Using Open Source Software To Compete With The “Big Guys”
One of the most frequent questions I am asked, or read about lately, is how to look professional enough to compete with the big guys.
Everyone seems to want to look good while being comparable in offerings to the market leaders and their dynamically driven content web sites, but that's not always such an easy thing to do on a start-up budget. In truth, it's not even such an easy thing to do on a semi-established budget with a company established for a couple years, unless you know where to look and how to do it. Business owners surf the competition, see brilliant looking web sites with all the bells and whistles, and become somewhat bewildered at how to keep up or compete. Most of the big guys know the value of forums, regularly updating content, community building, and contributing writers, but how does the new guy keep up with such large promotional software budget wielding companies already entrenched in the market? Enter our superhero, the open source software community.
The Pro's & Con's of Open Source Software Solutions.
There are many arguments on the pro's and con's of the open source software community as a means of providing viable business solutions, but there are plenty of "big guys" that use these same open source solutions in effective ways. Some may argue because of the open source nature, and the software source being open to all, that there are major security issues to be overcome and you could face more chances of an open source web site being "hacked" than a custom-programmed solution type of web site. Others may warn of the "cookie cutter" appearance of such open source solutions, or the open source code opposed to the benefits of a professional's code, but because of the sheer numbers of contributors in an open source community, and some of those contributors being professional software developers, I would tend to disagree with most of the negative arguments. The only argument I would somewhat agree with is the argument of open source code being more "hack prone" than private solutions because of the availability of the open source solution's source code, but since open source developers realize this potential danger, most take extreme measures to ensure tight security and various security levels being added to their code.
Real World Examples of Open Source Software as a Viable Means of Web Site Competition.
Some of the more notable "big guys" using open source solutions include companies like WebProWorld, almost ALL PHPNuke sites using the bulletin board module including PHPNuke.org, Raven's PHP Scripts, Computer Cops, and various other "community based" web sites with thousands of visitors and members. These sites are testimony to the flexibility and reliability of open source solutions, and help to fuel continued module integrations that ensure almost any type of module to fit your web site design needs without the steep financial investments needed to develop your own software solutions. All of these listed web sites use either PHPNuke or a stand-alone version of phpBB, and there are other sites as well including phpBB's web site, IGD Software, Portland Portal Online Community, Simple Machines, Amigaworld, and a host of others supplying information and resources to thousands of community members and visitors daily. These web sites are testaments to open source's ability to handle multiple clients while serving up professional looking web site content.
Open Source Software Solutions and Security Issues.
For those worrying about security issues and things you may have heard about phpBB or PHPNuke, there are sites like Raven's PHP Scripts, Computer Cops, and NSN Scripts where their forums and members are constantly keeping an eye on security issues and posting patches and tweaks to help you make the best of your newly installed portal. With NSN's release of Nuke Sentinel, and the ability to combine it with other security layers like Admin Secure and the Protector System, it adds additional layers of security to your code and prevents your open source code from being hacked so easily. The bottom line about hackers is if they want into your site bad enough, there is some server vulnerability to exploit, and they can find it, then they are going to get !
in. Placing multiple security layers in your open source software helps to thwart these hack attacks, and the developers are improving their code almost daily when new exploits are found. There are vulnerabilities in all code, but the open source community gets the brunt of the negative feedback simply because their code is readily available, unlike the paid solutions, and that makes them more prone to hackers because the information is readily out their to exploit. Reality is that paid solutions are hacked too. It all depends on web site popularity, what the hacker thinks they can get from hacking your site, and how easy you make it for them to hack it. Higher profile web sites with tons of visitors that collect membership information and personal information are always going to be prime targets no matter which choice you make. The more security layers you can add to your solution the better off you will be when facing a hacker's attack. Because of the sheer numbers within most open source communities, they usually tend to catch vulnerabilities quicker, and have more people working on those fixes than a typical paid solution provider. In most open source communities, you can often get "quick fixes" within hours of finding a vulnerability, and then patches that will close the hole up permanently within a few more hours.
