So you want to build your own Web site?

What Do I Need To Know?

To build a truly great Web site, you need to be part artist, part programmer, part communicator, part planner, part writer, part magician. This is why professional, world-class sites usually employ a highly-skilled team of experts from a variety of disciplines. But if your needs are more modest, you can take on a Web site project yourself if you ...

  • have a basic understanding of HTML (HyperText Markup Language) ... if you don't, a good place to start is to use an Internet search tool such as Google to find tutorials or other training materials online
  • can communicate a clear message in a coherent, organized, and efficient way
  • are competent in the use of Web browsers, experienced in Internet and "Web surfing", and can effectively use the features of your computer's operating system (such as being comfortable with naming, navigating and manipulating files and folders)
  • preferably have sufficient aesthetic sensibilities to recognize when visual elements of a site are distracting or superfluous, rather than supporting or emphasizing your message ... consider taking a Design course from the Arts department of your local community college or adult learning institution to get a grounding in this area
  • possess basic skills for creating and handling Web graphics, and can use at least the rudimentary features of tools like image editing software and scanners
  • are patient, systematic, methodical and can tolerate work that requires great attention to detail (without losing sight of the "big picture")

Who Should Build Their Own Web Site?

Don't do it yourself just to save money -- unless you have a LOT of free time on your hands, and don't place much value on that time. Especially if you plan to put up a site once, infrequently change it (that's a bad idea itself!), and never do Web site work again, the investment in time and tools to do the job well might simply not be worth it. On the other hand, if you want to maintain and grow your site, do more sites for other people, or are just insatiably curious, keep reading!.

What Software Do I Need?

One of the classic mistakes beginning Web site authors make is to focus on and agonize over which specific software package do they need. While it is important to choose good tools, it is vastly more important to have an solid understanding of HTML itself, and to make sure that you personally possess the skills and traits and attitudes outlined in the above paragraphs.

Because there are literally hundreds of Web authoring programs available (running the gamut from freeware to shareware to six-figure enterprise-level team systems), because each has its own "personality", and because people have their own personal working styles and temperaments, we do NOT recommend specific brands or even categories of software.

Some software runs as a "client" -- a separate software package to be installed on your own computer.  Some is hosted online (in the "cloud") as a service and is managed through a web browser.  EONI, as a matter of fact, offers some alternative examples of the latter type as a free feature of its hosting plans. 

A special category of D-I-Y software has emerged in the past decade or two, and is known as Content Management System (CMS) software.   This can range from extremely simple "fil-in-the blanks/point and click" affairs to sophisticated systems that allow complex handling of databases and content relationships without requiring strict programming expertise.  Such CMS systems are generally offered by a hosting provider or service as they require server installation and setup with access to the Internet.  Again, EONI offers such capabilities with your hosting plan.

Before you invest a lot of time and money into a Web authoring program, you might consider a basic training course, while using tools you have at hand -- such as Microsoft Word's option to let you save word processing files as HTML documents, or even a simple text editor such as Microsoft Notepad, part of Windows Accessories. Defer the choice of a dedicated Web authoring program until you have some real experience with HTML and Web page design in general.

If you are entertaining the possibility of going into Web site authoring as a business or profession, you should definitely consider using a software tool that lets you edit HTML code directly. This will require more basic learning on your part, but will pay off in the long run.

However, most people seem to want to use one of the WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) Web design programs, which are typically marketed as easy-to-use, and requiring no programming or HTML knowledge. After all, the WYSIWYG programs can be a lot of fun! As opposed to the HTML code-oriented editor programs, the WYSIWYG programs automatically generate their own HTML code (which is ultimately needed on a page, anyway) based on your inputs into dialog boxes, moving and dragging objects around on a screen, etc.

The more sophisticated WYSIWYG programs also give you the option of directly editing the HTML code (and don't overwrite or damage it when you make changes in WYSIWYG mode). But if you need to deal with the unexpected, or want to make your Web page do things that the WYSIWYG program won't allow in the interests of simplification, you're going to be in trouble if you don't understand HTML at the code level.

WYSIWYG programs can be great tools for the experienced Web author who already understands HTML. And, if you are willing to limit yourself to what a simpler, entry-level WYSIWYG program has to offer and are not interested in dealing with the stuff "under the hood", one of these programs might be just the ticket.

Don't forget that the advertising and the marketing hype is all geared toward getting you to buy the product; like any computer software, the more energy you devote to learning and using the software and the basic principles underlying HTML/Web page design, the more you will get out of it, regardless of whether you choose WYSIWYG or HTML-editing or a hybrid approach.

Do I Need Other Specialized Tools?

Digital cameras, scanners, image editing software and other specialized hardware and software tools can greatly facilitate your Web site building process, and are essential in a professional Web designer's workshop. Most lower-end scanners and digital cameras come with simple, easy-to-use software that will fit the needs of many beginnning Web authors (a professional's needs, however, might quickly require a five-figure or higher budget, on the other hand).

Again, it is largely the USER of the tools, not the TOOLS themselves (given a reasonable threshold of adequacy, which is now attainable at lower and lower price levels), that determines the quality of the outcome. Don't ever forget that the content of a site is paramount. If you attempt to affix fancy graphics or the latest animation technique or (cringe) sound effect or whatever to your site, without much regard to the site's real messsage or content, or whether those elements truly contribute to your site's content, you will probably find yourself with fewer and fewer visitors.

A text-only site, done well, is highly preferable to a multimedia-heavy site that only ends up revealing the author's amateurism and lack of communication skills.

Where Do I Go From Here?

  1. Do a critical self-examination to see if you have what it takes, or are willing to get what it takes (see "What Do I Need To Know" and "Who Should Build Their Own Web Site", above).
  2. Get a basic understanding of HTML and Web page fundamentals under your belt. Take a course, read a book, etc.
  3. Look at other Web sites! Look at the bad ones as well as the good, and try to learn the difference if you can't tell ...
  4. Try building some Web pages using software you already have packaged with your operating system or productivity software suite.
  5. If all is well at this point, and you want to continue, start researching Web authoring software tools:
    • read comparative reviews in as many magazines and Web sites as you can
    • gather information from actual users in Web newsgroups, mailing lists, etc. (but be skeptical and critical)
  6. Take the plunge, and enjoy!

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