WELCOME to VANEL Digital

At VANEL we champion the use of digital technology for the voluntary and community sector. Our guess is that you are probably not experts at website development or computer support.  So that’s where we come in.  Our services are here to support you. (or scroll down to get to the main blog.)

WEBSITE SUPPORT

WebClub membership supports you with technical advice as you develop your website or digital projects.   We can maintain your website for you to keep it secure and operational with WebClub Gold. We meet up quarterly for a digital discussion via WebClub: Together. We provide easy and clear web training including our popular “Cooking up a website” introductory course. Of course you can always use us to develop part or all of your website or digital solution with WebClub: engineered.

MORE…

We have initiatives around finding Digitally skilled volunteers and related to Digital Mapping. More ideas for technology support are always being explored.

IT SUPPORT

We can provide lightweight and cost effective remote IT support over the internet to deal with many of your ongoing IT issues. We also provide onsite IT support within North East Lincolnshire. We do IT consultancy in areas such as database design or email configuration.

TRAINING

We provide both bespoke and scheduled digital technology related training. “Cooking up a website” is our popular introduction to websites and we have a series of WordPress related courses, sessions about Mailchimp or other digital tools and other themes such as “Technology for Trustees” or “Effective online funding applications”.

Interested? Need cost effective technology related support? Read more about all the ways we can help here or simply get in touch for a conversation.

Weeknotes – 22 April 2016

A roundup of notes and news related to technology from the past week or so…

WordPress 4.5 is out

The latest major WordPress update has been issued.  So your self-hosted WordPress sites will all be telling you to do an upgrade.  Usually this is a safe update to do, but beware of your older plugins and customised themes which might not always keep working as WordPress marches on.  And I’ll always recommend that you do a backup first.

Read more about 4.5 here.  If you’re a WebClub Gold member then I’ll be updating you shortly.  If not, you can always ask us to help with these sorts of upgrades.

Installatron Messages

If you are self-hosted with WordPress then you might be getting a lot of automated emails from Installatron at the moment.  I’ve noted that Krystal (and probably other hosting providers) have changed the admin tool that does easy installations of software.  And the new tool – Installatron – by default does an awful lot of notifications. Regularly. Every day. Annoyingly…

They are for a good reason – telling you should be doing something about maintenance on your site. But if (like me) you don’t react that day then they keep on coming.  So head into you hosting admin panel, find Installatron and for each of your websites find the setting to change email noticifications.  I’ve turned most of them off now (apart from errors, which I still want to know about).

WordPress Masterclass

It’s been a few years now since I held a full, advanced, WordPress Masterclass.  But it’s back and scheduled for:

Wednesday 29 June 2016.
9.30am registration. 10am start. 4pm finish. Lunch provided.
At VANEL offices at the Willows, Grimsby.
Strictly limited places. Booking essential.
£95 per person, £75 for VANEL Members/Friends + £40 per person for additional attendees from the same organisation.

This is for those who already use WordPress for their website and pretty much know how it all works.  It’s to help you learn to do all the really clever stuff to make the most of the power of WordPress to really manage your site(s) well and to make the best use of the tool.  We’ll stop short of actually coding/re-coding WordPress, but there’s a lot of useful stuff that we’ll cover in this workshop.

More details very soon, or contact me – Karl Elliott – to discuss whether this will be appropriate for you.

Keep your website safe

There was (another) scare story this week about a charity losing its website.  Read it here.  The site was hacked/attacked and disappeared.  They clearly had no way to recover it so now they are appealing for help, support, money etc to get it back to life again.  Lessons learned the really hard way.

(Of course it’s not just small voluntary groups that this happens to.  Here’s news about a football club losing its website – admittedly for slightly different reasons.)

Preparing for this is easier, quicker and cheaper than trying to recover from it.  Better security on the site in the first place to avoid the attacks.  Backups to recover from it.  Someone technical, knowledgeable and prepared to support before, during and after an attack or problem.  Thinking about it as part of your risk management and business continuity planning – at staff level, management team and board of trustees/committee level.

