website

What A Website Designer Can (And Can’t) Do For You

What can your website designer do for you? They can do a lot. But there are some things that are unrealistic to expect. Here’s the breakdown:

Making Decisions

Ugg Boy, Shoes, August 17, 2010, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/uggboy/4901412031/

In a world of choices, consult an expert to bring you back the best choices for you. Trust me, this photo was a more interesting illustration of choices than the website version would have been. Photo from Ugg Boy, Shoes, August 17, 2010, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/uggboy/4901412031/

A website designer can create a website that minimizes your headaches/decisions.
This morning, I trained a woman who is going to make her own Wordpress website for her business. ‘Wow, there are a lot of choices!’ she said. I know she’ll get through it but she seemed so overwhelmed. And that’s when it hit me.

A big part of hiring a designer, a contractor, a wedding planner, a caterer? We take all the choices possible and give you a couple really good ones just for you. We do other stuff too but not overwhelming clients is a big part of it. Think about getting the best choices brought to you versus having to research all options yourself in any task and you’ll see why this is valuable.

A web designer can not make business decisions for you.
Want me to figure out if offering free shipping is financially viable for you? How to draft a contract for an affiliate you want to work with? These are much bigger questions that aren’t for your designer to decide, especially if they involve something legal or financial. (Fun aside: I can tell you that most successful Fortune 500 companies spend 10% of their gross budget on marketing. In other words, you gotta spend money to make money as the adage goes!)

We can give you the website end of information but as the person that runs your business, you know much more about its focus, goals, price points, etc. than I do. If you need help, try a business counselor/consultant. Women Work and Community, CEI, and SCORE all have counseling services, in the state of Maine (where this blog is written) and beyond.

Training

The right teacher can and should make it look easy. Photo from Kheel Center, Maria Vargas, October 4, 2010, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/uggboy/4901412031/

The right teacher can and should make it easy. Well, except for that annoyed looking lady in black. Photo from Kheel Center, Maria Vargas, October 4, 2010, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/kheelcenter/5279015653/

A website designer can train you on making website updates.
One of the major improvements in website technology the last few years? The ability to create a system where someone can update a website.

In my famous example: I trained a definitely-over-65 year old lady on how to use Wordpress. We did two, 1.5 hour sessions. The first one I did a basic overview, the second she brought her questions and we did more advanced stuff. I haven’t heard from her in over two years and her website is still online. Success, and an illustration of how we all should keep learning everyday.

A website designer can not train you on how to do their entire job.
I find it kind of funny when someone thinks they can figure out my entire job in two weeks. Or even a year. Honestly people, I’ve been doing this for years and I still see things daily that make me say “What the…?”

In other words, I could train you… to a point. And to be fair, I don’t think I could learn your job in a few short sessions either. So trust me when I say something is ‘a bit complicated’. I’m not trying to make a quick buck; I am trying to save your sanity.

Maintenance

Sometimes that tiny bike needs five guys to repair it.  The same with even the tiniest seeming website. Photo from Ian Munroe, Bike 5, August 27, 2009, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/ian_munroe/3862828181/

Sometimes that tiny bike needs five guys to repair it. The same with even the tiniest seeming website. Photo from Ian Munroe, Bike 5, August 27, 2009, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/ian_munroe/3862828181/

Web designers can build ‘insurance’ into your website.
From my point of view, handing over a website to its owner is like handing over a beloved car you’ve been driving awhile. Its new owner could be a reckless driver or someone who cares of the car like a member of their family; you have no idea.You just hand over the keys and hope it gets a good home.

The point is, it’s your site when we’re done. Yours to tackle the Indy 500… or crash in a explosive wreck. What we can do is have automatic backups and other insurance in place to cut down on spam, block repeatedly failed logins, etc. It doesn’t completely prevent bad things but it helps.

Website designers can not make you a site that will never break or need maintenance. 
Do you expect to drive your car without oil changes, periodic maintenance, or gas for 250,000 miles? Of course not. Yet some people expect that you can have people visiting and using a website everyday and not update it. Or that they’ll never get hacked.

First off, there is no rhyme or reason to hacking most of the time. There could be just some bored 15-year-old looking for something to do on a Friday night. It’s (usually) nothing personal. But it can happen. Especially if you don’t update your software. So you see, the two are related.

Truth is much of the maintenance you can do yourself, some of it you’ll need help doing though. You’ve invested in a website, treat it with periodic care… sometimes care that is needed by your trusty website mechanic.

