Small business guide to web design and hosting

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Small business guide to web design and hosting
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Domain and email hosting

Email is another factor to consider when looking at providers, according to design agency Artful owner Nick Sibbing. Web hosting providers also offer email hosting, which can make things easier, especially for beginners or very small businesses.

The downside with using one provider for everything is that it can lead to difficulties if you ever you want to change to another provider.

It’s certainly not unheard of for businesses to have problems with web hosting providers, ranging from outages to billing disputes. And if you’re using a separate email provider such as Google G Suite or Microsoft Office 365, for example, that’s one less headache you have to worry about if you decide to move to another web hosting provider. The last thing any business wants is disruption to email.

Similarly, by using a separate domain registrar you (or your web designer) can maintain full control over the all-important DNS (domain name server) settings, such as the MX records that ensure your email addresses (e.g. me@mybusiness.com.au) are pointed to your chosen email service. Just beware of providers which don’t allow you to change these domain settings (so you can’t use another web or email provider) or which make you pay an additional fee for this capability.

Also be aware of the variability of domain name pricing – if you’re paying more than $10-$15 a year for a .com.au domain, you’re probably paying too much.

Do you need a CMS?

Stewart suggests a business expecting to frequently update the content on its site should use a CMS such as WordPress or Joomla, so you or a staff member can easily add or change content without needing outside help.

The WordPress dashboard allows anyone to edit web content

However, if updates are infrequent – perhaps once or twice a year – they will likely forget how to carry out the tasks, which makes the job time-consuming and frustrating. In that situation, it is probably better to pay a skilled freelancer or consultant to do the work. It does cost money, but it leaves the people in the business free to “earn more money by doing what they are good at,” she said.

WMC Public Relations’ site is built on WordPress. “Because it is so easy to add posts and tweak changes to page content, we do this in house,” said managing director Wendy McWilliams.

“We are regularly uploading content such as my PR blogs and client press releases into the press office [section of the site]. This not only reduces costs but means the information can be uploaded in minutes rather than waiting on it being done by an external contractor.”

Open or proprietary?

The downside with many all-in-one services such as Wix is that they’re built on proprietary software, making it difficult if not impossible to easily migrate your website to another provider.

That’s fine if the benefits of the proprietary system outweigh this downside, particularly for small, simple sites that can be redesigned and rebuilt relatively easily.

Even so, if you’re getting a professional web designer to create your site, check that they’re they using open, commonly used technologies. That will allow you to more easily find someone to update the content for you or shift to another web designer if you need to.

For basic websites, for example, simple HTML pages and a popular script such as Javascript are all that’s needed if you’re outsourcing the content updates. While this approach seems to have fallen out of favour due to the rise of the all-in-one website builders, it has much to commend it. It gives you to the flexibility to choose your own web hosting provider – and a cheap shared hosting plan is all that you’ll need because of the lean processing and software requirements.

For larger sites, or if you want to keep the updates in-house, a popular open source CMS such as WordPress and Joomla is a good choice.

“I’m a huge fan of open source CMSes,” said Sibbing, largely because they prevent lock-in to a particular provider. As long as you have backups – your hosting service should show you how to do that – you can easily move your site to another host.

Popular CMSes also generally offer a large library of plug-ins, which can make it easier (and therefore cheaper) for your web designer to add features, ranging from a contact form to a shopping cart.

By using popular open technology you’ll also have a greater choice of web designers to select from. “You need to have confidence in [your designer’s] abilities and know you aren’t paying over the odds to have minor updates done,” McWilliams added.

Managed or self-managed?

Whichever CMS you pick, it is important to keep it and the other software up to date to reduce the risk of your site being hacked. Which leads us to one downside with using a CMS: the work required to install, configure and manage the CMS and supporting software – including the vital task of keeping it up-to-date and secure.

There is a middle way, however – providers that offer managed CMS hosting, generally for one or more of the popular options such as WordPress. Note this type of service offers much more than the simple scripts offered by many providers that only set up the CMS and leave you to do the rest. With managed CMS hosting, the provider takes care of installing, managing, updating and securing the CMS, allowing your web designer to concentrate on creating the site and you to concentrate on the content.

McWilliams pointed out that WMC PR’s web hosting company takes care of the WordPress updates, “so that’s one less thing we need to worry about. They also provide a seven-day report from daily scans of the site and advise of any errors. Fortunately we haven't had any yet!”

It’s vital, however, that you consult with your web designer when choosing a managed service to ensure it gives them flexibility they need – for example, these services usually block certain plug-ins for what they say are performance or security reasons.

It’s also important to understand that CMS updates may be incompatible with the plug-ins your site relies on, warned Stewart. New versions of those plug-ins may appear sooner or later, but there is a risk that their developers may have gone out of business or simply lost interest.

For highly customised, complex or high-traffic sites, your web designer may prefer the DIY approach of VPS (virtual private server) hosting. This type of service typically provides a virtual server with operating system installed, but rest is up to you or your web designer – including setting up and managing the full software stack needed to run the website and even updating the OS. Unlike shared hosting, however, you’re guaranteed a certain amount of RAM and processing cores for optimum performance.

Another option is a managed VPS, where the provider installs, manages and supports the OS and core web-server software, and even provides a web control panel such as cPanel. It is, however, significantly more expensive than regular self-managed VPS hosting.

Next: what to look for in a provider and web design tips

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