The Technology Behind Our Niche Sites
Running an army of niche sites can be quite a daunting task, even for those who are tech savvy. In this post, I’ll cover the basics of what you need to run a large number of sites effectively, plus throw in a few extras.
As many of you know we host out sites with GoDaddy on a shared hosting account using their Ultimate 4GH package. We actually have a couple of shared hosting accounts setup and spread our sites pretty evenly among them. We have found that 350-400 niche sites is really the maximum you want to put on a shared hosting account at any one time. GoDaddy recommends 200 and your results will vary depending on traffic and content. If you use video or a lot of graphics expect to to have less sites on each shared hosting account.
Administration becomes a bit cumbersome with so many sites in the same account, So I suggest using a useful naming description when setting things like databases or folders for your sites. Use the site names or a variation thereof if you cannot exactly match the domain name. Trust me, this comes in handy when trying to go through several hundred databases hunting for a particular site.
But why GoDaddy? There are cheaper solutions out there, but GoDaddy’s support is top notch. It’s 24/7 which is nice for someone who spends most his time on the other side of world, 12-16 hours ahead of the US depending on time zone and daylight savings. We have become a big enough customer that we have a dedicated representative to call with issues. No more hunting through phone menus or waiting on hold.
The GoDaddy cPanel has it quirks. I sometimes have to hunt through different screens to find the option I need and it can time out at the worst opportunity. However, the ability to add Account Executives and give them privileges based on needs is quite powerful for a shared hosting platform. I almost feel as if it was made with outsourcing in mind.
GoDaddy does have a one click install for WordPress that is good for a novice user or if you are only setting up a few sites. If you are setting up a large amount of sites frequently, I suggest using a custom install and doing it yourself. Setting up databases is a manual process that is tedious, but the rest can be automated.
I also like the fact that GoDaddy gives SSH access to your shared hosting account. For those of us more comfortable with command line access, installing WordPress and moving files around is a breeze. I even have a script and a custom WP install zip file that sets up all plugins needed and has our themes modified automatically. A big time saver. Admittedly other providers have this access, but it’s not as easy to turn on (or off) as it is with GoDaddy.
Lastly, we flip a lot of sites and most people have a GoDaddy account, so migration is easy. I am going to do another post on our migration process soon, but whenever different hosts and registrars get involved the error rate goes up leading to downtime and lost revenue. GoDaddy to GoDaddy site transfers are just more reliable.
Content Management System
All of our sites are built on WordPress. The number of plugins available and the ease of getting sites setup quickly is invaluable when you are setting up so many new sites every week like we do. Posting content is point and click so even non-technical staff members can do it.
We use a number of plugins on every site, but I have tried to limit their use to only the core requirements. Having too many plugins on your site can slow things down and unnecessarily bloat the file system. I have removed the default plugins (like Akismet) from our installation of WordPress because we don’t need them (we don’t allow comments on our niche sites).
Here a list of our standard plugins and why we use them:
- All in One SEO Pack — Great for adding meta data to pages and posts.
- Contact Form 7 — We use this for our contact us page that we put on every site.
- Date Exclusion SEO — Removes the date from posts making your site look fresher in the SERPs.
- Login LockDown — Critical to keep away brute force attempts to break your admin password.
- ManageWP Worker — Allows me to control all WP install through one centralized dashboard. See more below.
- Really Simple CAPTCHA — Adds CAPTCHA capability to our contract forms preventing us from being overrun by spam.
- WP Security Scan — Gives me a good idea if a missed anything security wise with my site.
- XML Sitemap Feed — Creates automated XML sitemaps that can be picked by the search engines or submitted manually.
One of readers, Steve, of Cloud Ventures Group, mentioned a new service called ManageWP in recent post. ManageWP allows you to consolidate WordPress dashboards all in one place. It’s still in beta and free to sign up, though you can only add a maximum of 100 sites at this time. This hosted solution is actually built around the ManageWP Enterprise Self-Hosted software
I have been “kicking the tires” pretty hard and ManageWP has pretty much stood up to every test. It uses a worker plugin to connect to each site. This saves you from having to enter your credentials into ManageWP and makes for a more secure connection overall. One note, however: be sure to add your site to your ManageWP dashboard after activating the worker plugin. This will close the loop and ensure no loose ends are left for someone to exploit.
The power of ManageWP is really in it’s ability to give you a quick snapshot of what’s going on with all your sites. You can see what sites need a WordPress update, plugin update or even theme update and then update them all at once. You can even connect to your Google Analytics account and have a stats snapshot on your dashboard. Backups, posts, pages, plugins, themes and users can be added in bulk, making it easy to make a change across all your sites.
Sub-users can be added so outsourced staff can have access to your sites, without having a username or password directly. This makes it more secure, because you can revoke access to all sites at once if needed. The sub-user section still needs some work, as they cannot do mass updates or use groups, but I am sure the functionality is on the way.
There are still some bugs, including importing sites and the aforementioned lack of subuser feature/functionality, but overall I feel this will be an extremely useful product for those of us with a large number of niche sites running WordPress.
I use a variety of tools to move or edit files and usually like to stick with free opensource software. Here are a few of my favorites:
- notepad++ — Great for editing config files or code snippets. Keeps everything well organized and highlights opening/closing tags.
- FileZilla — The de facto standard FTP client. Nothing is better for quickly and easily transferring files.
- 7-Zip — An extremely fast zip program with a nice interface making it easy to update compressed files.
- PuTTY — Simple, but full featured, SSH terminal software. Doesn’t require an install either.
For syncing files between agents’ computers or sending customers a copy of there purcased sites after a flip, we use DropBox which I’m sure most of you are familiar with or have at least heard of. The desktop app allows you to selective sync certain folders which is great for saving disk space. Let’s face it, you really do not need access to all those old files!
That covers a good portion of the technology we use with our niche sites. Is there anything you think we’re missing or would like to share with others that helps you?