Custom Designed WordPress Theme vs. Purchased Theme

Wordpress templates

I do a lot of custom WordPress themes, in recent years most of the websites I design are WordPress, I recommend it because it allows my clients to easily update their own websites. Nowadays many companies are choosing to purchase premium themes that are sold online, this is a good idea if you are trying to launch a website on the cheap, but there are some serious shortcomings to a purchased theme.

Why a Custom Designed WordPress Theme from iLab New Media is Superior to a Premium Purchased WordPress Theme

  1. Customizations: When you need help customizing your template, implementing a plugin or any other common theme customization will the theme developer help you out? Are they available for a phone call to help you understand how it is supposed to work?
  2. Bugs: When you find a bug in the template or a plugin incompatibility, will the theme developer be there to fix it at a minutes notice? Can you call or email the developer of your theme to ask about any issues that arise? Will the theme developer stand behind and support his work for perpetuity?
  3. Maintenance: Will maintaining your WordPress theme website be easy or will you have to go to great lengths to figure out how to do what you want to do. If you get stuck can you call the theme developer and have him take a look or make the updates himself?
  4. Updating: To keep WordPress secure it is recommended that you install all updates and keep your software up to date. However WordPress updates can break things in plugins and themes. Will your theme developer be there for you down the road if something breaks or will he require you to buy the latest theme to get any updates? Can you give the developer a call and ask questions about this?
  5. Peace of mind: Knowing that the person who developed your WordPress theme and knows its workings inside and out, is just a phone call or email away. Knowing that no matter what might go wrong with your site (being hacked, data corruption, server fail, plugin incompatibility or anything else), that your theme developer is available to help, cares about your situation and will fix many items without cost to you.

When buying a WordPress theme, remember that these companies are doing it to make money. Not that I am not also in business to make money, but I have a relationship with my customers, I know and care deeply about their online success, we are a team and I am invested in their website. A theme developer cannot care about each, individual customer, they sell hundreds of themes and don’t even talk to most of them. This is the difference between craftsmanship and assembly line manufacturing.

Marketing on a Shoestring

Marketing on the cheap

A great blog post this morning over at A VC blog about marketing on a small budget. In a nutshell it is

  1. Ask existing customers for leads
  2. Establish yourself as an expert
  3. Leverage social media
  4. Establish an email newsletter
  5. Cold call

We can help you with items 2, 3 and 4 above. Give iLab New Media a call if you want to explore some of these options. Read the full story here.

What would you recommend for inexpensive and effecting marketing on the cheap? Leave a comment below.

Google: “Make Sure Your Website Doesn’t Suck”

Google's Matt Cutts

Every day small businesses struggle to compete online and every day that struggle gets harder and more complicated. Partially because companies like Google are tying to make it harder on web spammers and partially because small, local businesses are running up against competition from big business. Small businesses often just don’t have the time or resources that big business has to promote themselves online, posting to their blog weekly, checking the competition’s website, checking their search rankings and analytics, posting to social media sites every day, sending out email newsletters, refreshing the content of their websites every month, redesigning every couple of years, etc, etc.

This issue was address by Google’s own Matt Cutts recently in a video post where he answers the following question

“Ranking being so valuable, how does a true biz owner that offers a legitimate business and has a vast number of customers supposed to gain the traffic “deserved” over those that specialize in creating traffic? Is it supposed to be this hard for us?”

Matt’s primary advice to website owners trying to compete online was

  • Make sure your website doesn’t suck
  • Make your website easy for mobile users to use
  • Have good navigation

At iLab New Media we are living this advice, we guarantee that any website we create will not suck, our mobile sites are fantastic examples of mobile ease of use and we always ensure that all sites we create have good, clear, easy to use navigation. So take Google’s advice now and about working on your website so we can make sure it doesn’t suck.

Below is the full video if you are interested in watching it.

What advice would you give a small business to compete with the big boys online? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


5 Tips to Increase Web Traffic

Set your website on fire

All too often businesses get their new websites designed and then forget about them and expect the website to do the rest. Business people sometimes assume that if a website does not take off right away, that the web designer has not done his job correctly. While that may be true in some cases, for a website to really excel it needs to be treated like a high maintenance girlfriend. Here is my list of the top 5 things you can do to set your website on fire and increase web traffic.

