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How to Create an Effective Homepage for Your Creative Business

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For many of your visitors, your homepage is the first impression they’ll get of your creative business when they visit your website. Even in cases when a potential customer lands on another page first, the next page they visit is usually the homepage. Why? Because years and years of internet behavior teaches us to assume that the homepage will tell us more about what the website is all about.

So how effective is your homepage? What kind of impression will your visitors get when they land on yours? Will they get intrigued by what they see and move deeper into your website? Or will they go “meh” and move on?

For a homepage to be effective, it has a lot of heavy lifting to do. It has to:

  1. Give your visitors just want they’re looking for
  2. Direct visitors where you need them to go
  3. Tell your visitors about the most important thing on your website
  4. Communicate who you are

That’s a lot of stuff for one page to accomplish. Which is why it can be notoriously hard to create an effective one. If you’re thinking that you need to give your homepage a facelift, or you’re in the middle of creating a brand new one, here’s a guide on how to create a homepage that grabs your visitors and makes them want to know more.

What are your visitors looking for?

One of the main things that your homepage has to do is give your visitors what they need. So what do your visitors need? To determine that question first you need to know who your visitors are.

Are they likely to be returning visitors and want information on your latest works? Are they mostly new visitors that want to learn more about you? Who makes up your current website audience? People that find your work through a gallery? Gallery owners? Wholesale customers? Online shoppers?

One way to determine who’s visiting your website and what they’re doing while they’re there at is to review your website stats. Google Analytics is a free service that can give you a good idea what kind of traffic your website is getting on specific pages and what kind of traffic you’re getting to your website overall. It can also tell you where your visitors are coming from, what percentage are new visitors vs returning visitors, what pages they’re looking at, and how long they’re staying on your website. Study the stats that you’re getting on your homepage to get an idea of who your visitors are and what they’re looking for.

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Google Analytics can give you a fairly detailed picture to what’s happening on your website

If you don’t have Google Analytics installed on your website or blog, here’s a great video that shows you how to do it. Once you install Google Analytics on your website, and start getting stats you can read this guide on what those numbers and graphs mean.

After you have this basic research done, it’s time to start mapping out your homepage. Start by making a list of who your likely visitors are. Using the the information you’ve gathered from your website statistics include information about what each visitor is looking for when the land on your website. Prioritize each activity from most to least popular so you know what interests you visitors the most.

Where do you want your visitors to go?

While an effective homepage gives visitors want they want, it also has to direct them where you need them to go.

Perhaps the main thing your visitors want to see is your latest work. And of course you want them to see your latest work as well. But you also want them to sign up for your mailing list so you can email them whenever there’s new work available. Some of your visitors might not think to join your list or even know that you have one. So one of the things you want your homepage to do is point them in that direction and tell them why signing up for your list is a good thing for them.

Go back to that list that you’ve started on your most likely visitors and list some of the main things you want your visitors to do when they land on your homepage. Like you did with the visitor’s list, prioritize each action in order of most to least importance for you and your creative business.

What’s the most important thing?

An effective homepage has a visual structure. You should be able to tell what the most important thing on the website is by looking at the homepage.

How do you create a visual structure on a homepage? The most important things on the page are located at the top. These elements are also has more “visual weight”; they’re bigger, more colorful and bold, and are the most eye-catching portion of the page. Things that are less important has less visual weight, they’re smaller, less eye-catching, and located in the middle or towards the bottom of the page. This structure can also work for other pages, but it’s critically important for your homepage.

A common mistake is not having a central focus on your homepage by making everything the same size and equally attention grabbing. The rationale behind this is usually, “Well, everything on the homepage is important. We don’t want visitors to overlook anything”.

Unfortunately, that’s not how people scan webpages. People naturally start towards the upper left hand corner of the page and then scan the page left to right in a “Z” pattern towards the bottom of the page. Things towards the bottom of the page will tend to get less attention. Things that stand out in terms of color and size also directs the eye on where to focus. If you make everything roughly the same in terms of visual weight, the human eye tends to blend all the elements together.

When your planning your homepage, prioritize the importance of each element on the page. Look at the list you’ve started. Take note of where the interest of your visitors and your interests overlap in terms of priority. These are the elements that you need to give more visual weight to when planning the structure of your homepage.

A touch of personality

Who are you? What is your work all about? What is your creative business all about? A new visitor should be able to determine the answers to most of these questions and enticed to learn more by looking at your homepage.

For artists and creatives, your story and the story of your work is why your current and potential customers visit your website. So it’s super important to convey this on your homepage. The most obvious way is visually, through the design, the colors, the fonts, and the imagery you display there. You can also communicate your story and business personality through the various types of elements you put on the page. Through the words and tone of voice you use in your homepage copy.

Make sure that your personality shine through on your homepage. Not exactly sure how to describe your business personality? Try this: pick three words that best describes what you do and who you are as a creative. Keep those words in mind when you’re planning your homepage.

Say for example, the words you choose were; playful, practical, and sustainable (try to avoid using overused words like “unique”). Whenever you’re deciding which elements to put on your homepage, what colors to use, and which images to display, and how to write your homepage copy; check your decision against your three personality words. Ask yourself if these elements or combination of elements will communicate those three words to your visitors. Doing this will help keep your personality front and center.

