Making sure a web site is solid

There are a lot of things that go into making an Internet business successful. Layout, design, content wording, the effectiveness of graphics and how they are placed, the call to action, SEO, marketing and ads, product placement, pricing, visitor experience, check out processing… not to mention having the right product at the right time. None of that matters at all if your web site isn’t up.

Once you do all the work to get it all working together, you want to make sure it stays that way. Monitoring is a required part of running a solid business. It is a basic part of the infrastructure necessary to make sure your investment is going to continue to work for you. It isn’t something that is really optional when it comes to protecting the work and financial investment you put into building your site.

A server monitoring service checks to make sure things are working properly at all times. It isn’t just about making sure the server is up (although that is important). Monitoring should be comprehensive, and touch each part of your critical business infrastructure. Yes, you need to know if your server is sown. You also need to know if people are seeing database errors, or if their email to your customer service aren’t going through, and if your DNS is working properly. Each piece of your site should be checked to make sure everything is as it should be.

That means that one check on your front page isn’t really enough. Typically, a web site is running some kind of software that provides the framework of the site. Joomla, Drupal, and WordPress are all popular tools for this piece, but there are many others. Some businesses write their own platforms for this piece, but just about everybody uses something (even if it is custom built) that provides the framework for their content. If this piece breaks, it most often won’t show as down to simplistic site checks. The web server will still respond to requests, people will just see an ugly error message instead of your beautiful design. Your monitoring should check to make sure that your page is not just up, but working properly.

In fact, if your site uses several components that all need to be working together to pull off the overall effect, you should monitor each piece. That might consist of a shopping cart component (like osCommerce), a database and module for your inventory and product placements. Your blog needs to be working smoothly. If you serve images or media from a separate service or server you need to keep an eye on that too.

What does this look like in practice? Typically, you’ll want a basic HTTP check to monitor the entry page to your site. Then, you’ll want a content check on an image and other key elements that might break independently. For dynamic content served through modules or integration, you often don’t know in advance what that content will be. For those, a negative content check is in order, watching for an error or for messages like “0 items found.” For each of these checks, you’ll want to tune the timeouts to levels appropriate for your hosting and configuration.

All of this should be easy, and it shouldn’t cost you too much. You should be able to set it up, and then it should just work. This isn’t where you want to spend your time and energy. It should be boring stuff. It should be simple and dependable. If you are a small to medium sized business with a typical web site or three, and you don’t have a team of people dedicated to doing all the stuff we’ve discussed here, you should not have to spend more than twenty dollars a month on monitoring for your entire business infrastructure, and the whole monitoring setup should not take more than a few minutes a month of your time. If your monitoring provider is costing more than that or is more trouble than that, switch to someone else.

Many people think they can get monitoring for free. You can’t. The businesses that offer “free” services are paying ad costs around $10 per visitor to their site to get your “free” business. Don’t believe them when they say you can get a good value for that “free” plan. The “free” plans typically are for very few (usually one) check with a 15 minute or even one hour interval. That doesn’t do anything useful in making sure your site is working for your customers. Monitoring should be inexpensive, but it isn’t really free.

The biggest player on the block is Pingdom. Pingdom’s service is fairly similar to NodePing’s, but the five sites Pingdom provides for $9.95 (as of the date of this post) aren’t enough for your business. As we’ve discussed here, a small business with a web site already needs their 30 site plan for $39.95. As compared to many providers, Pingdom is a good deal. Compare that plan to NodePing’s $10 flat rate plan, and we think the value choice is clear.

Adding Notification Only Contacts

NodePing’s monitoring service is gaining popularity with companies that in turn provide online services such as hosting and network services to small businesses. NodePing works really well for these companies, because they can monitor a large number of their own customers sites and networks at one incredibly low cost. In fact, the cost of doing the same thing with most other services would run them several times as much. This enables our customers to bundle our monitoring as a part of the services that they can provide to their own customers in a very economical way, increasing their service value at low cost. That’s a win for everybody. This group of our customers have been asking us to add features to our service that makes this work even better for them, and we have been working to do just that.

The other day we added public reports to our list of features. Today we’re adding the ability to create contacts that receive notifications, but do not have a login to the NodePing app. Together, these features allow a provider to assign their customers to receive notifications and see uptime reports without access to the providers NodePing account information.

