CSI Members’ Websites: Insights Into Small Business Web Development

CSI-Centre for Social Innovation  provides co-working space and collaboration tools for Toronto small businesses and non-profits.  As of mid-August 2017 CSI had 517 member websites of which 35% are small businesses, 55% are non-profits, and 10% are government or special offices. Given the composition of its members, CSI  provides an excellent opportunity to study small business and non-profit Web usage.  Just such a study was done in March of 2017 and then repeated in August 2017 by ImagenationIT a CSI member organization. The study provides useful insights into the nature of  Small Busines Website usage and support in the Toronto area. Here is a summary of those results:

  1. 517 member organization have had  active websites in 2017 to mid-August
  2. The Speed Rating of CSI Websites is above average
  3. 26% of CSI Web Sites are not mobile ready
  4. 52% of CSI Websites don’t have SSL security, 32 of those have shopping carts or take donations
  5. 61% of CSI Website are semi-active – 3 or more months since the last info update
  6. CSI Websites Overall Rating is above average at 70/100 on WebsiteGrader

Now lets put this into perspective with some key Worldwide Web usage trends:
Canada like the US has a 88% Internet penetration rate meaning 32.5M of a total population of 36.89 have access to the Internet.
Canada likewise has seen Mobile usage on the web exceed desktop usage following  the World trend:
So as desktops usage declines and mobile and Iot/Game devices grows at a fast rate, the importance of websites being mobile ready and responsive just increases. 74% of CSI wesites are mobile ready and that percentage increased by 5% from March to August 2017. However, CSI websites vulnerability to hack atacks is more mixed.

CSI Hack Attack Vulnerability

Unfortunately Canadians  and CSI members are seeing the effects of hacking becoming a profitable business.

  1. 52% of web traffic is from bots  while only 48% is from humans -estimates of  harmful bot traffic is nearly  60%
  2. IoT – Internet of Things Botnet threatens to takedown the whole Internet
  3. Cyber attacks on Canadian companies is starting to ‘explode’
  4. So Canadian hacking trends are starting to match the US –  hacked sites in 2017 increased by 32 percent

So despite expressed concern about hack attacks, 50% of CSI websites fail to use some  of the best defenses against hacking [robust passwords, secure logons and SSL]. However, 25% of CSI websites are using hosting services that provide high levels of security protection. 52% use CMS systems like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal which can deliver high security with the right selection of security plugins but our survey could not determine how many did so.

However, more ominous is the lack of CSI website updates. 60% of CSI websites have seen no content updates in the last 3 months or more.  This is an alrming number suggesting Web software has an ambiguous role in CSI members messaging and branding. Such ambivalence is reflected elswhere in our survey findings.  This does not augur well for security updates to the core Web programs,  supporting themes and modules/plugins. This in turn, increases  the risk for hack attacks on CSI websites. As we shall see influencing CSI  Web practices is the rate of change in the whole Internet. community.

Monopolies Dominate the Web Except for Open Source

Web hardware is dominated by 6 major vendors – Apple, Cisco, Dell, Intel,  Qualcomm,  Verizon. Web software is dominated by 9 major vendors Adobe, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Facebook, Twitter and Open Source. And unlike the world of hardware, Open Source dominates key sectors of Web software such as free Web Servers with nginx and Apache [70% market share]; free CMS  systems with WordPress, Drupal, Joomla among dozens of free systems [65% market share among the top three CMS]; free databases such as MySQL, MariaDB, PostgreSQL, MongoDB, and dozens of other database systems [market share rapidly changing as BigData changes the database marketplace]; free operational tools like GITHub, CVS, Node/npm plus  dozens of others[again hard to assign meaningful marketshare figures]; and the fundamental free stack of Web  development  HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, and SQL with a host of other free programming languages and APIs.

Major Web trend: DIY Web Design and Customization

As you can see Open Source software  continues to have a huge impact on Web Development. In effect, many of the major for-profit software firms are trying to secure a beachhead in the rapidly evolving Web scene with OpenSource software that provides a path to leadership positions in rapidly changing  Web sectors. Thus major changes have come to  DIY Web Design and Development, Cloud Services for Store and Forwarding large and diverse quantities of data, rapid Interconnection and Analysis of Data-trends,  Safe and Secure Operational Management of Web Presence.The rate of innovation and change in theese areas of Web software is accelerating as major players  seek to maintain or establish/expand their position on the Web.

