The term "offload" or "offloading" in information technology and computer science refers to the transfer of something from your system to an external system. In the context of websites, your system is your website (and your Web servers/Web host), and the external system consists of third-party Web services such as Google Analytics or Shopify.
Why You Should Or Shouldn't Offload
There are advantages and disadvantages to having parts of your website catered to by third-party Web services. In order for you to decide what should and shouldn't be on your system, let's first talk about the pros and cons of website feature offloading.
Pros of Offloading
- Reduced Cost: Whether it's lower Web server costs or fewer employee hours to commit to maintenance and management, the Web solutions listed below will generally lead to cost reductions. Many of the services mentioned are either free or significantly lower in cost than if you were to develop, manage and maintain them yourselves.
- Generally Better: Third-party solutions are often built by innovative companies such as Google and Yahoo, which are highly regarded as experts in the products they offer. The research, talent and manpower they're able to commit to solving problems are more than most companies can handle.
- Faster/More Reliable Service: Companies such as Google and Yahoo have massive IT infrastructures and server farms to ensure that their services perform well and with little to no service interruption.
- Data Security: If a site feature requires user data management (such as credit card information and phone numbers), the Web solutions mentioned below are known to have great security features. If you lack data security expertise in your company, it might be a good idea to let companies that are better equipped to handle sensitive data handle information submitted to you. This also reduces the chance of data compromises due to insecure servers, or may lead to reducing costs related to data security -- security audits, SSL certificates, security consultants and developers, and so forth.
Cons of Offloading
- Potentially Slower Web Pages: Having an external website serve parts of your website could potentially slow down some of your pages, especially for features that are embedded in your Web pages (such as contact forms). This is because whenever a widget from a third-party company is included in a webpage, it has to make a connection to the other company's server -- which could be located far away from your own.
- Lack of Control: Site features that can be offloaded are typically customizable, but there will always be limits to your ability to customize them when compared to things that you manage yourself.
- More Things to Worry About: Most of the Web services discussed here require you to sign up for an account on their website. This means more information to deal with, more systems to learn and more time needed to keep track of stuff.
- Privacy Concern: If a site feature requires user data to be submitted, you will not be able to completely oversee what happens to that data.
Now that you know the benefits and disadvantages of offloading your website features, let's look at those Web services that are most commonly offloaded.
1. E-Commerce Management System
Custom-built e-commerce systems can be costly -- not only the upfront costs of having one developed, but also those incurred once it's up and running. There are open source software apps like Magento that are far less costly than building your own system, but still, dealing with security and data privacy can be a nightmare. The complexity and robustness in features of typical e-commerce solutions can be taxing to your Web servers (and your budget).
Check out the following excellent hosted e-commerce management systems below.
- Shopify: With a client base that includes Amnesty International and Pixar, it's no wonder that Shopify is regarded as the go-to for hosted e-commerce systems. It will deal with credit card transactions for you, has a user-friendly interface for managing your inventory and your e-store will be highly customizable so that you're able to match your existing company brand. Plans start from $29 a month.
- SolidShops: If you're a big fan of 37Signals apps (e.g. Basecamp and Highrise), you'll appreciate the simplicity and ease-of-use of the SolidShops interface. SolidShops is a newcomer in the hosted e-commerce space, so while it's still in beta, it's free to use. After beta, plans start at $29 a month.
- E-junkie: If you deal with digital goods (such as e-books), E-junkie is the premier solution for you. E-junkie lets you embed a widget into your site for near-seamless integration. Plans start at $5 a month.
- Wazala: Wazala promises that you'll be able to build your very own e-commerce site in 15 minutes or less. Now that's a promise we can all appreciate! Wazala can handle credit cards, or PayPal and Google Checkout for utmost convenience to your e-shoppers. Plans start at $9.95 a month.
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2. Website Analytics
It's important to learn what users are doing on your site so that you can ensure optimal use and growth. However, having server-side statistics-gathering tools that you host yourself can be taxing on your web host and will not give you the benefits associated with using third-party services, such as integration with other products.
Here are three Web analytics tools you can offload the work to.
- Google Analytics: Google Analytics is highly regarded in the Web marketing space because it's free, has loads of features and reporting tools, integrates with other Google products and is easy to install.
- ClickTale: If you would like visuals on what your website users are doing, check out ClickTale, a Web analytics service that tracks and records user action. You can see where people are clicking on most (and thus, most fixated on), as well as watch videos of how users are interacting with your site. ClickTale has a free plan that records 300 user interactions, and paid plans start at $99 a month.