Common homepage elements

Now that we’re familiar with what a homepage must accomplish and all of the heavy lifting it must do, it’s time to go through some of the most common elements you typically find on a homepage. This list is by no means exhaustive. It also doesn’t mean that you have to have every single item on your homepage…although there are some elements that I would argue are a “must-have”.

1. An opt-in form– I’m assuming that you have a mailing list for your creative business, because that in itself is a “must-have”. One essential homepage element you need on your homepage is a form to opt into your mailing list. And I mean a form and not simply a link to your mailing list page. Building a list should be one of your main objectives for your website. Adding a form to your homepage makes it easy for you visitors to join your list without making them jump to multiple pages to do so.

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An example of a homepage form from BadAss Quilters Society

2. A primary call to action– Another homepage “must-have” is a primary call to action…the very first thing you want to direct your visitors to take. And there should only be one primary call to action. One action that gets most of the emphasis and focus. You might be saying, “Why only one? There’s so much on my website that’s important!” Remember that visitors can only focus on one thing at a time and you want them to focus on the most important thing. Too many “important” choices often results in confusion and not taking action at all.

So how do you decide one that one primary call to action is? By consulting that list you started earlier. Look at where your visitor’s interests and yours overlap. Ideally your primary call to action should be:

a) something that your visitors came to your website for
b) something that you want your visitors to do
c) something that will achieve the main goal for your website

Something that meets all of those objectives is likely to be your primary call to action. In most cases there will be only one thing that will meet all three. In the rare case where you have more than one, prioritize and choose one.

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Is there any doubt as to what you’re supposed to do on John Unger’s website?

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have any other call to actions on your homepage, this means that they don’t get the same focus and visual weight as the primary one.

3. Hero image– This may be optional for a lot of websites, but not for any creative who’s work is visually based. Your work is the attraction and visitors want to see it. And there’s nothing that catches the eye more than a big, lovely image of your best work.

When choosing your hero image, use one that represents your best or most popular work and represents who you are as an artist and a creative business. If you don’t have a photo like that, make one. Remember that your hero image will be one of the things that will either encourage your visitors to stick around to find out more, or make them go “meh” and move on.

What about multiple hero images? Couldn’t you have a collage of images instead of just one? Or a slider that rotates your best images? You can do either of these of course, but you may find that an image collage doesn’t have the same visual impact as using one main image. Sliders can work, but make sure that you put your most eye-catching image at the very front. Most people don’t tend to hang around on the homepage just watch your slider. Make sure that very first image counts.

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A beautiful hero image of Katie Gonzalez’s handmade books

4. Featured items or promotions– If you sell your work directly from your website, another homepage element you may consider adding are featured items or your most current promotions in your online store. You can display promotions or featured items as one big hero image, in a rotating slider, or in a photo collage or photo grid.

5. Get started– What if what you offer on your website is a bit complicated? What if you offer custom or personalized items? Or you work on commission and you need to explain the commission process? One useful homepage element might be a “Get Started” or “Start Here” section, a place for people new to your process or your work are directed to so they can learn more.

6. Your story– If you have a creative business, then you should have an “About” page that tells your visitors your story and how your work or your creative business can benefit them. (If you don’t have an About page, you really need to read this) If your story is particularly compelling or you have a specific mission you would like to share with your visitors, a section on your homepage dedicated to your story would make a lot of sense for your homepage. You can choose to condense your story to a paragraph that states your story or mission or you can add a teaser that links to your About page.

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Katie Gonzalez includes an excerpt of her story on the homepage

7. Social proof– Do you get a lot of compliments, comments, and great reviews from your customers? They’re a great form of “social proof” for other visitors to your website. Using a social proof element like reviews, comments, testimonials, number of sales, or number of mailing list subscribers on your homepage is a powerful way to encourage your visitors to stick around and see what all the fuss is about. It’s also a good way to reassure potential new customers that it’s safe to work with you.

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Amaranthus Paper & Flora makes use of their testimonials on their homepage

8. Latest news or blog posts– If you have a blog or if you and your work frequently appear in the news or on other blogs, then a latest news or blog post section would make a nice element for your homepage. You can also opt to curate your blog posts according to popularity or theme and display links to these handpicked posts on your homepage.

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Chris Barreto includes links to his most recent blog posts on his homepage

9. Video intro– Most of the elements on your homepage revolve around text and images. But have you considered using video? Video can be a powerful way to encourage your visitors to further engage with your website. Using just a smartphone, you could easily shoot a nice 20 to 30 second tour of your studio, an overview of your work, a demonstration of your process, or explanation of your story or mission.

Laying out your homepage

Once you’ve determined what your visitors want and prioritized the actions you want them to take, it’s time to choose the right elements to include on your homepage. Remember that you don’t have to choose them all. You can even choose only one or two elements for your homepage. Choose which element will get the main focus and will be at the top of the page which elements are secondary and where their location will be on the page.

Get a blank piece of paper and draw simple blocks lay out the elements on your homepage. Look at the homepage of websites you find compelling to help guide your ideas. If you have a web designer helping you with your website you can show them your list of priorities and tell them about websites you like to help guide their design process. Tweak your ideas until you find a layout that best represents your website.

A homepage is a work in progress

Have you ever noticed how the homepage on Amazon and Etsy are always changing? That’s because they’re always monitoring the behavior of their visitors and they tweak their homepage to make it more effective. A lot of online businesses big, medium, and small test new designs, layouts, colors, and elements to see what works and what doesn’t.

