Looking After a Website? 9 Words of Wisdom

Simon Meek offers 9 useful tips for those in charge of looking after and maintaining the company website.

Looking After a Website? 9 Words of Wisdom

In this article, I'll be laying down the law as to what you should be able to do if you're in charge of a website. This has come about after spending years talking people through things that really should be part of a core skill set if you've been put in charge of taking care of any site.

These things are not the province of a web designer or coder, who has related skills, but are much more wide-ranging and require much less in-depth knowledge.

So to be clear, I'm not really talking about web designers or developers here, but about the people we hand off to when the development work's done, and who we support in keeping a site up to date. At the risk of sounding judgemental, it's not OK if you can't do these basic things...

1: Know how to use your computer

It should be obvious, but if you don't get how your filesystem is organised, or how to use Office at a basic level, you should do. No, I don't know where that zip file went, and yes, it's probably in your downloads folder. You double-click it. You should also know how your web browser works. How to clear cookies, where your back button is. How to clear the cache. Where to type a web address. You'll be doing a lot of all that.

Further, download a copy of every browser that runs on your machine (Windows people, that's Chrome, Firefox and Opera in addition to IE, and Mac people, that's the same but in addition to Safari). All web browsers render websites slightly differently, and it's useful to get an idea of how that might manifest itself. Your developers will perform testing across multiple browsers as a matter of course, but being able to compare notes with them will make life easier when making decisions about which features to support in which browsers.

Most important: Know how to find the version number of the browser you're using.

Here are some tips on using a web browser. (This is for Internet Explorer, but they all do much the same thing.)

By the way, if you don't know what a web browser is, you're not alone!

2: Be able to write

The chances are that a lot of your time will be spent creating and editing content for your site, so it's important that you can write copy (the text) for the site that's coherent, grammatically correct and with the correct tone. Nothing looks worse than shoddy, mis-spelled, and inappropriate copy.

By way of an example, consider the following headline:

"10 briliant night's out in Brighton!!!!"

The mis-spelling, wrongly-used apostrophe and over-use of exclamation marks just makes it look cheap, and personally I'm not sure I'd take the writer's word for it.

Instead, think about how much better this sounds:

"Ten great nights out in Brighton."

Bear in mind the audience though. The second one's much better for adults looking for a decent meal after the theatre, but for a 15-25 audience, it's going to feel a little dull. Tone of voice is everything, and knowing your audience is vital.

3: Know how to source, resize, crop and enhance images

So much of the web revolves around imagery. The article you're putting up later? You can ruin it or massively enhance it with imagery. To start with, you need to know how to get it, either from the firm or organisation the article is about, or from stock libraries. You'll also need to know how to deal with the 20MB image someone sends over. Ideally you'd also understand why it's 20MB, and be able to save it for the web in appropriate formats.

Large image
This image is much too big for the web. 240ppi (Pixels Per Inch) is great for print, but keep it to 72ppi for your site. In Photoshop, use Image > Image Size to make it smaller both in scale and file size.

A good crop can really make an image, so knowing the basics of image composition and how to crop is really useful too. Lastly, knowing how to bump up the contrast or otherwise quickly enhance an image is an added bonus.

You don't strictly speaking need Photoshop for all this by the way, but it can help to use the tool your web designers use because they can send you template files for the images so they'll always be the right size. They'll be happy to help, I promise.

4: Know basic HTML

When you're formatting copy for the web, especially within your content management system (CMS), you'll likely be presented with a formatting bar which is designed to make your life easy. Ignore it. It's the work of the devil and will result in terrible code being presented to your web browser, in turn racking up styling problems, dodgy links and all manner of other horrors that will ruin your site.

But don't panic! You don't need to know lots of code to get round this issue. There are just a few elements of HTML that you'll need to know. These are:

<p>
a paragraph
<a>
a link
<h1>
a big heading
<h2> to <h5>
ever-smaller headings
<ul>
a list
<img>
an image
<strong>
make it bold (don't use <b>)
<em>
make it italic (don't use <i>)

That's it. If you know how to use these, you're home dry. It's not that bad, right? Learn it. Actually, this should be probably the first thing on this list. Plus your web designers will be dead impressed if the first thing you do is ignore the formatting bar.

