Pelland Blog

Free Websites vs. Free Websites

June 28th, 2017

No, that is not a typo in the title, but it did catch your attention, didn’t it? In the campground industry, most park owners choose a website design and hosting services provider with a track record and industry presence. Others choose to affiliate with a franchise, where they can benefit from corporate branding and marketing expertise that has been proven effective. Yet others choose to go it alone, taking the D-I-Y route with so-called “free websites” from companies like Wix, Weebly, Homestead, and Vistaprint.

Sometimes the do-it-yourself people are simply “hands on” business owners who feel uncomfortable with delegating responsibility. I often wonder if they also build the washers and dryers in their laundry, make the ice cream that is sold in their store, and provide each weekend’s entertainment, performing as a one-man-band every Saturday night. Other folks seem to resentfully think that professional services are overpriced, failing to acknowledge the legitimate costs and years of education, training and experience that are the foundations of those services. Finally, there are park owners who truly cannot afford to hire outside services for something that they would admittedly prefer not to do themselves.

This post is intended for the people in that last category, park owners who recognize that they need assistance in marketing their parks but believe that help is out of reach.

One of my company’s clients, based in New Hampshire, had wanted to replace the old website that we had built for them back in 2009, but a new mobile-friendly site was just not in their budget regardless of how creatively they juggled their finances. That changed about a month ago, when they received funding through a Micro Enterprise Community Development Block Grant that paid for most of the project. Funds were awarded by the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority to Grafton County, which then sub-awarded funds to the Northern Community Investment Corporation. Yes, it can be a complex process! The new website is already live, generating positive customer reviews and new business for our client’s park. Your park might also qualify as a beneficiary from this type of funding.

In our client’s instance, they were located adjacent to what has been identified as a REAP Zone. That acronym stands for Rural Economic Area Partnership Program, an area that the United States Department of Agriculture has identified as facing economic and community development issues. Many, if not most, campgrounds are located in rural areas. By definition, many of these locations are geographically isolated and face population loss and economic distress often due to declines in agriculture. According to the USDA, the REAP Initiative was intended to address such issues as stagnant or declining employment, constraints in economic activity and growth, and disconnection from markets, information and finance. Pilot zones were designated in parts of North Dakota, upstate New York, and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont (which can also benefit parts of New Hampshire.) Despite the current political climate, agencies continue to develop similar programs for other disadvantaged regions across the country, including the more recent Promise Zone Initiative.

The key to qualification for the CBDG Micro Program is generally to be located in an economically challenged area, to have a number of employees within a specified range, and for your household to fall within specified income requirements. Not every small business qualifies, but many might be surprised to find that they do. With goals that include the expansion of employment opportunities, a variety of projects that help to strengthen or grow a business might be funded, including marketing assistance and even social media training.

To determine if grants are available in your area, you will need to do a bit of research, with the understanding that small businesses do not directly apply for such funding. You must identify the local non-profit economic development agency that will apply for funding on behalf of the local businesses in your area. Start by performing an online search for “(name of your county and state) economic development agencies” or “(name of your county and state) small business development center”. Then call that agency to find someone who will assist you in determining what programs might be available in your local area at this particular time. Depending upon the organization that will be administering the program, you may be required to complete a brief application form to determine eligibility, with the agency assisting you every step of the way, approving an outside vendor, and authorizing the commencement of work.

In addition to Community Development Block Grant resources, you may also contact the Cooperative Extension Service office at your local land grant college or university or even ask your local banker to put you in touch with an organization that can provide the financial assistance that you need. Without taking the initiative, you will have no idea what resources might be available, and there are literally staff members who are waiting to be of assistance in helping you to grow your business. To paraphrase a famous newspaper editorial, “Yes, Virginia, there is a free website.”

This post was written by Peter Pelland

There Is a Test for That!

June 14th, 2017

Here in my home state of Massachusetts, a problem in recent years involved elementary schools (already considered to be among the best in the country) that were concentrating too much effort on teaching students to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Test, commonly known as MCAS. More recently replaced by newer testing that is in line with the national Common Core Standards that have been adopted by most states, the problem with MCAS was that teachers had to devote far too much classroom time teaching students to score highly on tests rather than actually learning. I am not a teacher, but is seems to me that it is more important for students to learn effectively than to be taught to pass tests with the highest possible scores.

A similar issue takes place when companies that market their website services run bot-based tests that present audits of potential website errors, warnings and load speeds. There is no question that it is important to have a site that renders properly and loads quickly across a full range of browsers and devices; however, all speed tests have their limitations. To run an automated test that purports to present the final word on the quality of a website and the experience that it offers to visitors is a flawed concept at best and a competitive potshot at worst.

No bot can effectively measure the quality of the end-user experience because that is an inherently subjective process. There is a tradeoff between a site that is visually exciting and a site that loads instantly, and many of the “errors” that bots identify account for mere milliseconds in the scope of initial overall page load times. A site that consists of nothing but text will usually run a perfect score, but how many reservations do you think such a site might generate for a campground or outdoor resort? My advice is to avoid falling for the bait, particularly when it is offered by companies that fall short themselves when it comes to overall quality and integrity of design – factors that directly influence human-based decisions rather than bot-based tests.