While I’m not suggesting that you redesign your homepage every few months, it is a good idea to keep things fresh. Keep a weather eye on Google Analytics to catch changes in traffic, changes in your audience, and to monitor where your traffic is coming from. Use the information you get from Google Analytics to make small improvements to your homepage on a regular basis. Be sure to monitor what happens after you make a change to see if your changes are working or not.

Conclusion

For a lot of people, your homepage is the welcome mat not only to your website, but to your creative business in general. An effective homepage has to accomplish a lot of things and it must do them well. When done right, your homepage can encourage new visitors to go deeper into your website. Spend some time to make your homepage a better welcome mat for your visitors.

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20 Ways to Spring Clean Your Blog, Website or Etsy Store

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Spring is in full swing and with it comes the urge to spruce up and reorganize. One place that can use a dose of spring cleaning is your web presence. Whether you have a blog, a website, an Etsy store or some combination, they can all benefit from a good spring cleaning.

So what does “spring cleaning” your blog or website entail? In most cases, they’re things that your visitors likely won’t even notice right away, but will make your website, blog, or online store a more effective tool for marketing your work. Ready? Let’s get started!

14 Spring Cleaning Tasks for Your Blog or Website

1. Revisit old blog posts– Take a good look at all of your blog posts. Is some of the information a bit outdated? Can you spruce some of the posts up with fresh copy or images? Are there blog posts that you can update or repurpose or use as a springboard for new content? Are there some really good posts hiding in your blog that you can reintroduce to your social media audience or to folks in your email list?

If you’ve been blogging for a couple of years, you might find that some of your earlier posts no longer fit the current direction of your blog. Don’t be afraid to get rid posts that are hopelessly out of date…especially if it looks like no one is visiting them. Create a list of all your blog posts and note which ones you can update, which ones you can reuse to create more content, and which ones you can eliminate from your blog altogether. And after you do so, don’t forget to go to Task #3.

2. Clean up your categories and tags– Are your blog categories and (if you use them) tags a mess? How many categories are on your blog? If it’s well over a dozen, you may have a problem. If a category only has one or two posts associated with it, that means it’s too specific. Or it may mean that it doesn’t fit the direction of your blog. Try to consolidate or eliminate overly specific categories.

How descriptive are your categories? If your blog is all about children’s clothes, will a new visitor be able to easily find all the posts you written about clothing for infants by looking at the categories. Clever, “cute”, or vague category names are often confusing, so consider rewriting them. If you use tags on your blog, take a look at them as well. Consider consolidating or eliminating tags that only have one or two blog posts associated with them.

Need some help with organizing your blog categories? The CoSchedule blog has a rather good article that can point you in the right direction.

3. Check for outdated links– A website or blog is made of links…links to other blogs or websites…links to different pages within your website. You want to make sure that all of the links are working properly. An outside website you’ve linked to can go down, go inactive, or can even change hands. If you’ve been shuffling around some of the pages and blog posts on your own site, you can easily break links to your own pages.

Broken links or worse, links that go to spam sites can cause search engines like Google to rank your website lower in search engine results. If you use WordPress to run your website or blog, the Broken Link Checker plugin to track down outdated links and to monitor your links going forward. If you don’t use WordPress, use a service like Dead Link Checker instead.

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4. Check for broken contact forms or outdated contact information– There’s nothing more frustrating to a visitor than trying to contact a website owner with outdated contact information. If you use contact forms on your website, send a message to yourself to make sure they’re working properly. Do the same with all of the email links on your site as well. Check the rest of your contact information (physical address, phone number, social media links, etc) and make sure they’re correct.

5. Beef up your security– The best time to beef up security to your website or blog is right now. If you wait until you have a problem it’s too late. If you haven’t changed the login password to your website or blog in the last 90 days or longer do it right now. And make it a nice secure password that has a combination of of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. Be sure to change your password at least every six months from now on.

Do a scan of your website to check for possible hacks, malicious code, and spam. It’s completely possible to have been hacked and not know it. Sucuri has a free scanning service that sniffs out possible hacks on your blog or website. And once you’ve gotten the all clear that your website or blog is clean, implement some security measures on your website.

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6. Spruce up your about page– Other than the homepage, one of the most viewed pages on your blog or website is usually your about page. So you’ll want to make sure that page is in tip top shape. Don’t have an about page? Now is the time to remedy that. At minimum a good about page should introduce yourself to your visitors, tell them what your website or blog is all about, invite them to interact with you in some way (sign up for your list, follow you on social media, etc), and should have some photos of yourself and your work.

Leanne Regalla has a great post for artists and creatives on how to make a killer about page. This is a great resource if you don’t have an about page, have a skimpy about page, or if you want to make your current about page even more awesome.

7. Spruce up your homepage– Once you’ve got your about page squared away, you’ll need to give your homepage a bit of love. Your website’s homepage is the place where you get your visitor’s attention and direct them where on your website they need to go next. Lisa Congdon’s homepage starts off with a beautiful photo slider of her work, next it goes on to feature her upcoming classes, her latest book, her upcoming book, and her most popular blog posts. Even if someone goes no further than the homepage, they have a good idea as to what her website offers. Can you say the same for your homepage? If not, take a bit of time to tweak it.

