41. John Foland, Web Developer

Web developer and Owner of Epurétoile, John Foland has +12 experience designing, building, and developing websites and creating new tools and applications that work together to project a brand’s congruent and specialized message and allow everyone to communicate easier.

How does your job fit into the advertising process? The web is about projecting a message and creating new tools that allow everyone to communicate easier. As a web developer, I help my clients advertise in the sense that I make websites and applications that promote or their message in one way, shape, or form.  My job is to facilitate my client’s communication and the ways by which advertisers themselves can do their jobs. In that way, I’m a catalyst for advertisers.

Whats the difference between web designers and developers? 

  • Web developers do all of the messy, behind the scenes work, creating the engine that drives the functionalities and user interface. They create the very essence of a website or webapp, working with a variety of technologies, the database, cloud services, servers of all sorts… You name it.
  • Web designers, or graphic artists, use their expertise and creativity to make the website or webapp accessible, easy to use and aesthetically pleasing. 
  • Copywriters provide the content, the meat that goes into the pages of the website. They add depth to the website that keep visitors coming back.
  • Webmasters play a crucial role in integrating content from the copywriters and graphic artists.
  • Project managers are the glue that manage all the people involved in making and running a website. They have at least a working knowledge of the developer’s, designer’s, copywriter’s, and webmaster’s responsibilities.

It’s one thing to create a functional website, and quite another to design a beautiful website filled with quality content that gets shared. It’s not necessary to be a good web developer to run a website, but it is one important element of many. There are plenty of people who are not very good web developers and not even necessarily good web designers, but they’re good at using the tools available to them, and if their design and message are good enough their idea or brand gets picked up spread everywhere. 

Obviously there isn’t a simple magic formula to make your idea, image, product, and website work. But there are some people who have learned how to consistently crack the code using a number of different methods.

How do you manage doing web developing and designing? We can all see when a website is too slow, is intrinsically non-ergonomic, or is sketchy and can’t be trusted. But as a web developer who has had the opportunity of working on innumerable online projects and being involved with all the different stages: I’ve learned how to create an appealing graphic design and discern good content from bad content. 

So you can tell your clients how to improve their business plan? I might have a client who wants to create a website, or wants to modify an already existing website that has an A+ from website functionality to content, except that their website’s design makes them look like they’re a phishing scam. Or in another case, a client might be dead-set on creating a website using a certain content management system (CMS), and after hearing their needs and business plan, I might know of another CMS that would better suit their needs and save them from future headaches.

Web developers need to learn to walk a fine line between creating website specifications exactly how the client wants while also being able to suggest ways to improve or alter the website’s construction and/or communication.

Ultimately it’s my responsibility to make the client happy and do what he or she wants. It’s not my job to tell the client whether or not their business model can or can’t work, especially if they don’t want to hear it from me. My job isn’t about judging or criticizing business models, but it is of utmost importance to be brutally honest, especially when I’m serving in a consultancy role.

What if a client comes to you with something impossible? Like in any job, problems become solutions, and today’s problem becomes your key to expediency and ease tomorrow. For example, I was working on a site recently on a problem I didn’t know how to solve. This is a common situation for web developers today. Like a muscle, you work out that kink and it no longer is a problem.

With the web today, I never tell a client something is impossible, because nothing is anymore! There are degrees of difficulty given a budget, timeframe, other applications that need to be integrated, etc., but nothing is impossible. I think this is a very recent phenomenon; three or four years ago, impossible was still in my vocabulary.

What should I look for when choosing a website template? There are fantastic tools out there like WeeblyTumblrJimdo, and Blogster which allow you to make simple websites on a small budget and very little web designing skills. 

Most strong and high-quality website templates tend to be:

  • Elegant and clean cut. In the early 2000’s during the Myspace era there were graphics everywhere and we had big blinking text and glittery photos. No-one uses that anymore. What people want, and Google picked up on this a long time ago, is that the best websites are elegant, clean, and minimalist. The user sees what they want to see and doesn’t have to go hunting for it or decode any wierd navagation systems. The best themes use traditional web ergonomics – horizontal rather than vertical navigation systems. Take cues from the top websites today and see how they organize their website. Simplicity is key. That doesn’t mean lacking of features or doing something less complicated, you can make your website complex but with a simple user-interface.
  • Aesthetically Designed. Does the theme have a line where one isn’t needed? What is the aesthetic reason for the box, border, or line? Could you do without that background, border, or line? Be frugal. Less is more with website design.
  • Demographic-oriented. News websites aren’t going to present information in the same way as a photographic website.  If you’re making a website for a movie studio’s website, you’d organize it completely different than for a company website. I’d consult with developers outside of what I do in it’s creation. Rules for artistic websites are different. Conduct a thorough industry analysis before choosing a template to know what your value added to a website is for your demographic.
  • Easily navigated. If you sell a product, then you need a good navigation system with a clear way for your visitor to understand how and why to buy your product or service. Have a design that doesn’t take focus away from your product.
  • Adaptable. If your audience is into weird things, then do weird things.
  • Responsive. Choose “responsive” templates. This ensures that visitors to your website have “an optimal viewing experience – easy reading and navigation with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling” – regardless on which device (desktop computer, iPad, iPhone, Blackberry…) your user connects with.

Which content management system would you recommend? That depends on your goal and business model. If you just want a blog, then a hosted service such as tumblr or blogster might be perfect for you.  

If you want to sell a product or service, then you’ll probably require shopping cart integration, customer service integration… etc. In this case I’d recommend WordPress or Drupal.