So how are you prepared for this?  VANEL can help you prepare for these sorts of technical issues or can help you if the problems arise.  Just contact us for information (in advance please!)

Funding for your digital projects

Tellonline will match fund your digital project up to a maximum  of £5000.  It’s a simple process with a deadline of 7th June.  You’ll need to find some money yourself, but only 50% of the price of your project.  So find out more and apply here.

VANEL can help you with this.  We could help you think through your digital project, price it up, and hopefully to deliver it.  We could even help you  prepare the wording  for an application.  So why not get in touch to discuss.

A couple more training courses…

We delivered “Cooking up a website” in Scunthorpe recently in partnership with VANL.  Our next session of this two hour basic introduction to how websites work and how you can build one will be in Grimsby at VANEL offices on Friday 6th May, 10am-12noon.  Limited places and booking essential. £20 per head.  Contact us to book or for more information.

And on Wednesday 15th June we’re running “Technology for Trustees” at our Grimsby offices. From 3pm-5pm this two hour session is very specifically for trustees or committee members who need to understand how their leadership can help with the technology that their organisation uses, how they benefit from it, how to fund it and how to leverage good value from it.  Again, very limited places and £20 per head. More information soon or contact us.

#weeknotes

Google AMP for faster mobile websites

Accessing websites on mobile devices can be less than speedy at times. And when you build your own website it’s always important to make sure it works and is accessible via mobile, but speed can sometimes be a problem.

Google have just released the AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) Project, and I’m having an experiment with it.

AMP is a technology that automatically creates very fast versions of your website posts so that suitable apps or Google searches will return the AMP speeded up pages. So theoretically your site visitors on mobile will get a much faster version of your web page story delivered to them. No effort on your part, but a happier visitor?

Google AMP is here. And you can read the story and theory behind it here.

The excellent thing here is that WordPress has already taken AMP on board (article here) and released a plugin for WordPress.

Couldn’t be simpler. Add it to your site and watch the speed increase…

So I’m trying it. I’ve just added the AMP plugin to a client website and to the main VANEL news website (as well as this site – VANEL Digital). On all of them it looks like it works simply enough. You can see the AMP alternative version of your article by popping /amp onto the end of the post URL (it doesn’t work with Pages at the moment – just Posts). The AMP version is clean and simple text for quick loading.

So bear in mind that highly designed and structured posts are going to lose all that and strip back to the bare bones text. But that generally is a good thing anyway.

Have a think about this for your website. After all, these days more of your visitors are coming from mobile devices than from PC’s. Google is helping us out here.

#websites #mobile #amp #performance #experiment

Web training course dates in March

VANL in Scunthorpe are scheduling a number of website development training sessions as part of their IT4communities programme. They are hosting the sessions which are delivered by Karl Elliott of VANEL as part of our VANEL Digital initiative.

Dates and sessions are as follows:

“Cooking up a website” – Wed 23rd March, 9.30am-12.30
“WordPress for Beginners” – Wed 23rd March, 1.30pm-4.30pm

“Working with WordPress” – tbc in April or May
“Running a website” – tbc in April or May

Bookings or expressions of interest are being taken now for these courses. There is a fee. Places are limited.
Further details are appearing on the VANL Training page here.
Keep an eye on our @vaneldigital Twitter feed too for more updates or contact me to book or for details.

#training #vanl #wordpress #websites

Domain prices increase

From 1st March, Nominet has increased the costs of .uk domain names by quite a significant amount. This means that your hosting or domain provider will undoubtedly be passing these price rises onto you as soon as you get to your renewal date. Our host, Krystal, has already contacted us to inform us of this.

I gather there is some controversy around these price rises, but as they are happening, it’s best that you know in advance. So check your renewal dates for your domain(s) and keep an eye out for a price jump in the near future.

#domains #news

Anyone using the Raspberry Pi yet?