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If you have a blog, your homepage simply may be a list of your current blog posts. Even so, will your visitors be able to figure out what you’re all about by simply landing on your blog? If not, think about tweaking your blog header or adding some content to your sidebar to help point visitors in the right direction. Another alternative is to build a homepage for your blog. The WordPress blog has several good examples of effective blog homepages.

8. Clean up your sidebars– Speaking of sidebars, now is a good time to get them nice and organized. If the sidebars run longer than the main content of your website or blog, that’s a sign that they need a good clean up. What are the things that you want to direct your visitors to? Your best blog posts? Your Etsy store? Your show schedule? Your mailing list sign up? Pare down your sidebar only to the things you want your visitors to go to next or anything that pertains to the main objective for your blog. Eliminate everything else.

9. Review your site navigation– Grab a colleague, a friend, a family member, or better yet…a valued client and ask them to walk through your site. This is especially useful if they’re not already familiar with your website. Can they find things easily? If you ask them to go to a specific spot on your website can they do it quickly? Or at all? If they can’t or they’re having difficulty getting the job done, that may be a sign to adjust the navigation on your website or blog. If you run your website on a system like WordPress making changes to your site navigation can be a fairly easy process. In other cases you may need the help of the person who designed your website to make these changes.

10. Update resources and downloads– Do you offer free downloads like cheat sheets, ebooks, printables, or a handy list of resources. Now’s a good time to review them and make sure that the information on that download is up to date…especially if it includes links to other websites. You may also want to fresh up the design or maybe even spruce up the text or add additional information if you want.

11. Update, upgrade (or add) mailing list opt-ins– If you have an email list (you should), now’s a good time to pay some attention to the opt-in forms on your website or blog. Do they work properly? Are they highly visible and easy to find? Do they tell your visitor why they should sign up for your list? Perhaps it’s a good time to start experimenting with more advanced sign up features like a Hello Bar or a pop up window.

12. Add Google Analytics– If you haven’t installed Google Analytics on your website or blog, take some time to do it now. Martiel Beatty of The Art Academy did a great video on how to install Google Analytics on a WordPress blog or website. If you use something other than WordPress, installing Google Analytics will be a fairly quick task for your web designer.

Why is Google Analytics so important? Because it can tell you a lot about what’s going on with your blog or your website, and it can indicate what works well and what’s not working so well. It’s an important tool if you want to promote your website effectively.

Already have GA installed? Take some time to review your stats. Write down what you learn. And come up with a list of action items to fix the bad and improve the good. If you’re not sure about what the numbers mean, here’s a guide on how to read Google Analytics reports.

13. Make your website/blog more sharable– How easy is it to share content from your website or blog? When you write blog posts are you making them easier to pin on Pinterest by including good images? Do you have links to your social media accounts on your website? Are you including social share buttons in your pages and posts to make easier for visitors to share your content? Sharing content is one way news of your work spreads online. If you’re not including great images or your work or you’re actively keeping people from sharing your content on social media, you’re hobbling your promotional efforts.

Include links to all of the social media outlets you’re active on so that visitors can follow you there. Include social media sharing buttons to your blog posts or your product pages so that readers and visitors can share that awesome new post or that new item you’ve just listed with their followers. You can easily add these buttons by using a tool like Share This.

14. Update your blog theme or site design– A good spring cleaning often includes some visual sprucing up. If it’s been a while since you’ve upgraded the look of your website and blog, consider making some changes in that area, whether it’s a new banner, updated branding, a fresh color scheme, or a new theme or design.

6 Spring Cleaning Tasks for Etsy Shop or Online store

While the last 14 tips pertained to blogs and all websites in general, your online store or Etsy shop will have specific clean up needs:

15. Revisit your store policies– When was the last time you’ve looked your store policies? With all the things you have to do to run your shop or online store, it’s easy for your policies page to become a bit out of date. Perhaps you’ve had to increase your shipping fees due to increase costs, or maybe you’re no longer shipping to certain locations, or maybe you’ve made some adjustments to your return policy. Now’s a good time to read over your polices page to make sure that it reflects any changes you’ve made in how you’re conducting your business online.

Correct misspellings, errors in grammar, and typos as needed. If your copy reads a bit dry or impersonal, consider rewriting some of it so that it reflects the personality of your business. Sales policies don’t have to be boring…so don’t be afraid to inject a bit of personality or humor.

16. Revisit your shipping methods and pricing– Shipping costs are in constant flux, so it’s easy for your shipping fees to get outdated. Make sure that your shipping profiles adequately cover your costs, including supplies and materials. Do some research to make sure that your shipping methods are the most economical and that they serve the needs of your customers. If you’ve been getting frequent requests for things like rush shipping or shipping to a certain region, this is a good time to research those options. Etsy has a great article on researching and preparing your shipping methods.

17. Update your FAQ page– Your FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page is another important page that’s easy to forget about. A good FAQ page should help sell your work by answering the questions that your customers may have before and after they buy. Prune and update questions and answers and add some Q&A’s that may have come up between now and the last time you’ve updated your page. Of course, check for misspellings, grammar, etc and don’t forget to add some brand personality to your copy where you can.

