Category Archives for "Maintenance"

The Inevitability of Hardware Failure

I haven’t written a great deal about hardware because mostly it doesn’t matter.  The beauty of most software these days is it will run on just about anything.  This is obviously an advantage but a qualified one.

Your software may run on your hardware but that doesn’t mean it runs well.  I sometimes find when working with clients, they are struggling with ancient systems and have no concept of how much easier life would be if they invested in  up-to-date hardware.  You would not believe how many steam-powered computers there are out there!

Yes it is expensive but essential if you are planning some significant online activity.

There is one thing everyone needs to know about hardware: sooner or later it will fail.  (Software can also fail cataclysmically and so what I say here applies equally to hardware and software failure.)

This has just happened to me.  There was no warning.  Everything was running as normal and then in an instant, it wasn’t.  My lap-top was between 3 and 4 years old and so was due for renewal.  It went to the doctors and returned yesterday with all my files wiped against my explicit instructions to contact me if they needed to wipe the hardware.  It is back with the doctors for data recovery.  They claimed they phoned me twice.  They had the correct number and I have an answer machine.  And why did they think, after finding me unavailable twice, I wanted to lose all my files?  This is not hardware failure, is it?

The most important safeguard against such cataclysms is you must back things up.  I’m more or less confident I will recover everything I need in the fullness  of time but at the moment I can’t access my work between 10 and 26 June.  (This will have a few consequences for the blog but I’ll resume normal services in time.)

So, how should we guard against inevitable hardware failure?

Things are easier than they were.  Ideally, these days you can set up new hardware and instantly access your files and continue as normal.  Inevitably, things are never that easy but it is certainly easier than it used to be.

Essentially there are two approaches to backing up your system.  The belt and braces approach is to use both and I would recommend you do that.

First, you can back up in the cloud.  I have used Norton to do that and I’ve found three problems with it:

  1. For some reason it hadn’t backed up my files for 15 – 16 days.  It’s meant to back-up periodically but I hadn’t kept an eye on it.
  2. It takes forever to download from back-up to my new lap top.  I used their support services and 4 or 5 different people helped me over three days.  They contradicted one another and didn’t fully understand their system.  This is why it took so long.  Eventually I found someone who knew my files were too big to download in one sitting.  I had to download them in sections.  Of course, keeping track of what you have downloaded is difficult but I got there in the end.
  3. It was not backing up everything in my folders.  As far as I can see it backed up from every folder I asked it to but it did not copy all the files in the folders.  I use an application called xmind that creates it own file type.  Norton decided they didn’t count.

It is generally true that you only learn the true nature of something when you use it!  I shall not be using Norton for back-up again.  It’s anti-virus and identity functions are brilliant, so I’m not saying you shouldn’t use them for those purposes but I would use a different back-up system.

There are alternatives.  My new lap-top uses Windows 8 and this includes OneDrive.  I’ve used it for only a few days, so this is by no means a recommendation but it does seem to have advantages over Norton’s back-up.

  • It backs up files as you create them.  So, you are never in danger of losing more than the document you are working on.
  • They are accessible as you need them
  • You can choose to  leave a copy on your hard drive.  If you have the space for them, this is an advantage.
  • As far as I know they’ll back-up anything.  I’ve yet to test it with xmind.
  • You can access your files from any device.

However, it is a good idea to back-up onto an external hard drive as well.  This is the second approach.  I recommend you do this as well as the cloud so that you know you have both.

Usually, it is possible to recover files lost if your equipment fails.  You can’t be certain of this and even if it is possible it is likely to take several days or even weeks.  And you have to factor in the vagaries of techies who know how machines work but can’t communicate with human beings.

Finally, if you have a website you will need to back it up too.  That’s a topic for another time.

Restricted Site Access

I had no idea what a vexed question site access can be. By site access I mean who has access to the site for purposes of maintenance and adding new material. Site access ties in with site ownership and control.

