Today on Kathryn Ryan’s programme on Radio New Zealand National I talked about building your own website. There are a vast number of websites in the world – it can’t be that hard or no-one would have one! Making one can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be. Below the fold are my speaking notes and some useful links.
Q: Building a website – isn’t that a job for professionals?
A: That depends what you are tying to achieve. Often you are better having an amateur one – and it’s not that hard to do – than you are having none at all.
Q: OK, you say that – but most of us don’t want or need a site!
A: No, and for individuals this is less of an issue – although the runaway success of social networking sites like Facebook suggests that people are interested in having a few pages to call their own.
But for businesses – I find it hard to see how you can run a business without a website. How are your customers going to find you? Yes, they might look you up in the Yellow Pages – but only if they haven’t had any joy in Google!
Q: Wasn’t there some comment about this the other day from a software writer?
A: Yes, Sir Gil Simpson, the man behind Jade, a very successful software entrepreneur. Not to mention a fanatical Cantabrian, not that there’s anything wrong with that of course! He stood up at a small business expo in Christchurch and said that businesses don’t necessarily need a website. He said that many sites a waste of money and the value you get from designer is variable.
Q: Is he right?
A: Well, I hate to differ with someone so well-qualified as Sir Gil – but it’s hard to see how any business can attract customers without a basic site. You don’t need a lot, just enough to answer people’s questions and help them contact you. And Sir Gil’s perfectly right about the quality and value for money of designers being variable. I’m not saying all designers are bad, or even that any are, but there’s no doubt that it’s difficult for businesses to figure out what they should be paying, and what they can use a website for.
Q: What should a small business use a site for?
A: Information to customers. Exactly what depends on the type of business. Let’s take a restaurant as an example – I’d like to see its overall theme, a menu, the location (perhaps with a link to Google Maps or similar), and a telephone number for reservations. It would be easy for them to put up and it would show up in a web search. That would make me far more likely to visit than just an entry in the Yellow Pages.
Now even if only ten percent of people would check the web first, that’s ten percent of potential customers you lose if you don’t have a site.
Q: But what if the small business can’t afford a site?
A: My real point here is that they don’t cost much. Mine costs me about ten bucks a month for instance, and a bit of skull sweat now and then to keep it fresh.
Q: As little as that? But most of us don’t have the skills to make that happen.
A: It’s not all that hard. You need a domain name and I’ve tlaked about those a lot before so I won’t go into that again now. After that, the first thing you need is a hosting provider. That’s space on somebody’s web server. Search for web hosting and you will find lots.
Q: And they should be in New Zealand?
A: Ideally. But the prices here are much higher, or rather the service levels for a rock bottom price are much lower than they are in the US. So, it pains me to suggest it, but people should consider offshore hosts as well as local ones.
Q: Why is it cheaper offshore?
A: Two reasons. One is that Southern Cross cable – you know, our fibre lifeline across the Pacific. It’s close to being a monopoly and it’s priced that way. All New Zealand Internet services are priced to take that fact into account. Which is ironic if you are making a New Zealand web site for New Zealand use, which won’t be sending traffic over Southern Cross, because you will effectively be paying for that cable in your web hosting plan. If you host in the US for a New Zealand audience you definitely will be sending a lot of traffic over the cable, but because your host is a US company it won’t be paying for the cable, so you get the hosting much cheaper. Go figure.
The second problem is what network people call peering. The Internet works by exchanging network traffic. I have some traffic for you; we both connect to a neutral point and you take it from me. The whole network works that way. A few years ago the major telcos here – that’s two companies beginning with “T” – both decided they wouldn’t do that any more. They swap traffic with each other, but third parties have to pay them to exchange traffic. By a curious coincidence the amounts demanded are just slightly less than the cost third parties would have in putting that traffic down Southern Cross to San Francisco or Sydney, where the big companies would have to pick it up for free. To push an analogy here; there used to be a toll gate on the Hutt Road here in Wellington that everyone coming from outside town had to pay to pass through. There’s no doubt the Council of the time justified with sentiments like: why should people who aren’t our ratepayers use our roads – but really, the Council put the gate there because it could.
This refusal to peer is not too different from putting toll gates on the Internet. This piece of feral corporate behaviour causes people – especially large sites – to host offshore, which is basically making people import services which could better be provided at home.
