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2012 the year of internet security growth

So many events in the past year have pivoted internet security as the number one most important focus for everyone here at global advanced media. I am sure people have seen news reports about major hacking and web sites being shut down, but there have been many more smaller businesses affected by attacks and that has changed the primary focus for our SEO team, web design team, and web site hosting team quite a bit the past year.

I remember the good old days when designers could focus on making new designs and adding original content. Our search engine optimization and search marketing teams focused exclusively on web sites performing well in the search engines. Our web hosting team focused solely on customer service for minor things like email setup. With all the attacks an exploits going around the web, we have learned that security needs to be the primary focus.

There have been several times in the year when we had to pause all projects and focus squarely on fixing hacks, updating security and repairing damage done to sites. Search engine marketing does not work if sites are hacked. Web site hosting is now more focused on recurring backups and checking for exploited files or un-patched scripts. Designers are not forced to think more about securing designs and choosing code that is less likely to fall prey to malicious systems.

All of our teams are now working to instruct people at the various businesses we work with on how to be more proactive about viruses, password security, and more. So far we have been able to recover completely from all the hacking attempts this year, and have made sure our checklist for clients includes strong passwords, and systems that double check backups as well as keep a closer eye on updates and intrusion attempts.

Billing clients for the extra work is a challenge, as it is difficult to explain to the average web site owner exactly how important all of these things are, and the amounts of time needed vary greatly depending on how many updates are needed watch month – but it’s something we are working on.

Anyone who is using wordpress on their web site should seriously consider adding the limit login attempts plugin, and the si captcha plugin (even if you only enable it on your login page) – we also suggest making sure that someone is keeping your wordpress up to date with the latest versions, and making backups in case the newer version break current themes or other plugins that are necessary for the functionally of your site.

Of course backups and updates are suggested for all systems, make sure your anti-virus is up to date or get a new one. Make sure you update and do not ignore updates for flash and java as well. If one  employee at your office ignores these updates, surfs facebook, and downloads emails – this is a recipe for disaster.

I  also suggest that everyone test their backups at least once a year, preferably every 3 months. Get a backup computer or server and start from scratch with your backups. Is all of your data safe? Is it all recoverable? How long does it take? You definitely need to know this before you find out the hard way.

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Research before buying web software – script security is important

We spend a good deal of time researching software before we buy it, and even then we are at time disappointed with purchases we had hoped would make web sites function better. Whether it’s server side software for web site addons, or complete web site scripts, take the time to research the piece of software and the company behind it before you try it.

Over the years we have considered hundreds of scripts and programs, a few of those have proven to be excellent choices, but many are half baked, don’t do everything you want them to, or even worse, leave huge hacker / security vulnerabilities for you, and perhaps the other web sites hosted on your web server. Our most recent consideration is one of those, if the price and features combination seems too good to be true, maybe it is?

We have been looking for new chat programs to launch on as server addons for various client web sites, and integrations with a forums or membership system is a key functionality that has been requested. After on hour of research we determined that there were 4 programs that seemed to be a good fir for our client, so we decided to big deeper and see if we could narrow it down.

It would have been easy to just choose the most expensive and well known solutions, but we try to find options that will save our clients money, and often times not every site needs all the full blown features that the most expensive and well know companies make available. Looking for more affordable options we came across a piece of chat software that seemed to have a ton of features, and a very fair price. Wondering if it was perfect for our client, or too good to be true, we decided to do further research and see what other people were saying at other web sites.

Searching for their program and company name in google brought up tons of results, and most of them were from other places that were offering the program, places like hotscripts and the tons of clones out there, none of these were very helpful as far as finding critiques of the company. After digging a few hundred search results into google, we started finding security vulnerabilities posted at about a dozen sites. That;s red flag number one – but these could all be fixed in a current release – so we had to spend more time to find out.

More research revealed some posts on a forum where a particular user was complaining that it did not work in his current server / software environment and had received no support what so ever from the programs author. Red flag number two, but I looked further, and it appears that the post in question was on a forums that was for a similar, or competing product, so not as trustworthy of a review as we would like.

I will be contacting the author of this script to see id they have been aware and fixed the security issues that have been posted online. I will also be asking for a demo of the product to make sure that it works with the membership system that our client is using. Sure it says that it works with that particular program, but which version? Do ALL features work? Better to find out before purchasing if possible.

Before purchasing scripts, or even using free scripts online it’s best to look around the web and see if you can find and security or support issues with the company. Some web sites to definitely check include:

http://www.us-cert.gov

http://insecure.org/

http://secunia.com/

http://www.securityfocus.com/

http://www.f-secure.com/vulnerabilities/SA32603#

http://www.securitytracker.com/search/search.html

This method of research has saved tons of trouble in previous new business development. Working with clients for a new business plan they were setting everything up based upon a company’s affordable piece of social networking software. It looked good, the demo was decent, the pre sales support was fast. They put their entire business plan around the use of this product. I can’t remember what it was that led us to a bad forum thread about it, but that thread led us to links that found many more horror stories about the company, and then we realized that particular script would not work, and that too-good-to-be-true price and feature combination was indeed, too good to be true.

