9 Best Communication and Commerce-Based Apps for Small Businesses

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Colorful application icon concept and the shopping cartAs a small business these days, you need to be strongly fortified and streamlined with your digital marketing and business management fronts, perhaps more so than with any other aspect of your operations. As a reputable Canadian web hosting provider, here at 4GoodHosting we try to keep tabs on industry developments that will be of interest to our customers who are small business owners.

The construction of an information technology infrastructure can be decidedly complex – and expensive – for businesses that are either new or still in their formative stages. Common detriments include limited resources, expertise, and time constraints when it comes to the way they find they are limited with how much they’re are able to accomplish. And it’s not only a case of accomplishing, it’s also about doing so in a timely manner to take full advantage of opportunities for the business

Software companies have been receptive to this challenge, building web-based tools that are either specifically designed for small businesses, or ones that can be configured to be more ideally suited to the more-exploratory operating challenges for those of you who are still fairly wet behind the ears when it comes to running a business (and particularly ones where the business relies heavily on the digital marketing front).

No where are these challenges more readily apparent – for most at least – than they are within the realms of communication and commerce online. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Effectively communicating with prospective customers, and then facilitating their purchases or any type of commercial transaction in a speedy, reliable, and secure manner are 2 of the more pressing needs for any business.

So, without further adieu, we’ve compiled a list of 9 super communication and commerce-based apps for small businesses that we feel really make the grade and then some when it comes usability, functionality, and readily-apparent value for you.

  1. Asana Collaboration

Efficiently working together to accomplish tasks is a primary need for any business. Asana makes for a more natural and cohesive, collaborative teamwork process. Asana’s free version supports up to 15 team members, which is perfect for even smaller businesses that don’t need more advanced features. Built on HTML5, it features rich design functionality and easy, attractive task management.

  1. Citrix Grasshopper

Up until recently, Voice over IP (VoIP) solutions were a fit for big companies exclusively. But with tools such as Citrix Grasshopper, you’ll be able to quickly and easily set up your VoIP tool and gain access to basic phone systems features such as call routing, faxing, and voicemail. Admittedly, it doesn’t have more advanced features such as call recording, a unified communications application, and dial-in conferencing at the lowest price levels, but you’ll still be able to count on higher call quality and call centre features that you likely won’t find with your local telecom provider.

  1. ClickMeeting Video Conferencing

It’s quite common to have staff members who work remotely, and then of course there’s times you will meet with prospective clients, service providers – and whoever else – via the web. If you’re looking for an easy-to-use video conferencing tool, then ClickMeeting is pretty much your best bet. It offers a free 30-day trial, low-price plan options, and cool collaboration tools such as shared desktops, whiteboarding tools, and in-app private chat. It doesn’t offer access to operator-assisted meetings, but that’s about the only criticism we have of it.

  1. MailChimp Email Marketing

This one you’ve likely heard of, and for good reason! MailChimp is the most popular and most capable email marketing automator, and the value of quality email marketing campaigns these days needs to explanation. MailChimp offers a rich, free plan; tons of third-party integration (much of which is available at the lowest price levels), and you’ve got a wide array of email templates that start the design process off quickly and help you send out emails at a rapid clip. You’ll enjoy the email analytics too, as they let you determine whether or not your messages are not drumming up interest in your business.

  1. Campaigner Email Marketing

Some of you may need a bit more flexibility than MailChimp allows, and we recommend checking out Campaigner. It has many of the same benefits, but allows you a much larger scope and reach with your campaigns. For example, a small business with 2,500 contacts in its marketing database could send an unlimited amount of messages for about $29.95 per month. That’s not cheap in comparison, but we’re talking about a tool that has everything you’ll need to run robust and easily-automated email campaigns. Add the fact you can test the tool for 30 days for free and it makes our list.

  1. Shopify E-Commerce

Without a doubt, Shopify is the king of all e-commerce platforms. But it’s very much a generic fit that’s great for most but not ideal for some. Still, you should be considering this online shopping cart for your web-based storefront whether you’re a company of 1 or 1,000. Why? It requires very little technological expertise to set up, you can try it for free for 30 days, and it provides an abundance of free templates and tools that will make it especially easy to be wise overseer of your online business.

  1. Sprout Social

Sprout Social is – in our opinion – one of the best social media analytics tools available for companies of nearly any size or orientation. For small businesses in particular, however, you’ll love that Sprout Social offers a free 30-day trial, multiple price tiers, and a tidy, intelligent design that makes it quite simple and intuitive to sort and discover data.