18. Update your product photography– An eye-catching photo is often the difference between making a sale and a potential customer simply moving on to the next page. This is one thing that you always want to make sure is fresh and updated. Your photos should be well-lit, sharp, and puts your work in it’s best light. If the aren’t change them out with ones that are. It’s also important that all of your product photos are consistent in style and quality with each other. If you were looking at all of your product images side by side, they should look like they all belong together. Change out or reshoot product photos that look out of place or no longer matches the style of your other photos.

Etsy has a number of great articles on how to shoot great product images for your store. Two rather useful ones includes an article on photography mistakes to avoid and the other illustrates four types of product photos you should have in your online store. You can also get some inspiration by simply looking around and seeing what’s out there. In addition to check out other Etsy stores, Instagram is also a great place to get some ideas on how to shot product photos.

19. Spruce up your product copy– If your product photography is the thing that draws your customers to your store, the product copy is the thing that seals the deal. You’re not there to talk about your work in person, so your product copy has to do all of the heavy lifting. Look over your product pages and/or listings. Is everything spelled correctly? Are your providing all of the necessary information that your customer needs to make a decision (size, color choices, weight, materials)? Is your copy getting in the minds of your customers, figuring out what they need and telling them how your work solves that need? Calculate the conversion rate for your listings. Are they underperforming? Is your brand personality coming through in your copy? Are you using the appropriate tags on your Etsy listings? Are you using the right keywords in your product copy?

If your copy needs work, Lisa Jacobs has a wonderful CreativeLive course on how to write product copy for your Etsy store. You can also use a service like Marmalead to do some competitive research on which Etsy listings are getting the most attention, which tags are getting the traffic, and which price points are doing well on Etsy.

And speaking of pricing…this is also a good time to revisit the pricing on your items. After all, the price is an important part of your product copy. Marmalead can give you a good idea of how other shops are pricing work like yours, but you don’t always want to follow the crowd when it comes to pricing. The bottom line is that your prices need to reflect the quality of your work and they need to sustain your business so that you can grow. Check out Tara Gentile’s CreativeLive course on pricing to learn how to develop a pricing strategy for your creative business. Then apply that strategy to your own work.

20. Update your branding– If it’s been a while since you’ve upgraded your logo or changed your Etsy banner, now’s the time to do it…especially now that Etsy has made changes to their shop designs. If you don’t have a well designed logo or branding for your Etsy shop or online store, make that a part of your spring cleaning tasks. Strong branding is especially important if you have an Etsy shop because you’re competing for attention with so many other shops. In any case, strong branding is a must if you want to stand out on Etsy or in the vast sea of the internet. So take some time to upgrade your branding.

While many of the tasks on the list can be quite simple, sprucing up your online presence can take a bit of time…especially if you’ve neglected a lot of this stuff until now. Expect to take a good bit of time to complete this list. It took me about a month to finish off the spring cleaning for this blog and I’m still working on it behind the scenes with new additions and experimenting with new features.

Don’t let the time commitment stop you. Keeping your web presence updated comes with the territory when you’re conducting your creative business online. Use the opportunity to make your home on the web better and more effective for your visitors.

Maintaining That Clean Feeling

Truth be told, “spring cleaning” is something that never really ends. The key to keeping it from becoming a daunting task is by following a schedule of regular maintenance. Instead of waiting once a year to check for dead links or tweak your product copy, schedule time on your calendar each month to run through some of these simple maintenance tasks on a regular basis. This way you’re always improving without taking days or weeks of your time.

Maintenance_Checklist_cover One way you can keep your maintenance schedule on track is by using this Maintenance Checklist for Websites, Blogs, and Etsy stores. It includes checklist of common maintenance tasks specifically for blogs, websites, online stores, or Etsy shops and a suggested maintenance schedule for each task. You can keep up with your website upkeep without driving yourself crazy. Subscribers can find it for free in the Creative Business Toolbox. If you’re not a subscriber to the Crafted Webmaster you can sign up for free here.

Regular maintenance of your web presence is all part and parcel of doing business on the web. If it’s been a while since you’ve done some sprucing up on your website, a good “spring cleaning” could be just the thing for you website or blog. After you’ve spruced things up, follow a regular maintenance schedule to keep your web presence in tip top shape.

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Recovering your website after you’ve been hacked

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Hopefully this will never happen to you. But for lots of creatives who run their own websites, one day they went to their website and instead of seeing their homepage, they saw this big scary screen.

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That happened to me a couple weeks ago. And yes, if you can see this screen, everyone who visits your website can see it too. That’s not the welcome you want.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with a website that’s been hacked. During my years as a freelancer cleaning up a hacked website came with the territory. I was prepared to deal with the problem, only to find that the scary warning screen had been replaced with this:

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Yup…my website had been so badly hacked that my web host shut it down. That all happened before I had my morning Frappucino.

So…

Hacked website…no access to fix it…what do?

Don’t Panic!

That’s much easier said than done. If you see a big screen warning you that your site is too dangerous to enter of course the first thing you want to do is panic. Or throw something. I wanted to do the latter. I hadn’t had my Frappuncino yet after all…

But it’s not the end of the world though. If you act quickly and calmly you may be able to get your website back online fairly quickly. So, take a deep breath and keep reading.

So what’s a website hack anyway?

It’s always good to know what you may be dealing with. Website hacks can come in several forms, such as:

Brute force attack– One of the most common ways a hacker will gain access to continually log int your site until they crack your password.

Malicious code– The hacker gets into your website or the database that runs your website and inserts some pretty nasty code that can potentially suck up private information from the people that visit your website, spread spam or viruses to other computers, or gain access to the computers of the people visiting your website.

