So You Want to Build a Website? (Part 2)
In this post, I’m assuming you have at least a basic understanding of what goes on behind the scenes when you surf the internet. If you don’t have that understanding yet, check out Part 1. (If you’re not sure if you have the understanding, I’d recommend reading it anyways. It’s not too complex and it has some really helpful information you’ll need to know as you try to figure out your site’s needs.)
I’m going to try to stick with the basic mechanics of website building but I’ll throw in other comments along the way based on the opinions I’ve formed from my 2 years of experience in the field.
The Domain Name
The first and most important thing you’re going to need it a domain name. I cannot over stress the importance of owning a domain name that is relevant, catchy, easily remembered, easy to pass on (no awkward spellings of words), etc. This is something you probably want to spend at least a few days thinking over. Develop a list of possible options you want to use and run them by all sorts of people to get their impressions.
The #1 way your site is going to start building traffic is by people clicking on links to it, so having an inviting domain name is a HUGE first step in getting your site off the ground. I attribute the quick success of FOC in large part to the attractiveness of the domain name (and brand name we’ve built around it).
Once you have a list of some domain names you want to use, you have to see if they’re available. A great way to do that is to look up the domain on WhoIs.netThere is a surprisingly large number of domain names that have been registered by internet squatters who are hoping someone like you will come along and be forced to buy your desired username from them at a high premium to what you would have paid otherwise.
If you already have an established brand and are looking to create an online presence, you might have legal recourse against such actions. More info here. We had to use legal threats in order to obtain “freshoncampus.com” from the party that was just sitting on it.
If no one has registered your desired domain name yet, you can register it. There are tons of registrars out there, some more reputable than others. You may have heard of GoDaddy or Network Solutions, two of the biggest. I will talk about my experience with different companies at the end.
To register a domain name, you usually have to pay some fee (usually between $5 and $50 depending on how long you want to have control of that domain). Registering the domain name gives you the right to point that domain name to any server you want. The central list of domain names is maintained by a group called ICANN who, in essence, control the internet.
The Hosting Package
But before you run out to buy the domain name, you should also decide on a hosting package. Most companies that offer hosting also offer some sort of package where you can register a domain name for far less (or even for free) if you get the hosting and domain name at the same time.
When you buy a hosting package, you’re basically buying space on a server to store your files. When people visit your domain name, they will be pointed to this server, and then the server sends them your webpage.
There are three basic classes of hosting package that range in price and scalability.
The first is known as “Shared Hosting”. This is great for starter websites as it is usually super cheap (~$3-$15 a month). A shared hosting environment is essentially a little walled-off area on a large server just for your files. The resources of that server (processor, RAM) are shared between all of the sites using the server. This means that your site could potentially be slowed down if another site on the server is hogging a lot of resources, and your site could potentially slow other sites down as well.
Most hosting companies use machines that are powerful enough for this not to be a noticeable problem until you start to get in the realm of 20+ simultaneous visitors on your site consistently, which translates (in my experience) to roughly 500-1,000 daily visits.
Sometimes people are looking to build a site that won’t be online for an extended period, but will receive tons of visits all at once. For instance, a site designed to promote an event or offer a special download might get flooded with traffic for a few days, but then get almost nothing after that. You would want to get a more robust package than shared hosting for a site like this to ensure that your site’s hosting package can handle the load.
You might have to pay for a one-year contract up front so its good to look into the company’s cancellation and return policies. Most companies will let you leave your contract without a fee and will reimburse you for the resources you didn’t use up.
The next step up from shared hosting is the Virtual Private Server or “VPS”. A VPS is usually more expensive (~$30-$60 a month) and offers your site more dedicated resources. Your site still sits on a machine with other sites, so the processor is still shared, but you usually get dedicated RAM. This allows your site many noticeable performance upgrades.
In my experience, a VPS is good up to about 100+ simultaneous hits or between 5,000-10,000 daily visits. These numbers totally depend on what type of resources your website uses and so simpler sites might be fine on a VPS for much high traffic numbers.
The next and final step up is the “dedicated server”. These usually start around $100/mo and I’ve even seen ones that are several thousand per month. These are for sites that are legit web presences, like international corporations and web-based companies. With these packages, you get a dedicated machine that can have all sorts of different features, but I don’t want to make this too technical so I’ll leave it at that. You probably won’t need a dedicated server, at least for awhile.
These is also a new concept of hosting your website “in the cloud” but that can be really expensive as well and the quality can really vary depending on the host.
