Websites 101

Unless you live under a rock somewhere, you’ve accessed a website. They’re almost impossible to avoid. If you’re an indie anything, in my case author, having one of your own is almost a requirement if you expect to channel readers to your work without relying on the altruism (sorry, bug in my throat) of Facebook or Amazon.

  • The good: You can build a website without having a clue about what happens behind the pretty pictures and clicky things that take you to more shiny, interesting places.
  • The bad: Ignorance, say of something like the lovely new European data privacy laws (GDPR), is not a defence.
  • The ugly: If you don’t know what’s going on with your own site, you can’t fix it when it goes wrong.

Website building is one of the instances where more knowledge can mean saving money. For example, my two domains hosted with Jollyleaf, plus basic SSL and all the webmail addresses I can eat, costs me $3.99 US / month (2018). The equivalent plan from Wix would set me back $10 to $14 per month, and that doesn’t discuss email.

So here’s the basics that I found out that I wish I’d known when I started setting up my website.

The magic words – key things to know

…’please’ and ‘thank you’. Seriously, I thought I was kidding about growing up under the rock.

Domain name: You need one of these. An IP address is a string of confusing numbers and decimal points, and, like Vulcan planet names, no-one can remember that shit easily. A domain name is like a custom licence plate for your car – at the most basic level, it’s a custom name that humans can remember, linked in a database to the actual IP address where your website can be found.Pro tip – make it easy to remember, and make it logical. I’m an author writing as J C Steel, and my domain is jcsteelauthor.com. Simple, right?

Domain registration: This is how your domain name gets linked to your IP address. Generally, your hosting provider (keep reading, grasshopper) will handle this part for you, acting as a domain name registrar. ICANN is the Men In Black-style organisation behind domain name registration that you may want to read up on if you want to know more.

Web hosting provider: You need one of these, too. They’re the people who rent you a certain amount of space on a physical server to actually store the images and information that make up your website. I use Jollyleaf, but I recommend that you do some pricing and feature comparisons online (PCMag often has handy ‘top ten’ lists), and figure out what you need and how much you’re willing to pay for it.

Website creation tool, aka website builder: Unless you’re a whizz with HTML (in which case, why the hell are you here??), you’re going to need one of these, too. Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, Wix, Weebly – again, I recommend going and doing some hunting and figuring out your ideal features-to-competency comfort level.

Internet connectivity: …yeah, if you’re reading this, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you know about this one. You need it to build your masterpiece and access other peoples’.

If you have all of the above, you’re ready to get started with your new website. If you’re only in need of one site, and you aren’t building a newsletter, doing any direct selling, and really just want an online presence you can put on your business card, you can go from there.

If you want to delve into the arcane and macabre, keep reading.

The arcane and macabre for websites 101 and beyond

CMS: CMS stands for content management system, and it governs, usually via a template (see ‘theme’), how your website looks and behaves. WordPress will try and jam their favourite themes down your craw – don’t feel obliged, there’s a multitude to choose from out there. I use Divi, which lets me do (almost) anything I want, and leaves me swearing helplessly the rest of the time.

HTML: Yeah, unless you know exactly what you’re doing and have hours to spend debugging lines, this is the ‘oh-ha-ha-no’ difficulty level. HTML is one of the basic programming languages underlying much of what you see online. Unless you happen to be an HTML expert, trying to code your own site from scratch will leave you with one of those lovely yellow text on deep blue background sites that screams ‘someone tried to party like it was 1999’. More detail on HTML versus CMS can be found here.

Child Theme: Don’t try to create one of these without backing up your site first. Really. A child theme will batten off your principal theme, and update with it, but maintain your custom elements (a custom copyright footer notice is a common use-case) through each update.

Custom email address: Not a must-have, but a nice way to brand your business communication. A lot of people will rely on Outlook 365 for this – personally I don’t recommend it, it’s expensive as hell and you can’t download emails from there to storage or elsewhere in bulk. A lot of hosting providers will offer webmail on the side, and often for free. It’s worth checking out, because it will save you money that you can then throw at something else, and you can still have your branded email address.

SEO: SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, and at the simplest level, it’s key words – the terms people are likely to type into a search bar to find you, your website, or your work. You want to make sure that when a search engine crawls your page, the key things you want to appear high in search results for are basically sending up flares and generally making themselves obvious. As I’m shite making progress on my learning curve with SEO, I’m going to suggest you type ‘SEO’ into a search engine and learn from people who actually know what they’re talking about.

phpMyAdmin: Up top, I mentioned web hosting in terms of someone renting you space on a server for the files that actually make up your site. phpMyAdmin is one of the common database frontends (see also SQL) that stores and organises those files so that you can access the files when you need to. The function of the database itself is the internal referencing of your files so that when you click ‘contact’, you get the contact form of your site, and not a page advertising mail-order brides.

SSL: Means Secure Socket Layer, and short-form it’s security that lets people clicking on your site have reasonable certainty that it’s you. It’s part of what governs the ‘s’ in ‘https’, and the behaviour of that padlock symbol at the beginning of the website address. An SSL certificate is nice-to-have on a basic site like a blog, and becomes a must-have if you’re planning something like direct sales, where you’re handling financial information.

Add on domain: Now we’re getting kinky. Basically, a domain works very much like a folder structure (you’ve set these up on your computer, or in your email client, yes?). For example, your root domain (dear Aussies and Kiwis, please don’t get too excited here) would be your ‘Documents’ folder, and then when you open up ‘Documents’ you’ll have ‘Letters’, ‘Legal’, ‘Renos’, which would be sub- or add-on domains depending on set-up. An add on domain can be accessed completely separately from the root domain from the perspective of the end-user. I have a root domain, accessed with jcsteelauthor.com, and an add on domain, byriteofword.com, both of which have a separate file structure and are accessed separately by users. Courtesy of Bluehost: An add on domain is a domain name which points to its own folder within public_html and appears as a separate website.

Site back-ups: I really recommend doing these. Your hosting provider may do them automatically, but ‘doing’ and ‘giving easy access to’ are two entirely different animals. I use Updraft Plus for my WordPress sites – it gives me complete control over how often I back-up, where the back-ups are stored, and best of all, hassle-free file re-install as soon as I install the plugin. Oh, and the basic version is free.

Images: I use Pixabay, Pexels, and UnSplash for free images (donations optional). It’s not a good idea to simply nick shit from Google Images – it may be tempting, but first, you’re very likely trampling someone else’s copyright, and also the images are likely to be crappy resolution, which will make you look like an amateur. If you don’t mind shelling out some cash, Shutterstock and 123rf have a wide range.of images.

That’s all, folks

Well, no, of course it isn’t. But if you’ve read this, and looked at a few of the linked articles, you should have at least a basic understanding of what you need and why in your website, and where you can go to learn more. Depending on your hosting provider, you may be able to drag and drop elements – Wix is good for this – or you may need to know everything from how to set up an add on domain to setting a POP3 email account.

In general, I support knowing what you’re doing. It reduces the chances of you getting screwed on price, and it helps you understand what you can do, what you can’t do, and what you really shouldn’t do without making a full back-up first.

Happy webbing.

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