How an Idea Can Be Explored Through a Web Browser
I hear you want to build a website, but all the technicalities involved cast a shroud of confusion and uncertainty over your mind.
I have some numbers for you.
The first is: 1,225,999,999.
This is how many websites existed in the moment of writing. It has grown since.
That’s over 1.25 billion websites.
Do you think all these pages were created by people with technical background? By experienced programmers, who can script the unthinkable?
Most certainly not.
Which brings me to the other number: 3.
Three are the ways to approach the issue at hand and create a space on the web that you can call yours.
First, if you have the means and the nerves, you can deal with web designers.
Relinquish all the creative decisions to a professional.
Word of caution, web designers usually only pretend to listen to their customers. More often than not, they’d nod and agree with you, then deliver a product that they imagined. When you ask what happened to your ideas and proposals, they’d explain you at length why their design is better.
After all, they are the pros and you are a walking wallet with the creative potential of a green pea.
But yeah, going for a designer certainly is an option.
Choose this and read no more.
Then again, I guess you are here because you are interested in one of the other two methods, which give you the creative control.
One of the paths requires a certain degree of technical understanding, while the other is almost completely unburdened of such requisition.
I cover them both in this guide.
Utilising the interactive power of HTML, you can decide whether to read everything or only the parts of interest. For a deeper understanding of how the web works, check Chapters Three and Four; Chapters Two and Five will show you how to launch a website with minimal time investment, while Chapter One introduces some basic ideas about site building. Chapter Six stretches beyond the site building phase and dabbles with some optimisation techniques.
There is a Vocabulary at the end of the article, for quick reference and memory refreshment.
- Table of contents
- 1. The Conception
- 2. The Tools
- 3. The Bedrock of Understanding
- 4. The Setup
- 5. The Ultimate Decision
- 6. Mastering the Website World
- 7. Conclusion
Whichever path seems more appealing to you, keep in mind that neither requires any programming knowledge.
Two decades ago you had to have some coding expertise to build a website, despite the fact that Microsoft was still supporting a fallacy called FrontPage. Since, the technical requirements for designing a site – a good one, at that – have dwindled manifold.
In fact, they have become so tiny that you can’t really notice them without some serious mental squinting.
Today, you can benefit from the incredible functional feast numerous Content Management Systems (CMS) bring to the table but also from specialised site building applications.
What’s more, both can be utilised through the same means you are using to read this very article.
That’s right, this tremendous creative potential can be tapped through your web browser.
Given that you are here, I’d assume that you know how to use this particular piece of software.
That’s all the technical knowledge you need.
You really don’t need to be a programmer to build your own web page.
(I’d also have to assume that your programming knowledge is either limited or non-existent, or else you wouldn’t be here still.)
Weebly, Wix, Squarespace, WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and just a few of the numerous tools developed specifically for designing web pages. They power hundreds of millions of websites.
Some of these tools are simpler, others provide greater possibilities.
Learning how to use them can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks. Like, to use them well, not just to log in to their respective control panels.
The best part is that you can learn by doing. Essentially, while building your first website you are bound to become better at web design. Awesome, right?
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Before you jump to the actual design, you need to have clarity about a couple of things.
First and foremost, you must create a concept.
Without any idea what your site would be about, you cannot really build it, can you?
Deciding what purpose the web page would serve helps in its conception a lot. Knowing whether you want to have a store or a blog, a forum or a how-to compendium would help you determine which of the numerous platforms I mentioned earlier suits you best.
Further, knowing the type of content would help you choose the appropriate design. Will it be a gaming site? Or maybe a news outlet? How about a store for shoes?
Each one requires specific design solutions and would make you realise your vision in different ways.
Take some time to refine the concept of your site.
Do you already have some vague idea?
Sleep on it! Let your subconscious work on it. Our minds are amazing at catching the most awesome ideas, even without being actively engaged in their pursuit.
Once you are able to visualise and to express in coherent speech what your site would be about, you’d be ready to choose the most suitable tools for its realisation.
In the meantime, to help your subconscious work its magic in the background, I’m going to distract you with a story.
This is the story of how websites are born.
1. The Conception
In one indistinct moment, lodged loosely in the stream of time, waiting to become and to cease to be, inside a creative and vivacious mind, a fuzzy idea slowly began to take shape.
But what was it, exactly?
A trendy blog? A top selling store? An impressive portfolio? A successful business? An informative forum?
Whatever it was, the mind decided to let it grow by itself before reaching out to it and grasping it more firmly.
It had other important things to consider, analyse and plan, if the idea was to have a chance in this world.
1.1 Types of Websites
For starters, let’s clarify a few basic things.
You might be wondering what the difference between a website and a blog is, and what it is that makes an online shop a shop.
Here are some handy definitions to fuel your subconscious even more:
Everything your web browser displays is a website or a part of one.
In other words, all blogs and online stores are websites. Not all websites are blogs or stores.
Blog is a web log, a site with frequent content updates. Normally, the content in question takes the form of an article aimed to entertain and divert or to educate and inform.
What sets blogs apart from other websites, besides the regular content updates (in the form of new posts), is the layout. It should display the articles from the get-go and an archive of older posts should be maintained.
Another prominent feature of any self-respecting blog is the possibility to leave a comment under each and every article, telling the author how much her article inspired you to either become a better person or to change the outlook of her face. (Disclaimer: Do NOT hit girls. Better yet, don’t hit anybody.)
Most blogs sport a few other typical characteristics, but these are the most definitive ones.
What about the online stores?
They can have a blog section, i.e. a part of the site with frequent content updates and possibility for comments, but what really makes them an ecommerce platform is the shopping cart software.
This is an application, which can display products, calculate prices, process orders, maintain inventory and a few other things.
Virtually all online shops must use an SSL certificate as well, so that all transactions and personal data are protected by an encrypted connection between the buyer’s computer and the store.