Seeing our monitoring services in use by other service providers to enhance their own offerings is exciting for us, and we plan to continue to add enhancements for this audience. As always, your feedback is welcome.

5 Basic Questions About Web Site Monitoring

The other day I was looking for a place to get some good Mexican food. That’s fairly easy in my part of the world, but I was looking for somewhere I hadn’t eaten before. I found a place the same way I always do, on the web. I typed my search into a search engine, pulled up a map of my area, and started clicking on web sites. I looked through the menu for each place I found and picked based on my impression of the restaurant from the web site.

I do this same kind of thing for all kinds of businesses at least several times a week. Plumbing parts, accountants, property management companies, mechanics, toys, web design, banks… pretty much everything. If I am looking for a business, I find them on the web. If it’s not on the web, I will probably not find it.

Increasingly business relies on the Internet, even for non-Internet businesses. If your site is down, you lose business. If your email doesn’t go through, you lose business. If your business is technology or web related, this is doubly crucial. People’s impression depends largely on how you come across on the Internet, and if it doesn’t work you are in trouble.

That seems obvious, but how do you ensure that everything works all the time? If you are a large enough business to have a highly skilled IT department, they are using monitoring tools or services. If you are not a large enough business to keep IT staff on the payroll, this largely falls to you. How do you make sure your Internet presence is a plus for your business, bringing in new customers instead of driving them away? How do you do that without spending too much money and too much time?

Monitoring services exist specifically for this purpose. Technology professionals use monitoring services to make sure that the services they are responsible for are always available. This has been the normal way to do business for tech professionals for many years. There are sophisticated tools to help with this job that can monitor all kinds of things and notify someone immediately if there are problems. Until more recently, doing this inexpensively without spending a lot of time was out of reach for most people. Not any more.

A few years ago monitoring as a service started to pop up on the Internet. Now there are a number of companies out there providing these types of services. Some of them are easy to use, some are not. Many of them cost a lot, but a few do not. Some of them sell snake oil and fancy gadgets that don’t really tell you what you need to know. Increasingly, smart IT technical people are realizing that they can save time and money by using outside services to do things they had to do before themselves, and these same services are available to everybody without requiring a significant investment or a lot of knowledge.

If you are not a tech professional, and you are thinking about finding a way to make sure that your Internet presence is always there when your customers are looking for you, you might be asking questions like these:

  1. Is it easy? There is absolutely no reason monitoring should be hard to set up or use. If it is hard or takes you more than a few minutes to get going, chose a different service provider. You don’t need to know a lot to use a good monitoring service. In most cases all you need is the address of your web site or email service.
  2. How does it work? Monitoring services mostly all work about the same way. You login to the web site and create checks for the monitoring service. Setting up the check generally consists of typing in the address of your web sites and how often you want them checked. Sometimes there are a few other simple questions, but it doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. You also enter in email addresses or phone numbers to notify when your site or service is down. Typically the service takes it from there and starts monitoring right away. Monitoring services just connect to your site and log what happened. It’s all automated.
  3. How do I know what I need? Just about any monitoring service will do the checks that most businesses need. If you have specific needs in your monitoring, this might be something to shop around for. However, most businesses need HTTP checks, which is the basic check that makes sure a web site is up, and SMTP, which checks email services. Just about all monitoring companies do HTTP checks, and most of them do SMTP.
  4. How often should it check? This is up to you, but if you are using a service that checks every 10 or 15 minutes, your site could be down for several minutes before you know about it. The better services check as frequently as every minute. This is not a lot more expensive for the service to provide, and it should not cost you a lot more either.
  5. How much will it cost? This is currently the biggest differentiator in the monitoring business. Some monitoring services cost a lot, especially if you have more than a couple of web sites to watch. It doesn’t have to be expensive. NodePing costs a flat rate of $10 per month to check up to a thousand sites or services every minute. If you’re paying more than that, you’re paying too much. If a service needs a special calculator or a talk with a sales person to tell you how much it will cost, it’s too much. If prices are per check, read the fine print. It should be inexpensive, and it should be simple.

If you are not doing website and email monitoring yet you should start today. We think that NodePing is a great choice, but there are other good providers out there. Shop around. It is important to your success, it is easy, and it is inexpensive. You just have to do it.