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Make good use of your Analytics data

Some people love looking at numbers, and some people don’t! Which kind are you?

That was a trick question because it does not matter. You have an online business, so you have to look at the numbers period. It is that simple.

I am surprised that even to this day, there are website owners who are not using Google Analytics. So by using it, I mean actually using it, not just having it installed. If you don’t have Google Analytics installed yet, this article is not for you 🙂

If you don’t like looking at the numbers, think of it as listening to their story.

What story can you learn by listening to your analytics data?

The most basic story could be: your site is broken! A sudden drop in numbers or an unexpected spike in errors is an excellent indicator that something is not working. The sooner you learn about this, the faster you can fix it.

Another story can be the “unexpected audience.” You may be assuming that a specific demographic or geographical region is visiting your site, but you may be wrong. Sometimes you may discover that it makes business sense to translate your offer to a different language, or to promote a page to a different demographic. Without analytics, it is challenging (if not impossible) to adapt to the changes in the market.

However, the most useful way that I am using analytics is to predict the future by looking at the past. Instead of guessing how many sales are you going to generate this month, you can use the past data to get a reasonable estimate of the monthly revenue. This allows you to plan ahead and to budget for your growth. It enables you to think long term, to strategize, instead of just surviving.

The second most useful way to use analytics is for tracking the success of your actions. Meaning: how will you know if the changes you have implemented have helped your business or not? This kind of tracking requires a bit more time to set up, but it is worth it.

It is an excellent idea to have the analytics code installed, even if you don’t know how to listen to the numbers yet. By the time you learn, there will be a story in your analytics data for you to interpret.

Installing the code

Google Analytics has good documentation about how to install their code. Also, most WordPress themes allow you to configure Google Analytics in their options. If a theme does not allow you to do this quickly, maybe it was not the right choice for your website.

For the more advanced users, I recommend using this plugin: PixelYourSite (https://www.pixelyoursite.com/)

How are you using your analytics data? Have you made any breakthroughs? Have you learned any hard lessons :)? Let me know in the comments below.

Keep your site up to date – good advice, but only in theory?

“Keep your software up to date!”

I am sure you have heard this saying many times, and in general, it is good advice.

However, let’s take a WordPress website, for example.

A WordPress site is made from the WordPress core and usually many plugins. You have many pieces in your puzzle. Not all of them are updated at the same time or in the same way.

In my experience, it happened more than once that an updated piece no longer fit with the rest of the puzzle. Auch!

Most update processes do a good job warning you that you need to do a backup first and to ensure the other plugins (components of the puzzle) are compatible with the update.

This approach puts the responsibility of “making sure that things still work” with the user. And not everyone can make that assessment. Also, let’s admit it, sometimes we are in a hurry or just plain lazy :). Ideally, a piece of software should not rely on a human to do the right thing.

I too used to be overconfident in the automatic updates process, and I would apply those every time there was a new update. Click, click, and I was done! What could possibly go wrong?

One time, I updated the store. We had a newsletter scheduled that we expected to generate much interest and I thought I wanted to offer the best and latest shopping experience for our customers. So I updated the store and was on my way. The next day I opened the email to a ton of complaints from our subscribers that the checkout is not working! A full email campaign wasted, not the mention that we looked totally unprofessional — that hurt both my ego and the sales.

What did I learn from it?

1. Updates can potentially be very painful

2. You never change the system right before a big promo campaign. (This feels like common sense now.)

3. You need to be extra careful when you update the part that generates income: the store, the “pay now buttons,” and the subscribe boxes.

4. After you update you need to test at least the critical functionality: add to cart, checkout, subscribe.

5. You better have good backups, in case you need to roll back.

It was not all bad, because I did have backups, so it was relatively easy to go back to the previous version. Moreover, I sent another email campaign with an apology and a second invitation to check out the offer. If I hadn’t had backups that would not have been possible to do.

Another thing I decided to implement is to write automatic tests for the website that can run in the background and make sure the critical processes are still working.

In conclusion: stay up to date, but be smart about it 🙂

The Challenges of an WordPress Online Store

Having an online store is a good idea. It allows you to make revenue from your website and your offering. That is obvious.

