Clare Associates - Blog

A Move to Pembrokeshire

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After 20 years based in the Tamar Valley in Cornwall, we have relocated to Pembrokeshire. Mark and Victoria both grew up in Wales, and with the growth of the Shop on the Borderlands, our other business, during the past few years, and with the sad impact of the pandemic on so many of our tourism customers, we decided it was time to relocate.

We are still serving our Cornwall and Devon customers as normal, and will be very happy to have a chat via Zoom, Teams or Facebook messaging.

Too many requests : blocking access to unused Woocommerce features

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WordPress as a Content Management System with Woocommerce to drive an online shop are two very powerful and useful tools.  We have built and run a number of Woocommerce shops, and we love the power and ease of use it offers.

However, there are some situations where there might actually be just TOO much functionality.  I came across one of these situations recently on the Shop on the Borderlands. This online shop has a very high number of unique products (thousands of them).

By default, Woocommerce creates a shortcut ‘Add to Cart’ link to every product. The advantage of this if you are selling a few simple items is that you can link direct from your blog post or email to the ‘add to cart’ functionality and allow people to buy with one click.

The downsides are that if you have complex products, where you want people to read the full product description, you never want them to do that.   And, because the system is automatically creating a unique ‘add to cart’ link for every product, if your website gets hit by some annoying piece of software that goes through making a lot of requests at once, this will put the all-important site database under a lot of strain.

Add to Cart links can’t be cached, or protected using services like Cloudflare: every Add to Cart action makes the website database do work.  And if you have thousands of products, a program that automatically hits all the ‘add to cart’ links in a couple of seconds can quickly slow the site to a crawl.   No human user will do this.  A human user will hit one product button and make a form request.  Only automated software follows hundreds of links simultaneously.

The answer is to remove all the ‘Add to Cart’ links, and then use the site’s .htaccess file from allowing anyone to access the paths.  You don’t even want those paths to return a ‘404 not found, because even a 404 could put some load on the database, and there’s no reason for those requests to hit the database at all, and slow things down for your all-important real human customers.

OK.  Before I give the code, here’s the obligatory warning.  Before you change your site’s functions.php file or .htaccess file, take a backup copy of the working version. You know that, right?

Here’s the code I added to my theme’s functions.php file to get rid of the visible buttons in Woocommerce that point to the Add to Cart links.  (note that this won’t remove the all important ‘add to cart’ message on the actual product page!  That’s implemented as a form, not a link, so you don’t have to worry about it.)

// hide the 'add to cart' button on category pages.
add_action('wp', 'hideaddtocart');
function hideaddtocart(){
if (is_archive()) {
// make all items unpurchasable if it's a category
add_filter( 'woocommerce_is_purchasable', '__return_false');

// hide the 'read more' link that appears on unpurchasable items.

if (!function_exists('woocommerce_template_loop_add_to_cart')) {
function woocommerce_template_loop_add_to_cart() {
global $product;
if ( ! $product->is_in_stock() || ! $product->is_purchasable() ) return;

// removes the add to cart on 'related products'

add_filter( 'woocommerce_loop_add_to_cart_link', 'replacing_add_to_cart_button', 10, 2 );
function replacing_add_to_cart_button( $button, $product ) {
// nothing goes here since we don't actually want a button.

OK! so now we can only Add to Cart from the product page, where customers can read all the necessary description, and we no longer have a huge list of ‘add to cart’ links that annoying bots can follow to slow your site down and use up all your site memory.

But if the site has previously been spidered, or if the bot software is particularly annoying, they’ve probably already got a record of where the ‘Add to Cart’ urls were.  So my next step was to edit the site .htaccess file to stop anyone accessing those links at all.

