One of the biggest challenges facing anyone trying to set up an apartment website for their community is the set of tasks that have to be completed in order to launch the site. And we're not talking about the obvious things like "shooting photos" and "writing marketing comments."
We're talking about all the nitty gritty technical stuff that delays web projects long after the photos are shot and edited and marketing comments are written. Running a website isn't just about the content, after all. There are tons of technical things that have to be done behind the scenes in order to make any website go.
What makes these technical challenges particularly complicated in multifamily is that you have two different things coming together here that create a whole new set of unique difficulties.
First, you have the many garden-variety difficulties of setting up a website—figuring out hosting, getting your domain name purchased, getting the website onto the right domain, making sure search engines can index the site, and so on. That is difficult enough.
Second, there are the unique challenges created by the particular industry we are in. If you are in multifamily, then you also need to be thinking about local search engine optimization as well as designing your site to handle the unique sales process and products on offer in our industry.
What are the most common terms you need to know when making technical decisions about apartment websites?
In this post we are going to provide a brief glossary of terms to help you keep track of the many different technical problems involved with launching or maintaining your community's apartment website. Note that we also have provided a free downloadable form you can print out or store on your hard drive that makes it easy to keep track of who controls what with your apartment website. This way you can immediately know who to contact or what to check when an issue arises with your online presence.
(NOTE: If you are a RentVision client, we manage these things for you so you don't need to worry about it. This post is intended for non-RentVision clients who need a simple way to keep track of the many different complex, technical things that go into maintaining a website.)
Term 1: Domain
A domain name is a string of characters that internet users can enter to visit a specific website. You might think of it as the place where your website lives. One of the most basic steps to setting up a website is to purchase a web domain. There are ways around that step, of course. If you don't mind having ".wordpress" or ".wix" in your website URL you can get free domains through those sites. (In reality, what you're actually getting is a free sub-domain on a domain someone else controls, but we don't need to go into that.) That said, if you're a business and your website URL includes .wordpress or .wix, that doesn't communicate a good message to prospective customers. It says you're cheap and probably aren't real serious about your work. In multifamily, that sort of message is especially bad to send because your customers aren't just buying a burger or a cup of coffee; they're buying a place to live for a long time that will cost them a lot of money. They need to know you're serious. So don't cheap out on the domain.
As far as where you can buy domains, there are a number of companies that provide this service. GoDaddy is probably the most well known, but the one we generally recommend is Namecheap.
If you want to buy a domain name through Namecheap, this is the process:
First, you need to go to namecheap.com and enter the domain name you would like to purchase on the home page. Note: You'll just need to enter the website's specific URL plus the domain extension you want. So, if you were looking to buy sunnyridgeapartments.com you would type in "sunnyridgeapartments.com" (minus the quote marks) rather than "www.sunnyridgeapartments.com".
Once you have entered your domain and hit "Search," Namecheap will look up the domain to see if it is available. Once it has done that, it will show you a screen that looks like this:
In this case, the domain name is not available because someone already owns it. There is an option to still make an offer to buy the name from them, but often that is not a good idea because it will cost much more than it is worth to do that.
Because the preferred domain is taken, Namecheap has suggested several alternatives below. Note that in this case the service is pushing you toward new domain extensions like ".online" and ".xyz". If you decide to buy one of those domains, you just click the cart icon to the right of the domain name and then click "View Cart" in the top right corner of the screen. From there, you just have to fill out a fairly normal online payment screen. Note: You'll be given an option to do an auto-renew on the domain every 12 months. We strongly recommend doing that in order to avoid having your domain expire after 12 months, in which case you will no longer have a website or, more accurately, your website will no longer have a place to live.
Once you have done that, you own a domain name. Congratulations! Here are two additional things to consider:
First, some people will go ahead and buy a couple other similar domains to the primary one they are using. They will then set up 301 redirects on all those domains to point people to their preferred domain. So you might buy "sunnyridgeapartments.com" as your primary domain but then also buy "sunnyridgeapts.com" and "sunnyridgeapartments.net" and point both of those URLs to "sunnyridgeapartments.com".
Second, save your login information for Namecheap or wherever you buy your domain because you will need to have access to that if you ever want to make more technical changes to your website or if you need to change payment information on the domain if, for example, the credit card you used to buy it were to expire. Also, if you ever change marketing vendors, you may need to log in to your domain provider to find necessary information to give to the vendor.
