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August 15, 2016 by Robert Wright

Problems with hosted websites often lead site owners to wonder how difficult it is to change Web hosts. Their frustration may be related to a variety of issues associated with the website’s performance, availability or cost. The simple answer to this question may depend on how much forethought went into the original site and domain set-up, what technology the site uses and which Web host they wish to move their site to. A more useful answer, however involves a thorough analysis of their current situation, and some strategic planning to find and deploy the best solution for their online presence. To demonstrate a typical move, along with some of the considerations and issues involved, the blacklistmonitoring.com website was moved from MediaCatch to DreamHost.

Planning for the Transfer

Ideally, the first deployment of a website involves planning for its eventual move. There are so many potential reasons for moving to another hosting provider at some point in a site’s lifecycle, that to ignore this upfront is to take undue risk. New Web hosts are typically chosen after a reputation, pricing, features and services comparison. The technologies used in the site may also impact vendor (or package) selection. There are many existing resources available to help with the selection of a Web host, so this article assumes that a new host has already been chosen, and focuses on the actual transfer of a website.

The Site Transfer

Three of the most important considerations in moving a website (after host selection) are ensuring that site backups are available, identifying the technologies used/needed, and modifying the domain name servers to point to the new site location.

Site Backups

The need for backups is rather obvious, in that sites can get corrupted or hacked, servers can fail, etc. Most hosting providers keep backups for their clients. It is a best practice, however to also keep multiple local backups of all website files (including any databases) in case the hosting company loses them, corrupts them, or simply doesn’t wish to give them to you.

In the example, blacklistmonitoring.com had multiple local backups available, the latest of which was uploaded to DreamHost.

Technology

Ensuring that the new Web host has the platform (hardware, operating system, control panel), software, software versions, and other features required to run the site without issue is part of the due diligence required in selecting a new host. Greater similarity between host technologies usually results in fewer problems with a transition. It can sometimes be difficult, however to find a new host with the exact same configuration as the old host, and some differences may not become apparent until the site transfer begins.

Operation of the blacklistmonitoring.com website required basic Web server capabilities, Structured Query Language (SQL) support, and Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP) support. Most vendors provide these webhosting technologies, and DreamHost allowed the configuration of them per site requirements, so the website move appeared to be relatively straightforward.

The key difference that was apparent upfront between the old host (Mediacatch) and the new host (DreamHost) was the control panel. Mediacatch used the common third-party control panel “cpanel.” DreamHost used a proprietary control panel. So downloading and restoring a control panel backup of the entire website was not an option. Instead, the site files had to be uploaded to the DreamHost server. There were many tools available for this transfer (e.g. various FTP utilities). Since Dreamweaver was used for the design of the website, it was used to transfer the files.

The initial file upload failed, as the new host used a different folder structure than the old host. Although the file location was indicated in the welcome message for the new hosting account, the site profile in the FTP utility wasn’t updated before the first attempt. This was easily remedied and the files were uploaded to the correct folder on the second attempt.

Other software in the site included WordPress (for a blog) and a custom program for checking to see if a specific Internet address is on an e-mail blacklist. Both of these applications had SQL databases which needed to be transferred.

The databases created some trouble for the transfer. At DreamHost, a database transfer requires the creation of a database with the same name and login information as the old one before import. This wasn’t difficult, however the requirements for the database hostname and login differed between the new host and the old host, so modifications needed to be made to all of the databases prior to importing them.

 

Form to Create a New MySQL Database
Figure 1: DreamHost Database Creation Tool

 

The custom program files also had some issues in the transfer process. After some in-depth investigation, it was discovered that the Dreamweaver editor had put some extra control characters into a file that was updated to address the DreamHost database login requirements.

The remaining files for blacklistmonitoring.com were standard html files, image files, and style sheets. None of these presented an issue with the transfer.

Domain Names

Many hosting providers include “free” domain name registration with the purchase of a hosting account. The incentive for the webhost is that this makes it less likely that a client will move their site (due to the hassle involved with moving the site and the domain registration). This is not always in the best interest of the site owner, however, since a move will require the good graces of the old provider to point the domain to the new website server or to allow the domain registration to be moved. Although not always an issue, many providers have been reluctant to allow this in the past, and sometimes delay the process or add other impediments to discourage customers from moving their websites. In contrast, if a domain name is registered at a reputable registrar that isn’t hosting the site, changing the domain name to point to another hosting service is normally quite simple and fast.