I added this:

<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>
RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /
RewriteCond %{THE_REQUEST} /cat/[^?]*\?add-to-cart=\d+ [NC]
RewriteRule ^ - [F]
RewriteCond %{THE_REQUEST} /product/[^?]*\?add-to-cart=\d+ [NC]
RewriteRule ^ - [F]

The unusual lines are the RewriteCond ones: these give the pattern to match for the two URLs created by  Woocommerce for ‘add to cart’ links.
And then after that, the rewriteRule says: if this rule is matched, FAIL.  IE, do nothing.  Don’t load the page, don’t access the database, just give an error.  No human will be following those links, you don’t need to give a friendly message.  Just fail.

I did this and the site speed roughly trebled and the annoying out of memory errors went away.  What a relief.

It’s The Biggest Change to Search Results Pages in Years – Here’s What You Need To Know (And DO)

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Without any fanfare, Google is in the process of making the biggest change to its desktop (i.e. non-mobile) search results pages in years.

Here’s what a search for the phrase ‘plymouth plumbers’ used to look like:

plymouth plumbers

…and here’s what the same search looks like when I run it now:

plymouth plumbers 2

The map with local results for certain local searches (like ‘plymouth plumbers’) came in a while back. The big new change is that there are now four AdWords ads at the top instead of three and none on the right. (You can’t see them, but if you were to scroll down, you’d see two further Google Places results, then ten traditional organic search results and finally three more AdWords ads.)

The search results page will look slightly different at different resolutions, but one feature of the new search results pages is very important – organic (i.e. unpaid) search results don’t get very prominent screen positions at all. In the screenshot above, only the very top Google Places result appears without scrolling down (what web designers and online marketing people call ‘above the fold’). NONE of the regular organic results are above the fold. It’s long been known that click-through rates are massively higher for results above the desktop fold than below. People are lazy and don’t scroll down. (It’s slightly different for mobile, where scrolling down is a more routine part of the experience, but here we’re only talking about desktop.)

So how does this affect your business and what do you need to do about it?


Scenario 1: You use AdWords Search Advertising and generally try to get top-of-the-page positions

I’ve seen some online marketing people express concern that cost-per-click is going to rise (perhaps significantly) because everyone will now bid higher to get those top-of-the-page positions. The lower positions are no longer on the right above the fold, but way down at the bottom of the screen, so they’re much less attractive places to be for advertisers. It’s too early to know for sure, but my guess is that for a lot of searches (maybe even most), any increase in demand for the top-of-the-page results will broadly be offset by the extra supply of having that extra fourth top-of-the-page result.

Before the change, those top-of-the-page positions accounted for over 85% (source: Wordstream) of all AdWords Search clicks. That’s now almost certainly going to be even more – perhaps as many as 95-98% – but there are four positions to bid for rather than three. Advertisers in this scenario may well find that the best value for them is found in bidding to get an average position of 3 to 4.

(This all depends on the competitiveness of the search term and the nature of what you’re selling. If you’re selling something dull, routine and B2B, people probably don’t spend too much time investigating alternative suppliers. If you’re selling holidays of a lifetime or wedding dresses, it’s not so important to be in position number 1.)

What you should do: Monitor average position for your most important keywords, use the ‘Top versus Other’ segment analysis in AdWords to compare results between top-of-the-page clicks and other clicks (particularly which clicks lead to conversions) and seriously consider tweaking your bids. to achieve the right balance between position and cost-per-click.


You can find ‘Top vs Other’ by clicking on the Segment button in the AdWords interface



Scenario 2: You use AdWords Search Advertising, but don’t currently chase after top-of-the-page positions

Maybe most of your ads were showing on the right hand side of the search results page before. Those ads are now going to appear right at the bottom of the page, or even worse, on the second page of search results.

You’ve lost above-the-fold placement for your ads. You need to act now or you are going to see click-through-rates and very possibly conversion rates plummet.

What you should do: Monitor average position for your most important keywords, use the ‘Top versus Other’ segment analysis in AdWords to compare results between top-of-the-page clicks and other clicks (particularly which clicks lead to conversions) and very seriously consider increasing bids to get your average position better than 4.