Let me offer an analogy that relates to the family camping industry. Many parks have begun offering one of the many “wine and paint” sessions that have become popular in recent years. They all follow a similar formula, where an artist whose career has never caught fire leads a session where attendees drink just enough wine to encourage their creativity but not so much wine that they can’t find the end of the paintbrush with the bristles. The idea is for everybody to copy the painting that the session leader paints. The order of the day is uniformity, a lack of originality, and the building of self-esteem. If Pablo Picasso was still alive and attended one of these sessions, his work would be the laugh of the evening.

When it comes to websites, the single most important consideration is whether or not a site is mobile-friendly. A site that is not optimized for display on mobile devices – particularly smartphones – presents an impediment to the end-user experience. What is most important is how long it takes before a user is able to read and navigate your site. Whether some images might take a few seconds to load is not an impediment to that experience.

If you are wondering whether your website is up to par, ask for a human, personalized evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses. That will take some time and effort to prepare, but it will offer results that are based upon the actual experiences of human end-users, not the bots that will never contact you to make a reservation for Site 127 for the second week of August.

Times change, along with the ways that websites are viewed and the algorithms that determine how they are ranked in search results. The one thing that is consistent is the importance of working with a knowledgeable and reliable company with a trusted track record to stay on top of things and to represent the best interests of your company.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Browser Wars: Why You Should Care

May 29th, 2017

Browser-Logos

It is human nature that we all tend to resist change. From brand loyalty to daily routines, we tend to be pretty predictable as individuals. When it comes to the browsers that we use to surf the Internet, we tend to be quite settled in our ways, with very few of us whimsically switching from Safari to Edge to Opera. Part of the reason has to do with the way we each like to stay within our own comfort zone, and another part of the reason involves convenience. Switching to a new browser can be a somewhat daunting task, with bookmarks, history, remembered passwords and other settings to be either imported or rebuilt.

In my own instance, I had been loyal to the Firefox browser for several years now, ever since Internet Explorer’s difficulties pushed me over the edge. More recently, I had been reluctantly tolerating the fact that Firefox was either locking up or crashing on my relatively new Windows 10 computer for several weeks. It got to the point where its misbehavior became predictable, with a day when Firefox did not crash being about as rare as a three dollar bill. I continued to wait for the next Firefox update to resolve my problem – after all, I had auto-submitted probably 100 error reports to Mozilla over this time – but to no avail. When it locked up, I would often check Windows 10 Task Manager, and I would find that Firefox was using 15% of my CPU capacity and taking up way too much memory.

Enough was enough. I decided that I had run out of patience, and it was time to leave Firefox behind as my default browser. Although most of us are familiar with only a handful of options, there is actually quite a collection of available options. I was gravitating toward Vivaldi, but neither the LastPass password manager nor the Disconnect ad blocker that I rely upon support the Vivaldi browser. Based upon plug-in support, I decided to move to Chrome, and I am seeing a remarkable improvement in the speed of my browsing experience, with Chrome using about 0.1% of CPU capacity and barely more than 0.001% of my system’s RAM.

For a variety of reasons, it is difficult to compile really accurate statistics regarding browser usage, even in only the United States, let alone globally. If you check your own website’s statistics in Google Analytics, you will notice that a very high percentage will be identified as “unknown”. Probably the most reliable data is presented by Net Market Share, where it is clear that on desktop computers and tablets, Chrome is the leader of the pack and gaining ground, Internet Explorer is rapidly losing market share (with few users embracing Microsoft Edge as its replacement), and Firefox, Safari, and everything else is pretty much just holding its own with far lower percentages of users. These trends are also tracked in the ongoing browser statistics compiled by W3Schools.com.

Of course, smartphones are accounting for an ever-greater share of Web browsing, and they present an entirely different set of statistics, where most users tend not to switch away from the default Android or iOS browser that comes installed on their devices.

You may be wondering why this might be important to you. First of all, go ahead and embrace change in your own browsing habits. Almost incomprehensibly, the (fortunately dwindling) numbers of Internet Explorer users include people who are still using IE10, IE9, IE8, and even older versions, seemingly oblivious to the fact that IE 11 was replaced by Microsoft Edge, where the current version at the time of this writing is Edge15. Running older versions of browser software represents a severe security risk, particularly when that browser is no longer supported by its developer (Microsoft, in the instance of Internet Explorer.) There is a big difference between being loyally running the latest version of Safari on your Mac and blindly running Internet Explorer 8 because it came installed on your old Windows 7 computer.

From a business perspective, it is important that you (or your webmaster) check how your website renders and performs on all browsers, operating systems, and devices that are commonly in use today. Some sites look fine on some browsers but less than perfect on others, whereas many older sites are essentially useless on mobile devices.

