church gospel singing choir cats

Hallelujah! The Web-Creator TaraFly has Finished. Amen!


This week has descended upon me like a hurricane, and I’ve been struggling to regain balance after being swept off my feet. It began when the floodgates opened after my last blog (regarding domestic violence) struck chords across my social sphere… and the onslaught of e-mails, PMs, testimonies, invites, etc. that were directed my way from friends and strangers alike. It was flattering that people felt drawn to my story and wanted to share, but disheartening to read the pain behind their words… to envision what their relationships must’ve been like, that anyone would be so cruel to another human being. I marvelled at how many recognized the signs and stood firm against their abusive partners, demanding respect or else, but I also wondered about the emotional toll paid for freedom. Physical scars may disappear, but healing a battered sense of self takes much longer… possibly even a lifetime.

I’ll have to admit, however, that I didn’t expect such a huge response… and I almost hid under the bed from all the attention. I’ve always known that “fame” was something to avoid at all costs; I could never be anyone’s role model (I’m too imperfect and hypocritical) and I value my personal space too much to voluntarily live in a glass fishbowl.

So why create art, write blogs, sell on-line, and promote myself? …Certainly not to be famous. (For that I’d need YouTube) 😉
I’d rather develop a small niche following of loyal art collectors and friends who share mutual interests. I want to be “the best undiscovered talent” among a select few… not a household name across the globe. There is enough competition in cyberspace to ensure that I will never worry about having too many fans. LOL

Otherwise, the weather was ghastly this week – cold, raining, abysmal… until today, that is. It’s beautiful right now. However, for the last few days, my children have been worse than usual. We’ve had colds AND cabin fever, and they’ve been wreaking extra havoc inside. Yesterday, I felt ill.

I’m telling you all this, because in the midst of personal chaos, I did manage to complete the major points of my website. Back in February, I mentioned wanting to install my Zazzle shop into my site… when I finally got around to doing it, the CSS stylesheet that ran the store conflicted with my own layout. The whole page looked funky, like this……

Zazzle Store Builder CSS layout over-riding my website CSS

The Zazzle CSS style was over-riding mine

I spent two days trying to resolve the issue. Well, not exactly two whole days… I did cook meals, buy groceries, fold laundry, paint a bit, announce the contest winners of my Pride and Prejudice cat adaptation, begin working on their character sketches, chase kids up and down the stairs, vacuum the house 37 times, and nurse colds with TV and Tylenol (mine and theirs).
But when I did venture online to check e-mails, FB posts, and re-list stuff on Etsy, I also searched for ways to integrate the two CSS styles onto one page. Early on, I came across a forum where two people were discussing the @import command, but from their conversation it didn’t sound right for my needs. So I kept looking. After a few failed attempts, and a night to sleep on it, I returned to the import discussion, and tried typing the code directly into my page’s Content… and hey, it worked!

The command is this:

<!–
@import url(http://www.yoursite.com/css/css-name.css&#041;;
–>
</STYLE>

Check it out here!

The Zazzle Store Builder integrated on my website

My Zazzle Store integrated into my website


So now all my Zazzle merchandise is available for purchase directly from my website… which means, “adding more Zazzle merchandise” is now a higher ranking priority than it was previously.

What is nice about this Zazzle Store Builder feature is that I’ve created html pages for each product category, complete with meta keywords and image caching, which will improve the SEO to my site, rather than promoting my shop directly on Zazzle.com. Now whenever greeting cards are on sale, I can send people to my website to purchase them, although by clicking on the image links, it will take the customer to Zazzle.com for the actual purchase.

Which reminds me, I’ve worked out a simple fix to that problem as well… and by that problem, I mean the outgoing links that potential customers keep clicking to visit my Etsy shop, my Artfire shop, my Zazzle shop, etc. Most of the time, according to Stat-Counter (my favorite web-tracker), these people leave via these site links and never return. Some of them might be joining Etsy right now, in order to make a purchase from me. Someone might’ve liked my Darcy stationary on Zazzle and bought a few sheets. But the bottom line is, they sadly didn’t come back here.
When your browser opens links in the same window, your only options are hitting the Back button or re-typing the URL to return. When you send people to places like Etsy and Zazzle, they can easily get lost browsing the entire site (since these marketplaces very nicely “recommend other sellers” to them). After they’ve clicked a few dozen times, finding their way back to your site is a pain in the arse.