At one extreme is the view only the designer should be able to add pages or change the design of the site. The site owners may be permitted to make minor changes, eg keeping information on the site up to date. They may have access to a blog if there is one.

Some third sector organisations negotiate sites at low fees from professional companies and then find they have a site they cannot develop further because the old designers control it and it lacks basic functionality.  This is not only about financial constraints.  If you don’t know what to look out for, it is difficult to know what to agree with the designer.

One example I know of is a site built on a proprietary content management system (cms). This means the designer’s company effectively controls the site. The contract with the designer ended several years ago but any changes to the site have to be done by the designer. For some reason it is not possible to create pages on the site. There is no blog. Whilst the owners can change the existing pages’ content, they cannot redesign the site.  In effect this ties the client to the old designer.  Why?  It’s a bit of a mystery.  The client has few resources, they’re hardly going to be a significant source of income for the old designer.

The site itself is nothing special. It is a very simple design and so adding pages is not a major issue. The designer is willing to add, what I would see as basic functionality, to the site for a substantial fee. This was a significant fee for my client’s budget, to gain what they should have had in the first place.

It is hard to escape the view this is a cynical attempt to retain a client and take fees from them in the future.

Another example is a WordPress site with a custom theme. The theme was designed for the site owners by a professional design firm. They retained the administration status and permitted their client access to the site only to work on blog posts. You do this by adjusting the user type.

Ethically this is a better approach. The site has full functionality and the access arrangements can be changed at no cost.

The same designer argued that they didn’t want the owners to have the freedom to change the site design. One thing they sometimes do is allow the owner to have administrator status and a lower status. They retain administrator status for rare occasions when they need significant changes and they use the lower status for day-to-day maintenance.

This last point is helpful.  There are legitimate site security issues and restricting access to the most powerful user-types is one way of protecting the site from owners who don’t always know the implications of their actions.

However, restricting access to site owners is an out-of-date premise: site design is more important than function. If the design is dependent on people not interfering with it, is it really helpful to an organisation that wants to use its site for campaigning or marketing its products and services? The assumption behind these restrictions is the client will never learn enough to be in control of their own site.

I’ve seen restrictions based upon the skills, abilities or intentions of a single person and not on the needs of the organisation. Just because the current person in charge has no interest in looking after their site, it does not follow the organisation will always be in this position.

After they have spent what to them is a lot of money, it is frustrating if not disastrous to find, often a few years down the road, that the site is almost unusable; sometimes because the designer is unwilling to co-operate with the client who wants the freedom to do more with their site.  After all, the designer may have done a favour for a third sector organisation some years ago and really is not interested in helping them develop their site further.  Staff move on, the nature of relationships change and so it makes sense to future proof sites so the client is free to develop the site as their circumstances develop.

Bringing the owners onto the site with low-level access but possibly higher level access in the future is a good compromise, protecting the site but allowing for organisational development. For low-budget organisations, off-the-peg themes are best because these have fewer constraints. If you have the budget for a special design be clear that whatever your current skill level you want the capacity to do more on your site in the future.

Remember the technical skills a designer or developer brings to your site are not necessarily what you need if you want to use your site as a campaigns tool or to sell online. Be sure that when the time comes to move on you have control over your own site.

If you enjoyed this post, you can sign up to my email list at the top of the right-hand column. You will receive a weekly summary of my posts, an email sequence about community development and occasional emails about community development online.

Content-Related Site Maintenance

Why is it important to keep your site up-to-date? The answer depends upon your site.  Assuming your site is secure and well-maintained, you need to focus on content.

No-one in their right mind wants a website. A website is a lot of work and it is not worth it if you have no goal in mind other than owning a website.

First, be clear: What is this website for? What are we trying to do? Whatever it is, that is the thing you want, not the website!

Your website is a subtle machine you can bend to do the will of your organisation. If your website is an endless source of frustration and resists your will, then the chances are there’s something wrong with it.  Discuss your site with a web consultant who can help you diagnose and address the problem.

Your site maintenance, beyond the essentials for site security, should always contribute to your organisation’s purpose.

