Web Strategy 101 for Creatives (Part 4) – Website Security

DIMi recently was hacked. It was an interesting experience, and, as always, we learned a lot from the experience.

Hacking of sites is on the rise and there is reportedly a substantial increase in recent times, which is likely to continue. As NASA, various governments and large corporations have discovered, there is no such thing as a completely secure website. If it is visible, it is vulnerable. Continue reading “Web Strategy 101 for Creatives (Part 4) – Website Security”

Don’t Let Your Domain Names Expire

Expiring domain names is a pain for web site owners.

As you would expect, you need to make sure your important domain names do not expire. I’ve had a friend loose his to a Chinese business that wanted large money to hand it back, because his hosting company screwed up the renewal.

Now this blog post over on Domain Name Wire shows that even Go Daddy, a company that many people use, may also be in on the act.

As I have said before, register your domains with a decent company and preferably not your hosting company, so you have direct control over them. Then make sure that your contact details are always correct with them, so you never miss a domain renewal notice.

Web Strategy 101 for Creatives (Part 3) – Website Design Options

We look at ways to develop your website, whether for photography, digital art, your business or whatever.

Website

One of the hardest things for people to realize, and especially photographers, artists and designers, is that their website should not be designed to suit them. Yes, that is what I said. Your website needs to be designed with your typical and intended viewer or customer in mind. Sure, you site needs to reflect you tastes and branding, but this should not get in the way of the customer or viewer. I see many sites which are over designed, have form fair outweighing function and in fact do the owner’s business harm by turning people away. I design websites for people and generally find photographer to be the hardest to work with, since we tend to think we know it all and they are often far to over concerned with looks and not enough with the user experience.

The first step is working out what you need the site to do for you. Is it an online portfolio? Is it your major way of communicating with your existing clients? Is it purely to satisfy your ego? Do you intend it to be a major entry for new business?

Then you need to determine who your primary target user is. What equipment will they use to browse you site? How long will they stay? Are they visually sophisticated? What will they be looking for? How strongly motivated will they be to find it?

Once you understand these first two points only then can you start sketching out a design for the site. The design is not just how it looks but, most importantly, where the information will go and how people will move around the site. Don’t get stuck on the first design you come up with. Explore several and then fine tune from there. Even if someone else is designing your website for you it is worth doing this step yourself initially as it will help you to crystallize your thoughts and refine your ideas of how the website might work for you. Then if someone else is building the site, present your ideas but also listen to theirs. If you have hired someone for their experience rather than their low cost, listen to them. Still in the end you know your own business better than them and so you should not always go with what they say. But always listen to them and be prepared to adjust your ideas accordingly, where appropriate.

Look for creative ways to get the functionality that you need. For example there are two types of web sites: static and dynamic. In a static site each page is designed and its content put in place before it is uploaded to the site host. Making changes to the site means editing the page files on your computer with a program like Dreamweaver and then uploading them again. For a simple site or one where the information does not need to change frequently, a static approach works well.

In a dynamic site the pages are created on the fly from information you provide in some other way than a set design, such as from a database. Such a site might use what is called a content management system. For complex sites and especially ones where you need to upload and change content yourself without having to use web site design software, like Dreamweaver, a content management system (CMS) is the way to go.

The CMS approach works like this. The site is still designed to create a look (often called a theme, which is defined in a set of files, which are uploaded from Dreamweaver or the like), but no real information is placed in it. Instead the information content of your site is stored in a database. When you access a page, such as index.php, program code runs on the server to extract appropriate information from the database and merge it with the layout of the theme. The result is then sent to your web browser to be displayed as html, the language of web pages. So the page can change (be dynamic) as the information in the database is changed. What this does is decouple the information from how it is displayed. This means that you can change or add to the information using a web browser and a special login rather than needing to use Dreamweaver. Likewise multiple people can add content to the site with no fear they can screw up how it looks or functions. This approach is perfect for sites where the information changes frequently or where you want multiple people to be contributing content. It is also ideal for sites with massive amounts of information. Most major sites are designed this way.

