Category Archives: Web 101

Use Robots.txt to Improve Your Search Engine Rankings

It may sound like something from “The Matrix Trilogy” but Google, Bing and other search engines use programs called web crawlers aka a spiders aka a robots or even agents to search and index the web.

Spiders, Web Crawlers and Agents! Oh My!

Don’t worry! These aren’t mechanical monstrosities or evil subroutines bent on destroying all of humanity or even using us as a convenient power source.

Web crawlers are the programs that search engines use to explore websites in order to list them and rank them in their directories. Except for malware, web crawlers are the good kind of robots.

When a web crawler explores a website, it looks for a robots.txt file. This is a simple text file with just a little bit of code that can instruct which web crawlers are allowed on the site and where they can and cannot go. Often it is used to close off sections of a website that might be a duplicate of another part of the site (such as a separate mobile version or a version in a duplicate language).

Anatomy of a Robots.txt File

The code of a robots.txt file generally looks like this:

User-agent: *
Disallow:

The user-agent section specifies the web crawlers that are allowed or not allowed to index the site. The Disallow section is used to specify which files are off limits.

The statement above says that all web crawlers (an asterisk is a wildcard meaning “all”) are allowed to search the site with no restrictions (because there is nothing after the Disallow statement).

The next example says that only Google is allowed to search the site. All others are banned. The slash after the Disallow statement refers to all files.

User-agent: Google
 Disallow:
User-agent: *
 Disallow: /

For more information, visit http://www.robotstxt.org/robotstxt.html. If you are using WordPress, check out the article by Joost de Valk, one of the co-founders of WordPress, on how he configures his robots.txt files.

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We're also happy to provide assistance directly. Just send an email to dharma@zenpunkwebworks.com.

Why Entrepreneurs Should Learn Basic Coding Skills

Most business owners I know are busting their asses trying to generate more business. Not a lot of time left for ongoing education, particularly in the area of web development. But learning some basic coding skills like HTML and CSS can save you a lot of money and time.

Why Learn to Code?

There are many aspects of business that you must either learn how to do (and do well) or you must fork up the money to hire a professional. This includes furnishing your office, accounting and tax preparation. The same rule applies to your website.

You might think it’s no big deal, but your website is often the first impression someone gets of your business. Half the time, they view it on their smartphone. This is a critical moment where a visitor decides whether or not to trust you with their money.

If they find a sloppy, half-assed, disjointed, confusing, broken, or outdated site that requires them to work hard to find the information or product they need, they leave in a matter of seconds. No joke. It happens that quickly.

Using free pre-made or drag-and-drop themes can only be customized so much. WYSIWYG (short for “what you see is what you get”) editors have limited capabilities in controlling the color, size and placement of objects on a page.

Learning some basic HTML (for structure) and CSS (for styling) gives you the ability to further customize your site, giving it a unique and professional look. And it really isn’t that hard. Most of it is pretty straight forward.

How Can You Learn to Code

There are countless resources to help you learn HTML and CSS. Some are free (like webdesign.tutsplus.com). Others require a fee (like Lynda.com and Treehouse). I personally prefer Lynda.com because they use video courses to walk you through step-by-step. I haven’t tried Treehouse, but it looks similar to Lynda.com and is focused more on web development.

When it comes to learning HTML, I encourage you to focus on HTML5. When learning CSS, focus on CSS3. These are the latest standards for each of these languages and will give you the best and most reliable results.

Once you have a firm grasp of HTML and CSS, consider adding PHP, WordPress functions and even JavaScript to your repertoire. You don’t have to become a master of these, but learning the basics can give you a better site that generates more business.

What if You Don’t Learn to Code

If you don’t learn at least some basic coding skills, you have two alternatives. You either end up with an ugly site that generates little to no business. Or you have to hire professionals like ZenPunk to build you a successful site. We’d love to build your site, but we don’t come cheap. The choice is yours.

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We're also happy to provide assistance directly. Just send an email to dharma@zenpunkwebworks.com.

How DNS Helps People Find Your Website

The Domain Name System (aka DNS) is a way for web browsers to find the server (a computer that delivers web content) containing the files for a given website. Each server has an IP (internet protocol) address which is a numeric address like 216.146.46.11.

How DNS Works

Using DNS is a bit like the now outdated 411 information service. With 411, we had someone’s name, but needed their phone number. So we call 411, tell the operator the name of the person we needed the number for. They looked up the name and gave us the number. They could even connect our call directly.

Here’s a simplified version of what happens when you type in a domain name (e.g. mashable.com) into your browsers address field.

