Web Design Archives - Jim Dugan

Time to ban WWW

OK, I’m not advocating banning the web, the internet, etc.

Just that we need to STOP USING the “www” that used to be the beginning of any web address.

Why ban it? Because it’s completely unnecessary and can cause problems.

Search Engine Problems

It became clear to me a couple of years ago that Google had problems with duplicate content. Two sites that were pretty much the same were seen as trying to game the system and get better search-engine ranking than they deserved.

And then it became clear that (at least in some instances) it viewed http://www.website.com and http://website.com as two different sites. If there are two sites that have identical content (which is how Google was seeing it) Google would downgrade the sites’ rankings and they could get less traffic.

Addressing Problems

When a server is not properly configured, it’s actually possible that http://www.website.com/ and http://website.com/ will point to different places. Or (and this actually happened to me today) one of them will lead to the website and the other will lead to a server error: Cannot find the site you’re looking for.

Why? Because someone set up the server to find it with the “www” but neglected to set up the other version. It’s stupid, it should never happen, but it still does.

A Little History

Contrary to what we now see as “the internet,” there was an internet before “the web.” There were various protocols and they were designated by the prefix. So there was a time when there was lots of use of things like ftp.mysite.com, gopher.mysite.com, etc. I’ve forgotten most of them (thankfully) but there were lots.

When the “world-wide web” came along in the early ’90s, it needed a new prefix and “www” was chosen. Isn’t it funny how “world-wide web” sounds so completely dated now?

Testing Your Site

Testing is really simple: go to http://www.yoursite.com/ and http://yoursite.com/

Obviously, you’ll want to replace your own domain name there.

The best result is that whichever one you type in, you are redirected to one or the other. If you go to http://www.jimdugan.com for example, you’ll notice that the address changes immediately to http://jimdugan.com. You’ve been redirected! You probably didn’t notice, and that’s good.

The good thing is that both addresses actually get you to the same content. But Google doesn’t see it as two different sites or duplicate content and that’s also very good.

So what’s the best practice to solve this problem? Pick one (with or without “www”) and have the other one redirect.

Re-Directing the Right Way

There are lots of ways to redirect from one URL to another. You can have the HTML page do the redirect but it’s not a good idea. For a full technical review of the process (much better than I can do), see this blog post about the 301 Redirect.

Do It Without Code

I’m a fairly technical guy but I like to leave the code to the people who really understand it. And hosting companies (at least the good ones) usually understand it better than the rest of us. I use http://dreamhost.com and their control panel gives me the choice.

Here’s the wonderfully simple section of the domain hosting form on my control panel.

If your hosting doesn’t have this or something like it, you should ask for it. Or switch to Dreamhost. Tell them I sent you.

Search Engines Continued

I continue to stand by all I said in a previous post on the field of “Search Engine Optimization” and I have a few posts to link to that back up what I said:

Chris Coyier’s Thoughts on SEO podcast

This rambles on for 40 minutes and much of it will only be relevant to web designers who understand what he’s talking about. And the links below are from his post but with some comments from me.

Common-Sense SEO Checklist

Also from Chris, an older post but quite relevant

Derek Powazek on Spammers, Evildoers and Opportunists

[pullquote]Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again.[/pullquote]

This is a real rant and may offend some (with language and/or anti-SEO arguments) but I agree with all of it. Most of all, I agree with his “one true way” to get good web traffic: “Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again.” That really is the key. People are looking for quality content. Deliver it and they will come to you and tell other people to go to you. Also worth reading (but perhaps more rant-like) are his follow-ups: here and here

There are some simple “best practices” for web designers to do to help the search engines rank a web site but the bottom line is that on the web, the three most important things are: CONTENT, CONTENT, and CONTENT.

Choosing and Keeping a Domain Name

A couple of almost-random thoughts about domain names (like jimdugan.com):

1. Choose it carefully

Here is my best advice on choosing domain names:

.com is best almost always (as opposed to .net, .info, .org, etc.) . People remember it, it is commercial (so not best for non profits). It’s the default.

Choose the shortest.

Choose the easiest to remember and SPELL. (Write your radio ad. Do you have to spell the domain name? Repeat it? If so, change the domain name.)

Maybe you have some cool foreign word you want to use? OK but it’s likely to be hard for your customers to spell. So it might be a liability in the domain name. Deal with it and don’t say I didn’t warn you. OK, there are exceptions (google, skype, etc.) but they succeed for their own reasons (short, catchy, lots of startup money).