So I finally tweaked my outgoing links to include the target=”_blank” code, which simply opens any new link in a different window. So they can browse to their heart’s content on Etsy, and then close the site’s window when they’re finished. Viola! My website is still there.
Whether this will work to solve the problem of disappearing site visitors, I haven’t any clue… so I will examine my StatCounter to see if the duration and navigational paths of visits improve.

I’m really excited that my website is shaping up into the place I imagined earlier this year, and to think, it only took me 3 months of work!
Well, not exactly, three whole months … I did cook a few meals, buy some groceries, wash and iron laundry, and…. well, you get the idea. 🙂

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Grecian cat goddess cameo pendant

My Sketch for a Grecian Cat Cameo

My three followers are well-aware of my frustrations installing this Zen-Cart; I seem to hit snags everywhere I turn. From enabling the SSL, which couldn’t be done from the cPanel apparently (I got fatal error messages, and finally succeeded by editing it offline and Filezilling* that Bad Boy) to the USPS’s failure to “authorize” my attempts to connect to their production server, to utilize my shipping calculator. …Still waiting for that to be resolved, and in the meantime, I’ve added some manual shipping options.
*I just coined the verb “Filezilling”… i.e. uploading files to a server using the Filezilla program. I predict it will catch on eventually – like Googling did – but you read it here first. 😉

Overall, however, I’m extremely impressed with the functionality of this all-inclusive e-commerce system. I don’t regret my decision to host my own store. Yet.
I could spend months testing all the gizmos and gadgets, oh wait, I already HAVE spent 1.5 months just tinkering with it, and right now I have ONE product in my shop – My Darcy Dominic. He’s been my beta product, so I could experiment with all the variables by adding 5, 10, or 20 of him into my cart.
Seriously, though, people spend 8-10 hours per day obsessing over their Etsy shops… their photographs, their tags and titles, their positions in the Almighty Category Search. They waste spend time chatting in the forums, in order to “be seen” (both on-site and in Google), and have their comments reflect positively on their expertise. They make Treasuries, join teams, and Twitter their fraking listings to death.
I am no marketing expert. Let’s just make that clear. 😉 I do believe, however, that all those hours would’ve been better spent on my own site, promoting just me.

Granted, Etsy is a giant shopping center, like the Mall of America… except more global… the Mall of Earth. They get an insane amount of traffic!
I received a couple of sales recently, even after I had virtually abandoned my shop there, being otherwise engaged in The Zen Drama. The odds of success on Etsy, however, are slim without constant promotion… and the downside to all that insane traffic, is how easily they can migrate out of your shop and into the arms of 200,000 other sellers who will offer items at half price with free shipping and tons of goodies thrown in.

Retailers in the most crowded malls are not faced with the obstacles that we Etsians take for granted:
Even in large malls, featuring 140+ shops, you will find a diverse group of storefronts which are strategically placed. Except for the Food Court, you won’t find an imbalanced clump of direct competitors, i.e. 10 bath-and-body sellers in a single section of one wing!

Let’s explore the massive mall in my extended neighborhood, for instance…
Tyson’s Corner Center is the 5th largest mall in the U.S. and has an interactive map which allows you to search for applicable shops by category:
A search for Children’s apparel brings up 19 retailers, 10 of which are on the main floor. A closer look at these shops reveals the different target groups – The Disney Store, The Washington Redskins Official Store, Kid’s Foot Locker, Republic of Couture, and Macy’s… to name five of them.
Would you expect to find the same (or nearly identical) products in each shop? I highly doubt it. 😉 They are also interspersed with bookshops, entertainment stores, jewelers, and sporting goods.
Each shop has a large glass frontage with which to make a killer first impression – showcasing their best lines, huge sales banners, and allowing customers to see their inviting interior designs.

On the other hand, at the time I write this, Etsy has 216,586 sellers (“with items in their shops” – in their words) lumped together on one website. Most customers visiting for the first time will do a keyword search, or look into a specific category. Children’s apparel has 4,444 pages to dig through. How do Etsy sellers get noticed?!
Well, that is where each owner spends their 8 hours daily… obsessing over those tiny thumbnail images and descriptive titles… “Blue Roaring Lion Baby Infant and Toddler Long Sleeved Light Grey T-shirt in 0-3 Months, 3-6 Months, 6-9 Months, 9-12 Months, 2T, 3T, 4T, 5T, Junior and Adult sizes You Can Wear This to Your Christening, Graduation, Wedding, and Funeral”
… You gotta make it cheap, and add “Free shipping” somewhere in that title for good measure, unless you’re on page 1,287 … in which case, you’re screwed unless you have the budget and time to sit there and spend 20¢ every 1-2 hours to bring your listings back to the top.
Customers will never even get the chance to see your shop, if you can’t reel them in with the best damn teensy-tiny photograph and catchy title you can create… unless you kiss lots of butt and get yourself featured.