Scenario 3: You don’t use AdWords Search Advertising, but your organic results get you in the top organic position for most of your key search terms

In a way, your situation isn’t going to change. You’re still going to get the top organic position. The problem is that this top organic position is now further down the page. In searches like the one shown above, where there is a big Google map in the way, your top organic position may not even be above the fold.

The top organic position is now worth less than it was before the change. Combine this change with the fact that organic SEO is getting harder and more time-consuming (and hence expensive), and you might find that AdWords Search is now cost-effective for your business.

What you should do: This is a good time to experiment with AdWords Search Advertising. Get someone who knows what they’re doing to set up a trial campaign for you and run it and optimise it for a couple of months. It doesn’t necessarily need to have a huge budget straight away. You’re just using it to compare. Don’t compare the results against what your organic results used to be (because the change will have made organic results less effective), but use Google Analytics to compare your organic results now against the AdWords campaign.

Now might be a good time to consider Google AdWords...

Now might be a good time to consider Google AdWords…



Scenario 4: You don’t use AdWords Search Advertising, and your organic results don’t generally get in the top organic positions

Before the change, your search results were getting above the fold some of the time. Now, they won’t. Fewer and fewer people will be clicking through to your website.

If you want to keep whatever search engine traffic you had, you need to act. It’s probably going to be difficult to improve your organic ranking – as I mentioned above, organic SEO is getting harder and more time-consuming and thus more expensive. Now may well be the time to investigate AdWords.

Click-through rates for the lower organic search rankings weren’t great before for most searches – and now they’re going to get worse.

What you should do: Our recommendation here is the same as for Scenario 3: get someone who knows what they’re doing to set up a trial AdWords campaign for you and run it and optimise it for a couple of months. It doesn’t necessarily need to have a huge budget straight away. You’re just using it to compare. Don’t compare the results against what your organic results used to be (because the change will have made organic results less effective), but use Google Analytics to compare your organic results now against the AdWords campaign.



Scenario 5: You don’t use AdWords, you don’t really need Google and most of your sales come from methods other than search engine results

Maybe you’re lucky. Maybe you don’t need to do anything. Maybe you didn’t even need to read this article (but if you read this far, thanks for your time, and it would be worth reading to the end now you’ve got this far). Still, it might be interesting to see what the search results pages look like for the search terms most relevant to your business.

What you should do: Ask yourself “If someone was looking for a business like mine on Google, what would they type into the search box?” then run that search yourself. (IMPORTANT: Log out of your Google account first, otherwise Google will place your site more prominently because it knows that it’s one that you visit regularly.) Think of some similar searches and run those. Does your website appear prominently in the organic results? Does it appear above the fold? Does it appear on the first page at all? Are your competitors ahead of you? Are your competitors using AdWords?

You say that most of your sales come from methods other than search engine results – but might this be because your site doesn’t really show up prominently for relevant searches? Might there be sales out there that would boost your bottom line if only your site showed up in the search results? If that’s the case, you need to at least consider trialling an AdWords campaign. Getting a good position on Google’s search results pages using AdWords is usually easier and more cost-effective for businesses (especially small businesses) with poor organic ranking than boosting it using organic SEO. Get someone who knows what they’re doing to set up a trial campaign for you and run it and optimise it for a couple of months.






(Note that this is still being rolled out, so if you’re still seeing the earlier type of search results page, you’re probably in the decreasing minority of people that aren’t getting the new pages yet.)

Hiding All WordPress notifications from those who don’t need to be bothered with them.

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We love WordPress, it’s grown from the blogging platform we started using way back in 2005 into a really powerful content management system which can be extended in all sorts of exciting ways: either with plugins and themes from the great WordPress community, or by creating custom code.

But occasionally you can see its roots showing, and when you use it as a multi-user system with several users all with different editing permissions is one of those situations.

