How to build and host a website for free - 1

 

- a multi-part series on creating your first website -

Part 1 - Your Website ... The Big Decisions

Decisions to make
Creating a site
Flat and dynamic sites
Domain names
  

Websites
Lots of people need to have a website now, but apart from "What will it cost?", there are two major hurdles to get over first:

- what's it all about and how do I do it?
- where do I find all the kit I need?

OK, well, we'll try and distill a ton of knowledge into a very short space here. It can't be that short, though, 'cause it took about 10 years to learn it!
  

Is it really free?

You can build, host and run a site entirely for free, no matter what type - even giant CMS (content management system) sites. Of course there is a catch - you most likely won't get hosting that is absolutely ideal in all respects, especially traffic bandwidth, or maybe with the right URLs (page addresses) due to restrictions, but that's all. Apart from that, it really can be done.

However, let's be honest here, the 100% free route is best for small sites without a commercial agenda. A business site needs paid hosting - but the free version is fine for many types of basic sites. And of course, you can try out your site building capabilities, and whether the host is any good, before paying up.
  

How it all works

1. Buy a domain name
2. Arrange hosting for site
3. Build a site on your PC, upload it to the server -OR- install website software on the server
4. Open champagne

Firstly - how to build your website (we look at how to buy a domain name further down the page).

You can create a website on your PC then upload it to an Internet server. Alternatively, you can install software on a server that does the whole lot for you. But you still have to write the content though :)

Servers are rented out by hosts, aka a web hosting provider. Although most people choose shared hosting, you can also find free hosting. There are always restrictions of some kind, so it's not optimal - but these vary between the different free hosts, so you may well be able to find one that suits.

Shared hosting is the normal type of deal, and it's where there are 50 other sites or more on the server. The less sites the better, as the server slows down with a lot of sites on there as you might expect. You can get paid hosting from $50 (£25) a year and up, but high quality hosting - which means servers limited to a maximum of 50 sites - starts around $150 (£100).

Otherwise, hosting at around $70 - $100 means maybe 200 - 300 sites per server, and free hosting and up to $60 a year may mean thousands of sites per server. For example I checked a server at GoPappy (or similar) and there appeared to be 3,400 sites on it. This is OK for many types of sites (especially HTML sites), but not ideal for business sites run off a database.

A new site doesn't need to worry too much about this, you can always move to better hosting later on. You don't lose anything in any respect by moving hosts.
  

Creating your website - the decisions

Firstly you need to make some decisions - 

  • is your site going to be easily classified as, for instance, a family home page, a club site, a blog, wiki, forum, or CMS (complicated stuff) type?
  • is it going to be 4 or 5 pages, or 50-plus?
  • are you going to do it all yourself or hire people?
  • is it going to be a temporary site, maybe for an event, at minimum cost?
  • do you want it to earn money in some way?
  • will it be a shopping cart / ecommerce site?

It's best to know exactly where you're headed for, otherwise things get messy later. If it's a simple site with a few pages and no complicated functions, then a standard HTML site is indicated - that's the usual type with ordinary web pages that exist on the server. You can also go this route with temporary sites for one-off events.

If it's anything else, you would probably be better off with a database-driven website like a blog or a CMS (content management system). This applies especially if you have any commercial intentions. Any site with over 50 pages should use a CMS of some kind unless there are very good reasons not to - and there are plenty of people who would take that number right down to 10 pages, including me. And maybe lower - a micro-cms is just fine for those jobs.
  

Flat sites

A flat site is an HTML page one, that you build on your PC with something like Kompozer or Dreamweaver. It's called 'flat' because it has static pages that don't change once they're built. You upload the pages to the server and it hands them out when requested.

Images such as photos and graphics come from the folders on the server that you uploaded them to. These folders are called directories, but they are the same thing.

The advantages of an HTML site are:

  • it's very simple
  • you can have precisely the page design you want
  • it only takes up a tiny amount of web space
  • it's fast on the server
  • badly-run servers will still be OK with a straight HTML page website

The disadvantages are:

  • someone has to hand-code it
  • to edit a page you must do it locally in a visual or code editor then upload the page
  • page code changes are not always easy
  • it has very limited functionality
  • nothing too adventurous is going to be attempted, unless you get a developer in (aka a coder or programmer)
     

Dynamic sites

These run on a database (DB) and the pages don't exist, they are built on demand by the web application on the server, which gets the info from a database. This is the type of site construction that many modern sites use now, and probably most websites with any kind of commercial or advanced functionality will use in the future. Even sites that look fairly simple on the surface use databases now, and some sites, like forums and ecommerce, can't really exist without database-driven functionality. Examples of this type of site are ecommerce, CMS (content management systems), and blogs.

Advantages:

  • no coding to do at all, even for the most complex sites, it all works out of the box
  • functions / features are added quickly with plugins
  • will handle the most complex tasks if someone did that before somewhere (a plugin will be available)
  • templates are used for page layout, and they can usually be changed
  • building a 1,000 page site is no harder than a 10-page site, the machinery generates the page structure
  • menus are created automatically
  • all links everywhere are adjusted every time you make a change, there are no dead links
  • page edits are done live online via your browser, and they go live immediately

Too many advantages to list, in fact.