I don’t mean to knock Etsy; they have created a fabulous site, and the more time I spend creating this little corner shop of mine, the more I appreciate the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. They have provided 216,586 sellers (oops, I think it’s 216,587 sellers now) with the opportunity to be seen by bazillions of potential customers, provided they list their products at the magical time of day/night when everyone gets “the most views”.
I don’t anticipate receiving a fraction of my Etsy shop’s traffic, although I do hope to cut down on my bounce rate… as I seriously doubt thousands will be just passing through my shop on their way to buy a one-size-fits-cradle-to-grave Roaring Lion Tee.

I fully intend to post a few links and banners from my site, to those shops and blogs owned by friends… like Jessica and Lily… because they are awesome people and I like to watch them celebrate each fully deserved sale.
What is unfortunate about Etsy, is that you promote the hell out of your own shop, and occasionally the shops of friends, only to watch 70% of your viewers trail off into the vastness of Etsy-La-la-Land, to purchase something cheaper from a stranger or the most hated of all – the god-forsaken re-sellers, those liars who buy commercial goods and list them unaltered as “handmade” OOAK items.

Okay. I promise to stop complaining about Etsy. There.

My plan is to continue my Etsy shop, in a limited capacity, but in the next few days when this Zen Cart is fully equiped and ready for business… I’m gonna put all my blood, sweat, tears, and ripped-out hair into my own art shop… because isn’t it the goal of each and every self-employed person to be his/her own master? To stop lining the boss’s pockets while accepting a minimal wage for work that is worth 5X, 10X, even 20X more? I’m remembering that former bakery I worked for, baking and decorating wedding cakes worth over $500.00 for which I received $7.50 per hour…. that flour and powdered sugar certainly didn’t cost $470.00.

Stop spending $1.00-$3.00 each day to renew that Blue Lion T-shirt in the sea of lion tees, and invest in a dedicated domain, an SSL Certificate, and the free Zen Cart.. which “anyone with basic computer skills can install and set-up”. Also, download the $30 user’s manual, just in case your basic computer skills are inadequate. 😉
Alternately, you can purchase an island in Tyson’s Corner… Roaring Lion Tees would fill a much-needed niche between Macy’s and Abercrombie & Fitch.

There are 216,599 sellers on Etsy now, and I am going to bed. Goodnight, folks.

A frustrated and confused TaraFly.

Perhaps I should invest in a brain upgrade...

I am 99.7% sure that I will be using BlueHost.com for my new website home.
I like their Zen-Cart integration, the WordPress plug-in, the ability to host PHP files (for my Zazzle shop-builder!), the survey and mailing list features, even a phpBB style message board …reminiscent of my former life chatting away on Lady Morraine’s Hall of Torque and The Elder Scrolls forums (circa 2003), under the alias of “Pemberley” – or “Pemmie” as I was affectionately nicknamed. My “LadyPem” Hotmail account was a throw-back to those days.

Ahh, I was such a Morrowind geek. Actually, my first real photo-manipulations were gaming related: I attached my head to my character’s body, and I cut-n-pasted Dominic’s father and brother into a screenshot of Balmora at dusk. I wanted to create a shot of Dominic attacking a cliff racer, but I never finished it.
They were reeeeeally baaaad attempts, and fortunately I don’t have the files anymore. 😉 hehe

Anyway, if we turn our attention back to BlueHost:
I’m not a bells-and-whistles person, so many of their claims were actually turn-offs… So they offer 2,500 POP/imap e-mail accounts?! Who needs 2,500 email accounts?
To put that into perspective, our local Wal-Mart – which does over $150 million worth of business annually and was awarded “Supercenter of the Year” twice – staffed a mere 800 associates during their peak holiday season.
So, I repeat, who the hell needs 2,500 email accounts?!
FYI: Pop/imap basically means downloaded-to-your-computer e-mail vs stored-on-their-server email – like Hotmail. Either way, it’s waaay too much e-mail! 😛

Which can only make me wonder: are they using their “unlimited disk storage” and infinite domains as a smoke and mirror effect to disguise a fatal flaw? Hence the .3% of uncertainty.