Now, that the lecture part is over, your inner nerd can be put to rest, while I shift your focus toward more practical concerns.
1.2 The Investment
How much are you ready to invest in the creation of your website? Financially and time-wise.
Some solutions are very easy to use and completely free, while others are very easy to use but paid, yet third are complicated and come with no charge. Of course, there are complex and expensive ones, too.
An important and useful notion to understand is that the process of building a website from scratch is not so far removed from constructing a real building.
First, you need a blueprint (the concept) and then the right materials (site building tools) to help you transform the plan into something more tangible.
Needless to say, this approach can consume a considerable amount of time and resources. The satisfaction at the end is unmatched, though, and so is the degree of control you can exert over the entire process.
Still, fleshing out an entire website from the ground up is not for everybody. That‘s why website builders are so popular. Most site builders make everything happen much more quickly and, generally speaking, more easily when compared to a CMS.
Unlike real-life builders, such platforms don’t construct the site for you. Instead, they provide you with ready-made designs and numerous building blocks.
Have you played with Lego or other construction toys? Each box is meant to complete a specific design, but if you have three or four different sets, you could use your imagination and construct unique things.
The website builders operate on similar principles. They put in your hands templates and many complementary design elements, with which you can customise the initial layout and personalise it fully.
Easiy to learn and use, you can have your site up and running in a day or two, even with absolutely no previous experience in the field of site building.
Sounds simple enough and it is. Of course, there is a trade-off.
Compared to CMSs, website builders have less functionality and tend to be more expensive.
No doubt, CMSs have a steeper learning curve, but they are infinitely more versatile. They scale easier, provide much greater creative freedom and more tools for optimisation, SEO and interactivity.
So, which one to choose?
Let’s go even deeper.
2. The Tools
After the mind leveraged several options, it realised that it would be difficult to bring forth the idea, glimmering shyly in the dark.
Without a more arcane knowledge of the intricacies of web design, luring the idea from its corner of the subconscious and showing its marvelousness to the world would be a tall order.
So the brain decided to embark on a quest for knowledge in order to find necessary means to beckon the idea.
Enough general information.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty end of things and look the options ahead of you straight in the eye.
2.1 CMSs and Self-hosted Solutions
All Content Management Systems share one thing in common: you are the one who must find a host for them. In contrast, the site builders offer the entire package; once you sign up for a website builder, you get the site building tools, hosting and support.
With the CMSs the order is reversed. You need to find a hosting company, sign up with them and then install the CMS you wish to use. The support is provided by the web hosting company, but, in the vast majority of cases, you’d be entitled to technical help only when your site is not functioning because of a server or domain name issue. Getting help with bad plugins or incompatibilities falls beyond the responsibilities of the tech support agents. Strictly speaking, such issues are a matter of web design and not technical troubleshooting.
That’s strictly speaking. In reality, the competition among web hosting companies is such that they broaden their scope of support constantly. There are many good web hosting companies with specialised WordPress hosting packages that come with optimised servers and support good working knowledge of the CMS. They can give decent advice and fix a handful of issues with the CMS. Still, it is within their rights to refuse help because WordPress is VAST, and it is unrealistic to expect a support agent to be versed in all its intricacies and complexities.
WordPress grows and evolves at amazing speed. Thanks to its open-source model and massive community, new WordPress plugins, applications and themes are produced constantly. WordPress is the top CMS platform, by a long shot. It powers over a quarter of all these 1.25 billion websites. Its learning curve is not the steepest and the functionality it provides is unmatched.
No other platform, site builder or a CMS, comes even close to the potential WordPress has.
This is not to say that other CMSs have no merits. Far from it.
Drupal powers about 2.5% of all sites in existence, while Joomla is also growing constantly. In the long run, they are a touch more difficult to maintain than WordPress, but with enough dedication and desire to learn you can master them just as well.
Drupal core is an extremely powerful web-application framework, with an impressive array of inbuilt functionality. Without much tweaking or third-party extensions, it can power websites, blogs and forums with ease.
Joomla is the second most popular CMS after WordPress (as Drupal, technically, is a framework with CMS functionality and not a classic CMS). It powers nearly 90 million websites (fewer than Wix) and has over 7,000 extensions and modules, making it ideal for blogging, general-purpose websites and even stores.
For ecommerce, however, the undisputed champion is Magento. If you plan to run a big online store nothing can match this beast of CMS. It can be used for blogging too, but the main idea behind it is to serve as an ecommerce platform. In this regard, Magento excels.
The question is how big a store you’d like to run.
Magento is a total overkill if you want to sell your handicrafts, unless you are a multi-handed manufacturing deity.
Probably, in this bunch, Magento is the most difficult to master and operate. It also requires a significant amount of computing power to run smoothly; few shared hosting plans are able to meet its demands.
2.2 Sitebuilders or Hosted Solutions
All site builders can be categorised as hosted solutions as their services cover everything: tools for web design, web hosting and support. You get the full package in one place, without much of a hassle.
This business model simplifies things on several levels.
First, everything is managed together.
Second, the support is considerably more comprehensive, as the support teams of each platform are very knowledgeable about their respective products.
Lastly, all extensions and third-party apps are tested and proven to work before reaching the apps shop, and the support agents know how to tackle the most common issues. This is not the case with the open-source CMSs where literally anyone with some coding knowledge can create a plugin or extension; whether he or she complies with the most secure practices and deploys the most optimised code or not is anybody’s guess.
The most popular general-purpose site builders are Wix and Weebly. In fact, Weebly, with its Business plan can power a decent small or medium shop.
Still, Shopify, an ecommerce site building platform, would make much more sense for small to medium-sized stores. Squarespace is also a good ecommerce solution, with very stylish designs, while Wix is a versatile, all-around builder with good templates and friendly interface.
Weebly and Wix have free plans even, while the ecommerce platforms offer a 14-day trial to get to know them.