The CMS you use also depends on the level of control you want. You must also take into account hosted and portable services. WordPress, for example, offers both hosted and portable, where as tumblr and blogger are hosted for you by the services themselves. A down-side to entirely hosted services is that you cannot back your website up the event your CMS service crashes or is hacked. 

Fully hosted services are great and have many built-in advantages. But if you’re thinking long-term, then my opinion is that there’s very little interest in using any other CMS outside of Drupal or WordPress.

I have a product website with an accompanying blog. Should I use the same CMS for my product and blog (WordPress & WordPress), or using a different CMS (WordPress and Tumblr)? Tumblr and Blogger have the additional benefit of community features which allows others who use that same service to follow or subscribe. Beyond that there’s a very limited advantage, if any, of using another CMS. Your CMS depends on what you need to do for your particular method of communication.

If the heart of your product’s website doesn’t need to interact with the blogging functionality, why do it? Pinterest has its own website yet uses tumblr as its blogging CMS (as of October 27, 2012). Why develop a blogging system if you just want to blog?  There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. If it suites your needs, then use what somebody else has already created. 

That being said, if your blog requires serious interaction with your main website such as blog posts that allow for one-click shopping, then using the same CMS makes integration easier.

If you’ve already created a blog and later launched a website selling a product, it’s might not be necessary to move your blog over, especially if it’s easier to create a blog template that meshes with your main website.

What’s a misconception clients commonly have? One is that editing a website is as simple as editing a Word document or MS Paint. The tools I have mentioned in this interview make it seem like it’s easy and that anything is possible. 

I mentioned before that websites and templates should look minimalist and simple to put together, but that doesn’t mean the template was easy to put together and  easy to just make major modifications as you want them to and on a whim.

Adding something to a website can be easy, but perhaps at the direct cost of functionality. Serious web developers of the CMS’s bloggers and websites use are trying to bridge that gap all the time.

Secondly, I agree with Remi Noel that people who go onto your website don’t know your website like you do, and that people aren’t as interested in your website as you are. They don’t live it, breathe it, and sleep it like you do. They’re not invested in it like you are. They’re not waiting for the check at the end of the month like you do.

For them, either they want something or they don’t. This is a trap people get into thinking the visitor cares as much as about your brand as you.

A website you often go to for ideas/inspiration? Springwise

Advice for someone who wants to do your job: Learn all of the major web languages, for starters: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP… visit and make lots of websites.

Advice in protecting my website from hackers? Think about the entry points that hackers use:

  • Exploiting text input. Every place on your website where people input text is a potential open hole for hackers. If your website only displays images and text and video, then there’s no way hackers can hack into your website unless it’s through your FTP or your hosting service.
  • Exploiting your hosting service. You’re at the mercy of your hosting service’s security competencies. All of the major services are very secure.
  • Cracking your passwords. Choose strong passwords. Upper and lower case with numbers and symbols.
  • Exploiting your dedicated server. If you’re using a dedicated server, make sure you’ve got a good server administrator, a Linux or Unix administrator.
  • Exploiting outdated CMS versions. Once you start using one, make sure you’re up-to-date on the latest versions.
  • Exploiting your computer. Your computer itself could be weak, providing a portal for hackers. If hackers get into your computer where you store your passwords and confidential information, they have your website.

What can you tell me about SEO? Learn the tactics specifically regarding the position of the words on your page, the tags you use, the title of your page in <h1> and in html 5 the <header> tag. And others Google uses.

There are companies that do only that and are able to help certain high value customers out, but they will help NOONE that doesn’t have good content. My best advice is to make good content. Tactics to optimize SEO are so readily available and are built into the major CMSs. Make good content and the rest will follow.

Google’s algorithm is like a voting system, and every link is considered a vote. But not all votes are equal: higher PageRank-ed websites have more heavily weighted votes.

So if website A is important and has hundreds of backlinks and links to B, and website C also links to B, but C is but a small site, then if B links back to A, that diminishes A’s vote to B by a little bit. And if B reciprically links back to A that diminshes the vote a lot more.

So from a selfish point of view, blogrolls and link sharing are a bad idea. If you want to be number one, you want a lot of people linking to you and you want to link to very few.

Does blog comments count as equally as a guest post on a high page ranking website? No. To prevent comment spam and distinguish between post links and blog comment links, google created no-follow html codes:

99% of the major high-trafficked websites (the websites you want linking to you) use this “no-follow” code in their blog commenting services. You get a backlink, but it has little to no SEO value. In terms of backlinks I agree with Heather Huhman that while blog commenting does help spread the word about your website and help build a reputation, it has no SEO value. For the powerful backlinks you want the guest post.

Additional comments and advice? To summarize:

  • Stay basic and simple. 
  • Stay concentrated on your objective(s), and 
  • Always be thinking about the person you want to be visiting your website, and put yourself in their shoes, everything else will come out of that.
  • When you can, invest in a professional to help you.

Where do you see websites in the next 5 years? Mobile devices are making the web more application based, therefore websites are becoming more ‘responsive’ and application driven. Instead of going to Facebook’s or Youtube’s website, people are going to the Facebook and Youtube application.

 Visit your website from an ipad and iphone perspective. What does it look like? Don’t like it? Mobile devices can automatically readjust your website pixel by pixel, but that doesn’t guarantee your website will look good. The advantage of responsive design is you have more control and you know your website will look good on mobile devices. You don’t want to be making 2 different websites (online and mobile) because that’s too much to keep up with.

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