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How to Build a Website on the Cheap

How to Build a Website on the Cheap

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Would you like a cottage or a mansion? Tudor style or colonial? Beachfront or mountain cabin? Will you need a media room and fine finishes? A rustic or mid-century modern feel?

Hopefully, you see where I’m headed with this. Just like houses, not all websites are alike.

How much does a website cost to build? Anywhere from whatever time it takes to post your first article on a free Tumblr account to the multi-multi-million dollar budget needed to build Healthcare.gov.

The point is …

Websites serve all sorts of uses. And can be created with all kinds of functionality.

Let’s see what I can come up with off the top of my head.

  • Online brochures.
  • News sites.
  • Marketplaces.
  • Software downloads.
  • Product reviews.
  • Auction platforms.
  • Video, music, and podcast players.
  • Maps.
  • How tos.
  • Fan forums.
  • Charitable giving.
  • Voter petitions.
  • Research.
  • Gossip centers.
  • Places for storytellers (blogging).
  • Places to go self-diagnose that weird bump you have on your shoulder.
  • Directories.
  • Games.
  • Photo galleries.
  • Accounting and project management tools.
  • Collaboration tools.
  • Even what we’ll tastefully call … naughty sites.

 

There is one thing all websites have in common. They are all rectangular.

Yeah, I’m being glib. But it’s also true. So next time you see that ad that tells you how you can create a site in just minutes for free, consider all the possible uses your site may require and ask yourself … Can I really build this site on the cheap? You may just get what you pay for.

Wow, pretty convincing, yes? Well, first of all, I guarantee you everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – in the above Web.com commercial is a paid actor. All of them. Notice how well all their comments flow together.

I lose count of how many times they say “free” before hitting you with the low monthly fee part of the message. And should you decide you don’t want to pay the low monthly fee, they’ll be more than happy to shut down your “free” website … for free.

This next ad is even more hilarious. Web.com will build you a Facebook page. Free! My, how do these people pay for all their developers and office space? Well, the fact is, Facebook is free. And creating a free Facebook page on your own takes about as long (and is about as difficult) as logging into Facebook. For the life of me, I can’t tell what value they’re offering here. Oh, wait. It’s the aforementioned low monthly fee applied to your “free” Facebook page. At least they had the decency to disclose that this spot is stocked with “actor portrayals.”

Just check out all these (ahem) “happy” reviews about the wonderful “free” services provided by Web.com (Note: Be sure to scroll the page of the review site to get the full picture.)

And here’s an article that details all that’s “free” about Web.com services.

I pick on Web.com because, frankly, they prove the old axiom that even in the world of web development, …

There’s no free lunch.

There’s no free lunchBuilding a quality website can take a lot of work. If you’re building a very simple website (what we like to call brochureware), where you’re just posting a few pages with some text and some simple photography, then, yeah, you might find a free service out there that can fill your needs. In addition to web.com, some of the more well-known free website builders include WIX.com, Weebly.com, and Squarespace.com. (Well, Squarespace isn’t free, but starts at only $8 a month.) We actually used Squarespace for a time. A slick service I’d actually recommend in certain cases.

Even with a robust hosted site built on a platform like Squarespace, you’re going to have to decide. Can I do this myself? Do I have TIME to do this myself? Do I have basic programming knowledge, such as HTML and CSS? Do I have the means and capability to create, crop, and touch up photos? Can I create graphics? Can I get in touch with my inner-geek? And then once the site is launched, will I want, have the expertise, or the time to maintain it? Do I completely understand the costs going forward?

See also: Shadows of the Old Web

There are some excellent tools out there for you to create your own site.

There are some excellent toolsBut those platforms may come with limited template options in terms of look and feel, limited functionality, and hidden ongoing costs you weren’t counting on. I recommend when choosing any platform, do your homework. A few easy, if not time-consuming steps:

  • Read through the website of the web platform your considering thoroughly. Make sure it does everything you’ll want it to do over the long haul. And make sure you have a full understanding of what the costs will be involved. Even if they say you’ll be able to set up a website free, there’s a good chance you’ll be paying something (see web.com above) and you may not like where the costs end up.
  • Read online reviews about the website platform you’re considering. And I don’t mean one review. Do a Google search and look at at least five different websites offering reviews about the product to get a consensus. There are sometimes bogus review websites out there that companies have a relationship with to stack the deck in their favor. Or they’ll comment on other review sites with their own positive comments. I’m not saying all positive comments are faked. You just need to get a fair amount of differing viewpoints from different sources to see a solid trend of how people feel about a product.
  • And if you want to expand your search, use the word “alternative” in your searches. For example, in Google, enter “weebly.com alternative” and you’ll uncover some other web platforms you may want to consider.

