Creating Your First Website: Read This First!

You’ve had a killer idea for a website. Your itching to get started and put it out there for the world to see.  In this article I’m going to cover why you shouldn’t just dive right in, and why it’s far better to plan precisely what you’re hoping to achieve right from the outset.  Although this can seem a bit of a faff (which is the British way of saying, quite a lot of effort), it can actually save you a considerable amount of time later on, as you’ll be far less likely to set off down the wrong path and end up having to throwing away unsuitable content.

If you are new to website building, I’d recommend reading this entire feature before getting started.  But for those of you who like to rush ahead (what did I just say about not jumping straight in), here’s what we’ll be covering – click a title to visit that section.

Aims and objectives

I’m not suggesting you sit down and make a spreadsheet (although apparently there are people out there who actually like that sort of thing), but by simply jotting down a few notes on your mobile phone (there’s lots of good apps for this – if you don’t have one already, check out ColorNote for Android, or iNote for iPhone) you can start to build a clear picture of what you want from your website.  Alternatively, good old Notepad will suffice on a Windows PC, or – if you really want to go old school – just grab a pen and paper.

If you’d like to learn how to get the most out of ColorNote, click here to check out the article I’ve written, ColorNote: The Best Android App for Note-taking?

A Domain by any other Name

On the internet, every website has what’s known as a domain name.  This is the name of the site, such as “google.com” or “amazon.com”.  When thinking up a name for yours, there are a few things to consider.  Perhaps you have an idea for the name already, but, if not, stop and think about the key components of your website.  You’ll want something that’s a perfect fit, like a well-tailored suit.  It’s no use going with greatplumbing.com if you’re an electrician!

Once you’ve got a name, the first thing you’ll want to do is register it, and for this you’ll need a Domain Name Registrar.  There’s certainly no shortage of them out there, but its probably wise to go with one of the big names (at least to start with).  Consider one of the following.

https://godaddy.com

https://www.ionos.com/

Can I have any name I want?

Yes, so long as it doesn’t already exist.  Note. Many people get confused by the domain extension (the part that follows the actual domain name, such as .com or .org or .net).  For this reason, its often best to stick with .com (particularly for a business site), or something simple like .net (for anything else).  Certainly I wouldn’t bother with any of the more obscure offerings – some of these can be quite expensive as well, so be kind to your wallet as well as your audience.

Important. A word of warning.  While you could, theoretically, purchase the domain name thegoogle.com (if it doesn’t already exist), DON’T DO THIS.  In fact, putting the word “the” in any domain name is a BAD idea.  “Why is that?” you may be asking.  Using “the” to make the name of your website unique won’t protect you from infringing on a company’s IP (Intellectual Property – in this case, the name of the company).  This is a VERY BAD idea if you are a business.  I wouldn’t even do it if your website is just for fun – there’d be no fun ending up on the wrong side of a lawsuit!

Can I change my domain name at a later date?

You can, and, while it wouldn’t be the end of the world, do you really want to?  Consider this.  Your website goes from strength to strength, and you build a good following.  Do you really want to risk losing your visitors by changing the name?  For this reason alone, it’s a mistake worth avoiding.

What will it cost me?

With most things in life, unfortunately it often boils down to money.  As to what a domain name will cost you, it depends on the domain name.  For something not too out of the ordinary, expect to pay around £10 ($15) per year.

Who’s going to host my website?

Once you’ve got your domain name sorted out, you’ll be wanting a web host.  This is a company that provides the service of hosting your website.  In other words, they own the servers (computers) that your site resides on.  If you’ve already purchased your website domain, you probably couldn’t fail to notice that the company working as your domain name registrar also offered web hosting – since they most likely tried to sell that too you as well.

This is certainly a tempting proposition, as you can potentially save some money by combing both services with the same provider.  It’s entirely up to you, but, personally, I wouldn’t do this.  The reason being, if you later wish to change your web host and move your website to another company, the transition can, potentially, be more difficult if they also provide your domain name.  By keeping your domain registrar and web host separate, you maintain total control over your domain.  This makes the process of moving your website from one provider to another a doddle (which is to say, very easy).