The Raspberry Pi is now four years old – and they’ve just released a new version (the Pi 3). (See here for a story)

I’m really interested to know is any non-profits are using the Pi as a dirt cheap, single use computer. The cost is so low that a Pi could be dedicated to a specific task (running a rolling presentation to a screen in your reception area springs to mind). So is anyone doing this? I’d really like to experiment with this, but I think although the cost is low, the entry point for technical skills is pretty high.

But in a world where the cost of computing is dropping drastically and quickly how easy is it actually to get a useful task to be completed with these new tools? I’m keen to explore the concept.

If you’re experimenting with the Pi, then let me know – I’d be really interested.

#rpi #experiment #hardware

A Facebook page is complimentary and should not replace your website

Should you have a Facebook page for your non-profit? Absolutely – as long as you know how to manage it properly, use it as an ongoing communication tool and know who the audience is that you are communicating with. It serves a very useful purpose.

But should you ONLY have a Facebook page instead of a more traditional website? My opinion is no.
Many people are on Facebook, see all its’ positive aspects, note that it’s ‘free’ and consequently argue the case that charities, smaller businesses and voluntary or community groups can manage with just a Facebook page to get online.

But I suggest that Facebook and a website are different things. Complimentary to each other, both useful (for different purposes), but not one to the exclusion of the other.

Some of my reasoning:

  • Facebook is not under your control. It’s their tool, they structure it, manage it, design it and change it as they see fit. You don’t own or control your web presence via Facebook in the same way you can with your own website.
  • You have no ‘brand’ control. Certainly you can adjust your profile, but it’s still a Facebook page mentioning you, rather than tying in with any other aspects of your organisational branding..
  • Don’t forget that Facebook is not totally ‘free’ anyway. The tool is free (but so is WordPress for building a website). But you need to invest (potentially significant) amounts of staff or volunteer time in order to ‘feed the beast’ and keep the Facebook page alive and valuable to your visitors. If you’re using Facebook for that conversation then this is time you certainly need to invest. And, yes, building a website needs a different upfront and ongoing investment of time, but don’t get confused over the concept that Facebook is free.
  • Facebook is a closed system. Not everyone is on Facebook. If your audience is there, then fine. And you can make sure your Facebook Page is public, but there are many people who won’t visit Facebook – you become invisible. Your website is open to all.
  • In fact you might be totally invisible to many people. In public bodies and businesses large and small, Facebook (along with many other sites) may be blocked or hidden away behind that pesky firewall. Your website isn’t. So if you’re only on Facebook, you may well not exist (except until those employees get home or mobile away from that IT imposed firewall).
  • Noise vs message. There’s a lot of noise and stuff going on in your visitors time lines. Is your message getting through to them at all or is it being swamped. Your website can keep that message clear, focused and as permanent as you want. Yes, you need to plan your messages well for your website, but at least it’s you controlling the message distribution, not Facebook.
  • In Facebook you rely on your visitors continuing to be interested in you. Start slipping in your ‘news’ or your focus and they may lose interest in you. Very quickly your news disappears from their timeline and they start forgetting you… You still need to remain interesting on your website – keeping attention is not simple, but don’t make assumptions that your Facebook posting is being ‘seen’ either.
  • Where in Facebook can you control your background information? Those downloadable documents, the forms you need visitors to complete, the information that promotes your organisation. On your website that’s easy – but where can you post it via Facebook.
  • Search engine optimisation. Yes, Google might possibly find that information or content from your Facebook Page. But that’s highly ineffective and totally out of your control. Your website gives you the power over SEO (to some extent at least). It helps you get ‘found’.
  • Reputation. Just like the mechanic with a faulty vehicle or the web designer with the ‘website under construction’. Just having a Facebook Page and no website ‘tells’ your audience something. What does your funder think of that? Do they think you’re more amateur and only interested in Social Media? Your Facebook Page better be pretty impressive to overcome that perception as to why you’ve chosen to not have a website.

