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The Impact of Technology in Boosting Education

Izunna Okpala

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tech education

The COVID-19 situation has shaped the global education system. Technology has affected our lives in almost every way. One of the most important revolutionary changes technology has made is with education. Classrooms now have smart-boards, students have tablets accessible as learning tools, and technology today makes distance learning and acquiring a degree easier than ever.

Universities like NC IUL is one of the few among many offering online degree acquisitions that are equally as accredited as the traditional, offline ones. Technology continuously improves the way we learn and the speed at which we can access huge amounts of information. Here is a quick overview of how technology has affected education and how it might be in the nearest future.

One of the most important aspects of technology in education has been its ability to create a global platform. Education with the help of technology has crossed borders globally and with a seamless transition. Online courses can be accessed by students across the world and people are able to have video conferences to offer a personalized teaching experience. Assessments are now all electronic and web based, making it easier for online students to receive results fast and effectively.

Remember carrying stacks of textbooks from class to class? Well, you can forget that now because textbooks are becoming digital. Students can have access to all of their learning materials in PDF files or online through their educational institutions. These eBooks make studying more affordable and accessible to students, increasing their ability to actually use the materials. This has been a huge shift from the reliance on paper-based books and will continue to revolutionize the way we learn.

You may not think of video games as a learning tool at first, but many of them have been designed to help students in many instances. Video games can help stimulate the mind to help with problem-solving skills by developing them to be more educationally goal-oriented. Even video games that are not educational on the surface may help us learn and gather information. This also goes along with mobile games. Many students have access to a smart device and can solve puzzles or learn on the go. Multimedia tools are also being used to enhance the educational experience. Videos and animation have created learning tools for the more visually oriented students making it more fun and engaging for those who can learn better this way.

Students are definitely becoming more engaged with technology tools because it is what they have grown up with. If you think about how most students in universities have been raised surrounded by video games, new gadgets, and the Internet, then you can understand how important technology has become for education. Students can access more information quicker from anywhere they might be with the aid of technological tools. What this shows is that the progression will be positive and help globalize education by creating a common language: new technology. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for our educational systems and how it will adapt to this encouraging trend.

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What Content Management System (CMS) Should You Use?

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Content Management System (CMS) is a product installed on a web server that allows managing pages, blogs and articles online, without storing them on a desktop computer and uploading each time when you need to make changes.

You simply login to your website, write or modify content, and your website is instantly updated, unless you set a specific schedule for your content to be visible to website visitors. CMS products also allow multiple administrators or editors to maintain online content without conflicting with each other. And most importantly, CMS products provide separation between articles and web design, thus allowing you to focus on writing content and not worry about copying the web design from page to page. CMS products can also automatically update menus and links between pages based on the list of articles you create, therefore you don’t need to worry about your website becoming broken when you rename pages.

Many CMS products have emerged over the last few years and sometimes it is difficult to choose the right one for your needs. In this article we’re going to talk about what you need to keep in mind when choosing a CMS. We will cover a few of the more popular CMS products used today.

Please note that some of the topics, pros and cons provided here are based on personal opinion and experiences of our staff. Other people may have a different opinion about CMS products based on their prior experience and comfort level with specific technologies. Therefore this guide is provided only as a general overview of popular CMS choices for those unfamiliar with CMS products or concepts.

The Most Popular Website and CMS Platforms:

  • Straight HTML
  • WordPress
  • Joomla
  • Drupal
  • DotNetNuke
  • Blogger
  • Artisteer.net

There are 5 questions that you really need to keep in mind when choosing a CMS for your site.

#1 Does the CMS match your needs?

Your choice of CMS mostly depends on the kind of website you want to create. There are numerous types of websites: company, commercial, entertainment, news, blogs, forums, personal and educational, etc. Hybrid websites have also gained popularity. For example, a business website might have a dual purpose; one to promote its product as an e-commerce site, and another purpose to serve as an industry blog, providing additional useful information, such as analyst reviews, reports, etc.

Unless you know what you need your site to do, you’re going to have a hard time selecting the correct CMS. The first thing you should do is to sit down and list out what you need your website to do for you and what you might want it to do in the future. Then compare your list to the features of the CMS and the 3rd party plug-ins available for it. Who knows, in some cases, you might not need a CMS at all and be better off with just a static HTML site.