What is not so obvious is that some challenges come with it :).

I believe in being prepared! So, if you’re looking to start an online store, or to improve the one you already have, read on!

This article will focus mostly on WordPress powered websites and add some general principles as well.

Shopping cart or no shopping cart?

It depends. I much prefer the experience of a one-click purchase. And in some cases that is precisely what you want to offer to your customers. When you have a lot of products in your offer, and it makes sense for people to buy more than one product at a time (like three books for example), then you need to use a shopping cart. For WordPress, I recommend WooCommerce, and some custom work on top of that to make it more user-friendly.

Coupon or no coupon?

Coupons are an excellent way to reward loyalty and to get attention for your promotion. A one-click experience does not lend itself well to using a coupon. There are other tools in this case, like custom links. But a shopping cart (like WooCommerce) can easily use coupons. Just make it obvious where to expect a coupon code. The default user interface is sometimes confusing for people.

Guest checkout?

In most shopping experiences, you are required to create an account before you can place an order. And there is a good reason for that. It allows for later access to your purchase history and the downloadable files you may have lost.

But sometimes creating an account can be seen as too complicated and unnecessary. I prefer this method of purchase. If guest checkout is essential for you, make sure the tool you are using allows for it. Again I have to recommend WooCommerce as they provide for this feature.

Keep the conversation going

Depending on the kind of business that you have and your offer, it may be a good idea to keep the conversation going with your customers or to hold their hand as they discover your product. To allow them to grow by making a more advanced offer, and, why not, to learn from them. The tools to use in this case is WooCommerce integrated with MailChimp. I am personally not happy with what is on the market today, so I have had to create my own plugin that would add specific tags for specific products. This approach allows me to segment the audience or to trigger campaigns based on the product that was purchased.

Also beware, that for bigger stores, the official MailChimp plugin does not work anymore as you would expect. There are a lot of timeouts and missed notifications. Especially true for when you have a significant influx of orders (for example you’ve just sent an email blast to your audience).

Provide support

Providing support should be common sense, but not everyone is doing this right. Your customers need a reliable way to ask for assistance.

I used to think that this would be too much work. But in fact, it is an excellent way to learn about your audience, what they need, what they like, and what is broken with your sales or delivery process. Do not ignore the support requests :). The “Contact Form 7” is an excellent plugin to use for this.

The Refund Policy

Buying things online is risky. Your order customers trust you, but the new ones don’t know you. To me, it makes total sense to make it risk-free for them and offer a full refund policy. Yes, some will abuse it. But for every abuser, there will be more people who end up trusting you more and making the purchase. The refund policy is also a strong statement of confidence in your products or services. Yes, they are that good!

And I agree, in some cases, a partial refund makes more sense. And in others, it is OK to offer no refund if the customer had plenty of chance to change their mind and did not. Like selling tickets for an event, and someone wanting to cancel the day before. In these cases, you have to make it crystal clear in the purchase process what the refund policy is and when it expires.

International clients

I still struggle with this one.

You may discover that you have a big audience in a country that speaks a different language. Say, French. You invest in the resources and process to translate your products and sales process into French to help your audience get to our product. But what you also need to be careful about is providing support in the same language. If the product is in French, and the purchase process is in French, the support cannot be in English. To me, that would not feel genuine. Like you did not go all the way with your offer, and you stopped right after the sale.

If I cannot offer support in French, I prefer to keep the sales process in English. This way, those who buy the French product will know that that is the only French part about it, just the product itself. But the shopping experience and support will have to be in English.

As I’ve said, I still struggle with this, and I cannot say I have found a solution that I am delighted with. As tools, for WordPress, I am using the PolyLang plugin.

The Mobile Screen Experience

Have a look at your analytics data, and you will likely notice that the mobile users are a big chunk, if not the most significant piece of your audience. Your store needs to be mobile-friendly. And again, I have to recommend WooCommerce here, but with some custom work to make it even more usable on the small screens.

Order fulfillment

Don’t forget about the second half of the shopping experience. Don’t stop at just getting paid :). Make sure your customers can get to their files.