Not that long ago, I checked the new website of a campground using the Firefox browser that was still my default at the time. The site, which looked very nice with its embedded YouTube video, embedded widgets and more WordPress plug-ins than you could shake a stick at, would barely load in Firefox and who knows how it works in all those versions of Internet Explorer that people are still using. (Yes, it works much better in Chrome!) Well, according to Net Market Share, Firefox holds 11.79% of the current market share, Internet Explorer’s various versions still occupy 18.95% of market share, and I do not know of a single campground that can afford to risk driving away over 30% of its potential customers.

Going back to that content-heavy website, another very interesting and eye-opening test measures the actual cost of viewing a site on a mobile device using the most popular mobile service providers in various countries (those providers being Verizon and AT&T in the United States.) Calculating the best case scenario using the least expensive data plans, the actual cost of visiting that website is $0.86 in the United States and a whopping $1.65 in Canada (based upon U.S. dollars.) If your potential guest is on a limited data usage plan, a site like this with 9MB of total loaded content is not making a favorable first impression. Chances are those people are not going to wait for the site to load and run up their bills. To run a test of your site, visit What Does My Site Cost?

Are you in the mood for another test? Although any website (unless it uses Flash) will render on a mobile device, it may or may not present optimized content on either Android devices or iPhones. To test your site’s appearance on mobile devices, use the Google Mobile-Friendly Test, where the results might present a rude awakening of how your site appears to perhaps 50% or more of its visitors (many of whom will then abandon your site even faster than they found it!)

As you can see, choices in Web browsers can have far greater implications than first meet the eye. Although Firefox is no longer my default browser, it is still running on my computer for testing purposes, along with Safari, Edge, Opera and, of course, Chrome. If your site’s testing is not up to par, particularly in terms of its overall mobile-friendliness, it may be time to consider its overall cost to your park in potentially lost business.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Tired of the Same Meal?

August 2nd, 2016

Even if you can no longer recall the days of school cafeterias or army mess halls, you probably can appreciate the concept of having a bit of variety to spice up your meals from day to day. How many people would want to have the same bowl of corn flakes for breakfast, a slice of pizza for lunch, and a hot dog for dinner … day after day after day? Beyond the lack of nutrition, you would probably be really turned off by somebody who offered you another hot dog.

In recent years, the menus in both academic and military settings have been tremendously improved, with food service operations subcontracted to companies that take pride in both food preparation and the nutritional value of the meals they serve. Gone are the days of cooks whose only formal training was how to prepare meals in large volumes, having been replaced by executive chefs with training in the culinary arts.

Yes, times have changed, but what about your website? Are you asking your prospective customers to get excited about a template-built site that looks just like thousands of others? Having the same menu from one fast-food restaurant to the next is desirable because those establishments are serving a clientele that is seeking consistency, not surprises. However, when planning a special occasion (like a week-long camping vacation, for example), most people are looking for something a little bit out of the ordinary. It becomes problematic when your website is conveying a message that says “boring” when your campers are looking for “spicy” or “savory” on the menu.

Just another WordPress site

I never know whether to laugh or moan when I see sites that seem to display an oh-so-distinctive templated look. I have even seen sites where the site title displays as “Just another WordPress site” because the webmaster did not take the minimal time and effort (or perhaps did not have the knowledge) to substitute an appropriate keyword-based title for the default template setting.

When somebody performs a basic search on Google, the words in the intuitive search term that they enter are either highlighted or made bold in the search results, and a user is more likely to click on search results that contain more of that highlighted or bold text in the site title, domain name, and site description. Nobody is going to search for the term “just another WordPress site”, so it should be clear that having that as your site’s title will put your park at a severe disadvantage. Sadly, there are hundreds of campground websites suffering this limitation. Click here to view the Google search results for campground websites with the “just another WordPress site” title. If your campground is on the list of search results, it just might be time to question the status quo and start searching for another webmaster (realizing, of course, that your existing webmaster may be that person in your mirror.)

Would You Like Arial or Times New Roman with Your Meal?

Even something as seemingly insignificant as font usage is ultimately very important. Once your site shows up in a search, if the person performing the search clicks or taps the link, is that person going to stay on your site … or does something like an overused font send them the message that you are offering the same old menu of hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and a side of fries?

In the old days of the Internet, webmasters usually chose “safe” fonts because the correct fonts would only display if they were installed on the end user’s computer (otherwise defaulting to the dreaded Courier font.) Today, there is a nearly endless selection of fonts available through the Google Fonts API, allowing your webmaster to choose distinctive fonts that are consistent with the overall branding of your business and which will render properly in all current browsers. Using CSS, your webmaster can also specify font styles and can even specify eye-catching font effects like drop shadows and outlines, all of which are supported in Chrome and Safari, and many of which are supported in other browsers.

Once again, if your website is not presenting its visitors with this type of very basic content customization, how can you expect your occupancy levels to be anything but blandly boring?

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Ten Common Website Mistakes to Avoid

April 21st, 2016

The biggest mistake that many small business owners might make would be to build and maintain their own website. Sure, companies like GoDaddy, Wix, Weebly, and Vistaprint make it look like an easy task that anybody can handle, but do you simply want a website or do you want a website that can effectively compete online? Whether you insist on building your own site, or whether you simply want to keep an eye on your webmaster (particularly if that webmaster is a family member or that “nice kid who knows a lot about computers” down the road), there are a few common mistakes that you will want to avoid.