But if you’re doing anything robust at all, something that involves data collection, database building and lookups, e-commerce, business management, location directories, collaboration, fancy galleries, video clip directories, heavy analytics, dancing bears, etc., you’re going to want to look for a fully custom install through a platform such as WordPress. Or perhaps a completely proprietary setup only seasoned web development companies can provide.

See also: 3 Necessities to Developing a Better Website Process

Our web development process.

Our web development processAs an example, we provide web development services primarily using the WordPress platform, which happens to be the most popular content management system (CMS) in the world. To give you an idea how we work, here’s a rough look at our process:

Kickoff Meeting
A general meeting, usually involving the client, where we speak of lofty goals, expectations for the site, functionality, the meaning of life, and so forth.

UX (User Experience) and Functionality Discussion
This is an internal meeting where we thoroughly talk through the entire experience a visitor will have when visiting a site. What’s the main reason we want people to visit the site? What do we want visitors to do? Will those stumbling on the site clearly understand what it’s about in a matter of seconds? We talk about site organization, pagination, look and feel, specific functionality. Above all … site purpose, ease-of-use, high performance, and clear objectives are what we want everyone involved to take away from this meeting.

Body Image

Flowchart and UX Documentation (Mobile and Desktop)
Notes taken at our UX meeting give everyone a clear understanding of where we’re heading, so design and programming teams are on the same page.

Create Rough Desktop and Mobile Layouts
This is how we see the site being organized.

SEO Initial Assessment
Are we structuring the site in a way that will maximize the site’s ability to be discovered on the web?

Technical Documents
A roadmap of all the techie boring stuff.

Domain and Hosting Package
If we’re creating a brand new site, we’ll have to secure a domain and decide where to host the site.

Social Media
What social media links will we want visitors to follow? Which ones will we want visitors to share content on?

Create Production Files
Graphic artists go to work on look and feel elements that will go into the site’s design.

Downloadable Content
This can include images, documentation, PDFs, etc. This could require a lot of research, writing, design, and meetings in itself.

Programming
With all the pre-production completed, our development team goes to work putting the site together. You know, the full-on geek part of the process.

SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
There are a lot of steps necessary to make the website discoverable through Google and Bing searches. Some of the basics include making sure keywords are in the page titles, pages are optimized with keywords and inline links, and keywords are in the URLs, as well as the image file names and captions. If migrating a page from an old site to a new site causes a page’s web address to change, we’ll want to employ a 301 redirect – so in case anyone tries to go to the page’s old URL, they’ll automatically be sent to the new one. Oh, and let’s not forget to submit an XML sitemap to Google Webmaster Tools.

Quality Assurance (Testing)
Okay, programming is completed and we have a long list of things to check. Spelling. Phone numbers. Legal text. Security measures such as password-protection. Do all headlines and subheads have H1 and H2 tags for searchability. We’ll want to make sure forms are working properly and sending notifications to the proper recipients. We’ll want to make sure mobile versions of the site are displaying properly on tablets and phones of varying sizes. And that all SEO measures have been properly applied. Yada yada yada.

Activate Google Webmaster Tools
We want to make sure all pages are being indexed by Google or visitors won’t find the site and they’ll be sad. 🙁

Google Analytics Installed and Tracking
“Tracking” is the key word there. If it’s not tracking, we’re not going to get any traffic or usage results reported.

IP Address Filtering
Is your Aunt Mildred so proud of the website you’ve just created she goes to admire it every day? Yep, that’s a lot of visits you don’t want to be recorded in your analytics. Filter out Aunt Mildred’s visits and everyone at your company and your client’s office to boot.

Site Management
We assign any new website we’ve built in WordPress (especially those we’ll be managing and maintaining) to a service called ManageWP. It’s an excellent tool for monitoring all your site’s activities through one dashboard system.

Decommission and Remove Testing Environment
More boring developer housekeeping. But necessary.

Store and Archive the Codebase
Same as above.

Setup Issue Tracking
That’s the maintenance part to keep your website sparkly clean and operating smoothly at all times.

Hit Happy Hour!
And pray you’ve done everything correctly.

Anyway, that’s the quick overview of how we approach web development. With low cost hosted options, a lot of those things get glossed over or are never even considered.

If you have any questions about what you’ve read here, our development team would be happy to help steer you to the website platform that’ll suit you best. There’s no silver bullet solution out there. It’s just about whether you want your website to be a bungalow, a condo, a brownstone, or a palace. Pick your architect wisely.

About The Author

John Parrish

John Parrish is Vice President, Creative Services for Marketing In Color and has worked on brands such as Outback Steakhouse, Madico Window Films, Pitney Bowes, Progressive Auto Insurance, Edwards (United Technologies), Kash n’ Karry Food Stores, Home Shopping Network, The Villages of Florida, CareCredit, Dollar Rent A Car, Super Kmart, and dozens more.


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