You may have to use different tools for different products. Small files can be sent as attachments. For videos, you may be better of emailing links to a platform where the video is hosted (YouTube, Vimeo, Wistia). And for huge files, there are yet other tools to help, like Amazon S3 services.

Use this information to decide what kind of shopping experience you want to create and what tools you should use. And if you struggle with some challenges that I didn’t write about, let me know in the comments below.

Versioned Backups – A form of Insurance

What are version backups and why should your online business care?

Allow me to share a story with you. One morning I get a call for a client of mine. A website they were maintaining had bad been hacked. The service they were providing was not working anymore and they were losing the trust of their customers. They were asking me to fix it for them.

Fixing a hacked website is very difficult and time-consuming and it can mean a lot of downtime. The better option was to restore the site to a previous state when everything was working.

Thankfully this client understood the value of backups so he had one. Took me an hour to restore the backup. And when we checked the site…

Surprise!

It was still looking bad and the browser was still issuing security complaints. Auch!!

It became clear that the hack had happened a more than a week ago, so restoring the most recent backup did us no good.

And here come the versioned backups. Which is a fancy name for backups that go back in time. You don’t have only the latest backups, you have a daily backup for the last 30 days or a weekly backup for the last 10 weeks.

Because we had those I was able to discover when the hack took place and restore the backup before this. Another 2 hours spent, but now the website was working again.

After one more hour, I discovered that one of the plugins installed had a security flaw that had been exploited. I had to disable and delete that plugin or the site would have been hacked again shortly.

Versioned backups are snapshots of your website across time where you keep more than just the last one.

As you can see, this allows you to reach back in time to when “things were working” and restore your data in case of trouble, even if you discover the issue a few days after the fact.

Why should your online business care about versioned backups?

If your website is mostly static and you don’t offer any services online then you don’t need versioned backups. Just an old backup from last year will do the job.

But let’s be honest. Most websites are in fact web-applications. Meaning they are not just static pages. There is content that is updated, products that are promoted, customer lists, fulfilled orders, and invoices. And if you are doing well, these get updated at least once a day. So a backup from last year will help, but you will still lose a lot of your data.

Depending on how you run your online business and the amount of online activity you will have to decide how often to backup and for how long to keep a backup history.

In my experience so far, with small and medium-sized businesses, doing weekly backups and keeping only the last 4 works very well. This means that in the worst-case scenario you can go back a month, and in the best-case scenario you lose a week of your data: new posts, customers and sales.

But I am paranoid and what I usually do is daily backups that I keep for 2 or 3 months.

Lots of backups and a long history sounds good a reassuring. But there is a cost to that in time and resources. Your server needs to work (sometimes hard) to generate the backup, and then you need the storage space to keep al that history. That is why you need to strike a balance between your real business needs and your peace of mind.

The Take-Away

Versioned backups are a good form of insurance because sometimes the ‘latest backup’ is just as bad as the live website.

Facebook ads? Love them or hate them?

Let me start by saying that I am not a big fan of ads in general or social media for that matter. In fact, I used to dislike the word “marketing” altogether. It seemed that marketing would be something that only con-artists would do to get a sale :).

But that was because of all of my bad experiences with ads and marketing in the past. However, it turns out that there are good ads and good marketing!

Here is a definition of marketing that I like (probably by Seth Godin):

“Marketing is generously solving other people’s problems”.

So marketing in this sense is serving not only selling.

And out of this definition follows a good ad. A good ad is one that is more of a training than a sales pitch. It adds value to your life just because you paid attention to it. You have learned something and if you are ready and willing to go deeper, then yes, you can buy the product, service or training.

I cannot say that I am an expert with Facebook ads, but I have run ad campaigns on Facebook for a couple of years so I have learned a thing or two.

What I like best about them is that you can really focus on your target audience. That is very useful when you are looking to reach people who are interested in what you have to share.

The next thing I like is the format. At least on Facebook, it feels organic and if crafted correctly it looks like a regular post and not like an ad.

Next is the way you can control your budgets so you have a clear picture of your spending.

There is one thing that I don’t like, however. That is tracking the results.