If your website has users who just have the job of editing a single page or post – for example, if your website is a community site like  where each member has their own page to look after – you probably don’t want them all bothered by nag messages about updating plugins such as Woocommerce,  or WordPress core : your site admins will look after all of that and your users don’t want to know about it.

Fortunately, as long as your wordpress website has its own child theme for customisations, you can simply pop this code into your functions.php file,

function hide_update_notices() {
if ( !current_user_can( ‘manage_options’ ) ) {
remove_all_actions ( ‘admin_notices’);

Hey presto!  admin notices show only to those with the ability to do something about them.

Arrrgh – My Google Analytics Referrals Stats Are Full Of Meaningless Spam!

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If you have Analytics installed on your website (and if you don’t why not?), then one of the more interesting reports for most people will be Referrals. It’s only natural to want to know which other websites are sending you traffic, and how much. And for a lot of websites, referral traffic will be a very significant proportion of both total traffic and meaningful traffic.

So it’s really frustrating when you look at a report and see that much of the traffic you’re getting from other websites seems to be what is called ‘referer spam’. If you see plenty of referrals supposedly coming from sites like,, and, all with very low pages per session and session duration, then you’re seeing referer spam.

(If you’re wondering what the spammer gets out of this, the short answer is that they’re trying to manipulate the way that search engines rank sites for their own benefit, although some of the referer spam URLs you may see can be infected with malware.)


Consistently low pages/session and avg. session duration – a dead giveaway of referer spam.


Referer spam is flipping annoying and is going to make some of your Analytics stats pointless. So can you fix it?

There are complicated methods to fix this problem involving very technical changes to files held on your server. Get something wrong with this and you could mess up your site completely. If you really want to do this, find an expert to do it (and no on this occasion, that’s not us).

Instead, what we have here is a pretty good, pretty quick and easy solution that you can implement yourself. It’s fairly simple if you follow my instructions. And while it isn’t an absolutely perfect solution, it will make your referrals stats real enough.

(If you think this step-by-step guide looks daunting, feel free to get in touch with us and we can do it for you.)


  1. Log into your Analytics account and go to the Reporting tab.
  2. Set the date range to something reasonably long (say the last six months or so).
  3. In the left-hand menu, select Audience -> Technology -> Network.
  4. Select ‘Hostname’ as the primary dimension. See below:Image2
  5. Beneath the table, you will be able to select how many rows to display. Display the first 50.
  6. Now get a notepad out. Look the list of hostnames and carefully note down any hostnames where your Analytics tracking code was pasted. So include your own website domain (obviously) plus other domains that you also track together with this one (perhaps a blog site or a shop site under a different domain).
  7. There’s a decent chance you’ll see in that list too. This is also a valid hostname that you will want to note down. (It’s Google’s translation service.)
  8. Most of the hostnames will be nothing to do with your website. Some will be obviously spammers, some will have domains that are a seemingly random jumble of letters and numbers and some will be well known websites like and that are nevertheless nothing to do with your website. You want to ignore all of these.
  9. So you’ll have a fairly short list in your notepad of domains you wrote down in steps 6 and 7. It might look something like this:
  10. Now click on Admin at the top of the Analytics page.
  11. Make sure you have the correct Account and Property selected. Then, in the View column, click on the drop down box and see what Views you have set up. You may well just have a simple ‘All Website Data’. You may also have other views set up with existing filters. It’s worth keeping one completely raw, unfiltered view as a check against anything else you do, and this might be ‘All Website Data’. Because of this, you’ll want to create a new view called something like ‘Anti-Referer Spam’:
  12. From the View drop-down, click on Create New View, select ‘Website’ for ‘Which data should this view track?’, give your view a name, select the right timezone (note that for some reason it defaults to no daylight saving, so you’ll probably want to change this) and click on Create View.
  13. You’ll now be back on the Admin screen. Again click on the View drop-down and you will see your new view listed. Now you want to ensure that it has the same settings as your raw ‘All Website Data’ view, so select ‘All Website Data’ or whatever your raw data view is called and then View Settings, and note down the settings. Then go back and select the new view, click on settings and reproduce those settings in the new view.
  14. Now we get to the clever bit. We’re going to tell Analytics to ignore all hostnames except for the ones you noted down in steps 6 and 7. Go back to the Analytics Admin screen and make sure you have your new View selected in the View dropdown. Then click on Filters.
  15. Click the red +New Filter button.
  16. Type in something like ‘Valid Hostname Filter’ as the filter name. Select ‘Custom’ as the filter type. Click on the ‘Include’ button. Then select ‘Hostname’ from the drop-down. (IMPORTANT – make sure you have Include selected, not Exclude, otherwise your results will be completely wrong!)Capture
  17. Now get your notebook out and look at your list of valid domains. Type them into the Filter Pattern box, but change them as follows:
    • Ignore any ‘www’.
    • Separate each domain from the next with the ‘|’ character. (On a regular UK PC keyboard, you get this character by holding down Shift and hitting the key to the left of ‘Z’.)
    • But don’t put a | at the beginning or end.
    • For every ‘.’ in your domains, insert a backslash ( \ ) just in front of the dot.
    • For every ‘-‘ in your domains, insert a backslash ( \ ) just in front of the hyphen.
    • Don’t leave any spaces.
  18. So if your notepad has the following domains:
    • …then you would type the following into the Filter Pattern box:
      • yourowndomain\.com|shop\.yourotherdomain\.co\.uk|translate\.googleusercontent\.com
  19. Before you save, you can verify your filter by clicking on ‘Verify this filter’. (Having said that I find that the ‘estimation service’ is often unavailable. Worth coming back later if you find this to be the case.)
  20. Click on Save.