#2 Will it allow for growth and extensibility as your needs grow?

For this you will need to think ahead and envision what direction your site might go in the future regarding functionality. You don’t want to start with a

CMS that you can’t extend later. So you want to check and see if plug-ins and add-ons exist that will let you extend the functionality of the CMS. In fact many people often choose their CMS just so they can use certain plug-ins.

#3 Is there a Support Community?

This is especially important if you are going with a free CMS platform and are doing it yourself. There is generally little to no support on most free products, so there needs to be a strong community that you can tap into when you need help and information.

#4 What is the learning curve?

This is very important if you are newbie. If the CMS is too complicated you might get overwhelmed and never get the site up and running. A simple CMS that suits your needs, that you can get up and running quickly, is better than a CMS with advanced features that you don’t need.

#5 How much does it cost?

How much is your budget for your site, or do you even have a budget? The good news is that there are many popular

Free CMS platforms that will fit most needs, though you might have to spend a few bucks on a couple of plug-ins, or add-on tools to get the exact functionality you want.

The CMS Market

There are literally hundreds of CMS out there that do pretty much anything you can think of and they range in price from free to thousands of dollars.

In this article I’m going to take a look at the most popular CMS products that are free.

Chart Data Source:w3techs.com

As you can see over 70% of the web still uses no CMS at all, however, they may use custom developed programs to display content. WordPress is currently the most popular CMS used on the web holding 15.7% of CMS usage, with the others trailing behind.

The advantage of using a popular CMS such as those above is that there is a plethora of support communities, articles and forums to go to when you need help trying to figure something out and tons of plug-ins to add functionality to your site. Obviously the more popular the CMS is, the larger the community and selection of plug-ins.

A few years back using a CMS was more complicated than it is today as now most hosting companies have made it very easy to use the above popular CMS products by offering one-click installs through their hosting panels that sets up the basic CMS installation for you, including the database, in about 5 minutes. Then you only need to install your template, plug-ins, widgets and start adding your content.

A Closer Look At The Most Popular Website and CMS Platforms

Straight HTML

By straight HTML we actually mean a system that does not use an online CMS but rather comprises of a set of loose HTML pages, often managed with a desktop software such as Dreamweaver. And for some sites this may be an acceptable choice, especially if you are just putting up a few static pages. The market share of websites using straight HTML is continually decreasing due to the difficulty of maintaining large number of pages.

There is no complex set up beyond just using a HTML editor and publishing the site to your host via FTP. Therefore it’s very easy to create an HTML website and get it online in literally minutes if you already have your content ready to go.

The web was based on straight HTML websites when it first started. CMS products evolved out of the need to make things easier and allow more flexibility. Some websites have brochure style sections created in HTML and then have a blog in another directory using WordPress, sometimes also having a member’s area in another directory based on Joomla. So Straight HTML can be part of an entire solution.

HTML pages, WordPress Blog and Joomla Membership section to make things look smooth and professional.

Pros:

  • No CMS to set up
  • Upload and forget about it until you need to make changes
  • Less security issues or vulnerabilities than a CMS
  • Can be much faster to create an HTML site if Artisteer is used, and faster to display by the web server.

Cons:

  • No blog or commenting capability.
  • Not easy to change the look or layout of the site without Artisteer.
  • Cannot add content from a web based interface.
  • Can take much longer to create a site if a manual HTML editor is used.
  • Without good design tools it’s very difficult to create a visually appealing HTML site, which requires both a graphics program and an HTML editor.
  • Often requires the knowledge of HTML (not required with Artisteer)

Suggested for …

small brochure style sites, affiliate SEO sites, sales letter style sites or small personal sites with infrequent updates.

This is also a good choice for ‘upload and forget’ sites, if you do not have the time to update a CMS for security issues.

In Summary …

when you want a static site without any security holes, or to merge sections of sites together, straight HTML is a good choice and a fast one if using Artisteer.

WordPress

WordPress started out as a blogging platform but has become a powerful CMS in its own right in the latest versions. You can even create sites that don’t have a blog at all and just use it as a CMS to create static pages that don’t resemble a blog at all. We have even seen people use it for membership sites by enhancing their system with plug-ins.

