• What You Get with Different Types of Website Hosting and Whether Email Should Be Separate

    There are many different types of website hosting. In this blog post, we will discuss the different options and what you get with each type of hosting. We will also explore whether email services should be a separate entity from your website or hosted on the same server. Let’s get started with the types of hosting available.

    Shared Hosting

    Shared hosting is the most popular type of hosting. With this option, your website is hosted on a server with other websites. This is the least expensive option and is good for small websites.

    With shared hosting, you typically do not get access to your own server. This means that you cannot install any software that you want on your website. You are also limited in the amount of storage space and bandwidth that you can use.

    People used to worry about being associated with disreputable sites (gambling or adult content etc) on a shared hosting account. However, this is less of an issue now.

    Shared hosting accounts are often badged as being “WordPress optimised”. This is pretty meaningless as the hosting requirements for WordPress are minimal and any decent hosting setup can cope.

    VPS Hosting

    VPS Hosting is a “Virtual Private Server”. It is a set of dedicated resources within a larger server. It’s a setup from shared hosting, although strictly speaking some of the resources are shared with other sites on the same cluster.

    You get your own server environment with VPS hosting, which means you can install any software you want. This gives you much more flexibility than shared hosting.

    VPS Hosting is more expensive than shared hosting, but it is still relatively cheap. This type of hosting is good for larger or busier websites.

    Dedicated Servers

    Dedicated Server Hosting is a type of hosting where you get your own server. This means that you can install any software you want on your website. You also have a lot of storage space and bandwidth. Dedicated Server Hosting is more expensive than other types of hosting, but it is good for very large or busier websites.

    Cloud Hosting

    Cloud hosting is a type of hosting in which your website is hosted on a server that is shared with other websites. This type of hosting is ideal for small businesses or bloggers who are just starting out. You get access to a variety of features, such as unlimited storage space and bandwidth.

    Unlike shared hosting, Cloud hosting websites are synced across multiple synced servers all sharing resources. Shared hosting uses just one server.

    How website hosting is marketed.

    The definitions above are written by me. They’re my understanding of the current marketplace. Not all hosting providers will agree on where a shared account becomes a cloud account, or precisely what resources a VPS account is sharing.

    It’s very easy to move a WordPress site from one hosting account to another. This is why many providers will bundle additional services with the hosting to make switching difficult. Siteground when through this process recently when they switched to their management software after using cPanel for many years.

    Email and Websites on the same hosting account.

    I’m going to be bold and say categorically that it’s a bad idea to share email and web hosting on the same hosting account.

    Primarily because if there is a problem you lose your website and your emails. TSO Hosing had significant problems with this a few years ago with their Gridhost system. Bad for them, and their customers.

    Google and Microsoft are the main providers of email services which they both do very well. And typically at around £5 per month per user account, it represents good value for a reliable service.

    Keeping web and email hosting separate means that you’re able to switch providers easily.

  • Domain Names and How The Internet Works

    To understand how the internet works, you need to know a few things about domains and domain name servers. A domain is a website address that contains a specific set of letters and numbers. Domain names are added by registrars, who sell them for an annual fee. Once a domain has been registered with a registrar, it is then assigned to one or more DNS servers which will tell any person looking up the site what server they should be connecting to.

    Here’s a quick list of the main components that make the internet function:

    The DNS System

    The DNS system is a global server network that translates domain names into IP addresses. When you type a domain name into your browser, your computer will query DNS servers until it finds the server with the corresponding IP address for that domain name. This process is known as DNS resolution.

    Domain Name Servers

    Domain name servers (DNS servers) act as intermediaries between domain names and IP addresses. They keep track of all the registered domains and the corresponding IP addresses, and they can respond to queries from clients looking for specific domain names.

    Root Zone File

    The root zone file is a database that contains all of the top-level domains (TLDs) and their corresponding nameservers. ICANN maintains it, and it is responsible for assigning top-level domains, maintaining the root zone file, and overseeing the DNS system.

    IP Addresses

    An IP address is written with numbers and dots. It’s like the website address you type into your browser. IP addresses are unique to each computer and are assigned by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). When you type a domain name into your browser, your computer will query DNS servers until it finds the server with the corresponding IP address for that domain name.

