Stop whatever you’re doing and ask yourself this simple question: “Do I need a website?” If your response was anything other than “yes,” you need to think again. It doesn’t matter if you’re the head of a multinational corporation who employs thousands of people or a local mom-and-pop shop from around the way, you need a website to help potential customers find you online. If you have a business, failure to establish an online home is a failure to grow.
Fortunately, there is a vast number of web hosting services at your disposal. Choosing one is the tricky part, as it depends both on the quality of the service and its ability to match your needs.
As far as actually doing the nuts and bolts building and design of your site, you also have plenty of options. You can hire someone to design and code a website, or you can try your own hand (if you’re a novice, The Best Courses for Learning How to Build Websites is an excellent starting point). You can use an online service to create web pages, or build it offline using a desktop software tool. Or, if you’re a coding dynamo, use a plain text editor to create a site from scratch. How you mix and match these decisions depends on your skills, time, budget, and gumption.
If you’re ready to get going, this guide will introduce you to the services and software that can get you started building your own website, even if you have no experience. Keep in mind, none of these tools will give you an idea for a winning website—that’s on you. They also won’t make you a web designer, a job that’s distinct from building a site. Still, these services and software will ease some of the headaches that come from a lack of extensive expertise in CSS, FTP, HTML, and PHP.
Let’s get started.
A blog, a shortening of the antiquated-on-arrival word “weblog,” is a unique website subset that you may recognize from its familiar layout. Typically, new content resides at top of the page and older posts are revealed as your scroll down. If you need to quickly build a simple website, starting with a blogging service is a great way to go.
The major player in the blog game is WordPress, a content management system (CMS) that powers millions of websites, including The New York Times, Quartz, and Variety. WordPress-powered sites are incredibly easy to set up, customize, and update—ideally on a daily basis. You aren’t required to learn fancy-schmancy FTP tricks (though you can certainly use them if you like), and there are ridiculous numbers of free and paid WordPress themes and WordPress plug-ins to give your website a pretty face and vastly expanded functionality. Though WordPress dominates the blogging space, it isn’t the only blogging CMS of note, however.
Yahoo’s Tumblr is another incredibly popular blog platform that lends itself to shorter, more visual posts. You can, however, find themes that give your Tumblr site a more traditional website’s look and feel. Google’s Blogger features tight integration with Google Adsense, so making extra pocket change is a snap. Newer blogging services, such as Anchor, Feather, and Medium, stress writing and publishing more than intricate design, but they’re incredibly simple to update.
These services can host your content on their servers free of charge, but in exchange for that zero cost, your online destination will have a less-than-elegant domain, such as jeffreylwilson.tumblr.com. That might be fine for a personal blog, but it will look too low-rent for a business that wants people to trust it enough to pay for whatever it’s selling.
If you prefer a more traditional URL, you’ll need to purchase one from the likes of GoDaddy or Namecheap. Domain name pricing can range from extremely cheap to extremely expensive, depending on whether or not domain squatters are looking to flip a valuable piece of online real estate. You’ll want to get something short but evocative and catchy, and depending on what you do, you may find that many of your first choices are taken by either other legit domains, or by squatters who’ve scooped up the names as an investment. For more, please read How to Register a Domain Name.
Depending on the hosting service, you may need to download the CMS and upload it to your own hosted platform if you wish to use a domain you purchased elsewhere.
If you’re concerned about how your site will look on mobile devices, don’t fret. Sites created on these blogging platforms typically include mobile-friendly responsive design versions, so that they’re well formatted for smartphones and tablets.
Blogs are swell, but sometimes you need a simple place to park your persona on the internet for branding purposes. In this case, you can just get a nameplate site, or as we prefer to think of them, a personal webpage (rather than a multipage site). Instead of linking internally to your store or other pages of note as you would with a more traditional web page, a personal site usually has links that go elsewhere—to your social networks, wish lists, playlists, or whatever else is linkable.
About.me and Flavors.me are examples of nameplate services. You simply upload one big photograph as the background for your personal webpage, then artfully overlay information and links to create your digital nameplate. These free sites help you pull images from your social networks or from a hard drive, then provide the tools to make the text and links work unobtrusively, though it really behooves you to check out other personal pages for an idea of what works.