WordPress has the biggest usage rate at 15.70% for a number of reasons. It’s easy to use, has a large community, tons of templates (of course unlimited templates if you own Artisteer), and has a huge selection of free & paid plug-ins for extensibility. If there is something you need to do that you can’t currently do with WordPress you can bet someone is working on a plug-in that will add that functionality to it right now as we speak. And most quality hosting companies offer one-click installs of WordPress.

It’s very easy to add new content, add widgets by drag-and-drop functionality and of course change the entire look of the site just by changing or updating the theme.

SEO with WordPress is very good if it’s set up properly and there are several SEO plug-ins that focus specifically on WordPress.

Pros:

  • Very easy to install (Especially with a host that has one-click installs.)
  • Large community of users & developers
  • Lots of informational resources, books, videos, courses, classes, blogs.
  • Lots of developers and programmers if you need to hire one.
  • Very easy to find many themes and template designs.
  • Templates supported by Artisteer.
  • Easy to Manage.

Cons:

  • Can be difficult to customize the core functionalities.
  • Can be difficult to add custom features.
  • Not the best choice for large scale sites requiring large number of features.
  • Hackers love to attack WordPress sites due to huge market share.

Suggested for …

blogs, small business websites, affiliate SEO sites, or personal sites.

In Summary …

WordPress is great if your needs can be met by a light & simple template based site or a simple blog style site with a few plug-ins for added functionality.

Joomla

Joomla is one of the most popular CMS products available for medium to large sites that need more flexibility and features than WordPress supports. There are more plug-ins for Joomla than any other CMS, which gives it huge flexibility and extensibility.

Joomla is well known for being the best multimedia CMS and is also very good for e-commerce. It’s also good for high traffic sites.

It’s not as easy to use or get up and running as a WordPress site. Even with a one-click install, it will still take you longer to get everything configured to your liking. It’s also not as easy to use as WordPress, but if you need advanced functionality it might be the best choice for you.

There is a huge amount of information and documentation on Joomla. This is good because you will need it more than you would with WordPress, as Joomla is more robust and complex.

There are a couple of downsides to Joomla. One is that with the huge number of plug-ins also come quite a bit of bad quality or poorly functioning plug-ins that if not properly tested can cause problems in your site. You don’t want to just load up your site with a dozen plug-ins and then hope for the best. You need to exercise a bit more care with Joomla than that, often utilizing help of people familiar with Joomla.

Pros:

  • Fairly easy to install.
  • Massive Collection of plug-ins.
  • Fairly easy to manage.
  • Good for high traffic.
  • Good for sites up to 1000+ pages.
  • Great for multimedia and small e-commerce websites (using additional plug-ins).

Cons:

  • Not easy to customize the functionalities or add custom features.
  • Many of the plug-ins are for older versions of Joomla.

Suggested for …

medium sized business sites, multimedia sites, membership sites, directories, small e-commerce websites, etc…

In Summary …

Joomla maybe very well be the best choice for dynamic websites designed for growth and multitude of features.

Drupal

Drupal is a very solid and robust CMS featuring ACL (access control levels, for multiple user groups). Drupal is known for stability, scalability, extensibility and withstanding high traffic loads with very few issues or problems. It is the hardest to setup and configure of CMS products featured here. It requires advanced technical knowledge and experience.

This is not your mother’s CMS. It’s your geeky brother that lives in the basement, on a diet of energy drinks and hot pockets, while surrounded by home built server boxes and tech books on CMS products. So if you’re not up to the challenge, you’re going to need to hire someone to help you set your Drupal CMS up.

What Drupal has in stability it lack in terms of community size, ease of use, available templates (unless you have Artisteer, then of course you have unlimited template options) and numerous plug-ins. However, unlike Joomla, Drupal plug-ins tend to be of a higher level of quality and reliability.

Pros:

  • Best Free CMS with ACL.
  • Solid and Stable.
  • Good for scalability and sites with large number of pages.
  • Good under high loads and high traffic.

Cons:

  • Need knowledgeable tech person to setup properly.
  • Not as many plug-in available.
  • Many concurrent versions with different plug-in requirements.
  • Big learning curve.
  • Smaller community.

Suggested for …

enterprises sites, companies that have IT staff, large sites.

In Summary …

if this is mission critical and you will have high traffic then Drupal might be the way to go even if you have to hire technical help.