- Yahoo Web Analytics: It's hard to be trailing Google, but Yahoo has launched a wonderful analytics tool that rivals Google's Analytics. Yahoo Web Analytics boasts near real-time analytics, whereas Google Analytics can take up to 24 hours to update your data. It has advanced data visualization tools to help you create images that you can use in reports and slideshow presentations.
Building a community has many benefits: It connects your customers with others, allows them to help themselves if they have a question about your product and can increase customer loyalty. However, maintaining your own forums on-site can be a burden to your Web servers because of the amount of data interactivity that forums typically generate. Additionally, most self-hosted, open source solutions out there, such as phpBB, are notorious for being difficult to deploy and customize (this is spoken from experience in developing for these systems). Check out hosted solutions for community forums that will reduce your stress and headaches.
- Ninja Post: With Ninja Post, you can get your very own forums up and running in no time. It has all the features you'd expect from a forums system with some nice perks like real-time thread updating, Twitter/Facebook integration, integration with Google Adsense, and more. Plans start at about $8 a month.
- Nabble: Nabble is a free and simple tool for creating a basic forum. It allows you to embed your forum on your website, providing you with a tightly integrated solution.
- ZetaBoards: ZetaBoards is a free, hosted forum Web service with tons of awesome features, such as full customization (if you know some CSS), support for custom domains (so that the Web address of your forums will match your website's) and more.
- Lefora: You can create a forum with Lefora, a free, hosted forum Web service. It has beautiful features such as the ability to post images and videos, Facebook and Twitter integration, and a graphical user interface for the forum post editor so that your clients won't need to deal with code and markup to format their posts.
- ProBoards: ProBoards is a free, hosted forum Web service that allows you to create your very own forum in seconds. It's simple, customizable and even has an iPhone app that people can use to post on your forums.
- Zoho Discussions: Zoho Discussions is a forum, customer support and customer feedback system all rolled into one. It's fully customizable, has content discoverability features such as RSS feeds, search and SEO options, and more. The free plan is great for intranets, with the ability to have two forums and one moderator. The next plan starts at $12 a month and gives you the ability to have public forums, community statistics and increased file attachment limits (for users who would like to post images and videos, for example).
4. Site Search
Using a third-party site search has the benefit of using the technologies these search companies have developed to your advantage. Not only that, but it saves you from having to create/develop your own search feature and can cut some costs related to increased site interactivity and bandwidth usage due to users searching your site. Here are three awesome options for offloading the burden of site search.
- Bing Box: Bing Box is a free, simple widget by Microsoft that will give your users the ability to search your site using Microsoft's Bing search engine.
- Google Custom Search: Google allows you to take its years of experience and excellence in the field of search and integrate it into your site. Using Google Custom Search is a snap, and you can get it set up within minutes.
- Yahoo Search BOSS: Yahoo Search BOSS is a solution if you need a completely customizable search engine for your site because, unlike Google Custom Search, which retains a lot of Google's branding, Search BOSS gives you utmost design flexibility. Not only that, but it doesn't display ads in search results like Google Custom Search. The downside? You'll need access to a Web developer to get it up and running on your site; it's not a copy/paste solution.
5. Contact Forms and Other Web Forms
Web forms are the bread and butter of website interaction. It is the primary way you can gather data from your users (aside from publishing your e-mail address, which can be clunky and lead to tons of spam). Contact forms can be tricky to set up and develop on your own and won't nearly come close to the reporting/analytics features and ease-of-use that third-party form building web services have to offer. Here are a few to check out.
- Google Docs Forms: Not many people take advantage of the fact that you can create embeddable Web forms (for contact forms, registrations and online surveys) using Google Docs. What's great about this Web service, besides it being free, is that it integrates directly with the Google Docs office suite (such as its spreadsheets and documents).
- Wufoo: Wufoo is a fun Web form builder that is so simple to use. It allows file uploads/attachments (in case your web form user wants to upload pictures or PDFs, for example), it permits customization and takes the time to make sure your data is safe. Its free plan allows you to have up to three forms and 100 submissions per month.
- JotForm: JotForm is a free Web form builder that has a slick interface for you to take advantage of when building your web forms. You can even build payment forms with it (integrated with PayPal, Google Checkout, Authorize.net, and so forth).
- Contactify: If you just need a simple contact form, check out Contactify, a free hosted solution for dealing with your website communication needs. It will reduce the spam you get from having to provide your e-mail address in public.
Image credit: iStockphoto, kemie