Website Advice

Creating a Website

If you're interested in creating a website for a small business, a community organization, or for personal use, you may find the following information useful:

Before You Begin

Make sure you know what domain name you are going to use, how you are going to register that domain name, where your website will be hosted, what methods will be used to build your website, and when your website will become live on the Internet -- and make sure you know these pieces will work together, otherwise you may run into problems.  For example, suppose you plan to work with a website developer, but you first register your domain name with a web hosting company you know little about, other than that they're a "big name."  You may find that the website developer knows the hosting company's domain services are poorly managed, but you can't move to a different registrar for 30 days, and in the meantime, the hosting company is using your domain name to sell advertising for their own profit.

Also take care when searching for an available domain name.  Domain name searches conducted via the Internet can be monitored, and there  is a practice known as "domain name front running" that takes advantage of this to put a temporary lock on a domain name that someone might be interested in order to force purchase through a specific registrar or to extract a higher price.  To find up-to-date information on how to avoid this, do a Google search on "safe WHOIS search."

Domain Name Registration

A domain name is a permanent name that people can use to find your website.  Some examples of well-known domain names are google.com, Facebook.com, and YouTube.com.  To acquire a domain name, you must register it with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).  You can do this by working directly with an ICANN accredited registrar, but in some cases it's easier to work with a reseller registrar.  For example, Enom and GoDaddy are ICANN accredited registrars, while Google is a reseller registrar for them.  If you're going to use the free hosting and website building tools provided by Google, as I've done with this website, you will find it much easier to get started if you register your domain name through Google rather than through Enom or GoDaddy.  You won't pay more to use Google, since Google gets wholesale rates from Enom and GoDaddy, and thus can keep your costs the same.  Similarly, if you're going to use a paid website development service, you may find it easier (and more cost-effective) to register your domain name through that service or through a registrar they recommend. 

If you're going to develop the website on your own, and you aren't going to use Google's free hosting, be careful about registering your domain name through the company that provides your web hosting.  There can be hidden "gotchas" in such arrangements, including loss of ownership or loss of control of your domain name and your website.  My advice is to register your domain name through an ICANN accredited registrar with a good reputation or through a reseller in your own local area who's been in business for a while and can provide references. 

Website Hosting

Once you have a domain name registered, the next step in creating a website is to arrange for hosting service.  There are many website hosting services.  Some are free (often supported by advertising), but most require a monthly fee ranging from $5 to $30 per month.  If your website is small, consisting of simple text and images, and you don't expect much traffic, you should be able to find reliable hosting at the lower end of that price range.  If your website is large, or complex, or will get a lot of traffic, you may need a higher-cost hosting plan.  Websites that show video, play music, have large photo galleries, or provide files for download also can require more costly hosting, depending on how these features have been set up.

Once you've got a host for your website, you'll need to get your website onto your assigned server and then point your domain name to it.  For beginners, these often are the most difficult steps.  To make it easier, website hosting services may provide tools for creating a website directly on the server.  In addition, if you register your domain name through the hosting service, they will automatically point your domain name to the website you create with these tools.  While this makes it easy to get a website up and running, the downside is that it may be difficult to move your website should your hosting service begin to perform poorly or go out of business.  Also, you may find that the domain name registration provided by the hosting service does not give you full control of the domain name you select.  Indeed, if you don't read the fine print, you later may find that the legal rights to "your" website design or domain name belong to the hosting service rather than to you.

When choosing a web hosting service, in addition to price and features, you need to consider performance, reliability, security, and customer support.  In addition, you need to be sure that the methods or tools used to design your website will be compatible with the technology used by the hosting service, and that you have a way to get your website onto their server.

Website Design

There are many tools available for building websites. Some of these are software applications that can be used to build a website on a personal computer.  These tend to be powerful and flexible, but can be difficult to learn.  Also, websites created with such tools must be uploaded from the personal computer to the hosting server, and then tested to make sure they work on the server as well as on the personal computer.  For this reason, beginners often turn to a website builder provided by their hosting service.

In general, I'm wary of this approach.  Website builders can be a great time-saver for an experienced web developer who understands what's going on underneath the hood.  Beginners, on the other hand, may not realize that they are not only locking themselves into a particular hosting service, but also creating a website that cannot be expanded in ways they may wish in the future.  However, one website builder I will recommend for beginners is that provided as part of Google's free hosting service, Google Sites.  While some learning is required to get started, Google Sites is relatively easy to use for beginners, while providing more advanced features that can be learned later on, as the user becomes more advanced, to extend a website in various ways.  There is online documentation to help you learn, as well as user forums that provide peer support.  When used with your own domain name, Google Sites allows you to create a large website.  As far as I know, there are no limitations on the amount of traffic your website can have.  And finally, there are tools that can be used to export the content and logical structure of your website.  Although you will need to create new "style sheets" to keep things like fonts, colors, and layout looking the same, this export capability makes it possible to move a website from Google Sites to another hosting service.

Using style sheets that are separate from the content and logical structure of a website is the modern approach to web design.  Among other advantages, this approach allows you to use a professional design, while retaining control and ownership of the website content.  On a larger scale, this same distinction lies at the heart of a third approach to website design, which makes use of a Content Management System (CMS). 

With a little help from a friendly hosting service or online community, a beginner can set up a simple CMS, such as WordPress, to create a blog.  For a more complex web site, however, it might be better to hire a professional web developer to help with the selection and initial setup of a CMS.  The advantage of a CMS is that, once it is set up, content can be added and changed with online tools that are fairly easy to learn, similar to those of a web builder.  In addition, a CMS can be used to create large, sophisticated websites that can be moved intact from one website hosting service to another.

The best tools and  methods for designing your website will depend on what kind of website you want to build and how much you're willing to learn.  If you want to do most of the work yourself, but you're not sure how to get started, consider finding a professional web developer who is willing to help you select tools that match your needs and learn how to use them.

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