The free plans and the trials are fine, as they give you a taste of you are getting into, but for a decent online presence you’d need to pay some monthly fee. As I said, it is an investment.
Among these four builders, Wix has the lowest fees, starting at $4.50 a month. Shopify is the most expensive, with their biggest plan costing $299.
Other excellent site builders also exist; you can check more details and compare features, skipping the more technical part of this guide, by clicking here.
For comparison, all CMSs are free, but they require a web hosting service to run. They are called self-hosted solutions, as you’re the one to procure hosting for them yourself.
Luckily, there are suitable hosting plans for as few as $2 per month. That’s less than a mug of decent beer, and shared hosting plans provide many extras other than simple web presence.
To sum it up, the hosted solutions are pricier but require less management. They are easier to learn and come with better support. CMSs have smaller monthly hosting fees and boast greater functionality; the support for them is more limited and the initial time-investment is considerable.
Now is time to wake up your inner nerd once again and explain what are the basic forces that make any website run, regardless of what content it presents and on what type of a platform it resides on.
3. The Bedrock of Understanding
The moment it turned its gaze toward the river of knowledge, the mind was sucked right in the middle of it, disoriented and more confused than before.
Desperately looking for connections and association, it slowly realised that the network of knowledge is entrapping it instead of bringing the liberating enlightenment it was looking for.
The mind released an imaginary sigh, flexed its focus, sharpened its understanding and took another step deeper.
I know what you are thinking: “Throwing around terms in the faces of people with no technical background is easy; it makes you look so smart, your Smugness.”
Well, yes, admittedly, it does. But I promise you that by the end of this chapter, you’ll be versed in all things that make a website run and then you can emanate all the smugness your heart desires.
And since my time to gloat and bask in vainglory is coming to its ignominious end, I’ll take another chance and proclaim that I can explain all the necessary terminology without using technical terms.
Does that sound good to you?
3.1 Enter: Domain Name
Alright, let’s start with the domain name.
This is the thing people type in their browsers to access a certain web page, e.g. Websitebuilder.org.uk. This is our domain name.
Nothing more, nothing less.
An address and not a website.
Right here, this distinction is what muddles it for most people, but it is crucial to understand that domain names and websites are two independent entities.
They can exist without each other.
Yes, they work well together and yes, one is quite limited and useless without the other; all the same, they are two separate things.
Remember when I said that building a website is not so far removed, on a certain level of abstraction, from erecting an actual building?
Think of the domain name as the address of your house.
That’s what it is, a piece of information people can use to find you: street, number, postcode, etc.
If it is to serve any meaningful purpose, this address needs a building of some sort resting on it. An empty plot on the street is a valid address, but it is rather pointless by itself; it serves no real purpose.
Obviously, a house, a cafeteria or a shop planted there would make all the difference.
On the digital axis of our analogy, this imaginary building would be the website, the content people come to see on this specific web address.
Pretty simple, eh?
The similarities don’t end here.
As any physical address, the domain name cannot really be changed. Once registered, it stays the same throughout its lifetime.
Opposite to the website which can and should undergo frequent changes in the form of new content and updates. Just like the interior of a house, where new furniture appears periodically, chairs are moved around, people come and go; the similarities are uncanny.
Poetic deviations aside, be very careful when registering a domain name, because altering even one single symbol is rather difficult, if at all possible.
Did you notice that I am repeating the word “registering” instead of “buying” a domain name?
Unlike physical goods, domain names cannot be really bought. You cannot pay a certain price and obtain it for good, then pass it on to your heirs and they to theirs for eternity. No, this is not how domain names work.
They can only be registered for a certain period of time; typically, anywhere between one and ten years. The concept is closer to actual renting than buying. To avoid further confusion, I’ll keep calling it domain registration and the domain owner – registrant.
There are certain accredited registrars, i.e. entities with the licence to handle domain registrations directly. They aren’t that numerous. In reality, most companies that offer domain registrations simply resell the services of these accredited registrars.
But I digress in technicalities. Apologies for that.
On the practical side of things, you can purchase a new domain name from thousands of hosting companies.
The average price for the most popular domain names, those that end on .COM, .NET, .ORG, .CO.UK, is around $10 per year. (By the way, these endings are called Top-Level Domains or TLDs, in short. I can’t help myself. Throwing terms around makes the nerd inside me grow stronger.)
You can also try to buy an existing domain you like particularly much. Such action would resemble buying more because you’d have to pay the actual registrar of the domain to relinquish control over it once and for all.
Depending on the marketing value of the domain in question and your haggling skills, the price can range from a few to a few hundred thousand dollars above the basic registration fee.
This is no exaggeration. The most expensive domain name sold to this date changed registrants for the staggering $35.6 million.
Pretty steep for a simple web address, huh?
Beyond a shade of doubt, this sum is mind-boggling, but it illustrates well the marketing potential of a good domain name. Even the most ludicrous expense may be justified and the investment recovered with interest if your domain name hits the right spot.
Honestly, I could have easily started this guide with advice on finding the right domain name, for it could prove to be harder than devising the concept of your website.
he domain name is a massive contributor to any site’s success or failure. To extend the address / house analogy further, a good domain can be the difference between living downtown and in a cave on a remote island in the middle of the ocean.
I might be a touch melodramatic here, but registering a good domain name is essential.
Several guidelines can aid you in the hunt for the web address that is just right:
- Go for .COM. There are other popular choices, with .NET, .ORG and .CO.UK being the most prominent among them, but .COM is still head and shoulders above the rest.
- Try to keep it short. The shorter, the better, even though going below 6 symbols (prior to the ending .COM) is unrealistic in the majority of cases; most short domains are already registered.
- Avoid hyphens, dubious terms and numbers, as end users have difficulties remembering those.
- Try inserting keywords in the domain name for better SEO results.
- To be on the safe side, check the domain history. It might have existed in the past and bad reputation tends to stick.
