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About Web Site Backups

This page, stressing the importance of making regular backups of your site, is intended mainly for the benefit of existing Masonhost clients. It is, in fact, just a copy of an email-to-all. I should preface this by saying that a) it's very important; b) if it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, please pick up the phone or email us, but please don't be tempted to ignore this just because it seems "techy" or a chore. It is, as I've said, about the importance, maybe even the urgency, of making a backup of your web site. I know - it sounds boring but please take the time to read this right through, today - you may just have cause to thank us tomorrow! ;-)

We recently managed to resolve a problem on one of our clients' sites due more to good fortune than anything else. The issue required that the database be restored and, in this case, we happened to have made our own copy of the client's database only a few weeks ago. We were able to merge our few-weeks-old copy of our client's database with his current-but-damaged database and restore the site to full working order without any loss of data whatsoever. This, however, has prompted us to remind all of our clients of the importance of regular backups. It is absolutely vital that you make current backups of your website files and database.

If your site uses a content management system such as Joomla, or an e-commerce cart such as osCommerce, any changes that you make to your site content - new or edited pages, new products etc. - are stored in the database. In the case of an e-commerce cart, your product data, sales records and customer data is also stored in the database. For all sorts of reasons, data can be unexpectedly lost or corrupted and, when that happens, there is generally only one way to restore the site and that is by restoring from backup. Unless you have a maintenance contract with us, it is not our responsibility to ensure that your files and database are backed up and it is not our responsibility to ensure that your backups are current.

That being said, we do not want to see any of our clients suffer a substantial setback for the want of some communication on our part. If you haven't made a recent backup of your files and your database, please do so without delay, (and continue to do so). If you have any questions about making backups, please just pick up the phone or email. Making regular backups is not a difficult thing to do and it's not time-consuming but it can make the difference between a quick fix and a nightmare.

how to make a backup of your database

Here, for most of our clients, who have either our own cPanel-enabled hosting or OneAndOne hosting, is a quick how-to for backing up your database.

If your site is hosted with OneAndOne:

  • Go to www.admin.oneandone.co.uk
  • Once you're logged in and you've selected your account, go to:
  • Websites and Applications > MySql Administration
  • Click on the phpMyAdmin button
  • Click on the database name near the top of the left menu (dbxxxxxxxxx)
  • Click on the Export tab
  • Click on Select All (underneath the scrollable list of tables to be exported)
  • To the right of that, check the boxes for Add DROP TABLE and Add IF NOT EXISTS
  • Check the box for Save as File (on the grey bar further down)
  • Type the date in the File name Template box (after the __DB__ )
  • Click on Go (bottom right)

 

If your hosting is with Masonhost, UK Web Solutions Direct, or with any hosting company that provides the cPanel hosting control panel:

  • Go to cpanel.yourdomain.com (obviously, if your domain is a .co.uk, it would be cpanel.yourdomain.co.uk or whatever)
  • Once you're logged in, scroll down to the Databases box
  • Select phpMyAdmin
  • Click on the database name near the top of the left menu
  • Click on the Export tab
  • Click on Select All (underneath the scrollable list of tables to be exported)
  • To the right of that, check the boxes for Add DROP TABLE and Add IF NOT EXISTS
  • Check the box for Save as File (on the grey bar further down)
  • Type the date in the File name Template box (after the __DB__ )
  • Click on Go (bottom right)

 

Using either of the above methods, you will have downloaded a kind of text file called an SQL file (don't ask). Just store it in a safe place on your computer (and store a copy on your external backup drive, if you have one).

Alternative Backup Procedures

There are other ways to backup your database. If your site runs Joomla, there is a third-party backup extension that will automatically email a backup to you on a regular basis. If you're running osCommerce, you can go to admin > tools > backup and create a database backup with a couple of clicks. It gives you the option to store it on-site or to download it. If you have a Moodle online learning site, it has its own dedicated backup facility (give me a call - quicker than explaining in text).

how to backup of your files and folders

To restore a damaged web site, we need two types of very recent backups:

  • A backup of your database
  • and a backup of your files and folders, also known as a Home Directory backup.