The domain name shouldn’t be changed to point to the new location until after the successful transfer and test of the site. This ensures that a broken site doesn’t go live on the Internet. Some vendors, including DreamHost allow the creation of a temporary (mirror) website to see how the website looks before making it go live.

For the example site, the domain “blacklistmonitoring.com” was registered at enom.com, the old hosting provider was MediaCatch, and the new hosting provider was DreamHost. Pointing the domain to the new provider was therefore fast and simple, although it took almost a day before the changes propagated throughout the Internet (propagation delays are normal and not the fault of the hosting vendor). It was therefore necessary to keep the old site live for at least a day until the transition was complete.

Conclusion

After completing the transfer of a relatively modest website, one can see that it is not necessarily a simple process. If the site doesn’t include any databases, special software or programming, then it might be straightforward. Otherwise, it can be a complicated, technical endeavor that requires professional involvement depending on the technical skills of the organization or individual that owns the site.


May 15, 2015 by Robert Wright

During a recent local meeting for city planners responsible for helping the local small business community, one of the members asked “why would a small independent coffee shop even need a website?” The question drew chuckles from other participants as most of them nodded their heads in agreement that websites were unnecessary for such a small business. As social media has grown in usage as a business tool for relating to and communicating with customers, more businesses appear to be asking the same question. In fact, a recent RBC small business survey revealed that only 46 per cent of Canadian small businesses have a dedicated website, and less than half (48 per cent) of those businesses say they sell their products and services through their websites. So, was he right? Are websites no longer necessary for small businesses that aren’t doing e-commerce? Well, no…and here’s why:

Your stakeholders expect it.

Unless your business serves a very senior demographic, people look to the Internet to find types of businesses as well as information about those businesses. Tourists, business people and locals may all be looking for businesses based on location and/or reputation. Prior to the Internet they might look for business listings in the printed Yellow Pages or a similar directory for this type of information. Today, they look to the Internet. According to industry research, the millennial generation will comprise the largest online audience and will have more buying power than any other generation that has come before it, including the baby boomers, by 2017 (businesswire.com). The millennial generation grew up with access to technology and uses it to find businesses and develop a relationship with them. They are accustomed to an on-demand lifestyle (wired.com). If a business doesn’t have a website, it may not even be found by millennials, or have a chance to compete for their purchases.

It’s part of your brand.

Although you may own the content that your company publishes on social media sites (depending on the site terms), you most likely don’t own the sites. This means that you are essentially borrowing (or renting) space for your online presence, and making your company susceptible to the terms, functionality and other brand elements of that company. Your own website (within the limits of technology and the law) is only subject to your brand elements – you can change it at will and retain full ownership over its structure, content, and usability.

From a customer perspective, a company without a website may appear to have a weaker brand than a competitor that has a website and a social media presence. Social networking sites can also rise and fall quickly in popularity (remember Myspace?). Do you really want your brand to be subject to another company’s business model and brand?

It provides opportunities.

It’s your website – you can do with it as you wish. Whether you just wish to provide basic information about your business, or expand into e-commerce with a catalog and shopping cart, it’s your choice. Need your site to be mobile-friendly to better reach millennials? No problem – you can do this.

Consider the little coffee shop from the meeting referenced earlier. The shop could initially use their website simply to provide contact information, product information, and other content about the company. This puts them into the competition for winning business from the online search community. Later, they might add content related to their product and industry, e.g. stories about the source(s) of their coffee beans, brewing techniques, events or other content of interest to their customers. A coffee shop could also extend its operations to sell branded product and/or merchandise online. Their social networking site(s) might then be used to have dialog with customers and potential customers, and bring visitors back to the website where they could view timely content, products and promotions and make purchases.

Social media and mobile technologies haven’t replaced the need for websites, but rather complement and extend a website’s reach. As the millennials move into the primary purchasing demographic, companies (even small ones!) that choose not to maintain a website may endanger their very survival.


July 24, 2014 by Robert Wright

The effectiveness of blogs as an e-marketing tool for businesses to communicate more directly and timely with their customers has led to considerable growth in the number of blogs on the Internet. Add in the potential for improved search ranking for companies with high-quality blogs in markets where they are well-received, and there is sound justification for this growth, as businesses continue to look for new ways to reach their target market amidst a plethora of Web competitors. Statistics from NM Incite indicate almost a five-fold increase in blogs from 2006 to 2011, and according to a 2014 research report from MarketingProfs, 76% of respondents indicated Blogs as a key content marketing tactic.

