Your Location: The Server Space

After acquiring a domain name, an address for a site, the next thing needed is space to host it. This article will focus on hosting a site at a third party’s location or hosting provider.

The server space is akin to a physical location to place a business. Most commonly, with small to medium websites, space is leased from a third party. There are three different types of hosting packages to fit the size and complexity of the site being deployed. Sites can easily migrate from one type to another as they grow, although the management of the server increases with upgrades as well.

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Your Address: The Domain Name

One of the first things to do when planning a website is to register a domain or domains. Choosing an address that is available is perhaps the most difficult task as the naming system becomes more crowded. Once an available address is found, registering the domain can be quick and simple. In this guide I will cover some considerations when choosing a domain name and registering it.

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What is involved with owning a website?

Website ownership is a mystery to most individuals. A website is just a Word document on the Internet, isn’t it? Can’t I just update and manage it the same way I save one on my computer? While a website seems like a simple thing to manage, it does consist of a number of components which require attention and know-how. Understanding these components properly will allow anyone to know what they need to do to start and manage a site and what people are talking about when dealing with others.

Main Components

The main components of a web site are analogous to a physical business. There are slight differences between the physical and virtual worlds, but making these associations can help you remember these areas to manage for your website. More detailed articles on each of these areas will be posted in the future and linked here. I list these in the order they would be performed in setting up a typical website.

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A Novice’s Guide to Feeds, Feed Readers and Subscriptions

The biggest knowledge lacking in many people I talk to who have plans for or have small web sites is the understanding of how emerging technologies helps them compete in today’s Internet. To effectively maximize their small site’s potential, they need to throw out many of their ideas of what their site’s purpose is and what benefits it brings, not only to themselves, but their visitors. That begins by understanding and using new technologies like feeds, feed readers and subscriptions.

I have cobbled this post together from some earlier writings of mine, updating it and expanding on some points. I hope it is useful to readers who are new users of this technology. I am not the first to tackle this topic, however. A good explanation of RSS feeds for the Oprah crowd is linked on my Resources page, and Dave Shea of mezzoblue has a very good summary as well.

What are Feeds, Feed Readers and Subscriptions?

As the web developed and grew to the point where the number of people, businesses and organizations with a web presence out numbered those who did not it became obvious to many people that keeping track of their favourite sites was an impossible task. As the number of sites they had an interest in grew, their list of bookmarks grew as well. Each site had its own update or publish schedule; some updated regularly and frequently, others on no set schedule or never at all. There was no way to know if the site was updated except to visit it. If you had 100 sites to check this could take a long time. Some pages may be bookmarked within a site as well because you were specifically interested in the information on that page. Then when wanting to access it later, you found the page was no longer available due to a site reorganization. You may have been able to find it by searching the site or web or it may be lost to you forever. For these reasons technologies were developed to ease the problems web surfers were having.

Two technologies which work together came about in the last decade to address the permanence and notification problems people were having. First dynamic database driven websites which had started as a way of managing the large amount of content some sites have introduced the idea of permalinks. Permalinks are links to content on your site that will never change. That is as long as your site is running the link will point to that content and never be broken. If someone bookmarks a page today, they should be able to use that bookmark in a year and see the same page, perhaps in a different layout or style and with updated content, but the same page just the same. For instance your FAQ page may have been updated with new content, but a link to it should still work even if you have decided to move it’s location in the site hierarchy. Friendly URI’s have made permalinks even better by making them human readable (and memorable) instead of based on a computer generated identification string. For example, the About page on this site is a friendly URI.

So permalinks reduce the problem of broken links. They are also used in the other technology developed to help people manage their bookmarks and know when sites have been updated. Syndication came about as a way to push information from sites to the readers rather than the reader having to check the site to pull the information off of it. Syndication is simply the producing of content into a special format which can then be read by a reader which understands that content format. Producing these content “streams”, which always have the latest site updates, allows people with a reader to determine if there are any updates to the site and if any of the updates are of interest to them to visit the site. Suddenly the task of checking all the sites you are interested in can be done at a glance instead of by visiting each site (more on syndication readers below).

Syndication is a general term for the publishing of site content in a known format that can be used by any application capable of reading that format. Currently there are two main syndication formats, RSS and Atom. Most syndication creation software and syndication reader software support the creation of feeds in the various versions of these two formats, however it is up to the site owner to decide if they will offer feeds in multiple formats. Syndication is a natural fit for news publishing sites which produce a wealth of stories or posts in a relative short time period, making it difficult for someone to notice every article just by checking the site. Syndication allows sites to publish summaries of their articles, and even offer different feeds for different story topics, such as world news, entertainment news, sports or even more specific topics. The reader is then much more likely to notice an article they wish to read and then visit the site, versus checking the site on their own schedule.

Syndication readers are often called feed readers, RSS readers or news readers or aggregators. The application may publish the syndication stream in a window, on your desktop, the taskbar or anywhere else. Most often reader applications are stand-alone applications or browser applications. Stand-alone applications are a separate application like your web browser that accept site or feed addresses to subscribe to and then display the subscribed feeds in a list showing the number of unread articles for each feed. Selecting a feed will display a post summary or the full post of the unread articles. You can click on the post permalink to open the full post in the feed reader (if capable) or your browser.