    Top-Level Domain Names

    The top level of the domain name system is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN is a nonprofit organization that was created in 1998 to manage the domain name system and regulate global internet policy. It is responsible for assigning top-level domains, maintaining the root zone file, and overseeing the DNS system.

    Within the UK domains are managed by Nominet. Nominet is a not-for-profit organization that manages .uk domain names. They are in charge of assigning top-level domains, maintaining the root zone file, and overseeing the DNS system.

    DNS Records

    DNS records contain a variety of information, including the following:

    – The domain name

    – The IP address of the domain name’s web server

    – The address of the name server that is responsible for the domain

    – The date and time of the last update to the DNS record

    – MX Records

    – CNAME records

    MX Records

    MX records specify the mail service provider for a domain. When someone tries to contact your domain, they will query DNS servers until they find the server with the corresponding IP address, then send their message there.

    CNAME Records

    Canonical Name records (CNAME) create an alias from one domain name to another. The “www” part of a domain is an alias to the root domain. CNAME records are used when setting up a CDN to deliver assets from another server.

    Content Delivery Networks (CDN)

    Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a content distribution system that serves content to end-users with high availability and high performance. CDNs serve a large variety of data, including text, images, audio, video, software or other digital assets for Internet applications.

    A CDN’s goal is to deliver the highest quality experience to end-users. This may be accomplished by ensuring content is delivered without interruption from network congestion or outages, which are often local and global. When deployed on a large scale, CDNs serve content close to where needed, minimizing the distance travelled up to 99% of the time.

  • Terminology Used in Online Marketing

    This page gives a brief overview of some of the terms you will encounter when discussing your website. In being brief, there are some instances where the description may not be complete, so please get in touch if there are any issues about which you would like a complete answer. 

    Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

    Search engine optimisation is the process of improving your site’s ranking and, by consequence, increasing organic traffic. SEO includes systems such as writing high-quality content, using keywords relevant to a broad audience or industry niche to make sure they rank on search engines like Google. 

    We adopt a system focusing on creating unique, well-written content specifically for your target audience. Content has three primary purposes:

    • Engage and inform your visitors
    • Demonstrate expertise and authority in the subject
    • Encourage visitors to contact you

    Duplicate Content

    Duplicate content is one of those online marketing terms that crops up a lot. There are two issues to consider:

    1. Content that is repeated on the same site or page multiple times
    2. The same content that appears on different websites.

    Other than obvious exceptions such as site navigation or contact details, content on your site should be unique and only used once. E-commerce sites have a challenge with duplicate content as they are trying to write competing content for the same product. Another example could be press releases that are published multiple websites.

    Duplicate content is a problem for pages that are competing for the exactly the same traffic, because the search engines are looking for content that will be valuable to a searcher. Otherwise it can be regarded as a site quality issue.

    Thin Content

    Thin content is a broad term to describe content that does not add value, for example, doorway pages that target multiple towns with the same text.

    Thin content has a similar effect to duplicate content. It does not add value to a visitor’s experience and is unlikely to be returned by the search engines. Whether this is considered a penalty or just a sign of low quality is a subjective view.

    Back Links 

    Links are the lifeblood of the web. The original vision of the internet was of a series of related documents connected by hyperlinks. As the internet has grown, hyperlinks are seen as “votes” for good resources and used by authors to demonstrate credibility by showing their sources of information.

    Search engines rely less on backlinks than a few years ago, and misuse of backlinks is very problematic. The major search engines regard any attempt to manipulate the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) to violate their terms of service. If fake backlinks are detected, a webpage or entire domain can be blocked by Google. This penalty can be applied manually or algorithmically, and recovery can be challenging.

    Link Networks

    Link networks are deliberate attempts to create networks of pages that link to each other. These pages are almost always thin or duplicate content. Often server software is used to create pages dynamically. Link networks are simple to spot and are a high-risk strategy.

    We never participate in link schemes or attempt to gain client site rankings artificially. In our view, the long term risks never outweigh the short term gains.

    Pay Per Click (PPC)

    Google and Microsoft run PPC advertising networks where advertisers can buy ads via an auction process. The exact process is complex and beyond the scope of this document.

