Practical Ecommerce

Tech Support: August 2006

Question: My web host has different bandwidth levels depending on the price. How can I compute what my ecommerce site’s bandwidth needs are?

Brian Getting: Bandwidth can be a tough one to understand for most people. I like to use the analogy of a water pipe where the speed of your Internet connection represents the size of the pipe. A larger pipe (faster Internet connection) has the potential to deliver more water than a smaller pipe (slower Internet connection), regardless if it actually does. Bandwidth, at least how it is used in the hosting company sense, represents the actual amount of water going through the pipe. Each time data pass to and from the server on a website hosting account—whether that’s a web page, email messages or FTP file transfers—it represents water traveling through the pipe and, therefore, an increase in bandwidth usage.

While calculating how much web traffic, email and FTP usage there will be can be difficult, an estimate will be fine. Using more bandwidth than the hosting company provides you will generally mean you will be charged for the extra usage, much like cell phone minutes. However, most hosting companies will provide an option to increase your available bandwidth. Calculating the bandwidth requirements for an ecommerce website can be difficult, since it requires knowledge of data transfers that have not happened. However, let’s say all the files for a website add up to about 1 megabyte (MB). You will use 1 MB of bandwidth to upload this website via FTP to the hosting server. If the home page of that site is a 20 kilobyte (KB) document that references 100 KB of images for display, then every time someone accesses the home page, another 120 KB of bandwidth will be consumed. Multiplying this value by the number of visits can give you a ballpark idea of how much bandwidth your web traffic will require.

Keep in mind that bandwidth is cheap and hosting companies are usually happy to increase the amount provided to your account. A good rule of thumb is to start low if you are not sure of your needs and then increase your allotted bandwidth as needed.

Question: The “outgoing mail” settings on my email application don’t always work when I am traveling. Why is this?

Brian Getting: A common, yet baffling, occurrence for folks that travel with their laptops is that in some cases they will not be able to send outgoing email using their email application. While this can be very frustrating and confusing, the explanation lies with the Internet Service Provider (ISP) used to connect to the Internet. Some ISPs choose to require that their clients (or anyone using their network) use their own outgoing mail servers, or SMTP servers, as a way to control outgoing email traffic and prevent spam. Typically they will do this by blocking the outgoing mail ports, or monitoring outgoing traffic to mail servers and blocking them. It can be very frustrating, as it appears to a user that their trusted email settings are wrong and cannot be used.

The solution to this is to contact your ISP to find out what mail servers they would prefer you to use. Since sending email and receiving email are separate events, it doesn’t really matter what outgoing mail server you use, as long as it can successfully deliver email messages.

Question: There are wide pricing ranges for SSL certificates, I’ve noticed. Does a less expensive certificate work as well as a more expensive one on all browsers?

Brian Getting: The pricing for a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate can seem a bit scattered, with some certificates costing hundreds of dollars annually, while others seem to be available for a few dollars a month. When looking at an SSL certificate, there are a few key factors that can influence the price of the certificate.

The first factor is the signing authority, or the company that has verified the SSL certificate and essentially underwrites its authenticity. These signing authorities will usually provide some sort of liability protection in the event the certificate fails, much like an insurance company. The amount of protection provided and the credibility of the signing authority are the largest factors influencing the price of an SSL certificate.

In addition to the signing authority, someone buying an SSL certificate needs to be aware of what is called “browser ubiquity.” Web browsers come bundled with a list of certificate-signing authorities that have been determined to be trusted and will be seamlessly recognized by the browser. Certificates issued by these sources are said to have “browser ubiquity” since major web browsers recognize them. A certificate that has been issued by an authority that is not on the “trusted” list will generate a warning to most users who will need to tell their browser to trust the certificate.

Question: I have a Flash-based navigation menu on my website, and I keep getting messages from customers that they cannot see it. What is going on there?

Brian Getting: Flash content on the Internet requires a browser plug-in called the Flash Player. This is a free plug-in available from Adobe that integrates with your web browser to display and execute Flash content (.swf files). Since the Flash Player is a third-party, proprietary plug-in, there are always advances being made to improve performance and add new functionality as the Flash-authoring environment evolves and grows. These improvements come in the form of new plug-in versions being released, with the most current release being Version 8.0.

The problem arises when Flash developers don’t take into account that not all website visitors are diligent about updating their Flash Player version. Indeed, most website visitors have no idea what the Flash Player is. Therefore, it is important to understand what versions your users will have when designing something as important as a navigation menu. If the Flash file (.swf) is compiled to be used with the newest version of the Flash Player, then it will not display for those who are using Version 6.0 or 7.0. That can cost you website traffic and ultimately sales.

If you must use Flash for your navigation, or any other fundamentally important part of your website, make sure you are accommodating your users.

Brian Getting

Brian Getting

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