The internet was just a fad in the early ‘90s. Everyone wanted a beautiful website, complete with the best graphic design and the most beautiful photography. It never occurred to anyone that you could actually build your own website — for most, the only option was to pay someone to do it for them.
Back then, the marketing departments of large companies took their printed content and converted it for consumption through a web browser. Today, there are over 1.8 billion websites, but only about 10 percent of them (170 million) are active.
The most interesting online efforts were made by individuals and small organizations that realized something very important — the internet is a conversation. For a mesmerizing account of what this means, read the “Cluetrain Manifesto” by David Weinberger.
The early web pioneers realized that the internet was an interactive, “lean-forward” medium. It is not like television, newspapers or books. The internet is more like the telephone or a face-to-face dialogue. A website is a literal window into the collective mind of an organization, and it reflects a business model, a personality and an ideology.
Build your own website: 3 options
Twenty years ago there was one option open to those who wanted to start a conversation with business prospects online: Hire a pro. Today you have a few more.
Marketplaces & social media.
Do-it-yourself website builders.
A custom solution.
Read on for details on each of these options.
Three ways you can get a website
As the internet has matured, the average person’s options for using it have, too. The good news is, those starting up small business websites for the first time have options.
1. Marketplaces & social media
One way to build your own website is through eCommerce platforms like Amazon and Etsy. These marketplaces allow you to sell to a built-in buying audience, and they handle all the eCommerce details like payment processing and shipping. This is why many startups choose to use these platforms to start out.
Your Facebook page, as well as your Twitter profile, are considered web pages too. The web address in the browser bar might read Facebook or Twitter, but when you post on social media, you are putting together thoughts in digital form and sharing them online.
This is the easiest way to build a “home” on the internet — using a marketplace or social media platform as your web presence.
Unless you buy ads, there is often little cost to this other than the price of the internet service. These platforms are crowded though and you may have trouble standing out and getting the attention you want.
Pros and cons of marketplace sites
Because it’s so easy to start selling, this is where many small business owners start out.
Pros: Free or low-cost to use; built-in audiences; extremely easy to learn; you could be eligible to monetize your content (e.g. popular YouTube channels).
Cons: Not branded with your domain name/business name/logo; the marketplace takes a cut of each sale; and you don’t own the content, so advertising can be laid directly over your content. You also can’t collect email addresses from fans to use in email marketing.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to take control of your social media profile, drive prospects directly to it with a personal domain name you share on your business cards, shop signage — even your email signature.
2. Do-it-yourself website builders
There are many different software platforms that can be used to build your own website. These include GoDaddy tools like Website Builder and Managed WordPress, which makes the popular content management system virtually maintenance-free.
These platforms range from very easy to some skill required, with WordPress having the greatest learning curve. Do-it-yourself website builders allow a much higher level of customization than social media or marketplace accounts, and they allow you to use your own domain name. This is important because you want your business name to be in your web address — one you control — not tacked onto https://www.amazon.com, for example.
It’s the first thing you need when you want to start branding yourself or your organization, and for this, there is a yearly cost. Depending on which domain extension you choose (e.g. .ca, .com), the cost could be from $2 to $20 per year. Your domain name will serve as the cornerstone of your digital identity, so choose carefully.
See if your domain name is available now
You’ll also need an SSL certificate to sell from your own website, which is why Online Store from GoDaddy comes with one built in. An SSL encrypts exchanges between your web store and your customers, protecting private data like passwords and payment details from theft.
Although it does involve an expense, having a secure web store on your own domain puts you on the map. It allows search engines to identify your efforts separately from anyone else. If you succeed, you get all the credit (and the revenue).
Pros and cons of DIY site builders
Doing it yourself has lots of benefits — you can tinker until it’s just right, there’s no one to say what you can and can’t do — and a few drawbacks.
Pros: Fast and fairly easy to learn; many customization capabilities; you own the content and have complete control over it; doesn’t require any technical expertise (unless you opt for WordPress). You keep all the proceeds from anything you sell on your site.
Cons: You will have to build your own audience through blogging or paid ads; the cost of the builder (plus hosting if it’s not included) and domain name; WordPress takes more time to experiment with and build.
3. A custom solution
Finally, there are a number of ways that you can build your own website from scratch. If you’d like, you can hand-code every line of HTML and CSS code. You can use a framework in PHP, Ruby or Perl or another arcane language like Go. Or you can download a free version of WordPress from WordPress.org and install it on a separate hosting plan.
These tools and services go back to the beginning of the internet — they have been developed by groups of programmers, and in many ways, are meant strictly for those with a technical background.
Although WordPress is democratizing publishing, get ready for a steep learning curve after inputting a theme or plugin. This is why many people hire developers to help them build out custom solutions.
Pros and cons of a custom solution
This is a great option for those who can afford it — you get exactly what you want.
Pros: 100-percent customization; you can accomplish pretty much anything with enough time and/or expertise; it is possible to scale to thousands of visitors with an unlimited set of use cases.
Cons: The expertise required is substantial; custom sites cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to build and might require costly monthly hosting; unless you’ve got the technical expertise, you will need to pay a professional to maintain your website.
Tips on building websites
There are many tips out there for building websites, but here are a few I think can make or break a successful website.
Make it easy to get around
Your website should be easy to navigate, read and find. Difficult-to-spell domain names can sometimes lead to the death of a brand (because they’re hard to remember and type into a search engine). You should write in plain language, at an 8th-grade reading level. The navigation must be straightforward and easy to understand, and the website text must be easy to read against the background colour. Do not assume readers will want to spend hours perusing your website, unless it is a fascinating catalogue of Star Trek memorabilia!
Invite others to link to it
You will need to build inbound links from other websites. This is how you build credibility online. This is also how Google determines authority — which websites link to you that are of higher authority than yours. The higher your authority in Google’s eyes, the higher your site might rank on the search engine results page.
Lock it up
You will need to secure your website with an SSL certificate to encrypt the sensitive information that visitors submit to your site. Savvy shoppers won’t submit payment information to any website that doesn’t have one.
Make sure it’s fast and mobile-friendly
Your website must load in three seconds or less — on any device — so get high-quality hosting. It must also be easy-to-use on a mobile device without squeezing or pinching.
Use traffic-stopping visuals
Use high-quality photos that have been optimized for the web, preferably original photos.
Tell them how to get in touch
You should have at least one page where you list your address. For businesses, a phone number and email is a must on the contact page. Most do it on every page.
Avoid the most popular pitfalls
Try to avoid music or videos that automatically play when you open a page. If you find that annoying, most of your visitors will too.
Stay the course
Website success takes ingenuity — make sure you offer something of value and have a conversation with your visitors. Many of the visitors to your website will leave after one page; find out why the few stay for more. Use your intuition to find more visitors like that and build upon those successes. This is what separates the millions of ghost-town websites from ones that slowly build a presence and become destinations for many.
“How do I build a website?” is a question that is pretty easy to answer. The question you should ask next is about how you can effectively attract more people to your website. We’ll save that question for another time.