Cloud computing has long been a mainstay of the biggest businesses but it is increasingly being embraced by even the smallest firms. If you are yet to take the plunge, here are ten ways that cloud-based software solutions could benefit your small firm right now:
Small businesses are often far more agile than larger corporations, so why would you want to undermine that advantage by failing to tap into the cloud? Cloud computing gives you instant access to the latest applications and allows you to take advantage of system support that meets your exact needs and grows with your business.
Recent years have seen a shift in emphasis from a capital expense (CapEx) model to an operational expense (OpEx) one, on account of the minimal upfront investment and zero long-term financial commitments associated with the latter. Cloud computing equips your small business to start projects faster, end them with fewer financial complications and keep ongoing expenses predictable.
The cloud liberates your employees to work together more productively, even if they are out of the office or based on the other side of the world. It means that your personnel can sync up and work on shared documents and apps at the same time, with critical real-time updates being provided to everyone working on a project.
It's common these days for millennial employees to carry work-related information around with them on their laptops wherever they go. With the cloud, much more of your sensitive business data is stored in one, secure place - namely a cloud server - allowing you to keep it away from prying eyes.
It's more important than ever these days for your company to be seen to be socially responsible and sensitive to the environment. A cloud computing solution can certainly make a big contribution to this goal, as it enables you to only use the amount of server space and energy that you actually need, minimising your carbon footprint. Using the cloud reduces energy consumption and carbon emissions by at least 30% compared to on-site servers.
Once upon a time, small businesses working on an assignment would have had to exchange emails back and forth containing sensitive and valuable information. Not surprisingly, more and more small firms are embracing the chance to keep control of their documents under the "one roof" of their cloud server. Document control is set to become an ever-more important issue as more knowledge workers collaborate with colleagues remotely.
The internet age has enabled more of us to work from anywhere, making geographical location less of a barrier to collaboration. Cloud computing has played a key role in making this possible. A recent study has found that 42% of working adults would even give up some of their salary if they could telecommute; embracing the cloud could help your business to attract the very best talent.
Any downtime for your company can incur significant expense, and it is often the smallest businesses that risk having to cease trading altogether due to unforeseen events such as fire or flood. With the cloud, you can be back in action fast and neither you nor your customers need to be compromised for long. If you need any further convincing, Aberdeen Group found that businesses using the cloud are able to resolve issues in an average of 2.1 hours, compared to eight hours for businesses not using the cloud.
Did you know that in 2010, UK companies spent 18 working days per month managing on-site security? The need to remember and fork out for updates related to your many software packages is one of the most compelling reasons to switch to the cloud. It means that you can focus on more important matters like building your core business, as regular software updates are automatically rolled out for you.
The latest hardware and software costs money, often upfront. By investing in cloud migration, you can spend very little upfront, paying as you go in accordance with your needs at any one time. With cloud computing, it couldn't be easier, faster or more cost-effective to upscale or downscale your infrastructure.
It's easy to see why the worldwide cloud computing market commanded a whopping $110 billion in revenues in 2015 - it is simply relevant to almost every kind of small business. And the sooner your small firm embraces the cloud, the better equipped it will be for the emerging age of the Internet of Things.
There's a change on the horizon.
The Internet of Things (IoT) was a term coined by Kevin Ashton, a British entrepreneur in 1999 and refers to various physical devices, services and systems working in harmony via the internet.
Fast-forward to 2016, and IoT devices have evolved to the point where they are regularly put to use in households and businesses throughout the world. A technology that was once nascent and impractical is fast becoming commonplace in society.
The speed at which the IoT industry is advancing means the impact on virtually every aspect of our lives is likely to be significant as time progresses. Equally, consultants, analysts and software developers must ensure they have the expertise and tools required to keep up with ever-advancing IoT expectations from businesses and consumers.
If there's one aspect of our lives the IoT era will impact more than any other, it is online shopping and ecommerce. IoT devices, from connected cars to smart home appliances, will change the shape of ecommerce by turning everyday, inanimate objects into potential sales channels for retailers. Fridge run out of milk? Don't worry - it has probably already ordered replenishments via its internet connection.
The world of ecommerce continues to grow rapidly, with analysts suggesting that the number of global online shoppers will see a 50% increase by 2018. Similarly, the IoT is finally shaking off any lingering doubts that it is more hype than substance by becoming genuinely useful for consumers and a source of increased revenue for businesses. It is predicted that, by 2020, there will be at least five IoT connected objects for every smartphone user.
With the Internet of Things already taking over, there are a vast number of connected devices bridging the gap between user and tech. From health-tracking Fitbits to smart TVs, the potential impact of IoT devices on ecommerce is huge. Here's why that's a very good thing indeed:
IoT devices will help ecommerce businesses streamline their operations. For example, the tracking and handling of inventory will become easier with the movements of connected products now traceable in real time. Such data can be used to notify business owners of low and slow-moving stock.
The prevalence of IoT devices in society enables businesses to gain a greater insight into their customers' behaviour than ever before. The daily routines of target demographics, their shopping histories, product preferences and buying habits can all be tracked and used to tailor more relevant marketing campaigns. This is why, as consumers, we're starting to see an increased amount of 'personalised' advertising sent our way.
The Internet of Things enables ecommerce businesses to connect with customers like never before. For example, warranty and malfunction data can be automatically sent back to retailers to ensure a swift response - sometimes before the user is even aware a problem exists!
Nokia Networks is leading the way when it comes to the IoT, and as a result we're likely to see a significant change to the way mobile websites are developed and designed. A great user experience is essential for ecommerce websites, but in the near future, when the IoT becomes even more prevalent, web developers will have to work on ways to harness the increased data on offer. This will eventually lead to more intelligent, perceptive websites which are capable of offering personalised browsing experiences.
The marriage between the IoT and ecommerce has only just begun, but as it develops, the way in which goods and services are ordered, delivered and consumed looks set to change forever.