And you’re done. In future, as long as you select your new Analytics view, you shouldn’t see much if any referrer spam in your data from now. Unfortunately, the fix isn’t retrospective, so you will see it in historical data.

The only maintenance that is required is that if you add another valid hostname (like another domain that you want to track as part of your overall Analytics tracking), you will have to add it to the Filter Pattern box using steps 17 and 18.


Mark Poles holds the Google Analytics Individual Qualification.


Clare Associates Recognised in Responsible Business Awards South West

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For the last nine years, I’ve been helping to run a competition called “You’re Hired!”.

(Short explanation – it’s like ‘The Apprentice’, except instead of Lord Sugar, Baroness Brady etc you get me and a bunch of other local employers, and instead of fifteen or so sometimes clueless or otherwise annoying adults, you get keen and hard-working seventeen year olds. We have a heat in each school, with the best individuals going through to a two-day city-wide final in the summer.)

This year, we were nominated for a Responsible Business Award, presented by Business in the Community. Big awards dinner in Bristol last night which four of us went up for. And we won! To be precise, we won the award for ‘Best Collaborative Action’. Here’s the four of us looking suitably proud and collaborative.



Incidentally, this year’s final is later this week – Thursday 25th and Friday 26th June. The closing stages are open to the public, so if you would like to come along to see the culmination of the challenge, an inspiring speaker and the awards ceremony, be at the Plymouth Lecture Theatre, Portland Square, University of Plymouth at 2.15pm on Friday. The awards ceremony will end around 7.30ish.


Should you “Add new keywords to get your ads in front of more potential customers”?

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If you’ve got an AdWords account, you may have come across this helpful suggestion from Google:


Click on the suggestion, and Google will suggest that you should “Add new keywords to get your ads in front of more potential customers”. Everyone wants that, right? Google is even so helpful that it sorts these suggested keywords into the right ad group. And if you don’t have the right ad group, it will even create one for you.

Isn’t that fantastic?

Well, not always.