Maybe I am still doing something wrong, and I still have to fine tune my processes, but I have not yet figured out a reliable way to determine which ad is performing better, especially when it comes to converting into sales.

The setup I have worked most with is a WordPress site with a WooCommerce store. On top of that, I have used the “Pixel Your Site” plugin to integrate all of it with Facebook.

If you know of a good resource about conversion tracking with the Facebook pixel, drop a link in the comments below!

Why use Facebook ads?

After testing this for some time, it is clear to me that Facebook ads are a good way to reach new people, or just to send reminders to your current audience. Ideally, new prospects would find you through word of mouth. What you have to say is so remarkable that it has to be shared with other people! But when that does not happen, you can test out ads and look for a new audience. (I am assuming of course that what you have to say or offer is indeed really good, but you did not find the right audience yet).

WordPress and the Email Problem

Have you ever had a WordPress site and your outgoing email was just getting sucked into some kind of black hole, never to be seen again?

I have discovered through experience that this is very common. And the problem is not with WordPress, it is actually with your hosting provider.

The only reason WordPress seems to be the most affected it is because it is so widely supported by hosting environments and that it is free. And not all of the hosting providers do a good job with delivering your email.

When your website is using what is called a “shared plan”, this means you share the server resources with other websites as well. And those websites may not be as friendly and ethical as you are. In fact, because it is free and so easy to use, there are many people who abuse the email feature of WordPress to send spam.

The easiest solution for the hosting providers, in this case, is to just block the outgoing email capability for everyone, including you!

This does not only affect shared plan users.

After 10 years or running an online business, and keeping an email quality score of 9+ out of 10, our email got suddenly dropped. We had a dedicated server, so we were not sharing our IP with anyone else. And we only found out of this problem because of our customers complaining about not getting their orders delivered. Yaiks!

Contacting support did not help. There was just a general reply that all outgoing email was now routed through a different grid and they were very strict in their rules. The problem was that everyone was treated the same: spammer or genuine business! And of course, the common rules were those applied to spammers. The good history and reputation of our business did not matter anymore.

Complaining did not help so I had to look for

Alternative solutions

There are two that I found:

1) Move to a different hosting that knows how to manage outgoing email well. At the moment of writing, the only one I can recommend is SiteGround.

2) Buy an outgoing email service.

I will focus on the second one because there are some mistakes I made and lessons that I learned.

Since we were used to having free outgoing email with our server, it did not make sense to me to get a paid service. So I just looked for companies who offered free email delivery if you stayed under a certain quota.

This plan backfired big time. Most of our email was sent all right, but it was going straight into the spam folder of most of our customers.

Out of the Spam Folder

The problem was that the free plan was again shared with other people who were in fact spammers.

It was time to do the math and it became obvious that we were losing a lot of customers because we could not communicate with them any longer. At this point paying for a high-quality outgoing email service began to make much more sense. Once I took the leap I had no regrets. The kind of tools you get with a paid service, and most importantly the deliverability, generated more than enough customers to cover the costs.

For an online business where it is important to stay in touch with your audience, it makes sense to have a paid email solution.

I have used SendGrid in the past and I was very happy with them. But I have moved to MailChimp because of their better automation and better integration with WordPress.

Some Technical Details

Correctly setting up outgoing email involves some technical details about DNS, MX records, DKIM, SPF and others. These are beyond the scope of this article, but if you need some guidance ask me in the comments section.

The Successful WordPress Recipe

In almost all of the cases where I was hired to help with a website, I had to deal with a WordPress setup. I have done this often enough to discover some patterns and to create a “WordPress Recipe” that I can use and apply really fast and that was proven to work!

Why the recipe?

WordPress’s power is that it is simple to install and set up by a non-technical person. But that is also its weakness. It is easy to conclude that after a successful install “you’re done and ready to go”, but that is usually not the case.

The common elements

The online store. Most of the websites today sell a product or a service. The most flexible solution that I know of is to use WooCommerce, connected with PayPal. And of course, there are all sorts of add ons you can use to customize the store to your needs.