DotNetNuke

DNN (DotNetNuke) is a CMS that runs on Microsoft ASP.NET. It has a smaller user base and is an open source CMS platform that also functions as a web application development framework.

This is a more specialized CMS that is geared toward those that need to develop their own functionality and application to use on their websites. However, DotNetNuke is based on ASP.NET and can perform faster than PHP based CMS products mentioned above.

DNN also has commercial versions available for those that need more functionality as well as over 800 Independent software developers.

Pros:

  • Great documentation.
  • Good support community.
  • Good for custom application development.
  • Good security.
  • Good for enterprise solutions.
  • Fast performance in terms of displaying content.

Cons:

  • Limited to using it on a Microsoft Windows Sever.
  • Not as easy to set up as other CMS.
  • May have to buy plug-ins or custom develop them.
  • More of a learning curve than WordPress or Joomla.

Suggested for …

enterprises sites, companies that have IT staff, larger sites.

In Summary …

if you need a robust solution that will also let you develop your own applications or are already using a Microsoft server this might be the CMS for you. Now a couple of options for novice users…

Blogger

Blogger is a simple blogging platform for people that just want to set up a quick blog. It has predesigned template themes or you can create your own in Artisteer and upload it to Blogger.

This is not an advanced CMS but really just a free and simple blog. The problem with using a service like Blogger is that you don’t own the blog, they do, and if you happen to violate their terms of service in any way you can lose all of our content and your blog. If that is not a concern for you and you want something that you can setup that’s quick and easy, and don’t need advanced functionality then Blogger might be an option for you.

Internet marketers and SEO specialist often use platforms like Blogger to create satellite sites that link to a main site.

Pros:

  • Free.
  • Very easy to set up and use.
  • Possible SEO boost over standalone site.
  • Can use your own domain.
  • Can post from your mobile phone.

Cons:

  • Limited functionality, can only be used as a blog.
  • You’re at the mercy of their Terms of Service.
  • Limited plug-ins available.

Suggested for …

Blogs, SEO Satellite sites.

In Summary …

Blogger is good for people that just want a quick and easy blog. With Artisteer you can make a template for you main website and also a matching one for your Blogger site.

Artisteer.net

When you purchase Artisteer, you also get access to our free WordPress based CMS/Blog hosting platform for our customers. It has much of the WordPress functionality except that we don’t allow plug-ins as they present a security risk.

A great advantage of Artisteer.net is the embedded WYSIWYG editor in the desktop application. From the desktop application, you can create a design, add and remove web pages and posts, add and edit the content of your pages and posts, and then publish it to the web – all within Artisteer. Plus, the Artisteer.net CMS supports backend website maintenance, so most of what you can do on the desktop can also be done online letting you work from anywhere you have an Internet connection. And you can even use your own domain name.

Pros:

  • Free.
  • You can use your own Domain Name.
  • Easier to use and configure than WordPress.
  • Very easy to create and manage multiple websites.
  • Very easy to create and manage multiple websites.
  • There are a few widgets for added functionality.
  • Support for Google analytics.

Cons:

  • Can’t use plug-ins.
  • Limited space.
  • You don’t own it and still have to follow our Terms & Conditions,

Suggested for …

personal blogs, small brochure style sites, to test designs or show designs to clients.

In Summary …

Artisteer.net is an alternative to Blogger and WordPress.com with the added functionality of being able to design and edit sites in Artisteer.net locally on your desktop. For more info on how to use Artisteer.net please download and read the Artisteer.net user’s manual.

Hosting Your CMS

If you’re using Blogger, WordPress.com or Artisteer.net you don’t need to worry about hosting as they are all selfhosted.

But if you plan on using one of the other CMS products mentioned in this article you should know that not all hosts are created equal.

Special attention should be given to choosing a web host that is CMS friendly. You should choose a host that makes it easy to set up your CMS with a 1-Click install which will save you the time and hassle of manually setting up the CMS yourself.

In the case of DotNetNuke you need to make sure the server you are running on is a Microsoft sever that will support .net applications. The rest of the CMS products mentioned in this article run on the standard LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) servers configuration that is quite common. If your hosting provider has one-click installs you know they are compatible with the CMS, which is why we recommend you use a host that does.

