Own vs Rent: Why Hosting Your Blog or Web Site on Someone Else’s Platform is a Bad Idea

You’ve watched that amazing commercial from Wix or SquareSpace or Weebly or what-not-else-is-out-three and decided that you want to blog about fashion or your own brand or your own skin care line and you need a web site. Because internet and because it so simple they actually show it in 15 second spot on TV, between cereal and shampoo commercials. Great, you think, I’ll get myself one of those and start a web site. Sometimes even for free or for a price of cup of coffee per month. Because we all want instant gratification and we want to post our first Facebook update “Yo, I’ve got a fashion blog and here’s my first post about fashion”.

Despite this having been out for a few years people still go and make the same mistake. Here’s why it’s a bad idea to start your own brand (or blog) on someone else’s platform.

1. You don’t own anything. Plain and simple. You are leasing the spot on the web. If the platform of your choice will shut down – you’re out of luck. You’ll have to move your content, but what you cannot move is links TO your content. All those shares and cross-posts that created your online reputation – gone for good. So the moment when you commit to starting your own web site (whether it’s a blog, e-commerce, portfolio or anything else) – think about future. What would happen if you become popular? What would happen if the service you’re starting this on will shut down. Even Google shuts down things that are popular, so smaller guys can always do the same even faster.

2. You don’t control anything. Most platforms allow you to change a few things here and there, maybe throw in a banner or two, switch between a few free templates that were beaten to death even before you have joined. But in most cases you cannot work a completely custom design or add specific features. Even with WordPress.com (hosted WordPress platform) – one of the most flexible platforms out there – there are severe limitations on features and plugins allowed for the use. When you decide you want to start a blog and, maybe, sell a thing or two later on – think ahead and choose the platform that will allow you to branch out into other ways of making money.

3. You don’t know what is going on behind the scene. Service may change certain features or policies – and what was totally fine just a week ago is now thrown to the outskirts of the service. Case in point – adult themed blogs on Tumblr. For years they have existed in their own niche, people had reviewed products and services and everyone was playing nice. “Once upon a time” (a few months after Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo) any blog with anything remotely related to adult products or services had fallen out of search results, effectively becoming invisible on Tumblr network. Tumblr has partially restored these blogs in search, but the situation still isn’t back to what it was before. It’s necessarily going to be like that, but things may change, the service that was free may get severely limited or stop being free altogether. This especially hurts when you have a community of people that are forced to change place or habits.

4. You’re perceived as “cheap” brand. And rightfully so. A domain name and a hosting for a blog or a simple web site at a maximum will cost about $20 – 30 dollars a month. If you can’t generate that much from the business you are promoting in most likeliness you either not very serious about it or you’re in the wrong business. The only exclusions of this rule are portfolio or e-commerce sites such as Behance or Etsy. And even then it’s advisable to have a standalone web site – for the reasons above and below.

5. There’s a problem with feature scaling. As your brand, web site or blog grows you may decide to add certain features – link up and feed from other resources, add functionality to web site or blog. Unless you own the platform you may not be able to do that. Some platforms even impose restrictions on what and how you can advertise on your site. In order to have enough freedom to run your business your way you may want to consider your own thing.

6. It’s a security problem. Large network sites present a tasty target for cyber criminals. Chances that they will target an individual site vs network of sites are slim to none. Besides, securing your web site isn’t even available to you when you are renting the spot. With your own platform you can go crazy on security any way you want it. And when it comes to actual sell and customers – you don’t want to save on security, trust me.

Now that you are concerned enough – what can you do and what should you do if you already have a blog on someone else’s network? For example, if you have a blog on Wix or Blogger or something else?

1. Get a domain name and connect it with your web site. The cheapest domain names can be had for under $10 – not even an investment, unless you deduct your morning Starbucks trips as business expenses (as I do). If your domain name is Example.com make sure that’s how everyone will access your web site from now on. Most of hosted platforms (such as WordPress.com or Wix or SquareSpaces) allow you to connect your own domain name to their web site. If you can change any old links to new name – do it ASAP.