These services typically offer a premium tier that grants more hosting flexibility. For example, About.me’s $8 per month premium package removes the company’s branding and gives you the ability to connect your site to an externally purchased domain.
Artists with major portfolios to show off shouldn’t feel left out. There are a number of personal page/site builders, including Brushd and BigBlackBag, that display your work just as well, or better, than Flickr or Instagram can.
When it’s time to go beyond the blogs, beyond the online resumes, beyond the page of links, which service do you turn to for a full-blown site that gives you the flexibility to build nearly anything you desire? There’s no lack of them, but three of our favorites are DreamHost, HostGator, and Hostwinds, well-rounded services that feature numerous hosting types and tiers.
You can get started for roughly $10 per month for shared or WordPress hosting if your website doesn’t require much server horsepower. As your business expands, however, your website may need greater horsepower. That’s when you should look into cloud, VPS and dedicated hosting. These levels of services are for when you really need a web host that offers lots of storage, a significant amount of month data transfers, and numerous email accounts.
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Even if you don’t sign up for those web hosts, you should look for services that offer similar features. You’ll want a WYSIWYG editor that lets you adjust every page and add images, video, and social links. Plunking down a few extra bucks typically nets you robust ecommerce and search engine optimization (SEO) packages for improved Bing, Google, and Yahoo placement. Most advanced web hosting services include at least one domain name, free of charge, when you sign up.
Before we move on, we should discuss integrating ecommerce into your website. If you plan to sell a product or service, this is an essential part of the website building process that cannot be ignored. Thankfully, most web hosting services offer a variety of different bundled software and integrations.
Things to look as you vet hosts for ecommerce include drag-and-drop store builders, Secure Socket Layer (SSL) software for safeguarding financial transactions, and email marketing plug-ins, so that you don’t have to work with an outside vendor to promote your business. There’s nothing wrong per se with using an unconnected marketing service, but anything that adds convenience means more time to spend on the rest of your business. For more in-depth advice on getting started selling online, you should consider our story on the 6 Factors Companies Need to Consider When Choosing a Web Host.
There’s another relatively fast way to get your website online: website builders. These are standalone services featuring drag-and-drop tools and templates that let nonexpert, would-be webmasters get up and running quickly. Some advanced web hosts also offer their own sitebuilders or integrate functionality from one of the standalone services.
While the the best of them offer surprising amounts of flexibility, they also impose stringent enough restrictions to page design that you shouldn’t be able to create a really bad looking site using one of these services. Typically you can get a Mysite.servicename.com style-url with no commerce abilities for free from one of these services; you have to pay extra for a better URL and the ability to sell. One issue to consider is that if you eventually outgrow one of these services, it can be hard to export your site to a full scale advanced web hosting like Dreamhost or Hostgator. If you know that’s where you are eventually going, it may be better to skip the sitebuilder step.
None gets the job done better Editors’ Choice award-winning Wix. It has a drag-and-drop interface, and all elements of the site are customizable. It doesn’t cost a cent to get started with Wix, but you’ll want to go premium, starting at $5 per month for a domain and scaling upward to $25 per month for unlimited monthly data transfers and 20GB of storage.
The downside is that it’s only available as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription service. You can get a standalone version of Dreamweaver CC for $19.99 per month, or as part of Adobe’s All Apps suite, which includes Illustrator CC and Photoshop CC, for $49.99 per month.
If you don’t have a design already in place and think templates are too limited, consider Adobe Muse CC. This unique little program concentrates on letting you design. Templates are handy, embeddable web fonts are great, and the sitemap view may be the best way to get an overall feel for what your site will have. Export it to HTML and you’re ready for upload. It’s part of the Creative Cloud bundle and also available individually for $14.99 a month with a yearly plan.
Sure, there are more advanced hosting topics to consider, such as Domain Name Servers and multi-cloud connectivity, but this guide is meant to introduce you to the basics. Whether you decide to do build a website yourself or hire coding experts to do the dirty work is up to you. But for now, rest easy knowing you have the information to get started in taking your business online.
For further reading on getting the most out of your business website, check out Building an E-Commerce Website: 7 Technical Aspects You Need to Understand, Processing Payments on the Web: 7 Things to Consider, and 6 Surefire Ways to Market Your New E-Commerce Website.