I checked Google for customer reviews, which are always good for a laugh if nothing else. The majority of the comments were favorable… i.e. you get what you pay for, no serious complaints.
One man, however, trashed BlueHost mercilessly, and although he made a valid point in one instance, I couldn’t help but chuckle at his stupidity throughout the rant. It reminded me of last summer, when I was shopping for my printer, and found that bad review written by someone who obviously hadn’t read the manual first.

First of all, his grammar was terrible! Grammar is a pet-peeve of mine, although I’m by no means an expert. WordPress and I battle constantly over my use of passive voice and complex expressions.
This guy, seriously, was a flake. Immediately, I checked his name and location,
because I give allowances to foreigners who deal with translation issues. He was from the States and had a red-blooded American-sounding name to me. Therefore… a flake, with poor writing skills.
He apparently hosts his e-commerce business on multiple websites, all sharing the same script… what he actually sells isn’t mentioned, but I’m conjuring up an infomercial about striking it rich with real estate investments. Who else would host a business on multiple servers?? He probably used all 2,500 email accounts!
(If he’s smart, he’ll hire a ghost-writer, or he won’t sell much of anything. hehe)

So first he complains that his script isn’t working on BlueHost, although the exact same script runs perfectly on GoDaddy. The techs explained that it was a coding error on his part, and he naturally disagrees.

Then he makes his one valid point… in one instance, his entire site vanished… all his files had disappeared. Now that IS a serious concern for an e-commerce site!

It took me a few minutes to understand what happened exactly, as I initially thought perhaps the server went down. This wasn’t the case. I discovered that BlueHost offers HTML-editing of your site from an online dashboard… similar to a blog dashboard. You make the changes in their editing program, hit some form of “update” button, and your site now sports the new look! Okay, so that is pretty cool… especially for those minor tweaks that I make to my site, whenever I’m hosting a Zazzle sale or auctioning a painting on eBay.  They will also do a periodic back-up of all the site files, so if you screw something up while editing, you can rely on a previously saved version.
Ironically, the site did its back-up AFTER his files were mysteriously erased, and before he caught the problem. So his archived files were also blank. Bwahahaha!

Okay… at this point, I’m laughing my ass off at his stupidity.. as he rants about customer service’s inability to retrieve the old files: they explained to him that their back-up is a “courtesy” and shouldn’t be solely relied upon. Everyone knows to keep copies, except this poor schmuck. (…and he’s been in e-commerce for years…)

Personally, I’m an old-school web-designer, if I can even call myself a designer with my limited HTML skills. I created my first site – titled “The Ghost of the Pot Roast” – in 1998, a mixture of cheesy poetry, pictures, and inside jokes shared with my friend, Carolyn. It was supposed to be a joint effort, but she was too busy advancing her career and getting college degrees, that I wound up running it myself and threatening her (for over a year) with torture just to get an updated Bio from her.
Anyway, I’m from the FTP Class (a proud graduate of FileZilla), and was taught to save all my files offline, simply make edits whenever necessary, and re-upload them. It would never occur to me to keep my entire script saved on my host’s dashboard, without a back-up or four. Well, except for that one time with Blogspot…

Perhaps the techs were right about his scripting errors, and he did something to wipe his own files clean. LOL With my Blogspot disaster, a simple html edit to include the “Stumble” button wiped out the entire posting function! I must’ve deleted one or two essential characters by accident. *oops* But in that one instance, I hadn’t saved their original script first, and I had no way to fix it.

Anyhow… this is the direction I’m planning to take, and anyone with a personal experience working with BlueHost, Zen Cart, etc. is welcome to comment here. If you happen to think another web host is more reliable than BlueHost for my needs, feel free to make a recommendation and I’ll go check them out. 🙂

Note of caution, hehe: If you suffer from gross grammar and an enlarged ego, your comments may become the subject of humor in my next blog. 😉

fire breathing dragon cat binder

"Dominus Inferni" binder from TaraFly's Zazzle shop

I created this binder on Zazzle the other night, using my infamous fire-breathing dragon cat… he turned out so awesome, I’ve got one sitting in my shopping cart right now. Which is unusual, because I rarely purchase my own work. It’s nothing against Zazzle; I love their quality! I did initially purchase a coffee mug with Monsieur Inferni on it, a couple T-shirts with my logo, and some gorgeous greeting cards…but I typically buy products that serve a function, and there are only so many binders, magnets, key chains, sheets of stationary, and shoes that a person absolutely needs.
Rather counter-productive thinking for someone in the selling industry, huh? 😉

People purchase artwork mainly because a certain piece strikes a chord with them, and unless they are collecting the works of a particular artist, most people don’t hoard hundreds of prints. A few special pieces will hang on their walls, and perhaps they’ll pick up a coffee mug or T-shirt featuring their favorite work. At least, that is my approach to art.
I admire the work of hundreds of talented artists, but it has to speak to me personally before I’ll buy it, and make room for it in my home. Not surprisingly, two major themes are found in my collection: cats (in all genres) and regency-inspired pieces. An odd pairing, to be sure, and perhaps subconsciously my regency cat paintings were an attempt to establish order.

