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So you want or need a web site. You may have a brand new business, or even a hobby, or be branching out in a new direction. There are lots of ways of getting your message on-line:
The first two of these are only really feasible for those with a serious technical understanding of web development: you would need to know about coding in the special mark-up language of web pages, called HTML, and to get the site you really want, you would need a lot of experience writing different web sites and using alternate techniques and functions. You would also need to understand about how to choose and reserve your web address, as well as choose who will operate the site for you (hosting) and how to point your web address to the hosting site. Finally, you would need to know how to upload your web pages, images and other files onto the site so they can be seen by the general public.
A lot of people do use the cookie-cutter services, and are often happy with them; they do make things reasonably easy, but from people I have spoken to, I have learned that a fair amount of technical knowledge is still required. Added to this, the possible designs are limited to the supplied framework: you can change the images and the colours, but only a set range of layouts are available. They can help you to reserve your web address, which is good; hosting and file upload may be made simpler, but you would still need some understanding of this.
That leaves the last option. An experienced web developer will know how to build your site exactly as you imagined it, and how to make it responsive to the device it is being displayed on. There is no point building a site that is beautiful on a desktop PC if it looks terrible when viewed on a smartphone, especially as this is the way 57% of web pages are viewed nowadays. He or she will be able to offer assistance with the design, help you choose a web address and reserve it, offer suggestions for hosting, and would take care of all the file transfers for you. It is a bit like buying a suit: an off-the-peg one would be cheaper, but the sleeve length may not be quite right, and there could be an annoying fold across the shoulders because the fit is not perfect. A bespoke suit, on the other hand, is made to measure, and fits you perfectly; every time you wear it, it makes you feel so good about yourself for having chosen that option.
Which option is right for you will depend on your experience and comfort level working with IT. There is a parallel here with cars: while some people are perfectly happy to tinker on their driveway, most of us are not, and just book it in for servicing by a professional.
Having a web site is one thing; driving traffic to it so people know you are there is a totally different board-game. If your business depends upon it, then it is obviously very important for you to be visible on-line.
The first thing you need to know is how many people are currently visiting your site each week. Your web hosting service should be tracking statistics for you, and should be able to not just give you raw figures for the number of visitors per day, but breakdowns by time of day, geography and even by browser type.
Because it is so important to e-commerce, there is now a mini-industry of people who offer SEO services - that is Search Engine Optimisation, which basically means making your web site come up as high as possible on the most relevant Google searches. Yes, there are other search engines, but Google is by far the biggest with nearly 78% of the market.
So how does Google know how to rank your site? They look at many things (and they keep some of their work secret), but it is proven that the following can all make a difference to your ranking:
So keywords are very important - but what exactly are they? Keywords are the words you would type into a search engine if you were looking for a site like yours - not the business name, but the type of business or service you offer. If you are in a competitive market, then there will be many other similar sites out there; SEO is obviously important, but be realistic, and don't expect to appear on page one of the search results until your business is large enough to warrant it. You could however expect to be listed on the first page of a search that includes your local town. Alternately, you may be offering a fairly unique service, in which case making it onto page one of a national or global search is perfectly feasible.
There are two key things you need to pay attention to as soon as you decide to set up a new web site. Firstly is choosing your domain, which is techie talk for the basic web address of your site (such as simplespider.co.uk for this site). You can't just use anything: you need to find an address that is not already owned (some are owned even though they are not used; whole companies have sprung up just buying useful-looking domain names and selling them on to people later). The end part of the address is called the Top Level Domain: these are things like .com and .co.uk for commercial organisations, .org for charities and clubs, .ac for academic institutions and .gov for governmental bodies, and so on. There are an increasing number of these, so think carefully about the Top Level Domains you want (you can have more than one, and can point them all to one site) and the message they send to people about your business.
For example, if Colin is looking for a web site for his UK photography business, he could choose colinsclicks.co.uk, colinsclicks.biz or even colinsclicks.photography, or he could go for all three.
You will need to register your domain, which is at relatively low cost; there are plenty of web sites out there to help with this. Personally, I use a UK-based company called Easily, and have found them to be friendly, efficient and simple to use. The site lets you put in your business name idea, and tells you which TLDs are available in conjunction with that.