  • Blog – This brings us back to the old cliche about content being the ruling monarch or some other such drivel, the point is that your content is everything. Good wordy content drives search engine ranking up, it also encourages people to spend time on your site and it motivates visitors to return to your site again and again. Blogging is the best way for a website owner to add content to a website regularly and tools like RSS help disseminate that information and increase web traffic too. Set a schedule and stick to it, one new entry a week, or a day or whatever works with your schedule.
  • Inbound links – Probably as important to website ranking as good text content is inbound links, that is links on other sites that point to your website. There are a myriad places online where one can get linked. Online directories related to your local area or your particular industry, reciprocal links, blog comments and discussion forums. It takes more time and patience than anything else to find these places and get linked, but your efforts will be rewarded as your search engine ranking rises. Search engines aside, inbound links are good for the traffic they naturally generate too.
  • Social networking – Another great way to increase web traffic is to get your business on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking websites. Be aware though that simply creating a presence on these sites is not enough, you need to contribute to these communities by connecting to others and posting relevant information. There are tools available now that will connect many blog systems to your social networking account, so for example, when I post this article to my blog it will also appear automatically on my Facebook and LinkedIn account. This saves time posting to a lot of different places and makes short work of keeping all your online marketing efforts up to date. Other tools of use in this area are sites like hootsuite that can post to various social networking sites at once.
  • Email newsletter – Implementing an email newsletter is another good way to increase traffic. This is fairly inexpensive to add to your website and can bring great returns because once you are set up it costs you nothing to send out as many of these as you have names in your database. If you are going to set an email newsletter up on your website take the time to schedule a time each month (or whatever schedule you want to keep) to write and send out your newsletter, a newsletter system that does not get used is money wasted.
  • Mix things up – A static site does not encourage repeat visitors, update your website frequently. This is especially true of your home page, at least once a year you should change the look of your home page. This gives the impression that your company is active and will encourage people who have been to your site before to spend some time digging deeper to see what else has changed often times reading information that has been there for a long time.

A well designed, well thought out website can do a great deal on its own, but to really excel it needs care and nurturing. This doesn’t need to be expensive, in fact all of the above suggestions you can do yourself, you just have to make the time. The time spent will pay off when you see an increase in your web traffic.

Any other ideas? What have you done to make your website take off? Leave comments below.

The Ultimate Web Publishing Platform

The best web publishing platform is...

For years I experimented with various web publishing platforms to varying degrees of satisfaction. The ultimate, in my opinion, has to have several important elements.

  1. Easy to use admin interface: this is critical, for a web publishing platform to be successful it has to empower the website administrator, making it easy to add and maintain content quickly and easily.
  2. Extensibility: the system should be able to add new functionality and features as needed, relatively inexpensively and quickly.
  3. Easy to use templates: the look and feel of the site needs to be easily customized, so the templating engine should be easy to work with.

For awhile I used Drupal as my web publishing platform of choice to create a number of websites and it works pretty good. But I found that adding functionality to Drupal beyond what it was designed to do out of the box, was quite difficult. Also, the Drupal admin interface was difficult for some people to come to grips with, making it difficult for me to recommend it to my clients with limited technology experience.

Then I started experimenting with WordPress and have had fantastic success. WordPress makes it so easy to keep a website up to date that people are more likely to add new content. The admin interface is very simple and easy, I have no reservations about introducing the most computer illiterate users to the WordPress admin interface, it’s that easy. Additional functionality can be easily added to a WordPress site and I have been able to quickly and easily customize a website’s look and feel because the templating system is very easy to work with.

The number one thing you can do to make a website more successful is to add more content. More content means more things for people to look at and read, more reasons for people to link to your site, more pages for search engines to index and link to, more reasons people to return to your site. So an easy to use web publishing platform encourages more and better content by making it very easy to add and edit content.

Call and talk with us about making your web site more successful by adding WordPress.

The Lost Art of Home Page Design

The secrets of successful home page design

Without a doubt the most critical single element of a website, and yet the most neglected, is the home page design. First impression mean a lot, your website’s home page has to accomplish several different tasks and do them well in a short period of time or your visitors will leave. These tasks are:

  • Capture visitor’s attention: Your home page is like the cover of a book, it has to grab attention and encourage people to explore deeper. Your usual “Welcome to our site” copy is not enough, you have a very brief period of time to make this impression, it must be made graphically or lots of people will leave before they have time to read anything. Balance is required in the area of home page graphics, balance between eye-catching images and download time since a fast loading home page design is also important. This does not mean that your home page should be all images and no text, it needs to have both, images to catch people’s eyes, text to explain what you’re all about and for the search engines to index since they can’t read images.
  • Direct visitors to the content they want: The home page is not just the cover of the book, it also needs to be the table of content. The best way I know of to get web visitors to leave your site is to make it difficult for them to find what they are looking for. The days of the Flash intro page are long gone, visitors expect to see the global site navigation on the first page of your site. The site navigation should be obvious, simple and intuitive, give them that and they may stay around long enough for you to tell your story.
  • Establish the credentials of your business or organization: While grabbing visitor’s attention and helping them find what they are looking for is important, it all means very little if your website leaves the impression that your teenager made it during summer vacation. The professional image of your home page design is as important as the professional image of your office and your dress. Visitors form opinions about your company based on the image portrayed by your website, make sure that it is as polished and professional an image as you can offer.