Let’s assume you have a nicely ordered little AdWords campaign. You know what your budget is (and it’s not infinite), you’re careful with your keywords and you have a decent idea which keywords get you the right traffic – visitors most likely to ‘convert’, to buy from you, book with you, whatever.

If you blindly follow Google’s suggestion, you will add a ton of broad match keywords that probably are nowhere near as effective as the keywords you’ve been working on (or your Google Partner agency has been working on). What are ‘broad match’ keywords? They are keywords without [square brackets] (those are ‘exact match’), and without “inverted commas” (those are ‘phrase match’) and without +signs (‘modified broad match’). A broad match keyword can look like this:

hotel deals cornwall

Now that keyword can trigger your ad if someone searches for ‘hotel deals cornwall’. However, it can also trigger your ad if someone searches for ‘cornwall hotels’,  ‘spa hotel newquay’ or ‘hotel in sussex’ or ‘cheap deals cornwall b&b’. Or even ‘best supermarket deals’.

One of the smaller clients we do some AdWords management for is the wonderful Oceanic Hotel in Falmouth, Cornwall*. This is a relatively small business with a relatively small PPC budget and a specific niche – they are a super-luxurious apartment hotel. They get us to manage their campaigns – just an hour a month. (Unlike a lot of Google Partner agencies, we won’t turn our noses up at clients with smaller budgets – and we we can get good results with a few hours of ‘rescue’ followed by semi-regular optimisation and monitoring.)

Now when I came to do my monthly optimisation hour recently, my jaw dropped. This had been quite a nice little campaign. Because we were targeting a specific niche, the keywords were all very tightly focused on that niche. There were no unmodified broad match keywords. I was very confident that the client’s budget was being spent on people who were potential customers. The clickthrough rate had been above 9%.

But now it was below 1%!


My reaction was probably the same as any other PPC consultant in this situation. Something like this:


So I checked my notes. (I always keep very careful detailed notes of what I do to an AdWords campaign. The AdWords interface has a change log, but it’s not detailed enough to really understand what changes will have caused changes in performance.)

I hadn’t done anything to the campaign at the point when it started performing badly.

So I checked the change log. hadn’t changed anything, but the client had.

Now to be fair, the client is perfectly allowed to make changes to his AdWords account. And some of the changes he had made were perfectly sensible ones. However, the one humdinger of a bad idea was following Google’s suggestion to “Add new keywords to get your ads in front of more potential customers”. Previously, the keywords had been things like ‘+boutique +hotel by the sea +cornwall’ and ‘+luxury +hotel +falmouth’. (Putting a +sign in front of a word in a keyword means that the search term has to include that word for it to trigger your ad.) Those keywords remained, but Google’s suggestions included much more mass market broad match keywords like ‘hotel deals cornwall’.

That’s why the clickthrough rate had plummeted.

But is that a problem? After all, you only pay when someone clicks on your ad, not when they see it. True, but very low clickthrough rates mean your keywords will have low quality scores. (That ‘hotel deals cornwall’ keywords had a clickthrough rate of just 0.14%. That’s really low.) And since position on the search results page is a function of quality score and how much you bid, your ads will appear lower down the page (or conversely for a given position on the page, you’ll be paying much more for a click).

Low clickthrough rates are a bad, bad idea.


So the next time Google suggests that you “Add new keywords to get your ads in front of more potential customers”, be sceptical. Very sceptical. Trust your Google Partner consultant more than you trust Google…


* How wonderful? In my previous job travelling across Europe for a Big 4 accountancy firm with a pretty generous expenses budget, I got to stay in quite a few luxury hotels. None of them (not even the Savoy) was quite as luxurious as The Oceanic. If you’re looking for a luxury boutique hotel in Falmouth, seriously, check it out.



Thank you to all our customers for helping us support Oldies Club dog rescue

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This post is just a quick THANK YOU to all our lovely customers for supporting Clare Associates, and letting us support one of my favorite charities.