“Creating order from chaos” is actually the theme of my year, and the motivation behind writing this particular blog… which I know is shockingly pre-mature, as I usually limit myself to one blog each week. 😉 *giggle*

My unknowing mentor, Jessica Doyle, wrote a blog explaining why she closed her Etsy shop, and although I have no intention of doing the same, her post struck a nerve with me.
I’ve been feeling the stress of being spread too thin… being in too many places at once… in my attempt to be noticed in the vastness of net space. I have a website of my own, which currently serves as a hub: providing followers and potential customers with a list of my selling venues and social haunts. I promote my dotcom, and once they arrive, they are re-directed elsewhere… “follow me on Twitter”, “read my blog on WordPress”, “buy my art here, here, and HERE”. Tossed to the wind, in a matter of speaking.
I watch my web-stats like a hawk, using StatCounter.com, and the turn-over is incredible and disheartening. I’ve tried to place myself in my visitors’ shoes, and found my site lacking consistency and direction, but I was unsure what steps to take.

Watching Jessica struggle with making important hosting and e-commerce decisions for her business, it dawned in my sluggish brain what I needed to do. The light just switched on yesterday, burning dimly at first, and then flared feverishly last night… keeping me tossing and turning well past 2:00AM.

Instead of maintaining this feeble pit-stop website of mine, I need to create a “Go To” Place for shopping, sharing, and socializing with my customers and friends. Instead of pointing customers in different directions, I need to re-direct all my online efforts BACK into my website.
Sites like Zazzle and WordPress have excellent options available for integration. WordPress’ advanced features allow mapping to any domain of my choice, allowing me to bring my blog back home.
Zazzle offers an awesome tool, called Store Builder, that allows me to host my Zazzle shop directly on my own website, and customize it’s CSS layout to blend in seamlessly. 🙂
So why am I not taking advantage of these great features right now?? Good question.

As my business has grown, so has my dissatisfaction with my current host – although to Trevor’s credit, many of the limitations were known to me from the beginning. For a mere $40 per year, it provided a fledgling artist like myself a nice Flash gallery to display my work, and space enough for an artist bio, and a couple additional text-based pages. Initially, I wasn’t looking for a host large enough to handle PHP script files or a fully functional e-commerce program; I was unsure what direction my work would take and my expectations were low. My current host provided me with a cheap, attractive web presence. Although I did experience some frustrating server down-time during the holiday season…

Now that my requirements have outgrown the nest, and my current hosting expires in March, I’m looking into options that will allow me to use e-commerce tools, like Zen-Cart, to sell my prints, originals, and miscellaneous merchandise directly from www.taraflyphotos.com, as well as host my Zazzle products, my blog, and perhaps a small discussion forum for announcements and social interaction. 🙂
Zen-Cart is especially intriguing, as it offers the ability to track inventory, take coupons, create special accounts for repeat customers and/or fans, accept multiple forms of payment, and much more.

I will, however, leave my Etsy shop up and running. Aside from the friendships I’ve made there, I realize that Etsy’s traffic can’t be overlooked, and some new customers might feel safer purchasing my products from a “reputable” site with feedback and an administrative system.
I’ll also make originals available occasionally on eBay, as I’ve done previously. I simply won’t flush money down Etsy’s drain anymore, trying to keep my listings on top of internal searches, or get involved in forum politics. If I’m going to spend a large chunk of my time and money promoting my work, I want to reap the rewards on my own site.

In the end, though, I’m hoping that this transition… which will happen slowly over the next few months… will transform my small corner of the web-world into thriving little community, composed of friends and fans who can sit and chat about personal stuff, buy a print or three, and read about my latest projects. It will be the virtual home I’ve always envisioned owning. I might even build myself an eat-in kitchen, with a confectioner’s oven and a refrigerator stocked with cheddar and provolone cheese… and of course, every fridge needs to be plastered with magnets!