How I feel about Atos, Workfare, and Benefit Sanctions

Today, I am ashamed to be British, European, and in a way, to be human. A travesty is occurring under our noses.

Atos, workfare, and benefit sanctions are a disgusting evil in the world today.  Overreaction? Liberal nonsense? Stay with me.

Benefit Sanctions

Yes, we are in a recession. It’s bad for both rich and poor. Yes, we have a large unemployment problem costing us huge amounts of money. There may even be (and I seriously doubt it, but bear with me) a culture of laziness. A work-shy section of the population who do not want to work.  What should we do? There may even be disabled people who should be working. I think I even agree with that.

Now laziness isn’t the worst crime in the world. Murder is worse. What do we do with citizens of our country when they murder?  We lock them away from society, then when justice has been done in that way, we feed them, and clothe them. Why do we feed them?

Because not to do so would be disgusting.  It doesn’t matter what they’ve done, we give them a fair trial, and we feed them.

So for a country to remove access to food for nothing more than laziness is despicable.  The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

There’s also another reason why we feed criminals. It’s because our justice system sometimes fails, and innocent people are jailed. We never know if a piece of crucial evidence will turn up and set a conviction on it’s head. When that happens, it may be horrible, but at least we didn’t starve them. So, if just one family who wants to work is sanctioned and goes hungry, the system has failed completely.

What do we do with lazy people?  We feed them. Why? Because not to do so is reprehensible. Benefit sanctions are simply wrong.

As far as I can see, there is a much bigger cause of unemployment – there are simply not enough jobs to go around.  In 2011, the figures stood around 5 unemployed people to every job.  It was about 6 people to a job when I last looked.  Every unskilled job that is advertised WILL be filled. However, forcing lazy people to look for work under those circumstances means that people who do want to work have to compete with people who don’t.

Is this how we want our workforce built? People driving our buses, making our coffees and working alongside us who don’t want to be there? A lax attitude is more of a problem in the world of work than on the dole queue!

Until there’s actually enough jobs for everyone, any argument about a culture of “expectation” is moot.  Any chase after “lazy” people is a complete and utter waste of your tax money. You want to know something?  We need more engineers. How about some entry-level training and some decent apprenticeships for all? It’s not like there isn’t other work to be done, either. Hospitals need built. Schools, roads, housing, that sort of thing.  These are all jobs, create them, and fill them.

We need to stop throwing tax money after a cause that is a simple mathematical impossibility (not enough jobs), and instead, work on raising the number of available jobs, and provide the training in fields that are crying out for workers. Duh.

When everybody who wants a job can get one, and there’s enough education and opportunities for everybody, then we’ll be able to know exactly how many real lazy people there are. Until then, it’s a ridiculous waste of public money.

Even if there were millions of lazy people, “milking the system” – why should their families be penalised?  Why can’t children of “lazy” parents grow up with food in their stomachs and a productive future?

And where does these “lazy” people’s free money go?  Into shops. Food, drink, cigarettes, electricity, gas, phone bills, nappies, petrol… Other industries who need customers to pay their employees. Who all pay income tax. It makes no sense to make our poorest citizens even poorer. Perhaps if they were industrious, and not lazy, they might be growing and catching their own food, brewing their own tax-free beer and saving their benefit money for holidays abroad.  The irony is, if everybody did that, we’d be ruined.

Poor nutrition brings poor health. If a sanction makes one person ill, we’re talking thousands of pounds worth of healthcare costs – to the taxpayer.  Poverty and desperation also causes crime. Which is also incredibly expensive to the taxpayer.

If there are any lazy people in society, it makes sense to simply give them a little money to live on and put back into the economy, and leave them be.

The Workfare Program

What about workfare?  Surely it makes good sense to give someone the “experience” of work, make them give back to the community, for their welfare?

No. Compulsory unpaid labour is slavery. “Oh, but it’s not compulsory!” People say. That is nonsense. A benefit sanction threat is a threat of hunger. Working under the threat of hunger is slavery. It just is. You won’t change my mind on that, and if you support unpaid labour under the threat of punishment by hunger, you are a disgusting human being in my eyes, and you should redeem yourself now somehow.

If you’re still thinking “why should my taxes feed the lazy?”, think about this: for-profit companies are using workfare labour, for free. If workfare labour is available, why advertise for paid positions at all? Congratulations, now a big company can profit from your taxes, and the number of people on benefits stays the same.