A web-based feed reader does the same thing except in the guise of a web application accessed via your browser. You subscribe, view subscribed sites and posts much the same way. The advantage of a web-based feed reader is that your subscription is not tied to your local computer, meaning you can access your subscribed feeds from anywhere using a web browser. Web-based feed readers do lack some of the features stand-alone readers can provide and some stand-alone readers have implemented synchronize features allowing you to move your subscription list among computers.

Some popular stand-alone feed readers are FeedReader, FeedDemon, NewzCrawler, and NetNewsWire. Some popular web-based feed readers are Bloglines and Google Reader.

You can determine if a feed is available for a site by looking for a RSS, Atom or XML icon (the standard syndication icon is an orange square with white waves emanating from the bottom left corner) or Feed links on the home page. If you don’t see one you can still try to add the feed in your feed reader using the main site address, if the feed is in a common location or it is already aware of the feed, it will find it.

Now that you know what feeds and feed readers are, it is time to start using one.

Bloglines Tutorial

For this tutorial I will be using bloglines.com, an online feed reader. Other web and stand alone application aggregators are available, I encourage people to do some research and pick the one that is best for them. An online aggregator is a good place to start though, and can always be abandoned at any time.

  • Go to www.bloglines.com
  • Click on the “Sign up now It’s free!” link in the middle of the page.
  • Register with an email address and password (this is what you will sign in with, password should not be the same as you use for sensitive accounts).
  • After registering you will receive an email. Follow the instructions in the email to complete the registration process.
  • Once registration is complete, visit http://www.bloglines.com/myblogs , sign in as necessary.
  • One the left hand side you will see a tab called My Feeds. Some default Bloglines feeds may already be subscribed and listed.
  • To add a feed, click the Add link at the top.
  • On the main section of the page, type the URL of the site you wish to subscribe to (for example, http://feddy.ca/ ).
  • Feeds found for the site will be displayed. In feddy.ca’s case there are two if you enter the main URL, one for the posts feed and one for the comments feed. Check the feeds you wish to subscribe to and click the Subscribe button at the bottom of the page. If only one feed is found you would only have to click subscribe.
  • The feed should now appear in your feeds list.
  • The number of unread articles will appear beside the feed and the feed will appear in bold when there are unread articles. Clicking on the feed link for feddy.ca will display a summary of the articles in the main section. You can then read the full article on the site by clicking the link on the article heading.
  • Another thing to note is that when viewing a site, you can see how many people are subscribed using Bloglines (not all possible subscriptions) in the top section.

Sites with feeds available are usually denoted with small orange RSS or Atom icons on the page somewhere, like those at the bottom of this site.

You can also click the Search link if you don’t know the address of the blog you want to subscribe to. Such as you don’t know if anybody has a feed for Cooking Crocodiles. Do a search for the term, it will return a list of sites on that topic, followed by a list of posts where that term was found.

So how does this help you? Well, when you are tracking a few or many sites for new updates, you often don’t know when they were updated and people are very poor at forcing themselves to visit sites regularly. Aggregation takes all sites you are interested in and notifies you when content is updated. You also can manage your information flow more efficiently, ignoring notifications about topics you are not interested in. If you set Bloglines as your home page, every time you open your browser you will be able to see the sites you are following that have new information, and decide to view them then or leave them for later.

Bloglines has many customizable features as well. Click the Account link in the top right corner to explore these options.

I encourage everyone who is looking for advice on sites to use a feed reader, subscribe to some sites, especially their own if they have feeds, and understand the power of this technology. There is a feed out there for every interest, from news and sports to comics, hobbies and other topics. Feeds are a great way of having new discussions on these topics delivered to you, allowing you to quickly filter what you wish to read. It is a great way to stay in touch with new information and expand your knowledge.

Once an individual has undergone this exercise and have used a feed reader every day for a couple weeks, they will see the benefits of being pushed content and how it allows them to be much more efficient in staying up to date with web sites. I hope they will also understand the importance of feeds on their site, regular content updates, and opening up a discussion between themselves and their visitors as a way to increase traffic and repeat visitors.

Examining the Google Webmaster Console

In a previous post I explained the registration and verification process for Google’s Webmaster tools. Now that Google has updated the Webmaster tools interface, it seems like a good time to examine the features found in the Google Webmaster Console.

In preparing this post, I found I was beat to the punch by Eric Lander’s Comprehensive Guide, so check that guide out for more information on the Webmaster Console.

First, the Google Webmaster Central page is worth noting as a launch page into Google’s Webmaster tools and other information. Webmaster tools, Submit Content, Webmaster Central blog, FAQ, and developer tools links provide a central location for locating Google resources for website owners. From this page you can click the Webmaster Tools link and login to the Webmaster Console.

Authenticated, you will arrive at your Dashboard page which consists of a list of your managed sites, a Message Center, and a list of links to Console Tools.