- Register the domain for more than one year. Some SEO specialists believe that an extended registration period grants credibility to the domain, ranking it higher with Google, in particular.
- Complete the registration process with an email address you use frequently. The email address you input will be the one to prove your actual ownership over the domain and will be your main tool for managing it.
- Use your creativity. Think of something dapper, memorable and with branding potential. Given the ever-growing number of registered domain names, coining a new word could be the best solution.
Does it sound like too many requirements piled over too many already registered awesome domain names?
Help can be found.
You can look for inspiration at sites like Sedo, where existing domains are auctioned.
Better yet, once you have the concept of the site crystalised, flex your creative muscles, research the keywords related to the topic of your site, play with terms and words, and it will come to you.
In case it doesn’t, you can hire a freelance writer to coin one or several choices for you.
Give yourself time and don’t rush it, as changing domains is not easy.
A direct change, an edit to an existing domain name, can happen only within the first five days of its registration. Usually, during this period the registration can be revoked and a new one can be made in its stead. The domain specialists of your registrar should be able to do that for no additional charge.
When those five days are over, you’d have to register a new domain name, paying separately for it.
That’s about all the basic information about domain names you need to run a website. All other technicalities will become clear after you get your first domain.
On the very practical side of things, the most important thing while registering a new domain is to use a valid, frequently used email address. Access to it is the most direct proof of ownership.
Checking the inbox regularly means that you wouldn’t miss any communication coming from the registrar, which would make the domain management much easier and smoother.
I’d also recommend purchasing a domain privacy software to hide the personal information you associate with the domain. There are spammers, who check regularly domain name databases to find new emails to send shady offers to. A couple of days ago I registered eight new domain names and forgot to activate their WHOIS protection; two hours later had eight spam messages in my inbox offering useless services. The spam emails looked scaringly legit at first glance.
If you are curious to find out more about domain management, you can jump to here or ask the support team of the company you consider hosting your site with.
Doing the latter would allow you to gauge how good they are at their job and help you pick up the best hosting option.
Speaking of web hosting:
3.2 Enter: Web Hosting
I hinted that a domain name by itself is a tad useless. Together with a web hosting plan, they make a stellar pair.
You’ve probably heard the term “shared hosting”. If you are not interested in learning more about it, you can check website builders here.
Doubtlessly, the most popular hosting solution, shared plans are cheap, easy to use and comprehensive enough to cover the needs of millions.
The first two characteristics set them apart from the Virtual Private Servers (VPS) and dedicated servers. As far as features are concerned, both VPS and dedicated servers offer considerably more, but they require sufficient technical knowledge to be managed properly, and their fees are significantly higher.
Shared is a very apt name, as in this type of hosting one single physical server hosts hundreds or thousands of websites, which share its resources: RAM, storage space, bandwidth, etc. The immediate benefits of such arrangement are the ease of use and the very low cost, as the price of running a server is distributed among all site owners using it.
As is often in life, this low price comes at a certain expense. Having many sites on the same server is a potential security hazard. A single hacked site could spread malicious code throughout the server. The good hosting companies have reliable systems to monitor suspicious activity and can quarantine anything out of the ordinary, but the risk is always there.
Another, much more immediate downside of sharing the resources stems from the fact that other sites could compromise the performance of yours simply by demanding too much from the server. A badly written script or a huge backup can make a site utilise lots of RAM and processing power, slowing down the entire server and all other pages hosted there.
That’s why it is a good idea to check with potential hosts how many sites they put on a server and whether there are some mechanisms in place to restrict excessive resource utilisation. The smaller the number of hosted sites, the better, as each web page would enjoy a larger portion of the limited server resources.
Despite these drawbacks, using a shared hosting plan makes the most sense if your site is not extremely big and resource-heavy. In the vast majority of cases, a shared server would have more than enough resources to run all hosted sites smoothly.
Additionally, shared hosting plans are set up automatically and can be used immediately after purchase. No technical knowledge is necessary.
Going for a VPS or dedicated server grants more security and computing power, and also boasting rights.
However, virtual and real servers are so costly that they make sense only for websites with heavy applications and good earning potential.
A small shared plan would set you back $2-$5 each month; a small VPS costs $35-$50, while the fees for dedicated servers come in triple digits.
3.3 The Choosing
Let’s switch back to business mode.
Namely, how to choose the best hosting option?
Is it better to go with a hosted or a self-hosted platform?
What kind of plan would be best in either case?
I already gave you a brief overview of the possibilities, but now we can discuss them more carefully.
Part of the reason why the technical overview of the hosting world was presented before the actual hosting possibilities was to give your subconscious time polish the concept of your site without delving into too many details.
Presented with limited, as opposed to overwhelming, information about the options ahead can let you feel whether a self-hosted platform resonates well with you and with the idea brewing in your head.
Hopefully, it begins to crystalise already.
Seneca the Younger didn’t know even one-hundredth of what you already know about web hosting, but he was wise to say: “No wind blows in favour of a ship without direction.”
Without knowing what your site will be, you cannot choose the adequate solution for it.
This choice is important, particularly if you decide to go for a hosted platform because migrating a site from one site builder to another is virtually impossible. It can be achieved by manually recreating the site at the new platform but actual transfer of an existing site is not yet an option.
With self-hosted plans, transferring a site between web hosting providers is doable, but it is a hassle. Switching from one CMS to another is much more difficult, if at all possible.
I will point out the most important characteristics to check for in a web hosting plan and then, when the concept of your site has blossomed fully, you can choose the right provider. Practically everything listed below is a valid for evaluating any hosted platform, too.
Here we go:
- Support – the support team has to be excellent. At one point or another you’d have to communicate with them, so better have a reliable, fast and knowledgeable support team to work with. My advice is to get in touch with the support representatives of the web hosts you consider before signing up to see how good they are.
- Modern technology – servers with SSD, updated software and scripting language support make websites run faster.