1. Your browser looks to see where the domain name was registered (aka the domain name registrar) and goes to their site.

2. The domain registrar keeps a listing of the DNS servers for the web host associated with that domain name. A DNS Server might have an address like n1.bluehost.com.

3. With the DNS server information,  the browser knows where your site is hosted and contacts the hosting company.

4. The hosting company’s DNS server keeps a directory of which web server your website files are on and directs the browser there.

5. The web server gets the request from your browser and delivers the information requested.

6. The browser then displays the information for you.

All of this happens in the blink of an eye, often in a fraction of a second.

Need More Help?

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We're also happy to provide assistance directly. Just send an email to dharma@zenpunkwebworks.com.

Who Should Host Your Website?

Perhaps more than any other question, I get asked who people should use for hosting their website. I worked on sites hosted on a wide range of hosts–some great and some absolutely horrible. Most were somewhere in between.

Just you case you’re not sure what a web hosting company is, a web host is the company that stores the files and databases associated with your website on a web-accessible computer (called a server).

Having a good host makes keeping your site up and running a breeze. A bad host can cause pages to load slowly and hurt your search engine optimization (SEO).

What We Look For in a Web Hosting Company

1. Up-to-Date Software

We once tried to setup a WordPress website on Web.com. The problem was that their server software (Apache, PHP, MySQL) was so out of date (several years out of date) that it wouldn’t run WordPress. Seriously. We were dumbfounded.

Not only can outdated software cause glitches for your website, it can be a HUGE security risk. One of the biggest reasons software gets routinely updated is to patch security holes. A server that is years out of date is like an open door invitation to hack your website.

Outdated software also speaks to a level of neglect on the part of the hosting company. If they can’t be bothered to update their software routinely, what else are they neglecting?

2. Up Time

If the server hosting your site goes down, no one can visit your site to do business with you.

A good host will have safeguards in place so that if a site goes down, a backup server will automatically get activated. Not all offer this, however.

Most hosts have a pretty good uptime, but we encourage you to search the web to see which hosts have the best uptime. You don’t want to miss a sale just because some a power supply went bad. Also be sure to use a service that monitors your site’s uptime. We use Uptime Robot for ours.

3. Tech Support

What happens when you try to upload files using Filezilla, but it won’t connect? Or you can’t figure out how to change the file permissions on the server?

A good web host has great tech support. You want a company that responds ideally within the hour to help requests and also has a robust, searchable knowledgebase or forum. This can be a life saver!

4. .htaccess

I realize this one’s a bit technical, but a .htaccess file is a configuration file for the Apache server. WordPress uses this for a number of things, including page redirects so you can have pretty permalinks.

One reason we aren’t fans of Yahoo is because they don’t allow you to put a .htaccess file on the site.

5. Bandwidth

Bandwidth is the amount of data you can upload and download in a given time. While most sites don’t use a lot of bandwidth, sites that deal with a lot of media (like podcasts) can run up that bandwidth rather quickly, especially if they get popular.

If you hit your limit, your web host could either shut down the site or demand more money from you. There have been popular podcasts that podfaced for this very reason. Talk about too much of a good thing.

6. Storage

Similar to bandwidth, file and database storage may be something to consider if you deal with a lot of large files like images, audio or video. Over time, the amount of storage you need may increase, which could run up your monthly costs.

7. Email support

I used to think this was a given, but there are some otherwise top-notch web hosts (like WP Engine) that don’t offer email support. Beats me why, but it’s true. So before you signup, make sure your new host offers it, if that’s important to you.

There are other companies that specialize in offering email support, including Google Business Services, but it’s not usually free like personal Gmail is.

8. Site Backup

Years ago, I made a major goof. I was removing some unneeded databases on our hosted account when suddenly I deleted the one database that ran our website. And to pile on the stupid, I didn’t have a backup. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

In a panic, I contacted ICDSoft, who was our host at the time. Thankfully, they run nightly backups. They had our site back up within the hour. Kudos to ICDSoft for saving my bacon on that one.

Also, use a plugin or app to do your own regular backup. We love the Backup Buddy WordPress plugin. It’s a premium plugin (i.e not free), but you can schedule automatic backups of both the files AND the database and send them to your Dropbox, Amazon S3  or email. It also makes migrating a website from one server to another a breeze.

Our Favs and Not-So-Favs

So who do we love? Some of our favorites include ICDSoft.com, WP Engine (despite their lack of email support) and A Small Orange. Some of the least favorite include Web.com, Yahoo and GoDaddy. This is just our opinion. Your mileage may vary.

