Let's talk really basic websites
We've had basic content websites for well over two decades now. It shouldn't be hard, but it is. There are so many moving pieces from DNS, to choosing a platform, to hosting, to social connections, to basic maintenance and peace of mind. For the most part once a site is up and running it's fine, but getting it off the ground is really hard -- you need to avoid hidden fees, giving up control, and getting drawn into something way too complicated for your needs.
I recently set up a little ecommerce site for a side project and a couple of blog sites for friends and colleagues. I’ve been working with web applications for a disturbingly long time, and yet I found navigating the 'easy' hosting sites wasn’t quite as easy and I expected.
This is a quick write up of some of the challenges, but let me know if you would like help with setting up the basic framework .
Domain Registration Up-sells You can’t seem to just go to Godaddy.com and buy a domain name. They want to sell you Domain privacy, which doesn’t make sense if you’re going to publish your email address and phone number on your website. They want to sell you email hosting, which you probably don’t need if you have an established email address (it’s okay to use Gmail for small endeavors). They want to sell you SEO services (trust me, google is already on your site). They want you to buy all sorts of vague, but seemingly sensible things that you probably don't need.
In a sense I can't complain about it, but they put them in your cart for you. It's like you're shopping for milk and eggs and while you're checking out the clerk adds a package of oreos and some barbecue potato chips. You don't need them, you didn't even pick them out, but you might actually let it slide because it sounds good.
Wordpress isn't just one thing For a basic website where you want an About, Contact and then a place to post some articles, Wordpress is a pretty straightforward solution. Only there are a lot of ways to use the thing we call Wordpress, and you don’t always get what you think you’re getting.
First, what we call Wordpress is actually a number of things.
- Wordpress.org: the open source code that, if you’re clever and understand PHP and Apache or NGINX... yeah we left really basic when I said 'open source...'
- Wordpress.com: the hosted version of Wordpress by the people who manage Wordpress. Most of the time it’s the right choice for the novice, but you get locked out of certain features and the price can slowly creep up on you if you aren’t careful.
- All those other 'Wordpress' services: Godaddy, Squarespace, Hostgator, and so many other places offer Wordpress hosting that is supposed to be easier to use but actually has a lot of missing features and, again, trick you into paying for things you don’t need so you can get the things you do need.
Picking where to host and how to set it up is based on your own needs – I find that 90% of the time the small business owner or the individual with a side hustle really doesn’t need more than the $4 a month Wordpress.com hosted site. You can even get away with the free version if you don’t mind having a web address like mycompany736429559.wordpress.com.
The problem is most people don't know what features they need now, what they can add later, and what is going to make it a total pain in the behind to change later. This really is one of those where you need some expert advice and a little consult so you don't paint yourself into the corner by picking the wrong platform at the beginning.
You don't have to be fancy Back in the day when I ran teams building custom websites we would have clients who would argue over the shade of blue. No one cares. Honestly, most people aren't going to be sitting on your website every day poring over every little detail.
You want to establish your credibility, you want to have references you can use to follow up with. ('Thanks for the call today, you might be interested in this article I wrote about Three Legged OAuth.') You need a basic template that lets your words or images shine and you need a way for people to contact you.
I like simple, clean templates. No need to hire a developer, no need to muck with the layout much. Just get it set up so when you add content over time, the text is easy to read and the photos stand out and your message doesn't get lost in some weird design choice.
Security is still your concern There are so many ways your website could go sideways. You should have https enabled, you need to make sure it's updated and patched, you want to make sure any personal information anyone sends you is stored safely. Which all leaves the region of 'super simple' super fast.
Of course this is where some hosting companies charge extra (but shouldn't) and where some 'developers' get predatory. I lean back towards the keeping it simple rule -- the fewer bells and whistles you have the less you have to worry about. Again, understanding which bells and which whistles are required, and which can be added later when you really need them, might need the guidance of someone who has been through this a few times.
Know what you're sharing The first time I went to share scrapwooddecor.com, Facebook decided the most relevant image to show in the share was the Twitter logo. There are a whole slew of tags that Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn look at which, if you have the right tools, you can control. You could, for example, use an image that doesn't even appear on the page that encourages clicks but doesn't fit into the actual posting.
Understanding what gets picked up, how it gets displayed, and how to control all that, takes a little finesse. And there are a lot of services and applications which would love to take your money and prey on the confusion, but honestly, if you have the right set up, this isn't something you pay for, it's just something you do.
Beware of upgrades I probably went through three different hosting options when I was setting up my side project. What I kept finding was that so many sites (I'll call out Squarespace and Godaddy by name) make you think you'll be okay for a small fee, and then you need to add one more thing. Then one more. Or, worse, you get the 'free trial' that is difficult to cancel and suddenly you're out hundreds of dollars a month or two later when you weren't looking.
The biggest problem is that this stuff is always changing, that there are new bells and whistles, new platforms, and new social norms. It seems every time I get involved in what should be a simple web project there's a moment where I have to stop, read and poke a little, and figure out why something doesn't work they way i expected.
It's okay if you feel this is all confusing, because it is. But with a little forethought and planning, it doesn't have to stay confusing.
Feel free to contact me if you'd like a little help getting up and running.