As a result, Web users and developers continue to be treated to a wealth of free  or low cost software. Freemium is the name of software like WordPress or JavaScript frameworks which provide a  great bulk of features at low or no out-of-pocket cost. The real cost is staying up with and choosing the right Web solution sets.

How do CSI Organizations respond to the major Web Changes?

Considering that the majority of CSI members are non-profits or small businesses with relatively tight IT budgets, they face a common set of IT decisions:

  1. Startup – Many CSI members are start-ups, they need to determine what Web presence is most effective for them to get their message and service offerings out to their clients. Simple may work well.
  2. Change – Some CSI members need to respond to providing major new service offerings or to meet new delivery needs through their existing Website. for example,  mobile capable Web pages or new online services.
  3. Operations – Some CSI shops need to make their operations more speedy and efficient so they can accomplish more with what they have.
  4. Emergency Responsive – the Web is now a more hostile space with a broad range of crypto-attack tools available to hackers. Sometimes zero-day attacks demand immediate response including utilizing backup resources.
  5. DIY-Do It Yourself versus contracting out.

This presents  a tough balancing act of costs, effectiveness and timeliness.

So many members have embraced the DIY Web Design and Development of their IT systems as their primary task. Fortunately that is the very same direction the industry is taking. For example, all three major CMS systems have very capable PageBuilder systems [WordPress has 10, Drupal and Joomla 2 each] that are rapidly evolving into overall SiteBuilder systems [see the Gutenberg project at WordPress]. As of August 2017, 54% of CSI websites were written in the  top 3 CMS systems [46% in WordPress, 6% in Drupal and 2% in Joomla]. As well 40% of CSI websites used Pagebuilder software and 48% used advanced Image Galleries and Slider display software.

But SiteBuilder systems such as SquareSpace, Wix and Weebly have grown faster in size than CMS in the last 4 years at CSI. Worldwide, SquareSpace is used on 0.7% of websites, Wix on 0.4% and Weebly on 0.2%. But at CSI  SquareSpace is used in 10% of CSI websites, Wix at 5%  and Weebly at 2% – 10 times larger than the worldwide usage of SiteBuilders. Why this discrepancy?

Three factors appear to be in play here. First the SiteBuilders have had about a 2 year lead over the CMS systems in SiteBuilding features [CMS PageBuilders have caught up to the SiteBuilders in early 2017 including sitewide design capabilities]. Second, several of the SiteBuilders offer a complete set of nearly automatic Operational Administration features including backup, recovery, automatic updates,  solid security features, speed of response  tuning, statistical reporting routines, and basic SEO support with premium options available in the latter three cases. This can be attractive for startups because for a premium of  $150 to $600US/year  most  website administration tasks are taken care of by the chosen SiteBuilder. No $50/hour developer costs associated with most CMS.

But equally important is the third factor, decision burden. True, CMS have as many as 4500 themes available for unique Website Designs and Styling. WordPress users currently have 47,300 plugins to choose from. So like Apple’s “there is an App for that” WP developers can say “there is a plugin for that” to add unique features not available in most SiteBuilders. But finding and evaluating these plugin options takes a lot of time and effort that simply may not be available to CSI members.The problems faced by CSI members is true for most small businesses – how to use the rapidly changing Web  to prosper and not get steam-rolled or left behind like like even major players like Blockbusters or  Sears.

Other CSI Web Performance Measures

There are a number of additional Web Performance measures done in the survey that providel a more complete picture of the State of Web usage at CSI.

Mission Clarity is one arena where expectations were for a universally high rating among CSI organiztions. Having a clear Mission statement and communicating it well to constituent clients, staff and donors/investors is a critical success factor at CSI. So in our survey, we gauged CSI websites on 3 levels for clarity of mission:

  • Clear rating if an unambiguous mission or branding statement was made and understood on the Web Home page
  • Ok rating if visitors would have to switch to an About or Services page to get a complete view of the organization’s mission
  • Questionable  rating if website visitors would have confusion/uncertainty about an organization’s mission

These ratings were made by two parties and there was a surprising consensus on the evaluations:

  • 118 or 23% had clear, unambiguous mission statement on their home page
  • 338 or 65% had Ok mission statements
  • 61 or 12% had confusing or incomplete messaging/branding

The Questionable level was slightly higher than expected; but more surprising was the low Clear rating. To be honest , a 40-45% rating was expected. This was the first sign that CSI websites are not always a vital part of their organization’s messaging.