Yes, companies have been laying off paid staff, and conscripting (under threat of hunger) these people without giving them jobs. Some people have even ended up workfaring in the same companies they were laid off from. Living off your taxes, when they could be living off the company’s payroll. Poundland, Shoezone, Asda, the list goes on.

So although the government is claiming unemployment is down, it does nothing at all to the amount of public money spent on welfare. Public money goes down, and the number of available paid jobs also goes down. It’s a lose-lose situation. In fact, it’s already cost us millions to try and implement.

Did I mention that many people believe it’s also ethically revolting?

As work experience, it leaves out the one experience that really gives a person work satisfaction – the pay-cheque. It’s mainly uninspired drudgery.  Stacking shelves and sweeping floors. That is NOT going to cure anybody of laziness.

It’s also an echo of the indentured labour that spawned full-on slavery in America, and of prison colonies, and a Dickensian work-house Britain.  These are parts of our history we’re ashamed of, and rightly so.

So, with starving our poor countrymen and slave-labour under our national belt (remember, there still aren’t enough actual jobs), a campaign which is costing money while deepening the welfare crisis, here’s Atos.

Atos – Compounding the Problem

Atos is an IT company, paid lots and lots of taxpayers money to decide which of our currently signed off citizens (signed off by doctors), are actually fit for work.

The list of sick and disabled people living under threat of sanction is growing. Yes, people with cerebral palsy are being used as slave labour under the threat of hunger. And jobs are scarce enough as it is for people who CAN work.

The crazy thing is, there are sick and disabled people who actually want to work, and can! But now they have to compete with other disabled “job-seekers” being forced into work for no pay. Disabled and sick people can be productive and successful if given every chance to be. Most of them even want to!

So, if there are no jobs, it’s all a big waste of money, and it’s damaging lives – why the hell is it happening?  Emotions. Anger, frustration, revenge. Irrational, childish, human emotions. Honestly, this “culture of expectation” stuff. Are they psychic? Do they know what poor people are thinking? No. Laziness? Prove it or shut up.

The country’s in trouble. People see others living on benefits while they work hard for very little. But while it may be frustrating, this angry revenge war on poor people is not going to help. There simply needs to be more jobs. If there isn’t we feed the poor, no questions asked.

Because the alternative is disgusting.

All Moaning, and No Offer of Solution?

So what can we do about the unemployment figures? First, we can look at other ways to make money.  Like prisons.  No, not prison labour (although I have nothing against that as long as it’s voluntary and paid). I mean the ridiculous amount of people in prison who are of no threat to society.  Release them all. They’re a huge drain on resources.  Honestly, they’re cheaper for the taxpayer on the dole than in prison.  Tag them if you have to, fine them, whatever. But if they don’t need to be locked away from the rest of us, what’s the point?

Tax the rich! It sounds obvious to some, but it’s complex. Big companies like tax breaks for encouragement to set up in a country, which brings jobs and overall wealth. Fine, I understand that, but don’t be a tax haven about it!  We need to change the laws and loopholes that allow companies like Starbucks to pay only two percent tax.

They’re not breaking the law, either, so I can’t judge them for that. It’s the laws themselves that need to be changed.  And taxing the rich only has to go on long enough to sort us out.  When the economy is better again, the well-off can enjoy tax breaks and bonuses. But not while the poor are going hungry and there are no jobs.

As for laziness, I personally do not believe that a healthy person wants to sit around all day and do nothing. I have never met a “lazy” person. I’ve met people worried that getting a minimum-wage job will make their family worse off. I’ve even met people who are learning skills in their own time because they would never thrive in a “normal” job. A lot of people on benefits also volunteer for charities. Not really laziness.

Try these things first:-

1. Fill the vacancies we do have properly. Big data is growing, tech companies are on the climb. Programmers, engineers, and system administrators are needed. So some basic training and apprenticeships are the way forward.

2. Make some jobs. Population is growing, do we have enough schools, teachers, hospitals? Can we encourage foreign businesses better? I could forgive a large company for (legal) tax dodging if it was using that money to create good jobs with training and prospects, and everybody involved was paying fair income tax. There may be no jobs, but there is work to be done. Whose fault is that?