  1. Hootsuite

We’re fans of these guys first and foremost because they make an undeniably great social media marketing platform, but also because they’re from the same neck of the woods as us. If you’re more interested in managing your social campaigns than you are in measuring them, then try Hootsuite. This tool scales as you grow by letting you pay for extras (as opposed to bundling everything into one price package). Hootsuite offers the most comprehensive package of listening, publishing, and third-party integration options for businesses of all sizes.

  1. Zoho Survey

Some businesses will be more inclined to need to know the ‘temperature’ of the market as it regards their products or services. If you need to gauge how well your product is doing with consumers – or if you more simply just want to know what people think of your newest ad campaign – then survey management software is something you’ll likely want to consider. Zoho Survey is optimal for small businesses. It boasts one of the simplest user interfaces to manage, offers superb reporting, and is available for a very reasonable monthly rate. You also have the option of using the free version, which is plenty well equipped to get you the most basic information, but you’ll be lacking some of the more advanced features such as email notifications and multi-language support.

It’s always a long and complex chain when you’re in business and working to position yourself most ideally in the digital world. We’re happy to help with the best prices on web hosting in Canada, and we’re also happy to help with tips and suggestions regarding the best tools out there for managing your small business online. All the best and much success to you.

Siri, Cortana, or the Guy at Google Now: Who’s the Best Assistant?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

smiling businesswoman communicating with helpline operator

Here at 4GoodHosting, we’re a premier Canadian web hosting provider, and as such you can be certain we love anything related to the mobile communications world. You’d be hard pressed to find any newer-model smartphone and computer on the market today that doesn’t have a smart assistant preloaded and waiting on your every inquiry, Apple has Siri, Windows has Cortana, and then there’s the lesser known but equally useful Google Now.

So how do they stack up against one another in our opinion? To the more casual observer or passive participant it may seem like Siri, Cortana, and the nameless Google Now assistant are all pretty much the same — and, to a great extent, they are. But they also have several tangible differences and in each case they’ve got at least one quirk, flaw or strength between them.

So which one would be best for you? Of course, you’re not going to make a purchasing decision for your next smartphone based exclusively on the type of assistant it comes with, but it may be a prominent consideration.

It’s not an easy question to answer, with the fact they’re so similar making it hard to compare them without digging deep into their capabilities.

Let’s give it a try.

Siri

Siri has been one of the flagship features of iOS since the 2011 launch of iOS 5. It’s somewhat humble beginnings were with the basics, like weather forecasts and messaging, but it’s expanded in leaps and bounds since, and most notably it now supports third-party integration with MacOS Sierra and iOS 10.

Indeed, Siri’s jokes and witty comebacks continue to be a hit, but the virtual assistant is becoming more and more capable as the years go by. These days you can ask it to call people, send messages, schedule meetings, play games, launch apps and games, answer questions, set reminders, and still provide those weather forecasts.

Siri’s also very capable with understanding contextual queries, and with the MacOS Sierra and iOS 10 versions it relies a lot less on web results in choosing the response. Siri can also integrate with third-party apps and understand follow-up queries. This was a significant departure for Apple, which has always maintained tight creative control over which 3rd-party companies are granted access to its native functions. As a result, we feel it’s a bit premature to judge how well this stacks up to Cortana or Google Now.

Siri has no troubles contextually searching for files in MacOS, although we think it’s fair to say she doesn’t seem to have the learning capabilities that Cortana does. Especially when it comes to personalized responses.

Another detractor for Siri is in the way it’s reliant on voice input. Cortana and Google Now both work very well with text input, while Siri requires voice input. It is possible to edit your dictation after it’s been received, but that’s not going to appeal to any user. This is especially annoying with the MacOS version of the assistant, with the fact there are any number of reasons or scenarios where a user might not be able to talk to his or her Mac, like in a crowded workplace for instance, or while in bed with your partner asleep next to you.

Cortana

On Windows Phone, users can have Cortana make calls, send messages, set reminders, take notes, recognize music, find great restaurants, check your calendar, among many more functions. The Windows 10 version of Cortana offers a few more features, namely the ability to search files by context, and wit the Windows 10 Creators Update you have even more functionality, including the ability to lock, restart, or shut down your computer. Add the fact all of this is done using natural language and that’s fairly impressive.

