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Website Troubles
21 April 2008

You may have noticed that the Kona Earth website has been having a lot of problems this week.  If you have had difficulties emailing us, visiting our website or purchasing our coffee, please bear with us.  We're working on it and everything should be back to normal soon.

There has been recent news coverage about Microsoft bidding to take over Yahoo.  The Internet is an important part of our modern world and search engines are a vital part of the Internet so Microsoft's bid for Yahoo may have important ramifications for the future of the Internet.  A few years ago I would have said that it's a good move for Microsoft, now I'm not so sure.

Yahoo! has been the number two search engine for years with Google in the number one slot and Microsoft a distant third.  Being who they are, Microsoft doesn't like being third but they just don't have the technical savvy to catch up.  I wasn't surprised when I heard that Microsoft was bidding for Yahoo.  This is certainly not the first time Microsoft has tried to purchase or otherwise acquire technology they could not develop themselves.

Yahoo has a lot of proprietary technology.  I've used Yahoo Instant Messenger and My Yahoo homepage for years now.  Google has the best search engine but I still use Yahoo for just about everything else.  When I decided to become a Kona coffee farmer and sell my coffee online, using Yahoo's web hosting service (used to be Geocities) was a quick, easy and inexpensive way to get started.

Yahoo's web servers were cutting edge ten years ago but, in Internet-years, that was a very long time ago and Yahoo technology is showing its age.  I've had several minor issues with Yahoo's web hosting service over the past couple years.  Most of the issues I've managed to figure out and fix myself which is good because getting any kind of helpful response from Yahoo's customer support is difficult.  Few professional web developers would ever consider using Yahoo and I have been tempted to switch on several occasions.  There's only one reason that Kona Earth has been hosted by Yahoo for this long:  search rankings.

404 Imagine that you woke up one morning and decided you just couldn't handle another cup of bad coffee, what would you do?  If you were drinking bad coffee that probably means you've never heard of Kona Earth and our delicious 100% Kona coffee fresh from the farm (yes, some people are deprived that way).  You may have heard of Kona Coffee but you would be saddened to learn that your local Starbuck's doesn't offer any.  To remedy the situation you might go online and ask your favorite search engine for information on "Kona Coffee".

A search for "Kona coffee" returns lots and lots of websites.  You might click on one of the paid advertisements on the right but those represent the highest bidder, not the most relevant website.  There are a lot of businesses bidding for the term "Kona coffee" and the per-click price is currently much higher than the revenue generated.  It may be smart marketing for some large companies but it is not reasonable for small farms like Kona Earth.

Of the the search results actually generated by the search engine, the most obvious and probably first result is KonaCoffee.com.  That website is owned by a local businessman that is neither a farmer nor a processor, he simply had the forethought to register the domain name before anybody else did.

The next few search results are websites such as the Kona Coffee Council, the Kona Coffee Festival, the Wikipedia entry on Kona coffee and a few of the large processors.  These websites are relevant and I agree that they belong on page one.  Unfortunately that leaves little room for small farms like us.

The last time I checked, Kona Earth was on page four in the Google search rankings.  Very few people ever venture past page one and almost nobody goes to page four.  Page four is a higher ranking than most small Kona coffee farms but still way too far down the list to be found by potential customers.

Rankings vary from day to day and from one search engine to the next but the concept is always the same and every website out there wants to be listed on page one.  It has taken a lot of time and effort to get Kona Earth's Google ranking up to page four.  I was very surprised when I unexpectedly discovered that Kona Earth was listed on page one in the Yahoo results.  Why was Kona Earth listed so much higher than all the other Kona coffee websites?  Why was Kona Earth listed so high on Yahoo but not on Google or MSN?  I can't say for sure but the fact that Yahoo was our web host might have been a factor.

[Note: If you own a website and you are now thinking of switching to a Yahoo web hosting plan, keep reading.  I have abandoned Yahoo not because I wanted to but because their web hosting service is so poor that I had no choice.]

A friend of mine recently interviewed at Google.  My friend, like myself, has used a Yahoo email account for years.  When interviewing at Google they told him to check Yahoo's spam folder for his email from Google.  Not surprisingly there is some fierce competition between the two companies and apparently Yahoo's servers like to mark Google email as spam.

It's possible that both of these cases are coincidence.  Search engine rankings and email spam filters are supposed to be impartial and reliable.  In theory, if the Yahoo search engine felt that Kona Earth deserved a page one ranking then it should feel that way no matter who hosted the website.  In reality, I was very hesitant to switch to a different web host because losing a page one ranking means losing a lot of potential customers.

As bad as a low ranking is, a broken website is even worse.  I fought and I fought but finally I had to switch web hosts because the Yahoo servers just weren't performing.  When I called Yahoo, not only did they not fix the problem, they refused to admit that there even was a problem.  With my website down I scrambled to find a new host.

Luckily, another friend of mine recommended a web host he had used in the past and so far I am quite happy with them.  As expected, the switch was neither simple nor fast.  In addition to all the normal installation and configuration stuff I also had to make several changes to the website's source code to get rid of the Yahoo specific stuff.  It took several days to get everything reconfigured for the new server.  It was particularly difficult to get the new web host to enable outbound connections so credit card transactions would work, but that's a whole other story.  It's finally all working now and I'm trying to not think about the sales and customers we lost while it was down.

Since the website is our primary source of sales, keeping it online is vital.  Needless to say, it has been a very long and frustrating week for me.  Last week was no piece of cake and next week isn't looking fun either.  I'll probably discuss the details in next week's post but the short version is that the tractor is broken even worse than the website.  Luckily my father is coming to visit soon and I've already warned him that he will be getting his hands greasy while he's here.

There is a silver lining to this whole website mess.  The biggest benefit for our customers it that the website should be much more reliable and slightly faster.  We will also have full SSL support which should solve any phishing issues.  There are some other new capabilities I'd like to implement but I don't know when I'll have time and most of that is behind the scenes stuff anyways.

The thing I like best about the new website host is their spam filtering.  I receive several hundred junk emails every day.  If you've ever sent me an email and I didn't respond, sorry, it may have been marked as spam and deleted by accident.  Valid emails should get through better now but don't even try to email me about taking Viagra while refinancing your mortgage with cash made at home by investing in hot stocks, diet pills or authentic watches.

It's too bad this website mess coincided with so many other problems but I suppose it's better now than during our Christmas rush.  Now that we switched web hosts our Yahoo search rankings have dropped like a rock but our Google rankings have actually moved up a bit.  Having a page one ranking was nice but it didn't generate as much business as I would have thought.  I think having a reliable website is more important and moving to the new server should prove to be worth the effort.  Whatever the case, it's nice to know that I no longer have to worry so much about the shenanigans of Yahoo and Microsoft.

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