Marketing

Website built with automatic traffic pouring in? If that were possible, I'd be lying on a beach somewhere, and so would you! Photo from Chris Brown, Traffic, March 19, 2007, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/zoonabar/458499400/

Website built with automatic traffic pouring in? If that were possible, I’d be lying on a beach somewhere, and so would you! Photo from Chris Brown, Traffic, March 19, 2007, via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/zoonabar/458499400/

A website designer can build search and user friendly features into your site.
It’s interesting when I get a list of requirements for a website and on it, the business/organization has listed ‘SEO’ or ‘search engine friendly’ features. To me, it’s like saying ‘I want a house with windows and doors’. We automatically set things up to be search friendly… though I can see why people include this to ensure it happens.

Things like search engine friendly URLS (www.breakingeveninc.com/about versus www.breakingeveninc.com/page=22), unique page titles, and images with alt tags are standard in how websites are done. Or at least should be.

A website designer can not make traffic go to your site.
So there’s two parts of search engine optimization. One part is called ‘on page SEO’ which is stuff you do on your own website to make it friendly (like examples above). The other part is called ‘off page SEO’. These are things you do not on your website, like using social media or having links from other websites/blogs. These are equally important to what you do on your own website and some would argue even more important.

Besides thinking about off-page issues, you also have to keep your website up-to-date with useful information. If a website has old information, no one will visit it, no matter how amazing the features.

So as you think about hiring a web designer (or using your web designer), keep these in mind. Like most service professionals, we will always try our best to give you as much as we can.

[schema type=”person” name=”Nicole Ouellette” email=”nicole@breakingeveninc.com” ]

New Website Launch: RSU 25

People are often surprised to learn we are not exclusive with our website software preferences. Just like speaking other languages lets us better understand our multicultural world, speaking more than one web language helps us better create websites in our digital world.

Joe Spinazola, the technology director at RSU 25, only had two requirements for the new website. The first was the website had to run on Joomla. The second was it had to incorporate purple and gold, the school colors, into the design. Yeah, we could work with that!

The header image, welcome message, and sidebar content display different items for different schools. The overall design is carried forth between all the schools in the district.

The header image, welcome message, and sidebar content display different items for different schools. The overall design is carried forth between all the schools in the district.

To give the website a unified feel, the same top navigation, gold and purple color scheme, and general layout were used on all the pages. The top menu would allow website visitors to get back and forth from the different school pages easily. The familiar layout also signaled that whether they were looking at the elementary lunch menu, the high school sports scores, or the school board minutes from last month that they were on the same unified website.

Allowing for different header images and different sidebar content let the individual schools stand out. For example, when looking at the middle school page, the header displays middle school students and activities; the welcome message below the thumbnails can display a custom message; and the side bar shows information like the ‘BMS Breakfast Menu’ and ‘BMS Photo Gallery’.

Like any project of this size, some general housecleaning was required. While the new site has over 400 pages of content, this reorganization allowed the school district to get rid of old files they no longer needed to access and organize the most important items so they could be easily found and viewed by website visitors.

Bucksport Schools had a variety of content to display including pdf files, photo galleries, and a Google Calendar of events. Modules and short code within the content allowed this most important information for each school in the district to be displayed on the school's main page.

Bucksport Schools had a variety of content to display including pdf files, photo galleries, and a Google Calendar of events. Modules and short code within the content allowed this most important information for each school in the district to be displayed on the school’s main page.

RSU 25 is fortunate that Joe’s technology team handles the website maintenance and content posting. That said, the school district needed a simple way to be able to add events to different calendars that teachers could use. Since many school districts are using Google Apps in Education, Google Calendars were used to solve this. Teachers and others who don’t regularly post to the website can still add events that will display on the website.

Congratulations to RSU 25 on their new site!

Breaking Even would like to thank Olseman Development and Svaha LLC who partnered with us on this massive project.

New Website Launch: Ellsworth Public Library

We were very fortunate to be trusted with redesigning the Ellsworth Public Library’s website.

Like many of the libraries in Down East Maine, the Ellsworth Public Library (EPL) was still running a basic HTML site. When it was built years ago, it was top of the line.

Since the site was built, not only has the library changed, but its patrons have changed too. The typical library patron five years ago didn’t even have a home computer, and now the average visitor to the EPL not only has a computer, but a smartphone, tablet, and or eReader as well. Serving these customers with an old website platform was becoming increasingly difficult.