Active Web Usage measures how pivotal a website is to an organization  in communicating and serving its clients. Active Usage was judge by a number of factors including  display of a calendar of ongoing  events; active social media widgets from  Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc; latest blog posts on  organization’s people and/or activities; galleries or slider display of of organization  events; popup reminders of current activities or special offers – in general, active messaging to visitors and clients.  Websites were rated  at three levels:

  • New = updates  using any or all options cited aabove within the last  3 month on the website;
  • Semi =3-9 months since last update;
  • Old = 9 months or more since last update on the website

In sum, Active Web Usage measures how actively a website is used to keep visitors, clients and investors/donors well infomed of their organizations activities and programs. Here are the survey results:

  • 201 or 40% of CSI websites are  constantly updated
  • 240 or 45% of CSI websites are semi active, falling 3 or more months behind in active info updates
  • 76 or  15% of CSI websites have stale data and are not actively used in the last 9 months or more

To say the least, these results were disconcerting. More than half of CSI websites are not actively updated. As we have seen, on the administration side this makes websites more vulnerable to hacking. More troubling is the conclusion that more than half CSI websites are not key means of communicating with clients and their communities.

This suggests that a large portion of  CSI Web presence may be misaligned. If the role of CSI organization’s messaging is better accomplished with email news briefings, media ads, a free Facebook/Twitter Page, or presence on a broader government or affiliation Web page – make it so. There are a lot of low cost, high impact, relatively low effort  and essentially free Web options. Use those first, learn the Web ropes and then plan  for more than Home-About-Contact page Web Presencewhich gets neglected over time  and is out of an organization’s messaging.

Mobile Ready is now becoming a requirement  for all websites. Google and Bing downgrade websites that are not mobile responsive – able to display equally well on desktop/laptop, tablet in portrait or landscape mode, and mobiile phone – again portrait or landscape display. With the emergence of IoT – Internet of Things devices like Home Management boards and Car Dashboard Displays, the ability of your website to display properly in a diverse set of contexts is vital.

Fortunately, the news is fairly good. 71% of CSI websites are written either in CMS or SiteBuilder systems that can deliver Desktop, Tablet and Mobile Phone reponsive systems. At least 3 of the CMS systems can take that farther and deliver generally Media Query ready systems. These can display well on varied IoT devices. Unfortunately on support for security the message is more mixed.

SSL-Secure Socket Layers delivers Web conversations  in encrypted format to and from the browser. This is a vital defense against hacking and will become a required feature in websites from Google in 2018. Combined with a firewall and a series of  operational security settings, SSL can help to increase a website’s security dramatically. Most of  these tools are available on CMS and many Sitebuilder systems

Support for SSL is improving among CSI websites but still not at an optimal level. Thus, 52% of CSI Websites do not have SSL Security protection. Now between March and August 2017 SSL protection improved by 3%. With the availability of free Lets Encrypt software use of SSL is sure to improve despite some potential installation complications. However, 36 CSI websites taking donations or selling direct have need for more urgent adoption of SSL.

SEO Ratings, Social Media usage,  Backlinks and Website Google ranking are key ingredients in the Alchemy known as Website Promotion. There are 4 major competing methods for promoting your website. Content is King at attracting visitors, keeping them returning and converting visitors into buyers or users of your products and/or services. SEO-Search Engine Optimization is a battery of methods of promoting your website to  Search Engine bots from Google and Bing so that you will get first page rankings on searches that coincide with your mission statements and key product offerings. First page rankings will drive users to your websites. Direct ads with  banner images/videos promote your website for various fees.  Backlinks plus trusted testimonials and reviews are  like free ads or promotions from users rating your website.

Clearly each of these methods is enhanced by excellence in the other. Timely, attractive and well presented content is at the heart of the Web value chain. Our survey showed that better SEO Ratings helped to drive users to websites. WebsiteGrader was one of a number of tools that provide useful SEO info and thus indicate how well a website is being promoted:

For WebsiteGrader, the highest SEO rating is 30. For all CSI websites the average was 19. For Backlinks the highest count is 100 which means 100 or  more Backlinks point to that Website. Note the average number of Backlinks to CSI websites was 68. Notably there are 55 CSI websites with 10 or less Backlinks. We found there is a correlation between SEO rating and number of Backlinks:  For SEO  rating greater than 24, the number of Backlinks  averaged 72; but for SEO  rating less than 9, the number of  Backlinks fell below 54.