If your site simply describes what your organisation does, then it will need an occasional review. Perhaps once a month, depending on how quickly things change, do a quick read through to be sure everything is working as it should and nothing has gone out of date.

If you hold occasional public meetings and your site promotes them, you need a blog. However, so long as your target audience knows to look on the site, you don’t necessarily need to do well on search engines. An email list that automatically informs people when you post a new event may be all you need.  Local groups don’t need to worry too much about search engine optimisation (seo) but it does depend on your overall aims.

Regular posting is most important when you hope to build a following online. Two reasons.

  1. Regular posts register with search engines and so people will be more likely to find your site.
  2. People who find your site and discover recent activity are more likely to subscribe and take part in your activities.

These are known as traffic and conversions. If they are important to you then you need to put more effort into your site. Basic site maintenance is necessary (because to fail to do it will be a barrier to your message) but it is not sufficient – there is much more to traffic and conversions.

This post is simply underlining the need for basic good housekeeping. There is a lot more to getting your machine working and this will be a major theme when I return after the summer break.

How do you review your site?

If you enjoyed this post, you can sign up to my email list at the top of the right-hand column. You will receive a weekly summary of my posts, an email sequence about community development and occasional emails about community development online.

Essential Site Maintenance

Last time I discussed essential and desirable site maintenance activities.  In this post, I shall look at some of the essential activities you must undertake regularly to make sure your site is secure.

One of the disadvantages of WordPress is, as the world’s most popular content management system (cms), it is a prime target for hackers. If they can get onto your site they can do a lot of damage.

I’ve crashed my site a couple of times and a good host is essential for rescuing you at these times. It is a good idea to back up your site so that you have a copy when you do crash it. I’ve also encountered various bugs that develop spontaneously and I’ve normally needed technical help to track them down.

The first thing you need to do is to pay attention to your site. Spotting something has gone wrong is a crucial first step. I wrote some time ago about a fault that developed on my site. I don’t know how long it was there before I spotted it. You will also spot spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and other embarrassing things that somehow slipped past your stringent quality controls.

I shall assume from here on in you’re using WordPress. If you’re using another content management system (cms), you will need something similar and so it is worth reading on and adapting to your own cms.

Keep an eye on the updates page. You will see it in the drop down menu under “Dashboard”, in the left hand column. If there are any updates, there will be an orange tag. Deal with these as soon as you spot them. Many updates contain fixes for known vulnerabilities, so if you don’t update, your site may be vulnerable.

WordPress warn you that an update can on occasion cause problems.  So far, I haven’t found this.  I have occasionally found the update  suspends and doesn’t complete.  When this has happened my host’s support were able to deal with the problem very quickly.

Almost everything else can be taken care of with plug-ins. I use the following:

  • Back-up – there are several options and I use Updraftplus.
  • Security – I use Wordfence – which seems to cover most security threats. You get occasional emails with advice about how to adjust your security settings to meet current threats.
  • Anti-spam – WordPress includes Akismet as standard. It is free although it has an idiosyncratic approach to allowing you to use it for free. It seems to work reasonably well, allowing genuine comments through and filtering most of the spam. I have checked the spam it filters out and so far I haven’t found anything that shouldn’t be there. When it lets spam through, comments moderation captures it and so reduces your work controlling spam.

Site Maintenance Tasks

Here is a list of the basic tasks any small voluntary sector group needs to undertake to maintain their website. The time and work involved will depend upon the size of the site, the amount of activity in the group and other imponderables. Some people may find they enjoy working on the site and there’s always more to do if you are that way inclined.

Let’s start with essentials and after that I’ll add a few other activities that enhance a site.

Essentials

These are the things you must do to make sure your site functions in the interests of your group. They are not necessarily large amounts of work. The key is to get organised and stay on top of it. If you leave it a few weeks the amount of work may be daunting and you may forget how to do certain tasks. I shall explore each of these in more detail in later posts.

