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Danger: Don't Build Your Online Future on Shifting Sand

Be Careful With Your Future

Surely you know the parable. One guy builds his house on rock. It's tough, it's expensive, but the house is secure and it lasts. The other guy constructs his home on sand. Easy, cheap ... but then it slides into the ocean. Everything's lost.

A story to encourage children to work hard? Perhaps. But a surprising number of new businesses are building their online futures on foundations that are just as unstable.

Free ... and worth every penny

Too many otherwise sensible business people see an offer for free web hosting and leap at the "opportunity." Some think that adding a top-level domain name makes it okay: that it hides the underlying weaknesses.

One way or another, they won't stay hidden for long. The host might employ the term "free," but you can be sure it expects to profit. At best, that host will start you for free but the service is so restricted you simply have to pay for "extras."

At worst, you'll get stuck with advertising on your site over which you have no control. Think you're going to sell baby clothes in that kind of environment? An extreme example, perhaps, but I'm sure you understand what I mean.

And having inappropriate ads on your website is not the most serious problem; visibility is. While the search engines don't actually penalize free sites simply because they're free, according to Google's own webmaster blog the search engine does downgrade hosts who allow multiple junk sites.

Most free hosts aren't concerned about who builds what -- they actively encourage quantity -- so no matter how good your website is, if it's on a platform that's considered sub-standard, it will inevitably get dragged down.

Why would you take the risk? Professional hosting will cost you $5 a month or less. It used to be more expensive if you wanted to run things like ASP or .NET -- because you needed a Windows server -- but today, specialists such as Accuweb offer the same competitive pricing as you'll find with traditional Linux sites.

It's about as big a no-brainer as you get on the Internet. Professional hosting that will enable you to do pretty much anything you want, without risking the wrath of Google ... and it costs less than a family pizza.

If that's too rich for you, you need to re-evaluate whether you're cut out for online business at all.

The big myth of social media

Social media is huge. Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. -- all those places offer you the chance to build a tremendous following for your products and services, and it requires nothing but your time.

Then there's the giant that is Facebook. That's a superb place to promote a business ... and free, too. It may only have been around for ten years but it's got so much critical mass, it'll be with us forever, right?

Tell that to people who previously used Myspace or to Rupert Murdoch, who reportedly paid $580 million for that one in 2005 when it was THE social media site. Back then, MySpace had more daily visits than Google, in excess of 1,500 employees, and a turnover of $800 million. Yet six years later it sold for just $35 million and today ... ?

Through growth can be extraordinary online, so can decline. Nobody is suggesting you shouldn't use social media in your business -- very few can afford to ignore its potential -- but you need to employ it in addition to your other Internet activities.

Building a business presence based solely on social media is a dangerous choice. What popular opinion can build, it can very quickly destroy.

Solid foundations

The immediacy of the Internet and modern media can distract us from core business principles that are as rock-solid now as they always were -- except that today, firm foundations are as easy to construct as those built on sand.

First, establish an Internet presence that you control: one that isn't subject to the vagaries of fashion. Get professional hosting, build a site, and generate content that appeals to the search engines and your human visitors.

Don't ever try to game the system, particularly not Google. Even if it works in the short term, when Google eventually finds out -- and it will -- that means the end of your website. Period.

As you develop your site, foster your social media presence alongside it. Don't just duplicate content; learn what works best for each platform. The result will be a comprehensive strategy that can survive just about anything.

More Stories By Drew Hendricks

Drew Hendricks is a writer, as well as a tech, social media and environmental enthusiast, living in San Francisco. He is a contributing writer at Forbes, Technorati and The Huffington Post.