Making digital content accessible by everyone

Thankfully, the Government, industry workers, and members of the voluntary sector have come together in an eAccessibility forum, to develop an action plan to help make digital content accessible by more users.

Parlour Design works hard to ensure all their websites are accessible in a wide variety of formats, using:

  • Logical page structures for all the content (even with style sheets switched off), 
  • Not using ‘flash’ animation for layout or content purposes (just for pleasing design aesthetic features)
  • Always using ‘alternative text’ for images (and only then when text is not appropriate in the first place).
    • (rather than the common technique by many designers of using images for text, because they’re being lazy designers and can’t work out how to make the text appear how they want to, in it’s pure form!).
  • Placing the bulk of navigational links at the base of the page (even if on display, it seems to be before the main text)
  • Helping the page render differently, depending on the type of browser being used.
  • Using flexible font sizes (rather than fixed pixel dimensions), so users can easily increase the size of any text with a simple mouse action.
Thankfully, this particular group mentioned at the outset are also working on expanding the roll out of these simple methods, along with many other ideas as featured in this initial report:
(The report is also due to be updated every 3 months, with new developments).
One key area I was interested in, is point 3, Website Services:

3. Websites services work stream

Websites are the gateway to almost every business, voluntary organisation, or provider of information about public services. Whether or not they are direct sales and marketing tools, they are key contributors to the financial efficiency of each body. A well designed website draws in more users, and reduces the need for other means of customer support such as call centres. Although there are internationally recognised standards and guidelines of website accessibility, these are poorly adhered to by the public sector or by the private sector. This work stream will explore the reasons for this and assist both government and private sector to develop websites and online services that conform appropriately to web standards, guidelines and best practices, such as WCAG 2.0 AA and relevant W3C specifications. It will also take forward plans for a One Stop Shop for information on eAccessibility, and look at how the website designers of tomorrow can be trained to design accessibility into their products and services.

I’m very often so disappointed with the incredibly poor ‘housekeeping’ of so many website developers, and just how much extra code has been thrown in to most of the source code, particularly when using ‘design software’ to try and make things look like they think (rather than understanding the language behind it, to just use the ‘pure ingredients’).

I look forward to the further adoption of these developments, and seeing how the working party get on.

FTP Lock for our customers (also affecting Cushy CMS & Blogger)

We wanted to let you know in advance of a new development that we will be rolling out to the ‘manage’ control panel from the 15th February 2010.

Over the last year there has been a substantial increase in the number of sites on the internet that have been hacked due to viruses that steal FTP credentials from user’s home computers. The hackers then use these credentials to insert hidden code within your website.

Please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gumblar for more information on this type of attack.

To reduce the significant threat from these viruses, our server hosts have been working with a focus group of administrators and direct customers to come up with a solution that protects websites. The solution is to lock FTP when it’s not in use, making it extremely difficult for the hackers to infect your site via this route.

To unlock FTP, customers will simply log into their ‘manage’ control panel and click one button to unlock FTP for a period of time. FTP will then automatically lock again after the time period has expired.

Customers will also be able to nominate an IP address that has permanent FTP access, customers FTPing from that IP address will not have to unlock FTP. Resellers will also be able to add an IP which will give them access to all their FTP accounts without having to unlock. Nor will you have to unlock FTP if you use the File Manager within the ‘manage’ control panel.

These security measures will ensure that the majority of sites have FTP locked, greatly reducing the risk of having your websites infected.

Please remember that this change will go live on the 15th February 2010.  Of course to help further reduce the chances of these types of attacks, always ensure your computer is kept up-to-date with anti-virus, malware, and spyware protection.  Similarly, try to ensure that you have the most up-to-date software from the different manufacturers.

There’s a good chance our customers using ‘Cushy CMS’ to manage their websites will also need to log into the ‘manage’ control panel to release the FTP access, prior to making updates through cushy. 
We expect the same will also be true for those trying to make updates to their blog through ‘Blogger’.

We’re sorry for the inconvenience this may cause you, and are looking for a way to work around this particular problem as soon as possible.

Hosting Your Website

Your web host is essentially the computer space that stores your website on their computer server, and then broadcasts this across the internet when people request it by typing in your domain name.

Because of the nature of the internet, your .co.uk domain name for a UK company, could actually be hosted in Australia, and no-one would know the difference. It is normally good to have a UK company website hosted on a UK server, as this makes things easier with ensuring standard UK laws on data protection and such like, are easier to maintain.

If you do decide to have your website hosted outside of the UK, you will need to abide by their laws on content, ie certain states of the USA forbid certain content that others allow.

When looking for a web host, there are a few key things to look out for:

  • Bandwidth & Storage Space (in Gb)
  • Features (incl email hosting and future expandability)
  • Cost

Bandwidth

Bandwidth is essentially the amount of web traffic you get visiting your website each day/week. The larger and more complex the website, and the more visitors you have, the more bandwidth you may need.

For most small businesses, bandwidth is not normally a concern (especially if you’re just displaying a simple ‘online brochure’ style website with mainly text content that’s low on images & video, etc.

