About Ernie

Ernie Black is a web developer, writer, photographer, and owner of Standing Stone Designs, Inc., a web design, production and hosting business located in Marlborough, MA and serving clients worldwide. Ernie has served as Webmaster for the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce since 2001, providing design, web maintenance, and support for the Chamber. Standing Stone Designs' other clients include Telefunken Elektroakustik, Downtown Chiropractic, ProSoundWeb.com, Charlie Zahm, the Law Offices of Barry R. Lewis, and Attleboro Dermatology. Prior to incorporating Standing Stone Designs, he served as Webmaster at Idiom Technology, Inc. and Applix, Inc.. Armed with an MA in English and Creative Writing, Ernest has taught English and Humanities at Fisher College, Suomi College, and Colorado State University. He has published articles on Web development and Web metrics as well as fiction, poetry, and articles on Eastern philosophy.

Going Mobile: Mobile-Friendly Websites

Going Mobile

If you’re a certain age, the heading above may trigger memories of The Who smashing guitars on stage, but in the wild world of the web today it means something quite different: Is your website mobile-friendly? Or is your website suitable for desktop or laptop viewing only? Maybe it looks fine on a tablet, but check it on your iPhone or Android: if you have to “pinch” the screen to make it readable because the text is way too small or the layout far too cluttered, you’re not mobile-friendly.

So what’s the big deal? The big deal is you may be losing customers, for two very big reasons:

  • 61% of internet access is now on mobile devices, according to InMobi, and Nielsen reports up to 84% of US consumers browsing their smartphones or tablets while watching TV.
    Mobile Web Browsing Overtakes PC Browsing

  • Google recently announced major changes to their search algorithms, penalizing websites that aren’t mobile-friendly. Sites that fail to pass the Google mobile-friendly standards risk losing rankings on search engines, at least for searches on mobile devices (and after all, those are precisely the mobile users you want to capture). The result: a decrease in overall visitors, which in turn can mean a huge drop in revenues for those who rely on web traffic.

How do you know if your site is mobile-friendly? Take the Google test.

The Solution

One size does not fit all. You have to assess your website needs and determine the value proposition that’s right for you. Let’s look at three basic approaches:

  • The Ostrich: My site is fine as it is, I’m not going to spend any money fixing what isn’t broken.
  • The Pragmatist: What’s the best bang for my buck? What’s the quickest, least expensive way to be mobile-friendly and not reinvent the wheel?
    Solution: A partial site build to provide mobile access for key pages.

  • The All-In: OK, it’s time for a site redesign anyway, what do I need to do to optimize the site for all platforms?
    Solution: A complete site conversion to a “responsive” design optimized for all devices.

Sample Mobile SitePutting aside “The Ostrich,” let’s compare the other two options. The first is a partial site redesign where you or your web team creates a mobile version of your site (or of key pages, at a minimum the homepage and any essential pages such as Contact Info) which is fully mobile-friendly. A simple script detects whether someone is accessing your site from a desktop or a mobile device, and delivers the appropriate version.

For smaller sites, or just a few pages, this can be very cost effective, providing your customers a mobile-friendly experience with minimal expense and no need to redraft the entire site. The downside? You have two sets of pages to maintain, and it’s really only a temporary solution. But if you don’t edit the site very often, this could be the ideal solution at a much lower cost. (Of course, you should update your site, or at least your homepage, frequently, but that’s another topic.)

The second option, which you may have seen promoted online recently, is the full site conversion to what’s called a “responsive template”: a design which automatically adapts to the browsing device (“user agent”), delivering the same content formatted to whatever platform the visitor is using. The layout “responds” to mobile devices with one layout, tablets with another, and desktop PCs with a third layout. Additionally, a WordPress responsive template empowers you to edit your site at will through its capable admin interface, so you can blog or edit page content at will (allowing you to update your site frequently without having to pay a third party for these edits). The downside? A more expensive initial development phase.

This could be an opportune time for a site redesign if it’s been a few years since you last updated your site design. But at the very least, I strongly recommend the second option: For minimal cost, you can have a sharp-looking, mobile-friendly website, improving your SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and garnering more customers. At Standing Stone Designs, I have worked with several clients recently who inquired about the need to be mobile-friendly, developing a custom fit for each client based on their requirements and budget. I will be happy to review the options with you and help you choose the best approach.