3. Rearrange the benefits system. Feed, house, and clothe the poor, maybe with a food stamp system, but also a little cash to encourage saving and spending in the economy. Add a little bonus for those looking for work. Add a little more for those on training schemes. Make working beneficial with a logarithmic scale, so a two-hour job still pays well, and so that millionaires don’t get child benefit.  As soon as somebody can afford to live without benefits, they can be removed from the system. After that, it’s capitalism all the way up. With taxes high when the economy needs it, and low when it can afford it. Give all poor people the same basic level of support and dignity, whether they’re sick, able and willing, just plain lazy, or even a criminal.

4. Sort out the lazy. Only when all the above are sorted, mind (feed everyone!). To be honest, I’m not even convinced there are real lazy people. Depression, confusion, sickness, dejected hopelessness, or simply being a dedicated stay-at-home parent can all look like laziness to the outside observer. But assuming there are lazy people, what do we do with them? First, we look at what they do do.  Do they sit around all day playing guitar? Would they like a course in recording? Can they teach? Can we give people small, casual jobs where they’re allowed to keep the money?

It’s important, even if you think laziness is wrong, to remember that scientific consensus in every field relevant finds punishment ineffective, and a reward system to be better. This is true of animals, of children, of criminals, and lazy people. “You tried work? Well done. Here’s some money. How does that feel? Come back if you want more.”

And it’s not like there aren’t jobs for “lazy” people!  Night watchmen, firemen, receptionists – all involve, and sometimes require, sitting doing nothing. An efficient datacentre administrator will have automated everything, and will sit around doing nothing, poised for emergency. I’m not saying these people are really lazy at all, they work hard and deserve their money, but if chilling with your mates shooting pool for most of the time with a bit of excitement thrown in sounds good, and you like to keep fit, it may be that you’re not work-shy, you’re a potential fireman. Like to work hard but don’t want to be tied down to just two weeks holiday a year?  Work in a school!  There’s a job for everybody, if only people could be given a little assistance and a little hope.

Rockstar North just advertised for “video games testers”. I mean, come on. Ask every “unwilling” person you find if there was one thing they would work their arse off at, and ask yourself if such a job exists, and if it does, help them to it. Reward good behaviour with hard cash, and watch unemployment drop. Many people who were previously unemployable have gone on to be successful entrepreneurs, creating jobs that didn’t exist. What can we do for these people? Training courses. Apprenticeships and on-job training.

So that’s it. Stop Atos, stop workfare, stop benefit sanctions. It’s not good for the rich, or the poor, or the nation itself. It’s not good for keeping the peace, and it’s not good for capitalism, it’s costing the taxpayer money, it doesn’t solve the problem, and it’s based purely on a perception of what poor people are thinking.  It’s nonsense.

It’s also a lugubrious blot on our history, and that’s the real reason why I’m taking this stance on the subject. I think it is inhumane, and I believe that anybody who thinks it’s a good idea now will be ashamed of themselves in years to come.

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SEO – What You Can Do

Practical SEO Advice for Beginners

What is SEO, and what can it do for your website?  Will it get you to the “top of Google”?  Do you need to be the “top of Google”?  There is a lot of conflicting information all over the web and in forum posts about what gets you to the first page in Google search results.

First off, SEO does NOT mean “top of Google”.  A website without SEO can get good results in Google, while a fully optimised site can be stuck on the bottom of Google’s results.  I’ll explain…

A little History of Web Search

The World Wide Web was created for particle physicists to publish the results of their experiments on the internet.  But unlike a piece of paper or a simple text file, some of the text could be “hypertext” – magical clickable text that would take you to another web page, somewhere on the internet.  Since then, of course, the web has exploded into singing-and-dancing multimedia experiences and web applications, but the world wide web still fulfills the same function it was invented for – publishing information.  That information could be your company brochure, your corporate accounts, or your dog’s new puppy photos.  It’s still information, and you’re publishing it.

The web quickly became bigger and bigger.  To organise it somewhat, people started making web pages that were simply directories of websites.  Some of the original web directories are still going, including DMOZ and Yahoo!  The first search engines available were in-house ones for searching those directories.

Later came the dedicated Search Engine websites.  These are programs that every so often, try out every link on the whole world wide web, and the directories are updated automatically.  The first web search engines like Altavista simply counted words.  Google, on the other hand, has an near-exact copy of the entire web in it’s databases.  Amazing, considering the billions of websites out there…

Why Are Google So Huge?