Before creating a web site, we suggest that you…

  • Make a list of your needs for your site as we mentioned at the beginning of this article. Then watch some tutorials and read reviews to learn how different CMS products may match your needs. Then choose the best match between CMS and if necessary, plug-ins.
  • Visit some of the better sites in your niche and/or your competitors to see what they are using.
  • Plan and draw the layout of your website, as well as write down a list of features and the content you want to have, and how to navigate the pages of your website.
  • When a layout of your future website is visualized, and a CMS is selected, it is time to create a template (aka Theme or Skin). A template represents the ‘style’ that you want your web pages to look like. You add your content in the CMS but you create the way you want the content to look with a template. That’s where Artisteer comes in. You can use Artisteer to create beautiful templates you can install and use in your CMS without having to learn how to be a professional web designer.

In conclusion

Depending on your needs choosing the right CMS can be very difficult or very easy. It’s our hope that this article has educated you about some of the different options available that Artisteer supports and help you choose the right CMS for your website.

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12 Ways to Increase Traffic From Google Without Building Links

Izunna Okpala

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Link building is hard, but it’s not the only way to make traffic gains in Google’s search results.

1. In-depth articles
According to the MozCast Feature Graph, 6% of Google search results contain In-depth articles. While this doesn’t seem like a huge numbers, the articles that qualify can see a significant increase in traffic. Anecdotally, we’ve heard reports of traffic increasing up to 10% after inclusion.

By adding a few signals to your HTML, your high quality content could qualify to appear. The markup suggested by Google includes:

While Google seems to favor authorities news sites for In-depth Article inclusion, most sites that may qualify don’t have the proper semantic markup implemented.

2. Improving user satisfaction
Can you improve your Google rankings by improving the onsite experience of your visitors?
In many ways the answer is “yes,” and the experience of several SEOs hints that the effect may be larger than we realize.
We know that Google’s Panda algorithm punishes “low-quality” websites. We also know that Google likely measures satisfaction as users click on search results.
“… Google could see how satisfied users were. … The best sign of their happiness was the “long click” – this occurred when someone went to a search result, ideally the top one, and did not return.”
-Stephen Levy from his excellent book In the Plex
The idea is called pogosticking, or return-to-SERP, and if you can reduce it by keeping satisfied visitors on your site (or at least not returning to Google to look for the answer somewhere else) many SEOs believe Google will reward you with higher positions in search results.

pogosticking

Tim Grice of Branded3 reports a saying they have at their SEO agency:
While we have no direct evidence of pogosticking in Google’s search results, we’ve seen enough patents, interviews and analysis to believe it’s possibly one of the most underutilized techniques in SEO today.

3. Rich snippets from structured data
Google constantly expands the types of rich snippets it shows in search results, including events, songs, videos and breadcrumbs.
If you’re just getting started, check out this amazingly helpful Guide to Generating Rich Snippets from the folks at SEOgadget.

4. Video optimization
Pixel for pixel, video snippets capture more search real estate than any other type of rich snippet, even more than authorship photos. Studies show our eyes go straight to them.

video opt

Unlike author photos, video snippets are often easier to display and don’t require connecting a Google+ account.
Video snippets generally require creating a video XML sitemap and adding schema.org video markup.
To simplify things, many third party services will take care of the technical details for you.
Recommended reading: Getting Video Results in Google

5. Google authorship
Scoring the coveted author photo in Google search results doesn’t guarantee more clicks, but getting the right photo can help your click-through rate in many results.
What makes a good author photo? While there are no rules, I’ve personally tested and studied hundreds of photos and found certain factors help:

  • Use a real face, not a company logo, cartoon or icon
  • High contrast colors. Because the photo is small, you want it to stand out with good separation between the background and foreground.
  • Audience targeted. For example, young Disney fans are probably less likely to click on an old guy in a suit who looks like a financial adviser.

Google recently got more selective about the author photos it chooses to show, but if you implement authorship correctly you may find yourself in the 20% (according to MozCast) of all search results that include author photos.