  • Site maintenance is essential for your site’s security. If you have added a lot of valuable content you don’t want to lose it to hackers or if your website should crash. You need to make sure you have paid for your domain name hosting; update your cms,  themes and plug-ins as new updates become available; back-up your site regularly and protect it from against spam.   If set up properly, these need little maintenance beyond checking they are working properly. Many send warnings to an email address when they need attention.
  • Keep your site up-to-date. There is little more damning criticism than “the site is out of date”. Christmas greetings in July is a give-away – this site is unloved. So, take time to check each page for time-limited content and bring it up to date. If you use your blog to announce future events, don’t forget to archive past events. The best way to stay up-to-date is to add new content to your blog. This need not be every day. How you do it is up to you; you might add a post every Tuesday morning or add posts at random times 2 or 3 times a week all are evidence your site is alive.
  • Respond to feedback. Your site should have some means of feedback. The main message here is if you receive it respond to it! Respond comment to a comment, email to email. This is the best way to make sure the person who comments receives the reply. If the correspondence is private you may want to add it to your site in some way. If someone suggests something, thank them and tell them how you intend to respond. And then do it!
  • Adding new content to the site is important if you are going to present a website with soul. Make no mistake this shows your commitment, not to the website but to your cause. So many sites seem to say “We have a cause but we don’t care about sharing it with you”. Actually if you don’t care about me the visitor I don’t care about your cause. If you don’t want me to respond positively to your cause, why do you bother with this site?
  • List Management is crucial. Why is it so important? It is the only way you are going to get visitors to return to your site. They’ll come back when they receive an email about a new blog post on a topic that interests them.

Desirables

  • Site reviews are important and perhaps they are essential. From time to time, you need to take a look at your site, read the pages, deal with all the strange things you never knew were there. Then step back and think about whether there is more you can do to refresh its content.
  • Analytics – recording them should be part of your routine maintenance as there may come a time when you want to review visitor behaviour.
  • Newsletters – there are many vehicles for online newsletters. They can be done by email broadcast but blogs can also take on the role. You may have a number of clients who are not online and so need to print off a newsletter that otherwise your site distributes electronically. Words and images are the usual medium but audio and video newsletters are possibilities.
  • Product development is a possibility if you have something you can sell or give away.

If you enjoyed this post, you can sign up to my email list at the top of the right-hand column. You will receive a weekly summary of my posts, an email sequence about community development and occasional emails about community development online.

The Case for Site Maintenance

With access to content management systems with increasing functionality, content is your main preoccupation. These days it is relatively straightforward to install any function into your website.  So, content is more important.  How do you set things up to focus on content?  A well-designed website will minimise the need for site maintenance.

Consultancy

I finished a sequence a few weeks ago about how to work with a designer or consultant to set up a WordPress site. You can do it yourself and there are plenty of how-to-do-it sites around. However, planning the purpose of your site and how best to put it together may be where you need consultancy support.  Constructing a site that doesn’t work for you by doing the tasks you need doing with minimal maintenance, can result in wasted time and lost opportunities.

… for Groups Planning a Site

Many voluntary groups don’t have members with the time or knowledge to set up a site on their own. They may be able to add content to a site and so pursue their aims through their site but they need help to get started.

This is why web consultancy is a better bet than design for many voluntary groups. Whilst groups may think they need help with the technical side, in fact the main thing they need  is help with their site maintenance and development systems.  They need to start with a site that supports their current aims and has potential to develop as the group’s needs evolve.  Getting this right from the outset is a major advantage.

… for Groups with a Site

Website owners need to be clear about what their site is for and focus on how to meet their aims.  A small group with limited budget may need help in building on what for them has been a massive investment. They’ve paid a designer or consultant for help setting up their site.  Now they are seeking ways they can keep on top of their website’s demands. They need to find ways to do this that are not prohibitively expensive or time-consuming.  If the site is well-designed from the outset, that is an advantage.  If the site design works against the group’s aims then the site needs to be re-designed.