 

Your Home Directory backup is a backup of all of your files. In the case of a Joomla or osCommerce site, these files mostly comprise the (upwards of 1000) pages of php code that dictate the site's functionality and appearance etc. We have invariably done work on that code to customize the appearance and the functionality of your site so your fileset will be quite unique and virtually impossible to replace without a backup. You will also have your own collection of images on your server, images that have been optimized and resized for the web. You certainly wouldn't want to have to ask us to redo all of that work. It is, therefore, imperative to have a recent backup copy of all of your files and folders (your Home Directory) together with a very recent backup of your Database.

OneAndOne, I think, actually charge for their backup facility but if you have cPanel-enabled hosting - Masonhost and UK Web Solutions Direct provide cPanel - log in to http://cpanel.yoursite.com/ and, in the Files section, you'll see both a Backups icon and a Backup Wizard icon. (Don't bother with "Full Backup." It's primarily for moving an entire web site from one cPanel-enabled host to another). You should make a backup of your Home Directory once a month and a backup of your Database once a week or daily, for a busy, ever-changing site. (As always, if you have any questions, please phone or email).

If your hosting is with OneAndOne (and you don't want to pay for the OneAndOne backup-upgrade to your account) you can still download a backup of your files and folders by going to Web Space and Access > Webspace Explorer, selecting all of your files, clicking on the green zip icon to compress them all and then, once you have made the new zip file, click on the blue download icon. Alternatively, you could use an FTP client like Filezilla. FTP means File Transfer Protocol. It's just a way of moving files around the internet. Filezilla is a free programme and it's quite quick and easy to download and set up. Using the Filezilla client, you can easily download your Home Directory - all of your files and folders - to a folder on your own computer. If you want to use Filezilla, please download a copy firstly and then, if you don't find the setup intuitive, just give us a call. We can talk through the setup in a few minutes.

Hopefully, you will never need to use your backups but, should you ever have need of them, they will save the day (and probably save a good deal of expense that's as unnecessary as it's unwanted).

about upgrades

Content Management Systems and e-commerce carts are very different from static-html web sites in that they rely upon a complex file set interacting with a database to generate their web pages. They have sophisticated functionality which is highly receptive and open to user-input via a normal web browser. Using only your standard browser, you can modify or create content, delete files, and initiate or terminate functionality on your site. The down-side to this is that the potential for malicious damage is consequently much higher on a complex, database-driven site than on an old-fashioned static-html site. Both Joomla and osCommerce are continually vigilant for newly-discovered vulnerabilities and are quick to shut the door when one is found but that only helps you if your site is built on the new, revised code. That, as far as most of us are concerned, is what upgrades are all about. Sometimes an upgrade is produced that adds a new feature, or makes some improvement to functionality or useability, but the most important thing about upgrades is that they keep your site's defences up to date.

maintenance contracts

It's also one of the most compelling reasons for taking out a maintenance contract. We charge £150 per year for a basic maintenance contract. That does not mean that we will run your site for you. All it means is that we will a) download regular backups both of your files and your database, b) keep the site up to date with any upgrades or changes to the core code that are announced, c) address any issues that might occur and d) make any changes that we consider necessary to keep things running smoothly. The last thing anyone needs is an extra regular expense (especially one with zero measurable ROI) and we readily understand that some sites simply do not justify the added overhead of £150 per year but you should know that the option is always there - a bit like one well-known politician: prudent but no charisma at all.

 

Search Engine Optimization

Provided your products or services are suitable for marketing or promoting on the web, professional Search Engine optimization is liable to be the most profitable investment you can make.

Let's say your unique selling point is that you provide fresh-caught fish to deprived areas such as Bearsden and Milngavie (near Glasgow). As a potential customer, I might type fresh fish bearsden into the Google search box. Because I didn't use quotation marks around "fresh fish," I get nearly 13,000 results.