I’m not saying building a website is easy or ‘better’. It’s simply that you must not ignore the issues and factors that surround that possible over assumption or over reliance on Facebook. Yes, use it – in fact embrace it if your audience is there and needs you to interact and communicate with them. But where’s the harm in complimenting it with a decent website? Think it through before you assume.

#article #socialmedia #facebook

Deciding who sees what

If you have users who log into your website, then occasionally you need to show them some different content to what non-members (guests) can see. Clearly WordPress allows for private posts and there are plugins to restrict the entire website to logged in users (VANEL uses this for our private internal staff website). But sometimes you just need to show different words to different people.

The concept being:
If you’re a guest YOU SEE THIS, or if you are logged in YOU SEE THIS INSTEAD.

I’ve just sorted this out on our VANEL Digital website. The website is mostly a blog, and WebClub or IT Network members have a login to the site so that they can participate, write content or add posts.

So on the front page I wanted to show some ‘promotional’ wording, buttons and boxes to visitors (guests), but to leave all that out for our members and just give a quick ‘latest news’ sort of update to them. After all, if they’re already members they hardly want the marketing words in their face each time they visit the site.

The plugin I used in this case was a Shortcode free plugin from Themify. This not only allowed me to add in some columns, pretty boxes and effective buttons for the promotional bit, but it allows and shortcodes. Meaning that by enclosing whole parts of the content of a post within the correct tag I can instantly decide who sees what.

So that’s a very recommended plugin available from Themify here. I’ve also been experimenting with Restrict Content plugin from here. Seems even more powerful but extremely useful too.

Finally, I used the simple but effective login-logout plugin to make a clear widget in the sidebar guide visitors and members alike to know how to login or out.

Simple techniques but useful if you’re choosing what content to show you visitors.

#experiment #plugins #wordpress #users

How do you know when your website goes down?

If you rely on your website for communication, then it needs to be available all the time. Generally VCS websites are less ‘uptime’ critical than, for example, a retail website which loses custom every time the website is offline. But if your website is down/offline then that sends a message to every potential visitor. But how do you know if your website is up or down? You’re not visiting it hourly or more are you? You need a way to monitor it.

So today I’ve been playing with ways to monitor our websites (and the websites of the clients that I look after). There’s a variety of ways to do this. One I’ve used a lot on our WordPress websites is the Jetpack plugin. Using Jetpack allows you to connect your self-hosted website to WordPress.com – the hosted version of WordPress and it includes as part of its extensive portfolio of tools a way of monitoring your website. I’ve installed, configured and used Jetpack to monitor sites in this way for a while now and it seems to work well.

Another technique I like the look of is using a Google spreadsheet (populated with details of the websites that need monitoring) and a set of macros that can automatically contact you if the websites are up or down. Not tried this one yet, but there’s more details here.

Each of these techniques seem to require setting up a range of logins and cross connected accounts or playing with macros (that have the potential to not work). So I was looking for another way to do it.

Hello Uptime Robot. Free to register and free to monitor up to 50 websites. Within a few seconds I was setup to monitor several of my sites with no plugins or complex account connections. So far I can recommend this tool. The dashboard is clear and useful for checking up on a range of sites (or you could just do it for your one site). A paid option would allow you SMS text alerts, but I’m just going for a specific email address (I’ve setup a specific email that only receives uptime reports) and then that email address can be checked from my phone/tablet/PC etc.

We’ll see how well this works over time (at the moment our websites seems to be pretty reliable for uptime!), but Uptime Robot is one of my new tool recommendations. Without any effort on my part I’ll now get a notification straight to my phone each time there’s a problem with any of our websites. It’s then of course up to me to investigate further and resolve the problem. But at least I know.

#experiment #monitoring #websites

WebClub update

There’s a new full description of what WebClub is, just published here.

We’ve also described the new pricing for our WebClub Gold ongoing website maintenance service here.

There’s also a description of our WebClub Together meetups here, and our next actual meetup will be on Tuesday 1st March 2016. Watch this space.