Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The WordPress Real Estate Challenge

Having been a web designer using Joomla! for several years, we broached into the world of WordPress websites for our Real Estate based websites. We're going to be going through our experience with WordPress for Real Estate. Although WordPress isn't our software of choice, we stepped out in an honest and true effort to research, test, and analyze various WordPress plugins.
When we set out on this project we only had a few primary requirements, based on our experience in database design, prior experience in website design, and what clients have been looking for over the past 8 years.
  1. Be Affordable. Realtors are hit with so many fees, our goal/objective is to provide affordable options for Realtors to have their own branded website, import listings from their MLS with our iPALS RETS for Real Estate software, to be professional looking, and home buyer friendly.
  2. Have it's own database structure. This is a big one in that by having it's own database structure, the listing data is it's own, stored in its own location, dedicated to just that.
  3. A large number of possible data fields. Information is important, and having a large, respectable amount of information is important, but not so much that it's cluttered and overwhelming.
  4. Have a nice looking photo gallery. Most Real Estate listing include lots of photos. Having a nice gallery to display them is important.

So how did WordPress fare in these areas? Honestly, not very well. If you go to the WordPress plugin directory, you will find pages upon pages of WordPress plugins for Real Estate. We spent hours installing and testing plugins, and most were lacking in one way or another, with many in more ways than one.

Is this due to poor developers? I wouldn't go that far. It appears that some of the plugins were good, but it all comes back to what we said in a previous blog regarding using the correct tools for the job, and WordPress essentially being a web based version of Microsoft Word. Can you do an extensive payroll system in Word? Probably, to a point, but you're ideally going to need more powerful software that is designed to handle that.

Affordability. This is a really big issue, as Realtors get nickled and dimed on every little thing. Nickle and diming is a major turnoff to not only us, but to many of the clients that we have worked with over the years. We're not about to mention the plugin, but I will explain one that we came across. There was one that would have met the requirements of 3 out of the 4 items listed above, but affordability knocked it out of the running. This plugin has a decent amount of information that could be entered. The data was stored in its own database, and the plugin was free. However, they then nickle and dimed you to death after that. Want a map to show listings on? That'll be $50. Want an image slideshow? That'll be another $50. Want to allow potential buyers to get a PDF version of the listing? That'll be another $50. All in all, all of their features were going to cost over $350.

Maybe it's because we've been a Joomla! designer for years, and we were never really excited about WordPress, but when I see what that particular developer was offering for $350, and I can get that, and much much more for a mere donation of $49.95 to the developer of a Joomla! component, it easily tells me which is the more affordable, and is more interested in helping than making a quick buck.

The majority of plugins that we tested simply created a blog post, then put the additional information, such as bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. as post meta, again as part of a blog post. Excuse me, but Real Estate listings are NOT BLOGS, but when you are working with blogging software, you've got to work with the framework of what you have. Every plugin that treated Real Estate listings as blogs were immediately discounted, and were no longer even in the list to be considered.

Having a separate database, to store the listing data, you would think would be a fairly straightforward, common sense, development 101 item. However, that was NOT the case. There were only a small handful of plugins in which the developers even showed that they had the slightest inkling of database design. Those that did have their own databases for the entire plugin, we limited, but this allowed them to pass on points 1 and 2 above. However, there were some that did a hybrid between their own database for some things, then utilizing the WordPress posts and post meta, which caused them to fail. Again, Real Estate listings ARE NOT BLOGS!!!!

The large majority of the plugins tested simply FAILED with number 3 above. This is either from every Tom, Dick, and Harry striving to throw something out on WordPress, in the hopes of getting some financial return, or it's "developers" who are creating plugins for a specific industry, and they have absolutely zero experience with that industry, and what people actually look for. Simply having fields for MLS number, description, bedrooms, bathrooms, square feet, and price are not sufficient information, and professional developers would know this.

Score: 99% of WordPress plugins FAIL on points 1, 2, and 3.

Gallery. Where do we start, and where do we end on this one? We could go on and on about how poor this one is in 99% of the plugins, but we've pretty much covered a lot of that already. Many of the plugins that may have scored high on item 1, 2, or 3 failed on number 4. Simply putting several images in a blog style content field doesn't classify it as a gallery. Once again, Real Estate listings ARE NOT BLOGS, and they need to be treated as content, not as a blog.

