How to combat spam on vbulletin forums

October 3, 2006

Categories: Development, Webmaster, Articles

Forum spam - the problem

NOTE: This article was originally written for Security Watch: How to Fight Forum Spamming

Forum spam isn’t simply a problem for forum admins - it’s a rapidly expanding industry for spammers, and scammers.

Forum spamming can be done by human users - often cheap labour from developing countries - but more worrying has been the big increase in automated scripts abusing forums.

This article will deal with common ways to fight, block, and overall, conquer forum spam

Types of forum spam

Forum spam can come in many different shapes and forums. The most common include:

1. Advertising by new members

This can be a very grey area, but ultimately these members seek only to take from a community and give nothing back. The aim is to simply treat the forum as a free advertising board.

This can either be as direct marketing to existing members, or simply to drop links on the forums for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) purposes.

Sometimes you won’t even notice it - some forum spammers hide their promotional links in the punctuation marks, and others can link directly to an invisible gif from their website, which still helps funnel link juice to it.

2. Fake member registrations

These are very common and are motivated by the ability to include links to a website from the member profile. This again is for SEO purposes, as links form a significant part of search engine ranking algorithms.



Methods for combating forum spam

Now we’ll detail some of the key methods for combating forum spam.

NOTE: These should be applicable to most forum software platforms. However, we’ll especially focus on optimising vbulletin as it’s the more secure and serious forum platform.

1. CAPTCHA

Ensure you have a CAPTCHA on your registration form - in other words, a random string of letters and/or numbers that must be typed in to complete the registrations.

This is the first step in blocking forum spam.

Pros: This stops most simple bots from registering, and is a great first block on common forum spamming methods.

Cons: It won;t stop human forum spammers.

Also, there are forum spamming scripts out there that have been configured to beat them. How? The numbers and letter in CAPTCHAs often have unique file sizes, so a script with this information coded in can beat them.

Another con is an accessibility one - the visually impaired may especially have problems with CAPTCHAs. And let’s be frank - sometimes they can be difficult for ordinary surfers as well.

2. Email verification

Email verification ensures that members can’t post on the forum unless they use a real email address.

Pros: A huge number of bots can and do register on forums, but recently the majority of them have been tracked to use random email addresses. Therefore if they can’t verify the email address they register with, they can’t post to the forums.

Cons: It still isn’t a deterrent against memberlist spamming for link purposes, and won’t stop human forum spammers.

Also, ISP’s such as AOL are infamous for blocking email verification emails. So ensure you have a clear point of contact on the forums for members who find their email verification going astray.

3. Prevent new member links

An excellent plugin for vbulletin prevent new members from posting links according to a specific parameter, usually post count.

In other words, if you set the parameter on the plugin to “20 posts”, it means that new members cannot post a link until they’ve made 20 posts.

You can find the plugins here:
Forbid Users from Posting Links or Images if They Have Fewer than 15 Posts (NOTE: Only for vbulletin 3.5+)
Prevent Users With Low Post Counts Posting/PM’ing URLS (NOTE: Only for vbulletin 3.0.x)

Pros: This is an excellent way to prevent new member registrations simply to post link advertising on your forums.

Cons: It can be annoying to genuine new members linking to genuine third-party websites.

Additionally, some forum spammers add the URL without the http://, hoping they can get traffic from members pasting in the URL.

Worse still, some forum spammers will make “me too” posts in order to reach the required link count, then drop their ads. Combat this by ensuring a long delay between posts (ie, vbulletin Admin > vbulletin Options > Message Posting and Editing Options > Minimum Time Between Posts > 60) to make it least worth their while to do so.

4. Limit post edit time

Some of the more sneaky forum spammers will appear to post entirely normally.

Then, when the threads they posted in are no longer active, they return and then insert their links.

Prevent this by setting a time limit on the post editing function.

In vbulletin, this can be found here:

vbulletin Admin > vbulletin Options > Message Posting and Editing Options > Time Limit on Editing of Posts

Pros: Prevents backwards editing of posts by forum spammers.

Cons: If you make the editing interval too short, you can annoy welcome forum members looking to tidy up their typos. So try and make the time limit reasonable - ie, 30 mins.

5. Usergroup permissions

A few years back, forum signatures were really worth something for SEO purposes. They were extensively devalued in the fall of 2004.

However, for those looking for simple and easy links, forum signatures are easy tempation. So you end up with members joining and posting, and thinking only on the signature link benefits they may gain.

There are a few different options for dealing with this:

i) Disallow signatures entirely

To do this, go to:

vbulletin Admin > vbulletin Options > User Profile Options > Allow Signatures > No

Pros: Addresses the issue instantly

Cons: Some users are more active because they see signature links as getting something back - you could lose these people.

ii) Allow signatures only conditionally

There are a couple of different ways to allow signatures conditionally:

a) Method 1

Install the vBSEO Conditional Signatures - Search Engine Optimization Plugin
.

This will only display a signature when a member posts more than a set number of characters.

In other words, those who contribute most to discussions get their signatures with their posts. Thos who don’t - don’t.

Pros: Kills “me too!” posts for links.

Cons: Members may feel confused about what qualifies them to have a signature, creating a poorer user-experience.

b) Method 2

Use the powerful vbulletin member groups and permissions system to create two member groups - one for brand new members, and one for established members. Disallow signatures on brand new members.

NOTE: Membergroups and permissions are a very powerful but intimating aspect of vbulletin, so here’s how you do it:

Create a usergroup for brand new users who can’t use signatures:

- vbulletin admin > Usergroups > Add New Usergroups
- set permissions as “Registered Member”, but ensure “Allow signatures” is disabled.
- save

TIP: For the new member usergroup, disallow user of PM’s. This will stop PM spamming by new members.

Create a usergroup for established users who can use signatures:

- vbulletin admin > Usergroups > Add New Usergroups
- set permissions as “Registered Member”, but ensure “Allow signatures” is enabled.
- save

Now set up a Promotion - we’ll assume 15 posts required to have a signature link:

- vbulletin admin > Usergroups > Promotions
- Add New Promotion
- select user group as the first custom usergroup you set up
- Reputation Level: 0; Days Registered: 0*; Posts: 15
- Promotion Strategy: Posts
- Promotion Type: Primary Usergroup
- Move User to Usergroup: (select the second usergroup you created)

* Add a value here to require a post count AND a number of days registered before allowing signatures. WARNING: Can be very annoying for new members with a time limited involved as well.

That may seem like a lot of work, but it’s a more controllable and powerful method of limiting what newer members can do.

Pros: An effective way to reward active members with active signatures (with or without links), while preventing forum posting simply for signatures.

Also, can prevent advertising abuse of the PM system - such as by Nigerian scammers - by disallowing them access to the PM system.

A general more powerful method of addressing the issue.

Cons: Can again be annoying to new members if they expect to see signatures. Expect to have to answer member queries explaining why you’ve limited signatures, and how to enable them.

5. Conditionals to combat memberlist spamming

A number of scripts sign up to forums simply to place an active link in the member profile field. This is memberlist spamming.

Again, there are a couple of different ways to address this:

i) Remove Home PageLink from the Member Profile

To do this:

vbulletin admin > Style Manager > Style Manager > Expand Templates (click the << >> button) > Member Info Templates > MEMBERINFO

Delate the following section:

Pros: Removing this removes all benefits sought by memberlist spammers
Cons: It punishes regular members by not allowing them to link to their own website/blog, etc.

ii.) Block search engines from reading member profiles

This is a simpler method that allows human users to view member profiles - but blocks the search engines from seeing them.

To do this, create a file named “robots.txt” in your forum root folder, then add the following:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /memberlist.php

Pros: This completely invalidates attempts at memberlist spamming

Cons: It doesn’t actually stop it

6. Block common offenders

Some forums spammers - whether advertising in the main forums, or memberlist spamming - use the same email addresses and IP.

You can keep track of commonly observed ones at Security Watch’s Forum Spamming alerts, which provides details on email addresses and IP’s being used in major forum spamming campaigns.

7. Censor common offenders

Sometimes you’ll find certain forum spam campaigns involve multiple users promoting the same website.

Accoona and SubmitYourArticlesNow are particularly good examples of aggressive forum spamming campaigns using multiple new registered users to advertise/link drop a service.

Simply add common offending domains to the list of censored words on your forum:

vbulletin admin > vbulletin Options > Censorship Options > Censored Words

then add the domains in question to the box.

Additionally, there is an increasing amount of forum spam coming from electronics scams.

This involve a new member posting offers (often across multiple boards) for electronic goods - commonly mobile phones or XBoxs - far cheaper than normal retailers.

Free email addresses are usually offered as a contact point.

The point being, hand over money and you’ll never see the goods.

In which case, it’s worth considering censoring the following email domains commonly used by these email scammers:

@hotmail
@yahoo
@gmail

6. Human moderators

Ultimately, whatever options above you implement, you will always face some degree of forum spamming in your forum.

While the options above can help prevent, block, or invalidate attempts to forum spam your boards, there’s no better substitute than active moderators on your forums.

The fact that you have trusted people on your forums regularly means that forum spam posted to the public boards can be quickly and easily dealt with.

Of course, building a good moderator team isn’t always easy, but a number of tips and recommendations were posted previously on Platinax: Choosing Forum Moderators.

How to promote your blog for traffic

September 30, 2006

Categories: Business, Marketing, Webmaster, Articles

Whether used for Public Relations and customer communication, or for marketing your business and website online, blogs can be a useful business and marketing tool.

However, it’s easy to become overwhelmed when faced with promoting your blog.

Here’s a simple guide to other articles which go into detail on different aspects of using your blog for promotional purposes:

Marketing:

Marketing your blog means trying to get to grips not simply with the social aspect of the net, but also the technicalities of using the features of your blog to best advantage.

These articles deal with one or both of these issues on trying to raise and develop a higher profile for your blog online:

Presentation:

Sometimes the best forms of marketing are nothing more than making it a simpler and easier user experience when it comes to your blog.

Key areas here are making it easier for readers to find subscription feeds, and also adding social book marketing tags to help more readers find you:

Promotion advice:

Sometimes reading a single article isn’t enough - you need a more constant stream of good information about blogging and how to improve it as a user experience, both for yourself and your readers.

These are some of the better high profile sites where there’s a real focus on blog development for raising your profile online:

Quick Tips:

Sometimes the best advice can be delivered simply and easily. These articles underline that for you in quick infobytes:

Tracking

Of course, if you’re looking at your blog as a marketing tool, it helps to track how people are actually using your blog, and where they came from, how they found it, what they read most, etc.

Here’s a few articles that focus on precisely this issue:

Ping services:

One of the most powerful features of the blog is the ping - the ability for a blog to notify other blogs and services when it’s been updated, and what it’s been updated with.

These links are to ping services you can add to in your blog.

Note 1: There will be quite some overlap between these lists
Note 2: Try and add too many ping services to your blog, and you could find it takes an age to make a post.

Directories:

Directories have their strenghts and weaknesses as an online marketing tool, and one of their key strengths is having an active userbase in your niche.

These are lists of blog directories compiled by other people.

Note 1: Again, there will be some overlap in the lists
Note 2: Not all of the blog directories will link directly to your blog.

EXTRA: Manual submission can often be a pain - here are two products that offer some and differeing degree of autosubmission of your blog to online blog directories:

Blog development:

One of the strongest ways you can market your blog is to ensure that you develop it properly in the first place.

It’s not simply the user experience for yourself and readers that is important - it’s empowering your potential in both areas that really has to count if you’re prepared to put a little extra effort in:

Note - Thanks to Todd for a great starter list.

How to set up a secure certificate

September 27, 2006

Categories: Webmaster, Articles, Ecommerce

Secure ordering online

When you operate an ecommerce site, the likelihood is that you’ll need to use a secure server to take orders with.

Actually, it’s pretty essential.

Even if you don’t technically need a secure server connection for online payments, your online customers will almost certainly demand one, to ensure that their personal details - not least credit card information - is not openly available online for hackers.

So it’s now a matter of routine that any ecommerce site should use a secure connection for ordering.

The SSL Cert

A secure server connection requires a SSL Certificate.

Setting up a SSL cert involves even more fun technical terms such as CSR request, RSA key, and CRT (Self Signed Certificate).

It sounds pretty scary and intimidating if you’ve not set up a SSL cert on your server before, so this should help explain how to do it.

How to set up a SSL cert

Before we even buy a SSL cert, we need to generate a certification request from the server you’ll be hosting your website on.

Geotrust, a major SSL cert vendor, provides information on installation, so if you’re using command line login on your server, these should be useful to you.

We’ll assume that you’re not used to command line operation of your server and need help.

The first option is easy - simply email your webhost, and ask for a SSL certification request - a CSR. If you do so, be aware that you’ll need to provide some business details for the request.

Another option for those using the WHM/CPanel website admin panels on a reseller account, is to generate the CSR yourself.

Simply login into WebHostingManager (WHM), and scroll down the left-hand options (often near the bottom), and click on “Generate a SSL Certificate and Signing Request”.

NOTE: Some webhosts don’t have this feature enabled, so you’ll have to email them directly.

Information required for a certification request

Whether you email your host, or use WHM to generate the CSR, here’s the information you’ll need:

  • Email address for the certificate to be sent to
  • Hostname to make cert for
  • Company name
  • Division
  • City
  • State
  • Country

You may also be asked for an email and password for the CSR to be generated.

NOTE: Although most of the entries should be self-explanatory, there are a couple of issues you need to take very carefully into consideration.

Firstly, the Hostname is your website, without the HTTP or HTTPS and forward slash. And it’s very important to note that “www.mydomain.com” is a very different hostname to just “mydomain.com”. So decide which version you want to follow your HTTPS:// address.

Secondly, there’s a simple pitfall on country codes - and that’s if you’re in the UK, the country code is not UK, but GB. Make sure you get that right, or you’ll invalidate your certification request.

Now, if you asked your webhost to provide the CSR request using the above details you provided them with, you should now have an email with your CSR.

If you’re in CPanel, simply generate the request by inputting the information as requested and it will be sent to you via the email you provided.