2. Migrate to an independent platform. Get your own WordPress installation or Joomla or whatever else works for you. Either learn it yourself or find someone who can help you with migration. It may be intimidating and time consuming and complicated and totally not your cup of tea, so it’s perfectly fine to seek help. You don’t have to know the technical side of things, but as a business owner you must control this part of your business. Imagine if you were a plumber and all your wrenches were loaned to you by someone else.

3. Learn how to manage your site. If it’s a blog or a content site – learn how to post and connect properly. A lot of things could be automated, like finding relevant or similar post links, cross-posting to other social and blog networks, even rotation and placement of ads. There are tools and multiple ways of doing things, so take your time and figure it out. It’s an investment that will pay back later. It’s your business, right?

4. Link forward. Once your new site is up and all contents is transferred – link from your old blog to new, article to article, post to post – if possible. This way search engines will find duplicate content faster and since you will be updating the standalone platform they will prioritize it higher. You can also use Web Master Tools from Google and Bing in order to prioritize your content.

5. Use more than one stats package. There are multiple packages available, so there is no reason why you couldn’t use more than one. They almost never match in direct numbers, but it’s a good way to do “checks and balances” – especially if you are doing pay-per-click campaigns. Discrepancies between different stats systems can save you a lot of money – for example, you may be able to prove fraudulent clicks on your ads and as a result – not pay for them.

6. Take responsibility for running your web site. If you have the knowledge – keep up with updates, security fixes and so on. If you asked someone else to help – don’t automatically assume they will do everything immediately and on time. Follow up (politely!), make schedules or ask them to proactively communicate patching, updates or any other work they decide to do. Nothing pisses the business owner more than a botched launch – imagine you’ve paid for different media campaigns to launch on Tuesday morning and find out at noon that your web site has been down since midnight because your web dev team decided to patch and reboot the server and something went wrong. You don’t put your car in the shop if you are due for an important business meeting – same goes for your web site.

7. Don’t be afraid to be paranoid. This one’s a little different from the rest, but given all the revelations on cyber security (or, mostly, lack of thereof) it’s always a good idea to check the noise. If you see an unexpected spike in visits to your web site when nothing was scheduled – check it out. It could be a good thing (something from your web site went viral), but it could also be a bad thing (your web site got compromised and it sees a spike in fraudulent traffic). In either case the sooner you know about it – the better. If something went viral – you can capitalize on that. If something went wrong – you need to put a stop to it immediately.

Taking care of your web site – especially if it’s a business matter – isn’t something you want to leave to the “after party” mood. It’s an essential part of running almost any business, so you should take it just as seriously as doing your taxes or talking to customers. In fact, your web site IS how you talk to your customers. You don’t want to be messy in that department.

O Customer, Where Art Thou?

KolejkaI really really REALLY don’t think there will be only one post about customers. Really. But I had to start somewhere, so here goes.

The way this laser hair removal place started acquiring customers was rather funny. The owner worked on the fifth floor of the same building in the similar laser hair removal place (only smaller and less clean) when suddenly the owner decided to call it a day. His customers were left out in the cold, many of them in the middle of their voucher deals or packages. The guy pretty much just packed and went home. Given that technicians (there were two) were in charge of their schedules, it was only natural that most of the customers had their personal cell phone numbers. So when the business closed they started ringing up the technicians. Instead of brushing off they decided to explain the situation and offer these customers an option to wait until this new business is up. Since all of this was happening during summer – not the best time for laser skin treatments – a lot of customers agreed to wait it out. There were some misunderstandings and a lot of angry words exchanged, but at the end of the day most of it got resolved.

Once the place was up and running the owner got on the phone again reaching out to old customers. Of course, it wasn’t overly smart to offer them to complete the treatment for which they paid someone else. However, the thinking was that a couple of sessions wouldn’t be that big of a price if the owner would be able to sell them a package of her own. It didn’t always work, but the place got their schedule up and running pretty quick and people were coming in every day.

customer_queueWe started ringing up deal sites. It was a bit unexpected (although understandable) when some of the sites refused to deal with a new business because it was new business. Other sites couldn’t care less. Groupon was the first to take us on, their only focus was pricing – they low balled us to something almost totally outrageous. We haven’t had much experience with any deal sites from the merchant perspective, so it was sort of a revelation to find out how these sites treat both merchants and customers. Words like “customer loyalty” and “quality customer base” started making a whole new world of sense.

