Frequently Asked Questions: Web development and maintenance

What do I need to set up a website?

Getting a website set up can be quite easy but at a minimum, there are three things you’ll need:

1. The domain name

This is makes up the website address and requires registration and yearly renewals. It’s like the online equivalent of registering your company. For a web hyperlink, the domain is to the right of the ‘http://www’ and before the first backslash; for an email address, it’s after the ‘@’ symbol.

In all of the following cases, the domain name is example.com:

If you are a client, just send me the domain you’d like to register and we’ll take care of the details for you.

To register a domain name yourself, find a registrar and follow their registration procedure. There are lots of companies that offer registration services and a web search should bring up a list of popular providers. Make sure that the registration is under your name as some try to lock you in to their service by registering the domain under their own company name.

Some registrars offer extras, like privacy protection, at a price whereas the extras might be included free by other providers. Many also offer email and web hosting which is often automatically included during their registration process. We will provide you with hosting under a maintenance agreement so pay close attention to the purchase itemisation if you only need to register the domain.

Note that you might have to get creative with the name. If the one you want is already registered, you may have to think up different variations until you find something that’s available. Purchasing a domain from an existing owner tends to be quite expensive.

Once you’ve registered your domain, just send me the login details so that I can do the rest of the setup.

2. The website itself

This is the actual design and text visitors see when they visit your site. In the past, developers used to code each page manually. Every time you wanted to change the text on a page, you’d need to ask the developer to recode it.

These days, adding and updating websites are much simpler through the use of Content Management System (CMS) software. The CMS runs on the server and allows you to make day-to-day changes, like updating text and photos, without having to hire a web developer. Your website can be easily managed by a non-technical office administrator or secretary.

For simple sites, I usually suggest that we use the WordPress as this will make it easy for you to add and edit content. Drupal can be used for sites requiring more complex functionality.

Settling on a design is the trickiest part of setting up a website and normally takes a long time. For those who want to get the site up and running soon, it’s best to use a pre-made template. These can be downloaded online for free or quite cheap (about USD30-USD70).

Some people don’t like using a template because it’s not original or unique. While I think this is the best route when starting up a new venture that has limited budget, we’ll be very happy to work on a custom design from the very start. If you’re interested in this, please contact me for more information.

3. Hosting

Websites need to run on powerful computers, called servers, that are permanently connected to the internet. It’s quite expensive to run a business-grade server yourself so hosting companies offer a service where you ‘rent’ space on their computers. They take care of the management so all you need do is provide the website files. (This is similar in concept to renting space in a serviced office.)

We provide hosting free of charge for clients on a maintenance agreement with us.

What should we expect after signing-off a project with you?

Projects tend to vary for each client but the process goes as follows:

  1. I’ll send you an invoice for a 50% down-payment to cover for the start-up costs.
  2. You’ll receive log-in details to our project collaboration site. This will show some initial project time-scales and check-lists of what needs to be done.
  3. We’ll schedule your work as soon as we receive your down-payment remittance.

Timescales

From experience with many other projects, I now generally do not specify timescales for the stages in the initial work agreement or invoice. There are several reasons for this:

  1. For the majority of projects, the original timescales end up changing part way into the work. The reasons vary, such as a change of focus, new ideas for features and as is often the case with start-ups, an evolution in the business priorities.
  2. The stages themselves are not fixed and sometimes we end up running them concurrently, starting early or delaying them.

Instead, we work towards some broad milestones that are set by our clients. The milestones are set on our project collaboration site and are adjusted depending on how the project evolves.

Testing

Testing is another area where we differ slightly from some other web companies.

In my opinion, the best people to test the site are the clients themselves; you know better than anyone else how you expect things to work. We’re then guided by your observations.

This process helps keep our fee low because I don’t need to hire dedicated testers or get expensive programmers to do the job. It also skips the time intensive (and expensive) test specification documentation what would be necessary if we were to perform the tests thoroughly.