What a CSR looks like

The CSR should look something like this:

—–BEGIN CERTIFICATE REQUEST—–
MIICHTCCAYYCAQAwgacxCzAJBgNVBAYTAkdCMRswGQYDVQQIExJHcmVhdGVyIE1h
bmNoZXN0ZXIxDTALBgNVBAcTBEJ1cnkxEzARBgNVBAoTCkEyQiBPZmZpY2UxEzAR
BgNVBAsTCkEyQiBPZmZpY2UxHDAaBgNVBAMTE3d3dy5hMmJvZmZpY2UuY28udWsx
v7HRtSuY9yofEesW9dhhG0jddWeVaqYXNsECQQDOdaKPphZiC1clG5Hb0T4ZrMO8
gnqITEUG6GvFiCzDcfqrGeghNcac2b/SHPIexbGMitlTYTfITihY73WmmywxAkAU
SPo5z/Pa6Hv2ZEEd2Jk5LUxrc3eKE2YvFxwSoURecuhR+TDwKSlKN9qk6UAORwEE
HTTRZoW2UH/FHPdMQS8BAkEAj0×8AJV8RMcBJkFVfCP9TkE0c2Jha3GW2WfcocUH
ggEAMAwGA1UdEwQFMAMBAf8wDQYJKoZIhvcNAQEEBQADgYEAKU/x7QuawBAHhOWQ
U0wpgcn5yoqswkxmYwjeRrO6LqEpRT60XJvrirASWOv1i1ytBH3PcB6YU+JaxRd1
DwawTHtn+JbC3wgiWyp0Yo0hD3KjOz+QsuPE0IT53hVFQZULv80nAUDMzq5qlpzr
1ELx2i1Js9kjEX4oSdOFxIONs4w=
—–END CERTIFICATE REQUEST—–

You now have your certification request - well done!

Important note about email

Later on you’re going to need to choose from a very specific set of email addresses. To save on later pain, let’s get this cleared now - you want the email address “admin@yourdomain.com” setting up.

To do this, either:

1. Contact your webhost and have an email address set up on your ecommerce site domain;

2. If you can use CPanel fine, go to the CPanel screen for the domain you’re going to host the ecommerce website on, and go to the “mail” settings.

If “admin@yourdomain.com” doesn’t exist, then the easiest way to set one up is to select the “Forwarders” option from the “Mail” / “Mail Manager Menu”, then set up “admin” on the domain name and redirect email from this address to one of your main email addresses.

How to buy a SSL cert

The next stage is to go buy your SSL certificate.

There are various places to go, but it’s worth considering an SSL cert from Ev1servers, simply because it’s such a cheap and easy process.

You’ll probably be safest opting for the QuickSSL from Geotrust, as it’s a pretty hardy and respectable certificate, that should work fine for most SME ecommerce sites.

Once you’ve selected it, entered your card details, and paid for it, you should then get an email with further information on how to get your SSL certificate.

What to do with a CSR

If you bought the QuickSSL, your order email from EV1servers should include a link to the Geotrust site. If it doesn’t then contact EV1servers immediately.

Presuming all is fine, follow the link to the Geotrust site link. We’ll now find out what the CSR was for.

Setting up a SSL order

We’ve completed the SSL order and we have a CSR.

What we need to do now is add both together so that you can get an actual SSL certificate that will work uniquely with your ecommerce site.

Following the link into the Geotrust site, you’ll now be asked to set up your contact information. Go through that as required.

When you’re asked to provide your CSR, paste in the CSR in full that you got either from your webhost or generated yourself.

IMPORTANT: If the site won’t accept your CSR, then contact your host or go back to WHM immediately and work out what you did wrong (common mistakes being including http:// or https:// in front of your hostname, or else using the wrong country code - ie, UK instead of GB).

If the CSR is accepted fine you should then be asked to set up a contact for sending the actual certificate to.

VERY IMPORTANT: It’s very important at this stage to note that Geotrust will not allow you to chose a customised email - you *must* use an email address in a set given format.

Commonly, they will require “admin@yourdomain.co.uk” or “admin@www.yourdomain.co.uk”.

This is why earlier I advised you to set up the admin email account via your webhost or directly on CPanel.

If you do not have the correct designated email set up, you will not be able to receive your SSL certificate code!

If you do not have this email already on your website hosting account, then get it set up ASAP as described.

Presuming you followed instructions, select the appropriate email option - if admin@mydomain.com then it’s the Level 3 email option.

Once you’ve gone through that stage, you’ll go to phone verification.

SSL cert phone verification

For security purposes, you may have to undergo phone verification here.

It can look daunting, but it’s a simple step, really, and you don’t even need to use the phone number you set up as a contact in either the CSR or SSL cert order.

All you need to do is ensure that you have access to a phone and enter the number.

NOTE: When purchasing a Geotrust SSL cert, you don’t need to enter the country code, and if using a UK number, you don’t need the zero in front of the area code - but you must put the area code without the zero in brackets.

So if the number you wish to use were: 01667 455512
then you would simply enter: (1667) 455512

The phone authentification is pretty simple, and once you’ve followed the instructions on screen, you should have the actual certificate emailed to your admin email address as described above.

Installing a SSL cert

Now you’ve got the email, it should contain a set of code that looks pretty similar to your CSR.

The next step is simple - simply email this to your webhosting company, and ask them to install your certificate for you.

You should then be able to use your SSL certificate on your ecommerce site.

How to succeed in business

September 13, 2006

Categories: Business, Articles, Ecommerce

Alright, we’ve told you how to fail a business – let’s look at how to give your business the best possible chance by looking at elements you’ll want to get right to succeed.

1. Planning

Most sources of advice on starting up a business will rightly point out that you need to plan. But you can’t just pull figures out of the air – you need to know something about the business area you’re entering into to make it work.

On the one hand, you can do research – but always be aware of the limitations of research figures. There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. And more so that those statistics are often yesterdays news.

Don’t simply try and get information on the business area you plan to enter – enter it before you run the business. If you’re looking to sell products, then do your research as a customer – find out how other businesses relate to customers and the prices, perks, and methods of reaching customers they employ.

And if you’re selling services, make yourself something of an armchair expert on the subject before you sell yourself commercially. Be warned, though, that commercial pressures can make the whole experience very different, but at least by knowing as much as you can about the industry you’re entering into, you’ll be better prepared to solve new problems as they arise.

2. Flexibility

In the modern business world most business areas have an element of fluidity you simply can’t plan for, so ensure you have a degree of flexibility you can work with.

That means if you wrote up a business plan, only to find market realities evolve differently than expected, then you evolve with them.

This is especially the case in the modern digital world where the internet and ecommerce is one of the most exciting – but also most volatile – mediums that you can work with.

So in your initial planning look at different options you may need to engage at some stage. Some you’ll never use, some you’ll need to adapt as you face them – but overall, get it into your head at the start that marketplaces change, and to succeed you need to change with them.

3. Administration

You need an accountant from the very beginning. Determining your expected levels of profitability at the start can determine your business structure – ie, sole trader or limited company – and therefore determine just how big a tax bill you can expect to face. In this regard, an accountant can save you thousands or even tens of thousands.

Also, ensure you’re on top of administrative duties from the start. I know it’s a chore and not many people enjoy typing up invoices, but at the end of the day, the sooner you have control and constantly updated admin records, the easier it is for you in the long run.

Fail to admin properly and it really can cost you – not simply in extra tax liabilities, but also in lost revenues if you have to dedicate time playing catch-up with the books.

And bear this carefully in mind – the tax man can and does destroy companies for failing to admin their books properly.

4. Investment

There’s every likelihood that you’ll need not simply start-up capital investment, but also constant periods of reinvestment of revenues into your business to allow you to maintain efficiency and even expand.

Investment amounts will vary immensely on the business type – bricks and mortar businesses traditionally start with high overheads, while internet-based businesses traditionally have low start-up costs.

But as before, markets change, and you need to ensure your business is a well-oiled machine that can adapt and move with new and emergent market trends, to remain competitive.

Ideally, you’ll want to set yourself a budget and try to keep as close to it as you can, whether on a monthly or annual basis, so that you can reign yourself back from investing too quickly, or even not investing enough.

Simply ensure that whatever form of investment you take, you implement intelligently. Don’t risk your home on a business unless it absolutely definitely needs to be done, and make sure you have a clear plan for recouping investment costs through excess profits.

5. Pace

Look after yourself. No, seriously. A new business can require a lot of time and effort from yourself to establish, but watch out that you don’t burn yourself out.

There’s nothing more tragic than creating a well-run and profitable company if it makes you too ill to continue managing it.

I don’t make this comment lightly – many people who started their own companies will know of people who burned out, nearly burned out, or almost burned themselves out as well.

Bottom line is, a healthy company needs a healthy management who can be alert to the companies needs without sacrificing themselves totally.

And if you’re working from home, there are some decent tips here: How to survive running a small business from home.

6. Customers

Customers are the life-blood of any business. Treat them well, and in theory, they’ll treat you well.

But you have to have an idea of your limits, and know how much you can provide for free and when you have to charge.

It’s all too easy with a new business to try and make every customer extra-happy by spending extra time for free helping them, or not charging proper rates because they’re a friend.

In such instances, you’re already undermining your business.

In business to business industries, other companies expect that they’ll have to pay for extra work – in business to consumer industries, the customer knows that they should expect a certain level of customer care, but that a company that goes bust from giving too much too soon offers no care at all.

Be reasonable – give time to your customers, but make them aware that while you can probably devote some extra care to make them feel special, there’s a clock ticking in the background, and that’s your overall business that requires your attention making the ticking sound.

7. Attitude

Having the right attitude is actually a very easily over-looked aspect of running a successful business.

Running a business can be tough - there are always challenges, technical problems, and issues that need solving. Plus when things look bad they can sometimes look really really bad.

What you need to ensure you develop is a positive attitude that admits that problems are a pain in the arse, but you’ll solve them anyway and get past them. And even when times look bad, think less of how to escape from the responsibility as much as how to adapt your business to change your circumstances for the better.

A positive attitude means accepting that hurdles exist but can be surmounted - and so they can, so long as you don’t blindly approach them. As soon as you start to embrace defeatism in the face of adversity, is the moment you embrace the failure of your business.

If things ever do look really bad, take yourself away from the situation and have a short break from the office to walk around and see if you can work things out. Most problems are solvable, not always easily, but often doable - though the solutions may not always be so easy to figure out, and especially when you’re standing too close to the problem.

Be brave. Be positive. Be optimistic.

Running a business can be sometimes tough, but if you can persevere, the rewards can easily outweigh all adversity.

How to quickly fail a business



Categories: Business, Articles, Ecommerce

Start-up businesses have a high failure rate. Many factors can be involved, from poor planning, to adverse market conditions. It doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault - it’s just a general hazard of starting a new business.

However, there are some very simple and easy ways to fail a business quickly, and we’ll list some of these here.

Please note that this is intended to be a guide on how *not* to fail your business. The pointers below are issues to address, not accept, to help make your start-up not simply profitable - but also provide some longevity.

Tips on how to fail your business

1. Fail to plan

It’s too easy to go into business with only a vague idea of what will happen, and a presumption that everything will simply fall into place.

Planning to buy into a franchise? Sure, just hand over your cash and I’m sure everything else will just sort of happen like stuff does. Why shouldn’t it?

Thinking of opening a shop? Well, people will just walk in and buy stuff because the shop’s there, right?

If you fail to plan how to start-up, finance, operate, expand, market, administrate, and manage your business overall, you’re looking at the open doors of failure straight away.

2. Fail to plan properly

This takes a little more work than the above - after all, you do the planning.

Only, you have no idea what you’re actually planning and everything is all guesswork, presumption, and outright page filler. After all, “research” is just an eight-letter word.

You’ve planned to send out leaflets to advertise your business, and you’ve worked out how much this will cost. But as you’ve no idea if there’s even a demand for your business in the first place. Well done!

And then there’s planning how to rigidly run your business using real data. Only, the problem being that the markets you’ve entered are so fluid that keeping to your strict plan and failing to adapt to market changes means you’re in good stead to run your business off the end of a cliff.

3. Invest too little

Every business needs start-up capital and continued capital investment. In simple words - you need to put cash into your business. Most of the time.

So make failure easy by not investing in anything particular that may be useful for, um, sales.

Even though it can be relatively cheap and easy to set up many kinds of business online, it still requires some kind of investment, if nothing else, for webhosting. Maybe some design work. A logo? A CMS for your website, perhaps? Don’t forget payment gateway options as well. Or just ignore all that and put your mobile number and a free email address up somewhere. That will do it.

You don’t need to invest in your business if failure is an option - why waste money on replacing old and worn and faulty equipment, and why put money into working in new markets when you can easily sink your business in an existing one?

4. Invest too much

Oh, lordy. I’d love to joke about this, but I’ve known it happen. You know, that great “business opportunity” that you only need to remortgage the house thrice times to invest into and then everything will sort itself out? (See Point 1).

Just as investing too little can create a business weakling, so can investing too much into your business create an overweight body unfit for what it needs to do. More importantly, it can kill your profits and if your revenues can’t keep up with your repayments you’re already sunk.

Don’t even think about planning a stage-by-stage investment strategy for your business if you’re looking to fail.

5. Don’t work too much

Business is easy. Just sit back and wait for that phone to ring. Why chase work when it’s probably going to just fall into your lap?

And the accounts? Pfft! Let someone else sort out the paperwork.

After all, to succeed in business you need to work at it - usually a lot in the first couple of years if you want to succeed. So feel free to skip all that, take it easy for 6 months, then wait for the bank manager to come knocking on your empty office door asking where your mortgage repayments are.

6. Work too hard

To succeed in business you need to work at it -24/7, and 365 days of the year. Rise at 5am, finish work at 1am, and cheer yourself (if you have any energy left) with a cocoa at the end of the day.

Overwork yourself as much as possible, don’t take breaks, don’t measure your pace, and don’t ever allow yourself any time for a life.

After all, all work and no play makes Johnny lose his focus and concentration, fail to work efficiently, exhaust himself, develop health problems that will likely interfere with business, and also kill any real enthusiasm for running your own business instead of being employed.

7. Don’t care for customers

Who cares about customers? Big corporates obviously get away with treating their customers as the scum of the earth, and they make shedloads of cash - so obviously the way to make a ton of money with a new business is to treat all your customers as scum as well.

Don’t answer the phone if they call, and if you do get caught out with the handset, either fob them off with excuses, or else tell them to get lost. If words are too much effort, just wordlessly put the phone down.

And if these customers run off and tell all their friends about how rubbish your business is, that will at least keep those snivelling wretches from your doors - a job well done for failing any business!

8. Really care for your customers

No, I mean take customer care to a whole new level. Get yourself a 0800 number and then invite your first customer to spend all day chatting to you.

In fact, don’t stop at that - invite the old lady you bumped into at Tescos to call your 0800 and chat to you about the “good old days”.

After all, she *might* become a customer, or even think you’re so great that when she’s not calling your 0800 number, she might actually invite other people to call you who just *might* become customers - one day.

Also, don’t forget to burn away the midnight candles doing free extra work for a customer who pays squat diddly to your revenues simply because you want to look nice. After all, if you don’t do all that extra free work he or she might not think you’re that great after all - you want them to tell all their friends how great you are at doing free work, so they can join up as customers and get a load of extra free work done for themselves.

9. Charge too little

Money is the the root of all evil, so fight it by charging as little as possible. Just make up something as you go along, and make sure it’s as cheap as possible.