Important Message Re: An Act Establishing Just Schedules for Employees

Dear BVCC Member, 

I would like to bring to your attention, if you are not already aware, of a new proposed bill before the legislature…

 

An Act Establishing Just Schedules for Employees

 – Representative Garballey

This bill addresses on-call and last-minute scheduling by mandating the provision of extra pay for employees whose schedule is changed within 24 hours of the shift. Specific mandates include 3 hours of pay at minimum wage when workers work less and are sent home early, 4 hours of pay at the regular rate of pay for work cancelled with less than 24 hours’ notice, when workers are sent home early and work less than four hours, or for unworked on-call shifts, and 1 hour of extra pay for any shifts added within 24 hours. It also strengthens investigative and punitive authority for the government to incentivize compliance.
Here is a link to the actual bill

 

If passed, this law could cause problems for many  small business owners, and add greatly to the cost of doing business in the Commonwealth.  The Blackstone Valley Chamber is working with MACCE (Mass Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives) and AIM to reach out to our legislators with your views on how this could affect you.  Please contact your legislators and let me know your thoughts jhebert@blackstonevalley.org  so we can act as a liaison for you in reaching out as your voice of business.

 

Many thanks for your input and support!

 

Jeannie

Jeannie Hebert

President and CEO

Homestead Exemption: Court Adopts Predominance Test for Home Offices

Joshua Lee Smith – The Massachusetts homestead statute (M.G.L. c. 188) permits an owner to declare a homestead on his or her principal residence to protect it against claims of certain unsecured creditors of up to $500,000, or if an owner is disabled or 62 years of age or older, up to $1,000,000. Without declaring a homestead, homeowners are entitled to an “automatic homestead exemption” of $125,000. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Massachusetts recently held in In re: Walter D. Catton, Jr. that a property that is predominantly used for commercial rather than residential purposes will disqualify such property for exemption under the homestead statute.

The debtor in the case owned a two-story structure in which he lived on the second floor and used the first floor as an office for his insurance agency. The opposing party, a bankruptcy trustee, argued that, due to its commercial use, the debtor’s property should not qualify as a single family dwelling entitled to homestead protection. The trustee pointed to the city’s assessor website which described the property as an “office” having a style of “Stores/Apt Com” and noted that the city taxed part of the property at the residential rate and part at the commercial rate. The trustee also pointed out that the debtor’s appraisal described the property as a “two unit mixed use property.” The Court was unpersuaded by these arguments, stating that the test for homestead eligibility is not whether the single family dwelling includes any commercial use but whether the commercial use predominates.

In holding that the debtor’s use of the property for his insurance agency was not the predominant use, the Court indicated that the zoning district in which the property was located permitted a home occupation with commercial use only if the commercial use was “clearly incidental and secondary to the use of the premises for residential purposes.” The Court also found persuasive the fact that over 60% of the floor area represented residential living area.

The good news for homeowners (and bad news for creditors) is that this case further demonstrates how the courts in Massachusetts continue to follow what the Court here described as the “golden rule” that exemptions are to be liberally construed in favor of debtors. Homeowners should consider taking the simple step of filing a declaration of homestead as a means to maximize the protection of one’s principal residence. Creditors should be mindful of the homestead protections afforded to debtors in the collection of judgments and the few but important exceptions where debtor-friendly homestead laws do not apply.

Small Business Website Design and Hosting Essentials

Everybody knows their small business needs a web presence today. But what are the essentials? What style site do you need? What about SEO and SMM and CMS and other acronyms? Here is a simple Top Ten list of website requirements for success today:

  1. A clear, concise description of your business: You need to grab your visitor in the first 2 or 3 seconds. Be Clear, Concise and Compelling.
  2. A simple, easy-to-remember and easy-to-type web domain: ideally, a .com URL omitting hyphens and unusual spellings if possible as these are stumbling blocks to potential visitors.
  3. Easy to follow navigation: an navigation scheme with top level sections and sub-sections as needed, typically a navigation bar at the top with your main sections and dropdowns for your sub-sections.
  4. Contact Info! Make it easy for folks to contact you with contact info in the footer and a contact us page with phone, email, physical address, and any other pertinent information. Set your email to your domain so potential customers can easily remember it and associate it with you (example: me@mydomain.com rather than me@gmail.com).
  5. Fresh, high quality content: keep your site updated regularly so it’s always fresh; a blog can help immensely in keeping fresh content on the homepage.
  6. Attention-grabbing design fitting your subject area: a tourism site, for instance, should feature photo galleries of key destinations, a photographer’s site a rich gallery of sample work, and a manufacturer’s site aiming at online sales product info, photos, and easy way to purchase
  7. Reliable, secure hosting: it’s easy to get web hosting for $10 or less per month these days, but how reliable is the host? how readily available to service your needs? how flexible in their offerings? I offer my clients a hosting plus support package tailored to their needs, so that they have guaranteed time each month for their special requirements at a reduced rate.
  8. SEO (Search Engine Optimization): website elements that help drive search engines to find your site, including keywords, alt and title tags, inbound links, and social media.
  9. SMM (Social Media Marketing) or just “Social”: your social media connections, from Facebook to Twitter and LinkedIn to Tumblr.
  10. CMS (Content Management System): you need a CMS that facilitates easy and flexible site maintenance, whether you edit the site yourself, have a webmaster or even team to manage the site, or a combination. There are many platforms available today, but the most versatile and simple to use for a small business is a WordPress site.

I will address these issues in more detail future posts.

Enhancing Your Online Presence with Chambermaster Member Features

Have you taken the time to log into your member account with the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce to update your member info and take advantage of the new marketing features that are now available thanks to our new Chambermaster integration? If you are a Chamber member, you should have received an email with your login username and password. This is your key to unlocking a host of new marketing features to empower you to enhance your online presence with Chambermaster Member Features.

First Step: Login to Your Member Account

To access your member account, go to www.blackstonevalley.org and click Manage Membership in the left column under Membership Info. This takes you to the login page. Enter your username (your registered email address) and password and hit Submit. If you know your username but forgot your password, click the Forgot Password link; if you don’t know your membership login, please send us an email requesting your login. This opens the Member Dashboard.

Dashboard

Here you will see a number of broad options: your Profile, upcoming Events, Share (where you can view or create Events, Hot Deals and other items), and What’s New. We will focus on your Profile.

At the top of the page you’ll see a navigation bar with multiple options: Account (drop down menu: your company’s listed members or “reps”; your personal info; your login and password which you can edit; and payment options for any outstanding invoices you have with the Chamber); Profile (summary, company info, web info, photos and logos, etc.); Search (quick links to current events, hot deals, member to member deals, news releases and more); Share (where you can create your own hot deals, member to member deals, events, etc., subject to Chamber approval before appearing on the website); and Reports.

Profile

Chambermaster has enabled the Chamber to offer several new ways to promote your business online. When you click open the Profile bar on the Dashboard (member account homepage), you will see a snapshot of your profile status: percentage completed, your logo if uploaded, and your summary description. You can update your profile by clicking the Update Profile button or by selecting a drop down menu item from the Profile link in the navigation bar.

Your Profile is divided into four sections: Organization Info, Webpage Info, Map Pin Info, and Photos & Logos, plus Membership Badge (a bit of code you can place on your website to proclaim your membership in the Chamber).

Organization Info

The main section here is all your Contact Info: company name, phone numbers, website, and address, plus the date of establishment, number of employees, etc. This way you can make needed changes as needed without waiting for the Chamber staff to make them for you, and you have the opportunity to include more info than before.

Web Page Content

Here you can include additional info about your company and site, such as URL text, your website URL, complete site description, a brief description called “Results Summary” which displays in search results, bulleted list of key points, keywords, driving directions, and more.

Social Media Marketing Especially important is the added benefit of listing your LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter accounts for Social Media Marketing. And you can connect your Chamber membership to your Facebook

Map Pin Info

Here you specify your physical location on Google maps with a map pin, address, uploaded image, logo, and/or other items. Put your business on the map!

Photos & Logos

This may be the most exciting feature of all! You can now add your company logo (max size 150×100), a smaller logo as a search results icon (75×75), and a Member Page Header (max size 550×150: Note, the default max size is 800 wide, but that will break the Chamber page layout, so it’s far better to limit your page header to 550 wide).

But that’s not all! You can also create a Member Photo Gallery and/or a YouTube Video embedding to further enhance your brand on the Chamber site.

Well, that the thumbnail guide to your Member Profile. As you can see, there’s a wealth of new features you can use to promote your brand. Next time I will discuss setting up Hot Deals and Member to Member Deals.