As with domain registrars, there is no shortage of web hosts – many of them are the same companies, as most offer both services.  A good one, particularly for hosting WordPress websites (which we’ll come to later), is BlueHost.

https://www.bluehost.com/

What should I look for in a web host?

Ideally you want the web host to take care of any technical issues, so things like security and software updates are handled automatically.  It can also be useful to check what backup solutions the host offers (unless you plan to carry out your own manual backups, in which case you should make sure they allow this).  Basically, you want to be sure that, should the worst happen (and catastrophe strikes), you can quickly (and easily) recover your website with the minimum of fuss.

Also, in this day and age, it should almost go without saying that any good web host should include a SSL certificate for your website.

What the SSL!

No, it doesn’t stand for Super Secret LocationSSL or Secure Sockets Layer is a cryptographic protocol that allows a computer to connect to a website through the use of encryption.  Using actual English, this simply means that any computer browsing the internet can securely view a website that is using SSL.

At this point in time, it’s almost taken for granted that a website should be secure.  So much so in fact that some of the web browsers, such as Google Chrome, have stopped saying that a website is secure (though you do still get the little padlock to confirm it).  Instead, they’ve taken to displaying the Not Secure message up in the address bar if a site isn’t using encryption.

By setting up an SSL certificate on your website (don’t worry, it’s not difficult – some providers merely require you to click a button to turn it on) your site is served using a HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) connection.  The important part here is the S (Secure).  This is the bit in the address bar that goes before the name of the website.  For example, “https://www.mysupersecurewebsite.com”.

Go look at your favourite website now.  Odds are it will already be using https.  If not, be careful not to enter any personally identifiable information as it will be sent across the internet in plain text, meaning all those malicious types out there could have free access to your data.

What will a web host cost?

Web hosting is usually more expensive than purchasing a domain name, but it still shouldn’t break the bank.  Typically, when starting out, if you budget somewhere in the region of £8 ($10) a month, you may well have some change left over.  Name me another business (if that’s why you’re starting a website) you could set up for such a small outlay?

Directing the traffic

If you do keep your domain registrar and web host separate, you’ll need to direct the traffic from your domain to the web host.  There are a couple of ways to do this, but I’d recommend entering your web host’s name servers into your domain registrar’s account.  That way, once it’s set up, (until such time as you want to change your web host) you should be able to make all subsequent changes to your website and domain simply by logging into your web host.

Choosing a website builder/editor

In the not so good old days, websites were all created in the same way.  That is to say, you had to familiarise yourself with HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language – the language of the internet).  This basically involved learning how to code each web page.  As you can imagine, this was both time consuming and, unless you were so inclined, more than a little tedious.

Thankfully those days are long behind us.  You can still code in HTML, if you want to, but with so many alternatives available, for most people it simply isn’t worth the trouble.

Enter the website builder

This is where the website builder comes into play.  These miraculous tools enable you to gloss over the programming part and get on with what’s really important, building your website – the clue was in the title, after all.  Fortunately for us, there’s quite a few available.  While I’ve tried to categorise the main types as best I can as we look at each in turn, things aren’t as clear cut as they used to be.  With technology continually advancing, and the various platforms adding ever more features, the boundaries between them increasingly blur.  Nevertheless, let’s dive in and take a look at what’s out there.

Content Management System

Perhaps one of the biggest website building platforms to emerge on the internet is the venerable Content Management System (or CMS, for short).  As the name suggests, CMSs focus on content; they are designed to make it quick and easy to add and update the subject matter.  The content (be it text, images, or multimedia) is what drives these websites, with the appearance almost being a secondary consideration.  That’s not to say they can’t look impressive – many of the world’s top websites are built using content management systems – it’s just the main priority of these systems is to get your stuff (to use the technical term) on to the website as quickly and easily as possible.

This usually means choosing a theme which takes care of the aesthetics and dictates how your website will look.  The end result is a generally a well-structured layout, which is a good thing as it tends to give the website a more consistent appearance, which comes across as more professional.  At one time, not that long ago, all of this structure would come at a cost.  Unless you really dug into the underlying code, these type of websites could be very restrictive – many layouts were practically set in stone.  Fortunately, more modern themes have introduced way more customisation options than were ever possible before.  The take-away here is that selecting the right theme is essential.