Final Thoughts

You may have noticed that the one thing we didn’t mention in our list was price. Most of our clients are fine with shared hosting (multiple sites hosted on the same server). Prices range from $4/mo – $30/mo and you pretty much get what you pay for. So price really isn’t that big of a deal.

There are some other things we like to see in web hosts. Among these are Shell access (aka SSH Access), Git support, easy installs, etc. But the list above are the crucial things.

There are two things we would caution you against. Don’t host your site with the same company you registered your domain name with. If you discover their hosting sucks, you could be stuck there for a while.

Also, don’t try to host your own site. If you lose power for hours at a time (because a clinically depressed squirrel dove into the power transformer by your home or office), your site will be down, losing money. Good hosts have power backups as well as backup servers.

Need More Help?

If you liked this article, be sure to sign up for your FREE subscription to the Nickel's Worth of Free Advice newsletter where we send helpful articles every Tuesday and Friday. You can either fill out the form on the right side of this page or visit the Nickel's Worth of Free Advice signup page.

We're also happy to provide assistance directly. Just send an email to dharma@zenpunkwebworks.com.

What is a Content Management System?

Back when I got started building websites about 15 years ago, everything was hardcoded in HTML, the markup language used to display websites. That meant if you wanted to change something, even a typo, you had to pull up the file for that page and edit the code directly.

That was fine if you knew how to code like I did. But it left a lot of business owners out in the cold. Because while coding isn’t exactly rocket surgery, it does take time to learn. If you’re running a business you don’t have time for that.

Years later, content management systems began to be developed that allowed hardworking business owners to create a website without having to muck about with any code. They can log into the admin side of the site, open the edit window for a page and just edit the content. Sweet!

So What the Heck is a Content Management System?

A content management system (CMS for short) is a program that allows you to create, edit and publish content to the web from a central interface. What does that gobbledygook mean? In short, it’s a way to make a site that is easy to update and expand, usually without touching the code.

Popular Content Management Systems

There are a lot of content management systems out there. The most popular are Joomla, Drupal, and, at the top of the list, WordPress. Of all of the websites on the internet, nearly 20% are run on WordPress.

Here at ZenPunk Web Works, we are familiar and have worked on all three. But we like WordPress the best, mostly because it’s easiest for our clients to learn. It’s also highly supported which means there are many thousands of WordPress users all across the world who contribute to updates and provide answers to other users’ questions. It’s also free, and we like free.

Basic Anatomy of a CMS

In general, a CMS has three parts:

  • a set of core files (often PHP) that provides the functionality of the CMS
  • theme or template files that provide structure and styling to the pages
  • a database to store the content

A CMS typically has a front end, which is viewed by the public, and a back end, where administrators can create, update and delete content, as well as adjust a wide range of settings, change themes/templates and plugins (apps that provide additional functionality).

Themes Control the Look of a Site

With WordPress, there are thousands of themes available for free or a minimal fee. Some themes offer additional functionality like adding a slideshow or ecommerce, others are more basic. Some allow you to customize the look, setting background colors, inserting a company logo and other modifications.

People with a working knowledge of PHP, HTML, and CSS can create their own themes, which is a large part of what we do here at ZenPunk Web Works.

Need More Help?

If you liked this article, be sure to sign up for your FREE subscription to the Nickel's Worth of Free Advice newsletter where we send helpful articles every Tuesday and Friday. You can either fill out the form on the right side of this page or visit the Nickel's Worth of Free Advice signup page.

We're also happy to provide assistance directly. Just send an email to dharma@zenpunkwebworks.com.

How to Register a Domain Name

A domain name, as defined by TechTerms.com, is “a unique name that identifies a website”. For example, the domain name for ZenPunk Web Works is zenpunkwebworks.com. It serves as an easy-to-remember shorthand for people to find your website on the internet.

Without the domain name, people would have to know your website’s IP address, which is a unique numeric identifier for the server (computer) that hosts the files for your website. What a pain that would be!

The letters that appear after the period of a domain name are called the top-level domain, or TLD for short. It’s the .com, .org, etc. part of the domain name.

Some TLDs (like .com and .org) are for general use. Others like .mq (Martinique), .de (Germany) and .ng (Nigeria) are country-specific. Some country-specific TLDs like .ly (Libya) and .io (British Indian Ocean Territory) and .tv (Tuvalu) are sometimes used by companies not in their respective country.