How does your company website stack up against bigger competitors? New research suggests that smaller companies can sharpen their competitive edge by creating websites that are mobile-optimised and personalised to meet the preferences of individual customers.
An online study of over 2,000 British adults found that small businesses rule when it comes to personal service. A whopping 71% of people said smaller companies deliver a more personalised offline service than bigger ones.
However, 59% of people felt that big businesses generally have better websites. Given that such companies typically have generous budgets to build customised sites, that's perhaps not a great surprise. (They don't all go to plan, of course - just look at Marks & Spencer.)
The research was commissioned by web hosting firm 123-reg and conducted online by YouGov.
And it suggests that small companies could clean up, if only they can find some way to deliver that same personal service online. After all, they're already beating big competitors in other contexts.
The problem is that it's not easy to deliver personal service via a website. On the internet, personalised content risks coming across as clumsy or misguided.
Just take retargeting banners, beloved of many an internet marketer. These are used to encourage you to buy a product that you've shown interest in.
After you've viewed a product on a website, you often see repeated adverts for the same thing as you browse different websites. That's retargeting in action.
Retargeting banners do work in some circumstances, but they can also engineer irritation and mistrust in customers, who get tired of seeing the same adverts over and over and over again. Worse, badly-implemented campaigns can see you targeting customers who've already bought your product.
But let's not get hung up on retargeting. The point is that it's easy to do personalisation badly. To do it well requires you to tread a fine line between showing customers that you know them, without becoming repetitive or overbearing.
So, when you want to incorporate personalised, targeted elements to your website or mobile app, it's a good idea to proceed with caution.
Try to find some way to measure the impact of any changes. You could perform an A/B test, or at least try to monitor any change in conversion rates.
With that in mind, consider starting with some basic personalisation, such as:
In any case, it's definitely worth experimenting. As part of its research, 123-reg joined forces with Patrick Fagan, a behavioural scientist.
"The experiment shows that SMEs could almost halve lost sales opportunities and double their propensity to return to a site by using information about the visit to show specific content," he explained.
"It also highlighted that personalisation of a site significantly affected people's trust and empathy with the business which, in turn, directly translated into purchase and behavioural intent."
Or, in other words: appropriate personalisation really does help you sell more stuff.
If you want to incorporate personalised, targeted elements into your website or app, there are a number of ways to proceed.
The options available will likely depend on how your website is built. So, if you're planning a new site, it's a good idea to consider personalisation features before you get started. You might be able to:
Ultimately, your website is likely to be a key sales or marketing channel for your business. (And if it isn't already, it certainly has the potential to be so in future.)
With personalisation and targeting steadily becoming more common, now is a good time to consider whether personalised content could make it easier to compete with larger rivals.
We're long past the point where 'the cloud' was just another piece of technology jargon. Businesses of all sizes are adopting the cloud as part of their everyday strategies.
And it's not the complex entity that many smaller companies fear. In fact, it can be a reliable, straightforward way to store data. It can also make you more productive, thanks to its ability to offer unhindered access to real-time information.
It's very likely that parts of your business already run on the cloud. There may be a strong argument for moving more of it there. Here are four reasons to get you thinking.
Technology is crucial to your business, but storing and handling data can place serious demands on your IT resources. Keeping your IT up to date in the face of ever-increasing processing requirements is tricky.
But cloud computing can revolutionise how you approach refreshing and replacing hardware and software in your business.
Typically, IT infrastructures are reviewed every three to five years. If replacement hardware is required, this can be costly.
When you switch to the cloud, you get a stable, predictable solution that requires fewer manual updates and less maintenance overall (that's because your cloud provider should take care of these items). It also relieves you of the burden and cost of servers and other equipment.
The cloud gives you continual access to your business systems. They can be accessed any time of the day, from any location (as long as you have an internet connection).
If you have sales teams on the road or people who tend to work from home, this accessibility makes it easier to stay in touch, coordinate work and give people access to what they need.
What's more, this accessibility is only set to improve. Fast 4G mobile networks are spreading across the UK, and public Wi-Fi is available more widely than ever.
At the same time, the way teams work within a business is changing. The number of remote workers is increasing. Give them access to the cloud and they can be much more productive. For instance, automatic document uploads make it much easier to work together.
This gives you a competitive advantage in many ways. With location less of a barrier, you can access a pool of talent that stretches across the country, or even the globe. Remote working can make your employees happier, too – leading to increased staff retention.
When serious breaches happen, they're big news. High-profile hacks have placed cloud computing under scrutiny, encouraging providers to boost security measures and test them regularly.
Although private cloud services are a good option if your business needs to store really sensitive data, cloud services generally offer excellent security.
Most providers implement strong physical security, with round-the-clock monitoring and surveillance. Other measures to protect servers include high perimeter fences, bollards, security checkpoints, biometric security controls, and 24/7 security teams.
Together with active monitoring that identifies and blocks network attacks - plus automated backups - using the cloud can dramatically improve security.
Richard Kennedy, head of cloud computing at The Cloud Simplified, explains further:
"When migrating to the cloud, security is a common concern. Where is my data located, who has access to it and what measures are in place to protect it?"
"If your business has a noisy, dusty server sitting in the corner of the office, consider this: how safe is your data right now? What's stopping someone from physically removing it from your premises and what measures are in place to protect your information from a disaster or human error?"
Moving everyday business data and processes to the cloud can deliver significant savings. For starters, it reduces the need for in-house equipment, cutting your energy costs.
Additionally, running servers in-house usually means investing heavily in maintenance and support. By moving to the cloud, you reduce this expenditure. Most cloud services require minimal outlay upfront. You just pay a regular monthly fee.
Finally, cloud computing protects your business from IT-related financial loss by reducing the risk of hardware failure from incidents such as fire, flood or break in.
