Hosting Providers — Tips for Accessibility and Visibility
This article is for hosting providers, not for those seeking hosting services...
Having looked at several hundred providers and being a purchaser from several hundred hosting providers over a course of twenty years, I've put together a list of tips for hosting providers to consider for their online presence. This is only intended as rough guidance and a pointer to the right directions, each topic has practically an entire industry of people working on covering those finer details of visibility and accessibility. Use your favourite search engine to find out more about the how's and why's of each topic...
Many hosting providers are excellent at providing hosting but not so aware of the finer details of accessibility and marketing opportunities that are available. This article is dedicated to those people.
Run an Affiliate Program
Word of mouth can be the best personal recommendation and referral method, but affiliate referrals should not be underestimated.
An affiliate program incentivises content publishers to refer potential customers to your site - in return for a percentage of revenue you gain from your orders. High quality and volume of referrals indicates a good affiliate at work. Good affiliates will tap into sources of targeted traffic and funnel them to your site.
Many hosting providers actively disable the affiliate program facility in their out-of-the-box billing solutions such as WHMCS and HostBill. Others require that you purchase a product before being able to create an (affiliate) account on their system. These providers are losing out on alternate sources of customers.
Consider that an average affiliate program for hosting offers between 10% and 15% of revenue, and consider whether your overall marketing budget reflects a similar amount, and how much you're generally paying in your marketing cost per acquired customer. Getting good affiliates on board effectively delegates some of your marketing efforts and provides you with a low-risk method of acquiring customers at a known cost. Good affiliates are low maintenance and simply expect to be paid for what they've given you.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that an affiliate program is too expensive to run, your customers have to come from somewhere and you're paying via time and/or money to find those customers, whatever you do.
Use a Modern Responsive Web Design
The web has changed massively in the last ten years, and instead of screen resolutions and sizes growing as they'd originally done, half of all pages viewed on the web are now done on via tablets or mobile phones.
Having a design that caters for all these devices can be tricky, luckily there are open sourced well-known packages such as Bootstrap and jQuery that a designer can use that generally plays nice in all devices, regardless of the generated HTML used.
Modern search engines now favour sites that render well on all devices. Sites that don't will not be as prominent in search results due to the site not being friendly to the user at the time of their query.
I've seen good products and obviously technically gifted providers, but their website looks dated and/or does not reflect the quality of their service. The web is a fast changing place and having a dated design can give the user the impression that your site is no longer maintained.
Provide Enough Information About Your Products
There is a balance to be made between concisely communicating your product and overwhelming the customer with technical specifications about your hosting services.
Luckily with modern web development, you can display something relatively simple and concise by default and provide a way for customers to find out more detail if they would need to, by displaying display more type dropdowns that produce or hide more information
Having evaluated hundreds of hosting provider's websites, I'm surprised by how many lack basic detail about their hosting services, such as where the servers are physically located or whether the disks used are hard disks or SSD. Generally, hosted sites will want to be near their potential visitors and not indicating basic pieces of information wastes people's time and you risk losing the customer's patience.
Balance the overview of your product on your site with providing further details that can be easily accessed on request.
Tell the World About Your USP (a Unique Selling Point)
If your support team can respond to people in multiple languages, you're already differentiating yourself from the majority of hosting providers out there. Machine translation does an OK job, but a human being who makes sense in a native tongue is a fantastic selling point.
Is your hardware owned outright? Do you run your own IP space? Tell the customer
Is the RAM on your servers ECC? Tell the customer
Do you provide an SLA? Having that information alongside your product spec underlines your promised quality.
All too often, hosting packages lack some critical detail that differentiates them from all the others. Your USP alongside all relevant detail about your services not only describes your product, it trumps your competitors by providing the information that they do not.
Today's modern culture wants everything and now (or very soon!), having a customer wait (or look further) for details that could have been readily available risks you losing out on a sale.