    Both networks are highly cost-effective at generating high-quality leads across a wide range of industries.

    Text adverts are displayed alongside the organic search results for Google or Bing. In comparison, the display networks show more image (or video) adverts.

    WordPress and Page Builders

    WordPress is an open-source content management system that uses an architecture of plugins and themes to create a wide range of website types. According to recent figures, WordPress powers over 40% of the top 10 million websites.

    At its core, WordPress is free. However, developers create a range of solutions based on WordPress that are premium. Page builders enable non-technical website creators to use a drag-and-drop interface to build sites without using code. Page builder themes are often reused across multiple websites, creating a similar look or feel.

    Have you see any other terminology used in online marketing that you do not understand?

    The answers above are intended to give a brief summary of the main issues. Please get in touch if you need any help with the above issues, or have any other terms that you would like an explanation of.

  • SMTP Authentication for Exchange Online Email Accounts

    There’s more to email than just sending and receiving emails. Aside from setting up clients (e.g. desktops, laptops, phones, and tablets), an increasing number of third-party apps are involved. I’ve written this article to help me remember how to set up exchange online servers to handle transactional emails.

    Typical scenarios may be forwarding contact forms by email or configuring a CRM system to send emails.

    The solution used to be setting up SMTP AUTH client authentication using a username and password. This still works in some circumstances but is prone to failure. A growing part of my business is managing websites and taking on the management of emails.

    The exchange online plans from Microsoft or Gmail Suite are ideal for this purpose.

    Conditional Access policies

    A Google (or Bing!) web search for help setting up SMTP access for accounts suggests that checking that SMTP access has been allowed at the user level will solve authentication problems. And sometimes it does.

    As of February 2021, Microsoft will allow existing tenant accounts of exchange online plans to continue using SMTP Auth, but by default, new accounts and tenants will stop using insecure methods.

    Authentication will be refused citing “error message: 535: 5.7.3” digging deeper will show:

    Access has been blocked by Conditional Access policies. The access policy does not allow token issuance.

    MICROSOFT exchange team

    How to set up an application to us Office 365

    The Microsoft Docs for setting up authentication are (at first glance) confusing, but in fairness, they’re just trying to keep up with a changing situation covering a multitude of scenarios.

    There are three options, the first of which is “recommended”. However, it is not possible to set this up on new accounts. A July update explains the background, with an update in February to modify the plan due to the Covid pandemic’s effects.

    Microsoft Security Defaults

    So, the recommended solution is not possible on new accounts unless the Microsoft Security Defaults have been disabled.

    The security defaults are accessed via the azure portal, under properties:

    screenshot of azure portal
    Image from Microsoft docs.

    Unfortunately, this can only be applied at the account level, and while it does work, it can’t be a good idea to disable a security policy. Not least as Microsoft are clearly looking to depreciate insecure methods of accessing SMTP servers, what works now may break at some point in the future.

    How to set up direct send on a WordPress site using Microsoft Exchange Server

    The instructions provided by Microsoft docs are clearly written and do work. Direct send (option 2) requires changes to the DNS records, but nothing major.

    This solution works when sending an email from an application (e.g. website) where the email is addressed to someone within your organisation. It won’t work if trying to deliver to external recipients like Gmail.

    You can’t use the built-in email handler for WordPress, so (in my view) the best plugin to use is post-SMTP which you can download from the WordPress repository. Don’t use the auto-configuration tool. Instead, click on “Show All Settings”

    Under the account tab add your endpoint in the Outgoing Mail Server Hostname box, and 25 in the Server Port box.

    You have to add the “from email address” in the account tab, and the message tab.

    Send a test mail and all should be good!

    For completeness. The third option involves setting up a connector app to handle authentication. The WordPress plugin mentioned above does allow for this, and it does work. However, if you don’t have access to the portal or domain settings, there will be a lot of liaising with client IT managers.

  • Dealing with WordPress Spam

    a ninja dealing with WordPress Spam

    The first thing to say about WordPress spam is that you’re not going to beat it.  You can only deal with it.

    I’m not going to dwell on why spam exists.  When you see how rubbish the comment and from spam submissions are you can’t help wonder what possible benefits people get from it.  But they do and on a massive scale.