Brainstorm on it and come up with a bunch of alternatives then ask friends. Go for ease of use, not cute or cool.

1b. Do your searching carefully

One odd thing you have to watch out for: There are many places on the internet to “check availability” of a domain name. Some of them are legitimate; some not so much. Some sites appear to capture the domain names being searched and either use them or sell them. How does this work? Let’s say today you search for “somedomain.com” and it’s available. If you grab it then, you’re fine. If you think on it for 24 hours, someone else has grabbed it. They’ll put some ads on it and sit on it for a while, checking to see if there’s traffic potential.

There’s an odd loophole in domain registration that makes this possible: when you register a name, you have a few days to undo the registration and get your money back. They’re taking advantage of this, grabbing a domain for a few days to see if it’s worth anything.

How to know if a site is doing this? Ask around for reputable hosting. I like dreamhost.com and it’s NOT one that I have heard mentioned as doing the above highjinks.

Some quick background basics here: To have a web site, you need at least two things: domain name and hosting. Hosting is the space on a computer where your site lives and is available to the internet 24/7 (we hope). Hosting companies have buildings full of computers (servers), most of them running many different web sites. The domain name on the other hand (jimdugan.com, google.com, etc.) needs to be registered. The company doing this may or may not be the same as the hosting company. Years ago, there was only one registrar: NetworkSolutions.com. That monopoly broke up but NS still does both registration and hosting. Bottom line: if you have a website, be sure you understand the difference between hosting and registration and keep both of them up-to-date.

2. Guard it carefully

Most domain registrations are renewed annually and a good hosting company will automate the process nicely for you, so you hardly have to think about it. But many things get in the way of this:

  • We think that “handy reminder” email is some kind of spam
  • We’ve changed email and/or snailmail addresses, so don’t get the notices
  • We don’t recognize the name of the registrar

In fact, I’ve spent most of today dealing with a situation where all of the above were true. It’s been a nightmare.

My friend Pedro (not his real name) signed up for several years of registration all at once, to save a few bucks. By the time he needed to renew (Jan. 2, 2010) he had:

  • completely forgotten that his domain needed to be registered annually
  • forgotten any relation to the company that was asking him to renew
  • moved twice, changed banks and credit cards
  • ignored or deleted the emails asking him to renew, assuming they were spam
  • And when his domain went down due to registration not being renewed, the only email address that the registrar had on record failed to work.

So he was in deep water. Luckily, after several calls to the registrar, a solution: fill out a form and send it with a scan of a government issued photo ID to this address. Wait three days.

We’ll see.

3. Make sure you actually own it.

One other thing to be careful about is companies that register a domain but keep your name off the registration. This is less common these days but it used to be the norm for some outfits. I lost two domain names for just this reason. The company that I asked to register the names went out of business, with their email address as the only contact name attached to the domain.

4. Can Search Engines Read the Domain Name?

Yes, no, maybe, probably. They’re doing a pretty good job but they can’t do much to parse odd words. Google probably doesn’t know whether jimdugan.com is about someone named “Jim Dugan” or “Ji Mdugan” but they would if it was jim-dugan.com. Likewise mainekayaking.com should probably be hyphenated if Google is your main concern. But personally, I’m not crazy about hyphenating a domain name. It always seems awkward to say “JimHyphenDuganDotCom.” Ick.

Your domain name is your brand, your address, the way for people to find you and find out everything they need to know about you. So make sure it’s not a struggle. Make it fun and memorable but this above all: make it easy.

Why isn’t my site showing up in a Google search?

OK, not my site. My site shows up well. Do a search for “photographer Camden Maine” to find out.

A friend asked why her site wasn’t showing up in a Google search. The first thing to ask about this is “What search terms were you using?” She was using the terms that best summed up what she does (let’s say it’s “widget design”), plus “Maine” which is where she is. And she was nowhere in Google’s results, which is bad.

“Search Engine Optimization” is a whole field, separate from web design, and I don’t claim to be an expert. The basic steps as I understand and practice them are:

1. figure out your keywords

What is some stranger who does not know your name or business name typing into Google to find you? This will include all permutations of your products or services and possibly your geographic location. So it might be “Maine widget design” but there are bound to be other words that will lead those customers to you.