Another appealing feature with Cortana is that Microsoft’s virtual assistant is analyzing your interactions at nearly every step to learn more about your preferences. This info is stored in something premier Canadian web hosting provider and the information includes the places you like to go, people your interactions suggest you care about, the times of the day that are your ‘quiet times’, and things you might be interested in based on your viewings, among other things. And if you’d like to overrule Cortana, you can edit them any time you like.

There’s more. Cortana is also capable of reading your emails, tracking your location, taking note of your browser history, checking your contact list, keeping tabs on your calendar, and then putting all this data together to suggest info / choices in the future, if of course you allow it to. Cortana has also been formatted to recognize context, so most of the time it will be able to understand follow-up requests, and you can even phrase inquiries or requests in different ways and Cortana is able to take the contextual clues and respond accordingly, again most of the time. You can also type your questions or requests if you’d rather not speak out loud.

Cortana is not limited Microsoft’s apps, either, as it can access third-party content as well. The assistant can also add something to your Hulu queue, or check out a friend’s Facebook feed. More and more third-party connectivity is being added all the time.

Google Now

Google Now is different from Cortana and Siri in a number of ways, but most particularly in that it’s designed with less personality – and more functionality – in mind. Yes, it is an integral part of Android, bit Google Now can also be used via an iOS app, or accessed via the Google Chrome browser on any mobile internet device.

The best way for you to conceptualize the functionality of Google Now is to think of it as an extension of Google’s existing search capabilities, as compared to it being more simply a full-on smart assistant. Google Now does much of what the other two virtual assistants do, and does it just as well the majority of the time and with similar speediness. Like Cortana and Siri, you can ask Google Now for directions to the closest Pho restaurant, or what kind of weather you can expect over the next 10 days.

With your approval, Google’s software will utilize your search history and customize its responses based on what it’s gleaned from your preceding queries. For example, if you ask Google Now to inform you about what’s in the news, it will provide news articles it believes would interest you, based on what you’ve previously read on Google.

Further, the platform’s additional third-party support means that – like Cortana and Siri – you can add new features to Google Now that aren’t a native component of its platform.

Google’s integration with its search engine is a BIG plus, and it makes Google Now one of the most useful virtual assistants out of the box. Unless you’ve yet to use Google as a search engine (highly unlikely), it will already have a mound of data and footprints for your movements on the web. It will also pick up on your habits if you’re using it on a smartphone, and will try to serve you a specific card in advance of your next request. You can even tell Google Now whether it’s actually serving you relevant cards, and if not the software will improve in short order.

Google Now on Android operates much like Cortana, given it’s tightly integrated with the operating system’s search functionality. As you go about your browsing, Google Now will pull up relevant information. If you’re reading about a new music album, for instance, it might suggest a card with a list of dates for that band’s tour, or recorded music from bands of the same genre.

The Decision

Despite the fact Siri finally made it to MacOS, Cortana has to be regarded as the most fully-featured assistant currently available. Apple has decided to finally open up Siri to third parties, and that will make a big difference, but the growth hasn’t happened yet, and it remains to be seen if it can even match what Cortana and Google Now are currently offering.

In truth, Apple remains at a disadvantage due to its own business model. Both Microsoft and Google own services that a vast array of web users already utilize. Combining this with a virtual assistant makes it more convenient to the person using it, because it will very quickly display its ability to anticipate what you might be looking for, with at least some effectiveness (and always improving in this regard)

All this said, the best smart assistant is the one you have ready at this very moment. Our recommendation is that you try their respective apps on your smartphone, your desktop, and perhaps even some of your smart home devices before deciding on the one you want to be getting to know you, so very well.

5 Ways to Promote Greater WordPress Website Speeds

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Finger Pointing at Internet WebsitesIf you live in the heart of a major metropolitan city, having a sports car that can do zero to 60 in less than 3 seconds would is great – but it’s certainly far from being a necessity (or even practical for that matter) because of the fact that you’ll almost never be able to actually put that performance capability to use. Here at 4GoodHosting, we’re city dwellers and some of the best Canadian web hosting providers around, but we certainly don’t drive Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Maseratis, or anything of the sort.

What we do have for you though is genuine speed for your WordPress-built website, and that IS a necessity these days. Users’ expectations have expanded these days, and they expected a website to

  1. Load quickly, and
  2. Be responsive when scrolling through pages or enjoying multimedia content

If a website doesn’t respond with sufficient speed, these users will move on. It’s that simple. It may not be ‘fair’ but that’s the way that it is. You may be left wondering about ways to increase your website speed, and you should do that for a pair of reasons. Not only does a lagging website risk losing visitors (and in some cases prospective customers) but more importantly…

Google has stated unequivocally that the speed of a website will reflect that site’s rankings in SERPs (search engine results pages)

Now that is a big deal, and no matter whether your website is e-commerce, personal, or whatever it may be.

