Whenever I talk with a new or prospective client, the topic of web hosting always comes up. Some clients don’t have an existing site, so the issue of hosting is new to them. I give these people a brief description of what hosting is and how much it will cost. But clients with an exsting site usually have hosting already, and they often want to continue using it in order to save money. In the past, I would try to work with this hosting, but now I tell them that if they already have hosting, I need to approve it. Here’s why:
There are a LOT of hosting companies out there, with a wide range of pricing. How can you decide what to buy? For most people, this comes down to advertising. People see ads for companies like GoDaddy and 1&1, and so that’s what they buy. Looking for hosting online is not much better; every company makes the same claims about their great service, 99.9% uptime, and so on. Without direct experience, it’s impossible to evaluate these claims. Since most people don’t understand the subject, they usually shop by price, and end up with $2.99/month hosting. You can even find articles written by “experts” who say that all hosting is the same, so go for the lowest price. I don’t know why anyone would believe this; it’s like saying a Yugo is just as good as a Rolls-Royce. Anyway, here are the main differences between good hosting and cheap junk:
Tech support – All hosting companies offer some form of tech support, but it can vary widely. Why does this matter? Because sooner of later (usually sooner), something will go wrong and you (or your developer) will need help. The best companies offer three kinds of support: telephone, live chat, and support ticket (email). These should be available 24 hours, since the problems never seem to happen during normal business hours. Some cheap companies only have phone support between 9 and 5; I’ve even seen a few that have email support only. Having a good support team is expensive, which is why bargain hosting companies don’t have it. If your site goes down on Friday afternoon and your developer can’t get help until Monday, you’re losing money. That bargain hosting doesn’t seem like such a good deal now.
Poor server capability – Like most developers, I build sites using WordPress, a popular and flexible web development platform. WordPress has minimum technical requirements that the hosting server must meet in order to work properly (I won’t bore you with the details). Nearly every hosting company I’ve ever seen claims to support WordPress, but this can be an illusion. If the server falls short of the WordPress requirements, you might be able to get a basic WordPress site to work on it, but it won’t work properly or reliably–and might not work at all, in spite of their claims. When I create a site, I build it on my server, then move it to the client’s hosting server. In one case ($2.99/month hosting), when I tried to move the site, the server was so crummy that the process kept timing out; there was no way to do it.
Lousy performance – Assuming that you can get a WordPress site to run on cheap hosting, it will be slow — maybe very slow. I moved one site from cheap to good hosting, and the time it took for the site to load went from five seconds to one. A slow-loading site will cost you customers, and it also reduces your site’s search ranking in Google. Cheap hosting also risks securoty vulnerabilities; just like tech support, providing security costs money, and cheap hosting companies don’t include it. I once had a client’s site on cheap hosting, and there was a large-scale hack against the company (and several others). The client’s site was down for a month before the hosting company could get it fixed.
Sometimes, a client with cheap hosting will insist that I use it. This is a red flag for me, and tells me several things: the client is not serious about their business and unwilling to invest in it, they will nickel-and-dime me over everything, and is likely to be a problem going forward. I don’t work with these people — it’s just not worth the trouble. Depending on your site, good hosting will cost between $120 and $200 per year, which is really not that much. Is it really worth losing even one customer because of cheap hosting? Like most things in life, you get what you pay for.
Many web companies have a form on their site where you can “Request a quote.” This usually asks some basic questions, such as the name of your business, what you want the website to do, number of pages, etc. Maybe some developers get some useful information from this, but I doubt it. Here’s why: No professional developer can give you an accurate quote without having at least a 30-minute discussion with you.
Companies that give out quotes like this do one of two things: the quote becomes worthless once they actually talk to you about your project, or — even worse — they stick to the quote, regardless of your needs. This means they are using a cookie-cutter template system, slapping your content into it, and sending you a bill. They didn’t take the time to find out what your business really needs from a website because they don’t care — you get the same product everybody else gets.
Every client is different and has different needs from a website. For example, some people are just starting their business; they have different needs than a company that wants to target their existing customer base. Only a thorough discussion can reveal a client’s true needs — which are often not the same as what the client wants. By talking with you, I learn about your business, your goals, and where you want to be in the future. This helps me design the best online strategy for you. I’ve had clients approach me for a website; it would have been easy money for me, but I turned them down because a website wasn’t going to help them reach their specific goals. Instead, I advised them on better ways to use their money to help their business.
A well-designed digital strategy is unique for your business; it is not a commodity product. One size doesn’t fit everybody.
A few years ago, I received an email inquiry about a website. The person said he had just completed a training course to do home inspections, and he was setting up a new business. He mentioned what he wanted in a site (a logo, testimonials, number of pages, etc.). The last requirement was that the site had to rank at the top of Google in searches for local home inspectors.