The library staff really wanted to be involved with their new site so they could easily add current information, and also they wanted their new website to represent the ever changing and growing community they serve.

The old website had about ten static pages, so in that way, it was fairly easy to navigate. But there were some limitations. For example, some pages didn’t provide navigation so you had to use your browser’s back button to find the menu again. Email addresses to library staff were visible on the staff page, inviting spam. And most importantly, it required a knowledge of HTML for any new information to be posted there. Despite these frustrations, the library staff felt that the overall look of the site well represented the library, and they wanted to stay close to the theme.

To stay with the same feel with the website update, a similar color palette was chosen to provide the consistent look:

The old and the new

Homepage 

While the old website was static, the home page of the new site offers four areas for the visitor to interact:

  • Slideshow of images helping users navigate to resources, see event information, and view important content that the library continually changes.
  • News- Updates of library news including upcoming events and new resources
  • Library Resources- Links to some of the library’s most popular offerings
  • Recent Events- Displaying participation and photographs from past events
The new logo that the library had decided on was also incorporated:

 Menus and Sidebars

While the main navigation menu stays regardless of location in site,  the sidebars reflect the area of the library the page represents. For example, if you are looking at the Kid’s page under Youth Resources, the sidebar offers up links that kids or parents will find helpful.

This plan for the sidebar grew as we got to know the Ellsworth Public Library better. With every conversation, we learned more about what information they wanted online, and they learned that there were possibilities that they hadn’t thought of to make their jobs easier. For example, twelve contact forms each get distributed to a different department or staff member, ensuring information gets to the right staff member quickly and efficiently and that they collect the information they need from patrons.

 

 

The primary goal of  the new website is to offer more information, resulting in more pages and in depth navigation.

  • A current events and news area, where the staff of the EPL can post.
  • Online services offered through the library, with links and  instruction pages are provided on how to use these resources.
  • Contact forms on the website, which connect users to the appropriate staff members at the library, streamlining the communication process between patrons and staff.
  • Links to other social media sites
  • Individual department pages
  • Visual elements like navigation buttons that make scanning a page for information easy
  • Current photographs of staff and the library itself

Because the site needed to be interactive, it was build the site in Wordpress, which has a very user friendly Dashboard set up. This makes training people (even the so-called non-technical ones) easy, allowing them to make new pages and update existing ones. Like most open sources CMS systems, Wordpress has a thriving community of people who are constantly improving the platform. Plugins which allow interaction with other technologies and sites, such as Facebook and Flickr, help keep the time spent on website maintenance down. The library already does a lot of work on these platforms so connecting them with the website cut down on time staff was spent posting information and allows them more time to do what they love: helping library patrons.

We’d like to thank Charlene and the rest of the staff for being a pleasure to work with. Nicole and I enjoyed learning more about the library’s resources, in particular the digital ones. Congratulations EPL on your new website!

Do you want to know more about your website options? Here’s our short guide on different kinds of websites. Want to support the great work of the Ellsworth Public Library? Like them on Facebook or join them on any of the other social media sites they are a part of.

Is Website Maintenance Worth It?

Here at Breaking Even, we offer website maintenance to our clients, whether we built the site or not. And here is when we give people choices: monthly fee or as needed.

Most clients seem to understand ‘as needed’ help. When they notice something extremely messed up on their website, they can give us a call. We can unhack the site or fix the major error.

The maintenance is a much harder sell but would really save some of these folks a lot of money (and possibly emotional distress) in the long run.

 

Here’s the thing: You can compare a website to anything that’s been built that you use in your daily life: your car, your house, your computer. All of those items require maintenance, most of it smaller tweaks to prevent larger problems in the future. You get the oil changed on your car regularly so it gives you better gas mileage and prolongs your engine life. You fix that crack in your foundation so it doesn’t get bigger and compromise the structural integrity of the house. You run software updates and regularly clean out files on your computer so it runs faster and you can keep it for five years instead of two.

You have to do the same thing on a website, and either you need to learn how to do it yourself or let someone do it for you. 

Here are the kinds of smaller things that need to be regularly taken care of on a website:

  • Add new content (delete old employees, change prices, add Pinterest icon to your social media bar, etc.)
  • Figure out/fix weirdo issues that tend to crop up over time (weird spacing around your images, archive links not working, etc.)
  • Update software of your website (if Wordpress do this quarterly, if you have Joomla do so around the software update schedule)
  • Update plugins/extra installed programs so they continue to function

You may not care about how your website performs but consider these scenarios which all actually happened to people I know:

  • Someone hacks into the server because your website software is out of date and that infects 100 other websites that share the same server.
  • A potential customer emails the contact form on your site for a price quote for a huge job and you never get receive it because you didn’t realize the form wasn’t working.
  • An employee who died over a year ago is still on your site, making some site visitors uncomfortable when they visit.