- Speed – check the speed of sites hosted with the hosting providers you consider. Faster loading times mean more visitors and better ranking with the search engines.
- Reliability – the uptime of the servers. Mostly all companies promise 99.9% of uptime but few stay true to their word.
- Security – SSH, SSL, secure data centres with good firewall and monitoring software.
- Backups – daily backups and possibilities for restoration are very important, as things tend to go wrong occasionally.
- 1-click installer – do they provide easy installers for CMSs and other website tools?
- Email – a good number of accounts with decent storage space can help you in growing your business.
- Prices – the monthly fees matter. Usually, paying for one or two years in advance reduces the price per month. Check also how the prices scale with bigger packages.
All these factors and more can be evaluated at a glance here, at Websitebuilder.org.uk.
If so inclined, check the user reviews too, but they have to be taken with a grain of salt at all times.
4. The Setup
The mind was getting its bearings. It felt that it is spiralling closer and closer to the crux of the matter.
Through the prism of new knowledge, the puzzle began to blend into meaningful patterns; the semblance of reason began to emerge. Maybe this labyrinth could be navigated successfully, after all.
Since you already know the role of domain names and how to evaluate hosting plans, let’s talk about their coexistence and synergy.
4.1 Domain Mapping
You recall the fact that domain names and websites are separate entities, right?
They must be linked to one another for a domain name to display the content of a certain website. Conversely, the content of a website must be associated with a certain domain name to be visible for anyone with access to the internet.
This linking – or mapping, as it is called – happens with the use of the so-called name servers. Every single web hosting company has them. They are the ones pointing a domain name in the right direction, “telling” it what web page on which of the million servers of the global network it is supposed to load.
Should you purchase a domain and hosting from the same company, this connection would happen automatically. Doing this has one additional benefit: you can safely jump to the next chapter, as things would become a touch more technical till the end of this one and they concern exclusively domain mapping.
In case your registrar and host are different, you’d have to point your domain name manually in the direction of the servers of your web hosting provider.
The easiest way to achieve this is by copying carefully the name servers (NS) of your host before pasting them in the fields reserved for them in the control panel of your registrar.
The control panels of every registrar have at least two fields for such entries. In case one of the NS stops working the other takes over.
Be careful not to copy an empty space after the NS, as it would render the entry useless.
Don’t expect the change to take effect immediately. Some time is needed before loading the content of the website from the right domain, as NS updates take a while to propagate and to reflect the new status.
This is so because all name servers are part of the huge Domain Name System (DNS), which makes the internet go around. Without this vast underlying infrastructure, the high-speed data flow we are so used to today would be reduced to a mere trickle. Updating DNS records of any type can propagate between five minutes and a couple of days.
One of the things the DNS does (with the active help of the name servers) is to translate the domain names, e.g. Websitebuilder.org.uk, to their respective IP addresses: 220.127.116.11 in this case. Such transformation is needed, because computers and routers don’t speak human languages. They communicate with numbers perfectly fine, though.
With no DNS in place, among a throng of other issues, we’d have to remember the actual site IP addresses and not strings of letters. Not very user-friendly.
Does that sound too confusing?
The last part was aimed to broaden your general knowledge.
For anything practical you don’t understand, just relax and call technical support. Ask the support teams of your host and domain registrar for help and they will guide you through the process of mapping your domain to the hosting package.
Once you go through it, you’ll see how easy it is.
Normally, I’d recommend using one and the same company for domain registration and hosting. This way everything is managed together and saves some manual fiddling with DNS records.
Occasionally, choosing a dedicated domain name registrar makes sense economically, as Namecheap and others have very good deals. On the other hand, many web hosts provide one year of free registration with their plans, so the advantage of the registrars is somewhat negated.
At the end of the day, it is a matter of personal choice.
4.2 Hosting Setup
We are approaching fast the design phase.
With the best domain name registered under your name, you can set up the platform you’d wish to use.
Before we continue, allow me to take a small step back.
I mentioned that there are completely free ways to establish a web presence. Usually, they are part of the free plans of website builders and blogging platforms.
While free, all of them have one huge disadvantage: they don’t work with real domains. Instead, they provide subdomains like this: YourHostingSpace.WordPress.com. In this example, the actual domain name is WordPress.com; your site would be residing under the subdomain YourHostingSpace.
A mouthful, however short your subdomain might be. Only Blogger allows you to link a real domain with their free plan.
Be that as it may, whichever platform for web development you choose I strongly encourage you to pick up a real domain name.
Subdomains are simply not good enough for any reasonable traffic. They can serve to test one site builder or another, but that’s about it.
Since we have this settled, let’s move to the hosting packages.
I already pointed out a few criteria to look for when choosing a hosting plan, regardless of the platform.
Naturally, getting started with a hosted solution is much easier. That’s one of their main selling points and they live up to it.
All you need to do is open an account with the platform you like, choose the plan that suits you best and pay for it. Depending on whether you have registered a domain name through them or not, you might need to map the name servers.
Then you’d be ready to go.
With the self-hosted options, the first few steps are the same. Choose a hosting company, select a shared hosting plan, register your account and provide payment details. Again, if the host is your domain registrar, you need nothing else. Otherwise, you’d have to update the Name Servers of the domain.
Here comes the first and main difference in setup. After your hosting plan has been activated, you’d have to install the CMS of choice.
If you follow my advice, you’d purchase a hosting plan with a 1-click installer. As the name suggests, you’d need a single click to initiate the installation process of the CMS of choice.
Make sure to write down both the administrator and database credentials during the installation process. Not that they cannot be recovered if forgotten, but having them handy can save you some hassle.
The installation wizard will take you through the CMS setup. There is nothing complex and convoluted there, and the entire process takes less than 10 minutes. WordPress usually is installed within a minute.
Upon completion, you can begin designing your website!
5. The Ultimate Decision
“Was that it?”, wondered the mind. “Is my search coming to an end or is it weariness that settles in?”
