The Basic Building Blocks of a Website
So you are thinking you need a website. What does that really mean? This article is meant for the non-tech among us, and yes there are many of you. I've tried to make this easy but still accurate.
There are two basic elements, with just these two you can have a website.
The metaphor of housing - we even use the words "build a website" - it is a good analogy.
Domain is the address. You need one. If you can find one that people might remember then all the better.
Hosting and website - these two things go together - but the truth is the first Hosting - this is the land on which your website will be built. And there are myriad options.
You are, in the end, always just buying this - space on a server somewhere. You have 'stuff' - words, pictures, links - that stuff needs a home - your 'hosting company' gives you that.
Now - just as you see various types of housing developments - there are apartments, condos, townhomes, single-family homes, custom built homes - there are a whole variety of types of websites, and this is where this gets a little complicated.
Domain Name: Think of this as the address of your website, just like you have an address of your house.
Like the post office knows where every house is, there are servers all over the internet that know where your website lives. In order to know this you need a name - a domain name.
This is the URL - Universal Resource Locator. (correct?)
You have to buy a domain name - they usually cost about $15 and you should put privacy on the domain. I didn't used to suggest this but if you don't want to get spammed once you buy the domain it is a good idea.
How do pick a good domain name? (this maybe a topic for another post)
If you don't have a name already this is important. Pick one, buy it. You should always own your own name. Don't let the person building your website buy it. I use Go Daddy for my domains but there are others. The only one I would not recommend is Network Solutions. The GoDaddy interface is easy to use. They are one of the oldest domain registrars.
(what is cloud flare? what about more complex dns management?)
Hosting: This gets much more complicated. In the end you need a place for your website to live, this is the simplest way to think about it. Just as there are many many different types of places to live (houses, apartments, condos, townhomes, villas, houseboats, tiny houses, yurts, mud huts) there are many ways to build and host a website.
The final thing ends up being a place where you put your stuff, just like the place you call home - but how you get there is quite a different thing.
I'm going to limit my discussion here to the most popular kinds of options. Let's define a few terms:
1) CMS: Content Management System. This is really just a way to manage your own content, instead of the whole site being built directly into code. If you use a CMS then the content and the 'structure/design' of the site are sort of independent of one another - allowing you to manage your own content without having to know how to write code.
There are so many options out there I'm not going to bore you with all of them - the two that I think are best are Squarespace and WordPress.
There are also Wix, Weebly, GoDaddy Website Builder, Joomla, Drupal (and then there are tons of others that you probably have never heard of).
I think this is a really hard decision for people because they don't really know what to even consider....
If you are really going to try to do your site yourself, you might consider Weebly. I have seen people do pretty decent sites who aren't super tech savvy in Weebly. I think it might have an interface that really makes sense to the not so tech savvy.
WordPress represents a really hard thing - because there are actually 2 versions of WordPress - WordPress.com and WordPress.org - or fully hosted or self-hosted.
Ok - so let's start here - with some terms -
You can first start by breaking down into Self-Hosted and Fully Hosted - there is a hybrid here, managed hosting - but let's leave that for a bit.
Self-hosted. This does not mean you need your own server but rather that what you are buying is usually just some space and a way to manage it but not much else. This is often the cheapest option - sometimes as low as $2 or $3 a month, but you need some amount of expertise to manage the space. You will be using tools like Cpanel and an FTP client - if that sounds like something you want to avoid then just be aware that the cheaper levels of hosting, that is what you are into. In the right hands those tools are very straightforward though.
(One aside here is that if you start really looking at hosting you will start to see lots of options related to shared hosting, dedicated machine. If you are just starting your own little website then you don't have to worry too much about performance yet. Larger sites with alot of traffic need to start to manage this, so you can tuck that way for when you get famous!)
Fully-Hosted is alot more like renting an apartment or buying a condo than building a house. You have a limited number of floor plans, and the landlord (the hosting company) is going to take care of most everything. They do the security, they do the backups, they do everything, you just worry about your website. This is the kind of option that really didn't even exist 10 years ago - which is amazing. I think Squarespace started 15 years ago, I think I probably saw it back in 2008 or so, just as it started to round the bend.
Over the past 7 years of being involved with small clients looking to do a website, I have come to believe that fully-hosted solutions are often a very good option.
Fully Hosted Solution - I think of this as a really nice, fully managed apartment or condo complex. They take care of everything - the lawn, the snow shoveling, all the common areas. You just have to live in your place, furnish it - you can paint and decorate but there are probably some restrictions - like you can't just add on a sunroom.