To register a domain name, you must go through a domain name registrar. A registrar is a company that is licensed  by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) to register domain names.

Choosing a Domain Name Registrar

There are a lot of domain name registrars out there. Some also offer other services like website hosting, email hosting, and privatizing registration information. It’s important to use one that is reputable.

In 2012, lifehacker.com conducted a survey and compiled a list of the most popular domain name registrars. On top were Namecheap, Name.com and Hover. At ZenPunk Web Works, we like to use Dyn.com, but the ones in lifehacker.com’s survey may be as good (perhaps even better). We haven’t used them so we can’t say one way or the other.

I would suggest not hosting your site with the same company that registers your domain. If for some reason you decided to change your hosting, you don’t want that company to hold your domain name hostage. We’ve seen this happen to one of our clients BEFORE they hired us. It wasn’t pretty.

Choosing a Domain Name

Choosing a domain name can sometimes be tricky. The internet has been around for many years now, so a lot of domain names have been taken.

There are even companies called “domain name squatters” that buy up potentially popular domain names in hopes of reselling them at a higher price later. It’s not unusual to discover that the domain name you want is taken by another website or comes up with a page that says “This domain is for sale.”

There are some who suggest choosing a domain name made up of the key search terms ( such as best-barbeque-in-phoenix.com or greatreturnsinvesting.org) rather than the name of your business to improve search engine ranking. That is certainly an option. How much it actually helps search engine ranking is debatable. In our opinion, it makes a company look desperate for business, like when companies named themselves something like AAArdvark Widgets to get listed at the top of the phone book listings.

If your company name is already taken, try to be creative. If your business is Acme Widgets and you’re in Reno, NV, and acmewidgets.com is taken, try acme-widgets.com, acme-widgets-reno.org, or even shopacmewidgets.net.

There are some limits when it comes to domain names. You can only use letters, numbers and dashes (‘-‘) and it cannot begin or end with a dash. There is some debate about whether you can use underscores (‘_’). Best to avoid because it could cause problems.

If you discover that the domain name you want has been taken by a squatter, don’t buy it from them. You’re only reinforcing bad behavior if you do, plus it can cost you thousands of dollars. Best to get more creative with the name.

I Registered My Domain Name. Now What?

Now that you’ve registered your domain name, you need to find a web host and get your site set up. I’ll write more about those processes in later posts.

When you sign up with a web hosting company, they should provide you with domain name server (DNS) information. It usually looks something like

n1.myhostingcompany.com
n2.myhostingcompany.com.

Provide this information to your domain name registrar (there’s usually a place in your domain settings on your registrar’s site). What this does is tell the registrar where your website files are hosted. When someone types your domain name into their browser, the request first goes to the registrar, which redirects them to the hosting company, which then finds the files and sends them to the visitor’s computer. All of that should happen in a couple of seconds or less.

Need More Help?

If you liked this article, be sure to sign up for your FREE subscription to the Nickel's Worth of Free Advice newsletter where we send helpful articles every Tuesday and Friday. You can either fill out the form on the right side of this page or visit the Nickel's Worth of Free Advice signup page.

We're also happy to provide assistance directly. Just send an email to dharma@zenpunkwebworks.com.

Validate – Don't Procrastinate!

Have you validated the code on your website? If you haven’t, then now is the time to make sure the HTML and CSS code on your website meets modern standards.

For HTML validation, go to http://validator.w3.org/ and enter the address of your webpage. It’s a free service brought to you by the World Wide Web Consortium (the people who help standardize web code).

To validate your CSS, go to http://jigsaw.w3.org/css-validator/.

The first time you do it, it’s not unusual for the validators to spit out a long list of possible errors, some of which leave you scratching your head. Don’t be intimidated.

The validators are very picky. Also, the HTML and CSS standards are continuously evolving, so there may be some code that is perfectly valid, but which the validators don’t yet recognize.

Research the errors that pop-up. You may find some actual bugs in your code that you missed. The goal is to make sure your site loads quickly and displays properly in all browsers and on all devices. Bad code can cause pages to load slowly or display incorrectly. It can also hurt your search engine optimization (SEO).

If you run into an error you don’t understand, leave a comment. I’ll be happy to respond with an answer.

Need More Help?

If you liked this article, be sure to sign up for your FREE subscription to the Nickel's Worth of Free Advice newsletter where we send helpful articles every Tuesday and Friday. You can either fill out the form on the right side of this page or visit the Nickel's Worth of Free Advice signup page.

We're also happy to provide assistance directly. Just send an email to dharma@zenpunkwebworks.com.