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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Working on our new website

Our website was hacked approximately two weeks ago, an experience I would recommend to no one.  The vulnerability was a result of old database code that was exposed by sophisticated hackers running a script that overloaded our server and made defacing our site a fun thing to do for anyone on their hacker message board.

It was only our images, video, and content pages that were unsecured, as we keep all client and project information in secure off-line storage, but there was real damage done to our website presentation.  We were forced to start again from scratch rather than try to de-bug a buggy old site, a reorganizing of all of the content we have worked since 2004 to build up. 

I have been working 6-8 hours a day in addition to my normal work trying to get our new fancier and more secure site up.  Like most re-dos of your work, we believe that this revision will result in a better website.  Having our old site had meant continuing to do things in the old format we developed, whereas now we really could start fresh from nothing without roadblocks. 

When we considered what website development technology to use, the most important criteria after our recent hacker-trauma was security so we don't have to go through this ever again.  We chose the most sophisticated open-source website management tools that both have flexibility to do cool stuff, and also are continuously developed so that they are secure.  We can thank the large open-source development community for the technology, and since my last attempt to develop an open-source website 6 years ago the technology has come a long way.  While I have to admit to knowing more than I did in 2004, it is simply much more user friendly and easier because of all of the hard work that has gone into open-source content development.  Most web users will never dig into the back-end of how sites are developed but I can assure you that there are lots of hard-working people out there developing sites and contributing to free content to make the web an easier place to work in and browse.

We have taken a two-track approach.  First we started our coding team developing our new back-end features.  Secondly, we have a temporary site we are actively assembling where the content for the new site goes first and then is integrated into the new site design once it is organized roughly the way we want it.  This gives us a chance to ensure we have all relevant, updated content on the new site that is organized and presented the way we want it before we go live with our finished new site.

Based on the questions and comments of visitors to our site, we realized that the way our plans had to be navigated (like almost every one of our competitors) was confusing.  Grouping plans by modular home manufacturer rather than style and size does not match how people think.  Most visitors don't care about the manufacturer, they care about the plan they want and then they build it based on the budget they have which allows them a certain level of specifications.  Picking a facility to manufacture the home comes later.  So, we deleted our collections that presented our plans by manufacturer and are now presenting our plans by style and size groupings as appropriate.  We believe that this will be more intuitive to our site visitors.  Once we match up the right plan to our visitor, we can then work to match the appropriate manufacturer to our potential client, given consideration of factors include location, budget, architectural features that work with a particular factory, and lots of other criteria.

While is not planned to be an social networking site, there are lots of social features that can be used to find out more about what our visitors want and give a better experience.  Some are simple and unnoticeable, others like an "email this" feature or an automated "PDF" feature on every page just make things easier to take off-line for some people to share or study our plans and information.   Others you see more obviously like the polls we now have on some pages, and we plan to have more polls soon targeted to different types of content.  We have struggled with whether or not to include a ranking feature on our plans, and have settled on working to include it once we have gotten the rest of our site in order so we can make sure that it is used constructively.  We are really at the tip of the iceberg but the tip of the iceberg is already very cool when compared to our old site and most of the competition we have.

Rather than farming out all of the development work, we have chosen to do the site development more methodically and to be intimately involved.  The last thing I want is to have a developer put together a whole site and then come back and it not make sense for our clients and our business.  Although Chris says I am spending maybe too much time on the new site, I feel in 2010 there is no more important place for management to focus energy than into how we communicate with our customers, and for a business like ours it is undoubtedly through our site.

Please let me know if there are any thoughts you have on our new modular homes and panelized homes website via our contact form on the site or through comments to this blog post.

Isaac Lassiter
General Manager
Cutting Edge Homes Inc.