Don’t worry about business costs, tax liabilities - or, heaven forbid - drawing an income. Just ensure that you’re really cheap so that when everyone else finds out how cheap you are, you can create a huge loss-earning revenue base while still ensuring that you’re over-worked (see Point 6).

10. Charge too much

It takes you 10 minutes to do the job, and some geezer in Wall Street would charge $150,000 for that. So, being mindful that you’re cheaper than your competition while still instilling a sense of worth way in excess of yourself, you quote just £100,000.

Of course, who cares if some lummox around the corner with a more established business that could probably deliver a higher quality only charges £25. You’ll show him.


Of course, there are many other ways to purposefully fail a business. These are just a few suggestions.

Of course, if you actually want your business to succeed, maybe you should take note of a few of things above in terms of what not to do.

And if that’s too hard, I’ll write up a guide on how to improve your business - start-up or established.

Interview with Roy Troxel

August 31, 2006

Categories: Interviews

Roy Troxel is the editor of the Web Server Times, an online publication for the IT industry.

Roy has been in the IT business for twelve years and started his own company, Cyber-Routes, in 2002. He has a BA from Cornell University and is a Certified Internet Webmaster (CIW).

The Web Server Times features articles on servers, security, and other technology, from a webmaster’s viewpoint. If you’re too busy to visit all the tech forums, subscribe to our newsletter to stay current with the trends that are affecting your career. Or just bookmark us and visit daily.


1. You’re a long time user of the internet. What was the first attraction
for you of going online?

What first attracted me to the Internet? Pure romance. The idea of connecting to people anywhere on the planet. A friend of mine’s daughter said, “It’s just a lot of computers strung together.” If I had seen it that way, I would have pulled the plug immediately.

2. The internet must have changed considerably since then. In which key ways would you say that the internet has evolved? Would you say it’s more in the way certain services and ISPs (ie, Google) have become established, or would you say there’s been a sea-change in user behaviour?

I would say the biggest changes since I first got onto the Web in 1993 have been wireless and broadband high-speed.

I entered the IT industry in the 1980s, working first as a PC technician, building and rehabilitating desktops for various companies.

After obtaining the various certificates and the necessary experience, I began building and administering network servers, Web servers and eventually entire server facilities. By the 1990s, I was completely caught up in the information highway and loving every minute of it. In
1994, I bought shares in Microsoft and Intel, as well as several “growth” stock funds.

By 2001, I began to see the handwriting on the wall. Something was seriously wrong in the IT industry. Every other person I knew was starting his or her own business, and I just knew they couldn’t all succeed. But the banks still kept loaning money to these people and the investors still kept investing.

Everybody knows what happened next, so I’ll skip the details. In my case, the contracts became fewer and the compensation lower, so I decided to go into business on the Web. The Internet could possibly open up a world-wide market! It would be a matter of finding the right client
niche, doing the right kind of marketing, but with my experience, I could maybe meet other people and…Who knows? (I believe that can still be the case today, but I ‘m a lot shrewder about it than I was in 2002.)

I felt that the best way for me to begin communicating would be with a newsletter and a…Web log! (Or “blog” for short.) Very “cutting edge” in 2002. Thus, The Web Server Times was born.

The Web Server Times began on a well-known hosting service that claimed to promote your site as well as host it. Their hype went something like: “This gives you the time to run your business. We’ll take care of all this techie/marketing stuff.” This is like a stock broker saying, “Just give me your money, and I’ll do the rest.” Many of their “innovations” were actually JavaScript programs which you can download for free from numerous sites. Nonetheless, I was new to ecommerce at the time, and I did learn from the experience. (After one year, however, I negotiated an excellent arrangement with my current host. )

3. Currently there’s a lot of focus on Web 2.0, especially as a social networking platform. Do you think there’s a danger that lots of Web 2.0 companies are repeating Dotcom? Also, do you think there are key Web 2.0 companies and strategies that we are likely to see as hubs on the internet for the future?

As for Web 2.0, I guess it’s based on the fact there have been so many changes since 2002 that the Web has taken a quantum leap forward and has created a new wireless international coffee-house environment. As you walk into your home, your wireless network begins its work, cooking your dinner, turning on your TV and turning up the air conditioning.

As you pass your telephone, its infrared detectors sense your presence and the phone says “Four new calls, Mr. Troxel”. You walk up to your computer, look at the 42″ screen and speak into the microphone: “Today’s prices for all my holdings. Print them out, please…And I need to know the latest used car prices in Baltimore.” And then your noiseless laser HP does its work. All of these devices are feasible today, and I guess that could cause a sea-change in user behavior!

But Web 2.0 is also promotional gimmick. That’s not bad. Thomas Edison began that practice with his own “Edison” label. The problem is that it means so many different things to too many people. I visited a number of forums where the subject was discussed and that’s the only conclusion I can come to. However, if some company’s software says “Follows Web 2.0
Standards”, I would be suspicious.

4. To return to social networking - it seems like there’s a specific focus on the social aspects of the web, not least with blogging. Do you think there’s a danger of social networking being over-stated? After all, internet communities have existed since the first days of the internet. Do you think blogs are likely over-hyped as a community medium, and where do you see the role of internet forums in the scheme of social networking?

How much social communication is really going on here?

First, you’ve got the hate sites and the porn sites. They don’t figure in this discussion.

Then you have the highly opinionated sites, often political in nature. Because of the relatively anonymous nature of the Internet, the blogger can post any opinion he wants, with no editorial supervision or fact-checking. What’s more, there is a market for this! These sites are not really communicating anything but rather are re-affirming what their readers already believed.

Then there are the blogs that appeal to a very specific niche. Here is where the true “revolution” is. Here is where the true communities are being established. Instead of appealing to a mass audience (sometimes the lowest common denominator), the “true” blogger uses the resources of
the Internet to convey useful data to his or her specialized audience.

This isn’t always easy. I tried a blogging site myself for two years. I was trying to work with three other bloggers, all of whom were intelligent entrepeneurs, but within two years I had to abandon the project. The first blogger had become a scientologist and began posting daily medical reports of his wife’s failing condition. The second had joined a militia/vigilante group, shut down his hosting service, and is now employed as a truck driver. The third became a muddle-headed crank, obsessed with conspiracy theories. (Everybody he disagreed with was a
“fascist”.)

5. In your blog you’ve mentioned a lot about advances in computing, such as distributed computing and smart dust. Do you see these as having any specific shaping role in how the internet develops from a user point of view, or are they simply technologies that simply sustain our current consumption of the internet, and attempt to help speed up access to services?

Innovations like distributed computing and smart dust are still in the laboratory phase, in my opinion. When they become a reality, via nanotechnology, yes, you will see a tsunami of a sea-change in user behavior. Imagine swallowing a pill containing smart dust: your internal
system is now part of the Internet!

6. If there’s one big bugbear when it comes to the internet, it’s security issues. Whether we’re talking about email spam or servers being hacked, it seems that at every step there’s an exploit to be opened up against users. Do you think that software companies and ISPs are really taking matters of security as seriously as they should, or do you think the key to secure computing online is user awareness of basic security protections?

First, let’s realize that there isn’t a computer on the Web that can’t be hacked. The question is: Is it worth the effort? If the hackers think it’s worth spending a few years hacking into the Bank of America, they will get to work on the job.It’s a matter of risk vs. reward.Could the present day firewall around China be hacked? Of course. There may be Chinese revolutionaries planning the job as I write. Or maybe the KGB or the CIA is on the case.

As far as ISPs go, my own service (Comcast) is very slow with security matters because they don’t see that kind of support as being cost-effective. This is especially true in the matter of spam.

7. You’ve mentioned before about concerns you’ve had as an affiliate merchant with Amazon. Do you think that the internet is moving away from affiliate relationships, or do you think that it’s simply the case that once a company becomes more established, it tends to seek to reduce the rewards from affiliate marketing? Where do you think the future of affiliate marketing is headed?

In 2002, I was introduced to the world of affiliate programs. It all seemed so easy at the time. Just copy and paste logos and links onto your Web site. Visitors would click through to the affiliates, buy a product and you’d get the commission.

Wrong! As it turned out, most companies’ links were sneaky ways to advertise the companies’ products, because most affiliate programs didn’t bother using cookies to track whether the sale came from your site or somebody else’s. Sure, there were exceptions, but you had to really look for them. I went with those that advertised “permanent”, or at least “90-day” cookies.

Then there was the problem of attracting visitors. After several weeks’ research I found Google Adwords and in the fall of 2004, launched an extensive and expensive campaign to bring visitors to The Web Server Times. I had also teamed up with Amazon and had posted links to their products on my Web pages containing content that described or explained the device being advertised. The search engines like that, I was advised.

But I had made one fatal error: My market timing was off. I had launched the campaign in the fall, and not during Christmas season - the biggest buying season of the year. To make the long story short, by the time the season started (the last week in November in the US) I had spent all my Adwords budget!

The final blow came this spring. Amazon decided to cut its commissions in half, making 4% the highest possible amount. In addition, their cookie life-span was decreased to 24 hours.

The moral of the story is this: Create your affiliations the old-fashion way. Take potential affiliates out to lunch, pat their dogs and praise their families. Link-pasting just isn’t going to do it. All the money I spent on Adwords I could have invested in a good bond fund. It looks like a.) a lot of affililate prorams aren’t reliable, or b.) if they are, they will disappear once the company feels it isn’t a necessary part of its revenue.

There are still some advantages to the affiliate partner however: low overhead, no real bookkeeping, no shipping, etc.. But with a 4% commission, you have to sell a lot of products or services, which means you have to drive a lot of people to your site to make it all worthwhile.

Michael Bloch, of ThinkHost, has a simple game plan. When something new comes out, like MySpace.com or ringtones, he scours the Web to learn all he can about it, and then “searches for the gold”.

8. You’ve also mentioned previously that you have a strong interest in investing, especially in internet companies. Do you think that internet companies are in any way higher risk investment compared to bricks and mortar companies? And are there any particular companies you think deserve closer attention, and if so, why?

In light of all this, however, the emphasis to US investors is on “value” stocks over “growth” stocks. The IT companies of the 1990s were all growth stocks. They put their profits back into research and development, not into dividend payments for investors. When many of these companies failed, the investors lost everything.

A “value” company however has usually been around for several decades, like General Electric, and can afford to pay dividends to its investors. A startup company could never do this of course, so the emphasis is on established blue-chip stocks.

In view of this, Internet stocks are clearly growth stocks. Even Microsoft is still in this category, although they did pay out a one-time dividend in 2004. So, if you’re interested in Red Hat or Cisco, be prepared to hang onto those stocks over many ups and downs.

The Internet does now play a crucial role in stock-trading, however. “Live” quotes and prices have enabled the number of day-traders sitting at their home computers to expand exponentially! The Internet has also facilitated global marketing and the transfer of money internationally to a phenomenal degree over the past few years.

However, this doesn’t mean that investing in a company like Cisco will make you a lot of money. See the difference? The Internet is the VEHICLE for all this global commerce, but not yet the value entity.

And before you make any investment at all, examine your own financial needs first: A new house may be more important to you than owning stock in Google (another growth company).

……And I am NOT a certified financial adviser, so don’t take any of MY advice, without consulting other sources! :) :) :)

9. Recently we’ve seen big slides on the investment markets, not least over inflationary fears in the US and continued concerns about the imbalance of debt. Do you think we’re seeing the closure of an economic cycle in play, as the previous boom years of the global economy give way to harder times. And do you see any real threat of a major recession in the future hitting the US, UK, or even globally?

As far as global political and economic issues go, I can’t make any predictions and neither can anyone else, no matter what they claim. On the other hand, investors who know what they’re doing go by “indicators”, and here are some of the ones that have come my way.

US Politics: The Bush Administration is currently in a tail spin from which it won’t recover. The war in Iraq, the Congressional scandals, the hurricane disasters, the trade imbalance, gas prices,,, You name it. There are millions of irate voters here who will probably be voting the
Republicans out of office this November, which will mean that the Bush Admin will have an uphill fight against Congress and the Senate. The problem is, the Democrats are clueless about what to do about the above-mentioned problems and are utterly lacking in leadership.

I don’t know how Tony Blair is faring in England or what the EU is doing these days, because I’ve spent most my time studying China. There is a lot of wind blowing from certain blogs about how it’s the sleeping giant, how its rising middle class will become the most powerful market
in the world, and how it’s buying and/or stealing US technology.

There are elements of truth in all of these claims, except that you have to realize the country is still run by a Communist government which can influence how the corporations are run. Thus, China is not a true free-market economy. If a corporation begins having problems, the government will bail it out. This is like the US government giving money to Microsoft or General Motors every time those companies have a bad year.

As far as China stealing and copying US technology - that’s about ALL they can do. They have no true scientific or technological infrastructure, although they’re working on it, as with their space program. However, the average Chinese entrepreneur still can’t visit an institution like Cornell University, for example, and obtain plans for computers or airplanes, etc., because they aren’t in China - such documentation is mostly in the US and Europe.

Their patent system, I’ve read, is in chaos so if someone in China really does invent a better mousetrap or whatever, it will be stolen out from under his nose. As for the Chinese “middle class”, it would make the characters out of Dickens look like the Rockefellers. Most Chinese are still “peasants” who live in the country and eke out a living on their small farms under the watchful eyes of the commissars.

I don’t think any of the above will effect the US stock market anytime within the next five to ten years.

Well, that winds it up. Let me know if I need to explain anything in more detail. And thanks for the opportunity.

Interview with Dave Ashton



Categories: Interviews

Dave Ashton is the director of Bizal and Contact Foundry.

Contact Foundry is one of the UK’s leading specialist sales support and lead generation companies.

We deliver highly qualified, exclusive prospect profiles and sales leads to our diverse client base across the UK. We can assist companies in many areas of OUTBOUND telesales work including:

* Sales lead generation
* Prospect generation
* Market research
* Interim sales staff


You’ve built yourself firmly into the sales end of business to business services with Contact Foundry. What sort of background do you have that has helped you reach this point in time?

I have been in new business sales for over 15 years. Most of this time was working in the High Tech sector and started my career in sales as a telesales person

This progressed to running an internal sales team and various other promotions until I was given my final role as a Sales Director.

During this time was also very lucky to have great mentors who continued my education in sales processes, methodology and management. This was a major factor that helped me rise quickly within the company’s I worked for.

Some people can find managing their own sales process difficult, sometimes too hard or too soft sell. How does any company find the right balance, and does it take a special sort of personality or experience to be able to make those judgement calls?

In simple terms selling to a business is all about following a process and closing as you go along. A salesperson should never be at the end of the process and need to close hard or softly if they have followed the correct methodology in the right order.

Every business knows they need sales, but not every business knows how to go about it. What would you say is the best way for a business to identify its key marketing opportunities for increasing sales and revenues?

