One of the most basic questions I’m asked by my first year students is how do you set up a website. I think this answer has changed a bit in recent years with the advancement of technology, but I still believe the basic idea is the same.
The first thing you need to consider if you haven’t already are the following simple questions:
- What is your website about?
- Who will read your website?
- How much coding experience/knowledge do you have?
- How much time do you have to maintain it?
- As your website becomes successful can you handle growth?
So to break these down a little bit – lets consider each and why they are important to the overall goals you have.
What is your website?
This first question is probably the most obvious, but very important in regards to what you’ll be able to accomplish. Setting up a new website is not too different from setting up a business. First of all is it just a personal site? Are you selling a product? Are you sharing a hobby? Do you want to start a blog? These questions will help determine the focus of what you are doing. The most effective websites are very simple and focused in subject matter. For example if you want to put a personal blog on a cooking website the subject matter should stick to cooking. If you want to put up personal stuff this might be an argument for building a separate site. You need to consider your audience. Most likely you’ll want to build something that works as a resource for your visitors so planning your content is very important. If you’re providing content that’s too varied in nature, chances are its going to be difficult to retain visitors.
Google Analytics is a wonderful way of collecting data about your visitors. One of the major stats in analytics is known as the “bounce rate”. In a nutshell this is the percentage of visitors that hit one page and then left the site. Ideally you want traffic that comes to your site and stays. A high bounce rate indicates that visitors are not finding the information they are looking for and moving on. Not in every case obviously, but you’d like to see this percentage go down.
Another important consideration about focus is building a niche. For example you could build a website about cars. This is fine, but very broad. Maybe a better idea would be to focus on Jeeps. You could talk about modifications, off-road events, meet ups, etc. This kind of content is more niche, but you increase your chances of developing a dedicated following of Jeep owners and not just people casually interested in cars. This seems like an obvious point, but consider this with your concept. Can you simplify it a little to attract and build a niche audience? They’ll be much more dedicated if you’re delivering good content.
Who will read your website?
Its also extremely important to know your audience. This is very important in delivering content that’s actually useful for somebody. Think about your own web based research… why do you revisit sites that you love? What drives you to do it. Or better yet – how and why did you use Google to find something new and useful? Chances are you were looking for information or trying to solve a problem. Maybe you were looking up something you didn’t know before or you were trying to find something you need.
Now this is the hardest and most important aspect of building a website. Your content. Its easy to get wrapped up in the perfect domain name, the best logo and the most beautiful design. Particularly if you are a designer yourself. I’ve seen people do it – and I’ve done it myself. You’ll spend hours and hours coding and getting everything perfect and you haven’t even done anything with your content. This is an easy way to get burnt out. While I think having a great looking and intuitively designed site is important, its secondary to the content itself. I hate to say this but some of the most highly traffic’d websites have serious design issues and some are downright ugly. But they get the traffic because the content is useful and this is important.
How much coding experience / knowledge do you have?
There are a ton of options to building a website now and the truth is you don’t have to know how to code at all. It helps – particularly if you are picky and like to customize… but its not essential. The days of hand-coding a large website using nothing but Adobe Dreamweaver are over. Dreamweaver is an excellent development tool for building html pages, but even professional developers will use it to insert into a larger content management system of some kind. Its not an effective way of managing an entire site for many reasons. If its not easy to update your content, your website will be extremely difficult to sustain for the long run. You will want to use some kind of Content Management System, or CMS to wrap your website in.
If you’ve got some coding experience and know how to set up a web server, there are many paid and open source options. I personally am a big fan of open source. First off its free and secondly there is a huge support community around the larger projects. Drupal is wonderful and extremely powerful, but it does require a good deal of coding knowledge to set up. WordPress is another great option and requires less knowledge. You can download WordPress for free to run on your own server. If you don’t know how to do this, you can use the freemium WordPress.com and its all set up. You just have to sign up. The hosted edition of WordPress is wonderful and they have a number of affordably priced, paid add ons that you can use as your site starts to grow.
Another great thing about WordPress is how design is handled. WordPress calls your design a “theme” and there are a large amount of both free and paid themes you can find. Just pick a theme, upload it to your server and you’re ready to go.
WordPress was originally designed as a blogging engine but in recent versions it now supports multiple types of content – pages, blog posts, and anything you’d like to customize beyond this. Want a podcast feed that’s separate from your blog? Not a problem – create a content type.
There are some newer solutions now for having a website – namely services such as Tumblr and Posterous. Both of these services are similar to WordPress and are free. You can connect your domain name to these and run your website without ever needing to touch the server or any code. Tumblr has theming support so if you want something unique its fairly easy to do.
The only problem I would have with Tumblr or Posterous is they are fairly proprietary and thus your content will be too. If you wanted to move to something different down the road, you would essentially have to rebuild your site.
One other newer option is a service called Squarespace. I’ve not had any personal experience with Squarespace but it looks wonderful. Squarespace is a paid service that gives you complete control of the look and setup of your entire site. Its really quite impressive. Think of Tumblr on steroids – and I mean a lot of steroids…
How much time do you have to maintain your site?
This is a tricky question for lots of people. Websites are a bit of commitment, but this time can vary depending on what your site is. Blogs take a lot of care and feeding so the content won’t look old. If its a personal site you might not care if it goes unfed for a while, but if you are trying to drive traffic and make money this can be an issue. You’ll need to devote time. Even a simple one page sales website can contain things that get old. Websites are really just like anything else – you’ll get out of it what you put into it. So if you just want to throw up something and let the magic happen you’ll need to prepare to be disappointed.
There are alternatives if you are shy on time. Having other people help author your site isn’t a bad idea at all. The real work there is assembling the right team to help with what you need to create, but this is a good option if you’re a business owner. You want to work “on” your business and less “in” your business.
As your website becomes successful can you handle growth?
This is the final major consideration and one that I’ve had some learning experiences to share with you about. We all want to cut our production costs – that’s a normal way of doing business. The web is full of free options which are great, but be careful. You do get what you pay for and nothing is really free. There’s always a cost or tradeoff.
One example is really cheap or free hosting. I’ve know people who have had great websites that at some point get featured on Digg or some other linking service. They get a gigantic spike in traffic. This is great, but sometimes cheap hosting has limits on the bandwidth you’re allowed to serve. Its a shame to see someone build a great project (usually a personal one that doesn’t make money) and then out of nowhere get a hosting bill for $2500 in overage fees. I’ve seen it happen. Always know what you’re getting for your regular contract.
With most hosting providers you have limits on server space (the space needed to keep your files) and bandwidth (how much traffic you’re getting). Its essential to understand what happens and what you are charged if you ever go over one of these two limits. My advice is its worth paying just a little more to not get burned down the line. Do your research and know what you’re getting.
Here’s another example. A few years ago I went with a podcasting service that offered free hosting for audio and video files. I created several successful shows and developed audiences through iTunes.
One day I came to find they had deleted all of my shows except one and didn’t even notify me. I contacted support and never got a response. I was devastated. They had every right to delete the shows – I just wish I had gotten a heads up. Podcast hosting is expensive and I learned why the hard way. Don’t trust valuable content to a company that could just delete it out of the blue. I got what I paid for.
This may seem like a lot of thinking and not much building, but I promise that this criteria is essential to the success of your site. The truth is the web is a very competitive environment and it takes a lot of dedication, time and effort to build something successful. Its not as quick and effortless as most of the web would lead you to believe. Even with the dedication, time and effort you’ll save a great deal of time and wheel spinning if you take the time, pre-plan and envision your site.