The creators of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, wanted a search engine that would be relevant to humans.  Not merely satisfied with counting words, they included a count of how many links a website had to it from other web pages.  At the time, nearly every website had “what’s cool” and “what’s hot” links to their favourite websites.  By measuring how many people linked to a website, they could logically guess which websites out there were relevant, or popular, and serve these at the top of their search results.

Ok, a search engine is handy, but those servers and staff aren’t free, so they needed a way to make money off this stuff.  So they invented sponsored listings.  They made billions.  That’s the story of Google.  But the point is, they wouldn’t have made those billions if they weren’t a popular search engine – nobody would use them, so nobody would pay them for sponsored ads.  On the other hand, they wouldn’t be a popular search engine unless they were were returning results based firmly on what people want.

Unfortunately, a search engine that simply counts words and inbound links can be fooled.  It’s possible to create a thousand websites stuffed with words and links to your site.  Google’s income is based on producing relevant results, so the people at Google are constantly on the look out for the latest tricks.  In some cases, taking those pages out of their results altogether.  These tricks are not SEO.  If you’re hiring an SEO expert for your company, make sure they don’t engage in that stuff.  It might work for a few weeks but then you’re kicked out of Googleland.  Don’t bother.

So really, SEO is simply about serving relevant content.  Beware of technical “tricks” that will “fool” a search engine into thinking your information is important.  Use techniques that will actually make your website important.  Optimise your site to the people who will visit your site, and the search engines.  I’ll talk about the technical side first.  These aren’t SEO tricks that fool a search engine, they are technical design standards that make it easy for search engines to actually find your content.

Optimise for Search Engines

Google doesn’t care about how nicely designed your site is, or whether you’ve created the ultimate user experience.  Google simply reads the text.  So, if your content is hidden in a Flash site or on image files, Google won’t see it.  Some javascript techniques that serve content are friendly for search engines, some aren’t and make it hard for Google to read.  Also, if your PHP files require strange variables sent to them, without a nice link that Google can “click” on, they won’t be served.

A good way to think about it is to imagine Google as a blind person using a text-only braille browser or something, who might be interested in your website.  If you want to test your website, check it out on a text-only browser such as Lynx.  If you can’t get to the content, or it feels irrelevant, you’re not optimised.  Growing your site helps too – a site with new information on it is more relevant than one that’s been the same for a year.  That’s not to say that things like Javascript and Ajax can’t be used to make an efficient site, it’s just that you need to be careful which content is served in which way.  You don’t really need to optimise a private, logged-in web app (apart from browser checking!) but the site around it with the “About Our Web App” and front page copy etc, should be well written and to the correct technical standards.  A web app like a public music database should be optimised.  Then everything can be there, waiting in Google for your visitors to find you with.

If your website is large, handled by an incomplete CMS or simply built in a complicated way (using javascript to call PHP variables), then Google might have some difficulty.  You might have some pages served by form entry. You might want a mobile site with duplicated copy (which Google hates!).  In that case then, you will want to include a sitemap file.  This is an XML file with a nice map of your site that Google can follow.  To avoid showing duplicate pages, you can also use a robots file.  This is a text file that asks Google (and other polite search engines) to please not go to some page or section of your site.

Just make your site to ordinary web standards and it should work.

Optimise for People

Google will always make it’s search engine relevant for humans to find the information they’re looking for.  So make your information relevant.  All the search engine optimisation in the world won’t make a difference to that.

Say you invent a new recipe for baked beans pie.  Imagine now, that you break all the SEO rules – you put it in as an image, with no metatags, “alt” text or anything.  Now imagine the world goes nuts for your recipe.  People love it.  They share your address on Facebook, Reddit, and all over the web.  What’s going to happen when people search for “baked beans pie” in Google?  It’ll be there.  At the top, or near the top.  If it isn’t at the top of Google, maybe the feature on the “Famous Pies” website will be at the top.  Either way, the relevant information made it.

If your site isn’t at the top of Google, look at who is on top.  If your online shop sells instant pie, and you search for “instant pie” in Google, or even “delicious pies”, look at the websites at the top.  What makes them more relevant?  Chances are they have a larger site, with more information, probably a blog with recipe ideas and latest news from the pie industry.  If their website is worse than yours with only a crappy picture and a PayPal order form, and they’re still top of Google, it might be a good idea to actually try one of their pies!  Maybe yours need more mustard…

Think about what your customers actually want.  Give it to them.  And don’t try putting lipstick on a pig.  A well designed site, with all the best SEO on it will fail if the actual content or product is rubbish.