Creating a successful home page design requires a delicate balance of eye-catching design, ease of use and professionalism. If your website’s home page is able to grab peoples attention, make the content of your website easily accessible while portraying a professional image you are sure to reap the benefits.

If you have any doubts about your current website’s home page, we would be glad to talk with you about it to offer our professional advice or a bid on what it would cost to improve.

A really great web design must…

A great web design takes strategy

Creating a great web design is a balancing act between many varied and sometime contradictory elements. A website needs to please different groups of people and accomplish several functions at the same time. It combines left-brain, logical thinking and right-brain, artistic thinking. The average user or even owners of websites have little knowledge of what all goes into a truly great website, therefore I have compiled a list of the different things a website must accomplish to be considered great. Compare this list to your website to see where it might need improvement.

  • Look good – This goes without saying and is the part you probably already knew. A good looking website portrays a positive image for the business it represents.
  • Work on a wide variety of screens – Every web browser will render a page slightly different, so will different operating systems, there are also mobile phones, tablets and other odd platforms to think about.
  • Be easy to navigate – The end user must find the site easy to get around in and not confusing or they will go to the competition.
  • Achieve it’s goals – Whatever the site was intended to do, be that getting potential clients to call or producing online sales, the site needs to be designed to naturally engage visitors and funnel them towards that goal.
  • Play nice with search engines – Almost any site will benefit by better search engine ranking. So another thing the website must do is make it easy for the search engine spiders to index the content of that site.
  • Be easily maintainable – At some point every site will need updates, a well put together site will be created with updates in mind using includes, comments in the code and clean, easily readable HTML.
  • Load quickly – Obviously, yet it is often not made a priority in web design. With the rise in mobile web browsing this element is more important than ever, yet still often neglected.

There are many other things a website needs to do, but these are the big ones. These are the items that separate the men from the boys in web design, the lowest bidder is most likely not going to nail these points. Likewise a person trained in traditional graphic design will not have all the skills necessary to create a great web design, it takes someone who understands the intricacy of website design, someone who understands things like:

  • graphic design
  • cross-browser and cross-platform website compatibility
  • information architecture and web usability principles
  • search engine optimization techniques
  • W3C HTML and CSS standards
  • server side scripting languages
  • image optimization

A really great web design has to look good, work across all browsers and platforms, be easy to navigate, achieve it’s goals, be fully indexable by search engines, be easy to maintain and load quickly, among other things. Creating a website that can do all these things requires a wide variety of skills that you won’t find at every business offering web design services. So how does your website stack up?

Is your web designer right for you?

Is your web designer frustrating you?

Take this simple quiz.

  • Is your web designer offering you a custom design?
    Some web designers charge you like you’re getting a custom web design, then give you a template. There is a huge difference in price and quality, if you are getting a template design the price should reflect that.
  • Does your web designer create web standards compliant code?
    Designing your website to meet current web standards ensures that your site not only looks good on current web browsers, but will most likely continue to look great on future web browsers too.
  • Will your web designer’s code be search engine friendly?
    Not the same as search engine optimization, but in some ways more important. Search engine friendly code means your website is built in such a way that search engines are able to easily index your site and can determine what it’s about.
  • Will your web designer stand behind the website for the long term?
    Like any piece of software, many problems with a website may not crop up until after you take delivery. Will your web designer continue to provide support for any code they wrote? For how long afterwards? At what cost?

We would be happy to talk with you about these or any other web design related questions, free of charge. We never charge for consultations or just friendly conversation about our industry and what you should expect.

Search Engine Optimization Secrets

Learn search engine optimization secrets

Who was it that said “if you build it they will come” because it’s definitely not true online. How many websites have failed because the person assumed that visitors would just magically appear. I recently met with a business person who had spent many thousands of dollars on an ecommerce website that had, over the course of many months, sold nothing at all. Building a website without search engine optimization is like putting a retail store at the end of a dark alley and then wondering where all the customers are. If you put that same store in a major shopping mall, thousands of people would begin coming through that store every day simple because of its location. Search engines are that shopping mall and search engine optimization is the way to get your business located there. The problem is that the search engines are extremely secretive about how they work and SEO firms are equally secretive about what they do. In order for a business person to make an informed decision about buying SEO services they need to learn a few of these search engine optimization secrets.

