Putting Code Together Since 1987

Archive for February, 2008|Monthly archive page

Coming Problems with Web Design

In Design, Web Design, Web Development, Wordpress on February 23, 2008 at 2:34 pm

I just read an interesting article in A List Apart about how browsers that are forgiving of bad markup and css are bad for the web.

And I totally get it.

In fact, a failure of how standards apply to web pages is one of the reasons why, until really quite recently, I’d avoided having anything to do with Web Design. I hated it. I hated that even if you structured your code correctly it would look right only in half the browsers you tested in.

Well, this is going to change over the coming five years. Standards will become far more important, and odd hacks will slowly fade into the background. Browsers, my friends, are going to have to become a whole lot less forgiving.

And there lies the rub – with tougher browsers, building websites will become a lot harder for non-technical types. In fact, it could become near impossible. On the upside, tools like WordPress will be able to offer more choices to the user because the code will know that what it outputs to the browser will work.

So the internet’s going to get a lot better in the coming years… but if you’re not prepared to work hard at it then becoming a web developer or designer is going to become far tougher.

The Difference Hosting Can Make

In hosting on February 22, 2008 at 8:32 am

It’s quite apt that on the day that WordPress.com appears to have broken (it’s not serving any front-end pages on this blog at the time of writing if you’re logged in) I’m making a post about hosting.

So to the gist of this post.

We provide hosting to clients, and only clients.  You can’t just ring us up and ask us to host your site.  We’re quite picky about what hits our server.

That makes it nice and quick to respond.  And we keep an eye on response times using Pingdom‘s service.  If things go bad, we receive SMS and e-mails to inform us.

Recently, we took over the hosting of Liverpool Motor Club’s site.  We’d done them a variation of one of our themes, but their shared server space simply wasn’t up to the job of running WordPress.  A year ago when we first spoke to them it seemed ok enough, if hardly rocketship fast.  But performance was getting worse and worse.  And as we sponsor their championship and have our name on their website… well, we wanted to make things look good.   So did they!

So we moved them over to our server.

Looking at the graph of http responsiveness below, can you guess when they moved?

Liverpool Motor Club Response Times

What’s interesting to see is the problems they were having with inconsistent responses.  1.5s may be fine for a minority interest website, but 9s averages at any point simply can’t be accepted.  Their hosts (internetters, for what its worth) are clearly overloading their machines and although they’re offering php and mySQL something’s going wrong somewhere.  Static page serving, funnily enough, wasn’t too bad, if still pretty erratic and at the slow end.

We debated setting up wp-cache, but in the end, we knew the best way to give decent response times was a decent box.

The Danger of Unpaid Consulting, And One Answer…

In Uncategorized on February 12, 2008 at 12:46 pm

One thing that happens a lot in the web development and design sphere is the problem of unpaid consulting.

Actually, I’ll rephrase it a little… it happens all the time!

It’s rather tricky. Clients are interested in us because we offer them something that gives them better efficiency, sales and returns. But what we do is complex and sophisticated.

As it’s me that does all the sales work I find myself often giving over two hours of my time to a prospect in order to explain how the dynamic websites work. I’m educating them. For two hours.

How much would it actually cost to get an expert in any field to educate someone for that period of time on a one-to-one basis? £120? £240? Certainly it wouldn’t be cheap.

Yet there I am, explaining various elements of design, hosting and development… all for free.

Not only that, but many clients expect proposals, complete with mockups. For free too, of course. After all, we’re only selling.

And it’s a trap I think that all IT types need to be wary of. We’re natural born ‘pleasers’. We want to write cool stuff, but more importantly, we want people to acknowledge that coolness. It’s interesting that the concept of Open Source is so strong in IT. There aren’t nearly so many top photographers offering any of their materials with a right to free duplication as there are developers.

But here’s the thing… free doesn’t put food in the table. Each prospect may be the result of two hours of work before we even get to visit. On top of that is the two hours of free consultancy they end up receiving when we go and see them. Then there’s the proposal – that can be four hours for something simple, but easily a 16hr job. So we have up to 20hrs per prospect, before a sale is even agreed.

If we then assume a one-in-three conversion (because they’ll probably talk to three potential clients) that means up to 60hrs of work for each client won. I’ve actually estimated that by and large we manage on about 40hrs per client win.

Now here’s the funny thing – many of the websites we produce take less than 40hrs to build. Let’s say each is 30hrs of work to build – what with all the toing and froing of ideas, images and copy.

That makes 70hrs per website. If you’re going to make a modest, middle class income, and cover costs, then chargeable rates have to be around the £30 an hour mark. That’s about what most backstreet mechanics are charged at. So the very base price for a website built according to expectations above, has to be £2,100.

Read that figure.

£2,100!

For a basic, simple, custom website.

We’re working on developing techniques to get web developers away from this problem. Expectations are far higher than can be fulfilled economically. Check back to the blog regularly to see our up and coming announcements…

Sex, the iPhone, and Winning Traffic

In Uncategorized on February 9, 2008 at 5:53 pm

I was going to start this little piece about how there seem to be two hot topics that generate traffic to a website.

The I realised, there’s actually three hot topics.

But first, the original two.  This blog had been quietly pottering along and not really generating much interest until two features.