Disadvantages:

  • needs more webspace than a flat site
  • needs a database, usually MySQL
  • often needs a better class of host, as servers with old and outdated software and/or poorly set up servers will work OK for HTML sites but not for dynamic ones
  • security becomes an issue because there are a lot of attack vectors for these webapps, as against HTML sites
  • there is a steep learning curve for newcomers
  • to make the templates unique to your site, you need to be able to do basic coding (HTML and CSS)

But in general you will probably know which of these two main classes of website you are going to use. A small and simple site is best created as an HTML site. Also, a site with a complex and different artwork-based layout on every page will need to be an HTML site (or one of its close variants such as PHP or ASP).

Anything else is probably better off as a dynamic site, ie a DB-driven one. This applies especially to a wiki, CMS, forum, shopping cart / ecommerce, membership, directory, or blog website as these can't really function properly without a database.

There is another class of webapps which is dynamic but doesn't use a 'real' database - the flat-file database apps. These are wikis or CMS etc that use a flat-file as the data source, this is a type of text file located among the normal web files. These apps do the job for smaller dynamic sites that don't have a big agenda, and do it very well. They have less functionality but often that isn't a problem. They are excellent for use on a poor server, or one without a database (same thing really), or one where the account management is restricted.
Examples: SkyBlueCanvas CMS, PMwiki.

  

Choosing a domain name

A domain is the title deed to run a website under that name. It's exactly the same situation as with a house, the title deed is the main thing - not the website, which like a house, is just something parked in that space, and that can be rebuilt if needed. But you can't do anything without the domain, and if you lost it, you'd be pretty well sunk - you'd have to start from scratch. In addition, your domain name can help or hinder you to a remarkable degree, especially for a commercial site.

For these reasons I advise you to think long and hard about your domain name. It will cost you $8 a year to rent but it's worth an inestimable amount more. Once you 'buy' it, it's yours to rent indefinitely, unless you let it lapse.

There are only two realistic choices for a commercial site - a .com domain, or the one specific to your country such as .co.uk for the UK, .ca for Canada. Most sites need to buy both, but trade under the .com domain. There are other choices like .org for a non-profit, .edu for academic resources, but let's assume that this doesn't apply here.

Don't buy a cheap domain because it will cost you a lot of money (unless you're talking about a family site, then it doesn't matter). For example you should avoid a .info domain as these were sold for 60 cents at one time to dump them - and they're still cheap in places - so spammers bought millions of them to 'churn and burn', which means to put spam sites on that would probably be discovered and then banned by search engines, while the spammer built another dozen to replace it. So '.info' means 'cheap rubbish' to a search engine, unless and until proven otherwise. You don't want that, search engines are a site owner's best friend.

Domain name choices
There are two choices - a 'search term' domain or one that takes your fancy. The first type is created to score highly for searches in your chosen niche, so if you're blogging about techno-garage music you pick 'techno-garage.com'. Easy.

Trouble is, the best ones all went years ago, so you have to get a bit creative. Just choose a name that includes whatever people are searching for in your space, add something else if you have to, and break the words with hyphens. Don't get clever or people won't find you.

So for our music blogger, if the first-choice name has gone, we'd maybe pick 'techno-garage-music.com' or something. If you do this, then when someone searches for this material your site is placed higher in the results, as it's more likely to be relevant. And if their search is for *exactly* the words in your domain, this is called an exact-match domain, and you can get right to the top even if your site otherwise rates at #50. This is due to the search engine having to put you up there in case the searcher is looking for your specific site.

Or, you can just choose a name that sounds good to you. This can be a good branding exercise, in that you pick a name that has the vibe you want. Whatever you do, don't choose very long names, or names with tricky spelling. Keep it simple. The best marketing names are simple and easy, like Omo, the soap powder. Chucksbestbarbecueribsandsupplies.com is a mistake. Here's a good example of a successful working domain: picture-research.com
- because it's a search term, it's an exact match, it's easy to remember, and it sounds good for an enterprise.

Go to:
www.namecheap.com
...and create a free account there. This is the best domain name registrar I know of. Their reputation and facilities are superb and you will find the best control panel in domain management there. Actually their prices are nowhere near cheap :) , but you get quality instead.

Login via the *secure* login, so that traffic between you and them is encrypted (in the browser address bar you should see https:/ and not http:/). Research the available domains and buy one or two. Set up the free WhoisGuard identity protection on them, it cuts out spam and other approaches. Do not use spoof names and addresses if you intend that your website has any value - Namecheap are to be trusted (unlike some domain registrars who unfortunately I can't name here), and they handle the business of many major concerns. Note that you should have the site operator's name and address on the website - domain ownership name protection is a different matter.

Otherwise, if you're just dipping a toe in the water, you can get a 'free domain name' at one of the free hosts. It looks like this:
yourname.freeh0st.com

It's not a real domain, it's a sub-domain, and you can't take it with you - it's just a folder on their site. But if this area isn't of much concern to you, if you are putting up a temporary site at minimum cost - it's just fine. Likewise the el cheapo domains like .co.cc and so on. It's OK if you are happy that your business looks to be working out of the Cocos Keeling Islands :)

NEXT:
Part 2 -  website editors and building pages the easy way

 

 

Related Link

 

 

This tutorial is by volunteer editor Chris Price. In the computing area his interests include website software, web usability, and running his web business managers service.
Registered site visitors can contact Chris by clicking here.

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