuscating your email address so hackers can't easily grab it, one option for people editing their own site is to replace the @ sign with (at) and the . with (dot), therefore not creating a string of text that a robot can identify as an email address. Yes, it's a bit harder for your clients to simply click and send an email, but then you'll likely have a form they can complete as well. I hope. WordPress has several plugins which obfuscate email addresses and links. I'm currently trialling the Hikari plugin on this site. I've found a few little glitches but so far overall it's working well. It also obfuscates links; from praising you for plenty of links on your site several years ago, Google now punishes you in the page rankings for your links, even if you put a 'no follow' tag on them.  Why? Well, links used to be an easy way to get to the top of the tree, and spammers took advantage of this - and also harvested links from other peoples' sites. If you are still using a basic HTML site or a web builder program that doesn't give you a choice of options to obfuscate your email and other links, you might consider moving to WordPress. Contact me via my friendly contact page (which has a range of contact options), and find out how easy managing your WordPress site can be.

Why we don’t need the National Broadband Network (NBN)

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The National Broadband Network (NBN) is the subject of much controversy here in Australia. Great idea but too late. When it was first mooted the iPad and other devices which rely on mobile broadband access hadn't come onto the market. The growth in iPads, iPhones and other smartphones and tablets has been so enormous - and so fast - that it's clear wireless communication is the way of the future. In a couple of years mobile devices will be outselling traditional desktops and laptops in the consumer market. We don't need fixed broadband to our homes, particularly when we, the homeowners and taxpayers, will have to pay for our telecoms to be rewired to cope with the installation. The NBN won't be dirt cheap to use, either. And those of us who use mobile devices on the run will still have to pay for a wireless account to access our devices away from home. Wouldn't it be better to have one service, wireless, that users could hook into at home and while they're out and about? And what happens when we have natural disasters like the floods in Queensland last week? Look at the damage - infrastructure for power and water has been destroyed. In some places it will take in excess of three months to even get the power connected to houses again. If you had traditional broadband such as the NBN, you wouldn't have a connection right now. It would be washed away. But... wireless technology has brought the floods and the victims' plight to the world. People were taking footage on their smartphones and uploading it, using wireless technology. They were letting people know they were safe, using their smart phones to call family or post on Facebook. If the wireless technology is available, let's improve the service, make it strong and stable without dropouts, and replace the NBN idea with something people actually want and will use. Oh, and use the money that would have been spent digging up footpaths and gardens for the NBN to help the flood victims in Queensland. I tried wireless technology in its earlier days in Australia, using the Unwired system around ten years ago. I found it absolutely awful; the signal strength just wasn't there and I can vouch for the robust build of its modems as mine was thrown against the wall more than once when I was thoroughly frustrated with it constantly dropping out. Since then I understand Unwired has improved its product and service (it needed to!). I chose Unwired because I could, in theory, use it at my home office and at my clients'. If you're with me on No NBN, speak up! Write to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Media, Senator Stephen Conroy, at minister@dbcde.gov.au.

Google – what a lack of customer service!

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I'm cross at the moment - not a good way to start the working year. I have a problem with Feedburner that the FAQ can't fix - so why can't I contact a real person? I've tried to transfer an RSS feed for a client from my Google Feedburner account to his, and Feedburner has conveniently lost the feed. Google's customer service means I can only access a forum (in which no Google staff member ever seems to respond) or read a list of FAQ. There is no contact form for people like me to request assistance with a real problem. I tried phoning Google in Australia but of course they don't offer help via the telephone, as a pleasant voice told me in a recorded message. Unless of course I want to spend money on Adwords or other paid products, in which case they'll be only too pleased to help. I realise that a massive global organisation is going to have to spend a bomb to man a real live help service; but it's something they need to do if they want to keep their customers satisfied. Google is where Microsoft was a few years ago - dominating its own part of the IT industry. It has a plethora of free products, it is growing exponentially, almost everyone uses at least one Google product - but it WON'T OFFER A PROPER HELP SERVICE AND THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. Not to mention short-sighted. How long before a competitor who can offer live help starts capturing the market? In perusing Feedburner's Help Forum (and adding my own problem there) I noticed several people had my issue. The feed they were trying to transfer from their Feedburner Account to someone else's had gone into limbo. (In my case my client clicked on the "transfer" link and was provided with an error message saying there was a problem and Feedburner would fix it. Well, it's not fixed and now the transfer link has expired. The feed has left my account and is in limbo; still working, still providing feeds, but we need to access it and fix the feed's title and do some more tweaking to it.)  What was noticeable was a complete lack of support from Feedburner staff - many forum posts were followed up by the author wondering if anyone was there at all and complaining, as I'm doing now, of a lack of customer service. Feedburner is introducing a new interface and thankfully there was a feedback form I could complete, so I put my problem into it and sent it off. I'm not confident that anyone from Google Feedburner will bother to contact me. It seems all Google want to do is pump out software, get users committed to their products and services and provide third party help through FAQ and help forums in which the blind have to lead the blind. I'll be tweeting this post and sharing on Facebook in the hope that someone can help me find a solution or at the very least some kind of contact point to talk to a Google customer service rep by email or phone. Google, lift your game. Listen and RESPOND to people like me who have problems. You want to be the biggest in the world? Then offer a proper help service.

Websites – Rumour Control

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Rumour ControlRumour Control's new site replaces an HTML site Arion had built for Gregor Ferguson's company three years ago. The new CMS site incorporates a blog and gives Gregor the ability to make his own additions and edits. It brings together Rumour Control's brochureware/articles site with the blog and negates the need for a separate blog hosted on Blogger.