    The more important question for anyone managing a WordPress site is what are the different types of spam and how can you deal with it.

    What is Spam

    Spam is any unwanted content generated either manually by visitors or automatically by bots.

    Spam can be unwanted user registrations, contact forms, comments or any of the many other ways that visitors can interact with your site.  At its worst Spam can contain malware that could damage your website or your visitor’s browsers.  Aside from being highly annoying and, time-consuming unchecked Spam can cause reputational problems with search engines.

    In its various forms, WordPress apparently powers about 25% of the internet. That’s the main reason why WordPress sites are targeted, not because of any inherent weakness in the platform. 

    What can you do about WordPress Spam

    You could start by searching the WordPress plugin repository for anti-spam plugins: There are hundreds.  There are also a number of curated lists. So there is little point in creating another one here.

    Firstly, be realistic.  Spam is part of managing a site, and no system is 100% good at blocking all Spam without occasionally blocking legitimate visitors.  Also, if your site is carrying out a commercial activity then be prepared to pay.

    WordPress is bundled with Akismet, which is free for personal use but should be paid for when installing on a commercial site.  Personally, I feel that Akismet is too expensive to manage on multiple sites.

    The best free anti-spam plugin for WordPress used to be WP Spamshield.  However, this is no longer available directly from the WordPress repository and can now only be purchased as part of the Envato Marketplace.

    To be effective, a good anti-spam solution should be able to block comments, form submissions (form all the major form providers) and user registrations. Additionally, the ability to block referral Spam is desirable.  Overuse of captchas or questions is less desirable.

    CleanTalk Anti Spam and Firewall

    With the WP Spamshield plugin removed from the WordPress repository, it was necessary for us to look into solutions that are cost-effect to manage multiple websites.  Imagine having to check for spam comments on 50+ websites manually.

    cleantalk hompage screenshot

    So what follows is a description of the Cleantalk Spam solution and why we now use it.

    The Cleantalk system is not limited to WordPress. It is available across a full range of CMS’s and even manually built sites.  They offer an app for IOS and Andriod.

    When a user tries to submit a form or registration their details are checked against a cloud-based real-time database of known and active spammers.  Using a mixture of IP and submitted user information Cleantalk claim that they can quickly spot new bots and block them across the entire network.

    Of course not every spammer is caught, so you can manually report any errant submissions, benefiting the wider network, but also earning a license renewal extension.

    The service is plugin based.  As an agency, we set up a dashboard giving an easy overview of all managed websites along with recently approved and blocked submissions.  The system supports the main form providers, for example, Gravity forms and Contact 7; with new ones being constantly added.

    Comment Spam and Firewall

    CleanTalk block spam bots before they hit your website, saving you bandwidth and resources.  And saving time sifting through Analytics filtering out referral spam.

    The CleanTalk website lists all the main features but for a quick run down:

    • Compatibility with most Caching plugins
    • Works with native WordPress and JetPack comments
    • Blocks spam registrations
    • Works with Woocommerce as standard
    • Works with signup forms e.g. Mailchimp

    Installing CleanTalk for WordPress

    Installation is as easy as this:

    • Create an account on CleanTalk.org
    • Add your website to the account dashboard
    • Go to your site and install the CleanTalk plugin
    • From the plugin settings page allow the plugin to make an automatic claim for verification.

    And that’s it.

    CleanTalk Pricing

    There is a free trial, but CleanTalk is not free.  The service is priced on a sliding scale based on the number of sites added.  The more websites you manage, the cheaper they are per site.

    The basic price covers pretty much everything and compares well with other services, both in terms of how well it blocks spam and value for money.

    There is an additional package, which provides a couple of very useful additional features:

    • The option to block specific words or word combinations.
    • The option to create a custom message for blocked messages: gives any accidentally blocked genuine visitors a way to get in touch.
    • Logs retained for 45 days instead of 7

    These extra services are essential for busy commercial sites that suffer from a lot of Spam and want to avoid captures.

    Is CleanTalk Worth the Money?

    Since we started using CleanTalk on client sites we’ve seen a dramatic drop in Spam referral traffic, which is a significant time saver.

    Paying for the additional service to block specific words is also worth the extra money.