Site Maintenance

Often people have ideas about site maintenance that are inappropriate for their group.  For example, many believe a blog needs to be updated regularly. This might mean weekly or even daily! This is true where you want your site to be found by search engines in a competitive market but not necessary for many voluntary groups.

Voluntary groups have a local market and so their website might have a two-fold modest aim of keeping their members up-to-date and informing locals of what they do. Often they have no competitors because they’re the only group doing their thing in their area.

So long as the group is active and remembers to post about its activities, they might not need to add much more on the site.

A client asked me for a static site. They meant a no-maintenance site and I had to ask them to think very carefully about this. Such sites have limited use. The main use is as a brochure site, where you have a business card that refers the recipient to a site that acts as a paper brochure would.

This might work for an individual or group that offers a service that doesn’t change much and handles most of its publicity offline. But even then it is better to have basic functionality, such as a blog. No-one knows how their work will change in the future. A brochure site that can grow a blog sometime in the future has to be a better investment.

If your group is active it needs more than a brochure site. The question is not whether you have an active site but how to keep it active with limited resources.

Owning Your Website

Last time I wrote about content management systems (cms) where the designer sets up a website so that their client has little control over it.

Maybe this made sense in the past but the big change is, these days maximum functionality is available to anyone who wants it. No-one needs a designer and they can set up and run their own site. (I’m not saying there is no need for designers, just that they’re not essential.)  I strongly recommend to my clients they steer clear of any arrangement that ties them into one designer or consultant in perpetuity. It is better to own and control your own site.

There are still many advantages to engaging someone to set up your site. It saves time and helps you make the right decisions.  A simple basic site should be relatively inexpensive. You might also pay a small retainer to a designer or consultant to look after the site, make sure the cms is up to date and deal with technical problems. If you own your site you can choose to end this arrangement at any time.

In the past website design was a technical and creative issue for the designer. Their creative flair was just as important as their technical know-how.

The creative side is something you may still wish to pay for; a custom-designed header or  website theme is likely to increase your costs and may be desirable if you can afford it. However, for most voluntary organisations whilst it might make sense to pay someone to help you make decisions, set things up and provide some initial support, an off-the-shelf theme and a basic design is all you need.

Behind these concerns there is another result of the massive increase in functionality. These days the focus is not so much on design as content. Design is costly and often not crucial for the success of a website. If you are providing unique content you will find your followers or members without the need to pay for an eye-catching design.  Some very successful sites are not much to look at but combine excellent content with the right site structure so that visitors can easily find what they are looking for.

So, what makes for good content?

This depends upon the nature of the site. A site devoted to icing cupcakes might have a lot of images, whilst a site devoted to classical Greek might have relatively few images. The copy on the cupcake site may be fairly routine, recipes and instructions. The Greek site might depend on exposition of texts from new and exciting perspectives.  Both may be successful sites.

However, there are a few things worth considering as pointers to good copy. Is it:

  • Up-to-date? – if you run a blog, signs of recent activity are a good idea. The site needs to look lived in and loved.
  • Topical? – I suspect at the time of writing a lot of cupcake sites have football or Brazilian themes.
  • Accurate? – where it matters information should be accurate. If you are putting a point of view, perhaps this is less important but constant mistakes undermine any site.
  • Passionate? – you need to communicate enthusiasm for your topic. I have written about the need for a website to have soul, if it looks like you don’t care, why should the visitor care?

In short, these days you can do anything and in future posts I’ll show you how to do it!  What’s your experience of owning your own site?

Content Management System Problems

This new sequence about website maintenance, asks how to maintain a website using a content management system, eg WordPress.

A few years ago, you employed a designer to build a site from flat html and css. You would provide copy and images (or instructions about images) and the designer would do all the work. They installed the site on their server. They usually entered into a maintenance arrangement so the site could be updated by the designer.

Many voluntary organisations found it difficult to pay commercial rates. They found their sites were almost impossible to maintain and so rapidly went out of date. Unless you could afford a team to look after your site, updating websites was a big problem.