And the evidence is that Social Media Buttons are effective in promoting your website. Here is how we measured it:

  • None = no Social Media Buttons whatsoever
  • Few = 1-3 Social Media Buttons, but missing 2 or more majors like Facebook, Twitter, Google+
  • Some = more than 3 Social Media Buttons, all the  major Social Media websites
  • Many = 5 or more Social Media Buttons, most of the button provide popup reviews

Now from the CSI Survey, there is evidence  that Social Media Buttons are effective in developing backlinks and better page ranking for websites.

  • 76 CSI Websites have None and their average number of  Backlinks is 42.0
  • 197 CSI Websites have Few and their average number of  Backlinks is  59.7
  • 179 CSI Websites have Some and their average number of  Backlinks is 79.7
  • 68 CSI Websites have Many and their average number of  Backlinks is  90.9

But the bottom line [see here for the definitive list of site ranking factors] is that “Backlinks remain an extremely important Google ranking factor. We found the number of domains linking to a page correlated with rankings more than any other factor.” So it appears that Google is going with its original intuition, trusted references are the best indicators of the value of a website’s coverage of a topic.

On the Web, Speed is the Killer App. Kissmetrics is famous for defining the importance of loading speed in Website  performance. There is no shortage of tools to measure Website Speed.  And of course Google followed by Bing made it official 3 years ago by making web page speed a  factor in their page rankings.

So the CSI survey did not fail to measure the speed and perfomance  of member’s websites. WebsiteGrader provides an informative test:
Two other speed testing tools, Pingdom and Gtmetrix, were used to confirm CSI speed raings. And the results were consistent across tools.

The Speed rating [30/30 is tops] for all website was very uniform – All CSI = 21.1. Interestingly, only about a fifth of CSI websites, 115, had Speed ratings of 25 or more. Conversely, only 26 CSI websites had a Speed score of 10 or less. These results appeared to reflect the smaller size of CSI websites and the  70%  usage of CMS and SiteBuilder systems which  deliver  solid web performance.

But one trend at CSI, the widespread use of full width hero images, video pages and sliders  [48% of Website], did raise tuning issues. Thus  the Home, About, and Contact pages had good load times; but a Landing Page or Events Promotion would show distinctly slower performance. Fortunately there are good tools available for tuning performance for these special cases.

Finally, on overall performance the CSI websites again delivered above average scores. WebsiteGrader and Nibbler  showed consistently above average overall performance scores – 70% average is well above standard for many client websites when originally encountered.

Summary

Clearly CSI as a microsocosm of how well the Web is used by small businesses and organizations is very informative. DIY are marching orders for many  websites owners. Yet, CSI Websites run above average in many categories. There were some below expectation ratings for Clarity of Mission and Active Web Usage measures. This appears to be due to an accumulation of factors including the cost and time required to get a website into self-sustaining  operational shape; potential over-reach in developing a Web Presence; and the lack of getting started mechanisms at CSI. There is Soshent and Hookup opportunities to get assistance but the CSI help processes are still not optimally tuned to members needs.

Nonetheless there are many excellent CSI websites. What will be highlighted is  5 top performing websites over the next few weeks. These websites are rated in the top tier on the performance measures cited in this review. Also consideration was given to website that used Web technology in novel ways to get their message out. Finally, in honor of Content Is King, websites with interesting stories to tell are featured here.

CSI Website Excellence

GreenMajority.ca  delivers opinions and insights on  all things Green in Canada and the World through clever podcasts and Climate Cartoons.

GreenMajority.ca has a great set of WebsiteGrader scores: 24/30 for speed, 30/30 for mobile readiness, 30/30 for SEO status, and 10/10 for security adding up to an overall website rating of 94/100. Originally written in WordPress, the website moved to SquareSpace for design reasons which means it easily delivers both mobile readiness and SSL security. And on the Home Page’s big hero video slider  Green Majority proclaims its mission – “A Canadian Perspective on Science and Environmental Policy Nationally and Abroad , with a Hint of Satire”.