Despite the progress so far, the river of knowledge continued toying with the mind, bathing it with the occasional ray of understanding bundled together with a host of new questions.
The mind accepted the fact that the river has no end. It decided to step out of it, to give itself a chance to interiorise all that it had learned before venturing forth.
I am kidding, there are many more decisions to follow.
Because you intend to design and run your own website, don’t you? During the design process, you will face plenty of conundrums. And then some more, once the site launches.
But that’s the glory of it!
All creative power will be yours. So will be all strategic decisions (6.1) about how the site should be run.
There is one thing you don’t have to worry about: which programming language to learn. You need none.
You need more information, though, if you are to make an informed decision about the most suitable hosting platform. If you already know what you need, jump the next section and get some practical insight about design and SEO.
How much money are you ready to invest in the hosting of your site?
As a rule of thumb, the hosted platforms cost more than their self-hosted counterparts, but that’s only on the surface. When you zoom in sufficiently in both categories, different trends begin to emerge.
I will lay down concrete numbers in just 141 words time, but I’d like to point out that these prices should be viewed against a specific background.
This background, the frame, which would don the numbers with meaning, is closely related to the vision growing in your mind and the degree of control you’d like to have on your hands.
You shouldn’t conceptualise your website fully without any idea about its future.
How big do you want it to become?
Do you want it to grow as much as possible?
Are you ready to put the effort to make it happen?
Or you’d rather prefer a small community and a cosy little space on the web?
Are you willing to manage your own hosting plan or prefer a more robust solution?
I know, I am asking too many questions. I should have become a copper.
Alright, let the numbers roll.
The cheapest of the website builders is Wix. Chipping in $4.50 per month would allow you to connect your own domain name and host it with limited bandwidth and hosting space. To get unlimited bandwidth (i.e. traffic or visitors per month) and no Wix advertisement banners displayed on your property, you’d have to pay $12.50 each month.
Then comes Weebly, where you can get a domain and unlimited hosting space for $8 per month.
Both of these builders are aimed for general usage, websites and blogging, even though both offer ecommerce plans. Weebly’s Business plan comes at $25, while Wix’s eCommerce package is $16 for every thirty days of subscription.
The specialised ecommerce platforms cost considerably more. Shopify plans start at $29 per month and the smallest package BigCommerce has is $29.95. Squarespace offers general-purpose plans for $12 and a small ecommerce one at $26 on monthly basis.
These monthly fees don’t tell the whole story, especially when it comes down to ecommerce. Transaction fees are much more important and so is the SSL certificate you’d need to have for proper trading activities.
I know that this is too much information to process at once, so take your time before continuing reading, as things get even more interesting.
Ready for more?
The hosted platforms mentioned above are just a few of the most popular ones. The list is not even close to exhaustive, but the diversity of self-hosted solutions is even more staggering.
That’s why I will mention in brief just the most popular among them, with WordPress being the undisputed top of the pop.
WordPress is an open-source Content Management System, which runs on Linux servers. More than a quarter of ALL the sites in the world are made with it.
Little wonder there, as it can do absolutely anything: blog, portfolio, store, forum, news site, you name it. Countless themes can make any type of site look stylish and modern.
There are extensions and plugins for every single functionality you can think of and then some more.
The standard ecommerce plugin for WordPress is called WooCommerce and it powers 28% of all online shops.
Here is the kicker: both WordPress and WooCommerce are free.
There are many things you can pay for in WordPress, but even without a penny spent on extensions and themes, you can design a stunning website.
All the same, if you plan to open a big online store, there is one solution better than WooCommerce. I am talking about Magento Community, probably the most powerful free ecommerce platform. (Magento has a paid version, too, with slightly more features and extended specialised support.)
Magento also is a CMS that can power any type of site, but its original architecture is devised to address the broad spectrum of ecommerce services.
Some of the biggest online retailers use Magento, because it is unprecedentedly functional, covering all aspects of store management astonishingly well.
One major drawback of Magento is exactly its complexity. It takes a while to find your way around it.
Magento also needs a significant amount of server resources to run smoothly. As a result, many web hosting companies began providing specialised Magento hosting, with servers optimised for the platform.
Both Magento and WordPress (and Drupal, and Joomla) outperform easily the hosted platforms in terms of sheer functionality, design choices and price. A typical shared web hosting plan costs between $2 at the low end and $30 at the high end.
Small plans suit well WordPress, but for ecommerce you’d need a bigger plan. For Magento you might even consider a VPS.
Dizzy with new information?
Relax, we are just beginning.
An expensive shared hosting plan would give you so many features that you’d have little idea what to do with all of them.
Let’s take the most popular plan of InMotion Hosting, who are slightly more expensive than average, and the most popular plan BigCommerce has to offer.
Both are the second out of three options.
At the moment, InMotion’s Power plan costs $7.99, discounted from $.9.99. It allows you to host up to 6 websites with unlimited disk space and bandwidth. You get a free domain name registration, unlimited email accounts with unlimited storage space for the individual mailboxes and $250 worth of advertisement credits.
Optimised for WordPress, which is preinstalled for you, their servers come with RAID fault tolerant SSDs and a speed boost for even better performance. There are other features as well, like application roll-back, in case an update or a layout change wreak havoc.
This is in addition to the regular backups of your entire cPanel account with InMotion: site, databases, emails.
Big Commerce Plus costs $79.95 (regular price) and has no transactions fees, but WooCommerce has none either. You get unlimited storage space and bandwidth, but the volume of sales is capped to $150,000 per annum. This sounds like a lot, but a successful online store can surpass this sum with relative ease.
The rest of the features listed under the plan are exclusively focused on the store management. Only that mostly all of these tools are available with WooCommerce and several other WordPress plugins, while Magento Community sports even more.
As you can see, there can be no meaningful comparison of price, features and functionality.