I mention this story because it highlights a recurring problem every web developer has faced: the demand that a client’s site rank highly in searches, right out of the gate. Here’s why that’s impossible:
How Google ranks sites
Most people have either no idea how search rankings are produced, or their ideas are way off the mark. Here are a few of the facts:
- How Google (and Bing and Yahoo) decide to rank sites is a secret. There are some general things people have figured about how they do it, but the exact details are anybody’s guess. Google does offer some general guidelines for improving a site’s rank; more on that later.
- Google is constantly changing how it calculates rankings. This is called an algorithm, a complex mathematical formula that factors in very many things. And, it’s a moving target. What worked a few years ago–or even last month–may not work now.
- Google has a lot at stake in providing useful search results. Back in the early days of the internet (before Google existed), there were search engines like AltaVista, HotBot, and many others. No matter what you searched for, the results contained a lot of garbage–ads to refinance your mortgage, buy prescription medications, or enlarge various body parts. People were able to do this because the search engines were easy to fool into matching an illegitimate site with nearly any search request. This made searches nearly useless. Google figured out how to exclude this stuff, making searches much better (and the essential tool they are today). Search is a major part of Google’s business model; they have a huge financial stake in keeping irrelevant results out, which means…
- You can’t fool Google. Over the years, people have come up with a bunch of unethical ways to trick search engines into ranking a site higher than it deserved to; these are called black hat techniques. They used to work, at least for a while, but Google is now very good at detecting these tricks. If you use them, Google will figure it out–and they will penalize your site’s ranking. They can even ban your site from appearing in any search results.
- Achieving a good search ranking takes time–a long time. Contrary to what many people think, Google doesn’t know everything. When you make a change to a site, Google probably won’t even see it for a few weeks. That’s because the way Google knows what’s in a site is by sending little computer programs called bots out through the web. These bots crawl through websites and take notes on what they find; it’s these notes that actually get searched. Given the huge number of websites that exist, it usually takes a Google bot a while to crawl your site. Figure that Google is checking your site about once every three weeks. This means that every time you make a change to improve your search ranking, you have to wait a few weeks to see if it made any difference.
- Keywords matter, but not in the way you think. Keywords are words or short phrases that people search for, such as dry cleaner Greensboro. There’s a piece of code in every site (called the meta keywords tag) where you can list keywords for the site, but don’t bother; search engines completely ignore it. That’s because people used to stuff it with deceptive keywords, such as sex, porn, and Britney Spears, hoping to rope in people searching for these things. Keywords are still useful, but they have to be worked into the site’s text in a way that sounds normal, not forced.
- There’s no silver bullet. There is no single element (or piece of code) that will get you to the top of rankings. Keep this in mind if someone tells you they have the “secret” to getting a top ranking.
- Traffic to your site doesn’t equal money. First of all, a lot of the so-called “visitors” to your site are spammers and software robots, so just because you’re getting 500 visits every week doesn’t mean 500 potential customers. More importantly, you don’t want site visitors — you want customers. You want your site to attract potential customers, not just anybody.
I’m not saying that SEO is completely useless; I’m saying that the way it’s usually done is mostly useless. There are a few things that can help, but they aren’t quick or easy. For example, good page titles matter (these are what show up in blue on Google). A well-written page title can get people to click on the link and go to your site. But the most important way to get people to your site — by far — is to have good content that people want to read and link to. Which means…
You’re the only one who can do it. Good content is useful, meaningful information that gives people some knowledge or information that is valuable to them. For example, if you have a catering business, your site should feature recipes or party tips, updated frequently. If you are a landscaper, give people useful gardening tips. You’re the expert; nobody knows more about your business than you do. People will only come to your site if you give them a good reason; that’s what will improve your search rankings. At the end of the day, you get the Google ranking you deserve.
I just got one of those letters from an outfit called iDNS (Internet Domain Name Services). It looks flat-out like a bill (see below – I’ve highlighted the particularly deceptive parts). This is such a shameless, devious scam that there must be a special room in Hell for these people. Here’s the first paragraph:
As a courtesy to domain name holders, we are sending you this notification of the domain name registration that is due to expire in the next few months. When you switch today to IDNS, you can take advantage of our best savings. Your registration for ___ will expire on August 12, 2016. Act today!
Now although it’s true that this does say When you switch today, if you are the average person who gets one of these (like most of my clients), you don’t even know what switching means—it just looks like something you should do. It also says take advantage of our best savings. It turns out their “best savings” for a domain renewal is $45/year. That’s $30 more than any other registrar charges.
Buried in the third paragraph is This notice is not a bill. I know that this gets them off the hook legally, but I also know many people don’t read these things carefully, especially when they are clearly designed to look like a bill, and it says Domain Name Expiration Notice in big, bold type at the top of the page.
I’ve had clients get these and call me in a panic. I wonder how many of them have already fallen for this scam. If you get one of these, throw it away.