Term 2: Host
Hosting is a second vital piece to any website. The domain name is the place where people can find your website, but it isn't necessarily where all of the information on your website is stored. The information is stored on a server and you may have a different company provide your server than the one that provides your domain name.
For example, I used to have a soccer site that I ran during my free time. I bought the domain name through Namecheap (and have been very happy with them), but I do my hosting through Digital Ocean. So the site "lives" at the domain which I purchased through Namecheap, but all the data on my site is stored on servers provided by Digital Ocean.
We won't get into any more technical detail about hosting in this post. Working on servers is more complicated than buying a domain name so it's something best left to whoever handles your web development projects. But it's important to understand that there is a difference between the servers where a website is stored (hosting) and the domain where the site is found (domain name).
Term 3: DNS
If you have hosting and your domain provided by separate vendors, you need a good way to tell the internet that those two things are linked: "Hey, my website is stored over on servers provided by this vendor and the domain name is provided by this vendor." DNS settings can also tell the internet where any email addresses connected to your website live. So if you have employee email addresses that are @yourcommunityname.com, you'll need the DNS settings to manage those.
A second concern is that if you ever transfer your website to a new vendor, you will need to be able to update your DNS settings to point to the new website. If you don't have the login information for your DNS settings, you will not be able to do this, which means you cannot switch your website over to the new one built by your new vendor.
Term 4: CMS
CMS stands for "content management system." It's a tool that allows people who don't know how to code to edit a website. There are many different CMS options. For example, RentVision's website is built using HubSpot's CMS. A more common CMS is Wordpress, which is what powers a large number of websites.
The main difference between these two CMS options is their potential user base. Hubspot has a pretty specific user-base in mind: marketers. So if you have a website marketing a product of some sort where collecting email addresses, producing eBooks, setting up email campaigns, etc. is important, Hubspot is a great option. But if you're a publication, you might not need all the features that Hubspot has, in which case something simpler like Wordpress, which is more of an all-purpose CMS, is probably fine.
One thing to keep in mind: Different industries and different websites have different demands. So something like Wordpress can work just about anywhere because of how versatile it is. That said, if there is a CMS out there that works better for your specific industry, it's usually worth using. That's why we switched to Hubspot's CMS as a company in the summer of 2014. Prior to that we had used Wordpress, but Hubspot brought so many things together that fit our specific needs that we couldn't afford to not use it.
Term 5: SSL Certificates
We've written at greater length about SSL certificates in the past, so to get a really in-depth treatment of it, start with this post we ran back when Google first started pushing SSL. The shorter version for this post is that SSL certificates are a type of data file that, when installed correctly on your server, makes your site secure. You can tell whether sites have an SSL certificate by looking to see if the URL of the site is "HTTPS" or "HTTP." Google has said that they now factor whether or not a site is secure in their ranking factors. You may also see sites with a padlock in the URL bar:
That said, you have to purchase an SSL certificate and then set it up correctly on your website. This is a tricky thing to do from a programming perspective so you'll want to talk to your developer or IT department about getting that set up. You'll also need to keep track of who bought your SSL certificates and who controls them now.
If you're a decision maker with your community's marketing strategy, you probably won't be dealing directly with these technical things. Just about all of this is firmly in the IT/web development arena. That said, the problem that we have seen arise many, many times in the multifamily industry is that no one knows who exactly is supposed to keep track of these things.
Leasing staff doesn't do it because it's above their pay grade and, frankly, you probably don't want leasing agents with all that information anyway. But then a marketing director or regional manager probably doesn't keep track of all this because it's not really in their job description to do so and they probably don't want to manage those kinds of minute details anyway.
That leaves property managers, but if you have much turnover in that position, which isn't that unusual, then you can be in trouble there as well. So what you really need is something that can help you keep track of this information easily but doesn't require much work. Ideally, it'd be a reference you could quickly pull up when you need the information and then be done with.
That is what we are publishing today. If you download the form linked below, you can open it up in a PDF reader and type in the relevant information in each field. There are four main things you can track with this form: Domain provider, hosting provider, DNS settings, and CMS settings.
The form gives you a space to enter the URL to log in to each of these things, the user name, the password, and the directly responsible individual. So you can fill out all four fields if you like or, if you don't want to put the password information on a sheet like that, you can also just put the contact information for the directly responsible individual so that you can easily contact him or her whenever you need the information they are responsible for. If you fill the form out in a PDF reader, you can then easily save it and upload it into whatever cloud storage service you provide, whether that is Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, or something else entirely. That way you will have a backed up document that lists all of the essential information for managing these detailed, technical issues related to your website.