Open Source Software to fit Your Competition Needs.
So far, I have talked about PHPNuke, which is a CMS portal, and phpBB, which is a bulletin board. If you want a bulletin board without any other functionality, then phpBB is for you. If you want a CMS combined with bulletin board capability, then PHPNuke is what you need. Both are fairly easy to install and maintain, but depending on additional modules, you may want to add to PHPNuke, you may find yourself a bit behind the learning curve unless you know PHP in and out. Both offer template integration, so it is fairly easy to customize your site to look the way you want it to. But maybe you need a combination CMS, bulleting board, AND E-commerce solution? That's easy enough too. You see, with PHPNuke and other forks, which I won't mention as it is too much to address in this one article, there are developers rewriting other open source solutions to allow them to plug into PHPNuke. Take for instance, OSC2Nuke. OSC2Nuke is based on the OSCommerce open source E-commerce cart created by OSCommerce. OSC2Nuke offers a download for their module directly from their web site. But maybe you want to offer an image gallery with CMS abilities instead of E-commerce modules. Easy enough. There just happens to be another web site that offers a module plug-in for PHPNuke called Nuked Gallery. That's the other beauty of the open source solution. People get attached to the software solution and then find they want to add some type of functionality to it, so they develop something to plug into it to get the functionality they need. Based on that, it's usually fairly easy to find a module that suits your needs. It's the scalability that's so attractive, and the price is usually free.
Open Source Software for Banner Rotation.
When I think of a business, I tend to think of the various tools that business will need. Almost everyone wants the ability to rotate ad banners throughout their web site. Maintaining and updating static pages can be quite a chore, especially as a web site continues to grow over 100 pages. Honestly, a web site over 50 pages is a big enough pain in the backside for me, so finding ways to automate page updates is essential to my sanity. Why spend hours removing static banners from your pages because you decide to drop a program you promote? Enter our next hero from the open source solution, phpadsnew. This is a fully functional banner ad rotation manger based on an open source solution. If you are familiar with Commission Junction, then you are familiar with ad rotation through inserting code within your pages and setting up zones for ads to run through. Phpadsnew offers the same type of functionality with a very important difference; you choose the ads you want to add based on your own programs instead of having to select programs Commission Junction limits you to. They do recommend cron access to run the maintenance script every hour, but there is even a solution for those without cron access. This is another template driven solution you can tweak to match the look and feel of your web site. It also allows you to provide password protected access and user restrictions to potential customers wanting to purchase banner or text advertising on your web site. Just set up the zones and ad types through the admin interface, insert the code throughout your site, create user names and logins for your customers, and then email them the information once they have paid. It provides complete reporting options, tracks impressions and clicks, and a whole lot more. You can even download comprehensive installation and set-up documentation in PDF format from their web site. It has a slightly high learning curve if you lack experience with banner rotation programs, but it includes all the essential tools for anyone wanting to either rotate dynamic ads throughout their web site, or those wanting to sell ad space to advertisers.
Open Source Software for CRM Needs.
The next thing I think of when it comes to running a business online is the ability to keep track of customer and potential customer information. No matter what kind of marketing scheme you decide to implement, keeping track of such information is critical to your marketing scheme's follow-up planning. Although Microsoft Office offers quite capable tools for doing such a thing, there is an open source php driven tool to do the same without having to figure out how to make Office do it for you, or the large financial investment Microsoft Office requires. Enter our next open source hero Sugar CRM. Sugar CRM offers an open source solution PLUS paid solutions, but the open source solution provides more than enough functionality for the beginning business. It too, like phpadsnew, has a high learning curve if you lack prior experience with CRM software. Sugar CRM contains all the main customer contact tracking functionality offered by Microsoft Office and then some. You can keep track of call activity and upcoming call appointments, contact, account, lead, opportunity, and case information all in a customizable interface including various reports generating capabilities. It allows you to create numerous accounts and restrict access levels based on your preferences. Overall, Sugar CRM is a full featured CRM solution that should meet most of your business needs, and is also template driven to allow customization to fit your own web site's look and feel.
