Website Maintenance Made Easier – Use include files.

I’m amazed at the sites I work on that aren’t using some basic means of keeping their site up to date.  This can be a time consuming task for anyone, don’t make it harder than it has to be.   One example is the Server Side Include (SSI) code.  It’s an easy piece of code, it works on almost every server technology, and it can make life much easier when you decide to change a section of your site that should be consistent everywhere.

 So what is this magical piece of code:

<!–#include virtual=”filename” –>

That’s it, this tells the browser to go find that file and place it here in the code.  Rather than go on about the code itself I’ll talk about some prime places to use it. 

First, navigation.  web usability has preached for years that consistent navigation allows users to find what they want.  Using SSI allows a web designer to hold themselves accountable to that rule.  Make a navigation and stick to it.  Have every page include that file for it navigation.  The ultimate benefit is when something changes in the navigation, one file can be changed instead of every single page.  It keeps good usability standards and saves time, what’s not to like?

Another place it can commonly be used is in a footer section.  Many sites have copyrights and/or analytic code at the bottom of every page.  Once again, set that up as an include file.  That way if your analytic data or copyright notice needs changed, it gets changed everywhere.  One note on this, if content on a site has a copyright that needs to stay constant it’s a good idea to leave the include file out of that page so it isn’t accidentally changed down the line.

Explore the parts of your site that would benefit the most.  This is not a hard piece of code to use.  Practice with it a bit, I know I had a few hiccups with not putting the right code in the right file at first, but with a little effort that’s easily overcome.   Once the pages are set up to use this, maintenance becomes a heck of a lot easier.

– Eric

Can Paypal Help Convert Website Sales? 4 tips for real world use of Paypal.

Paypal is the giant for online transactions.  Everyone that has an ebay account know what Paypal is: the safer easier way to pay online.  While a host of competition has emerged, no one has near the presence or market share as Paypal.  So since they are the leader, it’s a safe bet to use them for ecommerce purposes.  Right?  Wrong!  While that seems logical, it’s not the best idea.  While Paypal is easy to set up and start accepting payments, there are many business practices that make them less than ideal as your online payment processor.

Payapal TerrifiedDo a search on Paypal.  What comes up?  I guarantee Paypal trouble sites like Paypal Sucks or Paypal Warning is on the first page.  Whole sites with horror stories.  While it is worth noting that many of these sites link to alternative payment services and therefore have a mixed motive in ad revenue, there is reason for concern.  Don’t believe me?  Some well known industry leaders like Seth Godin have recently published problems with Paypal.  So while some people are certainly using the complaints to cash in by sending people to competing services, many are truly abused customers.

You might have guessed (and correctly so) that I have had my share of problems with Paypal in the past (both as a buyer and seller) but I’m resisting the urge for this to be an axe grinding session.  If you want to read some common problems and horror stories about locked accounts and frozen assets of honest paypal users, visit the sites above.  I’m not going to dwell on those things but rather give you some real world guidelines for paypal.  So let’s get to it:

1. If you’re on ebay it’s a necessary thing (evil) – Ebay users have grown accustomed to the ease of use in an integrated paypal auction.  You will lose sales if you don’t accept paypal.  Discourage it’s use, give reasons to pay through another service, check or money order, and read the terms of service to protect yourself as much as possible (there is no fool proof way).  Realize that scammers have many options to rip you off using Paypal for a false sense of security.  In the end you will have to take some percentage of payments via Paypal.  That’s life, deal with it.

2. Offer Paypal in your ecommerce solution –  Paypal has become a name that people look for and there are users that only want Paypal.  It will help you convert some sales.  Again, provide reasons not to use Paypal but there will be users that use it exclusively.

3. Don’t let funds build up in Paypal – Paypal is not a bank.  They don’t follow the rules of a bank and shouldn’t be treated as such.  Think of it as the middle man for getting revenue from your site.  You pay them a fee to make the payment transaction (and there fees are quite reasonable) but don’t be fooled into believing they are there to keep your money safe.  They offer little to no real protection and funds need to be removed from your paypal account as soon as possible to an actual bank account.

4.  Have a primary or at least backup payment processor  – Sooner or later you will have a locked Paypal account.  You will encounter a drawn out process that may or may not put your account in good standing.  Have a backup plan, have a second payment processor ready.  If Paypal pulls the plug on you, have a backup that let’s you pull the plug on them and keep accepting payments.  Otherwise you’re entire site’s revenue is based on whether Paypal likes you or not.