However, after all of the testing, it doesn't really surprise us that the majority of plugins utilized the blogging features, or simply treated the information as you would a blog. As WordPress itself states: "WordPress started as just a blogging system", and still today that underlying engine is still for blogging. I'm sorry, but you can't take a Geo Metro, put a truck body on it, and call it a truck. It's still a Geo Metro in all but look.

Looking for a high quality, affordable Real Estate website? Look no further than RETS Websites.

Google, You, and Mobile

Did you know that effective April 21, 2015, Google is making a big change to how your website will come up in search results?
According to Google "When it comes to search on mobile devices, users should get the most relevant and timely results, no matter if the information lives on mobile-friendly web pages or apps. As more people use mobile devices to access the internet, our algorithms have to adapt to these usage patterns. In the past, we've made updates to ensure a site is configured properly and viewable on modern devices. We've made it easier for users to find mobile-friendly web pages and we've introduced App Indexing to surface useful content from apps. Today, we're announcing two important changes to help users discover more mobile-friendly content."
The big change that is taking place is that the mobile friendliness of your site will be a ranking factor. What this means is that if your site is NOT mobile device friendly, your search placement will be affected, as well as results for non-mobile friendly sites not showing up on searches using mobile devices.
Don't be left in the non-mobile world. Upgrade your site today to desktop and mobile friendly. All websites at Stallion Online Services are mobile, responsive "right out of the box", with no special plugins, hacks, or secondary websites being needed.
Contact us today for a quote.

Monday, April 27, 2015

WordPress...What is it? Do I need it?

Those looking for a website today seem to be focused on WordPress. But what is WordPress, do you need it, and does it truly fit the model of what you're wanting to get out of your website? There may also be those who have heard of Joomla!, Drupal, and some other popular CMS's out there today.
There is so much information available on the internet today about the most popular content management systems, WordPress and Joomla. There are others, but these are the two (2) "big" ones.
First of all, what is a CMS? In 1985 Amway came out with their CMS-1000 vacuum, but that's not what we're looking for, so what is a content management system? From Wikipedia: "A Content Management System (CMS) is a computer application that allows publishing, editing and modifying content, organizing, deleting as well as maintenance from a central interface. Such systems of content management provide procedures to manage workflow in a collaborative environment." In my opinion, this is a pretty broad definition, but it is a common definition. Really, based on this definition, you could almost call any web based website builder a CMS, as it has a single interface, allows publishing, editing modifying organizing, and deleting from a central interface (the web building portal).
Perhaps the most important thing to be mindful of about Joomla! is that it is not WordPress. There are a number of similarities between the two systems: both are written in PHP and run on a typical LAMP system. Both have a robust extension and theming system, and both can be deployed from various web hosting providers, such as Stallion Online Services. That is where the similarities end.


"WordPress was born out of a desire for an elegant, well-architectured personal publishing system". "WordPress started as just a blogging system, but has evolved to be used as full content management system and so much more through the thousands of plugins and widgets and themes, WordPress is limited only by your imagination. (And tech chops.)" (https://wordpress.org/about/)
That really sums it up right there: "WordPress started as just a blogging system, but has evolved to be used as a full content management system". This would be like saying this house that I'm in started out as just a small cabin, but has evolved into this giant mansion we're in today. The big question is: what is the underlying foundation? Is it a foundation for a mansion, or a foundation for a cabin? It doesn't matter if the structure has been expanded, what is the underlying foundation? Obviously, the foundation is for a cabin, unless you destroyed all that you had, and started all over from scratch.
With WordPress, you start with something that is designed for blogging, then through a process of evolution, you now have a content management system. So, you build something for blogging (the foundation), then through various plugins and widgets you can expand the system from a blogging system to a content management system, sitting on a foundation for a blogging system? Isn't this like having the cabin, and expanding the cabin to be a mansion, but on the cabin foundation?
Let's look at this another way. In 1983 Microsoft released Word version 1.0. Microsoft Word was released as a program for writing pages of text, with an occasional picture here or there. Wait a second, isn't that similar to a blog, except that it wasn't posted on the internet? Over the years, Microsoft has evolved into the version of Word we have today. Granted, Microsoft Word today can do so much more than it's predecessor, and with the addition of various plugins, it can be a very powerful piece of software. But, what is the underlying foundation? Oh yeah, word processor. Anyone that has used Word knows that you can do some spreadsheets and graphs within Word, but if you really need something complex, you need something like Excel or PowerPoint. You build what you need in Excel, then pull it into Word, but that's adding something that isn't part of the designed package.
To put this into some perspective: WordPress is Microsoft Word, and Microsoft Word only. No Excel, PowerPoint, Access Database, or anything like that. Just like with Word, you can change the look, layout, and functionality with various plugins, widgets, and themes.