If we look at the basic elements of the sales process we need to generate leads which requires

  • Unique Selling Points (USP’s) that are fact based and not emotive
  • A defined Target Market User Profile

When this has been done, we strongly recommend that all companies test the various methods of lead generation. This will establish a cost per lead for each method and enable you to expand the methods that work best without spending your entire budget.

The most common areas to investigate and test are:

  • Online Pay Per Click & Search Engine optimisation (only after you know that Pay Per Click works)
  • Prospect Profiling
  • Generic offline advertising
  • Networking online & offline
  • Email marketing
  • Referrals Programs
  • Mailshot’s (often with a telesales follow up call)
  • Events / Seminars/ Workshops
  • Free online PR
  • PR

Each of the above will generate a cost per lead and some cases additional benefits i.e. very targeted marketing can be achieved if you prospect profile and online PR also generates links for your website.

Tip: Remember that your USP’s will need to be updated as your business grows and the best people to ask to help you define these, are your prospects and clients.

Closing deals :

The key to closing any opportunity has two main areas that need to be in the sales process

Understanding the prospects requirements including, solution, timescales, budget, purchasing criteria, and not just from the decision maker but also from influencers.

Demonstrating that your company can deliver by providing credibility statements i.e. years trading, accreditation, 3 references, company image, etc.

All the above qualification and justifications need to added to the sales process, tested and continually improved.

Remember what is most important is that you create a proven repeatable process and that conversion rates are monitored to enable troubleshooting and continual improvement.

The internet has had a profound effect on how business can operate, but how important an impact do you think it’s had on the sales environment? Has it simply provided new avenues to chase sales leads, or has the sales process itself been fundamentally changed?

The Internet has changed several ways that people in sales and marketing work.

Lead Generation and online PR are the obvious benefits from the internet but many companies have also benefited or suffered because of the image the company website creates. It is also vital that the websites reiterate what the sales & marketing teams are saying to thier prospects.

Unfortunately we often come across large companies who have cheap looking websites that portray the company in less professional way, or does not reiterate the other sales and marketing messages created by the company. This results in lower closer rate because the sale team need to work that much harder in demonstrating the companies credibility and ability to deliver to the product/ service.

Last but not least, because it is very easy to compare prices on the internet, it means that more thought needs to go into providing value added services and creating a solution rather than just providing product.

When a company operates both online and offline, do you see offline advertising as being equal to the challenge of online advertising, or just as complementary, according to the needs of the business?

This depends a lot on the type of business, geographical coverage and the target market user profile. In many cases the two forms of lead generation can compliment each other.

Like most forms of lead generation there are big plus points and potentially big negatives. In the case of online promotion you need to have not just quality traffic but also a website that converts that into an opportunity. Changing sites to maximise the number of leads generated per 100 visitors can often be very costly or in many cases is not done and hence this method provides a poor return on investment.

However a sticky website that coverts traffic well will often generate a very high ROI and can also generates opertunities that could not realistically be found by any other method.

One of your key areas of sales service is the provision of Telesales. As an offline marketing method, how do you find it compares to online methods such as Pay Per Click in terms of customer acquisition costs?

This depends on each clients target market user profile. For most of our telesales projects we work on building prospect profiles which enables our clients to do other forms of very targeted marketing, solution selling, as well as making appointments. Online is a lot more hit and miss but in the vast majority of our clients PPC and SEO will provide a very positive ROI statement

It seems that Pay Per Call is one of the big marketing avenues of the future. As a provider of Telesales services, do you see Contact Foundry as integrating into Pay Per Call, or do you see it as a rival service?

NO I wish I could put that stronger because our clients are all B2b and hence it comes down to a quality business conversation and not a bunch of badly paid people reading a script. Pay Per Call might work very well for B2c where a high volume of automated calls are needed but it will never work for B2b

One of the most difficult parts of running a sales campaign can be measuring the metrics of it, especially in terms of sales conversions. Firstly, what sort of tools and tricks do you use to measure the success of direct marketing campaigns, especially on the internet? Secondly, how important are factors such as brand marketing in sales campaigns, and is it ever possible to factor that into campaign analysis?

Measurement is key and yes we run a variety of tools internally to monitor conversion rates throughout the sales cycle and not just the end result.

As for a tip. On your sales forecast most people put in the chance of winning the deal i.e. If you define what these percentages mean i.e.

    10% You are aware of the opportunity and you can deliver the project

    20% Arrange meeting and given company presentation and got a scope of works

    30% Have spoken to / met all the people involved in making the decision and asked what there purchasing criteria is.

    90% Have verbal order

    100% Have order

Now each Week/ Month compare with your previous weeks forecast and

    1: find out if any deals have been lost and at what percentage chance

    2: Establish if any deals have not progressed i.e. they should now have a greater chance of being closed

Now over a few weeks / months you will find that most deals drop off at certain points in your sales cycle. This is now the area for improvement/ troubleshooting / sales training.

Last but not least branding is a nice to have not a must have and helps with credibility that is the real reason people place the order with a specific company. Having the best solution does not win deals, showing that your company is financially stable, well accredited , has plenty of reference sites, creates a strong professional image etc. will!

You’ve recently started a series of sales conferences, where you bring together a group of companies to talk about different methods business can use to increase sales revenues. How important do you think it is that business is made more aware of their options? Is it possible to confuse them with different options?

After the events most people ask to pilot a particular method i.e. prospect profiling, PPC etc. and hence this is not so much of a problem. Interestingly the average rating for content / relevancy is just over 9 out of 10 which shows there is a clear demand for this type of event.

You’ve made a point on the Platinax forums that you love business networking online. Do you think this is something that any business can do, or does it require a specific type of method or even personality, to be able to network with other businesses in any environment, offline or online?

LOL Networking online was part of our marketing plan and I think we have a great advantage because of peoples interest in sales. This results in lots of questions that we can answer and show off our skills.

If you are in an industry that has less inertest in it then networking online would be a lot harder because there would be less questions and hence less opportunity to show off your skills i.e. one of our clients sells industrial chimneys and I am not sure I have ever seen a question relating to this topic so I think he would find it hard.

Thank you for your time. :)

Interview with Tony Ryan



Categories: Interviews

Tony Ryan is the director of TWD Hosting, which was setup in 2004 to service the business sector of the hosting / development industry, because we specialise in B2B web solutions we use only the very best technology and servers – Business users demand the very best in both support and uptime, they want solutions to problems and answers to questions in plain English – which is exactly what we give them.

Recently we have setup quite a lot of eCommerce solutions for new clients – we seem to be making a bit of a name for ourselves in the eCommerce world, with the speed of setup and low initial setup costs…

We use a few freelance designers to help with web-design work, and we are always looking for good, low cost designers to call upon when the need arises.

So… That is basically us at TWD Hosting Ltd, high spec equipment for the business user – we are not the cheapest hosting solutions but we never set out to be….


Hi Tony, and thanks for taking the time to be interviewed. You’ve recently moved your business model from web design services to focus on webhosting services. Can you please explain why this move made more sense to you?

There are a lot of very good professional web designers out there – in fact we use a few from time to time if a client requires design services, I am not a web-designer, I can put a decent web site together but I would never call myself a professional, that is why I decided to move the company away from design services – Let the professional designers get the design work, and leave the hosting side of things to a professional hosting company…

Moving to difference business models can be both invigorating and challenging. What sort of challenges have you had to face in focusing on webhosting services, and how difficult has it been for you to re-orientate your business in this way?

The transition was a lot easier than I thought it would be to be honest… By sourcing a few good, reliable freelance designers to do any design work for us we have found that we have a lot more time on our hands to focus on client support and the business in general.

We do not pretend to our clients that we do the design work – we are upfront about everything and invite our designers to approach clients (with there permission) the client then chooses the designer they are most comfortable with and they arrange everything between themselves – the arrangement works rather well.

There are constant arguments online about which is better for hosting – Windows or Linux; and additionally over the best type of control panel to use for administrating websites. Where do you stand on such arguments, and also, do you make a decision on “what is best” based on your own assessment of what your business needs, or on clients say they need?

For me, at the present time Linux wins on the operating system front – there are several reasons for this, one is security which is a major consideration for us when we are hosting business website’s, another is I HATE the fact that you have to reboot a Windows machine after updates – and we all know how often Microsoft release updates!

In the control panel stakes, clients of ours have a choice – one that to be honest we make for them the majority of the time depending on the type of website they are planning to operate… We use cPanel for general (non eCommerce) website’s because it is regarded as the industry standard and is quite easy for the end user to learn, but we also use Ensim Pro on our eCommerce servers – this is because although Ensim is slower, has less features and is probably slightly harder to understand than cPanel it has a far better security reputation and is less “buggy” than cPanel.

Webhosting is an area filled with technical language that many small businesses may have difficulty understanding. How do you help people make decisions on what they need in this regard, and how important do you think it is for webhosting clients to be aware of issues such as connectivity and datacenter reputation?

I always try and explain things to clients in plain English – The majority of our clients have very little technical knowledge but we know that just by spending a few more minutes writing an email we can help them understand exactly what is going on… One thing I hate is when companies use technical “babble” to confuse a client or even worse to hide failures on their part.

As for connectivity and datacenter reputation – I don’t think this matters to the majority of our clients, when a prospective client contacts us for the first time we invite them to visit the site’s in our portfolio to see the speed at which the pages load – this is what matters to clients, speed and reliability – how this is achieved is normally of no interest to a client at all…

The US market in webhosting is very competitive, and this has really driven prices down for clients. However, the UK market still supports a lot of webhosting companies who charge premium rates for the same level of service. Do you think the UK market will liberalise similar to US markets, or are hardware acquisitions costs such that the UK webhosting market will continue to be more expensive than the US for webhosting?

In the long term UK prices can only come down – I very much doubt that we will see the sort of prices that the USA enjoy though. The problem with the UK market is that the datacenter costs are so high… The UK is an expensive country and as such the costs of power, tax, rates and everything else that a datacenter has to pay make sure that the UK will never be able to compete with the USA.

There is a good demand for UK based hosting services though – something that as a company we are currently looking at very seriously, pricing will obviously be a huge issue though… Do we charge an extra premium for UK based services or take a hit in the profits?

The internet allows for a lot of opportunity online – how would you say you’ve been able to grasp these with online services, and how difficult would you say the challenges are?

The Internet has certainly opened up a whole new marketplace for a lot of people, it is a huge resource and it can only get bigger with more and more companies joining the internet revolution. I do find that the Internet has made business a lot less “personal” – I would much rather chat to someone via email than via the telephone these days…!

The challenges for today’s business are to actually be seen on the Internet – Flashy website’s are quickly becoming a thing of the past as they no longer impress anyone, companies are instead saving their money to use on SEO and advertising in a bid to actually be found on the net.

SEO and advertising are things that I think TWD Hosting will have to grasp in the future in order to provide a more complete solution to clients – a bundled design / hosting and SEO / advertising package is something that will be in demand in the near future.

You recently suffered a period of severe illness. What contingency plans do you advise a business to have, to ensure that the business continues to operate and support clients in such an event? Also, how has the illness changed your perception of how you run your business?

Yes – my illness was a massive blow (not only to me personally but to the business). I was totally unprepared with nobody else in the company having enough knowledge in the day-to-day running if things to do much more than simple admin duties and reply to emails.

This is something that will not happen again – staff training is the key and do not make yourself indispensable! It might feel good to be the only one in the company to have access to this or the passwords for that but it really is not a good idea to run a business around yourself…

I have also had what you might call a “life changing experience” with this illness – although I should make a 100% recovery the fact that things were at one point “touch and go” really made me but things into perspective, also not being able to see my children for nearly 3 weeks made me more determined to spend more time with them once I got better.

Work and Business really are not something you want to build your life around…

You’ve been using mentoring services, to help gain useful advice and insight into running your business. How useful have you found this service, and how important do you personally think it is for other small businesses to access such business support services?

A business mentor is a very good source of advice for a small business, the meetings are very informal and you soon feel very at ease chatting about the things that are concerning you about your business.

Sometimes you put things to one side in business, maybe your books are less then upto date? Or there is a pile of paperwork in the corner that you have been ignoring?

A mentor will simply help you to see that these things need to be done and help you to organise yourself better – they will not interfere with the running of your business mind you, they just offer advice and once they understand what you do and how your business model works then you soon find yourself bouncing ideas off each other…

I think that the majority of small business fail not because of a lack of enthusiasm by the owner or a lack of a good idea but simply because of a lack of help & advice with the general day-to-day running of a business…

What would you say is the single most important thing you’ve learned about setting up a business online?

That is a very hard question to answer, probably the biggest thing I have learnt is that no matter how much you think you know, you never know enough about online business…!

If anyone is thinking of setting up a business online – do not be afraid to ask for help. Business forums like Platinax are a great place to ask questions and get good, solid help & advice from people who are experts in their field.

I don’t think there is anyone who is a complete “online business” expert – there are far to may variables for one person to be a total expert at everything…

Thank you for your time, Tony, very much appreciated.

Interview with Brian Turner



Categories: Interviews

Brian Turner is the director of both Britecorp Marketing, and Platinax Internet.

Key to his approach to business is a focus on strong customer care and providing real value for money.

Brian is an internationally known business consultant and SEO.


You’ve established an internet presence, and often promote the internet as a business medium. But isn’t the internet just all hype, and is there really any importance in a business have a web presence?

I’m something of an internet evangelist – I firmly believe that any business that doesn’t have a proper web presence is really missing out on lead generation opportunities.

Let’s put it this way – the internet is the most accessible medium on the planet for business. Some companies spend hundreds, thousands, or even millions of pounds trying to reach targeted market segments in print publishing, radio ads, and television. But the internet allows you to reach targeted market segments for much less cost.

Search marketing – SEO and PPC – mean that lead generation for online sales can be incredibly cost-effective compared to other advertising mediums. And with broadband penetration already at over 60% in the UK alone, you are going to see the internet play an increasing role in daily life, whatever a person’s personal circumstances. Businesses that stand on the side-lines will have to invest much more money playing catch up later on.

You say that every business should be online – but surely this isn’t the case for local companies? If I run a pizza delivery shop that only serves a 5 mile radius, surely my target market is so narrowly local that trying to gain an international internet presence is of little value?

Now, that’s the problem – the assumption that the internet is only global. The internet serves all geographical bases – local, national, and international. And, sure, a business with only a very local catchment area doesn’t need to invest in marketing themselves internationally.

But the point is that because the internet serves the local market as well – and will become increasingly targeted towards serving local markets via Google Local and similar applications – it means that even just having a website representing your area, with keywords relating to that area, means that customers can find you much more easily when they need to make a purchase. If your competitors do this instead, they’ll make the sale, not you.

Now you’ve mentioned keywords, and as you are a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) consultant, I presume you’re talking about SEO targeting for lead generation? Does this actually work, at any level of business?

Absolutely! Think about how important positioning is for a bricks and mortar business – if you’re selling to general consumers, a position on the high street is going to be a lot more lucrative that in the fields behind a village miles away from any town or city.

