Do you really need support for your website?

Before you read this and think, “but my website isn’t big enough for all of this”, think what will happen if your site is down for an extended period of time, the door to your store is closed. Not only do you lose sales, but also potential customers who may never come back and may even go social on the matter (think Click Frenzy). The below tips are for websites of all sizes, and should be read in the context of your site’s needs, however I do believe the following relates best to a new site starting from ground zero.

One of the things most commonly forgotten when launching a new website is support. And its never thought about until its too late.

It’s that frantic “My website is down!” call to your developers on the busiest day of the year only to be told, “The application looks fine, there must be something wrong with your servers”.

Now this may seem absurd to you that the person who wrote the code is taking no responsibility for the site being down, but rightfully so, if they have done their job correctly your infrastructure should be decoupled from your application. That is, the application is in no way tied to the infrastructure. So if they tell you the application looks fine, what they are really saying is they can see no errors on the website relating to the code they wrote.

So what can we do about it? How can we make sure this doesn’t happen to you?
Based on my past experiences I have come up with the following list of do’s (and don’ts) when launching your new website and thinking support.

Don’t rely on your developer to setup your production environment’s infrastructure unless they will be supporting it, and even then make sure you get a second opinion.
What a developer uses on their development environment in “single-user-land” doesn’t always suit the real world of concurrent users. The people supporting you should know your infrastructure inside and out, before problems arise. It should be your support team who is designing and building your infrastructure so that when the problems do arise (and they always do), they know what to look for and more importantly can’t pass the buck.

There are two types of support: application and infrastructure.
As I have already alluded to above different people have different areas of expertise and in my experience your infrastructure support team will not take on the application support, it’s a different skill set. Make sure you have a support agreement in place with your developers at the time you sign off the website which outlines their responsibility should there be any problems with the website code.

Make sure backups and maintenance are part of your infrastructure support agreement.
Backups are obvious and understood by everyone but for some reason many people don’t think servers require regular software updates. Servers run on Operating Systems (OS) just like your personal computer does. Now think how often you are being prompted to update your computer’s OS. Servers also require these updates otherwise it leaves them vulnerable to all kinds of issues most importantly security vulnerabilities. Any support agreement should include the regular maintenance and software updates of your servers.

Know your Service Level Agreements (SLAs).
Your SLA is the agreed amount time your support company will take to respond to different types of issues. The time normally is dependent on the severity of the issue and can range from hours to days. SLAs can also include the hours that support will be available. Eg. 9 -5, 24/7 etc. Some support companies may offer significantly cheaper support than others, but this normally comes at the cost of worse SLAs. Think about the cost to your business in lost revenue if your website is down and then check to see if your agreed SLAs match your expectations.

Don’t put a Ferrari engine inside your Datsun.
Infrastructure support teams love to over engineer. It’s the way they can be sure your site will “never go down”. While it’s hard for non-technical people to know what they need and don’t, getting a second opinion is always useful. In general if you are starting up a new site and start hearing terms like “auto-scaling”, “multi-availability zones”, “replica databases”, “reverse proxy cache” you are probably venturing down the over-engineered path. Remember there’s no such thing as a free lunch and these features come at an additional cost. Again, you need to make sure the cost of your infrastructure is relative to the revenue that will be lost should your site have a problem. My advice, if you are just starting up a new site and have no idea what these terms mean, it’s probably too early to be implementing them.

Size matters!
The size of the team / company supporting you matters. When you are first starting out, a single operator who charges by the hour may be the most cost effective way to have “peace of mind” support, but as you grow you will need to be looking for a larger team / company to help support your site. Having the support of a larger team / company means that you have access to a greater brain trust on a wider variety of technologies. Remember a database issue is very different to a web server problem and requires different skill sets.

As you can see I am a big believer in being proactive and having what I call “preventative support”. I see support as more than just insurance that’s there when something goes wrong. It’s better to not have the problems in the first place, than to have a team who can solve them.

In general when selecting the right company for your support make sure they have experience in supporting your application “stack”. Whether your site is written in Java, PHP, Ruby or any other language, ask them about other applications they are supporting that are similar. While cost is obviously another important factor, make sure you trust the company you choose and that their values and professionalism match those of your website.

So who does Booktopia use for support and why?
At Booktopia our infrastructure is supported by Anchor who always go over and above to help us out. We use them because of their experience in hosting applications like ours and because they have a large team whose brain trust has helped us get out of a wide variety of tricky situations in the past. They are also constantly maintaining our servers and advising us of improvements we can make to our infrastructure. We were one of the few major websites that stayed up during Click Frenzy and that’s a tribute to the relationship we share with Anchor.

Do you really need support for your website?

Website Design for SEO, KISS!