Also, there are technical things you can do.  Put all your content inside proper HTML tags, use a well written Description metatag (so people can read in their Google results), and if the site is large, a small “breadcrumbs” line can be used.  A little row of links that tells you you’re in, for example:-

>shop>mens>trousers>jeans“.

It just saves all that clicking and searching…

All the Graphic Design rules apply here too.  Colours, space, font and layout should all go towards making your information human-optimised, but that’s a whole other subject.

External Marketing

You’ve made yourself a kick-ass site, it’s been optimised for search engines and still no hits.  It’s even got a blog and articles are being written all the time!  Still no hits!  Why?  Maybe nobody knows about it…

There are a million ways to actually market your amazing SEO’ed site that have nothing to do with the actual site’s development or design.  Google likes inbound links.  You’ll need to make and encourage and beg for as many of those you can.  However, don’t be sneaky.  Google can only be fooled for so long before it gets angry and throws you to the bottom of the world.  So avoid pointless-seeming affiliate schemes, advertising pyramids and all that junk.

Find the people online who like your product.  If you sell sports goods, find sports forums.  Join as a forum person, not as a spammer.  Converse, make friends, give and ask for advice.  Lots of forums let you link in your signature.  You can shamelessly promote yourself everywhere without being spammy this way.  Say somebody goes on the forum and says, “My feet hurt when I run” and you know all about pronating and supanating and all that jazz, so you say “You should buy McDinkin’s corrective running shoes.  Our customers go nuts for them.  You can find them in your local sports shops or online.  Don’t buy the blue ones, they smell!  I know, I’m a sports shop owner…”

And quietly sitting there in your post signature is a link to your shop.  Suddenly you look like an expert, your advice is relevant and you’re more likely to be bought from than if you just say “buy our corrective running shoes!  £99 a pair – Free delivery!!!”

You can see the difference.  The first way is relevant, the second is spammy.  So people like your post, it becomes popular, people link to it, and it slides a little bit up Google for searches such as “running shoes” and “sports equipment”.

You could then take the opportunity to write a blog post for your site, giving advice on all sorts of running shoes stuff you’re knowledgeable in.  You can add to your forum “I wrote up an explanation in a bit more details, take a look… [link]”

Marketing itself is a whole other subject than SEO.  SEO is a set of techniques that help search engines assess your relevance to the world.  You will still need to use all the other marketing techniques to hand, such as ad campaigns, posters, and sponsorship.  Not every website even needs to be “top of Google”.  Treating your customers well and expanding through word-of-mouth is still viable and incredibly effective, even in a world of viral video camaigns and instant e-commerce.  If your business is based around a person-to-person model, such as design or therapy, you’ll find you get recommended if you give a bit extra.

It’s a good idea to focus on your web statistics, available from Google Analytics.  This will tell you what’s popular on your site, and what people are searching for.  Say you’re a digital artist.  You take a few photos of textures like wood and stone, and put them up on your site.   If your analytics say people are finding you by searching for “stone textures” then you might want to add some more, or a downloadable Zip pack – this way, the relevance of your site increases to the world.

To Finalise…

Make your site relevant and accessible to humans, with well written content and effective graphic work.  Design it so it talks to Google well, with meta-tags, sitemap XML and proper semantic markup.  Grow it with a blog or CMS, giving good advice and letting your fans know about new products and competitions.  That’s it really.  That’s all SEO is.  Anything else is marketing:-

To market your site, spread the word around the web (and of course, the real world!), being relevant and friendly, not in-your-face and spammy.  Run an ad campaign. Watch how people find your site.  Adapt accordingly, with articles and features.  Facebook and Twitter help, as well as the industry-specific social networks such as Deviantart, Linkdin, and Flickr.  Put your services on Craigslist and Gumtree.  Radio plugs, press releases, fly-posting, leaflets on car winscreens, cold-calling, door-to-door…  You know what to do!

And, most importantly, have a great product at the other end…

Free Website Options

It’s tough starting a business.   Everything costs money.  A good web designer can set you back a good few hundred quid.  But being online is important to businesses, and although it can be a trend these days for people to put their Facebook page on their business cards, but somehow having a proper website with your own web address just looks more professional.

Although my partner, Kirsty, is an excellent web designer, since I’ve joined Tangled Frog full time, I’m taking a stab at the consultancy side of things.  To give myself a good grounding in the options available to small businesses setting out on the web, I decided I wouldn’t pay a penny on my harmonica lessons marketing.