Dynamic sites can use a custom CMS, such as DIMi’s, which I developed, or a standard, usually open source one, such as that used for the galleries on www.cosshall.com or www.dimagemaker.net, or the blog on www.digitalimagemakerworld.com, which can be modified to suit your needs if necessary. Sites can even mix static and dynamic components, such as cosshall.com where the home page and a couple of the others are plain, static html pages while the gallery of work uses a CMS, or combine several different CMS components, as Digital ImageMaker World does, one for the blog and another for the galleries.

Many of the open source content management systems work on a Linux website server, so if you have this type of hosting you are right. This is one reason why I highly recommend Linux hosting for creative clients.

Should you design the site yourself or pay someone else to do it? This is a tough question to answer but let’s have a go. The short version is ‘it depends’. Photographers and artists, since we work visually, are often tempted to do it yourself. This can work. However, web design is a complete discipline in itself as there are usability, interaction and technical aspects that are outside of the normal photography or art skill set. So the big question is do you want to learn all this and more? When starting from scratch you will find that your first website is probably rubbish, just like your first photograph or painting. But they get better with time and experience. Paying someone to do it costs you money but if you value your time in any reasonable way then if you consider all the time you will spend learning to do it yourself, you just might find that your time is better spend elsewhere.

Finding a web designer is tricky. Cost should not be the main determinant. Rather look for someone with an understanding of your business area, experience there and a good, all round understanding of web design. Listen carefully to what they say and get them to clearly explain the way they like to work. Most issues between web designers and clients come about through lack of communication. Be realistic about what a website is going to cost. A website that will handle thousands of images and offer shopping cart facilities, etc is not going to cost you $200, or even $500. Even when someone uses an open source CMS as the basis, there is still configuration, customization and client training work to consider. A smart web designer understands that they will have to support the client in getting the most from the site and a smart client understands that they have to pay for this.

Web Strategy 101 for Creatives (Part 2) – Site Hosting

As a creative, whether a hobbyist or a professional, artist, photographer or designer, a key thing is presenting our work. The Internet is one of the ways of doing this. But it is important to get it right. This series of articles covers the issues.

Setup Site Hosting
Once you have a domain name you will need somewhere to host your website. A hosting company provides a server on which your site sits, various services and an admin interface so you can control your site, emails, etc. Do not look for the cheapest but, at the same time, there is no need to go for the most expensive. You want a reasonably priced, extremely reliable host with excellent customer service. Anything else will drive you nuts and more than outweigh any financial saving (especially if you take your time and possible lost business into account).

There are many other decisions to make. Hosts will usually offer either Linux or Windows hosting. This is not related to what operating system you run on your local computer, but rather the OS the server will run. It affects the services you can use. For most creative’s I would recommend Linux. Not only is it sometimes cheaper but you also get access to a whole range of free open-source software applications you can run on your site, such as blogging and gallery systems. Windows is a good choice for certain businesses but creative’s rarely need these features.

Hosts will often offer you a range of options (and prices) from shared to dedicated (some call private), and sometimes some in between, such as virtual dedicated, which gives you most of the capability of a dedicated server but with the machine actually being shared. Shared means that many other websites will also be hosted on the same server whilst dedicated gives you a dedicated machine all to you. The latter is generally too expensive for a single creative’s website although it does give you full control of the machine. Full control can be important if you have to install certain features, but again is unnecessary for most creatives. Shared hosting works well if the hosting company balances the number of sites appropriately and adjusts as necessary to maintain good performance.