It’s an analogy that applies to the internet, too – get on the first page of Google for listing your products and services, and it’s like having that position on the high street. Your business has much more visibility, and is more likely to be found by those consumers looking for those products and services.

You mentioned about general consumers, but what about business to business (b2b) services? Surely industrial contractors aren’t going to see the same benefits?

Any business that needs sales leads needs visibility – the internet provides that. I was with a group of small business directors last night, some of whom were complaining about how difficult it is to tender for civil service contracts.

Yet I already have clients who provide goods and services for local civil services, simply by being found on Google. Sure, it’s not big tender contracts, but let’s put it this way – if you’ve been noticed and purchased from before by a local authority, isn’t that going to put your company in a better position to compete for a tender than a similar-sized company that is an effective unknown?

And lets put it another way – if you need to buy business services, you need to look out for suppliers of those services. Traditionally, people may look in trade books and the Yellow Pages – but the internet does that now.

I’ll underline the point – any business that needs to make sales needs visibility to make those sales. The internet is a medium brilliantly suited to provide that visibility in an extremely targeted way. Search marketing is a great way to deliver on that visibility.

You’ve mentioned the cost-effectiveness of running an online business, but how does this apply to start-up costs? Even if you don’t have the initial overheads of a bricks and mortar business, surely the start-up costs can still be large?

I really don’t think so – if you really want to, you can start-up a business on peanuts and scale up. That’s precisely what I did with my own company – I reinvested on my profits to buy software and services that would help my business deliver more.

My actual start-up costs from my own pocket at the very beginning was about £200, and that was simply to pay for a merchant gateway to take payments online. By reinvesting in my business, I’ve built that £200 start-up investment into a company that grew big enough to need to be VAT registered.

How important is a business plan when setting up online? If the costs are less, surely that means you need less planning? Or does there still need to be a lot of business planning for strategic development?

To be honest, I didn’t do any business planning. I had a try before setting up in business, but I hated the way I found myself having to guess all my figures. And you can’t simply walk up to a similar company and ask for a full outlay of their revenues and costs.

So in the end I played it by ear and attempted to be as flexible as possible. The internet is so changeable that you absolutely need that extra flexibility to cope with how the internet changes.

But now that I’m trying to establish my business more, I have figures I need and can use to draw up proper marketing strategies. That’s what I’m doing at the moment – I’m ready to expand and can set up a plan on issues such as Customer Lifetime Value and offset them against estimated Customer Acquisition costs.

I’m not saying that a business plan isn’t important at the start – simply that you need a clear idea of what you expect to have to do, then adapt to what you find you need to have to do. I already had a good idea of my market and how it worked, having done hobbyist SEO for a couple of years previously, so I knew more or less what was expected of me at the start.

Even then, customers add such an extra pressure to achieve, that it still felt like I’d paddled in the little pool, and now had to swim in the big pool. I liked the challenge, though.

On good days, running an online business is one big strategy game with no clear rule book. I enjoy that challenge. On bad days it’s simply work. :)

You started up Platinax to help other businesses get online. Isn’t this a bit dumb, in that you’re helping your competitors?

The aim is that Platinax will become something like an online version of Business Link. An accessible resource like that is desperately needed, because most businesses – and business advisors – have little idea about the technicalities of using the internet for business purposes.

That’s what Platinax is for – to cover the gap, and draw on the experiences of other businesses and how they solved specific issues, whether webhosting, website accessibility, lead generation online, using ecommerce carts, and keyword targeting for search marketing.

Platinax isn’t in competition with anybody, and frankly my main business company – Britecorp Ltd – isn’t in direct competition with anybody either.

SEO is one of the least pretentious disciplines to work in. SEO’s regularly meet up and discuss SEO and business issues. As we’re helping businesses in all sectors, there’s a wide ground for discussion where we aren’t going to be in competition with one another.

You’ve mentioned about the opportunities of the internet, and how easy it can be to start-up. Do you see those opportunities continuing, and how do you see the internet changing over the next few years?

Certainly the opportunities are lessening – nowadays I very much feel like I’m one of the last ones through the door. The low-hanging fruit feel as though they are almost gone.

Yes, I can develop a business online, but it’s always the maxim that the more established a business is, the least vulnerable it may be to changes.

So now I’m developing a business online, I need to establish firmer roots. That’s why I’m at the stage where I need a marketing plan and firm drive to aggressively expand and capture that firm ground.

And the internet is changing – streaming media, such as video, music, and VoIP, as well as local search, personalised search – the whole gamut of internet sectors are growing and expanding, and you need to develop a more specialised skillset to work with them.

And that’s why any business that hasn’t established an internet presence now, is simply storing up their costs for later years when they do need it. People who intentionally wait at the back of the queue can’t complain if all they can get served is scraps.

You work from home with your business. Is this something that’s easy to get used to, or does it take time to develop a routine?

For myself, the important point you must never forget when working from home is that you are working. It’s easy to be distracted, so you need to hold yourself to targets and meet them.

Do that, and reward yourself with a half-hour discussion on forums, or read of a news portal site.

But as business develops and picks up, you really need that discipline, and the ability to idle time in online discussions becomes less and less.

That’s why SEO forums are often filled with people new to the industry – they have time to idle. The big names of the industry post little, but when they do, you pay attention.

Okay, so here’s the big question – what do you think of Google?

It’s a love-hate relationship. When it works, it’s great - when it doesn’t, you feel frustrated. Google probably feels the same about webmasters. :)

Google has a problem at the moment with being somewhat schizophrenic. On the one hand, Google Search says it wants search results that are relevant. But Google AdSense says it wants to power low quality sites to increase revenues.

So Google Search sets up filters to remove these low quality sites, but simply ends up throwing the baby out with the bath water. Google Search seems less concerned about how relevant a webpage is, as much as how important the domain is that the page is on.

And it can only get worse. A highly relevant Google Search index simply isn’t going to provide competitive revenues when almost all their income comes from AdWords/AdSense.

So the harder it is for a company to increase their presence on Google Search, the more they’ll have to spend on Google AdWords. Google’s interest in an actual relevant search index comes across as increasingly academic, rather than a practical reality.

This is such a problem in the UK as well because the search industry is completely dominated by Google. US businesses can fall back on traffic from Yahoo! and MSN, but Google UK is effectively search in the UK, or nothing.

We really need a more level playing field here, but it’s really up to Yahoo! and Microsoft to look at developing their UK base more, or else face completely losing the biggest spending market outside of the USA. And everyone loses out for that, except Google.

Interview with Aidan Walsh



Categories: Interviews

Aidan Walsh is the owner of Seed Design, a professional graphic and web design firm based in the UK, specialising in delivering quality design to small to medium businesses and startup companies. That sounds like a hundred and one other companies, right? So you’ll be wanting to know what makes us different.

Let’s get cost out of the way first - there are cheaper places than us. We’re quite open about that. If you’re looking for cheap design, we’re not the company for you. However, if you want value for money, Seed is hard to beat.

It’s important to us to remain affordable to our clients, many of whom are startups, but we’re not going to short-change them by producing low-quality work for a low price. We would much rather develop an ongoing business relationship with satisfied customers who have paid a realistic price and seen a return on that investment.


Every company that goes online needs a website, of course. But before they begin, what would you say are the most important design and developments of setting up a website in the first place? Should any business have a check box of issues they should be aware of from the start?

Probably THE single most important thing is to know who your target market is. Everything else about the website should stem from attracting them. Don’t make the common mistake of designing for yourself - you aren’t trying to attract yourself as a customer, you’re trying to attract OTHER people.

One of the advantages of hiring a professional designer is that because they aren’t a part of your company, they are able to be much more objective about the needs of potential clients.

You also need to know how your website will fit into your marketing plan. Websites rarely work well when used as a sole means of marketing and advertising - they’re much more effective when combined with other methods.

Don’t look on your website as a seperate entity - integrate it into the rest of your marketing plan.

You’ve mentioned before on the Platinax Business Forum about the importance of having a unique design for the internet. What sort of priority do you think a new business start-up should place on a unique web design from the beginning, or is it something that companies should aspire to as they become more established?

I wouldn’t limit it to just websites - most companies, especially startups, would benefit from professional design services full stop. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of companies view design as a necessary evil, rather than an investment which will enable them to reach their target market more effectively.

I would advise most startups to pay for a professionally designed identity (logos, business cards, stationery and so on) and start with a simple website that reflects that identity. The identity is the face your company projects to customers, suppliers and the world in general - it needs to be unique and relevant to your company.

You want to be projecting a professional image to these people, and a badly designed identity will put people off and lose you business. That’s really what it boils down to. Once you have your identity, you’ll want your website to fit in with it. This doesn’t need to be expensive.

The website itself can be fairly simple, what’s important is that it carries your company’s branding in a manner that is consistent with the rest of the company’s identity.

Most companies that are just starting up won’t need a fully custom-built website. The only real exceptions would be certain internet-based companies that require specialist design as part of a service they offer - for example, an online auction site or similar.

For most others, start simple and expand on your site when you need to.

One of the biggest headaches about having a website is when it finally comes to changing a design or even a software platform being built upon. What sort of steps do you think a business can take to minimise these issues from the start, and help provide for easier transition if required to make fundamental changes to a website?

This is a common issue that website developers have to deal with. Firstly, and I know this sounds obvious, but you need to know what you want from the website. What features do you need? What sections? You should know how the whole thing will work before any coding starts. If you try adding things in as you go along, chances are you’ll end up with a bit of a mess.

Secondly, plan for change. Use a CSS-based layout rather than tables. A CSS layout will usually cost slightly more to develop, but they allow you to make site-wide design changes much faster than editing every page by hand. Because of this, you can recoup the extra cost very quickly through time savings.

Using a Content Management System (CMS)can also help. A CMS is basically an interface for people to add, remove and edit content, as opposed to hand-coding changes. If you are likely to be making regular updates to your site, a CMS can be a worthwhile investment, as you won’t be paying a developer to code minor changes for you.

Again, a system of this sort will bump up the initial cost of your site, as they require a significant amount of work to set up, but it may work out more cost-effective in the longer term.

To me, one of the biggest challenges of being a web designer must surely be dependency on one-time fees rather than recurring subscriptions. How much of a problem is this in actual business practice in terms of company revenues – do you find yourself engaging a regular stream or work, or does being a web designer mean you are subject to sometimes large swings of revenues from month to month?

This isn’t really that much of a problem for Seed. Design firms don’t really have to worry about stock (other than making sure you have enough pencils!). Seed was also set up from the beginning to run with very few overheads which are easily covered.

However, one-off fees can also work against the client, especially for startup companies. Because of this, I’m currently looking at alternatives. I don’t want to say too much about this at the moment, but as far as I know it will be a unique system among design companies, so things look quite interesting.

Well, as interesting as payment structures can get, anyway!

I’ve got to ask – W3C and website standards. Are these really important for a business to consider? Or is having XHTML 1.0 compliance simply an issue for designers to be concerned about? Additionally, should any business whose website does not conform to W3C standards really be concerned?

This is quite a common question, so I’m glad to be able to address it here. Web standards are purely voluntary - nobody will tell you to take your site down because it doesn’t adhere to W3C specifications. But on the other hand, following the current standards is good for everyone. This goes hand in hand with the compatibility question I see coming up ahead.

The holy grail of website design is for all browsers to show all websites the same way. In order for this to be reached, browsers need to know how they should be interpreting code - this is where standards come in. The sooner website developers adopt those standards, the sooner they’ll stop having cross-browser headaches.

Their clients will also benefit because they no longer have to pay for extra time needed to code tweaks and workarounds for different browsers. Everyone’s a winner.

Also, I think you gain a little credibility if you can say your website is standards compliant, especially if your site is technology-related. Besides, it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, too. Honest.

Cross-browser compatibility. What sort of nightmare do these three words conjure up? Do you see Internet Explorer 7 as actually helping bridge the problem of cross browser compatibility, and how do you see the rise of Firefox and the continued small but significant market share of Opera as affecting design requirements? Additionally, do web designers ever actually test their designs for Apple Mac browsers such as Safari?

Cross-browser compatibility… those three words are scary only because of another two words - Internet Explorer. That browser is a prime example of why we should all support W3C standards.

While virtually every other browser will generally show a standards-compliant website as it was intended (with relatively minor variations), Internet Explorer pretty much gives the middle finger to standards and does its own thing.

I’ve heard conflicting reports on whether Internet Explorer 7 will improve the situation or not. One source claimed that it would be following standards much more strictly, another said that it wouldn’t because it would mean that almost all websites coded for previous versions of IE would then look broken in version 7. I suspect that the truth probably lies somewhere between the two.

Firefox (my own browser of choice) is steadily gaining popularity, but unfortunately Internet Explorer 6 is still top dog with approximately 60% of the browser market share. Tell your friends that all the cool kids use Firefox.

As far as testing for other platforms and browsers - absolutely. In my view, that is simply part of doing the job to an acceptable standard. Anyone can be a potential customer, not just Windows users. It’s actually easier to design and code pages for Mac and Linux than for Windows - basically because they don’t use Internet Explorer!

There’s a bewildering array of web design companies out there. Do you see any specific advantages for a UK business to hire a company that uses only UK web designers? Or is it just as valid to pay UK rates for a company to simply outsource to developing world designers?

Have you ever phoned up a company that outsourced it’s customer support services? Well, that’s why outsourcing isn’t a good idea.

Less flippantly, outsourcing has the potential to greatly improve the effectiveness of any business, but unfortunately a lot of companies view it purely as a way to cut costs with the result that the end customer suffers from a lower quality product or service.

On the other hand, sometimes having a specialist company take on part of your workload can improve your business’s performance. Seed Design occasionally outsources specialist programming to an overseas developer, simply because we recognise that working with a specialist can help improve the service - there is a cost saving, because a specialist is likely to complete the given work in less time than it would take us to do it.

But the focus is always on improving the quality and we take full responsibility for the end product.

What would you say is the best way to decide which web design company is right for a business, start-up or established? Would you say it’s an issue of personal relationship, price, artistic vision, or a combination of factors?

A good question, and a tough one. It’s definitely a combination of factors. Personal relationship is very important, in my view. The best situation for a client and designer is an ongoing long-term business relationship, and that requires trust.

The client is basically putting the “face” of their company in the designer’s hands - they need to know that the designer isn’t about to mess their face up.

(That sounded slightly disturbing when I read it back to myself…)

Some companies are more interested in making a quick sale than in developing an ongoing relationship with a client, which I think is a very short-term view as an ongoing relationship benefits both client and designer.

The client benefits because they are continuing to work with someone who understands their brand, and the designer wins because they are likely to have ongoing work from a satisfied customer.