The main advantage of all hosted solutions is their ease of use. Even though WordPress is relatively easy to grasp, most site builders are even simpler.
Most self-hosted solutions take a bit longer to learn and a few take much longer.
Also, the hosted platforms include everything, so once purchased you receive site building, site management, web hosting and support. All applications and extensions you can install are tested and proven to work as advertised.
On top of that, the support teams are extremely specialised and knowledgeable about their platform and probably have already dealt with every issue you might encounter. Even the best support teams of web hosting companies cannot have intimate knowledge of everything you might deploy on your site.
Throughout this guide I’ve been repeating what incredible diversity of features and themes most CMSs have.
In reality, this medley of motley modification modules might make matters more complicated, especially with open-source platforms like WordPress and Magento.
Open source means that absolutely anybody can write a plugin. In turn, this means that some plugins do not work very well or, even worse, have security flaws. Not to mention that the support for many applications and themes is either poor or outright non-existent.
Same as with the features, CMSs have the upper hand in terms of diversity.
This doesn’t tell the whole story, though, because the themes most website builders have are really, really good. They are tested and optimised, with responsive design and attractive looks.
One of the main critiques the likes of Shopify and Squarespace draw is the relatively small number of templates. Coupled with the distinguished style each of these builders has, sites built with them platforms tend to exert a degree of uniformity.
That’s not necessarily so bad, as users are able to navigate familiar interface with greater ease.
For me, a chap with abysmal design skills, this is a blessing in disguise. I deem an advantage the fact that talented people, familiar with the complexity of web design, have made everything they could to weave catchy and professional looking templates.
If I were left to my own devices, many visitors to my sites would probably sue me for damaged eyesight. Possibly for moral damage, too.
WordPress also has some absolutely brilliant designs, but the problem with finding the right one is not to be underestimated because of their overwhelming numbers.
Reading WordPress reviews and researching helps a lot, but it is time-consuming. Going for something tested and working like Divi theme is always a safe solution, if you are willing to pay for it.
When I first started, my approach to WordPress was to play around with its default themes. Every new WordPress installation comes with a few standard themes.
They are nothing spectacular, but their design is clean and functional. I find them ideal for learning the what’s and how’s of WordPress, but that’s just me. I have seen people with a grain of design aptitude create very, very good looking websites.
Bottom line is that, as with most aspects of the hosted vs. self-hosted dichotomy, you have to decide for yourself whether you want something ready to use out of the box or you are prepared to do some research and testing.
This chapter is titled “The ultimate decision” and it is the last one to discuss considerations regarding the choice of platforms and applications.
Take your time, do more research, start a free trial or two, watch some videos and wed this knowledge with the vision of your website.
Once you have chosen the platform, move on to the last two chapters to find out practical advice for optimising an already existing site.
I will give you tips how to boost your loading speed and how to improve your SEO and then will cap it all off with some more fancy terminology to help you navigate the high seas of web hosting seamlessly.
6. Mastering the Website World
The mind tried to contain its excitement as the idea began to move toward the light of focused attention.
The mind prepared to intercept it. It primed the abstract concepts, attached them to an appropriate domain and observed with relief how the idea assumes stylish garments of interactivity and friendliness.
The time had come to make the idea grow and prosper.
When you have your site underway or already completely designed, you should put some effort in its optimisation. SEO and speed performance can only help you and your visitors.
Some of the topics described below are quite basic and can be applied easily, whereas others require greater access and possibly a few lines of code.
True to my word, I will only describe what the latter do. All you need to do is remember their names. For their actual implementation, you can contact the support team of your hosting provider, who should be more than capable to speed up your site.
SEO is a topic in itself. I have covered it in greater detail here, but on more practical level I’ll give you some pointers to look for.
I’ll say it again: buy your own domain name, whichever platform you choose. A subdomain handicaps your ranking potential severely.
With an SEO wizard on your side and with the most awesome site content, you could turn things around but starting from the advantageous position of a catchy domain name makes a huge difference.
Besides choosing the appropriate domain name, there are several key factors to consider for better page ranking:
- Meta information
- Social media presence
- Mobile optimisation
- Site speed
In reality, the SEO specialists devise complex strategies, considering over 200 parameters, which influence traffic, but that’s really advanced planning and strategizing.
You could hope to get there only after you grasp the basics.
The first postulate is that content is king. As cliché as it is, this statement is very true. With bad content your site will get nowhere and will stay there for long.
What makes content great is the value it has for the audience of your site and the keywords it contains. People like articles, pictures and videos they find informative or amusing, while search engine bots rate pages based on text quality and keywords.
Most importantly, do not use plagiarised text, as it could spell the end of your website. Run Copyscape checks on any article you have not written yourself.
Google algorithms are able to evaluate to a great degree the complexity of any written text. Bad grammar and poor vocabulary leave a bad impression in crawlers and in readers.
Using the right keywords is crucial for good ranking. Using them well also matters much, as they are best weaved in seamlessly into the text.
A good place to check for keywords is Google Adword Planner, where you can search niche and long-tail keywords. Try avoiding keywords with hundreds of thousands of searches, because achieving a good rank in such saturated search categories is difficult.
This brings us to the next key factor for search engine spiders: meta information.
Meta tags are used to provide a brief description what the web page is about and the crawlers check them carefully. I would advise to write a custom description for each and every page of yours and add also alt-text on the image. Keywords should feature in all meta descriptions too.
But back to the content. As long as people like it, they’d be inclined to share it with their friends. Make sure to help them out by adding share buttons. Many SEO specialists advise to not go overboard with the social media buttons, though. Ideally, you should do your research beforehand and determine which social media outlets your audience frequents. Add only the relevant buttons, so that the visitors are not overwhelmed by the choice at hand.
To help them enjoy your website anywhere, at any time, you should make sure it is optimised for mobile devices too. With site builders this happens automatically.