General Web Design / Website Good Practice
- Secure your Website. It goes without saying that your client account area and payment gateway should use an encrypted connection, but generally the web has moved on and expects your entire site to run over an encrypted connection. If you don't, browsers will indicate your site is 'insecure' which is an unsavoury implication. 301 Redirect HTTP non-encrypted requests to HTTPS
- Choose one variation of your domain name and 301 HTTP Redirect all versions to the one you choose, e.g. http://indicina.it, http://www.indicina.it, https://www.indicina.it all point to https://indicina.it. This just helps concentrate the value of links from other websites in the eyes of search engines, and also prevents any duplicate content issues resulting from the same page appearing under multiple URLs. Also consider canonical URLs in this regard.
- Provide descriptive unique titles for your web pages. This piece elaborates on why, in great detail
- Use the <meta> description tag on important pages, it's the description that people see in search engine results. More reading here
- If you are using popular frameworks such as jQuery, use a CDN where the end-user will more likely have a cached copy of it, speeding up the overall page load and snappiness of the site. Also consider a CDN for all your other static images and assets, having them geographically closer to the user will result in quicker page loads.
- Remove any unnecessary assets on your page. The less network calls to serve your page, the better.
- Others have shown why it's important to have a quick loading web site
- If you provide your pages in multiple languages, ensure you use the hreflang attribute to indicate the same 'page' is available in another language. This will help your search engine presence and display the most language-appropriate page in results for an end-user.
- Check for spelling errors on prominent pages. We're only human and sometimes they can slip through the net, but they can also leave a bad impression. If I spot an error on a prominent page, I might ask myself how long it's been there and why no one has yet mentioned it or corrected it
Have Favicon(s) to Suit All Devices
Short for "favourite icon", a favicon is the image that appears next to bookmarked links. Having a favicon helps your the customer familiarise themself with your brand and brand name.
Traditionally having a 16x16 image at yourwebsite.com/favicon.ico was the way to go, but with the modern user using a multitude of operating systems, apps and screen resolutions, you need alternative representation of your favicon to display favourably in all devices. A 16x16 icon on an Apple IPhone, for example, will be stretched out to 3 times the size or more.
This article goes into more depth on the issue, while this favicon generator can save you time and generate all the necessary image sizes and HTML
Have Active Social Accounts
A social presence indicates to potential customers that you're engaging publicly with users and you're potentially accountable on a public platform.
When your brand is recognised in search engines (by people typing it in, or the engine's autofill feature guiding users to query a certain way), your website's home page will (hopefully) be the first result, followed by a number of other results.
Those 'other results' are potentially other sites talking about your brand where you have no control over the content. By getting your social accounts set up, typically your social pages can populate those other results and potentially push down any unfavourable mentions of your product.
Having (active) social accounts indicates you are an established provider who has invested time in building your brand.
Ensure Your Content is Reachable to Crawlers
Part of optimising your site's online presence is ensuring that your website is able to be crawled by popular search engines and data aggregators. Don't be put off by the idea of SEO being some mystical or dark art, optimising for search engine's for a large part is simply ensuring that your site can be found when people search for it.
Modern search engines primarily focus on three aspects of your website and online presence in order for them to ascertain what search engine queries your site should appear for.
- The prominence of your brand versus similar sites. There are tens of thousands of hosting providers, and users typically only look at the first page of search engine results. Bigger brands and established domains tend to fare better in this regard, especially for generic searches like 'cpanel shared hosting', 'vps in usa'
- User engagement, if your site ranks for 'buy shared hosting' and it meets the user's needs when querying for that, your site will continue to rank for it. If your site does not meet the need, you will tend to rank lower. Search engines can quantify this behaviour in a number of ways, mainly by the user clicking 'back' to the search engine results and clicking on other results
- The relevance of your product to the query performed. If you offer hosting services to a specific country (e.g. the United Kingdom) or focus on a particular niche (e.g. Minecraft servers), then your site will typically fare better for people searching from those locations for those things.
Ultimately, the three points above are irrelevant unless search engines can visit your site and attempt to understand your service and content. Ensure that the HTML returned is relatively error free and accessible to search engine crawlers. By doing this you at least stand a chance of acquiring customers via search engines in an otherwise crowded market.