Hosting is priced on the features you get. Apart from the above, the common differentiators of hosting cost are space and bandwidth. Space is how many mega or giga bytes of disk space you get on the server. While 20MB is plenty for many small business websites, many creative’s want a full portfolio of their work and this can end up quite large. Thankfully storage is quite cheap and so hosting plans are available at reasonable price with enough storage to suit almost anyone. Bandwidth is the measure of how much data is transferred to and from your site. Transfers to the site will typically just be you uploading new content, unless you use ftp a lot for clients to send you large files, and so will be a small part. When people view your site every file they see, images, the pages themselves, CSS files, etc count towards the bandwidth. This can add up fast on a popular site or even an unpopular one where people who do come view a lot of content. Again, this is getting cheaper all the time.

There are also many extras to consider. Having the ability to create your own email addresses gives you a lot of flexibility. I’ve adopted a policy of using a minimum of three addresses: one for use on forums and mailing lists, one for enquiries from my site and another for email correspondence I participate in directly with individuals and the companies I deal with, such as the camera companies. I change the first two fairly often to minimize being hit with a lot of spam. I also use fairly heavy spam filtering on these. Another option worth having is Fantastico. This allows you to easily install free open-source applications, such as blogs, galleries, mailing lists, newsletters, forums, etc on your website and keep them updated. You’ll understand the value of this in the next part of this series. There are many other options.

Hosting can happen anywhere in the world. It is thus worth exploring hosting in another country if local hosting is too expensive or does not offer the features you need. While I live in Australia I host in the US because not only can I get a faster connection to the Internet for my server there but the costs I have to pay for huge amounts of space and bandwidth are so much lower than I would pay here in Australia. Look for features of the hosting company, such as the configuration of their data center: redundant air conditioning, power backup and generators and redundant and fast links to the Internet.

One company you should never use for hosting is your Internet service provider, the people who you use to connect to the Internet from home or the office. Hosting with them can lock you into using them as an ISP and it has been my experience that you want to be able to easily change ISP for a better deal, faster connections, a cheaper price or more reliable service. You do not want to be locked in. This is the same reason why I said to register your domain name yourself; it means you have no hassle moving your site to a new host if necessary.

Once you have a host, you point your domain name to it by logging into your account at the domain name registrar and setting the DNS (domain name server) to point to the hosting company’s DNS server. When you create a hosting account they will tell you what you need to specify here.

Email
Once you have your domain name and hosting in place you should create for yourself one or more email addresses tied to your domain name. This is commonly done through some sort of control panel your hosting company provides you access to. In some cases they will need to do it for you. You want to use your domain name in your email address, such as [email protected], for two reasons. Firstly, it looks far more professional and stable than a gmail, yahoo or .mac address. Secondly it advertises your web site every time you use it. It amazes me how many people have a website but continue to use a gmail or such account. It makes no sense to me because if you have proper hosting you can easily create new email addresses whenever you want.

Many hosting companies include optional spam filtering on your email addresses. Learn how to configure this and turn it on and off as you need it. Work out how you want to handle spam. I have to be careful because many press releases I receive look like spam to most filters, so I have my spam filters label is as possible spam but still send it though to my mail program so I can check it myself. For others this will not normally be such an issue and you may be able to be more aggressive.

Web Strategy 101 for Creatives (Part 1) – First Steps

As a creative, whether a hobbyist or a professional, artist, photographer or designer, a key thing is presenting our work. The Internet is one of the ways of doing this. But it is important to get it right. This series of articles covers the issues.

The Internet is, today, a core part of doing business. It is also a core part of doing our hobby or avocation. Yet, as in all things creative’s do, there are so many options and possibilities. In this article I try to cover all the key essentials to either get you off to a good start or to help you fine-tune the approach you already take.

Motivation
The first and very real question is what will a website do for you? The glib answer is ‘whatever you want it to’. It may be glib but it is also true, though with a major caveat. So here are some ideas of what a website may do for you.

A website acts as an open 24/7 shop branding you and your work. Yes, branding YOU. As a creative what you have to see is actually you. This is especially true if you are a designer, as it is your talent that you directly market. This of course also clearly applies to commercial artists or photographers. But also with artists and fine art photographers the same is true, you are the brand and ultimately the product, even when what you sell is a piece of art.