The Oldies Club is a charity  that helps old dogs (aged 7 or older) that have become homeless, both by taking them in and rehoming them, and also by working with hundreds of other dog rescues alll around the UK to publicise their old dogs waiting for homes.  The Oldies Club is entirely run by volunteers, and all the old dogs they rehome are looked after in foster homes.

Clare Associates created the Oldies Club website, and we have supported them since 2005 by hosting their very popular website.  Our customers have helped us pay for that web hosting, and we hope that as well as getting good, fast web hosting, it will cheer you up to know you are contributing to help dogs like Perdy!

DSC00597  DSC00480

Perdy spent some time recently ‘helping out’ at Clare Associates, and she is still looking for a home.   Perdy is living in a foster home in Cornwall: you can find out more about her here.

Ways your website is different to Facebook

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More and more businesses are getting Facebook pages.  This is a great trend.  Facebook is designed for everyone and their gran to use, and so it’s quick to learn and generally pretty easy to learn.

But it’s not the whole web, and shouldn’t be.   Facebook funds its vast infrastructure of servers and ever-developing programming by a highly sophisticated system of advertising.  Facebook is making lots of money off showing adverts against your content.

And so, Facebook can do some things that your website may not be able to do so well.  It’s beautifully networked and set up to allow interesting content to be shared, and if you want to upload photos direct from your camera, say, and have Facebook resize them and make them into web-ready versions, then the cost of running programs and computers to do that work barely makes a dent in their huge ad revenues – whereas the costs of doing that on a stand-alone website are not completely invisible: someone has to pay for the hosting service and if that’s not ads, it’s the website owner.

But if you want to find out about a business or organisation, a Facebook page is often not the easiest place to look.  Profile information is limited in quantity and format.  Posts on the wall are sorted in order of time, rather than in order of priority, and often assume you already know something about the poster.  Messages may not be reliable.   And of course, the page is part of the Facebook interface, so it’s busy and full of distractions and adverts and notifications.

Your own website has the unique advantage that there’s nothing on there apart from what you want to communicate to your visitors.  Your choice, your message: no distractions, nothing to get between you and your customer.   With the help of free tools such as Google Analytics, you can get a clearer vision of what content most interests your customers, and experiment with moving things around to get better results.

So do you need a Facebook page AND a website?  Maybe you do.  Facebook isn’t right for every business, and for some very small businesses, a website may be more than they need.  But for most businesses, the two should be working together, rather than being viewed as a ‘one or the other’ option.  Both will need time and effort to develop and both have loads of potential to benefit your organisation.

When website hosting goes bad

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Most smaller businesses don’t think much about where their website lives on the internet. Often that’s left for the website designer to sort out.

Sometimes people buy hosting because someone saw an ad with a big cheap price tag prominently displayed,  and thought “that’s cheap, it will do”.

Nobody mention performance, backups, security or intelligent tech support that's not reading from a standard script. That could spoil everything!

Nobody mention performance, backups, security or intelligent tech support that’s not reading from a standard script. That could spoil everything!

In general I find people spend way more time and effort choosing colours and fonts and picking out their domain name, than they do thinking about the hardware that makes their website work.

Full disclosure: we sell website hosting to our customers. Some people prefer to get the hosting bundled with other services, but that’s not the main reason we sell web hosting.  The main reason we sell web hosting is that dealing with randomly chosen cheap web hosting is very often very timeconsuming and frustrating.

Here’s the story of a website – not developed by us – that we were asked to help with.  The original problem was:
 The website  was producing random errors when the site owner edited a page.

Erk!  Where did my site go and why have I got this error message instead?

Erk! Where did my site go and why have I got this error message instead?

  The errors happened regularly, but were very hard to reproduce – sometimes editing a page would cause information to disappear from the website, sometimes it wouldn’t.

We spent hours testing different kinds of changes, to try to work out if changing THIS field would cause a problem.  No?  OK, make a note,  try changing THAT field.  Check the code, check the database. Make a note.