Pharmaceutical hacks– This type of hack allows the hacker to hide links to spammy pharmaceutical sites or websites that sell knockoff items like designer watches and accessories. These links are often hidden in the body of your web pages or blog posts or sometimes in the header of your website.

pharma_hack

Malicious redirects– In this type of hack, the hacker uses your website to redirect your visitors to another site. The diabolical thing is that the basic shell of the website may look like yours, but the content within it is not.

Lock outs– In this type of attack a hacker gains access to your login credentials and completely shuts you out of your website. Which also gives them the power to pretty much do what they want with your website.

Backdoor exploits– These attacks can be pretty hard to track down and resolve because it involves a hacker creating a “backdoor”, that is a hidden entry into your website that allows them to access it whenever they want. Because backdoors are meant to be hidden and hard to get rid of the hack can reappear even after you think you’ve cleaned it off.

So why my website?

So why did someone hack your website? Well, simply because they could. In most cases, it’s usually because your site was left vulnerable in some way and the hacker exploited that weakness. Maybe had a really weak password that you haven’t changed it in the past 5 years. Perhaps the security on your computer was weak and the hacker entered your website through an insecure internet connection. Or maybe the hacker came though a security hole in an old version of WordPress or an old theme or plugin.

Most website hacks are usually due to poor security and simply not keeping on top of updates and maintenance. Which is partially good news, because there are some things you can do to prevent these types of attacks (more on that later).

So why did someone hack your website? Because they could. Click To Tweet

I’ve been hacked…what do I do?

So, what if one day you open up your website and see the Google red screen of death? Here are some steps to take immediately.

  1. Contact your web host– The first thing you need to do is contact your web host and let them know what’s going on. Take a screenshot of that big scary message you saw on your website and include it with your support ticket. If your web host shut down your website, contacting them will let them know that you’re aware of the problem and that you’re trying to resolve it. They may even give you some pointers as to how you can start the clean up.

  2. Check the date of your latest backup– Ever wonder why backing up your website is so important? This is why. If you have a recent backup of your website that you’re fairly sure happened before the attack, then you can revert your website back to it’s pre-hacked state fairly quickly.

  3. Do a scan of your website– Sucuri has a free website scanning service that can find and pinpoint hacks, spam, and malicious code. So instead of poking about completely blind, you’ll have some idea of what you’re looking for.

    Securi_Scan

  4. Remove the hacked code– Once you’ve scanned your website and have an idea of where the trouble is you can go in and remove it. To do this you need to be fairly comfortable with using FTP, building htaccess files, and with messing about in WordPress (or whichever platform you’re using for your website). If what you just read gave you a case of hives, you need to find someone who has some experience with doing this or alternately you can pay a service like Sucuri to do this for you.

    If you have a recent backup of your website that you’re fairly sure hasn’t been hacked, you can restore your website using the backup file…which is much easier than going file by file and seeking the hack out. If you don’t know how to do this contact your web host’s support department and they should be able to step you through it or they may do it for you.

    If you don’t have a recent, clean backup and there is a lot of damage to your website you can also try completely reinstalling WordPress. You also want to try this on websites that didn’t have a lot of customizations to the theme you’re using.

    Because the hack that crippled my site was so extensive, I decided to wipe everything out and start fresh. This is how I went about it.

A recent, clean backup of your website is one of the quickest ways to recover from a hack Click To Tweet

A quick and dirty guide to reinstalling your WordPress website

This is just a quick rundown of how to rebuild your website with a fresh installation of WordPress. Remember, if you’re not comfortable with doing this, get someone with more WordPress savvy to do it for you.

  1. First backup all of your website files and databases. Why? You want something to go back to in case things go sideways…even if it’s your website in it’s currently hacked state. Then change your passwords before you proceed.

  2. Gather fresh copies of your theme and all your plugins. Don’t get them from your website files, download the most recent versions directly from plugin or theme developer’s website.

  3. Take a deep breath…then delete all of your WordPress files on your website. If you installed WordPress through cPanel or some other automated method, uninstall it that way.

  4. Reinstall WordPress. Then install the fresh copies of your plugins and theme.

  5. Check your website to make sure that images and links are acting as they should.

  6. Run Sucuri’s website scan to make sure that all of the malicious code is gone.

  7. Once you get the all clear…backup your website…immediately.

  8. Change your passwords. Yes, you’ve already done this…do it again now that you’ve cleaned your site.

If your password is your pet's name, birthday, or 'password1234' you're begging to get hacked Click To Tweet

Keeping your website hack free…

…or a least close to it. Even the most secure websites can still be hacked…especially if a hacker is determined to get into it. Fortunately, many of the most common hacks are of the fairly lazy type that can be deterred with a bit of basic maintenance and caution.

  1. Backup…regularly and often– The quickest way to recover from a website hack is by restoring it with a recent backup, which means that you need to back up your website regularly and frequently. At bare minimum, you should be backing up your website on a monthly basis. If you have a blog or you’re making frequent updates to your website you should be backing up weekly, perhaps even daily.