The capabilities of cloud computing have progressed enormously even within the last three years. If your business isn't ready to leap to the cloud, you can move in small increments instead. As your knowledge of and trust in the cloud builds, you'll start to see your entire company benefit.
Copyright © 2015 Rebecca Moore
IT for Donuts is our regular feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.
This time round, find out how easy it is to see what a website used to look like. Perhaps you want to check what promotions your biggest competitor was running a year ago. Or maybe you want a copy of your company's old website.
Whatever your reasons, here's how to view the history of (almost) any website.
To take a trip back through time, we'll use the Internet Archive. Founded in 1996, one of its most popular services is the Wayback Machine. This automatically visits millions of websites, storing snapshots of how they look each time.
The Wayback Machine's entire library is available online, for free. In fact, the Internet Archive is a non-profit organisation. Given the transitory nature of the web, the archive plays a vital role creating a permanent record of how it used to look. (You can donate to it, if you like.)
Ok, let's see if we can find out what the BBC website looked like in 1999.
To get started, visit the Internet Archive website. At the top of the screen, you'll see the Wayback Machine logo, along with a search box. Enter the website address here. We've entered www.bbc.co.uk:
Hit the Enter key and Wayback Machine will show its search results.
The top of the screen summarises how many copies of this web page it holds. It also shows a graph so you can see how many captures it has taken over time.
The calendar shown beneath the graph illustrates when captures were taken. When you select a year at the top of the screen, the calendar changes to reflect what's available from that year.
Here you can see that there are a few captures available from 1999, with - for some reason - a cluster in April:
To view this web page from a particular date, just select it from the calendar. Here's how BBC website looked in April 1999. Unfortunately some of the images are broken (this is common, especially with older sites), but you should get the idea:
You can search for any website you like on the Wayback Machine. Although results can be patchy - especially for less well-known sites - it's an absolutely treasure trove of information. What will you find?
If you're looking for a short answer as to whether your business needs a cloud strategy, the answer is simple: yes. Read on to find out why
Even if you plan to do nothing for now other than to watch your business grow and to monitor how cloud computing changes as your requirements shift, that's a strategy. But is it the right strategy for your business?
Cloud computing and storage have crept into organisations in many forms. Tools like Google Apps, Microsoft Office 365 and Dropbox mean that the cloud is commonplace.
These 'shadow IT' solutions are often implemented in a piecemeal fashion, as particular needs arise. But as the cloud becomes more sophisticated and your business needs evolve, you may need to use the cloud in a more organised, strategic manner.
RightScale's 2015 State of the Cloud Report found that 88% of enterprises are using public cloud services (like Dropbox), while 63% are using private cloud (this means their own cloud applications that aren't shared with other organisations).
These companies have adopted the cloud to enjoy some significant benefits:
However, to see the biggest potential benefits in these three areas, you really need to plan ahead rather than just reacting.
A successful cloud strategy won't stifle your company's agility. But will increase your understanding of how decisions about the cloud can affect and improve the work your people do.
When developing a cloud strategy, make sure you focus on aligning your IT services with the needs of your business. (If you haven't done this in a while, you can go back to the basics of your IT requirements, thinking about how technology can help you achieve your business objectives.)
Regardless of your specific objectives, it's a good idea to aim for:
Of course, your strategy should evolve in response to technological advances or market changes. Understanding how to adjust your strategy is key for it to remain fit for purpose.
Coming up with a suitable cloud strategy can be tricky. The demands of day-to-day tasks may mean it's one of those jobs that never gets done.
As with other aspects of choosing and buying IT, you might also benefit from getting an external perspective on things. An independent consultant or local IT company may be able to help you develop a practical, long-term cloud strategy.
Copyright © 2015 Simon Mitchell, CEO at LinuxIT
Cloud computing has been a game-changer for business IT. In the UK last year, 581,173 new businesses were registered with Companies' House. Certainly, part of this accelerated growth can be put down to cloud computing
This is because cloud technology allows new ventures to be in business almost instantly. As a new company, you can get an IT infrastructure that would be far beyond your reach if you were required to buy and host it in-house.
This rapid deployment means new businesses can punch above their weight and compete with larger, more established peers almost immediately.
It may not seem as easy for established businesses to deploy cloud services. Research from the Federation of Small Businesses found that only a quarter of small firms are actually investing in technology such as cloud computing – even though they could reap many benefits from going down this route.
Overall, it seems new businesses are more willing to embrace these new technologies.
Around the world, many major businesses have already switched from on-site IT solutions to the cloud. And they're enjoying the advantages this brings them.
So, why are smaller companies holding back from this transition?
A survey from Oxford Economics (PDF link) found many small businesses are more interested in technologies such as business intelligence and mobile solutions rather than the cloud.
Additionally, some small business owners are scared of the cloud. Often, they have concerns about the costs, complexity and risks involved.
But cloud computing is changing how people do business. By ignoring the potential of this technology to evolve their own businesses, smaller companies are missing out.
It's essential they look at adopting the cloud. The productivity benefits it can bring may enable them to stay competitive. There are really four key areas to consider:
Cloud technology can deliver significant cost savings by reducing the need for in-house infrastructure. It also tends to reduce upfront expenditure and ongoing maintenance costs.
A report from the European Commission found that the adoption of cloud computing could result in 80% of organisations reducing their costs by about 10%-20%.
Many cloud computing services offer the option to pay monthly. When cash flow is important to your business, this can make a big difference.
Pay-as-you-go options also allow businesses to access sophisticated software with no upfront fees and no lock-in period.
Mobile technology means you can now do business anywhere there's an internet connection. Cloud computing lets your staff access applications and files on the go.
This can be good for all kinds of businesses. For instance, if your company employs freelancers or has employees who have to travel for work, this could keep them in touch.
The cloud is also helpful when it's difficult for staff to get into the office. You can run the company from anywhere, because you're not reliant on technology on your premises.
Security has long been a barrier to wider adoption of cloud computing. However, cloud providers can actually offer increased security at a lower cost than smaller companies could otherwise afford.