Joomla started in 2005 as a content management system, and has evolved into a system that governments, corporations, educational institutions, non-profit organizations, personal home pages, and many others are using. The Joomla development team didn't think on the side of lets make a basic foundation, then build upon and expand that foundation. They instead had their goal and vision set to create a large, full featured platform from the get-go.
Joomla is actually not just a CMS, but is two parts: 1) the Joomla framework, and 2) the Joomla CMS. The Joomla framework is the foundation for the Joomla CMS. As the Joomla development team adds new features and functionality, they first add it to the foundation, the Joomla framework, then they add the changes to the CMS. This is different from WordPress as these are two separate pieces of software code, where WordPress has all their programming code in one place.
Joomla's addons to the CMS are called extensions, which are made up of components, modules, and plugins. What are these? Let's look at something like a download management system. The component is the main program, where you create the categories, upload and categorize the files, set the display, and much more. A module would be similar to a widget, where you could display something specific in a module, such as popular downloads. A plugin adds additional functionality, such as the ability to integrate your downloads with the Smart Search feature in Joomla, which is a powerful search engine within Joomla.
A good way to look at Joomla is looking back at our Microsoft Word example for WordPress. Joomla is the entire Office 365 platform. Built upon that platform is Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and other programs. Joomla is that type of system; you have the core system, Joomla, upon with you can easily install additional programs to suit your needs.
Joomla uses a much more powerful and robust system for managing users, permissions, group membership, and much more, allowing Joomla to be the proper solution for business. There are currently over 3,200 government sites, and thousands upon thousands of corporations, small and medium businesses, and hobbyists using Joomla!. Make the change to the leading platform for dynamic web content, and the first commercial CMS to be fully mobile, today.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Introducing RETS Real Estate Websites

RETS Real Estate Sites
If you're still using IDX you need to know there are big changes coming to IDX that will affect your current site. Be proactive and make the switch to RETS now! RETS is the recommended way to receive MLS data.

RETS - A Better Choice

RETS is becoming a commonplace acronym in the real estate industry. It stands for Real Estate Transaction Standard. And as you may already know, RETS feeds are the more modern and timely data feed, versus the dated IDX feed. RETS brings the data into your site and makes it a part of it, whereas IDX feeds simply frame in someone else's site. This makes a RETS feed the much more search engine friendly version. We're also able to update a site more often with a RETS feed over an IDX feed. This gives your clients more timely data and makes you look more professional and on top of the market.


Incorporating MLS listing data on a real estate agent's website can be fairly complicated, or it can be simple, depending on the process that's chosen, ie. IDX, RETS, framed, direct import, etc. Before we get into that, a brief vocabulary lesson is in order to understand the various terms and processes. Don't worry: We're leaving out as much of the tech speak as we can.
First, let's define some of the relevant terms:
IDX (Internet Data Exchange) – This refers to the data exchange between an MLS board's database and a realtor's website. Sometimes, IDX is used to refer to a specific method of data exchange, most of which are outlined below. IDX has to do with public MLS search, and is viewed as a form of advertising. The listings that are displayed here are only those allowed by other participants, but almost always includes the vast majority of the MLS database.
RETS (Real Estate Transaction Standard) – RETS is used to give brokers, agents and third parties access to listing and transaction data. MLS's nationwide are moving to adopt RETS as the industry standard because it drastically simplifies the process of getting listing data from an MLS to an agent's site. Key benefits include customization of how the listing data is displayed, fresh listing data (updated as often as every hour), and content added to the site (SEO – search engine optimization). The one main drawback is that the data feed is impossible to use by itself. That's where our software comes into play. It takes the data from RETS, and converts that data into readable content for your website.

First Month Hosting/Maintenance FREE to the next 10 new website orders.(Expires 02/28/2015)

Some of our Features...

Individual / Team / Brokerage Sites
Featured Listings
Featured Agent(s)
Beautiful Slideshows
Social Network Integration (post on your site & it feeds to your social media)
Open Houses
Client Capture
...and more...

We have several different plans for individuals, teams, and brokerage offices to meet a variety of needs and budgets.We have several different plans for individuals, teams, and brokerage offices to meet a variety of needs and budgets

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What is overselling?