Self-hosted solution is way more like having a piece of land and then building whatever you want on top of it. You have your address (your domain name) and now you build the house.
The thing is - building a house is WAY MORE WORK than just furnishing an apartment right? But... if you want a very specific kind of house and are really adamant about that - you may need to go there.
And of course you don't have to do it yourself - you will have help, and if you are very brave you can DIY it the whole way.
You also have the hybrid of "managed wordpress" - which is basically a little bit like the kinds of real estate developments where you own the house but not the land. With the huge footprint of WordPress these have grown up.
The thing about all of this is really - does it matter to you? I think there are a couple of things to consider --- 1) do you think you may want to add a sunroom? Or even know you want to. Things like membership sites are not currently possible in Squarespace. 2) Will you be blogging alot? 3) Do you need just a simple brochure site? I think SS is the winner there.
Manage WP hosts control things more tightly. And they are in theory taking care of security as well.
.... it is hard to tell what would really matter to these people. I think it is about 'how do I decide?"
I like to tell people to go and just browse around the site. You can see examples of sites built with the various tools.
Themes are like blueprints. You can have someone come and just install that. If you start to want an architect then you need to hire something more.
Now, there is another element that I need to mention, that is essential at this point, even though there are still many websites that don't have them - and that is an SSL Certificate.
I really don't want to go into the details of this whole thing. Let's just say this - your web address should say https: now - if it doesn't, over the long term, it will be hurting you.
I like to recommend that you buy hosting that includes an SSL certificate - otherwise you end up paying alot more for it.
There are a few other things I think you need to think about before doing your first website -
Ok - let's talk about domain email. This is actually a topic that seems to confuse alot of people - here is what I'm talking about - you can have an email address like
Or one like
That last one - @eastwillow.com is what I mean when I say a Domain Email. You use the address that you bought (the domain name) and you set it up so that you can get email on it. You probably have a website - so for me - eastwillow.com -- now I can have email that goes to that address too.
You will hear myriad reasons for doing this - the biggest I've heard is that it elevates professionalism - so instead of people emailing to
You send email to a more professional email address.
Companies always have these.
I do think if you are doing a business having a domain email is a good idea. The challenges though are several:
1) you have to manage multiple email accounts. For some people I know this is just way too much. The truth is that once you get used to it though it is pretty straightforward.
2) Where do you put it? Now, this is a different problem - the question here is "how does this really work?"
So - not unlike your web hosting, you need to find someone who can do your email.
Basically email is a service just like web hosting is a service. The internet needs to know where to send your mail - and then someone needs to send it.
In some ways email service providers are like the United States post office - or whatever you postal service is called. They collect the mail and then deliver it to your inbox.
So - basically you are hiring a postal service. I happen to believe the best is google, although they are not the only one - there are alot - way more than you know. Most website hosting companies also do email. Sometimes you can get email from the company where you bought your domain name.
The bottom line is that you should get domain email.
I need to throw one more wrinkle in here - there is a way to get an email address that just forwards to your personal email. If you do this people can send using that address but then you will be replying from your personal email account.
So the things you need are
If you came here to get very direct advice, here is the summary -
You need a domain name. Buy it from GoDaddy. They have good tools and have done a good job of making their support better over the years. Namecheap is also good. Don't buy your domain name from Network Solutions, the tools have not kept up with the competition and neither has their support.
Own your own domain. Get privacy. Write down your user name and password and keep it safe.
If you don't own your own domain, get some help and get a transfer initiated to you.
Use a self-hosted tool like Squarespace. If that doesn't work for you then you can consider WordPress.com - if you are doing a more straightforward blog I think WordPress.com is a good option. If you want to do membership or other more complex stuff you are probably right to start with WordPress. Get managed hosting. I often use Flywheel, but WPengine is hard to beat. If you are really on a budget the middle-tier plan of Siteground could be an option but I don't use them so can't say more. I think flywheel, for $15 a month - is a pretty good deal.
If you have self-hosted you have to maintain your site yourself. This is the dark secret that it took me time to even really get. But I do think now that if you have a WordPress site you need to be doing regular maintenance on it. These plans range from as low as $15 a month for super basic to up to $80/month. I think that if you go with an $80/month plan then you ought to keep your hosting basic so you can save money. But again, for just starting out I'm not sure these are good options.
This is written for a small business or business of one that is just getting started. The advice is about that.
What is your purpose?
Images - could go into unsplash and not just using images from google