The Back to the Future of the Web

Now, I won’t pretend to be a psychic, and to be able to predict where the internet will be in X number of years - I’m sure it will be a very exciting place, and constantly impress us with new exciting ways to browse and consume information.

New Arrival
The main reason the subject for this post came into my head was the recent birth of my first child. Her arrival got me thinking how amazing it will be for her to grow up in a world where the internet, things like YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia (or iterations/versions of these), will be a given, and likely be an ongoing presence and reference in her life.

The issue I always have as a developer looking at the exciting developments in website code, design and programming languages, is that to be a GOOD website developer and/or designer, you always have to consider the lowest entry level to your website work.

I’m going to use my analogies again, but stick with me, because hopefully this post will explain why websites take so long to do properly, and why we, as the makers of the web, are always torn between two web worlds - the old, and the future.

Time for a Switchover
The UK is fast approaching the date for digital TV switchover at the moment, after which poor old analogue TV will be yet another footnote in technology history. There has been a lot of campaigning about making sure your TV and aerial are digital TV compatible before analogue gets turned off. The thing is, digital TV is already being superseded by more enhanced services on the same platform such as HD television, and even more recently by 3DTV…

Although most people may not know this, the internet really needs to go through a similar ‘digital switchover’. If you’re aware of it or not, you will be reading this blog post via some form of internet browser. An internet browser interprets the pages of code people like myself produce, and delivers (renders) them to your screen as the lovely designs and layouts (or not so lovely designs and layouts!) you see as web pages.

As with TVs which were made years ago, which may not be digital TV compatible, let alone HD compatible, or 3D compatible, the same goes for the web. Popular web browsers like Internet Explorer (from Microsoft), Safari (from Apple), Chrome (from Google) are but a small selection of browsers through which you can consume your internet content. The problem comes from the individuals and companies which are still using the equivalent of an old black and white TV for the web… a web browser such as Internet Explorer 6.

Upgrade your Browser… Please!
You may never have thought about upgrading your web browser before, or even been aware that it does anything… but it does a lot of things for website developers and designers, opening up the newer tricks and developments in code and technologies… our equivalent of you upgrading to a HD TV or 3D TV… well, taking steps towards one anyway!

The issues I have as a developer are the still ever present audience who are happy with their analogue (old browser), and don’t want, know how, or can’t upgrade to the new ‘whizzy’ up-to-date browsers. You see, when designing and coding, I still have to test and make sure all of my code and technology works on these older platforms, and with people like the UK Government refusing to upgrade from the now over 10 year old Internet Explorer 6, it’s becoming more and more of a struggle to bring all the bells and whistles of the future web to everyone, without excluding people, or compromising and NOT using all the future technologies.

The Future…?
There is no quick or easy fix for this, unless a campaign similar to UK digital switchover is bought to the online world, educating and helping people move away from the past web, into the future. I do hope that there is a solution out there, as it would enable the development of the web to accelerate much faster, given the amount of time currently spent trying to make old browsers run or understand the newest advances in code… you’d think it mad to try and watch HD TV on an old black and white TV set surely?!

I get excited daily about the advances and developments in the online world. The future of the web, in my opinion, lies in cracking the issues with the web browsers - once this is fixed you would start seeing some very exciting things appearing, things which I’m sure my daughter will be on top of in no time, and showing her old Dad up to be an old crumbly man who still remembers analogue TV!

I have to say that the title of this post is an obvious reference to the FANTASTIC Back to the Future, which not that long ago celebrated being 25 years old(!)… Great Scott that makes me feel old!

How much does a Website Cost?

I have been known to compare website production to building a house (more on that in a future posting!) but for this post the best analogy I can think of to help explain the answer to ‘How much does a website cost?’ is a car.

A new pair of wheels
Cars come in all shapes, sizes, models and levels of quality - this is much the same as website design and production. As with any purchase you need to consider what your budget constraints/aspirations are, and work from there. In short, you can’t expect a Lamborghini if you’ve only got the budget for a second hand 3 door hatchback.

On the flip-side, I’ve also had clients approach Squidge Inc not knowing how much they should budget for their website, and so I’ve put together an estimate based on what they want rather than working to a specified budget.