    If your website is run on cPanel, using the manual backup feature is a pretty simple matter. You just need to schedule a regular time to do it. If you want the security of automatic weekly or even daily backups you can use a service like VaultPress or Manage WP for as little as $5 per month.

    full_backup

  2. Keep your website updated– Making sure that you’re running the latest version of WordPress as well as the most recent versions of your plugins and themes is generally painless…and necessary. Like keeping a backup you have to make time to do it. The hack that caused all of my website drama was due to a security hole in my website theme. A security hole that had been fixed in the latest version…which I hadn’t gotten around to installing yet. So lesson learned the hard way.

  3. Log into your site on a regular basis to see if anything needs to be updated. Updates usually take less than a minute. Even better, you can sign up with a service like ManageWP which will automatically update your plugins and themes.

  4. Remove unused themes and plugins– If you’ve had your WordPress website for some time, you may have some deactivated themes and plugins hanging around that you don’t use. This is dangerous because a theme or plugin doesn’t have to be activated for a hacker to exploit any security holes. They just have to be on your website. And if any of them hadn’t been updated to the latest version you’re pretty much laying out the welcome mat for a hack. Take a few moments to deactivate and delete any themes and plugins you aren’t using. You can always reinstall them if you need them later.

  5. Use a good web host– While spending $4 per month on web hosting can be kind to your wallet, it’s not worth it when your website is crawling with malicious code and you can’t get a hold of support to help you out. Cheap hosting is cheap is because they often save money by scrimping on support, security, and regular maintenance. If you can afford it, you can use a hosting service that specializes in hosting WordPress websites like WP-Engine. Features like automatic security updates and backups, and WordPress sites optimized for speed may eliminate a lot of headaches for you…especially if you don’t want to deal with the day to day maintenance chores.

  6. Harden WordPress– WordPress is great for running a website or a blog but it’s not hacker-proof right out of the box. There are a number of things you can do to “harden” or make your WordPress website more secure. Again you’ll need to be comfortable with poking about WordPress, so if you’re not find someone who is.

    The WordPress website has a good basic article on what WordPress hardening is. You can also check out the 12 Ways to Secure Your WordPress Site You’ve Probably Overlooked article on the wpmudev website. Lots of good practical tips there as well.

  7. Choose strong passwords and change them regularly– If the password to your WordPress website is your pet’s name, your street address, your birthday, the name of your favorite Star Wars character, or password1234 you’re begging to get hacked. The best passwords contain a mixture of numbers, letters, and symbols in both upper and lower case and are typically at least 7 characters long. The less your password looks like a name or the date of something the better…and the longer the better. If you’re having a hard time coming up with a secure password, you can try using Norton’s Password Generator.

    And you should have different passwords for your cPanel or FTP and for your WordPress login. After finished cleaning up my website, I changed the passwords for both my cPanel and my WordPress login to randomized passwords, because I don’t intend for anyone to guess what they are. You should also make sure that you change your passwords on a regular basis as well. A good rule of thumb is to change your password every 6 months to 90 days.

    Is it a pain to keep up with such long complex passwords? Yes, a bit. Is it a pain to change your passwords every 90 days? Sure. But it’s a bigger pain to clean up a hacked website…trust me, I know. One way to make it less of a pain is to store your passwords in a password keeper like LastPass or 1Password. These applications can store all of your passwords for you, automatically log you into your website and other accounts and they can generate super secure passwords for you.

  8. Install a security plugin– A good security plugin can do several things. One, it can make your website harder to hack by automatically securing common entry points for hackers. And two, it can help you stop a potential hack in it’s tracks by notifying you when there are unauthorized changes to your website. The Securi Security plugin includes website scanning, WordPress hardening, and a monitor that can help you detect unauthorized activity on your website. Another plugin named Wordfence offers similar features. To prevent brute force attacks you can try a plugin named Login Lockdown which limits the number of login attempts someone can make to your website.

  9. Use a firewall on your computer– Sometimes the culprit isn’t a security hole in your website, but a security hole on your own computer. Hackers can access your computer through an insecure internet connection where they can find out how to access your website by using a keystroke logger or some other method. Good firewall software like Norton Internet Security or Zone Alarm can help keep hackers from gaining access your computer with an unauthorized internet connection. Make sure you install the firewall before you change any passwords to your site. This will help shut out the hacker from your computer and keep them from seeing your new log in information and using it to regain access to your site.

  10. Keep your log in information safe– Sometimes all a hacker needs to gain entry into a website is some good old fashioned negligence on your part. Don’t leave your log in information lying around. Be very careful of who you’re sharing your log in information with. If you have to give someone else access to your website, create their own log in credentials so they don’t have easy access to yours and only give them the minimal amount of access possible. And avoid using a public computer to log onto your website.

Running your own website can give you a lot of creative freedom, but with that freedom comes the responsibility of keeping it secure. A website hack can happen without warning. Acting quickly can help minimize the impact of the attack. And with a bit of knowledge and the right precautions you can help keep your website hack free.

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How to plan your next creative project

Plan_creative_project_B

At some point in your creative business, you’ll need to some outside help with tasks such as designing a logo or some business cards, or building a website. One way to help ensure that working with a designer or web developer is a fairly smooth process is starting your work with a design brief.

What’s a project brief?

Simply put, a project brief is detailed a description of your project. Most professional designers and developers start their projects by putting together a brief to ensure that they and their clients know the scope of a project and what the expected outcomes are.