Following today’s announcement that we, Booktopia, have won the 2012 SmartCompany Web Award for Best Search Strategy I was inspired to write this blog, to detail what we are doing at Booktopia, from a tech perspective, to be rated number one in Australia. Specifically, since our new site is only a couple of months old, what we did when designing our site to ensure good SEO.

The first thing to understand is that a good SEO strategy always goes hand in hand with a great SEM strategy. For that I have to thank my colleagues, who, for the last 8 years who have tirelessly built up one of the best (and biggest) Google Adword accounts I have ever seen. I will have to leave this for another post, but you’ll just have to trust me, its awesome!

Nevertheless, when it comes to SEO what we have done in terms of website design is nothing fancy. If you’re looking for the latest hacks for SEO, you’re in the wrong place. Why? Because I don’t believe it’s that complicated. When it comes to website design I believe in the old KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. Below are my top three points that I believe are important when thinking SEO for website design.

1. Design SEO from the ground up
SEO needs to be thought about when you’re designing a site. I too often see amazing looking website designed and built, and then the team looks around and I hear them say “OK, now lets get to number one on Google”. In the majority of cases this will involve rewriting large parts of the code to make it “SEO friendly”.

So what design strategies did we implent at Booktopia? Having only released our new site a couple of months ago, the following tips are fresh off the press. (Remember I said it’s simple!)

  • No <table>’s, unless you’re presenting data. Use <div>’s for presentation and lists, <ul>’s, for menus, results or any groups of things that are related.
  • Use CSS. Avoid HTML tags for presentation. Eg. <B>, <U>.
  • We avoided Flash. If you’re going down the flash road you’re looking for trouble. I’m not saying it’s impossible to do good SEO on a site which uses flash, but it will be significantly more work.
  • Remember your <alt> and <title> tags. Googlebots can’t read your images (yet), and so need your help to know what the images are about. Using <alt> and <title> tags allows you to do just this. (It doesn’t hurt to also help Google with links). These alt tags can also help you increase your keyword density.
  • Don’t forget your meta tags, nofollow’s and noindex’s. While many people say Google no longer uses the description and keyword meta tags, having them in your source can’t hurt.

2. Design your site for customers, not robots
Google wants to see content that is designed for humans not the Googlebots. Don’t pollute your site with keywords that make no sense to the customer. Google will always rank sites higher that have natural language and they can see through sites with extremely high keyword densities. Furthermore, for customers, these keywords are noise and will lead to a higher bounce rate and consequently a lower quality score, further hurting your SEO.

3. Make sure your site loads quickly
While I can’t tell you how much weighting Google actually gives to page load times, I definitely believe Google does penalise slow loading sites. As judge of the Smart Company awards Jim Stewart puts it, “A faster site in a highly competitive space will always give you an edge for ranking.”

  • At Booktopia, our favourite tools include Google’s Page Speed and Yahoo’s YSlow. Both of these tools can give you great insights into the load times of your pages, and more importantly tangible action items to help you increase your “Page Speed Score” or “YSlow Grade”.
  • Optimise ALL your images. Where possible optimise all your images before uploading them to your site. Adobe Photoshop’s “optimized” versions are not always good enough. Get yourself a lossless image optimisation tool. My tool of choice is ImageOptim (for Mac). Optimising images saves us up to 80% on images supplied to us by publishers, dramatically decreasing the load time of the respective pages.

Page load speed is not only a front end thing. At Booktopia we have spent a lot of time on our in-site search speed. Search and category browse makes up for over 90% of the requests on our site, so it’s important to us that it happens quickly. While I can’t give you the secret sauce to our search, I can tell you that under load (click frenzy load!), on average, a search on our site takes approximately 700ms. As impressive as that sounds, add the fact that we are searching a database of over 11 million products. This is an area of our system we are continually monitoring and working to improve on.

4.  Don’t try the latest SEO hacks
Googling “SEO tricks” will give you 11,600,000 results and counting. But I give you this warning. If it sounds too good to be true or sounds like something that is not in the interest of the customer, avoid it. If Google haven’t caught onto it yet, your time is limited. And when Google does find it, not only will all your hard work be wasted, you’ll probably be penalised. Just talk to all the people that got burnt by Google’s Panada and Penguin releases.

At Booktopia we believe in avoiding the latest SEO fads, while still being innovative and at the forefront of SEO. Remember, Google will always reward sites that have content that customers like.

5. Remember SEO friendly URLs
This is a well known strategy, but nevertheless important. Make sure your URLs include keywords that are related to the page that is being displayed.
At Booktopia, we use category names, product titles and author names to ensure Googlebots know what content they will find if they follow links to our pages. You can’t rely on third parties (people linking to your site) using “good” keywords in their links.

And that’s it. My top three (five, yes I got carried away) points for SEO when designing your site. This is by no means an exhaustive list of Booktopia’s SEO strategy but five points that I think are crucial when designing your next site.

Do you have more tips to share? (Please no hacks!)

Website Design for SEO, KISS!