6. Improving site speed
Improving site speed not only improves visitor satisfaction (see point #1) but it may also have a direct influence on your search rankings. In fact, site speed is one of the few ranking factors Google has confirmed.
One of the interesting things we learned this year, with help from the folks at Zoompf, is that actual page load speed may be far less important than Time to First Byte (TTFB). TTFB is the amount of time it takes a server to first respond to a request.

median

As important as page speed is for desktop search Google considers it even more important for mobile devices. Think about the last time you waited for a page to load on your cell phone with a weak signal.
“Optimizing a page’s loading time on smartphones is particularly important given the characteristics of mobile data networks smartphones are connected to.”
– Google Developers
Suggested tool: PageSpeed Insights

7. Smartphone SEO
Aside from speed, if your website isn’t configured properly for smartphones, it probably results in lower Google search results for mobile queries. Google confirms that smartphone errors may result in lower mobile rankings.

  • What is a smartphone error? It could include:
  • Redirecting visitors to the wrong mobile URL
  • Embedding a video that doesn’t play on a particular phone (Flash video on an iPhone, for example)
  • Pop-ups that aren’t easily closed on mobile
  • Buttons or fonts that are too small on a mobile device

Google recommends making your site responsive, but many of the top brands in the world, including Apple.com, don’t have responsive sites. Regardless, a good mobile experience is imperative.

8. Expanding your international audience
Does your website have traffic potential outside your existing country and/or language?
Oftentimes, the opportunities for appearing in international search results are greater than staying within your own borders, and the competition sometimes less. To see if it’s worth your while to make an investment, check out this
International SEO Checklist by Aleyda (who is also a mobile SEO expert—it’s so unfair!)

seo checklist

9. Social annotations with Google+
When you share content on Facebook and Twitter, your network basically sees it only when they are looking at Facebook and Twitter.
On the other hand, when you share content on Google+, your network can see it every time they search Google.
Google’s own research shows that users fixate on social annotations, even when presented with videos and other types of rich snippets.
The easiest way to take advantage of this is to expand your Google+ network and share good content regularly and often. Rand Fishkin elegantly explains how to use Google+ to appear in the top of Google results every time.
Additionally, content shared through Google+ often ranks in regular search results, visible to everyone on the web, regardless of their social connections.

10. Snippet optimization
This goes back to basic meta tag and title tag optimization, but it’s a good practice to keep in mind.
In the past two years, Google changed the maximum length of title tags so that it’s no longer dependent on the number of characters, but on the number of pixels used, generally around 500 pixels in length. This keeps changing as Google tests new layouts.
Because 500 pixels is difficult to determine when writing most titles, best advice is still to keep your titles between 60-80 characters, or use an online snippet optimization tool to find your ideal title tag length.
Google also updated its advice on meta descriptions, further clarifying that duplicate meta descriptions are not a good idea. Matt Cutts tells us that if you can’t make your descriptions unique for each page, it’s better to have none at all.
“You can either have a unique meta tag description, or you can choose to have no meta tag description.”
Google’s Matt Cutts

Given that duplicate meta descriptions are one of the few HTML recommendations flags in Webmaster Tools, does this indicate Google treats repetitive meta descriptions as a negative ranking factor? Hmmm….

11. Updating fresh content
Websites that stop earning new links often lose ground in Google search results. At the same time, sites that never add new content or let their pages go stale can also fall out of favor.
Freshening your content doesn’t guarantee a rankings boost, but for certain types of queries it definitely helps. Google scores freshness in different ways, and may include:

  • Inception date
  • The amount (%) your content changes
  • How often you update your content
  • How many new pages you create over time
  • Changes to important content (homepage text) vs. unimportant content (footer links)

fresh score

Recommended reading: 10 Illustrations on How Fresh Content Can Influence Rankings

12. Ongoing on-page SEO
The factors listed here only scratch the surface of earning more real estate in search results. Issues such as indexing, crawling, canonicalization, duplicate content, site architecture, keyword research, internal linking, image optimization and
1,000 other things can move ranking mountains.
The job of the Technical SEO becomes more complex each year, but we also have more opportunities now than ever.
It’s easy to think nothing is new in SEO, or that SEO is easy, or that Google will simply figure out our sites. Nothing is further from reality.

Google Developers

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Exploring E-Commerce

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As with any business move or expansion, considering an online presence can raise a sometimes dizzying list of questions for an entrepreneur. Exactly what must be put in place to make it happen? How does an online presence change the market for the business? What are competitors doing? How will people shop? What kind of security is required? How will customers pay online? We put together this guide, a primer of sorts, to help answer those questions.

