DIY website? 7 things you need to know
Thinking about setting up a new website? And doing it yourself? It can't be that hard, right? Let's take a look at some of the most common trouble spots. I declare an interest upfront: I make websites for a living - but it's not all jet planes and tigers on a gold leash, so here's my list.
1. Content editor code nightmares
Your basic content editor comes in a few different flavours, ranging from simple like the Wordpress editor, to more complex like Ephox's EditLive. Most look like a cut down version of Microsoft Word, with the same buttons for basic text formatting like bold, emphasis and bullet lists. Things can get messy when you start to add things like complex tables, but the biggest bugbear by far is the garbage you get when you paste in text that you've put together in Word.
If you're using MS Office to write your content before you copy it into your editor, using Word's built-in styles rather than just formatting individual headings is the best way to keep things clean, keep search engines happy, make your pages load faster and make it easier on yourself when you come back later to edit the page.
2. Page optimisation
Most content management systems make it very easy to create a page (if yours doesn't, it's time for a new one). Many don't require you to add a page title and a description, so you might skip this step to save yourself some time. Likewise, you might also skip the use of heading or 'H' tags in your text content. Both of these time savers effectively minimise your chances that the page will be appear in search results, and that people will click on your link if they can't work out quickly what your page is about.
Each time you create a page, take a minute to add a considered description for the page using around 155 characters, and a title that's relevant to the page topic in around 55 characters. These are normally what search engines will display when the page shows up in search results, so it's important that they make sense and encourage people to read it. The headings will also allow people to scan your content quickly to work out if it's relevant to them, and if there's one thing that people won't spend time on, it's working out whether they should bother to read your page or not - they'll just go somewhere else.
3. Image optimisation
Like new pages, most content management systems also make it easy to add images to your page. Some have drag and drop upload which makes it almost a no-brainer. What's usually missing the step to properly optimise the image for the web, which normally requires that files are compressed and resized to suit the page - not resized in the content editor, which means that an image you upload straight from your camera might be more than 3,000 pixels wide if it's an 8 megapixel camera and might be a 6MB file. This is too big for just about any website, slows down loading time for your page, and means you'll be paying your web host more than you need to for data traffic.
Every image you add to your site should be resized and compressed to suit the page, and this is best done with a graphics application that gives you control over the settings applied to your file before it's uploaded. This way, you're not making people wait longer than they need to for your page and getting an unnecessary bill for excess data from your web host.
4. Browser and device compatibility
In case you missed it, there's been an explosion in the growth of mobile use on the web and the number of people using devices other than the traditional desktop PC to research products and services has increased exponentially. Making sure your site works in the latest version of Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer, as well as the broadest possible range of mobiles and tablets, is critical to reaching as many potential customers as possible - you don't want to lose business because someone with an iPhone can't use your site, and broken layouts and unreadable text just doesn't instil confidence in your professionalism.
It does take a considerable investment of time to ensure that everything looks right and works properly in different browsers and devices, and this is an area where professional help can be invaluable to save you wasting time and money.
5. Domain names and web hosting
Registering a domain is easy, and you can often order web hosting right along with it for an extra $10 per month. What can be hard to stay on top of is the domain renewal, and you definitely get what you pay for with budget web hosting providers - whether it's limited support or overloaded web servers that take forever to serve your page. Budget providers keep their costs low by keeping their volumes high, which means more clients crammed onto each server and dehumanised, self-service support. Add language barriers and different time zones at the helpdesk to this, and you can quickly become frustrated.
If you're doing things yourself and learning as you go, the chances are you'll need some help so it's wise to look into the options for support that your web host offers. If it's important to you to be able to talk to a real person when you need it, you might want to find a locally based company that can manage your domain and won't be hosting your site in Timbuktu (of course, there's nothing wrong with hosting in Timbuktu if you live there).
6. Keeping it focused
This is a subtle point and one that's easy to overlook. When someone visits your site, you only have a few seconds to get your message across clearly, and to give them a reason to go further than the first page. There is both art and science in grabbing attention and channelling the user to take the action you want them to take on your site - whether it's buying, getting in touch with you, giving you information or downloading something you want them to take away. If there are questions your visitors will want answered, you need to be providing the answers without asking them to go looking for them because they typically won't. If your competitors make it easier to find what they're looking for, they'll go with them.
When you first build a site, and as you add to it over time, you need to be focused on whatever the goal is for your users, and it's crucial that the design, navigation, text, imagery, structure and everything else support this. The art and science of doing this is what web professionals can do for your site, and if you're not doing it as well as your competition, you'll probably lose business to those that make it easy to buy/contact/find/etc. from them.
7. Spending enough time to get it right
Learning how to do things well takes a significant amount of your precious time. It's easy to slap up a quick page, and many of the tools out there make it seem very straight forward. What's missing with this approach is the learning and experience that goes into doing it well: the structure has to be consistent and channel visitors to your goal, pages have to be built properly, navigation has to be predictable, everything has to be tested and so on. All of these factors, plus some more behind the scenes work, make the difference between a site that's OK and a professional one that performs for your business.
Like many aspects of business, successful people realise that in order to make money its best to let professionals do the work so you can concentrate on whatever drives your success.
A foregone conclusion?
Was this a foregone conclusion? Maybe not if you're determined to DIY, but these are all recurring themes that come from real discussions and experiences with clients that have invariably come to the same conclusion. Although it's possible to raise your own cows, who wants to get up at 4.30am every morning to get fresh milk?