In my peculiar case, being somewhat desperate, I might be quite happy to trawl through all 13,000 results to find what I'm looking for but, mostly, people will follow the links they find on the first or second pages. If your site has been properly optimized, it will have the potential to come up at or near the top of the first page. That's the theory.

SEO focuses, therefore, on the keywords (the search terms) that your customers might type in the hope of finding your site but the Search Engines have their own agenda and it's in understanding and anticipating that agenda that the real expertise lies.

Relevance and "Importance" Consider the problems facing the search engines. If Google fails to return pages that are really relevant to our searches we won't waste any time moving to a more reliable search engine. Google uses a complex algorithm to determine both the relevance of the page content to the keywords (the search terms) and its "importance" in the great scheme of things.

Broadly speaking, if the page text content is genuinely relevant to the page title, keywords, and description meta tags (which should be found near the top of every web page HTML code), then the page gets some brownie points. The "importance" of the page, however, is a more difficult thing for a machine to evaluate.

Google gets around this by making an assumption: if an important site such as, for example, NASA or the Whitehouse links to your site, you must have something interesting to say (actually, strike the Whitehouse; let's keep this on a more serious level... Disney.com). Likewise, if a very large number of indifferent sites are linking to yours, there must still be something there of general interest. Think on a bicycle wheel with the spokes radiating from the hub.  An important site is treated like the hub with its spokes representing the links to other sites, and to each site that it links, it transfers a small amount of its own "importence," it's own importance (or Page Rank) being determined by 1) the great number of sites which link to it 2) the importance of these sites.

Targetted Traffic If you can persuade a few important sites to place a link on one of their pages, pointing to your site, you will raise Google's opinion of the "importance" of your site, especially if you can persuade them to use your main keywords in the link. Any link on NASA leading to your fish shop "Mr Fillet's" is good but even better is a link which says "Fresh Fish Bearsden"  If you download the Google Toolbar, you will be able to see how Google ranks your site in terms of its importance but the most valuable indicator of your SEO success is the volume of targetted traffic you get, and that brings up another factor which matters so much more than you might realize: targetted traffic means not only that people are coming to your site but that they're coming for your product or service.  There is no point in optimizing your site for keywords which bring you huge traffic but not targetted traffic.

What Every Search Engine Wants In the early days of SEO, the phrase "Content is King" was coined and it's still true today. If your site has very little in the way of text content or if you have only a few inbound links, it will be difficult to achieve a good position in the Search Engines. SEO expertise, therefore, involves an understanding of what the search engines want.

At its best, good SEO doesn't try to trick the search engines into placing a false value upon a site. It "optimizes" the site's potential to be recognised by the machine in terms of both the site's intrinsic and extrinsic value so that, when I type "fresh fish" bearsden, Google helps me find what I want (and saves me the expense of moving house to Inverbervie which, incidentally, has one of the best fish and chip shops in Scotland so all options are still on the table).

Search Engine Optimization for e-commerce

Optimization of a static HTML page is a more direct and controlled business than that of bringing SEO to an e-commerce site simply because the pages on e-commerce and content management system web sites are not static; they're dynamically generated from content held within the database.

A Masonhost-installed e-commerce site comes with some SEO features implemented, as standard, such as search-engine-friendly URLs and dynamic meta tags, but it is good practice to have at least one professionally-optimized static html index page on the top level of your web site.

[The 'top level' web pages are those that do not reside within folders in your home directory. For example, www.masonhost.co.uk/index.html is a 'top level' page, whereas www.masonhost.co.uk/shop/index.html resides inside the shop folder.]

The top level page, being plain html (rather than dynamically generated from the database), can be designed with 'cleaner' html code and with a professionally arranged distribution of appropriately tagged keywords and links to pages within the cart.