Small businesses that have little or no e-commerce capabilities on their websites will learn about taking the next step in converting their marketing sites into selling locations that extend their customer bases, images and sales in entirely new ways. Those entrepreneurs not yet online will discover how the Internet is likely to transform their businesses and introduce them to markets far beyond those which are currently in reach.

Why Go Online?

The most amazing aspect of e-commerce is its ability to impact sales and marketing efforts immediately. By going online, suddenly a neighborhood bakery or a homebased consulting service expands its reach to a national, or even international base of potential customers. Webbased sales know no international boundaries.

Forrester Research, which analyzes online trends and statistics, projects the online retail market for U.S. businesses to be $230 billion by 2008. That’s a full 10 percent of anticipated total U.S. retail sales.

Not only is the internet increasing the number of potential customers that a company can reach, but it’s also driving profitability, according to research from IPSOS, commissioned by PayPal. The survey discovered that, far from being an extra “expense,” internet operations boosted businesses’ bottom lines.

  • Of small businesses that sell online, 64 percent said the internet has increased their revenues or sales.
  • 48 percent felt the internet helped to expand their geographic reach in the United States.
  • And 73 percent saved money by decreasing administrative costs.

Cash flow is of significant importance to a new business–online or brick and mortar. The study found that small business owners who conduct business online feel it allows them to receive payments faster and conduct business easier.

When entrepreneurs move online, they establish themselves on a level playing field with larger competitors. On the internet, even the smallest online retailer can be as attractive and as functional as the largest big box store–without the need to have a physical presence on every street corner. Often, small shops project a “boutique” feel that attracts shoppers, who perceive smaller businesses as more distinctive than larger stores.

What It Takes to Go Online

There are two resounding traits that help entrepreneurs overcome the challenges of starting a business and reaping the rewards of their labor. Just like opening a physical store, setting up shop online takes passion and demands a high level of optimism. The passion is the desire on the part of the entrepreneur to find something he or she loves to do and make a career out of it.

Positive thinking allows a person to stay focused in the face of cynicism from banks, peers and competitors. A “yes, I can” attitude quickly translates to “Wow, it’s working” as an online business opens its doors to the world.

Moving a business online doesn’t have to be an arduous process. To set up an online business, entrepreneurs should apply their passion and positive thinking to three key areas:

  1. The planning process: Everything an entrepreneur needs to know, consider and decide before starting an e-commerce site.
  2. Developing a marketing strategy: Determining how to get the word out and how to maintain good relationships with customers.
  3. Understanding technology needs: The tricks and tools that make it all happen.

The Planning Process

First and foremost, every small-business owner needs a well-thought plan. The internet is the best place to find information, learn from peers and effectively manage resources to formulate a plan that is perfect for a particular business and its owner.

The plan should look at every aspect of the proposed online business with a critical eye. There are several important questions to address here.

  • Does the web make sense for this business? We’ve already established that the web has immense power to transform a business. With that said, sometimes a product just doesn’t seem to lend itself to online sales–at least at first glance. Businesses like amusement parks, bowling alleys and utility companies either require the customer to be on-site or offer a product that is largely intangible. But even for those types of businesses, customers have come to expect an online presence. A company can sell tickets or offer discounts through its website, show images and videos of its facilities, set up online games that relate to and increase demand for its offerings, or enable customers to make payments over the internet.

What are other companies doing? Just as with their brick-and-mortar stores, online entrepreneurs must understand the competition if they hope to survive. A competitive analysis will help equip online business owners with the information needed to promote and differentiate their online businesses.

The leap for entrepreneurs who open their doors on the internet, however, is learning not just what other competitors in their physical geography are doing to spark sales, but also what the competitors who share their cyberspace are offering. Say you want to sell beauty products online. A keyword search for “lipstick” in Google, eBay and online shopping portals offers a glimpse at which competitors come up most often and highest on the list. Then, a look at those competitors’ product selections, pricing structures, promotional offers and target audiences can help shape your own storefront to stand out from the gaggle of competitors.

This can be a time-consuming process, but it’s invaluable research that costs hours rather than dollars. In this instance, time is money that will be returned many times over.