This kind of testing is expensive because it takes so long –  and these errors were extremely frustrating for the website owner, who never knew when the site would have a hiccup and lose information that she had carefully entered into it.

The website that could not be copied.   To try to determine what the problem was, we tried to install a copy of it at a different location, so we could safely test without creating problems with the live website.   But the copy would not install properly.  It kept producing worrying new errors, that we did not see on the original website! It was all very frustrating.

Both of these problems eventually turned out to be the SAME problem.  And that problem was…. The hosting was really slow.

"We're in no rush.  We'll leave this page to load while we make a cuppa, and come back to read it later"  said NO CUSTOMER EVER.

“We’re in no rush. We’ll leave this page to load while we make a cuppa, and come back to read it later” said NO CUSTOMER EVER.

I’d noticed when making changes that the website was often slow to respond, and I suggested that a change to faster website hosting might please website visitors and offer a better experience.

But I had not realised just how much impact this was having on the whole system.   When the website owner tried to update her website, if it was a busy time, there was a good chance that the website would lose information rather than saving it.

When I tried to copy the entire site to a new location for testing, the connection would drop before everything had been retrieved, so that the copy of the website I took was not complete.   Because the copy was missing vital information, it could not run properly and showed a series of weird errors.

This led us to the alarming conclusion that this site was also … The website with no backups.
Although the website had a nice friendly-looking ‘backup’ button, and the site owner had been regularly hitting the button and storing the downloaded file in a safe place, the backup was worthless. Because the website was so slow, the backup routine was simply not catching everything.

So,  the website, which had had months of time and effort and not a little money invested into it, could be lost very easily.  If the cheap hosting company had gone bust, if the website had been hacked, if the hardware had failed – everything would have disappeared.

This isn’t the only case where I’ve seen this.  The slow buggy website as a result of cheap bad hosting is alarmingly common.  It can cause security problems too – I had one this year that was on very cheap hosting, where I found a  pile of secret forms that looked as though they were trying to collect credit card data.  I think they were installed by a hacker who had probably been using another account on the same shared server.

And all of this because nobody thinks about hosting.  Nobody considers that a website which started out with a handful of visitors and maybe thirty pages of information, now had hundreds of visitors looking through and interacting with thousands of pages, and that the needs of the site had changed.

Is my web hosting up to the job?  If your website is a local business site, aimed at small numbers of local customers, and probably you will never have more than 4-5 people looking at it at once,  then your webhosting needs are pretty minimal.

If your website doesn’t change much, if there are no forms to fill in, no database or dynamic personalised information, then the demands you place on the webserver are small.  Even if the server is a bit busy, probably your website will be perfectly useable.

But if your website has a content management system or a shop – if your website might get popular – then your web hosting should be planned so that you can easily scale it up.

Even web developers tend to assume that hosting should be cheap.  But bear in mind that hosting doesn’t just need to go ticking along at the good times.  It also needs to have a plan to cope with increased popularity,  a team of engineers who can stand things back up when it falls over – even if it falls over at 3am on a Bank Holiday Monday.   It needs backups, and the backups need testing.   None of these things is cheap, and you don’t set them up once and then never look at them again.

Next time you need hosting for a web project, ask the hard questions : how is this backed up?  How do I test that?  What happens if there’s a hardware failure?  How many people can I reasonably expect to see my website at once?  Are the backups kept separately from the website?  If the entire datacenter has a problem, are my backups inside it?  Ask to see another site using similar hosting, and find out how fast it is – the Pingdom Speed Test is handy.

Try Pingdom's great speed checker to find out if your website hosting is faster or slower than other sites on the internet.

Try Pingdom’s great speed checker to find out if your website hosting is faster or slower than other sites on the internet.

You’ll almost certainly end up paying more for web hosting than you think you ‘should’.  But if you do it properly the first time, you’ll never know how much time and money you just saved yourself.   And that’s a good place to be.