So now you’ve got a domain name and you’ve got a hosting package. Sweet! You’ve dropped the cash on your new project and you’ve read through all of the confirmation emails. You excitedly navigate to your new domain and either nothing comes up or else your hosting company displays a generic “Under Construction” message.
Next you need content. This is where you can really start developing the idea you had for the site in the first place. Maybe you wanted a slick design with a lot of features, or maybe you just wanted a simpler blog with a few photos.
I’ll try to avoid discussing the topic of ‘how to make good content that keeps people coming back to your site’, since that can start an endless debate. Every blogger has their own tips and tricks ;).
If you want to have a blog, what you need first is a Content Managment System or “CMS”. This basically takes care of all of the database management and code-writing aspects for you.
I would HIGHLY recommend using Wordpress for your site. There are other CMSs out there, some of which are more expandable than Wordpress (notably, Drupal) but Wordpress is the fastest to setup, it works right out of the box, it has a very slick back-end that even the biggest newbie can navigate, and it has an extensive library of open-source plugins that can beef up the functionality of your website. I’ve used it for every (blogging) web project I’ve ever done including this site and Fresh on Campus. The New York Times’ website uses it as well, to give you an idea of how scalable it is.
Many website hosts will install Wordpress for you if you want, since its so popular. Otherwise you’ll have to FTP it up yourself, and that’s more technical than I feel like writing about right now. Talk to your hosting company for more information.
Once Wordpress is installed, you can log in, choose a theme and customize it and then start publishing posts! You just created a website!
Important Note: A lot of people don’t seem to realize that CMS and hosting are two fundamentally different components of setting up a website. This is probably due to the fact that a lot of companies have sprung up that offer both a CMS and a hosting option combined. However, despite the convenience, these arrangements don’t always give you file-level access to your website or control of your hosting arrangement, meaning that you don’t have 100% control of how your site comes out. Many people probably won’t need that control, but if you really want to make your site distinctive and flexible, I would recommend not using an all-in-one service.
My personal advice
Now that I’ve covered the basic technicalities for how to get a website up and running, I’d like to share some valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. If your website has content of questionable legality… DIVERSIFY! Spread yourself out. Use one company for hosting your website and another for registering your domain name and another for hosting the questionable content itself. The DMCA encourages hosting companies to be proactive in responding to alleged copyright violations. If your hosting company doesn’t respond quickly and aggressively to complaints, then your hosting company itself can be sued and they won’t stick their neck out for you to take that risk.
Even if you know the content is legal and are willing to go to court to prove it, it won’t matter if your web host suspends your account and cancels your domain name due to pressures from a big-time corporate law firm. If you’re spread out, not only is it much harder for lawyers to figure out how to take your site down, but they probably won’t be able to revoke your domain name, and this is the most important component of your website and keeping your traffic.
1a. When registering your domain name, most registrars offer a service that anonymizes your contact information. Most people don’t realize that ICANN requires a publicly searchable listing for every domain name, which usually lists the billing address you used when making the purchase. This is bad for a number of reasons, and so it’s well worth the extra few bucks the registration company will charge you to keep your identity private. Generally the registration company won’t release it unless ordered by a judge.
2. Build a social media presence. This should really go without saying for the Facebook generation, but connecting with your audience through social media makes your site’s content much more engaging and allows it to spread organically. You can read all sorts of bullshit that’s been written on this topic and there are ‘consulting’ firms that will do it for you if you pay them. Just make a facebook fanpage and twitter account, invite your friends, and then make sure the accounts maintain somewhat consistent, non-spammy, relevant content. Boom, watch the hits roll in.
3. Use a reputable company for your web services. The first trap I fell into when I started making websites was using the dirt cheap companies. Technically, their servers are probably comparable to what you’d find at bigger companies, but the bigger companies offer something much more valuable: customer service.
Even if you know what you’re doing, things can still get screwy sometimes, and if an error brings your entire site down, you won’t want to be sitting around waiting for 3 days to get a response email. Find a company that has a phone number, one that operates 24/7 and lets you talk to a real person.
In my experience, GoDaddy is the best company for this. Network Solutions is pretty good as well, but their services are somewhat more expensive and they tend to be more spammy. NEVER USE JUSTHOST. They’re horrible, and they’re in the same category as all of the other < $5/month web hosts. The extra cost is well worth the peace of mind, trust me.
I’ll add more tips as I think of them. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments! Good luck!