In other words, your lack of maintenance could not only make you lose money but could effect your customers and even people you don’t even know in a negative way.

So make sure your website is up to date on a monthly basis, whether you log in yourself and do it or pay someone like us to do it.  By fixing issues when they are small, it prevents them from becoming larger. In websites and in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The Pros And Cons Of Google Apps

I’ve been accused of being a bit of a Google enthusiast. The first stock I ever bought was Google. I use Google Calendar to manage my personal schedule and Gmail to filter my email.

Within the business, we use Google Docs to manage projects, Google Chat to talk to virtual collaborators, and Google Analytics to analyze the website data for our clients.

Google is, however, not infalable. Google can go offline on occasion like it did earlier this summer making tools unavailable. Your Google account could get hacked,wiping out your data. This is why it’s important to back information up (yes even cloud stored stuff needs backup!) and use very strong passwords on your accounts. (Here’s how to backup your Google stuff with a combination of Google Takeout and Thunderbird: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/download-gmail-google-data/)



All Google products, whether it’s a Google Form or a Google Map, allow two ways to share the information:
1) A link to it you can share with other people
2) An embed code where you can stick it on a website.

If you click the link or share button when you are somewhere on Google, it'll let you have a link to share the item on Google or the embed code where you can put the item on a website. Whatever you do, make sure your item is set to 'Public' if you want people to be able to see it!

If you click the link or share button when you are somewhere on Google, it’ll let you have a link to share the item on Google or the embed code where you can put the item on a website. Whatever you do, make sure your item is set to ‘Public’ if you want people to be able to see it!

Linking to the information makes it easy to share but the formatting is out of your control since you are linking to where it lives in the Google cloud.

If you take the embed code and put it on your site, you can sort of customize what it looks like.

You can embed a form, calendar, spreadsheet, Youtube video and more from Google into your website. The material still 'lives' on Google and is just displaying on your site.

You can embed a form, calendar, spreadsheet, Youtube video and more from Google into your website. The material still ‘lives’ on Google and is just displaying on your site.

Pros of Google Apps:

  • If you have not so tech savy people updating your site (but can find their way around Google) this is a nice alternative. Basically anyone with a Google account that you give permission to can update your Google item.
  • Some custom formatting possible (column colors, font sizes) make it possible to match the form more closely to your site than you’d expect
  • Indexed by Google (we can also say this happens on your website too but come on, if you were Google, wouldn’t you give stuff on your own server higher ranking?)
  • Shareable to other Google users. If I want to save your Google Calendar and put it with mine, I just have to click that I want to.

Cons of Google Apps:

  • You need to have a Google account and now, Google will press you a bit for more personal details (Google+) so it can collect demographic info and your online behavior information.
  • Not entirely customizable; still will look like a Google Doc for example.
  • Since the info lives on Google’s server and not on your site, any information in an iFrame is not able to be indexed in site search.



So when would I recommend you use a Google Apps versus a program that works with your site (like a Wordpress Calendar plugin):

1) When multiple people are updating a certain piece of info and you don’t want to give them access to your site. If you have volunteers/staff who have lots of other jobs besides maintaining x part of the website, sometimes not making them learn software can take some of the pressure off.
Ex: Booster Club member updates sports scores and only needs access to that spreadsheet.
You want to create a simple form questionnaire for your organization that your board needs to collaborate on.

2) When the organization is using Google already. It’s easier to use tools if you are already familiar with them.
Ex: Google Apps for Education already installed on the server of the school and used by teachers in the school for curriculum sharing.
Google Apps for Business is installed on the domain and the business is already using online calendars to merge schedules.

3) When you don’t care that it doesn’t exactly ‘match’ your site design or that people can’t search for fields of information with the site search. If you are aware of the limitations and don’t care, that’s ok.
Ex: You are going to put a description of the results as a paragraph on the website anyway in addition to the spreadsheet so people can find it via site search.
You don’t care that the chart menu doesn’t have the exact shade of blue in your logo. Close enough!