Right then, here’s 5 nearly-guaranteed ways to improve the speed of your website.

  1. Choose a Reliable and Reputable Web Hosting Provider

Your proven web hosting provider in Canada must have solid and reliable hardware, and most particularly their servers. Researching your prospective host in line will almost certainly lead to at least one customer review that talks about their servers.

But while we have the same powerful dedicated servers that nearly any good Canadian web hosting provider will have, but we also boast our ‘fast fiber’ network designed to deliver optimal operation time and high throughput and packet per second capability.

Long story short, you should be demanding, and when you ask questions about the response speed of a web hosting service you should expect a more detailed and qualified answer than ‘oh yes, we’re plenty fast.” There should be numbers in that response.

  1. Enable Caching

Caching is the technical term for storing data in a temporary storage area. The relevance of that given our topic this week is that having this storage spot and directing data there improve’s a site’s vroom-vroom capabilities. That’s because much of the content has an opportunity to be ready-made for delivery on demand and does not have to gathered and then prepared for delivery / display to the user. It also reduces the load of various systems resources being piled on your server.

Typically, good web hosts will offer their customers caching plugins that can be implemented and activated via your control panel. You can usually also do this through you WordPress CP if you are hosted with WordPress hosting.

  1. Utilize a Content Delivery Network

This step comes very highly recommended, as a Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a surefire way to speed up your website. A CDN is a worldwide network of servers that facilitate you duplicating and storing your site’s static elements and files. Examples of these would be cascading style sheets, Javascript, images, video files etc. These elements are then delivered to whoever asks for them via a server that is closer to their physical location. The time content takes to reach their browsers is, of course, drastically reduced. And not surprisingly that makes for satisfied folks.

  1. Ensure your Images are Optimized in Full

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that users now expect higher quality images to be features on websites. Image quality – and to a greater extent image size – both factor into the new challenges place on the speed of the website in delivering them to the expecting visitor without anything more than a slight delay.

The majority of images can be resized or cropped to fit with graphic-editing tools or plugins, and most of the time the web user will not notice any reduction in quality.

This is a step that’s not particularly technical, and we think it’s one you can probably take on by yourself! So here goes:

  • Use JPEG format whenever possible, or PNG if not
  • Avoid using BMP and TIFF formats
  • Crop your image to eliminate unnecessary elements and reduce size
  • Resize your images and use logic in making your decisions. Example – a web page only 750 pixels wide is going to have a devil of a time accommodating a 2000 pixels wide image. Resize it!
  1. Go Ahead and ‘Minify’ your HTML, JavaScript, and CSS

CSS and JavaScript have never been as integral to websites like they are today. You wouldn’t dare consider doing away with these files, but you certainly should try to reduce the size of them if you want more pep out of the site.

The term that they use for this move is ‘minify’, and what that means is basically getting rid of comments, extra spaces, extra line breaks, and so on and so forth. ‘Frivolous infrastructure’ is the term we like, and it also includes block delimiters in the code in order to make that code lighter and and really dialling back on the amount of data that needs to be transferred.

There are a selection of plugins specifically designed for WordPress websites to make this ‘minifying’ as easy as possible. Good ones include WP Super Minify and Better WordPress Minify, both of which automatically reformat your code to make it much leaner. Manual resizing is a possibility too, and quite easy when you use Closure Compiler. Many CDNs and caching tools offer built-in minify support.

More in Store

Of course, we’ve just scratched the surface of website optimization for greater speed. These 5 steps are pretty much failsafe in bringing your actual noticeable results though. If you’d like to dig deeper, here are 3 popular performance analysis sites that feature online tools that can run a series of tests on your site to identify performance issues and then instruct you on how to remedy them if you’re lagging in any particular area. They’re user-friendly and intuitive and the results and scoring can be displayed in a choice of manners.

Have a look

The Cloud Stack: SaaS, PaaS, & IaaS

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Here at 4GoodHosting, we’re a reputable web hosting service provider in Canada and we like to think we’ve got our thumbs sufficiently on the pulse of what’s new in the digital marketing world too. The ‘stack’ we’re going to talk about today is all about computing and the new way in which cloud computing, in particular, has revolutionized the way people access and utilize resources made available through the internet. We always have tips for improving your online marketing presence, but this blog post is really more about some of the more notable developments in cloud computing as they pertain to business.

