A Layperson's Guide to Starting a New Website
This article might be helpful if you're thinking of starting a website, aren't sure what's involved, and want a simple one-page guide to some of the basics. You might also consider Patrick Taylor Web Design to assist with the project.
Vaguely technical – what is a website?
A website is a set of electronic documents (files) located on a web server – a computer that makes them available to the rest of the world. Increasingly, web servers also provide databases which contain web content or instructions on how web content should be presented.
There are different types of files that typically make up a website. The most common are pages, images, stylesheets, and scripts, although pages often contain scripts too. These files are normally produced on a personal computer, then uploaded to the web server to make them public.
Either way, the end result is HTML that web browsers read and convert into a visual document with text and images. The most common web browsers are Microsoft Internet Explorer (standard with Windows), Firefox (an excellent "open source" browser, but the user needs to download and install it), Opera (from Sweden, also needs downloading and installing), and Safari (for Macintosh users).
(1) The first essential requirement is some disk space on the web. This normally means buying a web hosting package from a commercial provider. I've used Lunarpages (USA), Kualo (USA and UK), Red Rook (Australia), and Internet FR (France).
Most standard web hosting packages are on a web server shared with other people, sometimes hundreds, although each person's package is quite separate. $10 US per month is a typical price for shared web hosting. Next step up is a virtual private server, and then a dedicated server. A shared server is usually adequate for personal and small-to-medium business websites.
(2) The second essential requirement is a domain name. This is a personal address on the World Wide Web, like www.yourdomain.com. As with web hosting, a domain name account is usually bought online, and typically costs $25 – $35 US renewable every two years. A domain name is for life as long as it continues to be renewed. I've bought several domain names from Network Solutions and Go Daddy, and many others along with web hosting packages.
It is vital that you keep full control of your domain name. Do not let anyone else control it – even your trusted web designer. All that the web designer needs to do is to 'point' your domain name to your web space – although it's easy to do yourself – and then you should change the login password for your domain name account.
(3) The third essential requirement is web content that people can view in their web browser. A web design is preferable but not essential. The thing to remember is that web content has to be located on your web server, even if it was created on a personal computer.
To design, or not to design?
Publishing presentable content on the World Wide Web has become easier than ever. With a system like WordPress, a smart-ish looking design can be set up free, requires almost no technical knowledge, and takes only a few minutes. Adding pages of written content requires no technical knowledge. Changing the appearance of the website from one nice design to another requires almost no technical knowledge, and takes only a few minutes. And more than likely, the whole site will comply with international web standards. Why bother using a web designer?
The answer is that a competent and experienced web designer will probably make a positive difference to the performance of your website. A competent and experienced web designer knows how to add individuality and impact, and how to organize and write web content to increase the number of the right sort of visitors to your pages. It may also be that you don't want to spend your time in front of a computer, or that you don't have an eye for design.
Employing a web designer
If you decide to employ a web designer, the following checklist of web design basics may be helpful:
(1) Can he/she demonstrate the ability to build web pages that validate to W3C Recommendations and other standards? They can be tested using the free W3C Markup Validation Service.
(2) Has he/she achieved good search engine rankings for web pages on particular topics? This can be tested by searching Google, Yahoo! or MSN Search for selected keywords or phrases within those pages, although it should be accepted that very popular keywords or phrases may not achieve good results.
(3) Can he/she build web pages that load quickly? The way graphic images are optimised and deployed by the web designer makes a significant difference to the time a visitor has to wait before seeing the whole of a page's content.
(4) Does he/she build web pages that look more or less the same and display correctly in different browsers – Microsoft Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Opera? Although most people use Internet Explorer, other browsers are becoming more popular – especially Firefox.
(5) Does he/she have a web accessibility policy? As well as wanting to make your web pages accessible to as many people as possible, your website may also need to meet legal requirements.
(6) Are you able to give your web designer a clear brief on what your website is for, how you would like it organised, when you want it completed, how you would like it be updated, and how you intend to measure its performance?
(7) Is your draft web content ready and written up, and have you obtained the good quality digital images (eg: photographs for which you own the copyright, or royalty-free photographs) your website will almost certainly need?
(8) Have you considered how your website will sit alongside and complement any printed documents and other publicity material you may already have, including your business name, logo and corporate style?
(9) When your website is complete, will you be its sole and full owner with access to everything that it consists of, including the files and database on the web server, and with a legal right to employ someone else to take the design over should you wish to do so in the future?
(10) Is your proposed web designer available to talk through and resolve these issues with you to your satisfaction and without confusing you with jargon before you start? They are all important to the success of your website, and as such, should not be sidestepped.
Patrick Taylor Web Design
Patrick Taylor Web Design understands forward-thinking, effective, and standards-compliant web design. I practice it too. I've been building websites since 1998 and established a freelance consultancy on a full-time basis in 2001. If you have a web project in mind, you want the highest standards of design and professionalism, and you are looking for excellent value for money, contact me and let's see how I can help you or your organisation to achieve your objectives.
Services include the creation of a new website from scratch, improving and correcting existing websites, converting existing websites to comply with web standards, advice on better results in the major search engines, and ongoing website development and maintenance. I also provide an information architecture service, specialist graphics (including logo design), and copy writing for the World Wide Web.
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[ First published November 24th, 2005 ]