One was called “Selling Sex” and concerned a possible escort agency client.  The other was about the new iPhone update.  Thing is, although they generated spikes, the ongoing benefit in traffic has been significant.

Winning Traffic

I also added an RSS feed to the blog from our Interconnect IT site.

Then we published a WordPress User guide.

Traffic’s been much more significant since then.

But what are the three things that generate the most traffic?

  1. Anything about the latest hot gadget.
  2. Sex.  We’re really simple creatures. People are interested in sex.
  3. Articles about how to draw more traffic to your blog.

Anything else will just plod along, picking up scraps from obscure Google searches – especially on a rather techie biased blog such as this one.

Anybody else care to comment with other surefire traffic winners?

Mobile (and iPhone) WordPress Solution

In iPhone, Wordpress on February 8, 2008 at 5:56 pm

Well I never… tucked away, quietly ticking over, is http://m.wordpress.com

It’s a simple interface to your WordPress.com admin, designed to be fast on simple machines, mobile phones and limited bandwidth connections.

I’m ashamed to say I only just noticed, but by golly it’s handy.  It gives you basic stats, and basic posting.  Very basic posting.  But it’s there as an option and has its uses as the cleverer tricks for mobile posting to self-hosted WordPress installations aren’t possible on WordPress.com

Safer Passwords & Using PasswordMaker

In Web Development on February 7, 2008 at 5:53 pm

You may find passwords to be an unecessary chore. But they’re important. However, inventing strong passwords is difficult… and they’re hard to remember.

So you need to be able to generate passwords on the go.
Go see Password Maker – a great way to have safe, difficult to crack passwords which works beautifully as browser plugins.

The nice thing is that if one password is found out because of a compromised website, because PasswordMaker generates a different password for each site, you’re still secure everywhere else. Of course, if someone finds out your master password and works out what your encryption settings are and knows that you’re using such a system then they can get in to everything. But you’re not that careless are you?

You may want to reduce down the characters in use for passwords a little so that you don’t get characters that many sites don’t like – for example, WordPress doesn’t like slashes.

Make a note of the exact character set, encryption method, lengths and so on. You may need these at some point. However, without the master password, this information is of limited use, and you don’t have to write it in a way that can be understood by anyone else but you.

Make a habit of using this system wherever possible. You’ll find life a lot easier, and more secure, if you use it consistently.

Keep It Standard

In Web Development, Wordpress on February 3, 2008 at 2:38 pm

I was working with a client recently on their own, customised installation of WordPress… and it was driving me potty.  It was a pretty tiring day, given that our normal training covers concepts such as drafts.  On their installation, you pressed save and the page (no posts on that one) would immediately appear on the navigation.  Not only that, but changing a page order had no effect on the javascript based menu system they’d implemented.

Now, we’re not innocent on this either – we’ve done a few sites that get a long way from standard WordPress behaviour.  But quite quickly we realised that not keeping standard messes you up in certain ways:

  1. Upgrades can be a nightmare as customisation may need to be re-applied – even if it’s just a theme you’ve developed.
  2. Training becomes difficult – especially if the people managing the content aren’t IT or WordPress experts.  They won’t know what is and is not standard and documentation may therefore be confusing.
  3. If you need outside help, they’re going to have a learning curve before they understand what’s going on.
  4. Slapping a load of plugins into WordPress isn’t always the best way to extend the functionality of the system or a theme you’ve bought or downloaded.  It may be better to find a different CMS or a different theme.

So as time went by, we started to keep our themes more standard in their behaviour, and to stick to well known, well written and well supported plugins.  All have to work in standard ways, and any that do quite blatant hacks have to be left well alone – no matter how cute.

I believe the same applies with most software.  If you bought MS Word and then hacked it to work differently, then every other installation of it that you use with it would need the same hack for you to achieve the same work.  And imagine if you implemented this hacked MS Word across a company – new employees wouldn’t know what was going on as they’d know Word, but not this special version, and when a new version came out you’d have a lot of work to do to hack that too.

I used to apply the same philosophy PeopleSoft implementations – recommending against large tranches of customisation, because they became a maintenance and upgrade liability.  The sites that listened to this common advice, tended to have the most pain-free go-lives and upgrades.  The downside was that I was kind of doing myself out of work – what with being a strong PeopleCode developer.  D’Oh!

Anvil GPL WordPress Theme 1.3

In Web Development, Wordpress on February 1, 2008 at 4:38 pm

For those of you who are fans of our Anvil WordPress Theme, a new version – 1.3 has just been released and is now available to download.  I’ve been testing it out on my own blog (at least, at the date of writing – that may change in the future) and it’s still one of our favourites.  It’s flexible, powerful, and easy to customise.

To download it, simply go to the official Anvil Demo Site and get it from there.  The site also has plenty of information on the theme’s features.

The Google Generation Myth

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2008 at 2:35 pm

Many people believe that the Google Generation, teenagers now, are an especially adept group, making skillful use of search engines and outperforming their older peers as a result.

It’s not true.

And not only that, if you look at the heaviest users of the web, it’s not kids in their late teens – it’s the elderly.  A fascinating report has been written, commissioned by JISC and the British Library which blows apart many myths about how different generations search for information using search engines.

Read their pdf – it’s terrific stuff…