Open Source Software Solutions - Overcoming Search Engine Optimization Needs.
Another valid argument, proposed by those against open source solutions, tends to relate to search engine ability to "spider" dynamically driven pages. Although this is a valid argument, even though search engines are getting better at this task, just like any other problem, there is a work around to this dilemma. I like to call it a hybrid solution where you bond html to the php driven pages to increase search engine ranking. The problem with most open source php driven web sites is their inabilities to generate custom, user defined keywords and meta tags for each dynamically driven page within the web site. In reality, many paid solutions also fall victim to this plight, as the ability to dynamically generate appropriate keywords and meta tags per page is a bit complex and involved. It takes quite a bit of additional code and resources to accomplish this task, and is something that most developers fail to provide just because of the time required to provide it. They prefer to spend their time improving the functionality or security of the solution, adding more bells and whistles that users need, rather than spending the additional time in coding such customizable options. The work around requires some additional work, but is well worth the time, and usually takes less time to accomplish than rewriting the php code to do it.
Take for instance an open source solution to fit your e-commerce needs. We'll use OSC2Nuke in our example. Recently, the developers have been working on adding this functionality to their code. It is still a bit short of a total customization solution, but total customization is on the way. I have a personal relationship with the designers, so this is inside information "shhhhhhh". Getting back to the idea, the various parts of the e-commerce store have product grouping by topics that you provide. To increase ranking for those areas, it's a simple process of creating a standard html page optimized for your topic keyword/s and then adding a "buy" link to the internal store page. Voila, instant rankings to get visitors to your internal e-commerce shop sale pages. Does that mean the search engines will rank and index the store page? Not necessarily, but it does ensure targeted traffic to you optimized page. If they are open to buying that product and you convey your company as truthful, honest, and trust worthy, then chances are they will click that buy link to pull them into your sales page. A pretty simple solution to an open source problem, wouldn't you agree? But most will just argue the fact that the OSC2Nuke solution is not "spiderable" by the search engines and give you plenty of reasons to buy their products or services instead. (Side note: the OSC2Nuke developers are improving their mod-rewrite files to help make OSC2Nuke pages more "spiderable", so the future of OSC2Nuke will include "spiderable" pages. In Fact, almost all the open source solutions mentioned in this article are improving their mod-rewrite files to accomplish better search engine "spidering" for their solutions.)
Summing up the Value of Open Source Solutions.
The bottom line facts are simple. Open source solutions are a viable option to competing with the "big guys" and there are many sites on the internet to provide proof of that fact. Open source solutions are more for the "do it yourselfers" that know a bit about html or php, or those having the time to learn and looking for instant solutions to get their business online. The paid solutions are still there for those with the money to afford them and wanting to get operational ASAP. If you don't know html, then research their products and services and buy them instead. If you don't have the time to devote to proper keyword research for your web site or the time to build your own pages, then again, buy their products or services instead. But if you are a "do it yourselfer", and have some time to devote to your own project, then take the open source solution and work with it. It's more economical than paid solutions and can lower your business overhead when starting out. Work with the open source solution until your business can afford the paid solutions or just work with them because they provide a superior product as a free service. Don't rule them out just because you failed to have all the facts before giving them a chance.
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About the Author:
James R. Sanders is the owner of Sanders Consultation Group Plus. He has been a webmaster and web site designer since 1997, and involved in self-employment ventures since 1992. He is presently a contributing author of NewbieHangout, and has been published through WebProNews. His goal is to provide practical information based upon his years of experience to help webmasters, web site designers, and self-employed people achieve their goals in today's competitive global market. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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