Lessons learned, even when a demo works and pre sales support is fast, it does not mean that everything will work as you planned, and it does not mean that you will get the support you have expected, and if the program will work as it was advertised.

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New chat and community portals coming to the web

We have been consulting with a client about opening a new chat portals and community web site. There are many premium options for establishing an online presence in the chat and social software arenas, and we suggest several. For clients on a tight launch budget, we recommend free and open source software to get started.

Many of our clients are in the early launch and beta test phases of new web projects, and the early steps of new online business models require at least some web presence to get started. We know that everyone wants to have a super slick, tricked out, full featured web site, but when funding is tight, getting things started is more important that getting things full blown and polished.

It doesn’t take a lot to show concepts and get options from colleagues, teammates and investors. We have found by installing basic software and apps, giving people a demo of how things will flow, and showing some rough examples of color schemes is the best way to launch a new project. Many times we have seen clients spend time and money developing the web site’s look at feel with fancy graphics, only to have them completely reworked later in the public announcement phase. This is why we suggest getting the core functionality first, and then develop the look and feel later.

With all that in mind, we have a pre-launch of the new online chat forums up and running. It’s a start, and a great skeleton for future development.

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New online community and local search for TN

We have helped a client develop a new online community and local search portal called Tennessee Seen. It’s just a beta launch as of today, but it is setup to handle lots of great functions for people who live or visit cities in Tennessee.

The initial launch will be focused on indexing dozens of great restaurants, bars, and nightlife in the Nashville metro area. After beta testing we will look to include lots of businesses and events for people to browse, read reviews and comment about each business and event. Options for becoming a fan and leaving feedback will be simple for everyone to add and read. Mobile phone picture uploads and more are also slated to be functional by summer 2010!

This should prove to be a valuable asset to the businesses and events in the Tennessee region, as well as a very useful resource for people who are looking to go out and about in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga. A wealth of information is about to be put together for the public and easy to find out whats hot if you live in TN or just planning to visit or move here.

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Keeping a WP site takes some time, but it’s worth it

There are plenty of how instructions out there about how to keep your wordpress site secure, how to keep it from being hacked. For the average user it’s even easier today as many WP installations have the ability to upgrade with the click of a button from inside the administration dashboard. Sometimes I wait to upgrade when a new version comes out, thinking that a new newer version will be available a week or so later, sometimes that bites you in the butt.

The auto-upgrade doesn’t worth with all web servers or WP installs. I have several WP sites that I administer in which I have to manually upload all the new files and such. Not a big deal for one site, but having to do that for twenty web sites becomes a bit of time consuming work, especially if there are plugin upgrades needed. Some of the web servers I maintain have fantistico installers that are suppose to make upgrading very easy with one click to do it. Unfortunately fantsistico is slow to get the updates out, or the man web host I work with are slow to add the fantistico updates, so at times we wait for weeks to have the latest WP update available with that method. If it’s a major security bug update, then we end up doing all those manually – many more hours spent with repetitious ftp.

This is mainly a rant, and certainly any of WP gurus out there will just say that I should upgrade my servers to root access dedicated or VPS – sure that’d be great, but not in the budget any time soon. Keeping your site secure is important. I suppose my suggestion to people would be to find a hot when the one click upgrade is available, and make backups of your database.

I would love to have one solid stable version of WP that did not need to be updated ever, and new features could be rolled out as optional plugins. There are some new features that may make a manual upgrade worth the time and hassle, but a majority of the new features I can live without, I just want to live with a basic secure blogging platform.

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What makes for a great wordpress theme?

A recent post at performancing is asking bloggers what they consider essential ingredients for a good wordpress theme. I’m going to go a step further and not only list some ingredients for a good wordpress theme, but some of the features that I look for when trying to find a great theme for wordpress sites.

The first thing I look for when trying to find a theme is the overall color scheme and how the sidebars are laid out. Some of my associates who use wordpress want cartoony fun themes, but a majority of my clients want something that is professional to a degree, so finding a basic, business like color scheme is important most of the time.

Sidebar layouts are my next consideration, and overall navigation are issues. This has changed a bit now that wordpress allows for quick end user modification of sidebar ordering with the widgets, so dynamic sidebar is considered a necessity – and is available on every theme I’ve seen for a while. Even with dynamic sidebars, sometimes a web site only needs one sidebar, so depending on the deployment, I will often skip themes that have 2 sidebars.

Validation and looks that work in firefox and multiple versions of IE are essential. I’ve found a few themes that include CSS hacks to make them look right in different versions of popular browsers, and I really appreciate that! It could be embarrassing to have a good tlooking theme only to have it break when you are showing it off and your client or friend is using an old IE browser or something.