Overselling is a marketing gimmick which many hosting companies use, where you are promised far more resources than the hosting company has available, designed to entice clients to their servers. For example, unlimited amounts of disk space and bandwidth for very low prices are the hallmark of these providers. If you’ve been looking for a hosting plan recently, you’ve likely seen the various advertisements and offers promising "Only $6.95 per month! With Unlimited storage, Unlimited bandwidth, Host Unlimited Domains!"Or from another popular hosting company: "150GB space, unlimited websites and bandwidth". This is overselling in its finest.

Anatomy of the Oversell

Let's look at an example: A hosting provider rents a dedicated server with 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD and 2TB monthly bandwidth, which costs $200 per month. Now this hosting company is selling hosting packages for $7.95 with 150 GB disk space and unlimited bandwidth (which by the way, is nowhere near the extreme for many hosting plans). Those who understand basic math immediately recognize that if the host allows only three users to use the resources he or she has purchased, the hosting provider would have used almost his entire hard disk and would have exceeded their monthly bandwidth on the server, with only three clients paying $7.95 a month, for a total of $23.85. So, what do these providers do? They have to pack as many customers on that server (often up to 1000 or more are on a single server) hoping that clients never actually use the resources they've purchased.

How overselling impacts your hosting experience?

Account Suspension/Termination: A host that oversells counts on you never using the resources which you paid for. However, your business depends on reliable service, and you don't want to run the risk of having your web site shut down all of a sudden. If you run a blog, forum or online store, you'll likely see a significant increase in your traffic if you advertise, or you’re in-store clients begin visiting your web site. The companies who oversell have numerous restrictions in place, where if you reach any of those restrictions you run the risk of your hosting provider enforcing their restrictions, often times suspending or terminating your account. When your account is suspended or terminated, 1) visitors can no longer access your account, and 2) you lose your entire site, unless you have recent backups. Your web site is your business on the internet, and this would be similar to your physical business location being shut down all of a sudden.
Frequent migrations: The more popular your site gets, the more your hosting provider will push you to get either a VPS (Virtual Private Server) or a Dedicated Server, which can get pricey for many small businesses. Or, as has happened too many, the host may migrate your web site to a less used server, which requires you to change the nameservers on your domain name, which can take up to 72 hours to make all the changes across the internet, essentially putting your online business OUT OF BUSINESS for a period of time.
Slow Site Performance: As mentioned above, with often hundreds, or even thousands of sites competing with you for valuable resources you may see a very noticeable degradation of service. Let's look at it this way: you have 10 homes all receiving their water from a garden hose. If you are the only one using the water, you have really good water pressure, but if your neighbor turns on their water, your water pressure is cut in half, if another neighbor turns on their water, you are cut in half again, and so on and so on, until you are down to a trickle or only a drip of water. The fact is, the more web sites that are hosted on a single server, the greater the decrease in site performance, and a decrease in site performance can mean a loss of business.
Exposure to malicious users: Cheap hosting, especially those with cheap packages offering everything, are very attractive to spammers and other users with less than admirable intentions. They can get in on the cheap, and run their scripts run without any accountability. Most hosting providers monitor for sites like these, but it's not fool proof, and even if a spammer can run for only a couple of days, they've done what they wanted CHEAPLY, while impacting your business, because the IP (Internet Protocol) address for that server could get listed in the spam directories, which means that legitimate emails from your business may get flagged as spam by the spam directories.

What can you do?

First and foremost, if you are running a business website, avoid the cheap offers promising you everything under the sun. Keep in mind that in the web hosting industry, more isn't really better, but could be opening you up to a whole big mess.
Look for a company that states that they DON'T oversell their server resources. Hosting your business web site with a hosting provider who doesn't oversell gives your business a greater chance of not being shut down, and a greater chance of not seeing a degradation of service.
When you get a web hosting account, take a look at the server stats, or even ask the provider prior to signing up. At Obsidian Moon Hosting we'll tell you our server stats upfront. We aren't afraid to tell you what our server load is, and we're proud to say that our average has been less than 1. What the server load means is how may processes are waiting in the queue to access the processor(s). The smaller the number, the better.
The next thing to look at is the amount of memory used. Just as with a computer, the higher the memory used the more potential problems that you're going to see. We've encountered web hosting companies who run servers at 98% or greater memory usage. Again, the lower the number, the better. At the time of writing, Obsidian Moon Hosting's server is running at 13%.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Joomla vs WordPress - Why we use Joomla!