One of the sites (I think it was LivingSocial) flat out told us to go and buy likes on Facebook (either through FB’s own ad campaign or otherwise), because they will only deal with us if we have at least 100 or so likes on Facebook. Not a big deal, but if you had your company opened a week ago a hundred likes might seem like a problem. Amazon Local demanded a certain rating on Yelp in order to run our deal. When I flat out asked “So you’re Yelp’s bitch now?” they really had nothing to say except “effectively – yes”. One of the largest deal sites on the market being subject to restrictions of another company, well known for their shady practices of falsifying a businesses’ ratings and reviews – that was just too funny.

Still we managed to get some of our deals up on Groupon, Lifebooker, KGB Deals and, eventually, Amazon and LivingSocial – some time later. That’s when the “customer quality”, “customer loyalty” (or “customer retention”) started making all kinds of different sense.

Let me get this out of the way. 90% of coupon customers aren’t worth the time you spend with them on the phone to schedule an appointment. It’s the other 10% that are the reason for doing the coupon site deals. Each category, obviously, deserves a separate post – which I will probably have to do, eventually.

customer_serviceStrange as it seems there actually is a difference between clients coming different coupon sites. The deep dive probably deserve a separate post altogether, but in a nutshell – we’ve seen the worst coming from Groupon and Lifebooker, the rest are marginally better. One thing where you may regret having loyal coupon customers is when they like you so much they keep buying vouchers all over the place – whatever it takes as long as they keep getting treatments at your place at coupon price. They will never convert and they keep bringing more loyal coupon users, so we decided to force “New customers only” rule on most of our deal contracts after the first wave. It may not sound nice to customers, but it’s a way to cut losses. If they like our services so much they should definitely try to negotiate a deal (and it’s always a possibility with the business like this), instead of trying to cheat your way through.

Here’s a little story to explain.

We had one customer who absolutely loved our service. At least that’s what she said during first five sessions of her coupon treatment. She went and bought four more vouchers (from the same deal site – we didn’t have any other deals running at that moment) – using friends’ credit card with option to “gift” a voucher to someone else. When we pointed out she was effectively cheating the coupon site and gaming the system and that we refuse to honor more than two vouchers out of all five she owned (a perfectly legal move based on our contract with coupon site which stated “one voucher per client plus one as a gift” – or something like that) she decided that we have the worst place ever. She complained to deal site – and they confirmed we did the right thing and warned to ban her AND her friends from the site for cheating. She demanded that we provide her with free session for this occurrence of horrible customer service. She promised she will write a negative review on Yelp – which she did, calling us liars for not honoring a single voucher. Not that we care much about Yelp (we’re not paying them to remove bad reviews, so there’s that), but we took note and responded to review, of course, explaining what exactly happened and how the customer was in the wrong. Given that you can’t really inject any brains or conscience into such customers we decided to implement “new customers only” rule. At least it saves us from drama at the office.

Cloud Storage Comparison – 2014 edition

You’d think you had this all figured out – there’s your Dropbox and Google Drive and OneDrive and… wait, that’s one too many already. Recently I have noticed that my paid-for 100GB of Dropbox space is over 80% full. There’s a folder with PSD images from my photography thing, there’s backups of web sites, both live and gone, there’s documents, receipts, some e-books I am reading, a few backups of software I may or may not need. I keep getting more and more of these – mostly photography, but other stuff as well. Backups of forms from our laser hair removal business. Clients’ backups. Clients’ digital assets and raw files. Clients’ photography – both RAW and edited. It looks like I’m gonna need a way bigger boat.

Before I started looking I had my own ideas and desires. First of all – I wanted to minimize the hassle of moving, so I was really looking forward to either stay with Dropbox or at least retain it in some form. I also have a huge collection of clients’ images on Picasa (including a lot of embedded ones) and I wasn’t looking forward to moving them around in any way. Last, but not least, I really wanted to like OneDrive – primarily because Microsoft bundles online versions of Office applications with it or grants additional 20GB of space should you subscribe to Office 365. Not everything came through, but I still was in less trouble than I thought.