Changeable header graphics – good themes allow the end user to change the colors of the header and upload and crop a custom image. If the theme has a default header and no way for the end user to upload and crop, then I am disappointed. No big deal for me to create graphics and ftp them to change header images, but there are a lot of users out there who want or need to upload through the browser. This also saves some of us administrators from having to ftp when clients change their minds.

What makes a theme great?

Changing color schemes within theme options is a great option. I have found a few themes that allow for total change of the color scheme with a simple click, this is great when you find a layout that you approve of and need a different overall look. Sometimes a them has this option, but you do not see those options when surfing theme thumbnails, and that’s a huge loss for everyone when a good theme is missed because the default color schemes is all you see, when there are other color options built in. The furry family theme being used on Nashville pet watch has some great color scheme options, even the default graphics change to match the various color options. You can’t see that by looking at the default thumbnail that shows at wordpress.org, but it’s one of the things that makes the theme great!

Navigation is important, I lean toward themes that have pages navigation in the top header area, and this is especially true if the theme designer would make it possible to widgetize that somehow, so the end user could go into widgets area and exclude pages from the navigation. Some themes have these options in theme options area – very nice. Of course I can go in and manually hack the code to only show which pages we need, but having the pages navigation at the top is a big bonus. If the pages have css button highlighted for rollover of the pages then that definitely attracts me to it more. Added bonuses for options top “back to the top of page” buttons as the fusion theme we are currently using has. One of my recent favorite themes has three widgets in the footer that are changeable – and that allows for the end user to add further navigation at the bottom of a blog, and that makes for a better surfer experience and encourages reading to stay on site reading more. I love that.

If the sidebars have place holders for advertising graphics that is a big bonus. For some selling ad space is a necessity, some themes have them options that allow you to select the graphics and corresponding url for the ads to click to. Having an option to rel-nofollow those links would be icing on the cake. Having the option to set the ads to be 125 x125 or 125 x 250 would be great, and if there was a standard google adsense ad size setup for the sidebar would be awesome. Ad graphics in the sidebar can add some professional blog to a blog that may appear as just another personal wordpress blog without those graphics.

I like matching graphics for column headers in the sidebar. If a theme has just text, that is plain and boring, sure we can change the style some with css if it has special classes for them and not simply an h-two class for example, but having graphical headers or at least css button styling for sidebar widgets gives a theme extra professionalism. The top notch themes we use also have matching graphics created for other options like rss feed, and feedburner email signups, etc.

Custom pages. When a theme comes with a few unique page layouts, I get all fuzzy inside. It’s such an added touch of professionalism to have a few custom page options that incorporate matching theme graphics for a 3 picture layout for example, one with a nice layout for picture gallery, another for a video perhaps, and maybe one with buttons for email / contact / register, stuff like that.

It is so much easier for a theme designer to crank out a few matching buttons while they have photoshop open, then it is for blog owners to try to re-create the wheel one color picking match up at a time. I have customized one theme for use simply because it came with a big matching “register now” button for the sidebar. It gave the wordpress site the look of a professional web site, looking nothing like a blog, mainly because of the one matching custom graphic that came with it.

Themes get extra greatness in my mind if they have buttons for the blog reader to make the text bigger.

a few caveats – them options are great – but too many cause problems – it’s not good to be confused by theme options – when they are needed, explanation of how they work is essential. Having so many options that it slows down the blog displaying on readers’ screens is a problem. I was blown away by the options available for the Atahualpa theme, impressive programming, but slowing down page loads is a bad idea, especially considering most bloggers are using shared hosts that can slow down enough on their own.

What is with the search graphics that disappear from some themes when you go dynamic with widgets. I use a great theme on tow blog sites that have great matching search graphics until the sidebar is widgetized, then the graphics disappear and it becomes a blank box.

This post was inspired by the contest for premium themes club membership that I found at performancing. After writing this post I took a look around their site and I must say that I am quite impressed at how modern they appear to be. I can’t wait to look into their themes further, and I may have to sign up for their affiliate program to promote the premium theme site.

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New Nashville Web Sites 03-2009

A couple of new – or relaunched web sites from the Tn area, mainly Nashville. We love working with new web site clients, although it is quite challenging to teach people at first what they need to consider, once the new site is up and running it’s great to see concept become a reality.

Nashville pet watch and pet sitting is a new web site for people who need their animals watched when going out of town. It’s a new web site, but it’s coming together quickly and shows how a wordpress powered site can look more like a web site and less like a blog.

Another wordpress powered site for a Tennessee group is the shift the lines talk show podcast being launched on break it down radio dot com.

Both of these sites are harnessing the power of wordpress as a multi-user CMS, and they employ some basic template modifications that make them look like a professional web site rather than an out of the box blog.

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