Put it this way: if you choose your cloud provider carefully (that's important), your data will be kept in a UK data centre. There, it'll be protected by security measures far in excess of what your business could implement, because the cloud provider's reputation hinges on keeping data safe.
With their capacity to adapt in an ever-changing business environment, small companies are vital for continued UK economic growth.
Many innovative start-ups growing by making the most of what the cloud provides, but all businesses should be aware of its transformational potential.
If you run a smaller business, you need know-how to stay ahead of the game. What's more, the wider business and digital communities must work to encourage and support the adoption of new technologies, including the cloud.
Copyright © 2015 Steve Belton of InstaCloud
Digital pioneer Tim Berners-Lee created the world’s first website back in 1991. And for many years, the internet remained the domain of geeks and hobbyists. Back then, it was hard to believe that the internet would become a vital part of the UK economy
But today, the digital economy is huge. New research from Tech City UK suggests that, in the UK, over 1.46m people are employed in digital businesses and 45,000 digital jobs are being advertised at any given time.
What’s more, the report says that employment in digital jobs is set to jump 5.4% by 2020m ensuring digital businesses form a bigger proportion of the UK economy as a whole.
Whenever the digital economy hits the news, there’s a tendency to focus on ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in London. Situated in the east of the capital, the past decade has seen digital and web-based businesses flock to this area.
As you’d expect, the Tech Nation Report reveals that London has more digital businesses than any other town or city in the UK. However, the vast majority (74%) of digital businesses are based outside the capital.
Clusters of digital businesses are spread right across the UK, from Dundee and Glasgow to Cardiff, Bristol and Reading. About half have been formed since 2008 and 15% of all UK companies founded in 2013-14 were digital.
In short: the digital boom isn’t just a London thing. It’s happening across the country and it’s creating opportunities as it disrupts traditional sectors.
Given that digital companies tend to be younger than your average business, it’s no real surprise that they also tend to be smaller companies.
In fact, the research found that 98% of UK digital firms are classed as small businesses (although the definition of a ‘small business’ is hard to pin down from the report).
Indeed, it’s often claimed that digital tools have the ability to level the playing field, enabling tiny companies to compete with big ones.
Innovations like cloud computing, selling online and location services can make it easier for small companies to do more with less.
So, the digital economy is in rude health then, right?
Well, yes, probably. Although some pundits do speculate that we’re creating another tech bubble of the type that led to the dotcom crash of 2000, there’s a big difference. Digital businesses are bringing in real revenue, as well as spending money.
Sure, there’s going to be some consolidation over the next few years. For instance, how many online laundry companies does London really need?
But when you look at online shopping habits, smart phone ownership, social media use or practically any other indicator, it’s clear we’re all spending more time online than ever before. Digital will have its ups and downs, but its here to stay.
Perhaps the day is approaching where the digital economy is just the economy. And perhaps every business will be a digital business.
Big data is the idea that businesses can start combining and mining the data they own in order to identify new opportunities and make decisions. It’s, well, big at the moment.
But there’s a problem. According to research by Rosslyn Analytics, only 23% of UK decision-makers closely align business strategy to data. And just 44% of business leaders consider their data a strategic asset. You can download the whole report here.
Respondents said that the biggest challenge to using their data effectively was that there are too many types of data and that data comes from too many sources.
And they have a point. Big data is intimidating, especially if you run a smaller company that isn’t able to employ a data analyst or bring in a consultant.
In that case, maybe you should start smaller.
With that in mind, here are four practical ways your business can collect and use data on a smaller scale. You don’t need a degree in maths or statistics to get started.
How often do you check your website statistics? No, really, when was the last time you logged in to Google Analytics? (If you don’t collect data on your website usage, you really should and it’s fairly easy to get started.)
Website statistics packages accumulate a lot of data. If you’re looking for easy ways to improve your website, you could start in these areas:
If you use accounting software — particularly modern packages like QuickBooks Online — you’ll find you have easy access to a range of reports that can delve deep into your figures.
It’s not uncommon for these reports to stay unused. But if you want to understand your financials, playing around in these reports can be much more enlightening than wading through pages of figures.
Here are some ideas:
If you’re not already using accounting software in your business, it’s a powerful way to save time and get your head round your finances. Learn more about accounting software.
Market research doesn’t have to involve masses of survey questions, months of work and a chunky report that tries to define your business strategy for years to come. You can learn a lot by running short, snappy surveys. For instance:
Quick-fire surveys are an excellent way to gain a better understanding of what people do or don’t like about your business.
You can learn things from even the smallest surveys, but be wary of using single pieces of feedback to justify big changes. It’s best to act only when you can see a clear pattern to the comments you’re receiving.
IT for Donuts is our regular feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.
Today, we explain how to find out what sort of data Google is collecting on you, in order to show targeted advertising.
You might not realise it, but if you browse the internet while you’re signed into Google, the search engine is using information about the sites you visit to create a profile of you.
It does this by tracking your visits to websites that are part of Google’s ad network. This includes any website that shows Google AdSense or banner adverts, such as those in the screenshot above.
This information is used to show you adverts that Google thinks you’ll be interested in.
If you’re intrigued about the profile Google has built up, you can view this easily when you’re signed in to Google:
The screen you see will show two columns. The first will show you what Google thinks it knows about you based on your use of Google services.
The second column shows you what information Google has built up as you’ve visited other websites showing Google ads.
This profile includes your:
You can use this page to edit these items (so you see more relevant ads).
Alternatively, if you’re worried about how Google uses this data, you can also choose to opt-out of interest-based ads. If you do this, you’ll see generic ads instead of targeted ones.
If – like most web users – Google is the first place you turn to find information, it’s worth checking out this profile page.
It provides an interesting insight into what sort of data the web giant holds about its users. And it’s a good illustration of how we pay for these ‘free’ services with data like this.