When choosing a design, how important would you say it is for a business owner to be aware of issues such as Flash, SEO, and disability accessibility? Are these issues that the business must trust the designer to make valid judgements on? Should any business expect to have an input on such issues? Or would it simply be confusing for them to try and make decisions where they themselves may not have enough information?

I’ll start by being slightly pedantic. Issues around Flash, SEO and so on should be addressed well before you get to the stage of choosing a design. The first step in the design process is to be clear about what the client’s requirements are - if a designer submits designs that don’t address those requirements, then he or she is wasting the client’s time and money.

In assessing what those needs are, I would say that the designer should be able to take control of all those issues - should the client so wish. A client should be able to trust the designer to make the right decisions regarding technical issues (as well as aesthetic ones).

Usually, that kind of trust develops over time - another reason why an ongoing business relationship works out better for both clients and designers!

How to deal with spam IPs

May 21, 2006

Categories: Webmaster, Articles

The problem of automated comment spamming

One of the more serious concerns of the internet these days is spam.

And not email spam, either.

I’m talking about automated comment spamming of online forms.

Scripts exist that will crawl the internet, looking for online forms - which they then fill with a pre-determined set of data.

Often this will include links to other websites - commonly, adult, pharamaceuticals, and gambling websites.

This type of spam is an annoyance way beyond email spam.

The costs of automated comment spamming

Like email spam it is often untargeted and effectively useless, even for the purposes it’s set up for.

But unlike email spam, it’s you who directly pay for - after all, you don’t pay for the bandwidth on your emails, but you do have to pay for the bandwidth on your website.

And that’s before we even include the time required to clear it from your site.

Blog comment spam is one of the main forms of automated comment spam - blogs offer a dangerous combination of automated publishing, and on high PageRank pages, too.

So it’s natural that automated comment spam particularly targets blogs.

Many blogs find it impossible to cope with the spam, and simply close down.

Others put their trust in third-party censor software, that deletes such spam on site.

But even the second solution completely fails to address the fact that you continue to pay for the spam.

If you really want to stop it, you’ll have to identify which IPs are being used to target your site.

Blocking Proxy IPs

Most automated comment spam is done via Open Proxy IPs - servers attached to the internet that are open for anybody to use.

This helps hide the original user IP, and so prevents them being identified. It also makes them much harder to block.

To even begin to do this, you need to take note of the IPs being used to spam you. Most comment forms - especially on the most popular blog software types - will provide an IP address of the sender.

Once you’ve collected these and noted the worst offenders, you can begin to block them.

How to block spam IPs

When running on a Linux box, the main HTML folder of your website where you place your main index file, stores one of the most powerful and flexible files on the server.

Known as .htaccess, this file can be especially useful to rewrite URLs - but you can also use it to block IPs from accessing your website.

The command for doing so is extremely simple - just add the following code to .htaccess and upload it to the root HTML folder of your domain:

order allow,deny
deny from 222.121.127.125
deny from 81.177.14.
allow from all

Already I’ve included two sets of IPs to help illustrate how to use this.

The first line - deny from 222.121.127.125 - tells the server to block access from the single IP 222.121.127.125.

The following line - deny from 81.177.14. - tells the server to block access for all IP’s within the range of 81.177.14.0 - 81.177.14.255.

These are both real examples of real IP’s that are blocked from Platinax - but you should concentrate on compiling your own list.

The main reason being that automated comment spam doesn’t always use Open Proxies - sometimes normal ISP IP’s as used as well - and blocking access by these can block access to your domain for a large number of users.

However, by adding IPs and IP ranges to .htaccess that are plaguing your website with automated comment spam, you can start to address the problem so that you no longer have to pay for your own spam.

For more information and help on issues of blog comment spamming, check out the blog spam board at Security Watch.

Alterantively, feel free to ask for advice or information or help from the Platinax Business Forums.

Basic install and optimisation of a vbulletin forum

May 2, 2006

Categories: Webmaster, Articles

Basic install and optimisation of a vbulletin forum

When it comes to online messageboards, vBulletin Forum Software offers the most powerful solution out there.

It not only looks professional, it also offers the most comprehensive set of administrator and user controls across the range of software options out there.

It’s also naturally search engine friendly - something no other forum has on a similar scale - and therefore can really draw in visitors and new members from search engine searches.

Vbulletin also has fewer security reports made on it, and it is very rare to ever encounter a vbulletin that has been hacked - as opposed to phpbb forums, which are commonly hacked and defaced.

It’s for reasons like these that those people and companies looking to invest in a serious forum development project will choose vbulletin

It also why I operate almost 20 vbulletin licences, and no longer use any other form of forum software.

The trouble is - vbulletin has so many features that it can look completely overwhelming for the webmaster new to using it.

This guide will therefore try to comprehensively address not only how to set up a vbulletin - but also how to optimise your install, and maximise your vbulletin’s profile online:

  1. vbulletin installation
  2. vbulletin admin settings

NOTE: This tutorial will focus on the vbulletin 3.x series, as its the best release to use.

vbulletin installation

Once you’ve paid for a licence, installing a vbulletin is pretty easy if you’ve ever installed even a basic software script online.

If you have and you know what you’re doing, skip this section, as its basic stuff.

If you feel uncertain about installing vbulletin, read on, and don’t panic - the process is relatively painless, and here’s what you have to do:

1. FTP your files to your domain

You should have a domain for your website - for example, the domain here is “platinax.co.uk”. If not, make sure you register one.

You should make sure you have already purchased webhosting from a webhosting company to host your website. TIP: Ensure your hosting company is running on Apache/Linux rather than a Windows Server to get the most out of vbulletin.

In which case, all you have to do now is FTP your vbulletin software to the webhosting account associated with your domain.

To do this, use an FTP program - WS FTP is one of the best - by which you can select the folders and files you wish to upload (they are in the vbulletin “Upload” folder) to your webhosting space.

Do note that if you are on a CPanel webhosting account, you will need to load you files *into* the folder named “public_html”.

Once you have uploaded those - and on broadband it should take more than 5 minutes - it means you should have successfully uploaded your software to your website. Well done!

Create a database

This often looks like the scariest thing to do, but really it’s nothing more complicated that clicking a few buttons.

Your webhosting account should come with a hosting control panel - commonly Cpanel - which is dead easy to use.

In which case, log into your Cpanel admin area - usually https://www.your-domain.com:2083 - and once you’ve entered your username and password, wait for the page to load up.

One of the options should say: MySQL databases. In some CPanel skins this will be selected as an icon near the middle of the page - in others, it may appear towards the bottom right.

Either way, once you’ve located the MySQL Databases link, click it.

The next page can also look scary - you’re about to create a database - but you don’t have to understand this part of the process at all.

One of the options should have the heading “Create a new database” and have an input box below it. Simply enter a short name - ie, vbulletin - then click on it.

There, you just created a database!

But…now we need to create a user account to access the database.

Locate the heading “Create new user”. You should find two input boxes here - one for a username, the other for a password.

Important: You should ensure that any username and password you are about to use are different from your other admin login details, for security purposes.

Tip: Also, keep your username short - after 6-7 characters it may be cut-off, which can be confusing later on.

Doubly Important: Here’s the bit that catches most people out. The values you entered for the database and username are probably not the actual database name and database username. The values you entered are appended to your webhosting account user name.

Example:

If your webhosting account username is “forums”, and you entered a database name of “vbulletin” and a username of “admin”, then these are the actual values you’ll need to remember:

database name: forums_vbulletin
username: forums_admin

Now for the last part - you need to associate your database with the user permissions you just created.

To do this, simply look on the MySQL databases page for the drag down boxes for the values you’ve entered, and as shown in the example - make sure they are lined up together - then click on the button “Add user to database”.

There, you have now created a database for your vbulletin!

Note: If for some reason you don’t have an admin panel with your webhosting account, either upgrade to a webhost(hostgator link) who will offer you this functionality (and you’ll be glad you had it) or else contact your webhost and ask them to create your database for you, and to send you the database name, username, and password information.

Edit your vbulletin config file

The next bit is to edit your vbulletin config file.

Again, it’s not a complicated step - you just need to ensure you know what you’re doing, so follow these steps and you’ll find it easy.

1. First, using a FTP program, surf to the folder on your webhosting account for the folder “includes”. Enter that folder, and scroll down to where you see the file “config.php.new”. Rename this to “config.php”.

2. Now create a new folder on your home PC, where you can download this file easily and keep it by itself. Then use your FTP software to download a copy of your config.php file to this folder.

3. Now in Windows, create a copy of your config file. Now open the original in a text editor such as Wordpad.

4. Near the top of the file, look for the following line:

$config[’Database’][’dbname’] = ‘database’;

Delete the word “database” from the end of that line and type in your own value.

Important: Remember to use your full database name here, as in the example above.

Then look for the following line:

$config[’MasterServer’][’username’] = ‘root’;
$config[’MasterServer’][’password’] = ‘’;

Replace the value “root” with your actual username (remember the earlier example) and enter your password inbetween the ‘’ marks for the password line.

Note: Your password is simply the password you entered - there is no prefix to the password, unlike the database and username.

Save the file, upload it to the forum “includes” folder using your FTP software.

Now you’re all set!

Run the install program

That’s the hardest work done!

Now you need to simply run the vbulletin software to install to the database.

To do this, simply user your browser to go to the URL where you’ve installed vbulletin, and add the value: /install/install.php after it.

So if your forum is installed at the main domain - ie, www.your-domain.com - then type in www.your-domain.com/install/install.php.

And if you have your forum installed in a subfolder - ie, www.your-domain.com/forum/ - then type in www.your-domain.com/forum/install/install.php.

The vbulletin software will prompt you for your vbulletin registration number - simply copy/paste or type this in, then click as required.

Assuming that you’ve entered the database name and username and password values correctly, as shown above, you should find yourself in a process taking just over a dozen steps, where you simply have to click on “Next” everytime one process finishes.

And at the end, all things going well, you’ll be told to delete the file “install.php”. To do this, use your FTP software to surf into the webhosting account, and into the forum folder “install”. Scroll down the list of files there, and delete the file “install.php”.

Return to your browser, click as required, and you should be able to able into your vbulletin admin panel.

Success! You’ve installed vbulletin! Now let’s get ready with the admin settings. :)

vbulletin admin settings

When you’re logged into the vbulletin admin area for the first time, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options.

First of all, don’t worry about that - you won’t need to use all of the vbulletin functions, and we can address those issues as and when you need to.

In the meantime, you need to get your basic admin settings done properly.

Look to the top left for the option “Vbulletin Options”. Click on that a small menu appears - click on the new “vbulletin options” link that appear.

A page will reload, with a box containing all the major setting headings. Simply ensure the top option - Show all settings - is highlighted, then click on the button at the bottom for Edit Settings.

A big long page of options now loads up - but thankfully, you don’t need to give many of these much attention.

Unless you want to painstakingly configure your vbulletin on every little point, then these general settings are the only ones you’ll need to concern yourself with to really power-up your vbulletin install so that it works in your best interests:

Recommended settings

Site Name / URL / Contact Details:

Simply ensure you have the forum name you want. Think about keywords here as well. For example, the Platinax Forums are not simply called the Platinax Forums, because to an outsider, it’s a meaningless phrase. So the Platinax Forums are called the Platinax Business Forums, which uses the keyword “business” to help describe what they are actually about.

General Settings:

Use Forum jump menu: Disable it, as it’s not required.
Number of Pages Visible in Page Navigator: Have a value around 10 or 20 here. This makes it easier for search engines to the older pages on your site, without affecting the human user experience. In fact, it probably helps with that, too.

You can then scroll right down a number of areas, until you get to:

User Registration Options

Default Registration Options: Scroll down to this section - then click on “Send Notification Email When a Private Message is Received” to make it active. This helps bring people to your forums when they get a Private Message (PM).

You may also consider selecting “Instant Email Notification” from the “Options” > “Automatic Thread Subscription Mode”, as it forces users back to your forums to change their settings - and maybe join in some more discussion. If you’d rather not annoy too quickly, leave it be, though.

For “Message Editor Interface” select the enhanced WYSIWYG editor, as its much easier for users.

Scroll down some more until you get to:

User Listing & Profile Viewing

Memberlist spamming is a common practice among affiliates of the adult, pharmaceuticals, and gambling industry. Make it not worth their while by selecting a value for “Minimum Posts” higher than zero - preferably slightly higher, such as 5. This means only people who do take part in discussions will be listed on the Memberlist.

Show Last Post on Profile Page: Click on “yes”, as it helps users and search engines get back to the discussion board itself.

Scroll down some more to:

Message Posting and Editing Options

Quick Reply: Select “Yes - Click Not Required”, as it’s easiest for users.

Scroll down a lot more to:

Message Searching Options

Automatic Similar Thread Search: Check as “Yes”. This is helpful to both search engines and human users.

Scroll down to:

Forums Home Page Options

Active Members Options: Deselect these - you want to impress on new visitors to your forums that it’s a growing and active community. These options can betray otherwise.

Scroll down to:

Forum Display Options (forumdisplay)

Enable Forum Description: Enable - potentially useful for users and search engines

Scroll down to:

Threaded / Hybrid Mode Options (showthread)

Enable Threaded / Hybrid Mode: Click on “No” - this feature just fills search engines with gunk duplicate copies of your forums. You want to avoid that if you can.

Who’s Online Options

Enable Spider Display: enable - you’ll probably want a quick idea of which search engines are spidering your forum at any given time.

External Data Provider

Enable RSS Syndication: Select yes - you want to encourage people to use your forum feeds to keep in contact with it.

Enable XML Syndication: Same as above.

Now scroll right down to “Save”.

There - you should now have set up all the most basic vbulletin options that are going to be immediately useful to you!

How to increase your online sales for free



How to increase your online sales for free

The internet is a fact of life in the UK, with over 40 million households in Britain now subscribed to broadband.

Ecommerce and online sales continue to boom while the high street declines, but connecting with potential customers online can be a challenge for any business.

However, there are ways in which you can much more easily capture sales from the internet – search engines.

When someone is looking to buy a product online, they will commonly use a search engine such as Google to locate potential sellers.

They will then make a purchasing decision based on the top listed sites.

Getting listed at the top of search engine results – to capture commercial searches and the lucrative sales traffic they can deliver – may seem like a challenge.

This is a service often provided by Search Engine Optimisation companies. If you need more information on what that mean, there’s more information here: A Basic Introduction to Search Engine Optimisation

But there are actually some very simple things you can do to help yourself.

Forget all about search engine submission software and services – you don’t need them. All you need for search engines to find you is links.

Links

The first thing you need to bear in mind is whether your website is search engine friendly in the first place.

This is certainly helpful in your cause, but even search engine un-friendly websites can still dominate commercial search traffic.

The secret is links to your website.

Search engines overwhelmingly rely on links from websites for some part of their ranking algorithm.

The theory is, that if lots of websites, especially respectable ones, all link to your website – then your website must be important.