Paypal can’t be ignored.  It is a market leader and for many, a trusted name.  Until Bidpay or Google checkout make up some ground, Paypal is a necessary evil.  That doesn’t mean you should cast a trusting eye toward Paypal.  Anticipate problems and have options. 

Paypal is easy to set up on a website to take payments, that doesn’t make it the best solution.  You’ll get out what you put in.  Set up your ecommerce solution with a processor that falls under federal bank guidelines.  Integrate with that and you have a federally protected transaction processor.  There are rules they have to follow that protect you the seller.  By all means don’t let the loyal Paypalers slip by.  Use Paypal too for getting those sales too but limit its control on your online business.

There are few things as damaging to an Internet revenue stream than suddenly and unexpectedly finding that your successful business no longer takes online payments.  Worse yet is that users continue to pay, expect their product or service,  but you can’t access those funds.  That’s the horror that faces the unprepared Paypal only ecommerce solution. Have a robust solution that is ready for the reality of losing a paypal account.  Don’t put all your payment processing eggs in one basket that can be overturned at another company’s whim.

Is Video the Web of the Future?

Everyone is rushing to add video to their websites.  Video increases conversion!  Video increases interaction!  Video increases return visits!  While all of these statements can be true its easy to oversimplify.  Use video reasonably and avoid video obsession.

Video is becoming easier and easier on the web.  That just makes it one more thing that needs to be done well, not just done.  Like most cutting edge things there are early adopters that take a technology much farther than it’s intended.  It’s like eating only a favorite food.  Ice cream might be a great treat but it shouldn’t be an entire diet.  For it to be special it needs to be surrounded by more wholesome foods that balance a diet.  Video is the same, without good layout, text, and images it is less user friendly and loses its appeal.  It becomes an annoying background noise.  If you find yourself contemplating the best way to shoot a listing off of product features, you’ve gone too far.  Look critically at what you are presenting, there are a ton of things that are better presented by text or image.  Use video to enhance a page, not be it. Video demos or personal messages can be a great add on.  However, having just that video with no written description or product specs is confusing.

More care needs to be taken in creating video.  A low resolution video filmed with a cheap webcam and poorly edited won’t add anything to your site.  It will do a great job at undermining credibility.  Video is an undertaking, it takes more time and effort to produce it.  If a commitment of time, energy, and money can’t be made, it’s best to skip it. 

Embrace video but for the right reasons and appropriate objectives.  If you’re going to do it, do it professionally.  Otherwise video becomes a confusing media that erodes credibility.

Excuse #4 For Not Doing Email Marketing: It’s just SPAM

This is the one excuse that can be legitimate.  However, that’s entirely up to the creator of the email campaign.  Many people have been turned off by email due to its abuse by unscrupulous organizations and people.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t a positive way to do it.

The problem with the term SPAM is that it’s not clearly defined for most people.  There are legal guidelines to follow for email marketing to avoid falling under the SPAM category.  These should all be strictly followed.  Some very important ones are providing a way for subscribers to unsubscribe so they don’t continue receiving the emails and including the organization’s name and physical address on every email so that subscribers know who is responsible for sending it.

However, I’m willing to bet every legitimate email campaign has been reported as SPAM by at least one subscriber that forgot they subscribed or lost interest and used the SPAM complaint rather than the unsubscribe tool.  That doesn’t mean the email is SPAM only that someone misrepresented it as such.

Obviously SPAM complaints need to be taken seriously and too many of those is a clear signal that your campaign is not being run in the best fashion.  However, don’t let the SPAM tag stop you from doing email marketing.  Let it motivate you to provide a quality communication that will be valued and rarely mistaken for SPAM.

Excuse #3 For Not Doing Email Marketing: My site already has a lot of traffic.

This is the equivalent of saying I already sell enough.  This excuse means one of two things.  The first is that you’re at capacity, whatever you sell takes up a certain amount of time and energy and you can’t take on any more, or have decided not to take on more work.  If that’s the case then you’ve made a life decision, not an effectiveness decision.  There’s nothing wrong with that unless an email marketing campaign is attempted on the cheap (either time, energy, or money) and backfires.  In that case, emails not to blame, the site owner is. 

The second case is that the site owner doesn’t feel they need more traffic.  They either feel they are making enough or fear moving their site to the next level.  This tends to creep in when small businesses begin to grow and more site traffic means larger hosting fees or new technology solutions, like dedicated servers.  Don’t let growth opportunities pass by.  Websites are often like businesses, they are either growing or dieing.

For the truly motivated site owner there is never “enough” traffic.  Email marketing also has the added benefit of being able to strengthen relationships and up-sell clients.  Don’t rest on your laurels, use every medium available that can increase site traffic and conversions.