Usually these mistakes are errors of omission, but they can also be reflections of careless work habits. Just this week, my company took over the hosting of a campground website that had been built by another company. In the process of fixing a few things that were broken, we noticed that no Google Analytics tracking code was installed on the site – even though the client insisted that he was accessing his Google Analytics data on a regular basis. It turned out that we were correct. Google Analytics was not installed on his site, but the site-specific tracking code had been mistakenly installed on one of his secondary websites, giving him the impression that the data that he had been digesting for over a year was based upon traffic to the main site.

  1. Google Analytics: Yes, let me make that #1 on the list. One of the biggest mistakes that can be made is to have a website without the advantage of running Google Analytics. It is a free tool, it is easy to install, and it provides a wealth of extremely valuable information regarding the visitors to your site, traffic sources, and much more.
  2. Flash: Leisure suits were really popular for a brief period of time in the late 1970’s, but even John Travolta would not be caught dead wearing one today. The same with Flash. It was “really cool” for a while … until support for Flash was dropped by iOS and the latest Android devices. There are new ways of presenting rich content, but steer clear of Flash.
  3. Orphans: I am not talking about Mickey Rooney and Boys Town. I am talking about pages on a website that fail to link back to the other pages of the site. Sort of like a dead end in a corn maze or a hall of mirrors, orphan pages are very frustrating to site visitors.
  4. Broken Links: Formula 409 is a well-known cleaning and degreasing product that has been around since the 1950’s, but 404 error messages on a website are about as popular as a “door-buster” item at Wal-Mart that is out of stock the moment the store opens and the sale begins. People see these frustrating messages when they click on a broken link, typically because a page has been deleted without updating its incoming links.
  5. Unencrypted E-Mail Links: You would not display your credit card number on a poster in Times Square, and you would certainly not hand out keys to your home or automobile to total strangers, so why would you display an unencrypted e-mail address on your website? Without encryption, the message to e-mail address harvesting spam robots is “Here I am. Come get me!”
  6. Broken Graphics: One of the telltale signs of a beginning webmaster are broken graphics. If graphics are linked to files on a local computer, they will appear normally, but only on that computer. Anybody accessing the page from any other device anywhere in the world will see a broken graphic link.
  7. Slow Loading Images: Have you ever visited a website, only to watch images slowly loading, as if they were being slowly painted onto your screen? Almost inevitably, it is because the person maintaining the site has placed enormous photos onto the page, then has those images being scaled down to size by the browsers of end users. The enormous file is being needlessly downloaded, then resized, when a properly sized image would have loaded immediately.
  8. Ignoring Mobile Devices: All the talk these days is about mobile-friendliness and the fact that over 50% of the traffic to most websites is coming from people using smartphones and tablets. If your site is not mobile-friendly, you are turning away a tremendous portion of your market. Do not be deceived by the fact that almost any website may be viewed on a smartphone. There is a big difference between being able to view a site and actually engaging in a non-frustrating experience. Is your content scaling down to the size of the display, does the navigation work with pudgy fingers, and can users tap a phone number displayed on your site to initiate a phone call?
  9. Out of Date Content: You would not buy a gallon of milk that was past its expiration date, would you? Well, why would you expect people to “buy” what you are selling on your website if its content looks like it is way past its “best used by” date? Specifically, rates and schedules should show the current year. I know of another website design company that circumvents this maintenance issue by never including the year on a rates page. That is a big mistake because it fails to offer users the assurance that the content is current. Particularly when it involves pricing, nobody wants to make a buying decision when there is pricing uncertainty.
  10. Missing Meta Content: Meta content consists of essential elements written into the code of a website that are not generally visible when the site is viewed by an end user. This basic content is mission-critical for search engine optimization and to influence search engine users to choose to click on your site’s listing over another. This meta content only begins with a proper page title, page description, and “alt” tags that describe photos and graphics. That same site that was missing the Google Analytics tracking code also had a site title tag that read “My Blog | My WordPress Blog”.

These are only 10 common mistakes that webmasters can make. The overall best advice is to avoid working with that webmaster in your mirror (or that clever kid down the road) and to choose one of several professional companies with reputations you can trust. You have better things to do than to look for mistakes on your website … or to deal with the consequences of those mistakes.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Evaluate Your Website’s End User Experience

September 16th, 2015

I often find businesses that put far too much emphasis on driving traffic to their website and far too little emphasis on the user experience once someone reaches their site. This is backward thinking that fails to address the importance of converting online traffic into customers. Think about it. If you ran a store where your average sale was $100.00, would you rather have 100 people in your store if only 1 out of 20 made a purchase, or would you prefer to have 20 people in your store with 1 out of 3 making a purchase? In the first instance, you would look very busy but would be realizing only $500.00 in sales, whereas in the second instance, you would be generating more income while giving your customers greater attention and tremendously reducing your sales overhead.