Undoubtedly King of the Content Managements Systems is WordPress, though there are many others such as Drupal and Joomla that would love to topple its crown.  CMSs are now so popular and customizable that many other website builders may well be using them behind the scenes, even if they don’t tell you.  Click one of the following links if you’d like to learn more about any of these three industry giants.

https://wordpress.org/

https://www.drupal.org/

https://www.joomla.org/

A CMS is perhaps the most flexible type of website builder, as you can create so many vastly different types of website with it.  Though it’s not always the most user friendly, and may have a slightly steeper learning curve than some of the others.  Even so, if you’re prepared to put in the effort, (whatever your technical level) you’ll certainly reap the rewards.

WYSIWYG or Unstructured Editor

The what?  WYSIWIG (pronounced wiz-ee-wig), or What You See Is What You Get, is a website editor where you can quite literally drag every element practically anywhere on the screen (hence the term, unstructured).  On first glance, this may seem ideal, and – for some people – it can be.  Once you log in, each page still looks exactly the same (just as your website visitors will see it), but, now that you’ve logged in, all the elements are editable.

To coin part of an Eleanor Roosevelt quote, with freedom comes responsibility, and the problem here is that, with so much freedom, if you’re not careful your site can quickly become a disorderly disaster.  You need a good eye for design and a fastidious attention to detail to keep things neat and tidy.  However, if you’re looking for the ultimate in control, this method takes some beating.  Possibly one of the larger offerings in this area is Wix.

https://www.wix.com

Wix is a prime example of a platform offering many features; there’s even an ADI (Artificial Design Intelligence) mode.  This makes it extremely easy for anyone to get started, as, by answering a few questions, it will create the website for you.  You can then add to it or alter the content to suit your needs.

The WSISYG website builder is certainly easy to use, and enables excellent levels of control, but this unstructured type of editor can soon get unwieldy if you’re not careful.  It may be best suited to organised types with a good eye for layout.

Template-driven or Structured Editor

A theme greatly helps in keeping the look of your website consistent, no matter which page you visit.  Nearly all website builders use themes to some extent, but in this category I’m focusing on those that use it as the primary mechanism with which to create your site.  This is one of the ways these editors differ from content management systems (which also rely on themes).  With a CMS, (as mentioned earlier) content is king – the theme is simply the vessel that transports said content on to the page.  With the kind of editors we’re talking about here, they’re almost like the reverse of a CMS – the site is built from the ground up taking a template-first approach.

These site builders can also be sophisticated, but tend to provide more structure (you generally drag elements into a grid), so results can be obtained quickly, if required.  Though, like most things, you’ll achieve the best outcome when putting in the effort.  Two large providers in this category are Squarespace and Weebly.

https://www.squarespace.com/

https://www.weebly.com

Weebly is very accessible and makes its simple to get started – it even features an App Center.  While not the only platform to do so, having this facility makes it almost effortless to add extra functionality to your website.  Squarespace, on the other hand, may not be quite as beginner friendly (though it’s by no means difficult) but features some amazing themes that are built to make your site exude quality.

Like the WSISYG website builder, the template-driven one is also easy to use, though (by comparison) it can be a little less flexible with respect to layout.  The structured editor is probably best recommended to those who don’t feel particularly tech-savvy.

Picking a platform

At the end of the day, whichever website builder you choose, it will make building your site soooo much simpler than having to code everything from scratch.  Most platforms offer at least some amount of drag and drop (e.g. for inserting images, or positioning the building blocks of your site).  As we’ve seen, there are many features available – from artificial intelligence to app stores – all designed to make the process of creating a website that bit easier.

Deciding on the type of web builder you want to use may well guide your decision on which web host to go with.  Different providers often favour a particular (type of) site builder.  Some web hosts, such as Squarespace (although they are by no means alone), only offer a single website builder.  Note. If this is the case, and for any reason you wanted to move your website to a different web host at a later date, it could make the task beyond difficult.

What kind of website

It helps to have a clear picture of the type of website you’re looking to publish.  To get you going, here’s a few ideas.

Hobbyist

Perhaps you’re hoping to find like-minded people to share a hobby or interest.  Sure, you could join an existing forum or community, but, if you set up your own site, you can do things your way.  For the hobbyist website, you’ll probably want to make things less formal, friendly and fun even.