First of all – I was not looking at free tier offerings. Given that I need to move around almost a terabyte of data I needed something better than a couple of gigs here and there. I also looked for a storage solution that won’t limit the size of the file – at least to a reasonable level, have been around for a while, allows sharing of files and whole folders, works on mobile and PC (I cannot imagine having another Mac in my household or business any time soon, so no iAnything for me as well) and allows multiple clients to work simultaneously (so I can upload stuff from my laptop in the field and get files on my home workstation – and vice versa). This eliminated most of exotic solutions (sorry, Mega.co.nz). Unfortunately, Box.com had to go as well due to their weird file size limits. Amazon S3, RRS and Glacier didn’t make it because their usability depends solely on the quality of the client you are using (and what happens when it gets discontinued?) plus their pricing is so through the roof I wasn’t even thinking about them. Some of the services I tried and ran away for various reasons – mostly because their client software lacks sanity, usability or both. What was left is in the table below. All prices are taken from each vendor’s web site on 6/4/2014.

Click image to enlarge

In order to compare these providers I got all their plans down into a single table, then calculated the lowest price per gigabyte per year. This way the comparison would make the most sense to me: if I were to buy a single gigabyte of space for a year at a most favorable price – what would it cost me.

The first place is shared between Google Drive and Bitcasa. No one comes close to their 12 cent per gigabyte. Additional benefits for Google Drive include easy sharing of photos from Picasa or Google+, small size images (under 2048×2048) don’t take up space, tight integration with multiple OSes and mobile systems and automatic upload of images from mobile device. With Bitcasa it’s a bit more complicated – although their pricing is just as good as Google’s – their support section is nonexistent and while I see a lot of happy reports on their services I have not seen them around long enough to put my files there (we’re talking about investing a lot of time to backup large amounts of data). They are also the only two providers with officially published prices for storage over 1TB – Bitcasa offers 5GB for $49/month and Unlimited for $100/month while Google doles out 10, 20 and 30GB for $100, $200 and $300 per month respectively. The only concern for Google’s storage is their uncertainty towards Google+ and the fact that Picasa hasn’t really been updated much.

Next in line, surprisingly, is 4Sync – not another big IT name, but these guys have been around long enough and their services make sense. They allow sharing of images and files, including direct link (although only for paid users), their sync client isn’t too complicated (although not without issues) and they are pretty generous on their free tier, so you can test the hell out of them. One the con side I’ve read about some issues with reliability and that does cast a shadow on their otherwise interesting offering.

Third place is (again) shared – between Microsoft’s OneDrive and SugarSync. Pricing is so very close that I decided that both deserve this position. OneDrive works pretty much the same way as Google Drive or DropBox, can sync across computers, backup current computer configuration and pull mobile device’s photos. The only (huge) problem with OneDrive is its inability to provide direct link to images for embedding – instead you’re getting an iFrame to embed and to click on. This, of course, is unacceptable for photo sharing and publication. SugarSync appears to be in the same boat, however, their advantage is that you can sync folders anywhere on your computer – not just a designated “dropbox” folder.

Runner-up to first three places is DropBox. Their $1 per gigabyte is one of the highest prices on the market. Embedding is possible, although requires some poking around links and features and, therefore, totally unacceptable if you want to publish a post with multiple images or if you want to build a gallery (and Dropbox’s own gallery view is extremely poorly designed which makes it practically useless). The sad part is that Dropbox has become a really robust and powerful solution, so it’s sad to see it losing the game due to price alone. Given that they are the least generous on their free tier offering I can see them losing out fast to many other providers.

The conclusion is rather simple, as far as my personal use is concern. In my case instead of 100GB for $100 that I am paying Dropbox I will be able to get a terabyte of storage for $120 from Google. My DropBox account expires some time in November so I expect to fully migrate all assets into Google Drive by then. It’s rather convenient that I won’t have to move 200+ albums of images to another provider, but everything else (all 80-something gigabytes) will have to be moved. I would still take advantage of OneDrive by migrating my documents there to be able to edit them using Online Word, but it’s a tiny chunk of a pie anyway.

Running your own small business is a challenge.