    This article is not intended as a full review of CleanTalk or a comprehensive comparison of the different solutions.  In my view, CleanTalk efficiently manages comment and contact-form Spam without the need to resort to Captures.  As such CleanTalk is worth considering for individual sites or maintaining multiple websites.

  • Adwords Changes for 2016

    Google announced some significant Adwords changes during the Google Performance Summit in May.  While they have not given any specific dates for the updates to roll out it is well worth getting familiar with the new concepts.

    Some Adwords Stats and Why Mobile is Everything

    Most of the statistics that Google provide are specific to the US market. However, the UK follows the same trends and much of what they have experimented with the big US retailers they also trailed here in the UK.

    image of mobile phone with search During the Performance, Summit Google stated that they handle at least 2 trillion searches per year,  although they don’t give any breakdown to that figure.  However, it is known that more than half those searches happen on mobile.  Which is massive for Adwords when you consider that the Adwords platform is a little over 15 years old and was built in a “desktop” age.

    Additionally nearly half of all mobile searches on Google are location related.  Location searches are growing at a faster rate than other mobile queries.

    Think about people searching for “…. near me.”

    So all of these changes have the mobile user/experience at their heart.  In early 2016 Google removed the adverts that were displayed on the right-hand side of the page.  Instead of showing 3 or 4 adverts at the top and three at the bottom of the page.  This change was specifically aimed at harmonising the desktop/tablet/mobile experience.

    Adwords Changes for 2016

    Expanded Text Ads

    The format of the text ad has not significantly changed since the inception of Adwords.  Currently, the text ad is made up of:

    • 25 character headline
    • Two 35 character description lines
    • The display URL
    • Optional extensions.

    The new Adwords text format consists of:

    • Two 30 character headlines
    • One 80 character description line
    • The display URL
    • Optional extensions

    In effect, many text adverts already had two headlines as with the correct use of punctuation it has been possible to show the headline and description line 1 on the same line.  However, the available advert text moves up from a possible 95 characters to 140.

    new text ad following Adwords changes
    New ad format showing increased space

    This is a huge change and will make bidding for the top 2 positions more important than ever.  Currently, the search results page for a competitive search term contains four adverts at the top of the page.  Assuming that remains the same the extra space that the new text ads take up will push everything else right to the bottom of a mobile screen.

    No doubt Google will test this new format, but they expect it to roll out later this year.  That has to mean in the next few months as it’s highly unlikely they would make such a significant change immediately before the main shopping seasons.

    This means recreating ad creatives across entire campaigns.

    Responsive Display Ads

    Many small advertisers keep clear of display ads, partly because of the perceived complexity of selecting Ads creatives and sizing options.

    In future advertisers will only have to provide one Image, the ad text (headline and description) and the target URL.  Google will take care of how the advert displays on different devices.

    image showing The New Google Display Avderts
    The New Google Display Adverts

    Specific Bid Adjustments for Device Types

    There has been an argument for creating specific campaigns for mobile rather than using the existing bid adjustments.  Whether that is right or not probably depends on the point of view and circumstances.

    In future, Google will allow you to bid more or less for desktop, tablet or mobile.  The adjustment range is increased to 900%.  So instead of having to gear the bid adjustments against desktop it will be possible to structure the bids relative to each device.

    Local Ads for Google Maps

    As so many mobile searchers have a local intent, it makes sense start including advertising within Google maps (promoted pins).  This changes leverages the existing local extensions, but also expanding the information available to searchers from within maps.  Aside from business location, and opening times it will also be possible to check stock levels and see special offers.

    image showing a promoted pin on google maps
    Promoted pins and business pages on Google maps.

    How will these Adwords changes affect Small Businesses

    Theses changes are possibly the most significant updates to the Adwords platform since the system was created in 2000; reflecting how the internet is used in the mobile age.

    The Adwords interface is also undergoing a redesign, although don’t expect to see that live for quite some time.  It’s a massive undertaking, and while a demo was shown at the event, likelihood is that it won’t be widely available until the end of 2017.

    While the system does allow business owners to manage their accounts, the frequency of Adwords changes highlight the importance of employing an Adwords Specialist, especially for advertisers in highly competitive markets.

    Images are screenshots taken from the Innovations Keynote speech.