Business

If a website for your business is what you’re after, try to give the site a professional appearance.  Your content should ideally be clear and concise.  Don’t be afraid to use images – remember what they say about a picture painting a thousand words!  The personal touch with your photos can really bring your web pages alive.  Though, if you’d sooner, some great high resolution images are available (completely free of charge) from the site below.  Most, if not all, of these can be used for commercial purposes without even requiring attribution (though I’m sure both the website and photographers would welcome a mention).

https://www.pexels.com/

Offers and discounts also work well online.  There are even sites out there where people post deals they discover.  You may want to look into promoting your business website using a service such as Google Ads.  This is a paid for option, but could be a good way to quickly prioritise your business in Google’s search results.

Blog

It used to be that a blog was merely John (or Jane) Smith’s ramblings about what they had for dinner yesterday.  Fortunately things have moved on since then, and today’s blogs can be genuinely useful and interesting.

Many are still jotted “diary style” like entries in a journal, and are usually displayed in reverse chronological order with the newest at the top.  Blog is actually short for weblog and is often a

discussion on a whole variety of topics (sport, news, practically anything you can think of).  Comments can be a big part of blogging.  This allows for users to interact with one another and build a post into a genuine discussion.

Twitter is probably the world’s biggest blogging platform, though this is actually microblogging (remember that 140 – now doubled to 280 – character limit).  Vlogs (video blogs) are the latest iteration of the humble blog, with YouTube being far and away the biggest platform in this area.

This type of website is obviously popular with photographers and artists, and is an excellent way to show your art to the world.

None of the above

Obviously your website doesn’t have to fall under a particular category – it could be a mix of multiple things.  That said, it can be helpful to have a place to start.  A clear idea of where your heading and what you hope to achieve, and not just the mad musings of a disorganised mind.

Where to begin

Hopefully you’ve now got an inkling of the type of website you’d like to create, so you’re well on the way.  Probably the single biggest decision to make is what kind of website builder you’re going to use.  Having touched on some of the key platforms, you may already have an idea of which might suit you best.  If you’re still not sure, why not try one from each category to see how they differ, and find out, first hand, what’s on offer?  Most of them let you take a test drive for free.

A recommendation

For the majority of people thinking about setting up their first website, I’d go with WordPress.  As mentioned earlier, this is a Content Management System.  With what’s gone before, this may not have been the answer you were expecting.  The reason I advocate it is the sheer amount of customisation available.  Sure, it may take a little longer to get your head around, but when you realise it can be moulded into just about anything, it’s well worth the effort.

Many, many types of website are built with WordPress.

Business website Check
Hobbyist site Check
Photo gallery Check
Blog Double-check (WordPress started out as a blog and grew into the fully-featured website builder that it is today)

The list goes on…

Having a WordPress website doesn’t necessarily mean going to wordpress.com and signing up for an account (though you could do).  Even by CMS standards, WordPress is a particularly flexible platform and is available as an option through lots of web host providers.

WordPress uses plugins to expand its functionality.  You can think of the plugins section of the WordPress website as a kind of app store for the platform – there are over 55,000 of them (at the time of writing)!  Some are free, others are paid for.  You can check out what’s available using the following link.

https://wordpress.org/plugins/

It’s easy to get gung-ho to the tantalising prospect of adding all those lovely features to your WordPress website.  But, tempting though it may be to go on some sort of plugin-fuelled installation fest, it’s probably best to keep their use to a minimum.  For one thing, you’ll need to keep them up to date (for security).  For another, compatibility issues can arise between a plugin and the version of WordPress you’re running, when one or the other changes.

Tone’s Tip. Always check the reviews for plugins.  Make sure other users are happy with them and that they’re not causing any issues.  Stick with the popular ones; remember, plugins can be created by anyone and could potentially introduce malware, or other undesired effects.

With time, hopefully your website will flourish and grow.  Ideally you want a platform that can grow with it.  Just because you may not know much at the beginning, doesn’t mean it will always be that way.  As your expertise starts to develop, so, too, you can begin to build on the myriad of features WordPress has to offer.  On today’s internet, a website should no longer remain a static entity; it should be more like a living organism, continuing to evolve into the best possible version of itself.