Website production is a strange beast, as everything produced is virtual, it’s not something you can hold and say ‘oh, look at that, it must have taken a LOT of time to put that together’. Websites are all just a collection of digital images, scripts and text right? Sounds so simple really doesn’t it?

You get what you pay for…
The key to quality website production is how well thought-out your design layout is, and how that has been translated into the tags, variables and general code people like myself create on a daily basis.

Generally, if you get a website built on a low budget, and via a non-professional, you’ll end up with a website that reflects that investment. Although visually it might look ‘ok’, and you might even be happy with it - underneath the surface there are likely to be a lot of issues which make it harder for search engines to ‘find’ your website, harder for individuals with disabilities to ‘see’ your content and even look completely different (or not even function) on other internet browsers or operating systems.

Per-page costing
Squidge Inc has also been approached and asked how much it costs per page of a website. Now, I’ve seen the advertisements from other website production companies saying ‘XXX pounds for a 5 page website’. My question is, how can they dictate to YOU what is going to go on those pages in order to ensure there is a flat cost for producing that website for you? Also, if they’re not careful, you could very easily ask for a page like this - though you might get mouse scrolling fatigue quite quickly on a site like that!

Charging by the page is a very flawed pricing model, and isn’t the way Squidge Inc works at all. The only way it can really work is to have your company presented in a cookie-cutter style format that mirrors a multitude of of sites out there, and Squidge Inc (as you may have gathered from my previous posts) is all about bespoke.

It’s all about you… not us!
Every project carried out by Squidge Inc is viewed uniquely, and costed accordingly. If you come to us asking for a Lamborghini website we’ll very happily build you one, and be very clear on the costs such a website would involve. Like-wise, if you have a limited budget Squidge Inc always has a strong preference to build an ongoing working relationship with our clients, helping develop and build your website over time, but making sure you start with something from which you can grow.

It’s more than likely that you’ll want to update and develop your web presence once you get yourself established, so it’s important to budget for these kinds of features as part of the general ‘website cost’ question as well. I’d always recommend that you consider a website as a continuing investment. Although some clients might find a static website works well for their needs, the majority really benefit from having a look at how their website has performed since it was revealed to the internet masses, and making any amendments based on the audience response, or if they want to get more involved with their website… like writing a blog!

The $1000000 question
So - I’ve talked quite a bit about the cost and budgeting for websites without actually mentioning any specific values or amounts. The reason is, I wouldn’t want to tell you how much your website would cost until I knew what you wanted, I could say that a ball-park starting cost is around £1200, but that could be completely mis-leading if you were after a multi-section, user generated, dynamically updated and generated website.

My recommendation is, if you want a high quality website, drop us a line with a brief outline of what you’d like, and if you have a rough idea of the budget you have for it and we can take it from there. If you don’t know what you want, or how much to spend, don’t worry, we can put together a brief and subsequent quote together by asking some simple questions about your likes/dis-likes of website design and what your aspirations are.

Happy customers
We’d rather you drove off the Squidge Inc forecourt with a lovely, hand picked website solution that keeps going and performing perfectly than getting a little down the road with one from someone else and finding what you’ve bought has no engine and will involve you having to spend even more money to get the solution you’re after.

What’s more, we’d look forward to seeing you at your regular service, catching up, and tweaking the performance of your website solution, or even making modifications… fuzzy dice anyone?

Website Security

For all of the wonderful experiences I have working in the online world, there is always the presence of the less savoury world of the website hacker, and direct, malicious attacks on websites.

It’s less likely that attacks are directly targeted on specific websites, but they do occur, they can cause all manner of issues and concerns.

The reason I’m writing this post is because a handful of Squidge Inc websites were recently compromised by an automated hacking attempt, and I wanted to go through what happened, and what we have done to further limit the chances of this not happening again.

Sneaky Brutes!
The sneaky thing about attacks such as these is that if you go directly to the web address (eg http://squidgeinc.com) you won’t see any issues or problems at all. The attack is designed to take advantage of the visitors who find sites via search engines, and via links from other websites.

This particular attack re-directed traffic to a, shall we say, not very savoury part of the web, where there was a prompt to watch a video, and the website would try and get you to download/install a virus.