Search Engine optimization is a specialist field and I would highly recommend budgeting for between at least £300 and £600 for professional SEO work. Assuming your products or services are suitable for marketing on the web, professional SEO is the most cost-effective investment that you can make.

Web site of Middle of the Road

Another recommendation, if you're serious about making your web site work for you, is to take an interest in SEO. SEO is not just a matter of paying for an expert to optimize a site then sitting back to reap the benefits. If you can make the time, it's something to which you, the site owner, can make an immense contribution, and on an ongoing basis. The first step is to acquire an understanding of the fundamentals and I can't think, offhand, on a better introduction to SEO than Google's own Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide. Assuming your site has been constructed for optimal SEO potential, you can continue to improve its pulling-power by acquiring more inbound links. As more sites link to yours, the potential for an increase in your site's Google Page Rank will increase while the possibility of cutting your company's advertising and marketing budget will become, increasingly, a reality.

 

do-it-yourself image editing

One way to save money on your web site design is to edit your own graphics, and it can be a lot easier than it probably sounds. I'm not suggesting that you become a DIY graphic artist; the last thing you need is an amateur-designed web site. I'm only talking about equipping yourself with the skills and the tools to prepare your own images for the web.

The first thing you need to know is that images on a professionally-designed web site have a few fairly common-sense constraints imposed upon them:

  1. they have to look good
  2. they have to be the right width and height for the job, i.e. the image size, measured in pixels, has to be right for the page
  3. not everyone has a fast broadband connection so we also want to have our image file size, measured in bytes, low enough to download at a reasonable speed via a really slowwww connection

When all of these conditions are met, we can describe the images as being web-ready. You can either pay your designer to do the job for you or you can read on.

Let's start out with an image that came straight from your digital camera. Let's say it is 4500 pixels wide and 3000 pixels in height (should make a nice print). It's not going to look so great on an old computer with a screen resolution of 800x600, i.e. 800 pixels wide by 600 pixels in height. We need to resize it and get it down to something presentable on-screen, let's say, e.g., 400x300 pixels. (I'll get to how we can easily do this).

We also need to think about the image file size. It started out at a few megabytes and, as a by-product of having reduced its width and height, the image file size is maybe down to a few hundred kilobytes - still far to large a file size for a slow connection. We need to optimize it, i.e. reduce its file size without any visible loss of image quality. We can now call it web-ready.

We can look at the how-to while introducing another really useful process: batch-processing.

batch processing of images

If you have an ecommerce web site, you may have to resize and optimize hundreds, possibly thousands of images. It would be an extremely time-consuming business if there was no such thing as batch-processing. First of all, let's not lose sight of the fact that, at this point, all we want to do is maybe crop, resize and optimize. Go to www.faststone.org and download a copy of FastStone Photo Resizer. (At time of writing, the licence for commercial use costs about £10). You can now batch-process any amount of images, reducing their size by a percentage or to a set height or width (while maintaining the original proportions). After installing the programme, you'll find the resize options under the Batch Convert tab (tick the box beside Use Advanced Options, then click on the button that appears).

 

Full-feature image manipulation

If you want to create new images or get really creative with your image processing, you'll need a full-feature image-manipulating programme. Most high-quality image editors will probably seem fairly expensive, especially if you don't count them among the tools of your trade. If you think on the skill, the ingenuity and the time involved in creating a sophisticated programme for image editing, you can understand the price. As with most of the top software currently available, there is, however, an open-source alternative to shelling out a few hundred pounds for a commercial product. Following years of development and refinement, the GIMP is available to all at absolutely no cost whatsoever.

Go to www.gimp.org and follow the download link to get the Windows Installer (not a great idea if you have a Mac, but I've yet to meet a Mac owner who could take any kind of advice, except from another Mac owner - lol - so I'm probably safe enough). N.B. make sure you download the Help programme, too. Once you've installed the programme and the Help programme, take plenty of time to get familiar with it and discover something of its potential.