“External” Options…

The first steps online for a company, small business or freelancer is usually with one of the social sites.  If you’re a photographer, it’ll be Flickr.  If you’re a musician or in a band, there’s MySpace, Soundclick, Jango etc.  If you would like to be a journalist or have a lot of news, you can use a WordPress or Blogger site, or have a Facebook page.  It’s a simple matter then of buying a domain name separately and pointing it at your Flickr or Facebook.

If and when you get your own real website, don’t stop using your social sites – anywhere on the web that you exist is good for business.  In fact, keeping your Twitter fresh and your Facebook page updated is all incredibly vital marketing.   Plus, with YouTube and Soundclick around, you can keep all your videos, tunes and graphics on somebody elses site and link to them all from your “real” site.

Domain Names?

Domain names aren’t free.  Most of the time when you get offered a free domain name it comes with something else, like a hosting account.  There are a few exceptions – It is possible to have a truly free-of-charge genuine domain name without paying for them.  They all have limitations, though.

Some are scams.  Some aren’t scams as such, but are scammy anyway – such as pyramid referrals etc.  Some are based round obscure foreign countries who allow registration from other countries.  If you don’t mind a Yourname.co.zz or something, this can be fine.  It’s unclear who actually OWNS the license to these names, or if you end up not being able to transfer and paying through the nose for the use of the address for subsequent years.  I’d have to sign up for that, and I don’t like signing up to things online – there’s too much spam in the world.  But I diverge…

The best I’ve seen so far  is a strange conglomerate organisation called Get British Business Online.  There may be other similar schemes in your country, but I don’t live there.  GBBO is a partnering up of Google, Yola, and other sponsors.   You get a Google Sites style website – not very customisable but plenty of not-bad templates out there.   They even give you emails so you can be me@mycompany.co.uk which you can access through Gmail.

There aren’t many downsides to GBBO.  You are completely restricted to one of their templates.  The templates aren’t bad but it does mean you can’t always have things your way.  Also, some of the templates are actually terrible and completely unsuited to your business.  It will probably take a bit of effort getting it sorted.  Usually Google’s people are great at sorting things for you if you ask.

You also have the GBBO logo on your site.  Not very prominently, but it still looks a bit naff.  The great thing about this is that you actually own the license for your address.  If you find a better scheme with nicer templates you can go with them and you only need to repoint your free domain name at your new site (after a couple of months, anyway!)

Hosting

Ok, there’s actually tons of free hosts out there.  There’s also tons of free host comparison sites.  What the web needs, perhaps, is a free hosting comparison site comparison site.  You will be limited by pageload speeds, or random downtimes, forced ads and low bandwidth and diskspace.  You probably won’t be able to have any databases online or run any server scripts like mailouts.

For small, first sites there are a few good ones.  Read forums and find out what people say about their free hosting packages.  I personally like 000webhost.com  They’re great for first websites, and we recommend them to some clients on extremely small budgets.  They actually do have database and server scripting capabilities, too!  Maybe a bit slow sometimes, and not much disk space, but like I said earlier, if you keep all your stuff on external sites such as Soundclick  or YouTube, you can just host the links and not worry about the extra load of videos and music on your site.  Setting up a template can be a bit buggy, but I found a free template and tweaked it.  Obviously, I’m a web designer and know my way around HTML a bit, so it was cheating, but I tried opening it up in Kompozer, a free WYSIWYG web editor and found I could edit paragraphs and headings without needing to access the code at all.

Which brings me to …

Design

Design is probably the most expensive thing to get.  Hosting is handled by huge datacentres who resell all their space as “cloud” – shared servers, virtual servers, dedicated servers etc.  Heavily automated and efficiently run.  Domain names aren’t very expensive at all, for a .co.uk it can be as little as £5 for two years.  Again it’s all handled by huge servers with efficient automation and backup infrastructure.

Design, on the other hand is more difficult to automate.  Unless you have a problem, your hosting company or domain registrar won’t even know you exist, but it’s not the same.  Every original design needs a real human designer.

Good thing, then that the internet has thousands upon thousands of free templates created as a labour of love by real designers.  The chances are you’ll probably find one that fits you mostly and some of the designs are just jaw-dropping.  If you’ve paid for a hosting package, there’s probably a web builder somewhere in their client area, so that would be the first place to look.  If you’ve got free hosting, look for free templates to download and tweak to your fit.  Amazing!  Where’s the catch?