The newsletter service. As a business, you need a way to stay in touch with your customers and to get leads. The best way I know how to do this is by capturing emails and using them with a newsletter service. MailChimp is a common choice. Contact Form 7 is the plugin that connects MailChimp with your site.

The contact form. If you are selling a product, you need to allow your customers to ask for support. Also, prospective customers should be able to reach you with presales questions. You can solve this with a contact form done right. What do I mean by “done right”? Two things: first you need some sort of spam protection so that only genuine contact requests get to your inbox. And secondly, you need to save these requests in a database in case your email happens to not be working.

Website Analytics. It surprises me how many website owners do not have any analytics reporting setup. If you don’t use analytics you could be missing out on potentially vital information ranging from technical problems with your website to discovering how your customers find you and where, in turn, you can find them. The best tool for this is Google Analytics. It is easy to set up and does not require any maintenance. Once you have it on your website any time you need to make a big decision about your business you can consult the analytics data to determine what the impact may be on your traffic and customers. Usually, the WordPress theme has a way to add this code. If you need something more advanced then PixelYourSite is the tool I’d recommend.

Search Engine Optimization. This a very broad topic, but a good start can get you a long way. At the very least choose a theme that is SEO friendly and properly configure your website structure through permalinks. Also, install the free plugin from YOAST and follow the configuration steps to make your pages more “google friendly”. I should add here that starting with 2018 the mobile users have surpassed the desktop users (in the data I have access to), so the website needs to look great on mobile first and desktop second! This is a big departure from: let’s make a great desktop website and then we’ll fix it on mobile.

Social Share. This is one is optional in my mind because I am not very convinced that it helps. If you know better let me know in the comments below. Some themes do provide this feature as do some plugins, but I have not found anyone that I could recommend. What I usually end up doing is to create custom code to add social share on the pages that I need to.

Website Security. Unfortunately, none of the websites I was hired to work with had good security in place. In fact, many times I was hired to try and salvage a hacked website and that is not always possible. WordPress is notorious for being easy to hack. This is not actually their fault. The paradox is that the software is so easy to use and install that many people who use it are unaware of the online security pitfalls so they fail to take the required steps to secure their website. To get you started you should only use popular plugins that have a good reputation of high quality. And you need to install and configure a security plugin. The one that I use and I recommend is All In One Security. Your hosting can also help here if they provide a malware scanning service.

Backups. I have learned the lessons of good backups the hard way. These days I don’t even take on clients if they don’t agree with a backup policy. It is too risky and so easy to make a mistake that costs both me and the client. I don’t have a plugin to recommend here. I personally have a backup server, with custom code, where I keep version mirrors of my work and my client’s data. This allows me to do quick restores in case of trouble and to work fast, knowing that even if I make a mistake, I can always roll back.

The WordPress quick setup Recipe

  1. Install WordPress
  2. Install a theme. I recommend DIVI (with some caveats)
  3. Install WooCommerce and connect it with PayPal (or Stripe)
  4. Install Contact Form 7 and connect it with MailChimp
  5. Setup the contact form in Contact Form 7 and also install Flamingo. Configure spam protection with recaptcha. Do a test of the contact form to make sure it works.
  6. Add the Google Analytics code in your theme
  7. Install and configure YOAST
  8. (optional) Install a social share plugin (or use custom code)
  9. Install AllInOne Security plugin and configure it.
  10. Setup automatic, versioned backups.

A note about choosing a theme

As you know I recommend DIVI from Elegant Themes. What I like about it is that you can quickly have a beautiful website that is mobile friendly, it is super easy to update and it’s very customizable without having to write any code.

But all this comes with a price!

I am not very happy with the performance of the theme. Sometimes it feels bloated. But there are ways to mitigate this problem. Another much bigger issue is that you are locked in with this theme. If you decide to use DIVI you might as well purchase the lifetime package because it will be incredibly hard to change to another theme down the line. If you think this may be an issue for you then you may want to look into Beaver Builder.

Custom Web Application versus WordPress

Have you ever had this problem of wanting to create a specialized service for your clients and not being able to implement your vision because of the limitations of your website?

Have you ever wished your website was more flexible and more customizable so you can easily differentiate from your competitors?

Let us explore together a way of thinking about this.