If your website is coded cleanly, this can reduce the memory of each website page from 80kb, to 20kb (these are the common savings I make to each page, when recoding someone’s website).

60Kb per page may not sound like much in itself, but when your website is receiving 10,000 unique visitors per month, these small savings can make a significant difference to your bandwidth usage.

If you’re on a capped package (ie limited to a certain amount of web traffic per month, unless you pay additional penalty fees), your website could go ‘offline’ at the time it’s the most popular, so it’s well worth considering uncapped / unlimited bandwidth packages, if they’re not too overpriced.

Competition between web hosts, and the capabilities of web servers have improved things dramatically over recent years, so if you’ve been with the same web host for a couple of years or more, on a fixed package, it’s well worth shopping around now, you’re very likely to make some significant savings to your web hosting charges.

N.B. If you’re planning a peer-to-peer file sharing website of sorts (which is banned on many host servers), or if you have large numbers of pictures, videos, or audio files for people to download, this could make a significant difference to your bandwidth usage.

Features

The features that come with website hosting are all the add-ons that can be useful to some, although many features will go unused. In particular though:

  • POP3 Email hosting / Webmail
  • Free web templates and CMS (Content Management Systems)
  • ftp file access
  • Other add-ons (ie PHP & Pearl hosting, free scripts, members areas, secure servers, etc.)

POP3 Email hosting / Webmail

There are two main types of email: Those your log into to view your emails online (web mail), and those you download onto your computer to read (POP3).

Some of the most common webmail providers are hotmail, yahoo, and gmail. With these providers, you can access your emails through almost any computer with internet access, view your emails online, reply online, and store your old messages online.

POP3 email accounts however, are more like a physical mail box, that gets delivered to your location in seconds, the moment you request it wherever you are in the world. Those emails are then stored on your computer (ie in Microsoft Outlook), and you reply from your computer which is then sent when you next connect to the internet.

You can also choose email forwarding, which enables you to forward all emails to certain email addresses, through to your preferred email provider.

With your website hosting, you should really get at least 10 POP3 email accounts with your hosting package, and at least 100 forwarding email addresses, as standard.

Many providers (including ParlourDesign) now offer unlimited POP3 Accounts and web forwarding, with the option to also log into your emails via a ‘webmail’ interface to send and receive emails from your various accounts if you’re not near the computer that normally downloads them to the PC or Mac.

Free web templates and CMS (Content Management Systems)

If you’re starting out with your first website, and not employing a professional designer to make it for you, it’s worth looking out for free web templates as part of your hosting package.

These typically allow you to build your own website and add your own images and colour scheme, without any programming knowledge.

There are of course normally downsides to this (ie pages that may not validate, excess coding, and normally quite generic designs), however, if you’re on a very tight budget, and not planning to do much with your website, it can be a good option to help you get your first website online.

Content Management Systems (CMS) is an interface which allows you to update your own website, whenever you wish, via an interface that’s not dissimilar to something like Microsoft Word. Thus making it easy for you to update your website regularly with new features, news, events, etc.

ftp file access

If you’re getting someone to design your website for you, having ftp access is a ‘must have’. Essentially this allows your web designer to connect directly to the files on your host server, via their own computer, and then update multiple files in seconds by ‘synchronising’ the files.

Typically, only very cheap packages will not allow ftp access, but it’s well worth having, for the future scalability of your website.

Other add-ons (ie PHP & Pearl hosting, free scripts, members areas, secure servers, etc.)

There are many other add-ons that normally available with any hosting package.

If you are having a database driven website, you’ll need a host that allows something like PHP or Pearl.

You might want to have a blog on your website (which are sometimes available as part of your hosting package).

You might need a secure members area, or an online forum to help create an online community.

Generally, if you’re building your own website, and you don’t know what the additional features listed mean, you’re not likely to need them. If you’re getting someone else to design/develop your website for you, they should be able to advise on what you’ll need as part of your hosting package.

Cost

Clearly, the monthly / yearly price of your hosting package will be a significant part of your decision making process. However, many people are still paying out for packages that area many years out of date (and so massively overpriced).

Through Parlour Design, as an example, we offer unlimited bandwidth, unlimited storage, unlimited POP3 Mail boxes, unlimited web forwarding, and a massive number of free add-ons, for just £50 per year.

In general though, ou can spend anywhere between £0, and £100 per month for website hosting.

Just be warned, anything that’s ‘free’ has to be paid for somehow. So if you choose the free hosting package with your Internet Service Provider (ie BT Openworld, TalkTalk, etc.) you may be restricted in the opportunity to change ISPs later. Similarly, if you choose a free online hosting package, the cost for doing so will often be forced advertising throughout your website to other competitors.

Many other host providers will offer you website hosting from around £5 or £10 per month for limited bandwidth and features, but these are normally suitable for most small – medium sized businesses.

If you’re having a specialist website built, you should be able to get a dedicated server for between £200 and £400 per year. However, this is not normally needed for most websites (even database driven websites with visitors in excess of 20,000 people per month), unless specifically advised to do so, by your reputable web hosts.

If you have any questions about any of the above, please do get in contact.