Testing is therefore more of a collaborative process with you.

For us, testing starts very early on in the project. The usual procedure many web companies follow is to give access to the site towards the end of the development process, only when things are ‘ready’ for the client to view.

I believe that it helps to let you loose on it early on because it gives you a realistic expectation of how things are going all the way through our work together. It also gives you a chance to ask questions and steer things in the right direction while we develop the site.

Testing period

Because of the above, I find that specifying a testing period in the contract usually isn’t very flexible.

It’s also quite difficult to stick to the period specified. For many clients, the website, while important, isn’t the only thing they must deal with in their business. In my experience, things nearly always come up that prevents them from dealing with the task during the allocated time.

For example, let’s take a client’s suggestion of a testing period of two days after delivery. I find what happens in practical terms is that if I deliver, say, on Monday, the client would have a meeting on the Tuesday, then a series of calls for Wednesday and so on. Thus the testing period expired but the client was still unable to even look at the site.

Again, this is another reason why we actually start the testing process near the beginning of the project.

Of course, if you prefer to have the period specified in the contract, we can do our best to meet it but with the caveat that things might not turn out that way.

Do you have sample terms and conditions we can use?

Generally, my clients tend use template-based terms and conditions when starting up. (They tend to take on paid legal advice later on, for example, after their venture has stabilized.)

Usually they ask about:

  1. Website usage terms
  2. Privacy policy (especially when they’re collecting data through online forms)

For those who are UK-based, I point them towards the Business Link website.

Edit 22 April 2013: It seems that the businesslink.gov.uk website has now been replaced by gov.uk and the above links no longer work. However, the sample privacy policy does still seem to be online for the time being at this link. (Microsoft .doc download, 28KB)

Is there a standard list of things to test on my site?

There really isn’t a standard list because each site tends to have slightly different features. Generally, though, there are three main areas that should be tested:

(A) Technical (do the features work correctly?)
(B) Usability (is the site easy to use?)
(C) Accessibility (can visitors access the site’s content without too much trouble?)

Here’s a common list of technical things to check that would apply to most of our clients’ site:

  1. Does the site display on different browsers and operating systems? (Which browsers depend on your target market but usually they’d be Internet Explorer 7, 8 & 9, Firefox 11 & 12, Safari 5, Chrome 18. Operating systems for the general market would be Windows and Mac. We don’t usually consider mobile access unless it’s a feature that clients specifically request.)
  2. Are there any broken links?
  3. Are all the pages formatted so that all content is visible?
  4. Does the search facility turn up the correct results?
  5. Can you click through to the content images and do they expand and close to return you to the article?

As you can see, this is all pretty basic stuff because most of our site’s features aren’t too complex.

Because of this, I suggest that your user testing should mostly be focusing on non-technical aspects like (B) and (C). However, because the bulk of these areas are subjective, it’s difficult to come up with an actual list. Therefore, I would suggest having free form comment boxes for people to leave their feedback.

Another thing to note is that the UK and EU have legislation covering web accessibility. You can find out more about this via the following links:

  • http://www.web-accessibility.co.uk/legal.asp
  • http://www.w3.org/WAI/Policy/#UK
  • http://www.w3.org/WAI/Policy/#EU

Unfortunately, this topic is quite a complex and time consuming area and most companies and web developers know little about the subject. There are also doubts about how these laws can actually be enforced. Furthermore, there are no specific definitions on what exact standards must be met within the UK. Thus it is my experience that many web owners and developers simply ignore the issue.

My policy is that we use web-standards compliant technologies where possible. This resolves most accessibility issues within reason for the amount invested in development. However, if a client wants to meet specific standards compliance, we do this under our standard hourly rate as an added service.

Ultimately, this is a business decision to be made on the client end whether this should be a focus.

Can I use an email program such Outlook to send bulk mail?