Content Management Systems

All this began to change with the content management system (cms). Designers were able to set up sites for their clients to maintain. Systems such as Joomla are still going strong. The way it works is the designer hosts the site, determines client needs, installs relevant plug-ins and offers training.  They may do a lot more to make the site distinctive but here my focus is on the cms.

This works rather well and should the client need to extend the site’s functionality, they return to the designer and ask them to upgrade their site. There are two potential problems:

  • If the designer does not understand the commercial side of their client’s business, they are not necessarily the best people to advise their client about upgrades.
  • Many designers are technical specialists who do not understand how their clients use the technology.

If the client is tied to one designer and has staff who understand the technical side, it can be frustrating to have to work through a designer who has other ideas.  It can be worse for voluntary groups who may have an old website set up by a commercial designer at a charity rate.  If the designer’s main interest is commercial contracts, then it can be difficult to contact them perhaps after a couple of years and get the changes made.  Gratis work can be even more problematic.  A website is a long-term investment and people move on.  Many sites are inaccessible because the person with the passwords has gone!  This is simply failure to think through the consequences of a website as a long-term investment.

What to do with a Moribund Website

The client is left with a number of unattractive options.  They can:

  1. Stay there and remain dependent on a designer who may in point of fact be out of date and not understand their business needs and simply no longer be interested in the work
  2. Appoint a consultant to work with the designer to develop the site and hope they agree and the original designer doesn’t take umbrage.  This might work if the new consultant can get access to the host and upgrade the cms.  Sadly this is not always the case.  Charging for upgrades may be a nice little earner.
  3. Set up a new independent site and transfer their domain name and content across to it.
  4. Abandon the old site and start afresh with a new domain name

This can be problematic whether or not the client and designer get on. If the relationship is positive it can, especially for voluntary groups who are not motivated by profit, be an enormous step to move to independence. If the relationship has broken down it might be easier but the designer may not co-operate.

And of course when the designer disappears with their passwords, leaving an out of date site with the same name as the new one you create, it will forever present a bad impression to everyone who stumbles upon it.

Next time I’ll suggest an alternative to this model.  Have you any stories about how a website has become stuck with an old designer?

Technique: How to put your Site Together

The words technique and technology come from the same Greek root, techne, which means ‘hand’.  The Latin equivalent is manus, from which we get the word manufacture. So,the heading technique covers the hands-on aspects of website design and maintenance.

If you engage a designer or consultant to manage your site, this heading will help you understand what they are doing so that you can engage in constructive conversations.  If you are going it alone, it will help you appreciate what is possible with your CMS.

Maintenance

When cars became cheap they had major implications for organisations.  The same applies to most technological innovations.  Telephones, typewriters, faxes, desk-top computers … all changed the way organisations work.  A website is a technological innovation.  Just because it is a set of text files on a server somewhere in the world, doesn’t mean it makes fewer demands upon your organisation.  Websites become moribund because their organisations are unable to adapt to their use.

How do you keep your site up-to-date?  It is best to plan what you want the site to do before you go online.  However, many organisations inherit a moribund site and lack the resources to carry out a major review.  So, whether you do it yourself, ask an employee or volunteer to do it or engage a consultant / designer, what do you need to understand?

CMS

I shall name common problems and techniques and show you how to steer your own site.  This is important even if you engage someone else to look after your site.  If you understand what they’re doing, you can make suggestions and stretch the boundaries in realistic ways.

Applications

There are loads of applications (software tools) that might potentially be helpful.

  • Social media can support your website or do the job you need without a website
  • Analytics – how do you get and interpret information about your site’s performance?
  • Search engine optimisation, keyword research and all those things that affect how your site functions.
  • Loads of applications help you write code and prepare graphics and animations for websites.
  • Content management systems
  • Various cloud resources help you share stuff online.

Many of these are free and some are very expensive.  How do you make the best choices? If your designer is using an application, how can you follow what the designer is doing?  I’ll interpret the jargon and explain what to expect.