WordPress is the most popular blogging platform at 52% of installations as of 2013, and is continuing to increase as a percentage of installations, according to a study published by Royal Pingdom (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1

Adding a WordPress blog to an existing website, assuming it is done with best blogging practices, would seem, therefore to offer an easy upside. There is, however, a very possible downside that can occur with a standard installation of WordPress – a detrimental impact on a company’s search engine optimization (SEO). This is due to the fact that a basic (unmodified) installation of WordPress does little to embrace today’s search engine, and in some ways may do some harm. As a result, companies that have invested significant time, money and effort into the search engine optimization (SEO) of their website, may be unknowingly degrading the site’s SEO potential by performing a WordPress installation without making specific modifications for search. To see a sample of many sites that are losing search ranking opportunities due to their WordPress configuration, search the Web for “Just another WordPress site”. This is a default portion of the title tag for new WordPress installations, and you will find many websites that haven’t taken the time to modify it..

To test the significance of this impact, we’ve taken a live website (http://www.blacklistmonitoring.com), installed a basic WordPress blog, and gradually made search-friendly adjustments to it while measuring the impact of these adjustments on potential search ranking. For measurement purposes, we used the popular Moz.com set of tools. Note that our testing was on a custom website, with a WordPress blog. For companies using WordPress for their entire website, the following results and recommendations still apply, and may be even more urgent to address, since the entire website could be impacted..

Setup and Baseline Test

We installed WordPress with the convenient Installatron feature that our web hosting provider includes with their hosting services. Installatron is an application that makes the installation of many software applications very simple, usually with just a click or two. Most hosting providers offer the same or similar service. After installation, we modified the theme to match our website, and completed the information in the Settings category in the WordPress administration panel. The settings allow you to customize your blog’s title, tagline, etc. One of the settings involves “permalinks”, which indicate how you want your blog entry links (URLs) to appear to the search engines. We chose the “Postname” format, e.g. http://www.blacklistmonitoring.com/blog/sample-post/. This avoids question marks in the URL, making it more search friendly.

We then proceeded to make several blog entries over time, which we hoped would give the site the necessary search bait for evaluation. Next, we ran the Moz.com crawl diagnostics tool to get our baseline for comparison. Since the actual time for ranking changes to occur from specific website changes may vary, we focused on the error report rather than the ranking report for this testing. The results for our baseline test included six errors, 44 warnings, and 24 notices (see Figure 2). In the Moz analysis, errors are considered the most serious offenses, while notices are the least serious. The problems associated with the website included “Missing Meta Description Tag”, “Title Element Too Long”, “Duplicate Page Content”, and “Duplicate Page Title”. Obviously, all of these issues could negatively impact the website’s search ranking. A drill-down on each issue revealed that ALL of the issues were incorporated into the site via the WordPress blog. The biggest problem with the basic WordPress install appears to be its method of cross-referencing articles in multiple ways (e.g. by date and post type). Search engines just follow the links found in the code, and when they see the same article with multiple URLs, they assume duplicate content by default.

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Figure 2

Version Check

During installation, we noticed that the WordPress version installed via Installatron by our provider was 3.5.1, although the 3.9.1 version of WordPress had already been released. So we updated the software using the simple update button provided within the WordPress Admin panel, to ensure we were testing the latest version. This would ensure that any possible improvements that were made to the code for search engine optimization were included in our testing. The version update had no impact on the errors.

Addressing the Errors

To address the SEO errors found in the blog, we did NOT want to edit the WordPress code directly, and risk losing it every time there was an update. We also didn’t want to go through the learning curve of figuring out where WordPress stored all the relevant code. Instead, we researched available WordPress plug-ins that would address the issues. After some research on various plug-ins that appeared to be relatively highly rated by users for optimizing WordPress installations for SEO, we settled on testing the “Yoast WordPress SEO,” plug-in. Disclaimer: we are not experts on the Yoast plug-in, and installed it as we would expect a typical user to install it, learning as we went. Our approach was to install the plug-in, then add incremental customization of the plug-in field content as necessary to eliminate errors.