For those with a lot of actual product to sell, your website can be a full shop. It has the benefit of being open 24/7 and located in all parts of the world, because when it comes to the web, the entire world is as close as next door. You can go as far as accepting and processing credit card payments online, though this is only something to do if you expect a lot of sales. Alternative payment systems, like PayPal, are an option or the place an order, send a check and then we ship system is a straightforward and low cost alternative.

Having an online portfolio can be a key to getting work or commissions, and even in getting a physical exhibition.  There are many opportunities that come up when you do not have a physical portfolio with you. But if you have an online portfolio it is just a case of telling them your domain name or giving them a business card (so long as you have it on your card).

Those who have had physical exhibitions know the value of an exhibition goes far beyond the exposure and possible sales. The process of preparing an exhibition gets you focused on your work, forces you to go through your work carefully, choosing a cohesive body of work and even writing a suitable artist statement. It gives you an opportunity to look at your work in a new light, polish it for exhibition and to see your work as collections rather than just as individual pieces. You can gain all this with a website if you treat the process in the same way as for a physical exhibition. This is the key point: you don’t just throw your latest work up but rather you carefully work on it, creating a unifying theme and concept, polish the individual pieces to look great in your chosen exhibition form, online and write it up. That is what most people do not do, online.

Being online can also be key to gaining other types of exposure. For example it is much easier to get a magazine to profile you if you have a ready way for them to look at your work. Likewise even publicity to support some other thing, such as a physical exhibition or an interesting project, is more likely to get into print if the journalist can go look at more of your work online. Similarly other websites, such as DIMi, and bloggers will profile artists and photographers but only if it is easy for them to do. Plus of course you get far more exposure from any of the above if they mention your own website, as people will go and look.

The major caveat I mentioned earlier is that, by itself, a website does nothing. It is just a tool. If you do not use it fully or exploit its full potential then it will achieve nothing. People will not find your website by itself. On any likely topic there are so many websites that, if people Google, your site may not be listed before the 10th page, and few people bother to go that far. So you must build relationships with other sites, have your site address on your business cards, all brochures and stationary, send out PR material (press releases) and maybe even display it on your car (what better mobile billboard, and you have already paid for it).

What follows is a step-by-step sequence to success.

Register a Domain Name
A domain name, such as www.dimagemaker.com or cosshall.com (the www part is not really part of the domain name and is optional in all modern browsers) is your site’s address on the Internet.

At one level it really does not matter what the domain name is. It doesn’t have to be meaningful. However it does provide an opportunity to start the marketing and branding right up front. So a meaningful and descriptive one is useful, if you can get it. Something like www.joeblowphotography.com or www.sallysorensonart.net instantly says something about your business. On the other hand it can instantly label your car for robbery if displayed on the back, as it probably should be, so you need to think it through.

Domain names should be easy to say to someone over the phone. You will do a lot of that and you want it to be something that is easy for people to get right. This also helps with people remembering the domain name if they see it somewhere but don’t write it down.

Don’t always be tempted to take a free domain name as part of your hosting account (see below). Many do offer a free domain with a new hosting account and many of these will do the right thing by you. But I have also see and experienced problems. The classic problem is having difficulty getting them to release the domain name when you want to move to a new host. It can always usually be done but it can greatly slow this process down and cause huge headaches. Also weird things happen. A friend of mine made use of an offer his hosting company had of a free three month hosting extension when you refer someone else. They extending his hosting but forgot to renew his domain at the required time. It got snapped up by a Chinese co-artist who then wanted serious money to give it back.

The best and safest way is to go to a major domain registrar and do it yourself. That way you will be given the registry key directly (essential for moving the domain, etc) and have a login account with the registrar to use when you change hosting companies or whatever. Plus they will directly contact you when your domain needs renewal, which is usually yearly except for some national ones, such as Australian .com.au and .net.au where you pay for two years at a time. Note: some hosting companies will do this for you and provide you will all the details properly.