WordPress may not be the simplest option, but it doesn’t have to be that hard either.  That’s the beauty of it, you can set it up how you want.  Depending on who you ask, the platform is said to power around 30% of all websites on the internet.  Think about that for a moment, nearly a third of all websites out there are using WordPress!!  And that’s not by chance.  There’s a reason for its extraordinary popularity.  I’d suggest its the software’s ability to be used by all, from beginner to advanced, and be configured to best suit the required use case.

Have a look on YouTube.  There’s a huge number of WordPress video tutorials to begin your learning journey.

Question time

To finish off, let’s look at some of the questions that frequently arise when considering building a first website.

How do I rank on search engines?

Getting your website to appear in a search engine when someone searches for that topic is known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO).  Many people will tell you to look at, or even invest in, SEO tools.  I would suggest there’s a much better way: write good content.  That’s it.  If you produce good quality content, and aim to provide genuinely helpful advice, this will do far more to improve your website ranking than any SEO tool.

Your number one priority should be to create a good experience for your visitors and build a website that they will want to return to.  This will help establish your online reputation.  Do this and your website traffic should grow organically.  As an added bonus, your site will be all the better for it, too.  Most of all, don’t despair.  New websites can take months to rank on Google.  Keep at it.

This is entirely up to you.  The exception is a business website.  In this case I would strongly suggest you have a logo.  However, regardless of the type of website you are building, it’s never a bad idea to create some branding as it helps give your website an identity that people can associate with.  If your company already exists, you may have a logo already.  If you’d like to create one, the following site is worth a look.

https://www.freelogodesign.org/

Tone’s Tip. Once you have your logo, it’s a good idea to place it in the top left corner of your website.

Why should I use PDFs when attaching files to my website?

The PDF (Portable Document Format) was developed by Adobe as a means of accurately printing documents.  The main reason I would suggest using it for any files you attach to your website is consistency.  Anyone can install PDF software (for free) on their computer to read these documents – Adobe’s own Reader being one of the most popular programs.  If you start attaching Word documents, Powerpoint presentations, or a host of other file types, you’re relying on your website visitors having the software to be able to open them.

How do I turn my documents into PDFs?

If you have Office installed (either Microsoft Office, or the excellent LibreOffice; the latter of which you can learn all about by clicking here to read my article, LibreOffice: Escape Microsoft’s Proprietary Office Suite) you can simply open your existing document and save/export it as a PDF.  Note. You should also keep the original as PDFs are notoriously difficult to edit.

You can also use an online file conversion service, such as ZAMZAR, by clicking the link below.

https://www.zamzar.com/

Simply upload your file (Step 1), select the file format you want to convert it to – make sure this is PDF (Step 2), and click “Convert Now” (Step 3) to download your new PDF.

What are keywords?

When creating a website, you usually have the option to add keywords.  These should be related to your content to help search engines index your website.  They are no longer as crucial as they once were, as advances in technology mean that Google (other search engines are also available) is now smart enough to detect what your website is about through its content.  Again, (as in the earlier tip) it comes back to the fact that content is king.

Can I make a website free of cost?

Yes, you can use Google Sites (again, other services are available) to create a website for personal (non-commercial) use.  Click the following link to get started.

https://sites.google.com

Can I create a free website and still earn money?

I wouldn’t recommend it (and it can be against a free website’s terms & conditions – so you’d need to check, if you still want to try).  There are two main reasons I’d avoid going this route.  Firstly, a free website may put their own ads on the site to make money (sometimes this is how they can offer it to you for free), so you may not be able to place your own adverts.  Even if you don’t intend to use advertising as a source of revenue, do you really want someone else’s ads splattered all over the place, completely beyond your control?  Secondly, you won’t get your own domain name with a free website, probably just a subdomain of the main site.  For example, “myfreewebsite.wordpress.com“.

How do I create a website using HTML?

If you fancy doing things the old way, and you’d like to learn HTML programming, the w3schools.com website is a great (free) resource for web developers of all levels.  Get started with HTML by having a look at the following tutorial.

https://www.w3schools.com/html/default.asp

What is CSS?