2. sprinkle said keywords on your website

Anywhere will do, at least it’s better than not having them there. But to do it right, put them in a. the page title and b. the h1 tag. Then maybe here and there in other places. More than anything, make sure that the page you are sprinkling with these keywords is actually ABOUT those keywords. Don’t sprinkle “lobster” on a page about boatbuilding. Avoid using images that are “pictures of words” as Google doesn’t recognize them. This bears repeating and emphasizing: those pages that are completely made up of pictures (even if they look like words to human eyes) cannot really be seen by Google. Put TEXT on your pages and make sure it’s relevant to searches. Most of this page is text but the logo at the top (JimDugan.com photography and web design in Maine) is an image, just pixels, and Google doesn’t really see it.

3. get people to link to you

Google considers incoming links hugely important, because a link is essentially a recommendation from someone.

4. wait

It’s hard but waiting is important several reasons. Google isn’t automatic, it takes time. And Google prefers sites that have a track record, so the longer a site’s been around, the better it ranks. Lots of sites do well largely because they’ve been around for years (that’s certainly the case with my site, at least in part; see below for another reason).

5. change your site often

Google likes fresh content, so keep changing things on a regular basis. This is one reason why blogging has exploded; it gives you fresh content as often as you feel like writing something.

6. check your ranking and adjust

Go back to number 1 and figure out what’s working or not working. Add or delete keywords, make sure your page is actually about the things it claims (in the title and h1) that it’s about.

There’s a LOT more to it than that but this is a beginning. Most people who have web sites don’t even think about this and it’s to their detriment.

The crucial thing to know about Google searches is: they are trying to deliver the most relevant page every time. So they like pages that are really about what they say they’re about. Don’t try to fool Google. Just try to describe the contents of the page as clearly as possible and make the content as satisfying for the end user as possible.

Perhaps most important of all: Deliver content that is fascinating, important and relevant. Do that and web surfers will like your pages and then Google will send more of them your way. (This, by the way, is another reason my site does well in search engines: I offer more than just a sales pitch. I also have the Maine Photographers’ Directory, and have had it for years. If you’re looking for a photographer in Maine, Google will show you that page because a. it’s been around a while, b. it has lots of content, c. lots of people have linked to it.)

In real estate, the three most important things are: location, location, location.

On the web, it’s: content, content, content.

Why WordPress?

I’ve been creating WordPress sites for clients for a while now and I become more impressed all the time with the many options in this open-source blogging software. “Blogging software” is really selling it a little short.

Yes, it started as simple blogging software and its transformation into a content-management system (CMS) has at times been a bit kludgy. But I’d maintain that the WordPress community has elevated it above the rest, making a system that balances ease of use with a reasonable feature set.

More elaborate systems (Drupal comes to mind) are arguably much more powerful but I’ve found that their interfaces are intimidating, especially for new users. And most users don’t need all the features, so are better off with a simpler solution.

So I decided to spend a bit of time on my own site, converting it to WordPress to make it:

  • more consistent
  • easier to update
  • more search-engine friendly
  • more modern

Why a pre-packaged theme?

First an explanation of themes. WordPress (like other CMSs) uses a database and a series of files to determine how content gets delivered. This is, mostly, not modifiable. But how the content looks on the page is largely determined by a modifiable set of files called a theme. The theme can contain images and stylesheets and HTML code, all of it designed to determine layout, color, type treatment, etc.

I’ve built WordPress themes from scratch and done it well. I’ve modified other people’s themes just fine too. What I had never done is bought a theme. This is the exception. When I saw the theme Atlantica from Brandon Jones, I thought it had the elements I needed: good basic arrangement of information with a solid set of gallery functions (mostly for my photography).

For only $30, I got a theme where most of the work was done, allowing me to concentrate on design and content. I still have complete control but I’ve saved myself lots of time by letting someone else build the basics for me.

And, to be honest, I wanted to be able to look under the hood and see how a “premium theme” (one that costs money) is built and maybe how it differs from the free ones I’ve worked with.

One of the best things is tech support. I’ve been exchanging emails with the designer, suggesting changes and corrections. I promise I haven’t been a nuisance and I won’t be. He’s been receptive and complimentary. I’m not sure I’d expect that from someone I didn’t send money to.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how we are coming to expect things being free. And I’m as guilty as the next person. But we all know the value of paying for something.

Someone once asked me why they should hire a web designer when they could “just download some free software and do it myself?” I think the real answer is that we hire professionals not for the tools they have but for the mistakes they’ve made and learned from. You own scissors; do you cut your own hair?