The Cloud is a broad collection of services, and these days there’s plenty of options in regards to the way you can optimize them for the benefit of your company and organization. The stack is the broad range of services built on top of one another – thus the stack. Each one owes much of its stability and practicality to the one underneath it, as we’ll highlight shortly.

Unparalleled Network Access

Services make the grade as ‘Cloud’ worthy when they feature:

  • On-demand self service – any time and anywhere you want it, sign up and receive service without delay
  • Broad and uninhibited network access across varied devices (desktop, laptop, AND mobile)
  • Extensive resource pooling
  • Rapid elasticity – able to flex upwards and downwards in relation to demand surges and sags
  • Measured service that is billed accordingly, and with transparency

The Stack Itself

Alright, picture a pyramid divided into 3 sections. The pointed top is SaaS (software as a service). The middle section is Paas (platform as a service) and the base is IaaS (infrastructure as a service).

Fullscreen capture 452017 75232 AM.bmp

  • SaaS applications are intended for delivery to end users, and that delivery occurs immediately via the web (analogy – think passengers)
  • PaaS encompasses all of the tools and services that make coding and deploying those services occur smoothly, reliably, and relatively understandably (analogy – think vehicles)
  • IaaS is the groundwork – the hardware and software powering it all along. This can be servers, storage, networks, operating systems (analogy – think roadways)

SaaS is software that’s deployed over the internet. To put it in more understandable terms for consumers, it’s embodied in the new phenomena where you don’t need to go and buy a physical hard copy of a software suite complete with install disc and take it home to then install on your computer. Rather, you sign up, pay your initial monthly fee, and nearly instantaneously you’ve got access to it.

SaaS offerings will feature:

  • Web access to commercial software
  • Software managed from a central location, with no responsibility put on the consumer
  • Software delivered with a ‘one customize-to-fit for all’ model
  • APIs that allow integration between different varieties of software

Keep in mind however that not ALL softwares are well suited to be made available in a SaaS model. One that are suited will be (among other characteristics):

  • Ones where the fundamental technology is well established and unlikely to change
  • Ones where there is plenty of interplay between the organization and the worldwide consumer base
  • Applications that have a growing need for web or mobile access, and where that is projected to increase even further
  • Software that is primarily intended for a short term need
  • Software where demand has been seen to spike significantly at times

PaaS is any computer platform that allows the quick and easy creation of web applications without the complexity of purchasing and maintaining infrastructure that must be in place beneath it in order for it to be functional / operational.

Simply, it’s a platform for the creation of software that’s delivered – ready made and ready to work – quickly and easily over the web.

Paas offerings will feature:

  • Services designed to develop, test, deploy, host and maintain applications within a same integrated development environment.
  • Web-based user interface creation tools that are intended for use in creating, modifying, testing and deploying different UI scenarios
  • Multi-tenant architecture where multiple concurrent users utilize the same development app • Programmed scalability of deployed software, with load balancing and failover included
  • Integration with web services and databases via common standards
  • Support for development team collaboration, with some specific ones featuring project planning and communication tools

PaaS products will be especially practical in any situation where multiple developers will be proceeding to work on a project, or where external parties must interact and work collaboratively within the development process. These models have been very well received in instances where a valuable data source already exists and the aim is to create new applications which leverage the established value of that data. PaaS is also expected to ease difficulties around rapid deployment and iteration of software.

IaaS is any proven method of delivering the servers, storage, networks, and operating systems of Cloud computing as an on-demand service. It’s obtained as public or private infrastructure, or a combination of both (very common, and also known as ‘hybrid cloud’).

IaaS offerings will feature:

  • Resources being distributed as a service, with full autonomy for the end user to apply them as he / she sees fit
  • A natural allowance for dynamic scaling, and to whatever extent is necessary
  • Variable costs, and different utility pricing models
  • In many cases, multiple users on a single piece of hardware

Examples of large-scale IaaS providers operating today are Rackspace and Amazon Web Services.

IaaS products will be a good fit in any situation where

  • Demand is volatile – increasing and decreasing, and often considerably so in either direction and without any discernible trend
  • A new organization finds investment capital for hardware to be a daunting cost
  • A growing organization finds scaling hardware to be problematic
  • A similar organization that needs to move from capital expenditure to operations expenditure

It’s a fact that Cloud computing is a rapidly accelerating revolution within the entirety of the IT world, and we imagine it will become the default method of IT delivery in the not too distant future. Becoming familiar with it is highly advisable!