In other words, sometimes Google Apps are the right tool to use for the job and sometimes they are not. This is why in developing a site, you (or your developer) will want to know as much information about it as possible, including what kinds of information you want to display and who will be updating what parts of the website.

Google Apps, like many tools online, are a great option for collaborating and sharing information. If the features work for you, you can extend the functionality to your website and if they don’t you have other options!

Building Your Own Website: When To DIY

So you could build you a website. You also could cut your own hair and change the oil in your car, but that doesn’t mean you are going to. You may ask yourself, “When should I attempt my own website? How am I going to know when I am in over my head?”  Here is when I say go for it:

Wondering if you should build your own website? As usual, we have opinions on this sort of thing.

Wondering if you should build your own website? As usual, we have opinions on this sort of thing.

If you have way more time than money.
Chris owns his own stand up paddleboarding (SUP) business. As someone who has worked seasonally for years in Bar Harbor, he has about five months of downtime when he goes to Florida or the Bahamas, takes a part time job, and recovers from his insane summer. During his downtime this past winter, he spent hours figuring out websites and built his own very functional site. If you have the discipline and desire to spend hundreds of hours learning anything, you are going to be successful at whatever you do.

This is a functional website. Would I have built it differently? Yes. Does it work though? Yes.

This is a functional website. Would I have built it differently? Yes. Does it work though? Yes.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’ says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. But can you learn enough carpentry to build a table in 100ish hours? Probably. Would it be functional? Yes. But if you did 10,000 of practice could you build a better table? Absolutely. I can build you a better website if only because I’ve spent longer doing it. (Well there are other reasons too but let’s say that one for sure.)

If you want to figure things out on your own, I am not going to be the Negative Nancy saying you can’t. But I will say it may not look or function exactly how you envisioned at the end.

When you see yourself having to do it again.
Do I need to learn how to set up Quickbooks for my online business? No because that is a one time thing. But I should know how to invoice properly? Yes, I will do that repeatedly. Hopefully.

If you run several business and see yourself building several websites over time, it might be worth learning how to do it and applying what you learn several times over. Otherwise, you can just learn enough to maintain your website once it is build. Your time is probably better spent on your business making money the way you best know how.

If what you want isn’t complicated.
Like most things in life, web development can surprise you. As my friend Calvin once said “I spent three hours putting in five lines of code to make a site show up properly in Internet Explorer.” In other words, stuff that looks easy to do might be really hard, and vice versa.

Just as a very general frame of reference, the following items are examples of complicated features to implement in a website:

  • Custom search (like if you wanted people to be able to search your rental website for number of beds available, location, and price range, that has to be custom built to search the correct parameters)
  • Building an ecommerce site that takes credit card payments (Paypal only is easy since the financial transaction part of it is technically taking place off your website)
  • Custom design (this takes layout skills and experience customizing templates with CSS or a programming language like it) and/or running different designs on different portions of the site
  • Integrating third party functionality. Whether it is porting in your real estate data feed or making sure your reservation system works when people book a table online, there is some gears that have to work in the background to give your customer a seamless experience.

But if you just want a web page with some information, photos, and, say, a contact form, that’s kind of easy. Go for it if you’re interested!

So are the options to go it alone or pay someone to do it all? Not necessarily. Think about the following alternatives:

1) Take a class. You might be able to find something through adult ed or a local college but if you have a more constrained schedule/budget, there are also some great online courses. I recommend Lynda.com for online learning and at $30/month, that’s pretty affordable professional development. Love this blog so much you want to take our class? Sign up for our email newsletter (look left to where you are reading this on our website) and then you’ll know when we’re having it! Hint: It’s twice a year.

2) Get ‘coached’. Maybe you’ve taken your site so far and just want another set of eyes to look at it or want help with a certain aspect of the project. We coach people and others like us do too. While you’ll typically pay an hourly rate, it’ll save you time, money, and headaches to ‘talk it over’ with someone who knows more.

3) Join an online (or in person) user group. Whether it’s a Wordpress group on LinkedIn or a Joomla group that occasionally meets up for beers and conversation, there is something to be said about a group of people talking about the same topic. Usually you can even ask questions of other users in the group for free. The downside is these groups are often nerds talking to each other so get the basics down in terms of a vocabulary or risk being slightly overwhelmed and/or not know what’s going on.

In other words, there are lots of paths you can follow to get to your own website. It all depends on your enthusiasm to learn, time constraints, budget, and talents. With those in mind, you can make the best decision for you and your company.

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