Now at the Kiwi Foo camp in February – which was a sort of a sort of geek heaven in Warkworth – David Cunliffe, the Minister for IT got hosed down about this problem and said he’d do something about it. And recently, Telecom (but not TelstraClear) said it will again start peering. Telecom was concerned about people using peering to move their traffic around the country for free, and fair enough, and it has said that it will peer so long as you bring traffic to the right part of the country first. TelstraClear, which is the one of them that started this de-peering, doesn’t look likely to change its mind, though. So you have to question whether TelstraClear is really even providing Internet through its Paradise and ClearNet brands, since lots of the traffic takes an unnecessary offshore trip with the extra cost, risk and time delay that causes.
Q: And what will this cost you?
A: For a small site with modest traffic – ten dollars per month in NZ, 7 US, which is much the same thing, for a lot more traffic and space and builtin facilities.
Q: What kind of facilities? Is this just geeky stuff?
A: Some of it is – and there’s nothing wrong with that! After all, geeks built all the technology that makes our lives so comfortable! Some of what web hosts offer you is just plain useful to everyone, like statistics on how many people have been to your site, where they are from, and which pages they like. Then there’s things like backups, email services, shopping carts, credit card gateways, and blogging software. My site IT.GEN.NZ runs using some open source blogging software called WordPress. I’ll put the notes for this program up on it in a few minutes. But for now, we’ll talk about designing a general purpose web site rather than a blog – I can talk bit more about getting a blog going another time.
Q: OK, so how do you go about designing web pages?
A: First of all, you need to understand that web pages are described using something called HTML, or hypertext markup language. To unpack that: hypertext means text with links you can click in it, and markup means that you have a mixture of actual text and instructions which tells your web browser how to lay that text out on the screen. The instructions are all contained in angle brackets. And every web page will let you see that markup – you just need, in your browser, that’s Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari for most people, you need to find the menu option that’s called something like View Page Source and have a look at it. Don’t be put off by the welter of brackets – you’ll be able to see the text in there as well, and by looking hard at the stuff in the angle brackets you can at least get an idea what that’s like. Old mainframe hands like me recognise it as very similar to an ancient IBM word processing language called script, and that’ s because they both came from the same roots. Now, I’m not suggesting you just go out and try your hand at HTML unless you want to – but it’s honestly not hard – just that you take a look at a chunk of it and see what it looks like. The important thing is to know that it’s there and not to be afraid of it.
If you don’t want to code pages directly in HTML – and some of us really do want to do this, but most don’t – the best way to get started at doing web pages is to use a package which does the HTML for you. There are lots out there. Apple Mac users have iWeb which guides you through creating a website, but it really wants to put the site on Apple’s expensive dot mac service. You can get round that by using a host which lets you have disk access to your web site – that’s also called WebDAV by the way, it’s something you want if you are choosing a web host because it lets programs on your computer see your web site as though it were a local disc drive on your computer. iWeb comes free with the Mac, but you can upgrade to a later version for about $100.
Windows users have Microsoft’s FrontPage, which also costs about $100. That’s another tool which lets you design the page with a mouse and writes the HTML for you, and helps you upload it.
But I’m always keen to get something for nothing – aren’t we all – and there is a good free open source alternative called Nvu – that’s N-V-U – which lets you design with a mouse, publish it to your website and all those good things. And most people who know say it writes far better HTML than FrontPage or iWeb. It’s certainly mmore compliant to standards, and that’s a very good thing. Nvu runs on Linux, Windows and Macs.
Finally, you can test web pages without a server. Just save them onto your own computer’s hard drive and double-click on them in Windows Explorer or Mac Finder and they will open in your favourite web browser. So you can download Nvu for nothing, have a play at designing your pages, save them to a directory on your hard disk and see how they look, all without spending a cent. When you get confident, sign up for a real web server and publish them to it.
And if you get really interested in doing a website that’s about more than just displaying static content, you can always have a look at Ruby on Rails. That’s the latest hot way for doing database-driven sites, and most really interesting sites have databases behind them. You need to have done a little programming before and have some idea what a database is – but if you have, give it a go. I’ll put a link to Ruby on Rails up for today, and it’s a good thing to ask for from a web hosting service, just so you can go and have a play with it. You never know – you might end up the next Sam Morgan!
Sir Gil Simpson’s reported comments on why businesses don’t all need websites.
A primer on HTML.
Accessing your web pages by WebDAV (make sure your web host offers this!)
Ruby on Rails – an amazingly productive way of writing clever web sites.
A Google search on web hosting.