It’s never a nice experience having something you look after being attacked, so once the indications appeared that a malicious attack had effected some websites in the Squidge Inc portfolio we were quick to rectify the situation and restore the effected websites to their former state.

The way these attacks normally take place is via a ‘brute force’ process. This is where the script which is trying to break into the website keeps trying as many password combinations as it can, on as many websites as it can, until it gets in. Once the script has broken into the website it then uploads a file to create the redirect mentioned above, before going onto the next victim.

Security Options
The solutions to avoiding the these attacks, or at least making it very hard for the attackers to get into the website space, are as follows:

  • Always Generate long, random and complex passwords
  • Any connections to websites should use a secure connection (eg SFTP)
  • If possible, restrict connections by IP address

This best practice should put you in a strong position against any attacks, and this is something which has been, and will continue to be a standard for all Squidge Inc websites. The websites which were effected by the recent attack were likely compromised because, although randomly generated, their passwords were only 5-6 characters long, the replacement passwords are now at least 12…!

To WordPress or Not to WordPress…

The title of this post has come up numerous times on Squidge Inc projects. For those who don’t know what WordPress is take a quick glance at their about page.

Now, before I go any further, don’t get me wrong - I have a lot of time for the ethos behind WordPress and what they have achieved. The core issues I have, above anything else, are linked into what Squidge Inc does as a company and the approach we take to our projects.

While doing research for the most useful platform to base the Squidge Inc Blog on, I looked at a fair few options. WordPress always floated to the top of the pile given its HUGE following, from personal recommendations, and for all the features it offers above and beyond being a simple blog platform.

So, like any like-minded developer I downloaded the open-source package from WordPress.org, and installed Wordpress 3.

Bespoke, not HACKED
I always founded Squidge Inc on the understanding that everything we produce is of the highest quality we can achieve with an emphasis on bespoke, hand-crafted, personalised website production. WordPress is built for the masses, with a very solid infrastructure, but it will always be limited by how much you can ‘hack it’ to do your bidding.

In fact, the most common term that was mentioned to me along with the recommendation of WordPress was the work HACK.

Now, HACK in the coding world can be regarded as a bit of a dirty word. It’s basically forcing code to behave in a way it might not have been designed for, or finding ways around systems to make them doing things differently.

The average person who builds their website with WordPress will get a site up and running very quickly, but the key factor is that their website will look like a clone of many other websites produced on WordPress. The only way these individuals can get a distinctive website using WordPress is to download pre-designed themes, or HACK the code to get what they want.

Selecting the Right Tools for the Job
The interesting thing is - WordPress has recently taken centre-stage for a rather large and complex project we’re currently developing for launch next year. The reason for this choice wasn’t taken lightly. It was born from the fact that WordPress supplied the most powerful editorial tools for the client in question to be able to build, manage and maintain a very large and complex website.

The projects we produce are always approached on a case-by-case basis, and I can say, hand on heart, the the majority of our projects result in the client being more than happy that we maintain and update their websites rather than giving them a full CMS (content management solution), such as WordPress.

I strongly believe in selecting the right tools, scripts and platforms based on an individual projects requirements. If a client was to approach Squidge Inc asking for a website to be built in WordPress, my first question would be ‘Why does it have to be built in WordPress?’

This follows the same lines from a few years back where websites HAD to be built in flash… when you delved a bit deeper, the reasons didn’t really amount to much more than it ‘looks cool’ - and don’t worry that it’s not accessible..?!

WordPress gets a lot of good press for its ease of use, but my argument is that the more websites are built using it, the more uniform, and in-personal the web will become.

Website production and design is generally striking a balance between getting your content to look its best and creating the best possible ways to move around, find and share your content. Although content is king, the shell you wrap around it has to inspire and compliment it as well surely?

Squidge Inc and WordPress
The challenge with the WordPress project Squidge Inc is now developing is to make it not look like a WordPress website! We’re going to make and HACK (sigh) the content management and user management side of WordPress to power another high quality Squidge Inc production, but only because it’s the best solution for this client, and this project.

I’m sure I’ll be blogging about the progress of this project in future updates. Don’t worry, I won’t rattle on about WordPress in every post!

As far as the blog platform I chose for Squidge Inc, through which you’re reading these very words? I decided that WordPress didn’t come close to the simple yet elegant solution that is Tumblr.