GreenMajority also has an active website with weekly or more frequent podcasts, a frontpage set of Twitter comments and a nifty set of Climate Cartoons that deftly explain some of complexities associated with climate issues. This reviewer really like the podcast’s solid  production values with the very clever commercials by local musicians and bands midway through a podcast. Visit our  more detailed review of GreenMajority here.

Kunle.TV states its purpose and vision on its front page with a full width video capped with the Cisco declaration – “By 2019, 80% 0f the Internet Web traffic will be video”.
Kunle.tv is written in WordPress and every page is filled  with informative videos ranging from Futurism Weekly through Video Presenting & Collaboration to Workshop Testimonials. Kunle.tv lives by and delivers its video mantra.

And the website, despite the potentially higher  performance cost of video,  delivers very good Website.Grader scores of  22/30 for speed, 30/30 for mobile readiness, 30/30 for SEO status, and 10/10 for security adding up to an overall website rating of 92/100. With a high SEO score and very topical commentary, it is not surprising to see Kunle.tv with 112 backlinks from 13 separate resources. It is interesting to contrast GreenMajority.ca with it allegiance to verbally dominant podcast s with Kunle.tv use of video. Which has the most persuasive arguments?

Art Institute Canada is a bilingual website which is “dedicated to making Canadian art history a contemporary conversation. “. And they more than succeed with wonderful stories  filled with great historical and contemporary images of the Canadian artists at work. 

Art Institute Canada is a throwback – it is written in  straightforward HTML5  showing what good CSS styling and use of image, video, and audio tools can achieve.   Every page has a well chosen selection of images, slides or videos that tell  each artist’s story.

Even though  the website is chock full of large, full width sliders, images and videos, the website earns  Website.Grader scores of  24/30 for speed, 30/30 for mobile readiness, 30/30 for SEO status, and 10/10 for security adding up to an overall website rating of 94/100. Even more impressive Art Institute Canada has 82 domains pointing to the website with over 600o backlinks. Truly a feast for artists Canadian and worldwide.

And why not? Every page does Canadian artists featured therein very well. And  for many of the artists there are detailed biographies featuring essays, images, and often a video summary. In summary the Canadian painting art scene is so very well represented here it begs the question – why no glimpses of other Canadian artists like sculptors or poets or musicians? See here for a more detailed review of Art Institute Canada.

Evergreen is another HTML5 website that tracks the many policies associated with Evergreen  and the associated leisure time activities at the Evergreen Brickworks.

Evergreen follows  in the style of  excellent CSI Member’s websites. Its mission is clearly declared on the opening page, the navigation is easy to follow and the website is chock full of news items and alerts on the latest events at Evergreen. This is especially useful as Evergreen make a transition from being the sponsors of the Evergreen Brick Works, a mid Toronto city leisure time gathering place  to an advocate of city social planning.

With all the change Evergreen has slipped down from a Website.Grader rating of 84 earlier this year  to a current  79.   Website.Grader scores of  24/30 for speed, 30/30 for mobile readiness, but a slip to 15/30 for SEO status, and 10/10 for security adds to an overall website rating of 79/100. Despite the poor SEO score Evergreen achieves a mammoth backlink record: 1600 domains pointing over 21,000 backlinks to Evergreen.

Evergreen does two things – provides a substantial look into the overall city dwelling social policy with a broad set of presentations and news on the topic. At the sametime, there is ample support for the Evergreen Brick Works website. However at some future date the Brick Works already 3 levels deep on its menu-items [making navigation clumsy] may want to spawn off  to being a separate website. See here for further details about the Evergreen website.

Stephanie Sansen has a classic small business website which is superbly designed and filled with great content.

We judged Stephanie’s website to be the best CSI Member’s website for 3 reasons. First, on the Home page there is a full width slider that clearly describes the mission of the website in great style. Second, the website Blog posts and Recipes are consistently updated giving a fresh feel to the website. But most important of all the overall styling of the site is outstanding. If Content is King, the recipes are most alluring.

But on the other side of the fence Stephanie’s Website.Grader scores of 21/30 for speed, 30/30 for mobile readiness, 20/30 for SEO status, and 0/10 for security adding up to an overall website rating of 71/100. Most of these are scores could be buoyed by some quick web developer fixes. The essential strength is the good recipe display and easy navigation among the different savouries.

For a first time website Stephanie gets the essentials remarkably right. See here for a more detailed review of her newbie