A website is just for is publishing your data – what your services are, how much, your favourite biscuit, contact details etc. – and therefore could just be put up in plain text.  Design makes no difference to search engines.  Some technical documents online are just plain text with no styles at all, so you just need to zoom or resize your browser to get it just right for your reading comfort.

So what are the reasons we have design on the web (or anywhere)?  Well it makes you look unique.  That’s it.  Is that important?  Oh yes.  We’re psychologically hard-wired to use vision in our judgement of one thing from another, and marketing people know that.  What makes you unique, or your company “stand out” is expressed through your design.  When you want to come across as friendly, you’ll use warm, bright colours.  When you want to look like you mean business, you can use cool blues or stark black (if you’re dead posh and sell diamonds or something).

So even if the design is amazing, even if the template itself is an artistic wonder of universal love and fits your company perfectly, it’s just not unique.  Anyone could use the same template and look just like you.  Even your competition.  Which isn’t unlikely – if you’re a gardener, say, you’ll want a gardeny kind of template.  If you’re a musician, you might want something glossy and musical looking, so the chances of somebody looking just like you is increased.

If you’re REALLY lucky, you might just find some kicking designer nearly finished college and on a portfolio building mission.  Maybe, just maybe, he would be willing to offer you a design for free.  If that happens, go for it.

There are also proprietory web builders like Weebly – again, you’re restricted to their hosting, but their package is actually amazing.  Very difficult to tweak to your own liking if you need extra functionality, but a beginner can have a site online with no trouble at all.  Just be warned – you’re not unique, and if you need to move host, you’ll have to start again completely from scratch.

So Finally

Really, it’s not too difficult to get online for free.  It’s a bit like the Fast/Good/Cheap food triangle – you’ll rarely get everything you want.

My advice is just common sense.  Get what you need, but make sure it’s expandable.  Go with a simple text only site, or a simple template and build on it when business picks up rather than tying yourself to a web building package.  As soon as you have the money, source a good designer to brand your company well.

In fact the free-est option would be to learn graphic design, web building and handle it all yourself.  If you’re just starting it would be a good thing to get stuck into it all yourself, but as you get busier you will find it being a hassle.  You might want to employ or outsource to free up some time.

Well, what do you want for nothing?  Rubber biscuit?

Harmonica for Hire!

I’ve been very busy working, but suddenly and inexplicably found myself on holiday with no kids around!

I am taking the time to start a little sideline.  I’ve been playing the harmonica for over half my life now, so I think I’m good enough to make some money out of it.  From now on, instead of playing my blues harmonica just for fun, I actually want people to pay me for doing what I love too!

So I’m giving lessons at £10 for a half hour, with a free harmonica with the first lesson.

Or, if any students are putting on a short film and need any authentic sounding front-porch desert landscape my-woman-done-left-me blues for your soundtrack, get in touch.  I also play a little guitar, jawharp and singing too, but we’ll see where the harmonica gets me.

So here’s my little link:-

http://www.edinburgh-harmonica.co.uk

Hope to have a jam with you someday…

(Well not you specifically, not if you’re some psycho or something)

Web Design 14 – Resources

Hope you liked this little series outlining how you, like us, can learn web design from scratch, for free, in the comfort of your own home and start a lucrative business with it.  I’d like to take this opportunity to summarise with a bunch of links for software and learning resources.

Click here to see the first article in this series

Software

Comodo – free antivirus/firewall suite for Windows
OpenOffice.org – all the business software you need!
GIMP – your bitmap/raster graphics editor
FileZilla – a nice free FTP client for uploading your sites
FireFox, Chrome, and Safari – the three most popular browsers after Internet Explorer
Explorer Virtual – for checking in different versions of Explorer
Notepad++ – an advanced PHP editor
Kompozer – a simple WYSIWYG website editor
Inkscape – a vector graphics editor
Scribus – desktop publishing software
FontForge – typeface creation program
Thunderbird – a nice email client
FlashDevelop – create stuff in Flash!

