On Saturday I went along to the Websites for Small Charitable Organisations hosted by RnR Organisation and facilitated by Florence Okoye. It was a really interesting opportunity to talk about the barriers that some small organisations find in developing websites and wider issues about developing a social media presence. One of the things that came out is the challenge for organisations to understand why they are doing it. Do they build a site because everyone else has one? Is it for a specific purpose? The disconnect between buying something that you haven’t yet identified the purpose for and what you eventually end up with can be quite stark.
I believe there is a benefit in taking an iterative approach to building websites. Rather than planning a detailed purchasing exercise try and get something functional up and running as quickly as possible. Once it exists you can test your theory on why you need it and what it does. Understanding how it exists in the real world gives you a solid basis for having that conversation with designers.
Bearing that in mind it does assume that people have the knowledge to get something up and running themselves. I thought it might be useful to share a few things I’ve learned about setting up and running test sites quickly.
This comes with the caveat that you won’t learn to be a web designer just through making it up as you go along. Many of the concepts of design, content strategy and user experience are skills that people have learned over years. If you want a serious site then, at some point, you will probably need to talk to a professional.
The three core things you need to run your own site are:-
- A domain name
- A content management system
The domain name is the name your site will use and is relatively easy to buy. Generally, a .co.uk name will cost between £5 and £7 a year, this will vary. What you will find with many web hosting companies is that they will throw in free domain names with hosting packages.
I suggest that free domain names are something to be wary of. I always recommend to people that they keep the place where their domain name(s) live completely separate to where they host sites. In the future, it is possible that you will want to move your site to another hosting provider. This becomes a much simpler process if you don’t have to move the domain name. Also, whilst some hosting companies will give you a free domain name they then charge you to move it at a later date. The moving charges can be greater than the registration charge.
For many years I have used UKReg as a company to buy domain names through. They do provide hosting through Fasthosts (who are a good hosting company) but in order to keep them separate, I only use them to buy domains. All organisations should make sure that they own and control their domain names. I have come across many examples of domain names being held by web designers on an organisations behalf and then prolonged arguments developing about how they wrestle back control.
There are many options out there for hosting websites. They can start from as little as £1 a month but in many cases, the low costs will put limits on how much traffic your site can handle and how many sites and email addresses you can host. For around £10 a month you will be able to find a very good package that gives you a lot of flexibility to host sites and manage email. The ability to create new email addresses as you need them is one that many organisations underestimate.
For a number of years, I’ve been using Dreamhost for personal web projects and pay around $7 a month. They’ve always been very reliable, they provide unlimited traffic and I can add as many domain names as I want to the account. I currently host 16 sites through Dreamhost.
Once you have set up an account with a hosting company it is easy to point your domain name to that company by listing their nameservers. This will link your name to your website.
Deciding what tools to build your site with can be as easy or hard as you want it to be. Most hosting companies will provide you with one click installs of most of the popular content management systems. Just choose what type of site you want, and the installation is all done for you. By far the most popular is WordPress but there are many other content management systems out there that can create a site for you very quickly. Also, bear in mind that there is a difference between using WordPress on a hosting company’s server and the free offer that WordPress make on their own site.
Although WordPress is the basis for many sites it is often infuriating. Every WordPress site needs a theme to make it look different. There are many free themes out there but without fail you will find the one you like the most doesn’t quite do what you want it to do.You can buy themes that add a level of customisation, these vary in cost but most start at around $10. Recently I’ve become a big fan of the Elegant Themes Divi builder. It provides great tools that allow you to customise your WordPress experience to an amazing degree. It will cost you $89 a year to use but you can use it with as many sites as you want.
Using all of the above you can have a functional website up and running for an annual cost of about £170. With the packages I’ve outlined that cost will allow you to set up and run as many sites as you want. All you need to pay in addition is the cost of registering domain names. At the very least being in control of your domain name registration and hosting puts you in a better position for working with designers and being able to change your relationship in the future if you need to.
Other things I’ve learned that might be useful are, if you want a logo for your site then you can usually get a good quality one in about 24 hours via Fiverr, that would usually cost about $20. If you want free pictures for a site then go to Pixabay or Pexels, they are great resources for rights-free pictures.
None of these tips will turn you into a professional designer. There is a serious issue that because some of these tools are relatively cheap and easy to use, people end up undermining the roles of professionals with many years of experience. It is also very easy to create really bad websites.
What this does mean is that if you have a place to register domain names and a hosting account you can get a test site up and running in minutes. That can be an excellent basis for learning what your digital needs are.