Businesses that are engaged in online commerce have their fingers on the pulse of their customer base, easily detecting the difference between active customers and dead bodies. They know that, right until that last confirming click, a shopping cart may be abandoned and an order lost. For that reason, they know that they need to do everything possible to ensure that the end user experience is as smooth and flawless as possible. Any and every little hindrance along the way takes the customer one step closer to bailing out and shopping elsewhere.

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There is a rule of thumb in the website design business that says “three clicks and they’re out”. This means that, if somebody enters a website and cannot find what they want (whether it is merchandise or simply an answer to a question) in 3 clicks or less, they are increasingly likely to leave the site … often never to return. On the same token, if a user is attempting to make a purchase – or make a reservation – but encounters roadblocks along the way, I believe that the same “three clicks and they’re out” rule of thumb applies. It is simply not as easy to monitor as an abandoned shopping cart.

Other than shopping carts themselves, probably the most frustrating online content involves pages that contain forms. Let’s face it: we all dislike filling out forms. Do you like going to your doctor’s office and being asked to complete the same 4 or 5 forms every time you have an appointment? Well, it is time to stop running your website like a doctor’s office! All campground websites either have or should have some type of reservation request form, but try to be sure that your forms are intuitive and follow some basic common sense rules.

  • Do not ask for non-essential (or even intrusive) information. For example, I often see people asking for a “home phone number” at a time when about half of the population no longer subscribes to a landline telephone service
  • If input is required for certain fields, let people know in advance (typically with an asterisk), not with an error message after users click “submit”.
  • Design your forms to adapt to user preferences instead of demanding that users adapt to the forms. For example, if somebody enters their phone number as (123) 456-7890, they do not want to be told that they were wrong and must re-enter it as 123-456-7890 or 1234567890.
  • Every form submission should be followed by some sort of receipt or confirmation. If you respond to a form via e-mail, use an address to which the customer can reply with any subsequent questions, never using a “do not reply” address.
  • Personalize your responses. I recently placed an order with an online merchant who sent me a series of e-mails, all with the “Dear Valued Customer” salutation. Fail!
  • Follow up on promises. If you tell people that you will respond to their inquiries within 24 hours, follow up on that commitment. The same merchant who addressed me as “Dear Valued Customer” had prominent notices throughout its website that promoted “Free Next Day Delivery via FedEx”; however, after placing my order, I received an order confirmation telling me that I could expect delivery in 7-10 days. Do you think that I will ever purchase from that company again? Not a double fail, a triple fail!

Keeping in mind the “three clicks and they’re out” rule of thumb, try not to violate these common sense usability rules. It is time for you to evaluate your website not as the business owner but as a potential customer. How many customers has your website driven away today? If your webmaster is not on board, fails to understand, or is anything less than fully committed to the end user experience, it may be time to shop around.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Domain Name Registration Pitfalls

August 11th, 2015

Recent events have encouraged me to revisit a topic that I first brought to the public’s attention back in 2010. There is quite an online industry involved with domain name registrations, the buying and selling of domain names, and the consequences that involve expirations. Generally speaking, the people involved in these practices spend very little money while in search of tremendously large profits.

About a month ago, one of our clients – a campground in Connecticut – asked me to check into the availability of a more desirable domain name to replace the domain name that they had been using (but that was actually under the control of another individual, with the strong potential for a future dispute.) When I checked the new domain name, I found that it was listed as “for sale” at a price of $500.00. My client authorized me to intervene on their behalf, willing to pay as much as $400.00. Over the next few weeks of shrewd negotiations, I suddenly found that the domain was released, and I immediately registered it on behalf of our client for our standard fee of $35.00 – not the $400.00 that they were willing to pay or the $500.00 that the alleged seller wanted. What happened?

Let me answer that question with another question. Have you ever received an e-mail from a company offering to sell you a “premium domain name” that is similar to your existing domain name? They contacted you because you were listed as a contact for your own domain name, and they were looking for a likely buyer who was willing to take the bait. I have had instances where I have received several consecutive offers from different companies, all offering to sell me the same domain name. The fact is that, in nearly every instance, none of these sellers actually owns the domain names that they are offering to sell. Sound confusing? Read on!

Protect your existing domain name.

First of all, protect your existing domain name from potential hijacking. Unless you are certain where your domain name is registered, know that it is locked to prevent transfer, and know its expiration/renewal date, do yourself a favor and perform a whois lookup. Go to http://whois.com/ and enter your domain name. Confirm that YOU are listed as the registrant and that the domain status includes the words “Transfer Prohibited”, “Update Prohibited” and “Delete Prohibited”. You might be surprised to find that your webmaster or hosting company is the actual registrant (owner) of your domain name – the scenario that our client faced and something that needs to be corrected immediately; that the e-mail address associated with your name is an old AOL e-mail address that you have not used in years; or that your domain is unlocked – which is roughly equivalent to the carelessness of leaving your parked car unlocked on the streets of a major city.

