How to create your own website?

Helen Grange 28 May 2009 (Pretoria News)

It's becoming harder for a business to thrive if it's not in cyberspace. Forget the Yellow Pages - these days people use their fingers to Google search, and if you're not online, well, you don't exist for thousands, if not millions, of potential customers.

With this in mind, I recently set about the task of setting up my own website on a shoestring budget. The process started with me looking for reasonably priced web designers. Their fees vary wildly depending on how elaborate you want your website to be.

"A high-end e-commerce site can run into the hundreds of thousands, and a major financial services site into the millions," says Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx, which conducts research into Internet trends. "The local hardware store should budget on spending between R1 000 and R10 000, the medium-sized enterprise up to R100 000 and the large corporation anything above that.

Having put the word out, I got quotes for about R5 000 for designing a standard site, along with advice from friends who have used designers to ask them for examples of their work.

Ultimately, though, I decided to try to set up my own website on Google Sites.

Numerous sites provide free tools for building a website and some offer free hosting too. The best-known of these are: www.bizango.com, www.yola.com (South African global search marketing expert Vinny Lingham's site), www.drupal.org, www.joomla.org, www.webs.com, www.weebly.com and funky Cape-based newcomer www.withtank.com, most of which have various design templates to choose from.

Another cost-effective route is to download a free template from a site such as www.freewebsitetemplates.com, open the HTML (HyperText Markup Language, essentially web page language) files in Notepad and type in your own text. Then you upload it to the server that will be hosting your site, thus cutting out the designer.

If you're a Generation X-er (over 40), not in the IT industry and serious about your website, however, I recommend not taking either of these roads. I spent a day getting nowhere slowly, despite the apparently easy instructions on the Google Sites YouTube video.

Sure, I managed to create a website, but it had no shape or form. Among other mishaps, I hadn't realised the need to downsize images for the web before uploading them; nor was the site clear on how to size the columns.

A friend who is far more computer savvy than I used Photoshop software to design a logo strip with a picture, but it still took hours of experimenting and test-navigating before a fairly basic site, with a rather home-made feel, was finally up.

Goldstuck says it is useful to have design software, "but if you don't have a design mind, chances are it will be awful, so it's worth paying a graphic designer to create a logo to use as the main visual element".

Also, the free template does not give you much control over the functionality of your site. "So it's worth spending a few rand on sites like diamatrix.co.za (cheaper) or hetzner.co.za (more expensive) in South Africa, or godaddy.com in the US for both site building and hosting," says Goldstuck.

Bear in mind, too, that web users are becoming ever more demanding about the design and functionality of sites. Says Goldstuck: "Our Webagility system, which benchmarks websites against best practice, suggests that even the major players are getting it wrong because they are failing to appreciate the combination of simplicity of design and complexity of integration of functionalities required of an effective site."

An important tip in this vein came from an associate on my web forum. "You need to be really clear about the purpose of the website and how to organise it. It's important that you don't have giant images or movies that take too long to download, or a series of pages to have to click through before getting to the actual content," she said.

Now that my site exists, I need to register it. For a co.za domain you can go directly to the co.za domain administration (just type co.za into your browser), but this is a complex process, so most people go via a host, in my case M-Web Business, which is charging me a domain set-up fee of R186, a hosting set-up fee of R42.98 and a monthly hosting fee of R39 (for 50MB of space on the server and 100MB of traffic).

For a .com, .org, .net, .biz or .mobi (a phone-accessible site) address, you need only sign up with an international host like godaddy.com, find an available domain name and pay for it by credit card. "South Africa is 10 years behind the US in this respect," says Goldstuck.

Now to starting my own blog. Having established that wordpress.com is considered to have the most functionality and customisability, I opted for it, but soon discovered it to be no less complex than setting up a website. Goldstuck agrees that Wordpress is no cinch, and recommends the easier blogger.com.

The jury is out, it seems, as to whether a blog is as good a business marketing tool as a website. Opinions are divided among members of my web forum, many of whom have blogs that look as elegant as websites and apparently serve them as well in procuring work.

"Blogs on their own, I think, are kind of tacky, like taking a kiosk in the street instead of a shop to display your wares," wrote one. Another person quickly countered: "I have a standalone blog with my own domain, for which I paid wordpress.com an additional fee, and it serves my purposes well enough."

The end of my journey starts with another one, this time with a designer whom I'll direct to my Google site, to hopefully spin gold from straw. If gold it'll never be, I'll get another site designed.

As a small media business, do I really need a website? "Yes," says Goldstuck, "unless you don't want anybody to find information about you, in which case you are regarded as a dubious business.

"Our SME (small and medium enterprise) survey shows that small businesses with websites are far more likely to be highly competitive than those without."

To see what to avoid (and get a laugh at the same time), see www.websitesthatsuck.com.

The jargon and what it means

E-COMMERCE: The buying and selling of products or services electronically, on websites.

HOSTING: Running and maintaining a website on someone's behalf; keeping someone's data on your computer server.

HTML: Stands for HyperText Markup Language and is a way to format a document - for example, you can code a headline to be in a certain font or size. An example of simple HTML would be which will put text in bold.

CSS: Stands for Cascading Style Sheets and can be used to automatically style HTML documents. For instance, CSS can specify that all headlines on your website will be in Arial, 18pt, in blue. If you want to change headlines to Helvetica, 24pt and in green, you change just the style sheet, and not the code of all headlines on all web pages.

Software programs like Dreamweaver help you create HTML documents without you having to do any coding.

TEMPLATES: Models of web pages. Some are provided free, and others you have to pay or credit the designer for.

CMS: Stands for Content Management System and is a set of tools that allows non-technical people to create and update web pages. Examples would be Blogger or Wordpress, which allow novices to set up blogs.

SEO: Stands for Search Engine Optimisation - techniques to make it easy for search engines like Google to spit out your site when someone does a search. For instance, you ensure your site contains certain keywords.

Go to Google's search-based keyword tool, www.google.com/sktool, which rates the popularity of various key phrases, and the suggested prices to "buy" those keywords through Google's text-ad program.

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