Even if whoever you decide to hire develops their own project brief, it’s a good idea to create your own before you start looking for a designer. Why? For several reasons:

  • It will help clarify the project in your mind– The beginning stages of any a project is mostly just ideas. Putting those ideas together in an actual document will help clarify what you want out of your project, your goals, and what you want and do not want.
  • It will help communicate your project to your designer– Designers can’t do their work without input and direction from you. When I was doing freelance work, one of my biggest frustrations was when a client wanted me to design something but couldn’t or wouldn’t communicate to me what they wanted. Ideas have to start from somewhere. A design brief will give your designer a place to start.
  • It puts everyone on the same page– It’s totally possible to get the particulars of a project down in a phone conversation or a string of emails. But having a single document that lists out all of the parameters of the project puts everyone, you and your designer on the same page.
Creating a detailed brief for your creative project puts both you and your designer on the same page Click To Tweet

What goes into a project brief?

There’s no one way to create project brief, but here are some sections should go into yours:

Project overview: What is the project? A website? Business cards? Some graphics for your social media? Here’s where you put in the broad strokes of what your project is all about.

Project goals: What are you trying to accomplish with your project? If it’s a website, why are you building it? What are you hoping to accomplish? (to sell your work? build an email list? get more gallery accounts?)

If it’s a new logo for your creative business what are you trying to convey with that logo? (fun? elegance? affordability?) If it’s new business cards what do you expect to use them for? (who are you giving them to? in what situations? face to face? in shipments? at an event?)

How you answer these questions will influence how your design will approach your project and it will also influence the final results. So it’s best get your goals clear at the start.

Project time frame: When do you need that project completed? Before the holidays? In two weeks? In a few months? Giving a time frame in which you’re a) needing the project completed by and b) you have time to focus on the project will help your designer know whether they can fit it in their schedule and what turnaround time you’re hoping for.

Your audience: Who’s the project for? If it’s a website who is your expected audience? If it’s a logo, what kind of customers are you expected to appeal to? Create a profile of the type of people that you’ll be serving through this project. Include particulars like average age, gender, hobbies, and occupation.

If you’re not sure of the details of your customer profile, my video, “How to Create an Ideal Customer Profile” can give you some pointers. You can get access to the video and useful handouts here.

Examples of things that you like: Pictures are worth a thousand words. Telling a designer that you want your design to be “edgy” isn’t all that helpful. What seems edgy to you may not be the way your designer describes it. Instead of making your designer guess at what you mean, include images, clippings, or links to websites, colors, and designs that you like.

Remember that the images of designs you like are just to give your designer an idea of what you’re looking for. Don’t expect them to completely clone a design or to copy a design without putting their own spin on it. It’s also a good idea to look at a designer’s portfolio to see what their design range is. If you can reference a previous design of theirs that you like, include that in your design examples.


Things that you don’t like:
Showing your designer what you don’t like is just as as important as showing them what you do like. If you loathe orange or you can’t stand floating menus put your design on notice at the beginning. It’s helpful for a designer to know what to avoid so that they don’t incorporate those elements in their design.

Be aware that there may be reasons why a designer may use orange buttons on your website even if you loathe orange. If that happens, ask them to explain their rationale and be open minded. Remember that at the end of the day design choices should help you achieve your goals…even if they sometimes clash with your personal preferences.

Project deliverables: This is a project management term that refers to tangible or intangible results that your designer is going to deliver to you at the end of your project. When it comes to list the deliverables of for your project, try to be detailed in what you want delivered a the end of your project.

If your project is to build a website your deliverable is going to be more than just a website. How many pages of the website will there be? Are there contact forms on the website? A shopping cart? Does it also include a way for you to update your website?

If your project is a logo or some graphics, what format will the be in? (.jpg?.png?) What resolution? How many versions? What sizes? How will you plan on using them? One mistake that a lot of clients make is to get a quote for a project and then pop in with “one more thing” towards the end. It’s better if your designer know that you’ll be eventually using the design for say, your Facebook cover image or for your Etsy store banner at the beginning so that the design can be easily adapted for those purposes.

Budget: Including a budget in a design brief often makes people rather nervous…especially if the brief is going to be shown to a potential designer. If you prefer to keep that section private when you’re interviewing potential designers you can, but any decent designer will ask about your budget fairly early in the process to determine if you would be a good fit for their services. So either way it’s a good idea to have a number in mind when you’re developing your project brief.

Wait…I don’t know the answers to all of this

If this is your first project or you’re not exactly sure of everything that you need in your brief, don’t worry if you can’t outline everything that has been laid out above. The budget portion can be especially tricky if you’ve never worked with a professional before.

Just remember that the the most important thing is to start getting your ideas out of your head and on paper or in something like Evernote or a Google Doc so you can communicate your wants and needs clearly with your designer. And once you start talking to someone they may be able to help your fill in some of the blanks. At least you’ll have a place to begin.

This is also a good exercise for yourself when you have a big project in the works even if you don’t plan on hiring someone. I almost always begin a project or a promotion by writing a brief even if I don’t plan on hiring someone else to do the work. I started mostly out of habit after being in the web building and marketing field for so long. I continued to do so because I found it to be a great way to think my projects through before I begin. And I’m also a bit of planning junkie…so doing a project brief is right up my alley.

But even if planning isn’t your thing, give doing a design brief a try the next time you have a design project in the works…especially if you know that you’re going to be working with a designer. It may help your project go a bit smoother.

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