At the start of the year, it’s traditional for bloggers and internet pundits to predict what will happen over the next 12 months.
Obviously, those predictions are usually completely inaccurate. For instance, at the start of 2013, one expert said 3D presentations would be a big thing.
In the same spirit, here are four things we think might happen this year in business technology. Leave a comment at the bottom to add your own.
Card issuers hoped we’d all start using contactless payments back in 2012. The London Olympics were meant to be a showcase for the technology, which allows you to make payments by tapping your credit or debit card on a card reader. There’s no need to sign or enter a PIN.
Back then, consumer apathy about the tap-and-go payments meant take-up was slow.
Fast-forward to the end of 2014, and contactless was growing more quickly. October 2014 saw UK contactless payments increase 292%, year-on-year.
We expect contactless to become far more common in 2015. As the convenience factor takes hold, consumers will expect retailers to offer it.
Although Google Glass was much-trumpeted when it arrived back in 2013, its ungainly looks and intrusive nature have held it back — arguably more than its cost, poor battery life and lack of truly useful applications. It was canned last week, to many cries of 'I told you so'.
(As the BBC’s technology correspondent discovered, you’re in real trouble if Boris Johnson is mocking your choice of face-gear.)
However, wearable technology is on the march, and will grow in many niches this year. Although these will include industry-specific applications (Google Glass can be useful in a warehouse), we expect the idea of the ‘quantified self’ to really drive wearables forward.
That means we’re predicting a big increase in the market for gadgets that measure and track what we do, how we behave, and how healthy we are. Think stress management, exercise tracking and sleep monitoring.
According to Ofcom statistics, 58% of UK residents access the internet via mobile devices. Yet many business websites still fail to cater for the smaller screens of smart phones and tablets.
There’s no sign of this trend reversing in 2015, and so we think this will be the year when responsive web design becomes the norm.
If your website doesn’t work properly on smart phones and other mobile devices then you could be excluding potential customers from your website.
The end of 2014 was marked by one of the highest-profile IT security incidents in history. The Sony Pictures hack included A-list names, embarrassing revelations and political intrigue. It was a reporter’s dream.
But while it might have made a good story, it was just one in a long line of security breaches that made the news. Thousands of others didn’t.
The online battles between hackers, security companies and government agencies are take place largely out of sight. But as online criminals become more sophisticated, they’re beginning to target individual organisations and people rather than relying on brute-force attacks.
We think this shift will make 2015 the year businesses start thinking about security in everything they do – and get better at taking precautions to minimise the risks.
Blog written by John McGarvey, editor of the IT Donut.
In the world of technology, 2014 has been full high-profile security breaches, wearable gadgets and new domain names.
And as the end of another year rolls around, we take a look at what’s been most popular on IT Donut. So, what did you miss while you were busy running your business?
Ever since 2013 — when the domain name system was changed — new domain name extensions like .london, .xyz and .technology have been tricking onto the market.
And in June this year, Stephen Fry became the first person to start using the short new .uk extension.
At the time, Nominet said: ‘Stephen Fry’s decision to switch from a .com reflects the appeal of shorter, sharper .uk domains.’
But if you search Google for Stephen Fry today, you’ll see the address that comes top is stephenfry.com. Sure, www.stephenfry.uk still works, but it’s not as if the actor has discarded his .com domain altogether.
A PR stunt? Surely not…
Building a good website is not easy. In July, we learnt that the new M&S website cost £150m, yet caused a dip in online sales when it was launched.
As we said at the time, it would have been easy to poke fun at this retail giant. But actually, this experience underlines how tricky it is to build a good website – even when you have a big budget and a powerful brand to draw on.
In fact, it’s very common for sales and traffic to drop when you launch a redesigned website. A soft launch and comprehensive user testing can help, but it’s usually best to stick with the status quo during busy periods.
In April, something called Heartbleed was big news. This was the name for a security flaw in OpenSSL, popular encryption software that protects hundreds of thousands of websites.
The breach could allow hackers to break into encrypted data while it was transferred online. OpenSSL underpins transactions and protects data on many big-name websites, so the danger was very real.
Website owners were advised to check if their own sites were affected, while consumers were warned to consider changing their passwords.
We’ve long suspected that business owners struggle to create IT policies that are right for their companies. Those suspicions were confirmed when we relaunched our own set of free IT policy templates in May.
The set of downloadable documents includes policies covering data protection, internet and email use and social media. They’ve been downloaded thousands of times since.
A new iPhone is usually big news. And when iPhone 6 emerged in the autumn, Revivaphone — which offers a kit to resuscitate liquid-damaged phones — was determined to claim the title of ‘first iPhone 6 to be dunked in beer’.
Sure, it was a thinly-veiled PR stunt. But it was also an entertaining one. It prompted us to put together a quick guide to saving your phone if it’s been damaged by beer, water or another liquid.
Until recently, we were wondering if the term ‘intranet’ was going slowly out of date.
The language of technology changes fast, and like 'cyberspace' or 'Website' with a capital 'W', we thought 'intranet' might be passé in the mobile-enabled, cloud-powered world we live in.
As it turns out, we're wrong. Intranets are as popular as ever. In fact, new cloud technologies are making it easier for smaller companies to build versatile employee intranets that people actually like to use.
That’s why our information about creating intranets was some of our most popular in 2014.
So, how did your business find its technology in 2014. And what do you have planned for the year ahead?
Why guess about how to improve your website, when you can actually measure exactly which changes have the greatest impact?
That’s the basic idea behind A/B testing. Because tracking what people do on your website is easy, you can make a change and then precisely measure what impact it has on your sales or conversion rate.
A/B testing is also called ‘split testing’. Learn the basics on Marketing Donut.
With A/B testing, you use an A/B testing tool to split your website traffic in two. Half of visitors see your original page design. The others see an edited version.
As visitors interact with your website, you track how visitors behave and measure what they buy.