Yoast WordPress SEO, Pass 1

After installing the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin, there is an “SEO” category added to the administration menu. Selecting this category opens up a suite of settings that may be used to improve the site’s SEO. We updated the following items under the “Titles & Metas” category:

● enabled the “Noindex subpages of archives” (to eliminate duplicates caused by page-number-based URLs)

● disabled the date-based archives (to eliminate duplicates caused by date-based URLs)

All other items were left at their default settings.

This basic plug-in installation eliminated the six errors reported by the Moz crawl diagnostics. Warnings, however, increased to 49, and Notices increased to 43. All the remaining warnings and notices related to missing description metatags and title elements that were too long. This was an improvement, however, since we had eliminated the duplicates issue, and the next step was to eliminate the remaining warnings and notices.

Yoast WordPress SEO, Pass 2

In an attempt to quickly eliminate the remaining errors, we made use of the plugin’s ability to automatically create title tags and description metatags for our various cross-referenced posts. These templates are set in the “Titlles & Metas” menu, and use a special syntax which is explained on the yoast.com website.

Most of the remaining titles that were too long appeared to be due to our WordPress theme somehow causing duplications of text in the page titles. To solve this type of error, we enabled the “Force rewrite titles” setting in the Yoast plug-in.

Unfortunately, our attempts at quick and easy fixes with the auto-generated tags and metatags still left our site with 13 warnings, or medium-priority issues.

Yoast WordPress SEO, Final Pass

Although we appeared to be out of automated options to remove the final list of problems, the plug-in included a bulk editor for both page titles and descriptions. We used these to manually enter titles and descriptions for the pages that were still problematic. This eliminated the remaining 13 warnings, leaving our blog and our site search-friendly once again.

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Figure 3

Conclusion

After completing this exercise, it was clear that some SEO-specific configuration of WordPress is necessary after installation, or a site may suffer a negative impact on its search ranking. There are WordPress plug-ins available that can make this effort easier. Automated solutions for completing titles and descriptions for pages can be tempting due to the time saved, however some level of manual entry may be required to fully eliminate errors.

 


Writer’s Bio

: Robert Wright is the President/CEO of Global eBusiness Solutions, Inc. and a Professor of Business at Okanagan College in Kelowna, BC. Wright has a background of over 25 years in technology companies, including running multiple start-ups and company transformations.


October 2, 2013 by Robert Wright

So with all the hub-bub-circus-style activity surrounding the U.S. debt and Obamacare, I thought I’d check to see what health insurance would cost me if I were to purchase it through Obamacare. Being a dual citizen and having moved to Canada from the U.S. about 11 years ago, I don’t really have to worry about insurance now, but when I was last living in the States I was turned down for healthcare due to a pre-existing condition. I also travel a lot between countries, so was curious about dual-coverage. So here’s the page I received after going to healthcare.gov:

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No worries, I decided. I’ll work while I wait and time how long it takes to get the login page. Despite all the web statistics regarding bounce rates, this is a captive, one-of-a-kind site, so people will wait, right? Fifteen minutes later, I received a new screen. Here it is:

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So…I’ve given up. For now. People who are in desperate need of insurance, may try again (and again) until the site serves them properly. So a government site may get away with this, though no-doubt they will suffer further opinion erosion about the product due to the service of the website.

But what would this do to a business? A few years back, we worked closely with customers of a web hosting business that had a major server/network failure. I’ll never forget the conversations with some of the customers, which went something like this:

“We just spent our entire marketing budget on a new e-commerce campaign that just launched this morning. We can’t afford downtime. Please help us.”

Some of the conversations were tearful and heart-wrenching. While the marketing departments put major thought, effort and time into a campaign, they neglected to think about contingency plans for hardware or network problems and high-traffic.

So that this doesn’t happen to you or your company, we’d like to make a few suggestions:

1. For a major campaign, address with your IT department or hosting company how you will handle high traffic if it occurs (either through a very successful campaign, or in the case of a denial-of-service attack on your site).

2. If the delays of access to the site during your campaign are unacceptable, have a fail-over scheme implemented. This doesn’t have to be expensive, depending on your requirements. Just having the domain name registered with a separate provider from the hosting account, and maintaining a backup copy of the site allows your IT staff to quickly change the domain name to point to a different server (allowing for some propagation time through the Internet).

There are many solutions to this type of problem, just choose one or have your favorite e-commerce consultant help you implement a solution. Don’t let technical problems destroy your campaign.