Dashboard

The Dashboard provides a central summary of the sites you have registered, displaying the site verification and sitemap status. The message center provides a method for Google to communicate with site owners of sites that are verified. This is the preferred method rather than email due to email spoofing occurring in the past. The types of messages that will appear initially in Message Center are for search quality issues and penalty notifications. I suspect (speculation) that malware/badware notifications will be added at a future date. Do not worry about the lack of messages appearing here; that is a good thing.

Also on the Dashboard page is a list of links to tools that hopefully you will not need to use often; reporting spam, reporting paid links and requesting reconsideration over any penalties that may be applied to a domain due to violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

The primary tasks performed from the Dashboard will be to registering a new site, as explained previously, or manage a previously registered site. To manage a registered site just click the site link to go to the site’s Overview page.

Site Overview

The Site Overview consists of six sections: Overview, Diagnostic, Statistics, Links, Sitemaps and Tools. These sections can be navigated using the left-hand navigation menu.

Overview

The Overview section currently provides the last crawl date by Googlebot and the sites status in the Google index. There are quick links to top search queries and index stats as well as to help center topics that may be of interest.

Diagnostics

The Diagnostics section consists of two sections, Web Crawl and Mobile Web Crawl. These items will display any URLs from your site that Googlebot had issues crawling. Issues such as 404 errors (pages or content not available) and content excluded from indexing by robots.txt will appear here. Checking this information regularly will help you identify and correct problems that may be preventing Google from indexing content on your site.

Statistics

The Statistics section currently provides five detailed reports useful to website owners.

  • The Top search queries report displays the search terms used on Google that returned your site and the average position of your site for those terms in the last seven days. This can be useful in analyzing incoming search patterns for your site.
  • The Crawl stats report displays the distribution of your site’s pages PageRank and a history of the page with the highest monthly page rank.
  • The Subscriber stats report displays the number of subscribers to your site’s feeds as seen by Google products like iGoogle or Google Reader.
  • The What Googlebot sees report gives an overview of Phrases, Keywords and Content of your site. This report seems to have replaced the Page analysis report that was available until the recent revamp. The Phrases section lists the phrases found in the anchor text of external links to your site. The Keywords section lists the top keywords found in your site’s content and external links. The Content section displays a breakdown of the content type and encodings of your site’s pages. This information can be useful to administrators of sites, but has little bearing on a website owner’s day-to-day information gathering.
  • The Index stats report provides links to the Google Advanced queries to list the pages indexed by Google, incoming external links to your home page, the current cache of your site, the info Google has on your site (site description) and a list of related pages.

Links

The Links section contains two reports: Pages that link to yours and Pages with internal links. The first report lists the sites linking to yours as known by Google. The second report lists the pages and link counts for all the internal links on your site.

Sitemaps

The Sitemaps section allows you to notify Google of a sitemap for your site. A sitemap is a file describing all the pages of your site in a standard format that Google can read. Using a sitemap file allows you to notify Google of changes on your site without having to wait for the next Googlebot crawl of your site.

If you have a sitemap created for your site, you can add it to your site’s sitemap page here and see information as to its status, last download date and number of URLs submitted. Click the Add Sitemap link and follow the instructions on screen.

Tools

Google provides some excellent tools for webmasters to manage their site with Google. From robots.txt analysis to removing content, the tools to manage a site’s visibility and content are found in this section.

All site owners should verify their robots.txt file, especially if they have specific disallow statements. Google provides a tool to report on the status of the Googlebot’s last check of your site’s robots.txt file, parsing results and a tool to test changes to the file and view the results. For more information on the robots.txt syntax, see robotstxt.org. More information can also be found in this post on the Official Google Webmaster Central blog.

The Enhanced Image Search tool allows you to control whether Google uses the Google Image Labeler to associate labels with your images to improve search quality. This may be of interest to sites which host images as a prime feature and expect to get substantial traffic from image searches. You can opt-in and out from this tool’s page; the default setting is opted-out when a site is registered. Currently, I would classify Enhanced Image Search as an experimental feature that would not be of interest to most small site owners.

Manage site verification allows you to check all verified site owners, and re-verify the site if needed. The Set crawl rate tool displays statistics on Googlebot visits to your site over the last 90 days and allows you to change the Googlebot crawl frequency. There are three settings — Slower, Normal and Faster — with Faster only available if Googlebot’s crawl rate becomes a factor in your site’s crawl frequency.

The Set preferred domain tool allows you to tell Google which domain you wish to use in their index if you use domain addresses with and without the www prefix. All sites should use a redirect on one of these addresses to your primary domain name so there is no ambiguousness with traffic arriving at your site. This is done at the site level which will affect all search engines and visitors to your site. Read the Redirect section of this post for more information.

The Remove URLs tool allows you to remove pages on your site from Google’s index. Follow the instructions on the page and submit a page for removal. The page will be removed with Googlebot’s next crawl. More information can be found in this post about removing content from Google’s index.

Conclusion

Claiming your site on Google is a quick and easy way to establish your ownership of a site and have management tools available to you at your disposal. You may use the tools infrequently but as Google continues to expand the service the Webmaster Console’s usefulness will only increase. Most uses of the tools are within the reach of the average individual site owner, however, a website administrator can help with advice and use of the more advanced tools.