We've been asked by numerous people WHY we chose to build our sites using the Joomla! Content Management System, rather than other popular options available today. This has been a while in coming, but I'm going to answer this. I know there are likely to be those that will disagree with me, but these are our reasons, and you're welcome to comment.
We've been designing websites for over 12 years, not using "drag and drop" software like many use today, but hand coding line by line. This was a tedious and time consuming path, but we believed that you would get cleaner, more professional code for the website, than using "drag and drop" software which typically inserts a bunch of code that is worthless in the given situation. or formats the code poorly. The problem with hand coded websites, and even HTML websites that are designed using web design software, is that most business owners and clients that we've had, wouldn't know the first thing about making changes to their site. The plus side for a designer is that they can maintain control of the pages, and require the client to rehire them to make changes, charging anywhere between $75 to $200 per hour to make even the simplest of changes. It's a goldmine, and pretty much guaranteed repeat business.
About 6 years ago we made the decision that, although we were HTML professionals, we wanted to design our sites to where they we flexible, powerful, professional, and would allow our clients to take ownership in their website, but having a platform that would allow our clients to easily make changes, or add additional content, without having to learn programming.
We knew that database driven sites were the way to go, but which one to choose, with so many options available, such as Joomla!, WordPress, Drupal, Xoops, ImpressCMS, Mambo, PHP Nuke, OpenCms, phpWebsite, Typo3, and more. We made the decision that the software we focused on needed to be 1) open source, since open source software tended to receive updates and enhancements more often than commercial, 2) Flexible. Not all sites are created equal, so we wanted a system that had an active developers community, active user forums, and enhancements for anything you could pretty much think of, 3) Content Management. Since the content on the sites would be managed by the clients, a content management system would be the best way to go, 4) actively updated, and 5) powerful. We wanted powerful software so that the software could handle the simplest of sites, to the sites requiring more power behind it, such as ecommerce websites, or Real Estate sites.
Shortly after testing several of the options above, there were pros and cons of each, for various reasons. For the sake of making this blog as short as possible, we'll focus on Joomla! and WordPress.
WordPress is very popular now days, so the question "why don't you use WordPress" is a valid question. We've looked at offering more websites using WordPress, but we again discounted WordPress for the majority of clients we meet. The reason: "WordPress started as just a blogging system", taken directly from the WordPress website. Granted, WordPress has been enhanced over the years, and is being touted as a content management system, but the underlying "engine" is still a blogging engine. Reading comments from a WordPress developer, WordPress is the easiest to use system available on the internet today. However, it can be a nightmare for developers since many times the whole system is likely to crash when trying to make modifications.
Wordpress uses a "per-view" structure in their theme structure. Although this allows designers to design different looks for different pages, the downfall is that this structure requires the duplication of many parts of the code. The WordPress themes utilize a hierarchical structure, which has generic views that are used as fallbacks.
Joomla! is equally popular today, but downplayed by many "web designers" today stating that it's not as user friendly as WP. Although I can agree that Joomla, "Out of the Box", can be intimidating, the power, flexibility, and extensibility behind Joomla is phenomenal. Many large businesses have chosen Joomla! over WordPress because of the power and extensibility available that rivals that of WordPress.
The theming structure (known as templates) uses an html and tagging system for different page renderings. The Joomla! template, and extension, architecture uses the MVC (model-view-controller) software architecture, which has become a standard in software engineering. The MVC framework utilizes a more logical approach to design, isolating the application logic for the user from the user interface, which allows for a separation of the design architecture from other parts of the system.
To sum things up, we chose Joomla! due to it's more standardized architecture (MVC), active community, and the ability to service any business, whether small or large, from a single piece of software. True, we could build sites using WordPress and Joomla!, and we did set up mytakeonlife.com using WordPress, but if you're focusing on multiple software architectures, it makes it more difficult to keep up on changes and new add-on that come out regularly, which means there's a greater liklihood that something new, and greater, could be missed.

Upgrade Immediately

If you're running any Avast anti-virus software (at least Windows versions) it's imperative that you update your Avast program IMMEDIATELY. We recently encountered a problem with the most recent update that was blocking every web site on the internet, stating the site was infected with Malware or a Trojan Horse.
A complete scan of our computers identified HTML files being detected by Avast as "infected", even files from Adobe and Quickbooks. Even "blank" HTML files, which made things even more suspicious.
So, I surmised that the problem had to be with Avast giving false positives, and forced Avast to update the program immediate (definition files were up-to-date). The update program option updated Avast from 5.1 to 6.0 and, lo and behold, everything is running with no problems.
So, if you're running Avast, UPDATE IMMEDIATELY!!!!