Here's an article explaining the basics of HTML.

5: Understand roughly how it all works

While a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, it's useful to understand, to a degree, how the web and internet work. How your site actually gets onto a user's screen. What the server does. What the staging server does. The difference between front-end code (CSS, HTML, JavaScript) and back-end code (for example PHP, .Net, Ruby). It'll just help you feel at home with it all, and you'll be able to express requirements better to your web designers and developers.

This page from the BBC is quite a good walkthrough of how a web page is delivered. Here's a little more detail.

6: Be able to use your CMS

Your content management system (CMS) is what you likely use to update your site. It might be Expression Engine, WordPress or Drupal, but they all do the same thing: they allow you to add and edit content on your site without getting your hands too dirty with the code. They all work slight differently, but being comfortable with your CMS will make the difference to how you feel about your whole site, and how dependent you are on your developers.

WordPress dashboard
Make friends with your CMS dashboard. This is WordPress, which powers millions of sites around the world.

Go and buy a "for dummies" book on the CMS you have to use, read it from cover to cover, and then just sit and tinker a lot until you're happy with it. Save the calls to your developers for when you really, really need them.

7: Understand social media

If you're running a site these days and don't personally use Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, you don't understand the web at this point in time, and your business could be missing out.

It's not appropriate for everyone, but it's vital that you know whether or not social is right for your organisation, and that means using it personally. If you don't do that, you'll have no feel for whether or not it's appropriate for your company. What's more, when the brand agency comes in and starts blathering about your social media strategy, you'll have no idea at all if they're talking sense, or simply talking in buzzword-driven riddles.

Actually, brand agencies have a tendency to talk like that even when they are talking sense. It's confusing.

So fire up a browser and register for some networks. Use them for your own personal network of friends, and follow a few of your utility providers on Twitter to see how they do things. Try contacting them through Twitter or Facebook instead of calling them. How did they do? Would it work for you professionally?

I wrote up a Twitter conversation I had with British Gas because I thought they'd done it very well. Increasingly I find that the best support I get comes through Twitter, which I'm guessing is because the potential for public embarrassment for companies is so great, which in turn keeps them on their toes!

To use a dreadful phrase, the "key takeaway" for social media is that it's about listening to your customers, and not about free advertising.

8: Understand your traffic

Your site probably monitors traffic through Google Analytics. To use it, you add a small piece of code to every page on your site, which then allows you to inspect the traffic through Google's Analytics site. You should be looking at that to get a feel for how much traffic you're getting, where it comes from, and what platform your visitors are using.

Google has some useful Analytics tutorials which are worth a read.

Better yet, you can get Analytics on your phone too, so you can always know how you're doing, which brings us neatly to...

9: Get and use a smartphone

With mobile use increasing every year, it's important to know what your mobile users are seeing when they visit your site. Do the primary functions work? Is it legible? Does it load fast over 3G? Unless you specified that your site should work on mobile, it might be that the developers didn't even test it on a phone, let alone optimise it, and that could see you missing out on a large chunk of traffic and customers.

A smartphone can also help run your site away from the office. If your site uses WordPress, for instance, there's a nice app for that. Mobiles are great for monitoring social media activity too.

Mobile browser screenshot
Within a few years, most of your traffic will come from mobile devices, so it's a good plan to understand what those users will be seeing now. The BBC news site has been nicely optimised for mobile viewing.

It doesn't really matter what kind of smartphone you use, so long as it's modern and up to date, though there's still, at the time of writing, more software available for Apple's iPhone than anything else. Personally, I'd avoid a BlackBerry for now. They're great for corporate email, but even the brand new Q10 and Z10 are untested in the marketplace and don't have the applications that other platforms have.

Summing up

This might look like a long and slightly dull list, and in places it might be (for many people, servers really are arcane and slightly boring!), but understanding all this will allow you to get much more from your site, your traffic and your users.

Knowing something about how your site works should also reduce your stress levels over posting updates and talking to your developers. You might even find that running your site well becomes kind of fun!

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