Over time, you can see which of the two versions is generating more sales. In A/B testing terms, you can see which is the winner. Typical A/B tests might aim to determine:
Once you’ve proved which of your two versions is better, you can roll it out to all visitors — and move on to your next A/B test.
In recent years, the popularity of A/B testing has grown enormously. Tools like Google Content Experiments, Optimizely and Unbounce help you run A/B tests even if you don’t have much technical knowledge.
When running A/B tests is so easy, it’s tempting to get carried away. Why bother with market research when you can just try out two options and let the results show — unarguably — which is right?
Well, if you’re a small company that wants to test everything, you’re going to run into a problem pretty quickly. Your website probably doesn’t have enough visitors.
An A/B test is only truly useful if you have confidence in the result. You need to know, for sure, that the element you’ve changed is responsible for the improved conversion rate.
Here’s an example. Imagine you’re testing two variants of a landing page.
Half your visitors see the original version, which is converting at 1%. The other remaining visitors see a new version that’s converting at 2%.
At first glance, it looks like the new page has won. Doubling conversion rate is an impressive result — it could double your revenue, too.
But what if these were the full numbers behind that test?
Suddenly, things look different. The difference between pages is a single sale. If just one more person chooses to buy from the original page, the score will be even.
For many small business websites, these aren’t unrealistic traffic levels for a single page. However, you need many more visitors to be confident the improvement you’re seeing isn’t down to chance or seasonal factors.
Most A/B testing tools will give you an indication of how much confidence you can have in the results of your test. Typically, you’ll want a confidence rating of more than 95% before using a test’s outcome to make a decision.
And that takes time. As a general benchmark, you’ll need at least 100 sales or conversions via each page variant before confidence in the result is that high.
If your conversion rate is 2%, that equates to 5,000 visitors to each page. But if those pages only receive a few hundred visitors a week, you’ll be waiting a while for results you can trust.
Sites with massive traffic, like Google, have the ability to test 41 different shades of blue to see which performs better. But your average small business website simply doesn’t have enough traffic to run such detailed tests.
This doesn’t mean A/B testing is a waste of time. It can be a really powerful way to improve your website. But it’s important you go into any project with realistic expectations of how long it will take to get meaningful results.
Online marketing gurus often talk of ‘testing your way to success’. But more often, visitor numbers mean it takes time for a single A/B test to provide conclusive results.
And in practical terms, that means A/B testing is best used as one of many tools to improve your website experience.
There’s a lot of debate surrounding Bitcoin, and for good reason. This unregulated electronic currency is not backed by a central bank and its value fluctuates wildly.
The Internal Revenue Service (the US equivalent of HMRC) recently decided to treat Bitcoin as property (not a currency). This could have a major impact on the volume of transactions conducted using Bitcoin.
However, while Bitcoin itself is controversial, the encryption technology behind it could be the future of digital security.
Bitcoin uses an accepted security concept called asymmetric key encryption. When you download a Bitcoin wallet — in which you store your Bitcoins — you’re assigned two encryption keys.
There’s a public encryption key, which you give to anyone from whom you want to receive Bitcoin payments.
Then there’s a private key. This is mathematically linked to your public key, and is used to decrypt information encrypted with your public key.
In practice, this means anyone who wants to pay you can encrypt the transaction using your public key. But only you can decrypt it to receive the money, because only you have the private key.
Some email providers use a similar system called Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption to send emails securely.
However, as PGP stores your private encryption key on an email server, hackers (or the government) could potentially intercept and decrypt your messages.
A more secure option is to encrypt emails using a Bitcoin key before you send them through your provider’s servers.
You can apply this same concept to data stored in the cloud. If you encrypt it with a Bitcoin key, your information will stay safe even if someone hacks into your cloud provider.
While these security measures do offer extra protection, the risks of Bitcoin encryption lie in the human element.
If you don't secure your virtual Bitcoin wallet, you can fall victim to theft. Really, keeping your wallet offline and protecting it with a password is the only straightforward way to secure it.
And you should always remember that encryption is a double-edged sword. If you ever lose your password, your data is lost forever.
While some governments have banned or restricted its use as a currency, Bitcoin is gaining support among some businesses. There’s even a Bitcoin cash machine in East London.
The supply of Bitcoins is limited and their volatility means the cost of security can easily surpass the value of what you’re protecting.
But perhaps the true value of Bitcoin lies in its potential to educate more people about using encryption to secure information.
In this digital age, information is currency. You should protect yours just as you would protect your money.
If you’re starting or running an online shop, you’ll know there’s a lot to think about.
Just getting to grips with the basics can be challenging. Choosing an online shopping system, working out how to get paid, putting together your product catalogue and then making sure people can actually find your website are all tasks which take time and effort.
Then it can seem like there’s a never-ending list of things to think about. Are your prices right? Where should you advertise? Are customers happy with your delivery options? What are your competitors up to?
If you’re grappling with some of these problems, don’t forget why you might have set up online in the first place.
It’s typically much cheaper and easier to start selling online than through a High Street shop. And instead of having to rely on the right people walking past, you can sell worldwide.
On IT Donut — plus our sister site, Marketing Donut — we’ve put together lots of useful resources, tips and advice to help you run an online shop. You can see some of the most popular at the end of this post.
But we also like this enormous collection of resources from iWeb. It’s an ‘interactive flowchart’ (no, we’ve not seen one before either) that claims to tell you how to set up an ecommerce website.
In reality, the information available covers much more than just how to get started. There are all sorts of ideas about everything from search engine optimisation and seasonal promotions to email marketing and content strategy.
It’s definitely worth a look if you’re running or setting up an online shop.
You can also access lots of great ecommerce advice on our websites. For instance:
IT for Donuts is our regular Friday feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.
This week, find out what a botnet is.
A botnet is a network of computers, servers or other devices that have been infected with malware or compromised in some way.
These computers may be scattered all over the world, but they’re linked together via the internet.