If there are already businesses in this space, it’s important to differentiate. Perhaps offer a more comprehensive set of products or services. Maybe the business will have a customer service or technology advantage, or consider tailoring the product to a niche market.

  • What types of resources will the business need? The doors of an online business never close. By not running a 24/7 operation, online business owners may fail to fulfil orders in the manner promised–a surefire way to lose customers and miss the chance to build loyalty. Internet businesses need to operate full time, so entrepreneurs must be realistic about how much help they will need.

Typically, online business owners find that their hands quickly fill up with the chores and challenges involved in simply running their businesses. They’ll often turn to web experts, or professionals who coordinate online business tasks every day. With the numbers of well-trained web professionals out there today, consider these possibilities when looking to hire:

  • Hire someone who will be dedicated solely to web management, if the nature and size of the business supports it.
  • Hire temporary employees to help set up the business and bring them back periodically to make changes to the site, expand online capabilities or launch new ventures.
  • Outsource the development, design and hosting of the website and rely on an outside organization to keep it up to date and to manage growth.
  • Use an “e-commerce in a box” product to set up an e-commerce site. These products typically charge a monthly fee (around $25) and provide an online store with virtual shopping carts (locations where shoppers electronically place the items they want to buy).
    They also include online catalogs, customized product pages, tools that help merchants list their products and services on online auction and shopping sites, secure online payment options, discount coupons for customers, and technical support.
  • Who is your target audience? Anytime a business opens its products or services to a new market, management must consider the geographic, demographic and socioeconomic factors that determine how it will approach the consumer. Some offerings, such as toys, school supplies or nursing services may be targeted primarily to a specific age group. Other products or services, like snow blowers or swimming pool supplies, could target a specific set of geographic areas. Every audience is unique, so merchants should tailor their marketing and communications in a way that connects consumers to their businesses.
  • How far will the business cast its net? In a global economy it’s entirely possible that a small business owner could start the morning with an e-mail from Milan, asking if he’ll accept payment in Euros with a CartaSi credit card. Online entrepreneurs must understand that, from day one, they are international businesses with display windows and checkout stations in every corner of the globe.

A business could tell its customers that it ships only to North American locations or accepts only U.S. dollars. But it may turn out that the overseas market is the company’s very best sales opportunity. Therefore it’s important for the online business to determine how it will work with customers in foreign nations. How will shipping be handled? Is the company prepared to convert currencies? How will the business communicate with customers who speak different languages?

Online businesses should consider not excluding an eager marketplace just because it seems difficult to serve. There are several services that make it easier for international visitors to order from a U.S. store. PayPal, for instance, accepts payment on behalf of merchants in U.S. dollars,

Canadian dollars, Euros, Pounds Sterling, Japanese Yen, and Australian dollars. The major U.S. credit cards accept purchases from foreign countries and make the necessary monetary conversions for the buyer.

  • What about shipping charges? Online shopping breaks down most often over shipping charges. Imagine this: A customer sees a great price for just the product she’s been searching for. After entering the information on the electronic order form, she is startled to see a huge shipping fee tacked onto the price. The result? By barely lifting a finger, the shopper clicks off the site and goes elsewhere.

Some online companies absorb shipping charges; others include them in the listed price and offer “free” shipping. All the major postal carriers have websites that allow merchants to calculate the shipping charge for any item, based on weight and location.

Shipping efficiency and pricing can be major competitive advantages or hand grenades in an online store’s shopping cart. Try to make a profit on shipping charges–your store is more likely to lose the sale than gain the margin.

  • What are the elements of the customer service policy? Because customers expect to be able to contact a company with questions, special requests or problems related to ordering, online businesses should offer an e-mail address or phone number for customer service inquiries. Not only is customer service a great way to build loyalty, but it’s also a valuable feedback mechanism–customers are all too ready to sing your praises or call out improvements that need to be made to your product, service or image.

An important aspect of customer service is deciding how quickly the business will respond to customer inquiries and complaints (phone or e-mail). This response time should be realistic and consistent. If the policy says all phone calls will be answered within two minutes or returned the same day, that timeline becomes a pledge to the customer. Nothing frustrates an online shopper more than sending an e-mail to an address listed on a shopping site and waiting hours, days or interminably for a response. To keep customers on the site, businesses must keep them in the loop.

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