Whether you or your webmaster handle your domain name registration renewals, you will know if it has been allowed to expire because your website will suddenly become inaccessible. That in itself is not a reason to panic; however, you do not want to ever allow your domain name to go beyond the Redemption Grace Period (RGP) status as outlined in guidelines set forth by ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). The guidelines (not rules) allow for a 30-day RGP term, after which your domain goes into “Pending Delete” status for an additional 5 days. At the end of those 5 days, it is purged from the registry database and becomes available for anybody to register. That could be anyone from a business with the same name in another state to one of your more vindictive competitors.

Unfortunately, some registrars add their own unique rules to the guidelines that have been put forth by ICANN. For example, GoDaddy will make you pay an $80.00 “redemption fee” on the 19th day. On the 26th day, they will enter your domain into a 10-day “Expired Domain Name Auction” and, if there are no bidders, will then enter it into an additional 5-day “Closeout Auction”, seeking every opportunity possible to profit from your oversight and increasing the likelihood that you will be unable to recover your domain name. Only if there are no bidders at this second auction will they release the domain.

Network Solutions has an even worse policy, stating that your domain name is subject to deletion at any time after it has been allowed to expire. They say that they “endeavor to provide a grace period that extends 35 days past the expiration date” but that the “grace period is not guaranteed and can change or be eliminated at any time without notice.” Network Solutions states that “a Redemption Grace Period (RGP) is not guaranteed and customers should renew their domain name registration services in advance of the domain name registration expiration date(s) to avoid deletion of domain name registration services.” Just when you thought that GoDaddy’s $80.00 redemption fee was outrageous, Network Solutions’ fee is far worse. Their policy continues, “If we decide to provide the redemption service to a customer, we charge a fee of $299.00 to redeem and renew a domain name registration during the RGP.”

The bottom line is that you should never allow your domain name to expire.

What happens when your domain is in this Redemption Grace Period? Basically, it enters a domain name limbo otherwise known as the domain name aftermarket, sort of like an enormous used car sales lot or automobile auction. What happens is that vultures appear out of nowhere. The practice is referred to by a number of names, with domain tasting and domain front running being the most common descriptions. Many registrars also encourage a process called “backordering” which allows interested buyers to move to the head of the line during the RGP. Some of these same registrars have also been known to provide information directly to these domain tasters, whenever somebody performs a whois lookup, checking on the availability of a domain name but then failing to register it immediately. Returning a few days later, you find that the domain name appears to have (not coincidentally) just been registered and is suddenly listed for sale at a very high price. The seller is hoping that you will still want the domain name and will be willing to submit to what is essentially highway robbery.

Typically, domain tasters work with a registrar that will even allow them a 5-day grace period to cancel out of the registration if you, the potential buyer, do not agree to pay their fee. However it is handled, these are people who are trying to sell you domain names that they usually do not even own, in many instances running auctions of their own, driving up the price if they find more than one interested potential buyer.

Knowledge is your best defense against fraud.

Understand that there are three basic components when you own a website: The site construction fee (usually the most expensive component, unless you have built a do-it-yourself site), the annual or monthly hosting fee, and the domain name registration fee. The domain name registration fee is by far the least expensive of those three components – unless and until you lose your domain name, when its recovery can be very, very costly. Our client was lucky in this instance, and I have successfully intervened in many similar circumstances, but nobody in business wants to rely simply upon luck. Follow the steps that I have outlined, and do everything necessary to prevent the loss of your domain name from ever occurring.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Your Website: It’s All About the Results

April 30th, 2015

So many people obsess about the amount of traffic that their websites receive, putting far too much emphasis on the numbers of visitors rather than the behavior of those visitors. This would be somewhat similar to a suburban shopping mall acting like business was great because the mall is packed with teens on a Friday or Saturday night, out to enjoy a social experience but spending little if anything with any of the mall merchants. Anybody who has ever worked in sales quickly learns the difference between people who like to try on clothing versus people who actually buy the clothing if it fits, people who like to kick tires versus people who are actually out to buy a car, or people who like to attend open houses versus people who are prequalified to buy a new home.

With a website, the metrics that count are goals and conversions. Goals in the outdoor hospitality industry are generally going to be reservation-related calls to action, and conversions are when visitors respond to a website’s persuasive abilities. Until that happens, your website is simply spinning the wheels on one of those old-fashioned hit counters that were ever-present on websites in the early days of the Internet.

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The conversion of traffic to buyers is a complex process that relies upon several factors. Discount incentives are always the most effective online selling tool, but those are not always practical for every type of business. More subtle but equally effective factors might include time-sensitivity (Enter “free firewood bundle” in the comments box when making your reservation before midnight tonight!), limited inventory (Only 3 campsites still available for Father’s Day Weekend!), or a connection with another event (Reserve your site for the weekend of July 25-26, camping only 4 miles from the Downtown Food Festival!) are all viable incentives.

Incentives should not be limited to a single call to action. Your website should offer far more than simply a means for making a reservation. The time of that reservation (or the reservation confirmation) is also the time to offer an incentive for an extended stay, offer upgrades, and offer add-on services.