Don’t panic, it’s not Crashing Server Severely or anything like that.  CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) work in conjunction with HTML.  Put simply, they allow you to style your website as a whole rather than page by page.  It came about as a way for web developers to separate content from appearance.  You can think of it as serving a similar role to a website theme; in fact, behind many of the modern flashy website builder interfaces, lots of themes are built with CSS.

What is (S)FTP access?

The File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is used to move files between a computer and a server.  In the context of creating a website, it would be used to transfer web pages and other content (such as images, for example) to the web server that hosts the site.  This is how websites used to be uploaded to the internet, and it’s still used today by many web developers.  Its more recent incarnation is SFTP (the S stands for SSH or Secure Shell), which basically means that the original FTP is transmitted within a secure (encrypted) connection.

Back in the day, Adobe’s Dreamweaver (now part of their Creative Cloud) was one of the most widely used website builders.  This would enable the user to create a website locally (on their PC) and then transfer it to the remote web server.  Dreamweaver itself included an FTP client, so you didn’t even need to leave the software to upload your website.

Probably one of the most popular FTP programs is Filezilla, which is free and open source.  You can download it from the following website.

https://filezilla-project.org/

What are Plesk and cPanel used for?

Web hosts (and domain registrars) provide a control panel with which you can manage your site/domain.  Plesk and cPanel are two such examples, and they basically do the same job.  You may not be offered either of these, as they’re not the only players in town, but the vast majority of providers will give you access to a control panel of some sort.  All kinds of activities can be carried out by logging in to it.

Depending on what the company you’re using offers (and what’s included in the package you’re paying for), some of the most commonly found features are as follows…

File management
Database management
Domain management
Mail (Email accounts)
Backups
Website statistics
Logs

Note. With regards to Plesk and cPanel, probably the biggest difference is that cPanel only supports Linux (web) servers, whereas Plex supports both Windows and Linux servers.  If you’re new to web servers, this isn’t the barrier it may first appear, as (unlike desktop computing) Linux is the dominant operating system when it comes to internet servers, otherwise known as “the cloud”.

What’s an A record when it’s at home?

The play on words above is just to emphasise that it’s an A (Address) record that points to the home address of your website, which is the server(s) where your website lives (of course, A records can point to other places, too).  You see, computers work better with numbers; so (as far as the machines are concerned), your website is reachable at a fixed (non-changing) IP address – which is just a set of numbers; for example, “216.58.206.78”.  People, on the other hand, are better at remembering names; such as “www.google.com“.

To make these two different approaches work together we need something that converts the names (domain names) to numbers (IP addresses), and that is where an A record comes in.  Basically, it maps a domain name to an IP address.  If we use the above example again, “www.google.com” becomes (or, to use the technical term, resolves to) “216.58.206.78”.  Try typing the numbers (including the dots, but without the quotes) into your web browser’s address bar now.  You should still end up at “www.google.com”.  But how much easier is typing in the name than remembering that horrible long number?

Tone’s Tip. Always create an A record forwww” (without the quotes)This will help ensure that your website is available when someone types in “www.yoursitesname.com”.  Without it, your website may only be reachable at yoursitesname.com (the root domain) and not www.yoursitesname.com – or worse, it may not respond at all.  Generally you’ll want it to be accessible at www – the world wide web is where the majority of websites are found, after all!

What is a subdomain?

As we mentioned earlier, your domain is the name of your website.  For example, “bananas.com“.  A subdomain is is a child domain of the main (parent) one.  So you could have “big.bananas.com“.  Notice the dot that precedes the main domain name to separate the subdomain.

Dependent on your domain registrar, you should be able to create multiple subdomains and point each one to a separate website (coincidentally, you would do this using A records, which we looked at just a moment ago).  Each of these additional websites should usually be associated with the main site in some way, or you may as well set them up on a different domain(s) entirely.  So you could, for arguments sake, have two extra websites (using subdomains) that are both related to the topic of the main site, yet different (or specialised) enough to warrant creating separate sites, as follows…

(root domain)
Main website: bananas.com

(subdomains)
Additional website 1: big.bananas.com
Additional website 2: yellow.bananas.com

Lift off

I hope you now feel ready to head out and launch your first website.  With a little bit of advanced planning, you can be confident of knowing precisely where you’re heading and what you’d like to achieve.

Good luck and welcome to the (website) owner’s club!