They then look at the text in the link – which may be products and/or services you provide – and decide that your website must therefore be important for those products and/or services.

At this point, many small businesses stop. It can seem hard to get those links, to make your website seem especially important for your own products/services.

I’ll show you how easy it can be.

How to get links

This isn’t a comprehensive list of sources of links – but it should help get you started.

TIP: When you’ve read this article, check out this slightly more advanced article on link building: Introduction to Link Building

1. Directories

Directories are a place where you can buy links on pages associated with your business type.

Direct traffic from directories will often be minimal – but if you can get your website listed on a number of directories, just one sale could more than justify the time and cost of doing so.

Additionally, being listed in a number of directories can help provide links that search engines can follow to find your website.

Not only that, your directory listings would normally be provided on pages only about the types of products/services you provide.

TIP: There are a lot of general directories out there, but there are also a growing number of niche directories. Don’t over look these.

Where to find:

A list of general web directories is posted here: Web Directories
You can also find niche directories here: Niche Directories

2. Articles

Articles have become an increasingly popular way to gain links to your website.

Not only that, but by positioning yourself as someone who knows about your business field, you can develop a reputation that can potentially attract further business.

You don’t have to write anything overtly technical – simply introduce and describe aspects of your business that may interest a potential reader.

You can then add a link to your business website at the end of the article, which can help search engines associate your website with the topic you are writing about.

TIP: If you feel you don’t have time or the ability to write articles and submit them, you can always advertise for such services: Classifieds

Where to find:

A starter list of websites that publish articles can be found here: Article Submissions Sites

Forums

A lot of online forums and communities have sprung up all around the internet.

These can be very good places to network and connect with suppliers/distributors as well as buyers/consumers.

By posting constructively as a member of such communities, you can develop a reputation in your business online.

However, they can also be a good place to build links back to your websites.

For a start, most forums allow you to place a link to your website in your profile.

Additionally, you can often write a “signature” to accompany all of your posts, where you can place your links. Although search engines may not place too much weight on these types of links, again, you can get human users clicking through because they like how you post.

There are also a couple more sneaky way to leverage forums for links.

The first is that many online communities will invite you to introduce yourself. This is where you can state the company you represent, and include a link back to it.

The second is that a number of forums will allow advertising in specified boards – so at periodic intervals, you can posts advertising for your website on these.

TIP: Remember, there are a lot of forums out there – try and join as many as you can to get more links.

TIP: You could also find running a support forum on your own site allows you to better work with customer-relations.

Where to find:

Use search engines to find online communities built around your general business area, by using both generic and more specific keywords in a search, especially including any of the following words: forum, forums, boards, bbs, board, messageboard.

Yahoo! is probably the best search engine to us for this.

4. Advertising

Advertising is another way in which you can generate lots of links to your website.

Ideally, you can try and find websites in your business area, and then email the webmaster of the website, asking about advertising rates.

Try to ensure any such advert is as visible as possible for human users, but also make sure that the ads are also search engine friendly.

TIP: Try and find lots of websites to advertise on, rather than just one or two, if possible – search engines are believed to see link from many different websites as a more powerful recommendation, than lots of links from just one or two websites.

Where to find:

You can locate different websites in your business area by searching online, or by general awareness of your industry. Also check out if any of your competitors are advertising anywhere in this way, by using the link:domain.com search tool in Yahoo!

For example: link:platinax.co.uk Simply swap platinax.co.uk for your own domain name.

Also – you can look to buy advertising packages from online marketing companies. Britecorp offers advertising on an increasing number of websites in different business areas – ask them if they can find a package to help you: Britecorp Internet Marketing

5. Blogs

A blog is ordinarily an online journal.

However, a blog on your business site becomes a communications, public relations, business publishing, and marketing tool – all in one.

And it can also generate links to your site, too.

Blog software loves to connect to one another – one blog writing about another will often automatically publish a link to itself on the other blog, to let people know it is being discussed.

So if you write about different events in your field of business, you can find yourself getting links from other blogs in that same field.

There are also blog aggregator services, which try and send visitors to blogs about specific subjects.

TIP: Maintaining a blog can be tiring and time-consuming, so make sure you pace yourself from the start.

TIP: Consider very carefully the type of software you wish to use – two of the major software platforms are reviewed here: Blog Software Platforms

Where to find:

Look at places such as Technorati to locate other blogs, or bloglines.

6. Link Exchanges

A note about exchanging links with other websites.

Link exchanges are an old method of developing links to a website.

However, link exchanges very time-consuming to develop.

Also, most webmasters who receive link exchanges consider thema nuisance at best.

And most of the webmasters who send link exchanges appear to be developing low quality websites that you really don’t want to be associated with.

You should also be aware that Google appears to be especially aggressive in trying to exclude link exchanges from its search results.

Which means all that time and effort could be in vain anyway.

Conclusion

Building links to your website simply takes a little time and effort to do.

But it remains an activity that is very accessible if you wish to at least do something.

For many small businesses, it is often worth investing a few hours setting up links to your website yourself.

Certainly it should prove more useful to you than search engine submission software – that at best, can only tell search engines that you exist, but cannot tell search engines if your website is actually important or not – that’s what links are for.

If you would rather someone else build your links for you, then ask Brian at Britecorp how he can help manage your link building program for you.

The Tipping Point

April 26, 2006

Categories: Reviews, Books
Tipping Point Review

The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a great exploration about how little things can create big changes. It’s the entire focus of the book, and it makes for riveting reading at times.

Having just read Freakonomics I was concerned that I’d opened another pop turkey - but the Tipping Point shows it’s superiority in every way, by continually referencing itself against real world examples.

This isn’t a book speculating about how the world works - it’s demonstrative of how the world works - and all focused on the viral spread of ideas.

This means that the book has a direct business interest in terms of viral marketing - and though this book doesn’t show you how to viral market, it does importantly point out key features of how an actual viral spread of ideas works.

In doing so he sets out 3 laws:

  • The Law of the Few
  • The Stickiness Factor
  • The Power of Context

Law of the Few

The Law of the Few says that it only requires a few key individuals to create the beginnings of a viral campaign.

The caveat is that these cannot be ordinary individuals, and Gladwell distinguishes them as three different types:

  • Mavens
  • Connectors
  • Salesmen

The Mavens are those who bring information together - those who have a real authority interest in their field, and can highlight important information that sticks out.

The Connectors are those people so well socially connected, that once a Maven informs them of this important piece of information, the Connector can spread knowledge of this through their own extensive social network.

The Salesmen, as the title implies, then sell the importance of this information to Joe Public.

Another good point about Gladwell’s book is that he acknowledges that these divisions are rough and somewhat arbitrary - one of his key historical examples of how information spread, highlights someone who was both a Maven and a Connector.

The key lesson for viral marketers here is that unless they think outside of the sale, they are simply Salesmen - and that without the Connector and Maven aspects to their campaign, the mechanics of viral marketing just aren’t going to be stacked in their favour.

The Stickiness Factor and The Power of Context

Stickiness is another interesting part of the equation - the message has to be memorable.

But that’s not all - being memorable is irrelevant if there’s no call to action followed through - and that required context.

While many marketers seek to use sex - or more recently, disgust and aversion - to make at least some part of their message memorable, the problem here is that if it doesn’t deliver on a call to action, the point of being memorable becomes useless.

Malcolm Gladwell illustrates here with a college campaign for Tetanus innoculations - and how shock tactics could certainly make the campaign memorable - but lead to little actual action.

To get the students to actually sign up required a single simple peice of context - easy instructions on how to get to the college infirmary to receive the jab.

The lesson here is simple - the college students should have known about the location already - the previous presumption that shock alone should work failed because it needed the context of students knowing- and being reminded - of just how simple and easy it was to carry out the required call to action, and go for a jab.

Overall

This is a great book and really squats on the pop Turkey Freakonomics - both books sometimes use the same examples (ie, New York crime stats in the 1990’s), but while Levitt is prepared to use it as a platform for grand sociological generalisations, Gladwell simply contents himself is showing that a process exists, and this is how it works.

This is why The Tipping Point is such a good book - it’s a description of a tool, a phenomena, and event that occurs socially within our society - and Gladwell simply shows us how this can work, isolating key elements.

And though The Tipping Point is by no means going to tell you how to successfully run a viral marketing campaign for business, if that’s something you’re interested in, you can at least see what elements may well be required in the process.

Overall, a very worthwhile and interesting book, for those in business but also for general reading.

How to survive running a small business from home

April 9, 2006

Categories: Business, Articles

Working from home offers numerous benefits – not least the reduction in overheads in not having to rent out an office or other building (which themselves will be subject to business rates on top of rental costs).

However, even working from home has its challenges, and there are trade-offs you need to be aware of.

If you are looking to start a small business working from home, this short article should hopefully provide a few useful tips on how to set up right.

1. Have a door

Working at home means lots of distractions. If you have a partner and/or children, that means domestic intrusions can break up your progress with work. Additionally, there are also entertainment distractions, such as the TV downstairs.

So ensure you have a door.

When you’re going to work, close it.

No one comes in through the door unless it’s important. You don’t go out unless you have to.

If you live with anyone, ensure you warn them about this policy – because you are supposed to be running a business, and you need to be focused on running that business.

Of course, you can always work your business hours around key domestic issues. For example, sometimes people with children like to take the kids to school in the morning, and pick them up later in the day.

The advantage here is that it punctuates the start of your day, ensures you are up and alert, and gives you a clear time to get started properly from.

And by the afternoon, picking up the kids can be a welcome break to get some fresh air, and allow you to return to work and deal with work problems with a new perspective.

Meanwhile, at most other times, that door needs to be closed.

It doesn’t have to be immovable – if the kids come in and want to sit on daddy or mommy’s knee, that can be fine – so long as the kids know that you are at work and that it can only be for a moment, because you have to get on with your work routine.

2. Right equipment

Getting the right equipment at the start is very important. Pay attention to basic health and safety issues that are going to affect you.

If you’re going to be sat working with a computer all day, that means that the key 3 things you should have right at the start are:

  1. A flatscreen monitor, to reduce eye-stain.
  2. A high-backed chair with lumbar support, to prevent back-ache
  3. An ergonomic keyboard, to help reduce the strain on your hands to help prevent Repetitive Strain Injury.

If you don’t have them immediately, then get them ASAP. After all, if you’re serious about running a small business, your first priority is to ensure that you’re in good health to run it.

Once you’ve done that, think about some of the other equipment you will almost certainly need.

Paper Shredder

You should look to destroy all your business documents that you don’t need to keep. This is pretty important as identity theft becomes an increasing issue, so make sure you get a cross-cut shredder to protect not only your business, but also your clients.

Fax Machine

The internet age claimed to destroy the fax machine, but it’s simply not true. Antiquated though a fax machine may seem, often in business you will be sent documents that you need to sign and return – and a fax machine is easily the best way to do this.

This is especially underlined when you need to get urgents documents signed and sent on the last working day before the holiday period. Yes, it happens.

3. Be organised

Be organised from the start. Keep your office tidy, file paperwork as required, and keep your accounts up to date, all the time.

If you don’t, and you allow yourself to become disorganised, not only does this lead to it being harder for you to work (where did I leave those essential contracts?), but it can also cost you a serious amount of cash.

So if you actually want to make your life easier, be able to deal with client/customer requests when made, and especially avoid having to pay the tax man a few thousand more in extra revenues, keep organised.

4. Keep disciplined

You’ll find that you have quiet periods with work. Don’t goof off downstairs and watch TV in these periods – do something constructive. Do some research online about your industry – find out news of developments that may affect it, and do a little networking online.

And remember again that while you are sat in that office – even though it’s at home – you are supposed to be working.

Sure, you can put off doing a particular job until later in the day, because you could always take time off in the evening to do that. But doing so just means wasting time in the day when you should be most productive.

Learning time management and keeping disciplined is something you’ll have to face up to at some point – you just sometimes need to remind yourself that just because you don’t have a boss doesn’t mean to say you can slack off. You are our own boss - so keep watching over your own shoulder to make sure you’re working properly.

6. Take a break

Absolutely ensure you take regular breaks in the day to punctuate your work time, and keep you more productive – but especially take off time at the evenings and weekends for family and friends.

After all, all work and no play make Jack a dull boy, and you can end up resenting what you do.

Sure, you work at your own pace – but by having set break times, you can push yourself to finish projects in good time, and also ensure that you don’t push out your family and friends.

After all, when that door is closed, you’re not really at home – so ensure that you do come home at some point, and spend quality time with loved ones and mates.

Sometimes you have so much work on that you’re never going to finish it all in a single day, so just set goals to finish what you need to do in that single day, and reserve the rest for tomorrow. That way, you won’t burn yourself out so easily.

Freakonomics

February 10, 2006

Categories: Reviews, Books
Freakonomics Review

Freakonomics, by Steven D Levitt & Stephen J Dubner, opens up claiming to be an enigma.

It states there is no unifying theme - then begins with the assertion that information is controlled by experts who misuse their position.

And then Freakonomics seems to do precisely that.

There’s a lot of interesting information in Freakonomics - but it’s little more than one man with a few ideas (Steven D Levitt), who is intent on “proving” superficial ideas with statistics - which are interpersed with sycophantic dribblings about him by another (Stephen J Dubner).

While Levitt is sometimes keen to criticise flaws in other data collection and analysis techniques, he fails to open his own claims up for criticism. After all, he has statistics, and statistics can “prove” things.

Well, actually, they can’t. There’s a claim of Steven Levitt being a “rogue economist” - but the study of economics is not about science - it’s about guesswork. Or, more to the point - “lies, damn lies, and statistics”.

So what we have here is simply one type of statistician making comments on social issues.

That means - as with all things statistics - a slew of presumptions, generalisations, and conclusions built on sand.

There is some great information in this book - and it is a genuinely interesting read.

But at the end of the day, Levitt proves little else other than his is skilled at using statistics to prove his own points. I’m sure there’s a great political career open for him if he’s ever interested.

If I sound somewhat critical, it’s because I trained in the physical and social sciences, and long ago learned that statistical analysis at best provides a superficial view of the world. It’s a valid view, but made alone, it lacks the necessary context and detail to justify far-reaching conclusions made from them.

The trouble in this instance is that Levitt chooses social issues relating to crime and parenting as a focus for Freakonomics - and then expects to reduce these complex subject areas into single instances of cause and effect - a trait many statisticians are crippled with.

I have no idea why the publisher thought it a good idea to include Dubner’s ramblings about the greatness of Levitt throughout the book - but it’s a complete waste of space. If a publisher needs to include a salesman in a book to continually try and sell you its value, perhaps that speaks volumes about the quality of the book itself.

Overall, I read Freakonomics hoping for some interesting information on marketing issues. Instead I ended up with something that’s little more than pop sociology.

EDIT: The original treated both men as joint authors of Freakonomics - now corrected.