Quite a few clients have asked if they can run an email marketing campaign through our servers using an email program like Microsoft Outlook. The main thing to note is that email accounts provided by our hosting company, Rackspace, are not really to be used for sending out bulk emails. Although it is technically possible this method is not recommended for several reasons:

  1. You may breach Rackspace’s terms of service
  2. It’s more error-prone and therefore the results are unreliable.
  3. There is no way to gather metrics such as view and click-through statistics.
  4. There is a risk of getting your domain blacklisted as a spam sender by ISPs. Once you’re on the blacklists, some or all of your email accounts will keep ending up in the recipient’s spam filters. It may be very difficult to get off the blacklists.

However, many of our clients are small and micro-business who send out nowhere near the levels of bulk mail as many larger corporations. I’ve therefore contacted Rackspace to ask what are the allowable limits under their Rackspace Cloud service. Based on their reply, you should be safe if you:

  • Send no more than 250 messages per 20 min
  • Send no more than 5,000 messages per day
  • Include an unsubscribe link in the messages (and act on the request)
  • Send only to people who’ve given you permission to contact them about this

Nevertheless, I recommend that you a dedicated bulk emailing service to send to your distribution lists. The catch is that there’s a fee and the legitimate ones are very strict with how you’ve gathered the email addresses. (They won’t allow you to send to people who haven’t given you their permission.) However, the messages are more professional and you’ll be able to track statistics such as the number of emails that have been opened, unsubscribed or bounced.

We use such a system and if you’re interested, I’ll be happy to put together a quotation for you. As a rough idea, our profile of clients tend to average approximately £10 per campaign to use the system.

For your reference, Rackspace have a Knowledge Center article that states the following:

If your application is going to be sending out single messages (or less than 25 messages at a time), we highly suggest using SMTP. SMTP is a better option for sending out small amounts of mail. If you have questions on configuring your application to use SMTP, please visit with a member of our support team.
On the other hand, you may need to use our mail relays if your application will be sending out messages to a larger mailing list. If that’s the case, please review the following rules for sending messages through our mail relays:
1. Your message must have a working unsubscribe link, which must be demonstrated to us upon request.
2. The message must have a valid Return Path. This means the message must have a valid from address listed in the message.
3. The message of the email can only refer to the domain the message is being sent from. This means “DomainA.com” cannot send messages for “DomainB.com.”
4. You must obtain Rackspace Site’s advance approval for any bulk or commercial e-mail, which will not be given unless you are able to demonstrate, at a minimum, that your intended recipients have given their consent to receive e-mail via some affirmative means, such as an opt-in procedure, your procedures for soliciting consent include reasonable means to ensure that the person giving consent is the owner of the e-mail address for which the consent is given, you retain evidence of the recipient’s consent in a form that may be promptly produced on request, and you honor the recipient’s and Rackspace Site’s requests to produce consent evidence within 72 hours of receipt of the request.
5. We do not allow bulk or commercial e-mail being sent to more than five-thousand (5,000) users per day at a rate of 250 messages every 20 minutes.
6. Rackspace Sites may test and otherwise monitor your compliance with its requirements, including requesting opt-in information from a random sample of your list at any time.

Where can I find royalty-free images?

There are many sites offering free and royalty-free images. A web search for ‘royalty free images’ should bring up quite a few high quality sites. We’ve had good feedback about images from the following:

Do you accept crypto-currencies for payment?

Yes. I installed a Bitcoin wallet back in 2010 but at the time there wasn’t much of a market for Bitcoins. With all the publicity the technology has been getting lately, now seems like a good time to do some more experimentation. Part of that includes seeing if it’s practical to accept them as a form of payment.

The exchange rate is quite volatile right now so I’ll start off slowly and open this up to selected projects only. If you’re interested in paying for your project in Bitcoins, please drop me a note and we’ll work out the details.

For those who are interested in Bitcoin and would like to know more, here’s where to start:

(1) Get an overview at

(2) Install a BitCoin wallet. I went with Bitcoin-Qt.

(3) After installation, wait for your wallet to sync with the network. Warning: this could take days!