Adding a sitemap is very handy too, both for the end users and the search engine bots. Having an SSL certificate also helps with the ranking, even if your site doesn’t really need an encrypted connection.
To tie up everything and to get an insight what works and what not, you’d need good tools for traffic analysis. Google Analytics is a very comprehensive suite, which features in many site builders and can be easily embedded in most CMSs as well.
Creating a Google Webmaster account and linking your site to it notifies the search engine giant about the existence of your site. Google support have prepared many useful resources to help you with your site optimisation.
All these SEO techniques are easy to apply and are accessible in most hosted platforms. You can add meta tags, write custom page descriptions, set canonical URLs and give instructions to the search engine crawlers.
Statistics and analytics are featured in many plans too.
On the other hand, most CMSs have specially devised SEO plugins and extensions. They provide an unbelievable degree of control. With them, you can create complex SEO strategies and apply various tweaks to generate more traffic.
At the beginning of your online journey, this power would remain unused, as understanding SEO takes time. Better focus on learning the fundamental principles outlined above and their application.
Advanced SEO tactics help to rake in more visitors, but the truth of the matter is that with a slow page and poor content you wouldn’t get very far, regardless of the tools available.
Proper SEO boosts the ranking but cannot substitute quality content served quickly.
6.2 Speed Optimisation
If content is king, then the loading speed is easily the queen for traffic generation and, equally important, visitor retention.
Internet service providers improve their infrastructure constantly, and the end users are more and more spoilt with high-speed connections. Instant access to anything is the standard ingrained in most of us.
Can you imagine how frustrating it would be if Google servers took five seconds to display search results? In reality, five seconds is the time it takes to read the last two sentences; waiting in front of a white screen makes it feel, subjectively, much longer.
That’s why it is crucial to make sure your page loads as fast as possible, as the bounce rate, i.e. people who navigate away without actually seeing the content of a site, grows exponentially with every additional second of delay.
However, it is important to understand that speed cannot be improved infinitely, as each site has its natural limit.
For instance, online shops tend to be slower than blogs. The amount of pictures they load by necessity is a key factor there.
The servers and the infrastructure of your host also play an important role in site speeds, so make sure to choose a quick and reliable platform for your web page.
There are several standard speed optimization techniques, which can be implemented universally.
- Image compression – make sure that the images on your site are as small as possible. Not in pixels but in megabytes. There are many picture editors to help with this and many CMS plugins as well.
- Image dimensions – define the image size in pixels so that they don’t take unnecessary space.
- GZIP compression – certainly applicable to anything hosted on Linux servers, GZIP quickly compresses the files of your site, reducing the total amount of data transferred from the server to the end user’s browser. You can ask the technical support representatives to apply it for you.
- Cache – there are caching plugins for all CMSs and for most of the site builders.
- Avoid redirections – redirections increase loading times.
Performance optimization has many other aspects, but the five things listed above would suffice to speed up your site significantly.
Check the knowledge base of the host you choose and speak to their support team for additional practical advice and help.
I told you, having a good support team is crucial.
Boy, are you set on a path to glory!
I mean, there is no way of knowing how well your site would fare, but the act of visualising and building it is truly exciting.
Take it exactly for what it is: an adventure, a long journey ahead.
As such, it should be approached with equal measures of exhilaration and careful planning.
I won’t lie to you: building a website is easy, but building a successful one, a web place where people go to learn or to be entertained, to shop or to share, to discuss and debate, is hard.
It takes a concentrated effort, innovative thinking, planning and application. It takes passion and discipline.
I can only hope that this guide leaves the door of web hosting slightly ajar, allowing you to peak in and spot the marvellous opportunities lying ahead.
Maybe some of the things you read sound too complex or too scary, but that should not discourage you in the slightest. The moment you start working or even only actively thinking about your website, things would become clearer.
Besides, a good amount of the concepts in this guide are useful but not strictly necessary to create and run your own website.
Whatever confuses you, ask the tech support of the companies you consider to work with. Talk to them before opening an account, ask anything that bothers you and gauge their willingness to help.
I can keep on giving free advice but unless you start doing things yourself, your knowledge would not be sufficiently prolific to fuel your creative powers.
Through practice your confidence will grow and you will uncover your own ways of doing things.
Experiment freely, apply what you have discovered, never cease trying out new things and, who knows, maybe a couple of years down the road I will be reading your guide on how to make the most awesome websites.
PS: If you have any queries, drop a line in the comment section below. I’ll be happy to help further. Happy hosting!
Alt-tags – alternative text, describing images. Appears when you hover your mouse over an image.
Bandwidth – the amount of data your site can utilise on monthly basis.
Copyscape – a tool to protect you from plagiarism.
Domain mapping – the act of connecting a domain name to a hosting plan set for it.
Domain name – the address of a website.
Domain Name System – a vast system with hierarchical structure, which translates domain names to IP addresses, among many other things.
Domain registration – the act of creating a new domain name.
Keyword – the term most internet users use to find specific information.
Landing page – the first page visitors access by typing a domain name; it could be the home page of a website or a specifically designed marketing page.
Long-tail keywords – a string of keywords used to search for more specific information.
Meta tags – a set of keywords used to describe the content of a website.
Name servers – used to associate a domain name with a hosting plan.
Redirection (also known as 301 Redirection) – a technique to redirect visitors automatically from one (landing) page to another.
Registrant – a person or legal entity registering a domain name.
Registrar – a company accredited with the right to handle domain name registrations.
Search engine crawler / bot / spider – a small bot, which scans websites and extracts valuable data to fuel accurate search engine results.
SEO – Search Engine Optimization, a set of practices to help your page be ranked higher with search engines.
Sitemap – a page on the site with links toward all other pages of the website. Helps with navigation and SEO, as search engine crawlers scan sitemaps happily.
SSL certificate – a way to encrypt the data transfer between a web server and end user. It enables HTTPS connection (HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure), as opposed to the unencrypted HTTP, which transfers data in plain text.