Good manners are good business practice

February 1, 2006

Categories: Business, Articles, Ecommerce

There’s an ancient saying - Good manners are worth gold.

Applying them to your business isn’t simply good practice – it can also increase revenues through customer retention and acquisition.

Here’s a few tips in how to apply good manners in a customer-centric business model:

1. Communicate

When a customer asks for help, reassure them that you are there to help resolve their issue in a timely manner.

Remember to communicate especially when things go wrong - customers are far more forgiving in a crisis when kept informed of how you are trying to help resolve it for them. Silence creates uncertainty.

Whether you are dealing with consumers or business clients, both want re-assurance that you can deliver on your relationship with.

Fail to communicate that, and it’s easy for them to find another company that promises better.

2. Please and Thank You

Don’t be unnecessarily cold – use simple good manners such as “please” and “thank you”.

These aren’t empty words – they show that you respect your customer, and care about how they think about you.

Thank them for their patience and understanding in dealing with support issues, and ask politely if there’s anything else you can help them with.

If a customer knows you care more about them than your competitor, it’s them who lose business, not you.

3. Be sincere

Don’t resort to simply having a saved template or signature to express how much you value your customers.

After a few e-mails, it’ll be noticed and may well be perceived as insincere. And that’s almost as bad as having made no effort at all.

Take the time and effort to personalise all aspects of your correspondence, excepting your name and website link/contact info.

4. The 3 to 10 rule

Happy customers are very happy to refer others to your services. Unhappy customers are even happier to report your bad products/service to others.

People like to spread bad news instead of good – pick up any paper if you don’t believe me.

So when dealing with customers, consider the 3 to 10 rule:

  • for every happy customer you create, you generate 3 sales,
  • for every unhappy customer you create, you lose 10 sales

Which do you want?

5. Dealing with churn

Customer churn is inevitable in most businesses.

Don’t think for a moment, though, that just because you lost a customer to competitor, means that the customer won’t come back.

It’s not unusual for consumers to buy from different providers, see which they like best, then stick with that one.

Do what you can to make every customer lost welcome to come back again, and some of them will.

6. Develop reputation with customers

Reputations aren’t bought by marketing budgets – they are earned through the goodwill of your customers.

Just being polite isn’t always enough – sometimes you need good manners in action as well as words.

So be gracious by putting in that little bit extra to ensure that your customers are not simply happy, but delighted.

7. You are your business

How you deal with people in public, reflects on how people think you deal with customers in private.

So if you are rude to people in public, people will presume you are rude in private to your customers.

So be polite and accommodating even to your accusers and competitors in public, and people will know you can only be that and more to your customers.

The New Digital Revolution

January 21, 2006

Categories: Business, Marketing, Articles

The IPTV Revolution

A New Digital Revolution has been taking place on the internet.

It’s a revolution that has been in the making for more than 5 years, and will finally come to fruition in 2006.

It’s a revolution with one single goal:

Turn the internet into a full-scale medium for High Definition TV: IPTV.

This by itself may seem like revolution enough - but that’s only part of the story.

The more aggressive companies pushing IPTV, such as SBC, are not just looking to provide high-definition TV streaming online as a single service - but instead as a wider package of “digital lifestyle” services.

This means IPTV as bundled not simply with VOIP and music services, but also with video gaming.

And as the internet is no longer the reserve for desktop PCs, that means the IPTV revolution will also go mobile - PDA’s, phones, and other mobile devices.

The introduction of IPTV to the internet heralds a New Digital Revolution.

Building the Revolution

A number of companies have spent the past few years developing platforms for serving the new IPTV markets.

Why? As Jerry Wang, joint founder of Yahoo! put it to John Battelle: “TV is the Holy Grail.”

The IPTV revolution couldn’t happen before. With dial-up as the major point of access for the internet, TV media online simply could not be supported.

As broadband penetration in the major internet markets – North America, Europe, and East Asia – has been accelerated by cheaper pricing, the first IPTV trial services are already in play in the USA, and in the UK begin in earnest this summer.

Major telecoms providers across the world have been upgrading their networks, ready to deliver the services as required.

Revolutionary ISPs

Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft have all been especially busy in developing broad-platforms to work from, to integrate IPTV into their range of portal services.

Microsoft

Microsoft

Microsoft has a lead in software development of IPTV technology, having begun more than 5 years ago.

While it may have cost Microsoft around $20 billion to develop necessary software for IPTV so far, it remains a potentially lucrative investment.

Major US telecoms suppliers, such as Verizon, BellSouth, and SBC (who bought AT&T last year), all have agreements to use Microsoft software for the distribution of IPTV on their networks.

Yahoo!

Yahoo!

Yahoo! itself has taken a different approach, instead integrating itself into broadband services from major telecoms suppliers, such as SBC and British Telecom, and additionally has video distribution deals and search services already developed.

Google

Google

Google itself has a possibly more ambitious approach - aside from their video search services, Google also a huge amount of untapped dark-fibre network available.

Combined with their hardware surplus, this could be used to allow people to store their TV media files online - turning the company into a one-stop digital media suite in itself.

What does the IPTV revolution mean?

Of course, a revolution is nothing if it doesn’t mean anything - but any revolution will mean different things to different people.

For some, the simple act of integrating HDTV with the internet will be revolution enough.

For others, the easy availability of a new digital lifestyle in itself will be fulfilling.

More importantly, perhaps, is something far more fundamental - a major bridge that small and independent media companies can cross to reach consumers.

This applies both to advertising and creative projects.

Advertising

If you’ve been on some of the larger US media sites, you’ve probably already seen attempts to mix streaming media with banner advertising space.

With innovation comes investment from larger companies, looking to exploit this to provide the edge in advertising - especially to overcome ad-blindness, and a tendency to ignore banner advertising, by providing media rich formats.

This is something that is going to expand in use on the internet for two main reasons -

  1. Advertising budgets will make the use of digital media a higher priority
  2. The accessibility of media production at home

The first point is underpinned by increasing advertising spend on the internet.

The additional pressure this creates is that more and more advertising space will open up to digital media. Google AdWords as text-only ads? So yesterday! Tomorrow, as streaming media.

The second point especially needs underlining - for years, digital media production has been creeping into the home, with video and music editing suites starting from a few hundred pounds.

Normally this production work would stay at home. But with the IPTV revolution comes a revolution in distribution.

This is almost certain to serve an explosion in the number of companies offering video production services for online advertising.

And this will go hand in hand with the increase in distribution of digital media advertising online.

Soon it will be more than Fortune 100 companies accessing digital media for advertising - even local plumbers will have access to media production advertising for IPTV.

This needs especially emphasising for the expanding market in local search online, and how digital media advertising will eventually work with services such as Google Local.

Film production

TV and film media was once the monopoly of corporate broadcasting and production companies, but IPTV will allow normally unserviceable niches to be reached by niche media companies.

As the home production studio finds itself able to produce digital media for advertising, so it will be able to channel some of those funds towards creative projects to fund entertainment niches.

Rather than entertainment being left to Hollywood and the major broadcasters, in the next few years it will be everyone from the home studio to Yahoo! who will be able to commission, produce, and distribute their own entertainment media.

Quality issues are no longer a concern - for a start, the similar technology used for Hollywood blockbuster special effects are accessible from the bedroom. All that’s required is professional attitude and creative quality.

There is already a swelling platform of film media work online that demonstrate this closing gap - especially from science fiction fans paying tribute to their favourite series.

While the standard of acting will vary, the special effects can be indistinguishable from the original.

The most recent example of this is Star Wreck, a free film download produced by a group of amateur film fans from Finland. Ostensibly a parody of Star Trek and Babylon 5, it features special effects that equal most Hollywood productions.

Additionally, though, is that it must be remembered that IPTV will be served not simply PC’s, but every type of monitor - from huge widescreen TV’s to the tiny screens of mobile phones.

This in itself sets up different niche distribution verticals to work from - for example, lower screen quality for distribution on mobile devices will make this especially accessible for small independent media production companies.

Concluding the New Digital Revolution

Ultimately, the IPTV Revolution is the New Digital Revolution. IPTV itself is merely the flagship for a suite of digital entertainment services, whose effects will be as profound as they will be far-reaching.

As the vision of “digital lifestyle services” is realised, it will destroy the distinction between consumers and suppliers, as consumers create and distribute their own entertainment.

Through the power and accessibility of digital technology coupled with the internet as a distribution platform, today’s websites are the independent media platforms of the future.



Article submitted to digg: 2006: The Year of IPTV

Further Reference:

Discussion

Video online

IPTV News

IPTV News stories

Free movie downloads

The Value of Customers



Categories: Business, Marketing, Articles

Valuing customers

Every good business knows that it needs to profit from its customers.

However, not every business uses the same method to calculate profit from customers.

Often companies value customers on a per sale basis.

This is especially common in the business-to-consumer industries, where companies often work on short-term targets only, and do not factor in repeat business as a goal.

This is changing as awareness of New Marketing principles becomes more ingrained into company practice.

With narrowing profit margins, coupled with the ease of communications between consumers, there is a growing shift away from calculating customer value simply on a per sale value.

Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)

Customer Lifetime Value is a more forward-thinking way of assessing sales and profits, by taking longer term issues into account.

Essentially, a calculation is made of future profits expected from the customer’s buying lifetime from the company.

Calculating Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) is fraught with assumptions, but the underlying principle is that high customer retention relates to increased profitability.

For example, Earthlink calculates that it costs $100 to acquire a customer, but then that customer provides $11 net revenue per month. So for the first 10 months the company makes a loss with that customer.

However, with an average retention of 31 months per customer, that means 21 months of profit.

Of course, if they can increase customer retention, profitability would soar.

So it’s not enough to simply attract new customers - retention is important, too, for the generation of repeat business, sales, and continued profits from those customers.

Customer satisfaction

A business that looks at Customer Lifetime Value will need to take customer satisfaction very seriously indeed.

After all, if the business is making a loss on acquiring new customers, then they will need to ensure that they hold onto that new customer long enough to make the acquisition profitable for the company.

Additionally, the ease by which customers can communicate with one another means that attracting new customers doesn’t simply mean providing good service - but ensuring that bad service issues are dealt with, otherwise face threats to customer acquisition and retention.

This has led to extreme forms of customer policies being set up.

For example, LL Bean, a mail-order catalogue company, offers the following to its customers:

100% Guarantee

All of our products are guaranteed to provide 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise. We will replace it, refund your purchase price or credit your credit card, as you wish. We do not want you to have anything from L L Bean that is not completely satisfactory.

Accordingly, they balance this with the following message prominantly displayed around their offices for staff to read:

What is a customer?

A Customer is the most important person ever in this office…in person or in mail.

A Customer is not dependent on us…we are dependent on him.

A Customer is not an interruption of our work…he is the purpose of it. We are not doing a favor by serving him…he is doing us a favor by giving us the opportunitity to do so.

A Customer is not someone to argue or match wits with. Nobody ever won an argument with a customer.

A Customer is a person who brings us his wants. It’s our job to handle them profitably to him and ourselves.

Customer Lifetime Value as Good Business Value

Some people reading this may already have objections - maintenance and support of existing customers can only get in the way of making sales to new customers, right?

According to Frederick F Reichheld in “The Loyalty Effect”:

    1. New customer acquisition can cost five times the cost of satisfying existing customers

    2. Satisfied customers will return to make continued sales

    3. The customer profit rate tends to increase over the lifetime of customer retention

    4. A 5% increase in customer retention can increase profits between 25%-85%, depending upon industry

    5. An average American company loses 10% of its customers each year.

Not only can a customer-focused approach help increase profits - it can maintain profits when everyone else is losing theirs.

Southwest Airlines in the US is a company that believes that customer satisfaction comes not from forcing staff to like customers - but from making staff happy so that helping customers is not a chore, but a pleasure.

It’s a policy that seems to work - the one year the company has not filed profits was it’s first, a record no other airline can match - and SouthWest Airlines was the only airline in the US to remain profitable after 9/11.

Conclusion

If the purpose of marketing is to increase the profits of a company, then a focus on customer retention can be of as much importance as customer acquisition.

While not every company may want to work on such a model, the benefits of calculating profits on a Customer Lifetime Value as opposed to on a Per Sale basis are significant.

How to create a MySQL database in CPanel

January 9, 2006

Categories: Webmaster, Articles

Lots of online software needs to run from a database, and a PHP with MySQL combination is a common requirement.

However, setting up a database online can seem like a daunting prospect if you’ve never done one before.

Luckily, website control panels make this a relatively easy and painless process.

Cpanel is probably the most common control panel offered by webhosts, so this tutorial will show how to set up a MySQL database in CPanel.



Step 1: Log into your website control panel - CPanel - using https://www.domain.com:2083, where “domain.com” is the domain you are setting up your database for.



Step 2: The different themes available differ according to webhosts, but look for the option “MySQL Databases”, and click through.

NOTE: In the iconic CPanel X theme, this is on the third line down; if you’re on a text-based menu such as Bluelagoon, you’ll find it under the “Databases” heading at the bottom right.



Step 3: Look for the input box that says “db” in front of it. This is where you will name your database.

*IMPORTANT NOTE*: the name you enter here is not the actual database name, but will be appended to your account username to create the database name.

For example, if your account username for CPanel is username and you enter database as the database name, the actual database name will be username_database.



Step 4: Click on the button “Add Db” next to the input box.



Step 5: Return to the MySQL page as suggested.



Step 6: Now we need to create a username and password for a user to access your database.

Find where it has input boxes for “Username” and “Password” and enter your preferred values, noting the following important points:

- The username value may not be longer than 8 characters

- The username will be appended to your account username as with the database name. So, if your account username for CPanel is username and you enter username as the database username, the *actual* username will be username_username.

This does not apply to the password input.



Step 7: Click on the “Add User” button - and voila! - you have created a user to access the database.

However, we’re not quite finished yet - we need to add the user to database.



Step 8: Click back to the MySQL databases page, and note that your database name, and username, now appear in a pair of boxes together. If this is the user and database you wish to create an association for, click on the button underneath for “Add Uer to Db”.

That’s the hardest part done! You’ve created a database in CPanel and added a user through which your software can access that database!



Step 9: One last step - your PHP software will have a config file somewhere - these provide instructions for your software to access the database.

Open it up in a text editor, and edit the following values, or nearest equivalent, with those you have just set up:

    database name:”";
    database user:”";
    password:”";

For example:

    database name:”username_database”;
    database user:”username_username”;
    password:”password”;



Conclusion: Still a little uncertain?

Okay, here’s a more specific example:

The username at Platinax is “platinax”. Therefore if I set up a database here, the database name and username will be prefixed with platinax_

So if I set up a new database, and call it dbse, the database name is database_dbse

If I enter a username bob, the username for the database will be platinax_bob

I would therefore enter into the software config file:

database name:”username_dbse”;
database user:”username_bob”;
password:”password”;

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