Botnets are created when individual computers get infected by malicious software. It’s just like catching a computer virus via an infected website, email or software.
If your computer is part of a botnet, you may have no idea. Botnet software conceals itself and may only use your computer’s processing power when you don’t need it.
Botnets can consist of thousands or millions of computers. For instance, until security experts took it down, the ZeroAccess botnet consisted of over 1.9m slave computers.
The hackers and online criminals who create botnets use them to gain access to enormous computing power and distributed internet connections.
Botnets are powerful tools used for many malicious purposes. For instance:
Botnets are an important tool for online criminals. Stamping them out would be enormously beneficial for the internet as a whole.
Finally, pay attention if your computer starts behaving oddly. If it slows down or seems to be hard at work while you’re not using it, double-check your security software and perform a full system scan.
With thousands of new domain name extensions becoming available, choosing a domain for your business seems to have got both easier and more difficult.
On one hand, there’s more choice. You can avoid having to scrabble around for an available .co.uk or .com domain by simply opting for one of the new extensions. Maybe you’d like www.yourbusiness.food or .music.
But on the flipside, nobody really knows which — if any — of these domain names are going to be successful or desirable.
For instance, will some domain extensions get targeted by spammers and scammers? If so, you probably won’t want to be associated with them.
In the past, we’ve been somewhat sceptical of these new domains. With so many to choose from, it seems inevitable some will sink without trace. Perhaps not .London (it made the front page of the Evening Standard, after all). But can you see .guru, .vip and .rehab all catching on?
Now there’s a website, Dumb Domains, designed to showcase some of the more unconventional domain options available.
It’ll show you one available domain at a time. But you won’t have to reload many times before you see a silly one.
For instance, although www.pirate.lighting sounds pretty cool, we’re not so sold on butt.construction or sploosh.computer. (Both are available for $28.99, if you fancy taking a punt.)
“If someone asks me what cloud computing is, I try not to get bogged down with definitions. I tell them that, simply put, cloud computing is a better way to run your business.”
That’s the cloud, according to Marc Benioff, CEO and founder of cloud business platform Salesforce.com.
And while you could argue that he has a vested interest, he has a point. The cloud is so widespread that every business needs to understand what it is and how it can help deliver products and services people will actually pay for.
But there are many definitions of the cloud. If IT is not your main focus, the cloud can quickly turn into brain fog.
For a straightforward, alternative definition of the cloud, take a look at a serviced office like the one we work out of here at Desynit.
Other than a great view of the station and a fantastic local bakery, there are good reasons for us being here:
On top of all that, there’s only one bill to pay each month. That makes life much easier for our finance team and helps us budget accurately.
It doesn’t come for free, that’s for sure. But in terms of value to a business, it’s a clear win. So when Marc Benioff talks about businesses running better in the cloud, this is what he means.
Desynit Director, Matt Morris, explains: “You no longer need to think about the bricks and mortar issues of hardware, licensing, maintaining operating systems and installing updates — to name just a few. It’s all taken care of.
“If you need additional services, bolt them on. Need more capacity for peak time? It’s there on a pay-as-you-go basis.”
Oh and one more thing. This particular office is mobile. Wherever you are, as long as you have internet access, just step right in.
Let’s come back to the serviced office analogy. The basic building set-up may tick most of the boxes, but what if you have a more unusual requirement?
Some cloud providers open up their platforms so third party vendors can develop apps and add-ons to meet business needs. (At Desynit, we integrate apps from the Salesforce AppExchange.)
When your requirements aren’t standard, being able to do this makes a big difference.
Choosing the right cloud platform will enable you to focus on your core service, rather than on your supporting systems. And that has to be better for your business.
Amy Grenham is the marketing manager at Desynit, a business systems IT consultancy and Salesforce.com integration partner.
There are about 36 million credit and debit cards in the UK that can perform contactless transactions, where you tap the card on a card reader instead of using chip and PIN.
And after a bit of a slow start, it seems people are starting to embrace contactless. An estimated 125 contactless payments a minute are made with VISA cards alone.
So, here are five reasons your business should offer contactless payments:
Queues are bad for business. They frustrate customers, who sometimes walk away if they don’t have time to wait.
Contactless payments only take a second or so.
It might not sound like that’ll make much difference compared to using chip and PIN or counting out change. However, if you serve hundreds of people a day, you’ll notice a drop in queue length and an increase in happy customers.
Currently, contactless payments are limited to £20 per transaction. But research shows that because consumers can spend more than just the change in their pockets, they do tend to spend a bit more.
In future, it’s likely the £20 ceiling will be raised, giving customers even greater contactless spending power.
To start using contactless, you may need to buy a new payment terminal. Once up and running, it’s unlikely transactions will cost you more.
In fact, contactless transactions on debit cards usually attract lower charges than chip and PIN. And that means you’ll have a little extra in the till at the end of the day.
Although contactless saves time on transactions, it doesn’t have to strip away all human engagement.
It’s important businesses develop relationships with regular customers. And with less time spent focusing on the mechanics of paying, you have more time to make conversation.
Keeping up with new trends can be daunting. But if you embrace those that come your way, you’ll keep your business on top of its game — and ahead of the competition.
Or to put it another way: contactless is growing. Maybe your customers aren’t that bothered about using it yet. And maybe none of your competitors have it today. But both those facts will change. Are you ready?
Andy Macauley is chief operating officer of Handepay.
By the standards of traditional industries, web design is incredibly young. Yet in the 20-ish years it’s been possible to make a living from building websites, the approaches and techniques involved have changed remarkably.
Web design agency Aptitude has taken a look back over the history of web design in this interesting infographic:
(Incidentally, we don’t think it’s accurate to say mobile internet access exceeded desktop access as early as 2008. It probably hasn’t happened yet — but we’ll let that slide.)
With mobile devices still increasing in popularity, it’s never been more important for your website to cater for mobile users.