While there are many business offering search engine optimization, you need to be careful because some are offering substandard service, either they don’t really know what they’re doing and taking peoples money, or they are engaged in “black hat” methods, that is those techniques that are considered unethical and could result in a site being banned by search engines.

So what goes into effective “white hat” search engine optimization? It used to be about meta keywords years ago, hidden tags in the header section of a page’s HTML that told a search engine what that page was about. Thanks to people abusing keywords, they are not used by most search engines today. The big 3 (Google, Yahoo and Bing) will not use meta keywords to determine your rank.

The most important thing you can do to improve your search engine rank today is to develop inbound links. An inbound link is a link to your website from another site not in your domain. The number of links to your site tell search engines how relevant your website is, the higher the PageRank of the site linking to you, the more that link counts for.

How do you go about getting inbound links? There are lots of places online where you can buy links but this is against Google’s rules so you should avoid buying links to stay on Google’s good side. There are also opportunities for reciprocal links (you link to me and I’ll link to you), but some search engines can recognize reciprocal links and give them less weight when determining a website’s relevance. Another way of getting links is to comment on relevant blogs or message boards, be careful that you are not just spamming these websites, but actually leaving good, relevant comments. The best way to develop lots of good inbound links is still the old fashioned way, develop great content on your website that will make people want to visit your site and link to it.

There are a lot of other things that will improve your site’s standing in the search engines like using carefully researched keywords and the use of those keywords in the headings, subheadings, title and body of your page.

At this point it should be obvious that there is quite a bit of time and/or money involved in getting a website search engine optimized, researching keywords, building those keywords into the content, developing inbound links, not to mention making sure the code is clean and properly formatted so the search engines will not have any trouble reading it. So, what can you expect to see for all this? Let me illustrate, let’s say you have a website that sells potato peelers and has a conversion rate of 4%, (A conversion rate is the ratio of the number of visitors who take a desired action (fill out a form, make a purchase, etc.) to the number of visitors who view the page). So you get an average of 4 new customers for every 100 visitors to your website. The keyword “potato peeler” gets an average of 18,000 searches per month according to Google. If your SEO efforts put you in the top ten results for that term and capture even a tenth of those searchers you would have 1,800 visitors a month which would result in 72 new sales per month. Obviously the cost of search engine optimization is minimal compared to its potential to make money.

With these kinds of returns you can see why SEO is something that should not be an afterthought for a website but something that is built in right from the start. With these search engine optimization secrets you should be able to get started optimizing yoir site whether you are doing it yourself or hiring someone to do it.

5 Content Management System Advantages

Thinking about content management system advantages?

The task of keeping a website’s content fresh and up-to-date can be a daunting one, yet it’s of utmost importance to the success of that website. Adding a content management system (CMS) to your website makes updating content a snap. The cost of implementing a CMS is much lower today than it was when I started in web development. There are several good CMS software solutions available now that require very little customization and are open-source so there is no software costs to implement them. At iLab New Media we do a lot of CMS development, so I have a pretty good grasp of the pros and cons of different CMS solutions and what they can offer a business. So you might ask, “Why does my website need a CMS?”. In answer, here are the five most important content management system advantages.

  1. Fresh Content – The most obvious reason is that your website will be easier to keep up to date. It just takes a minute to add new content with a CMS, if it’s easy you’re more likely to do it and your website benefits by staying fresh.
  2. Lots of functionality is available – There are hundreds of free modules available that plug into existing content management systems adding complex programming features with very little effort. Meaning that the cost of adding certain features to your site drops significantly. Some of the modules available include:
    • Site search
    • Polls
    • Password secured content
    • Email newsletters
    • Blog
    • Discussion forums
    • Photo galleries
    • Much more.
  3. Dynamic content – Not only can you add new pages easily, but new categories can be added and the site navigation will expand gracefully to match. Also old content can easily be updated, new pictures can be uploaded and company news and events can be added. Changes to your website become easy, trouble-free and inexpensive to make.
  4. Extensibility – New modules are being written all the time and since modules are developed in common languages like PHP, almost anything can be custom tailored to work within the system. Also the CMS software itself can be easily and cheaply updated to fix bugs or security vulnerabilities.
  5. User friendly interface – The technical features of a CMS intimidate some people, but fear not, the interface is user friendly and easy to learn. So while the your CMS may have lots of technical features available, your interface for adding new content is user friendly and easy to learn.

A content management system used to be practical only for large companies, but with lower costs to implement and the content management system advantages listed here, any website can benefit and see a quick return on their investment. Contact iLab New Media for a free quote on a content management system and see how affordable it can be to add these advantages to your website.