Okay, you understand the concept of website conversions, but how do you convert your basic traffic into buyers? If you are running Google Analytics or another traffic analysis tool on your website, you are probably familiar with the concept of “bounce”. These are people who visit your site and leave almost as quickly as they arrived for any one of a variety of reasons. (Note that the vast majority of traffic that appears in bounce rates consists of robots. Our concern is with actual visitors who get frustrated and leave.) It is quite simple to deduce that the means to reduce your site’s bounce rate is to increase the time that visitors spend on your site. The bonus here is that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time that a visitor spends on your site and the likelihood of that visitor taking your prescribed course of action.

Quite simply, your challenge is to determine ways to get visitors to increase the amount of time they spend on your site. Here are a few tips:

  • Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket (otherwise known as your site’s Home page). Distribute useful content throughout the pages of your site, encouraging visitors to click through to learn more.
  • Keep your site’s navigation highly intuitive. Make it crystal clear how a first-time visitor will find his or her way from point A to point B. Navigation should be consistent from page to page, located either across the top of the page or in a left side column, and it should be clearly labeled. Few people are going to click on a navigational link that presents a shortened equivalent of “Can You Guess What You Will Find If You Click Here?”
  • Present a visual flow that encourages exploration. A wall of text will not work. Balance text and graphics with a liberal dose of “white space”, a visual relief from sensory overload.
  • Keep the most essential content front and center, in newspaper parlance what is called “above the fold”. To sell newspapers, the lead stories are not buried at the bottom of the front page, initially invisible to a prospective buyer at a newsstand. With your website, try to present your case without requiring the user to scroll down the page (because that scrolling might never occur).
  • Keep your content easy to read. Choose font sizes and colors wisely, ensuring that there is sufficient contrast with background colors. Use headlines, bullet points, sidebars, and graphics to encourage engagement but, above all else, keep things simple.
  • Provide at least some content on your site that is not easily found elsewhere. Most people enter a site through its Home page (a website’s equivalent of your home’s front door); however, unique content that is of interest to your potential customers can present a side entrance with a very prominent welcome mat, particularly once that unique content gets indexed by search engines. This could be a blog, a consolidation of information compiled from other resources, or links to articles of interest to your visitors.

The common obsession with traffic, at the expense of conversions, misses the function and purpose of a commercial website. Focus on what is truly important, and you will be putting your website truly to work for your business.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Mobile Is Not Just a City in Alabama

February 4th, 2015

Nobody needs to be convinced these days that their business needs to have a website. What surprises me is how many people think that the website that was built 4 or 5 years ago, before the commanding surge in the use of mobile devices, could be adequately serving their needs today. Let me simply say that times have changed.

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Statistics compiled by Google, based upon the Google Analytics software that is running on websites around the world (and probably including your own) demonstrate that 50% of all website traffic is now mobile. In fact, this past holiday season, 22.5% of all online sales came through mobile devices (which are defined as either phones or tablets). Those numbers are impressive.

Google is now warning website owners if their sites fall short of being mobile-friendly … what they refer to as “critical mobile usability errors”, with the presumption being that these sites will soon be penalized in search results. Google is reportedly ready to begin downgrading those sites that are not configured for proper display on smartphones. The impact of that upon an older website could be tremendous, since the #1 source of new traffic to most websites is generated through organic searches on Google.

Taking steps in that direction, if you currently perform a Google search from your phone, the search engine results page will now label sites that are deemed to be mobile-friendly. Sites that fail that test typically display text that is too small to read on a phone, links that are too close together for fingers to navigate, or the lack of a mobile viewport (requiring users to pinch and zoom in order to view content). A site that is not mobile-friendly is not only at risk of losing out in its search ranking, it is losing its owner business today.

Let me demonstrate. I just performed a quick check of the Google Analytics on the conventional website of one of our clients, confirming that within the past 30 days, the lion’s share of the site’s traffic came from the users of mobile devices. The breakdown was 47.56% of visitors using smartphones, 14.98% using tablets, and only 37.45% using either a desktop or laptop computer. Keeping in mind that this is not a mobile-optimized site, the smartphone users visiting this site were spending only 60% of the amount of time on the site as the dwindling numbers of users of conventional computers. The bounce rate (the number of visitors who arrive at a site, then leave very quickly) was about 64% higher for smartphone users. Users of tablets, with larger displays, were somewhat more tolerant.

Nobody would have imagined this scenario a few years ago. Considering the fact that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time spent on a website and the likelihood of the user taking the intended course of action (in the instance of a campground, typically this means making a reservation request), these numbers are foreboding.

Before You Panic, Check Your Site

Fortunately, Google has provided a quick online test that will let you know whether or not your site is mobile-friendly. Go to the following link, where you may enter your URL:

https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/

If your site passes the test, congratulations are in order. If it fails the test, it is time to at least think about budgeting for a replacement. The next question involves what type of mobile solution will best suit your needs. For all practical purposes, there are three choices.