As Ofcom said nearly three years ago, we are a ‘nation addicted to smartphones’. While sales of traditional PCs are gradually declining, smart phones and tablets are on the up.
If you’ve never done anything about your mobile presence, the time for action is now. There are many factors to consider.
Different devices have varying screen sizes, resolutions and processing power. There’s a choice of platforms, too — like iOS, Android and Windows.
It would be virtually impossible to create a different version of your website tailored to each individual device. However, you can use responsive web design instead.
Responsive web design is a way of making sure your website provides a universally good experience for visitors, regardless of what device they use.
It’s the ‘one size fits all’ approach to web design. When you create a responsive website, the various elements (images, content, navigation and so on) shift and change with the screen size.
You’ll soon understand if you see a responsive website in action. Go and visit Time Magazine on your computer, then resize your web browser window. As the size of the window changes, the content moves around to fit.
This means responsive sites work well on both large monitors and tiny smart phones.
So, responsive web design sounds good. But is there evidence to say it’s worth investing time and money in?
Many companies that have moved to a responsive web design have experienced growth in conversion rates, creating a sales uplift from mobile traffic. We are yet to see the full impact mobile devices will have on online behavior. However, they’re certainly here to stay.
This means it’s vital to consider taking a responsive approach with any new or redesigned websites.
Some businesses have a much higher proportion of mobile visitors than others. But as mobile devices become even more common, you really should think about the responsive web.
IT for Donuts is our regular Friday feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.
This week: how to buy a domain name. If you’ve chosen the domain you want for your website, how do you go about securing it?
Although domain names are controlled centrally (for instance, all domains ending in .uk are managed by a non-profit organisation called Nominet), they can be bought from many different companies.
These companies are called domain name registrars. They can register a domain name for you, enabling you to use that domain for your website, email and so on.
To buy a domain name from one of these providers, go to their website and search for a domain. Choose the one you want and enter your payment details. It’s that easy!
When you buy a domain name, you get the right to use it for a certain period of time. When that period ends, you must renew your domain to keep using it. You can usually buy a domain for anything from one to ten years.
You can normally register your domain with one company, host your website with another, and then link the two so that people who type in your domain name end up at your website.
However, it’s important to check how easy it is to do this. It often involves some technical steps.
Many domain name registrars offer support to get everything working. But for a hassle-free setup, it can be easiest to buy your domain name and web hosting from the same company.
You might also get your domain name free or discounted if you buy it as part of a bundle that also includes hosting and email services.
The domain name market is competitive, so registrars frequently offer deals to tempt new customers in.
However, these heavy discounts usually only apply to the first year’s registration. After that, you can end up paying an inflated renewal fee.
Other things to check include:
Finally, be aware that many domain name registrars now offer domains for sale on both the primary and secondary markets.
The primary market is where most people buy their domains. When you buy from the primary market, you’re buying a domain that nobody else currently owns. These domains are available at standard prices. Expect to pay around £5 a year for a .co.uk domain, or £10 — £15 a year for a .com.
The secondary market is where people trade domain names that they already own. Prices here tend to be higher and less predictable — you can pay anything from £50 to thousands.
You see, property listings website Rightmove has released research suggesting that slow or non-existent broadband could wipe to 20% off the price of a house.
Cue — obviously — a story in the Daily Mail, complete with ropey stock photography and everything.
Even if you doubt the specifics of this research (a 20% reduction sounds like an awful lot), it certainly backs up the idea that broadband is fast becoming the fourth utility.
And it’s true: we treat our internet connections like turning on the lights or central heating. When we need it to get online, we expect to be able to do so.
The Rightmove story was released because the property firm has now added a broadband checker to its own website, to tell you what sort of connection you should get at a house you’re interested in.
But it provides an interesting reminder about the increasing importance of the web in our lives.
We spend more time online than ever. We’re connected not just at home, but nearly wherever we go. We’re buying things when we’re on the move.
If we’re at a point where broadband availability ranks alongside off-street parking, good schools and public transport links as factors in house desirability, surely it’s time to make the internet more central to your company, too.
In short, if you’re running a business — any sort of business — and you’re not thinking regularly about how the internet can help you, you’re missing a trick.
The internet is so ingrained in our lives that it’s not enough to build a website and leave it at that.
You need to stay up to date with new developments, like Google’s continued efforts to appeal to target mobile ads by location, or the fact that showrooming is rife. Is there any way you can turn these — and other — trends to your advantage?
You don’t need to transform how you do business. Nor do you need to panic.
But these days, people tend to turn to the internet first, no matter what they’re looking for. That creates new threats, and new opportunities. Are you ready to take advantage?
IT for Donuts is our regular Friday feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.
This week: if you need to build a website but you’re on a tight budget, what’s your best option?
If you’re looking to build a website on the cheap, you won’t have the cash to commission a designer to create your site for you.
And unless you’re already familiar with the principles of web design and the ins and outs of the HTML computer code that websites are built from, you won’t be able to create a convincing site from scratch. (Professional web designers and developers take years to learn how to do this well.)
But being cash-strapped doesn’t mean you have to make do with a below-par website.
There are many packages available that enable you to construct a website using pre-defined templates.
You don’t need to have any technical knowledge to use these website builder packages. You just have to choose your templates, add images, content and other elements like videos, then arrange everything as you want.
It used to be that the limited range of templates in most website builders meant they all looked rather similar.
However, nowadays website builders are more versatile. You still have to spend time learning how your website builder works, experimenting with templates and creating the content for your site.
But a few days’ work over a couple of weekends can leave you with a site you’re justifiably proud of.
That means a website builder is a good way to create a web presence for your business when you’re starting out or on a tight budget.
There are many website builder packages on the market. Here are some things to think about when choosing one:
To get you started, here are some companies offering popular website builder packages:
Most popular packages offer a free trial to begin with, so you can get a feel for the website builder before you commit to using it.