The second item that will need attention is hosting. No, not the launch party for your business, but the electronic hardware that will run your web site. You can host your own site, but that means having a powerful PC at home running constantly, as well as a high bandwidth broadband connection and a lot of other infrastructure (such as a standby computer in case of failure, something to protect against power cuts, devices for backups, and so on). Clearly, there is a lot more to it than just a computer! That's why there are lots of companies out there offering hosting facilities: they will take care of all these aspects without you having to worry about them, and you can rest easy knowing your site will always be up and running. Don't forget to include email in the hosting package, or you won't be able to send or receive emails from your newly-registered business domain, which does not look professional. How much trust would you have in a business where the emails come from hotmail or gmail instead of the business's own domain?
That's it - now you're ready to design your site, build the content and upload it to your host for the world to see! More on that step in my next blog...
Once you have your domain registered, and have agreed and paid for a hosting site, there is probably the hardest bit of all for the non-technical entrepreneur: configuring the internet to recognise www.colinsclicks.co.uk or whatever when people enter it into a browser, and to route the traffic to your host's servers. The internet does not actually run on those human-friendly web addresses (known as Uniform Resource Locators or URLs) that appear in adverts and on business cards everywhere. Instead, it uses Internet Protocol or IP addresses: these are a series of numbers separated by dots, like 184.108.40.206. Each number is between 0 and 255; because so many people (and devices!) are using the internet, there is a move from four numbers in an IP address to sixteen, but for now you will probably only see four.
The internet needs to know how to translate your web address into an IP address, so it looks it up in a big directory called the Domain Name System or DNS - this is actually stored on thousands of servers all over the planet. If you have ever mistyped an address and got an error page, this is because the address you typed could not be found on the DNS server. For your new site to work, you will need to configure the DNS by adding several entries (called a CNAME and A records, plus MX records for email; you will need the correct IP address for your hosting site). Your hosting company should give you the information needed to do this, and your registration company should give you access to a tool to edit the entries. Either may well even help you do it, but if not, it is this stage that tends to cause the most difficulty for people. It may well be worth your while seeking professional help for just this step, even if you are perfectly confident with actually building the web site itself.
The final step is to build the web site code files (a highly complex area in it's own right, and hence not covered here), and upload them onto the host's servers so they can be seen by the general public. If you code your site by hand (or get a web developer to do this for you), the files will need to be uploaded using a file transfer tool of some kind. Alternatively, you could use a Content Management System or CMS. This lets you type your page content and format it in a more natural way, like using a word processor, and it adds all the coding to control the appearance. Some will also handle the upload of the files as part of the same step.
And that's it! Your web site is live for all to see... Take a look at my blog on Getting Noticed for information about attracting visitors.
Sorry for the bad pun, because I'm talking abount Content Management Systems (CMS) and not my personal happiness level (although I'm fine, thanks for asking...)
I've mentioned before how there are options for how your website is built; one such is to use a full-blown CMS tool like WordPress, Wix or Joomla. These tools are used to build the entire site from scratch; if you already have your site, it is possible to convert, but it is not easy, and there is no guarantee it will look or behave exactly the same. Such systems have rigid frameworks, and it is often possible to tell that the site is based on these because of the way they behave within that framework; there is not much flexibility. The big advantage of these systems is that the website owner can add, maintain and delete content without reverting to the web designer - there is a relatively simple user interface to allow this.
Another option I discussed before was the fully customised web site, where everything is built from scratch by the web designer. This allows almost limitless flexibility, to generate a website that meets the owner's requirements exactly; there is no compromise on style or design. However, the conventional wisdom is that CMS is not possible for such sites: the owner is tied in to paying the web designer to make each and every edit, which is both less flexible and more expensive.
In fact, that's not the case any more. There are now simple CMS tools available that allow web designers to give access to the site owner to make edits to specific areas of the web page, while still controlling overall access to protect the site from accidental damage. The page editing is done through a simple user interface, just as it is on WordPress sites. This means you can have your cake and eat it: the simplicity, fast load times and flexibility of unique custom code, combined with the rapid turnaround and low cost of self-managed content.