When you hire someone to build your website to deliver your products and services, you may be faced with the decision of building on top of a standard WordPress install or creating something totally custom.

So how do you decide what to choose?

To discover the answer you need to consider a few factors:

  1. What are your business goals
  1. How will you manage your site
  1. How will you update your site
  1. How fast do you need to be ready to go live

If your business goal is to have an online presence via a blog, a newsletter and a store then it may make sense to go with something standard like a WordPress based website.

WordPress was built for blogging. It is a very popular choice, so it has a big community developing plugins and extensions that will allow you to have an online store and a newsletter subscription very quickly.

A big advantage to using WordPress is the ability to apply automatic updates and the user-friendly administrative dashboard. With very little training you can learn to manage your own website and apply the updates yourself.

Another big advantage is the large range of templates and themes that you can use to quickly customize how the website looks, without having to hire a designer.

WordPress looks like an amazing choice. Why not use it all the time?

Paradoxically, WordPress’s strengths are also its biggest weaknesses.

WordPress strives to be useful and easy to use for a broad range of users. And because of that, it has to be very generalist in nature and make a lot of assumptions about how it will be used. And while you can use plugins to add features to it, ultimately WordPress is a blog platform that has been optimized for blogging. It some cases it can feel bloated with features that you may never use.

But if your business adds value through a custom service it provides, then that works against what WordPress was built for. Yes, you can do it by extending the platform, but the performance and flexibility of what you can do will suffer.

This is where a custom solution shines. Like a bespoke suit, a web application built just for your customers will be optimized to deliver that service. The obvious advantage is differentiation. You will be able to offer a user experience that may not be possible with WordPress. If built properly another advantage is performance. Since you know what this web application is supposed to do, very specific optimization strategies can be employed.

What are the disadvantages of a custom web application

Custom web apps shine when it comes to delivering your business goals and the flexibility to implement specific user experiences for your customers. But how do they fare when it comes to managing the website and updating the website?

Since it is custom work, you will have to rely on your developer for updates and maintenance. And the administrative dashboard may also have to be built from scratch to serve your needs and your customers. This adds some risk to your business. If you ever need to change developers the new one has to be comfortable and knowledgeable enough to be able to take over and maintain the website.

A custom solution also adds a higher cost with managing the website. It may not be as user-friendly as WordPress. And if you want to get the administrative backend to be super polished it will add to development time.

Another risk added by a custom solution is the higher probability of unforeseen problems and bugs. WordPress has such a large user base that the problems are likely to be discovered quickly and dealt with. That is not the case when you build a custom solution that only you are using.

It is not all bad news. Most of these risks are mitigated by using time tested frameworks, best practices, and standards when building the custom website. Just like with bespoke suits, you don’t have to reinvent the industry to have something custom-tailored and of very high-quality.

How fast can you go live with a custom website? Not as fast as with WordPress, that is for sure. If you are in a hurry, custom work may not be the way to go.

Conclusions

If you only need an online presence and the ability to blog then just go with WordPress. It is low cost, it is fast and easy to manage. And if you have some free time on your hands you can do it yourself.

If you need to put something up quickly and time is of the essence, stat with WordPress and plan for an upgrade later on.

If your goals are more sophisticated, then we need to talk about value first. How much value will the website bring into your business? The more you base this on data and research the better. If the yearly revenue from the site covers the costs of a custom solution (including development and maintenance) then I would suggest you go with a custom solution because of the flexibility and growth opportunities. Otherwise, go with WordPress and plan for an upgrade later.

A word of caution

There is an advantage to being quick and show up on the market place. A simple but fast website launched quickly is much better than a perfect website launched too late.

That being said, too many times I was hired to fix a website built on a shaking foundation with obsolete technology that was very limiting to the business.

What I suggest is a good practice is to give yourself a deadline. Something like: I need to launch this month, but I know that will have to build something more complex and stable so I will plan and prepare to do it in 12 months.

In 12 months you will have learned a lot about your business and your customers, so when it’s time to “get serious” you will have a much better understanding of what it needs to be done and that will dictate the choice of technology. You will also not be in a hurry, so you can do things right.