Learning Resources

W3Schools – the “official” web developers learning site
Tizag – a great alternative to W3Schools
SixRevisions – has links to all the best tutorial sites for web developers
Grok the GIMP – advanced GIMP learning
A List Apart – CSS standards, technologies and tutorials

Wikipedia – start learning anything new here
About – a great place to get to grips with subjects for beginners
Google – not just a great search engine, but full of advice on SEO, marketing, and maps to stick in your site

FlashMP3 – a free MP3 player for your website.  Comes in many flavours, customisable
FLVplayer – a similar Flash application, but for video

PortableApps – find software you can run from a pendrive

And finally, proof that all this works, my girlfriend’s web design company:

Tangled Frog Web Design – if you’re good enough, we can send some work your way – or if you’re having trouble, we can handle the stuff you’re having trouble with.  If you’re too good, we can take on some of your overflow!

If you know of any more, let the people know!  Add comments with your favourite links and reasons why they’re useful.

If you have any problems at all with any part of learning web design, get in touch and I’ll post a link to your solution or write an article.

Good luck freeing yourself from the tyranny of college fees, overpriced software, the poverty trap, or just being a single parent with nothing to do – happy web designing!

Web Design 13 – Portability

Picture the scene – you’re on holiday, you don’t have a laptop with you, and one of your clients phones you up with an urgent update.  You might have access to a computer, but it would be a nightmare to have to install all that software just to make a few design and coding changes.

Help is at hand with PortableApps.com!  Here you will find most of the software featured in this series in a standalone form you can fit on a USB pendrive which can fit neatly in your pocket and will run fine without needing installed.

GIMP, OpenOffice, FileZilla, XAMPP, Thunderbird will probably  be your most useful, but there’s also portable versions of FlashDevelop (with a little tweaking), Scribus and InkScape.

If it’s GIMP, you’ll want to remember to add any fonts or brushes you’re working with.  If Thunderbird mail client, you can set up your test email addresses on it before you go.  When using XAMPP, you have to remember to put in the websites you’re working on!  Also, when you run XAMPP from a pendrive, you have to run the setup program before you begin, so it knows where it is.

Problem solved!  Now you can be a web designer from any computer, including Internet Cafes and friends machines, without installing a thing…

Web Design 12 – Hosting

When you run a web design business, you need some way of getting the pages online.

There are so many good and halfway decent hosting companies out there – find one that offers PHP and MySQL and a decent bandwidth and you’re away.  Most do, as PHP and MySQL are free to install for these companies, so it’s rare to find hosts that don’t.

The good ones will give you a free domain name and the ability to create email addresses attached to it, so you can set up an info@yourname.com, or me@yourname.com, or something similar.

You’ll also find it really handy to have a file transfer client for easy uploading of your site to the host’s server.

For this, the excellent FileZilla is available.  It, like all the software featured in this series, is completely free.  You enter the file transfer client server address, the user name and password and hit the “connect” button.  You are then given a multi-paned window with your computer and the server computer in them, and you just click and drag the files to upload them.

Fish around for a while, check that the host has the technologies available on it.  If they don’t, they might be willing to install it for you (as it’s free for them to do that).  Check the amount of databases they allow.  Some are unlimited, some only allow one or two, and some allow only on their paid accounts.

It’s possible to get free hosting.  There’s lots of good places to go for that, but you might need to allow them to put their adverts on your site to help them pay for upkeep and maintenance.  If that’s not what you want, you might want to pay a little for an ad-free host.

There’s lots of good hosts out there, and lots of dodgy ones so check out the comparison sites as these have reviews and lists of technologies like PHP and MySQL, and some have simple scripts installed on their admin panels which allow you to install other stuff like OsCommerce and WordPress at the click of a mouse.

We usually go with pacwebhosting.com as their service and support has been good and their packages are reasonably priced, but make sure you check because packages can change at any time, and service can go downhill as businesses expand.  Most of the good hosts out there offer readymade templates but to look professional, you and your clients should have tailor-made (or “bespoke” in web designer language) sites designed specifically for your needs.

It’s probably not a good idea to get a hosting account just to test PHP scripts, as they will usually have error messages switched off for security purposes.  This means that if there’s a bug, it won’t go splurging your database passwords and whatnot all over the screen for everybody to see.  Just use XAMPP until you’ve got it sorted then upload.

If you’re left with the job of arranging hosting for all your hundreds of clients and you’re with a good company, see if they have a re-seller account.  This means that you are now the hosting company as well as the web developer.  They’re usually expensive, but worth it for the flexibility and value you can offer your clients.  If you have enough customers, it can be a good deal.  Think about what your clients are needing and see if it offers good value for you.