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A Lean, (Ever)Green Machine: Website Tips for Small Shops

I've been making little websites to serve up information on various topics for close to two decades. I'm basically a one-woman shop, so my websites have to be lean, evergreen, low cost and low maintenance to make any sense at all.

I currently live in a small town and I sometimes attend public meetings where people are enamored of shiny tech but don't know how to use it. They get all envious of projects and talk in glowing terms about "Wouldn't it be GREAT if we did something like that?!" and I bite my tongue and don't say "You have no idea what on earth you are talking about. You have neither the resources nor the expertise to do a project like that."

Those experiences inspired me to write this post. I would love to help people in the small town where I live to establish an effective web presence, but I really am going to need to do a lot of educating if that is ever going to happen.

Most locals have no idea how to make a website that's an asset to a small organization with limited resources instead of a huge headache. This post is general advice for small operations that want a website.

Lean

A well-done website can leverage limited resources for a small operation.

It can put out information to the public 24/7 while your office is locked up tight and you are sleeping. This can do things like help protect limited staff time by reducing the number of phone calls you get for Frequently Asked Questions.

In contrast, a poorly-done website can consume all the resources you can throw at it and still be hungry for more.

One way this can happen is if you commit to publishing up-to-date information of a sort that changes very frequently. If you want up-to-date information of certain kinds on your site, you better know of a widget or code snippet that can supply it to your website.

Otherwise, your entire operation will be run ragged trying to keep up with this commitment -- or it simply won't be kept up, which is not a good look for your operation. Keeping certain kinds of information up to date can be a really huge time sink that a small shop can't reasonably afford.

So a basic first step is think about what kind of information you are planning to publish online. Make sure you aren't planning a website where the answer is that you (or someone in your small organization) will need to personally find the information, format the information and post it to your site every single day -- or even more often.

A website can be used as a cheap bullhorn to share information with people across the world, like where you are located, what you sell and when you are open. But committing to constantly updating certain types of information will have you chained to a desk trying desperately to keep it all current and you will hate every minute of it.


You don't want to have to Feed The Beast endlessly.

Evergreen

Instead of constant new information, you should be shooting for evergreen information for most parts of your site. Evergreen info should meet the following tests:
  • It is generally useful information that will most likely still be relevant at least five years after it was written.
  • It has been sanitized of time-sensitive information, like current prices.
As noted above, you may be able to use widgets or code snippets from third parties for certain kinds of information. But the way to include current in-house information is to limit it to certain sections of the site such that you can readily update it in one to three places and have the entire site access the updated information.

On BlogSpot, you can do this by limiting such information to sidebar widgets or Pages (not Posts). For example, you can have a Page with prices and it can be linked from anywhere on the site. If you do it right, when prices changes, you only have to update that one Page to make sure the entire site has access to correct, current information.

You also want to treat things like contact information or hours of operation the same way. You want to only state those things in a few limited places that you can readily find and update when things change.

So don't say things like "Jim Bob's Widget Shop, on 123 Main Street of Our Town, is open 9 to 5, Monday through Friday" randomly in different places across the site. Trying to track down every such mention when information changes is one of the ways a website can turn into a huge headache and be more or less impossible to keep up.

You have no idea what page people will land on first or how they got there.

Maybe a friend gave them a link or maybe they did a search and tripped across some forgotten page that hasn't been updated in years. Now they have out of date info and may never see the new info or they may be mad at you when they do finally get it sorted out because you wasted so much of their time.
...automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency... automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.
-- Bill Gates

Machine

A lot of what is found on the internet is supplied by armies of often low-paid laborers or even unpaid volunteers. The impressive front end is not really a machine, though it looks like one because it's on the internet, so you may be easily fooled into thinking it's a machine.

In many cases, it's really what I call a box of little elves. In other words, it's a bunch of people behind the scenes manually doing the work and posting it online.

This gets really confusing when something is being called "Artificial Intelligence" but it's not AI at all. It's just a box of little elves doing stuff behind the scenes and fooling the general public into thinking it's done via some machine process.

If you are a small shop and getting big eyes about some thing or other you have seen and thinking "That would be So Cool!" you need to first stop and ask yourself if it's a machine or if it's really a box of little elves. If it's a box of little elves, your small shop cannot do it and you will hate trying. It will be a terrible experience.

Reddit, Facebook and Wikipedia are each basically a box of little elves. There is enormous amounts of human labor behind those sites. Millions of people add information to each of those sites daily for free, in addition to whatever their actual staff does.

Other businesses pay a small army of people to do certain kinds of work for them. You may be able to hire such a business or make use of the infrastructure already available via Facebook or Reddit to serve your needs, but you probably cannot replicate what they.

It can be hard to visualize the human labor involved when all you are seeing is technology on your end. But ask yourself: If you open the box, what's inside?

If the answer is there is an army of little elves inside the box when you open it up, then you can't realistically emulate that project with a small shop, so don't try.


This is how a lot of modern tech really works.

When I worked at Aflac years ago, they were actively trying to encourage people to file claims online instead of faxing them in. They were rewarding that by promising faster turn around times on claims filed online.

This was a box of little elves operation. They set aside a team of people in the claims department to handle the online claims and would grab people off of other teams to help out when they were having trouble meeting their turnaround times.

In contrast, they also had Wellness forms with check boxes that they mailed out to policyholders. If you filled them out properly, the system could pay them without a person ever looking at them. This was an actual machine doing the work -- unless something went wrong, at which point human eyes were required to straighten out any problems.

So whenever you get excited about something you are seeing, stop and find out if it's really a machine or a box of little elves. A small shop simply doesn't have the manpower to replicate anything that's being done by a box of little elves.

In contrast, a small shop can benefit enormously from actual automation. It can save precious manpower and help you get more done with the limited manpower you do have.

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