  • Responsive Web Design: This is the option that is recommended by Google. A responsive website serves the same site content to all devices, with a fluid page layout that adapts to each device. These sites are easy to maintain, but they may be expensive.
  • Separate Mobile Site: This was the preferred option prior to the onset of responsive design. It involves the construction of separate mobile content. User’s devices are detected and shown content that is specifically built for that device, or they are redirected to a mobile-specific URL. These sites are more difficult to maintain (because content is duplicated among pages) and they do not present consistent content across all devices. For these reasons, this option is falling out of favor.
  • A Mobile App: This is a separate application that is built for mobile users. It must be downloaded and installed by the user, and it is often used in conjunction with a website. An app has a usability advantage for smartphone users, but the costs are both prohibitive and unnecessary for most small businesses, both upfront and when it is time to maintain and update content.

The bottom line is that, if you are concerned about mobile traffic to your site (and you should be concerned!), there are decisions to be made, and you probably do not want to indefinitely delay making those decisions. Your new site should adhere to a specific set of best practices. These include the avoidance of software that it not supported on most mobile devices, particularly Flash. (There are alternate ways of presenting animation, using CSS or JavaScript, that are mobile-friendly.) Your site should also not include text that is unreadable without zooming, content with a screen width that requires horizontal scrolling on small devices, or links that are not far enough apart for fat fingers to navigate.

There are new websites being launched every day that are based upon old methods. Investing in one of those today is roughly equivalent to going out to buy a new car but coming home with a horse and buggy instead.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Does Your Website Work as Well as You Think?

November 26th, 2014

Sometimes it can only make me smile when I speak with a business owner who has a website that is either broken, harbors malware, looks like it was made 20 years ago, or is just plain uglier than a plaid jacket and a polka dot shirt. Almost inevitably, if I suggest that there might be room for improvement, I hear the response, “I get lots of compliments on my website!”

Okay, some people are nice and do not want to hurt another person’s feelings. In addition, how do you define the word “lots”? Does it include the 95% of visitors who are repelled by your website and will never do business with you? This is where live usability testing comes into play.

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If you have a skilled website designer who truly understands your business, industry and target market, you are probably fairly well assured that your website will meet its objectives, have a well-defined call to action, and will effectively convert traffic into added income. If you built your site yourself, it was built 8 or 10 years ago, or it was built by a webmaster who is more of a part-time tinkerer than a “master” of his craft, you may want to invest in some real world testing.

Usability Testing

With usability testing, you can certainly ask your existing clientele for their feedback and opinions; however, the more important court of judgment consists of the masses of people who are your potential – rather than existing – customers. Most websites of major businesses employ usability testing. It is something that even small businesses should consider or at least sample.

If you do a search online, you will find a plethora of companies offering a variety of live user testing services. Let me concentrate on two companies that make it simple, relatively inexpensive, and free to test.

The first is the Five Second Test from Usability Hub. With the Five Second Test, you upload a screenshot of your website (or a mockup of a new design that you might want to test) and set a series of questions that you would like answered. Testers get 5 seconds to view your screenshot before being presented with your questions. Afterward, wait for the test results which collect comments, extract keywords, and present the data in a graphical interface that makes a summary interpretation really simple. The Five Second Test is based upon the short attention span of most new visitors to a site, along with the fact that you have a very narrow window of time to either catch their attention or lose their interest. The best way to see how the service works is to volunteer to do a few random tests yourself. In fact, for each test that you complete (and they take less than a minute) you will earn credits (called “Karma points”) that may be applied to services that you order for your own business.

Other than the Five Second Test, Usability Hub also offers a Click Test, which tries to determine if a page’s call to action is apparent, and a Nav Flow Test, which tries to determine whether a site’s navigation is intuitive or frustrating. You can also volunteer to perform these tests, earning credits. Guess what? You are then one of the testers. This site’s services really allow you to help others in the same way that others are called upon to help you. That is a pretty nice concept, in my opinion. Any or all of these tests will provide you with valuable, low cost feedback that will either confirm that your site is hitting its target or suggest that there may be room for improvements. Some of the companies that routinely use these services include eBay and Yelp.

The next service that I would like to suggest is Peek from User Testing. With Peek, you will be presented with a 5-minute video of a real person who visits your site and describes their experience, telling you what they like, what they dislike, and what they find confusing. Using the link above, you can test your website immediately and at no charge.

With this service, you specify the demographic profile of the intended audience for your site, and Peek uses a screen recorder to let you know what is happening at the user end of things, including clicks, mouse movements, text that is entered, facial expressions, and spoken comments. If you are thin-skinned and overly sensitive, you may not want to encounter this type of reality check, but if you are serious about improving your business, this could be a terrific learning tool. Some of the companies that utilize this service include Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Adobe.

If you think you know how websites should work, you can also apply to be a tester at Peek. Click here to apply. If you are selected (which is significantly based upon whether or not your demographics match the target of companies testing their sites), you will be paid $10.00 for about 20 minutes of time. The site is also looking for people who are able to provide the needed feedback by taking a customer’s perspective, identifying things that are confusing, and thinking out loud so that the screen recorder will be able to capture your verbal comments. You probably spend time online without being paid, so why not give it a try? This service has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and on Good Morning America, among many other news sources.

By working as a tester for either of these services, you will also be learning about other websites, including what works and what doesn’t work. By directly utilizing either of these services as a business, you might discover some shortcomings in your own site and learn how your site might be improved.

This post was written by Peter Pelland