Saturday, April 30, 2011

Building a Web Site

When I first went to college, way back in the early 90’s, the Internet was still something of a myth. Only a few had seen it and it seemed like even fewer knew how to get there without help. When I returned to school later in the decade, I was fortunate enough to take a Literature class that introduced me to HTML coding. I took to it like a duck to water at the time, cranking out pages just for the fun of it. Even then, change was in the air. A program called Dreamweaver would take the nuts and bolts programming out of web site design. I lamented the change. There was something satisfying about building something from the ground up, tweaking it offline like an engine in a shop, then taking it for a spin.

Then came a long stretch of time where having an online presence was satisfied by MySpace (who?) and Facebook. I was content to not have anything more than that. But, eventually, in an attempt to spur on my writing, I started a blog. I’d heard about blogging (everyone had one!), but thought it would pass as a fad. Hmmm…not quite...yet. And, though my initial blog was a bit of a failure, it was the first platform I returned to when I decided that it would be important to have an online soap box to stand on and spout from.

And now, as I reach the home stretch of self-publication, I find myself coming full circle. The blog, I feel, just isn’t enough for some people. They need to see a Web site in someone’s name to give credence to their legitimacy. Though I won’t admit a need for this in my own mind, it certainly has a psychological effect when I can click on joesmith.com and lo and behold, there’s Joe Smith. I imagine this might be a generational thing that passes.

The good news is that there are several options out there for someone wanting to build a website. Most sites that offer hosting also offer do-it-yourself web-site building programs as a part of your purchase. For an extra fee, some sites will also build your site for you. Shop around if this is the route you want to go. Remember, for something like an author Web site, where you might not have a ton of extra pages, bigger might not necessarily be better.

However, when you’ve had server space offered for free, you don’t turn it down (yes, that squeaking sound is me). So, now it’s up to me to figure out how to build my new website. I took a look around and found two programs in particular: Kompozer and CoffeeCup both provide feature-rich HTML editors. Of the two, CoffeeCup is a little more refined, but offers fewer editing options (available in their paid version).

Both programs feature tabs that allow you to see the HTML coding and preview what it will looks like online (Komposer also has tabs that show you CSS tagging and the ability to edit on the preview screen). Both come with a couple of simple templates, but you’re probably better off searching for one on the web. There are hundreds of websites out there (do a Google search for free web site template). I think there must be some “start your own business” kit for these sites. Most of the sites look alike and offer free templates next to “premium” designs that make the free ones pale in comparison. Obviously, you get what you pay for. If you want a Flash design element or some other fancy effects, you might need to know more than the basics, and you might need to open up your wallet. But, there are some really good looking, simple designs out there for free.

Getting back into web site design was sluggish at best. Both programs have simplified guides that give you the basics for text placement and image insertion. But, I definitely didn’t want to build from the bottom up. So, I dug around on the internet looking for a template. I think I went cross-eyed the first night. I must have looked through a couple thousand. I wanted something simple, but at the same time, I wanted it to convey my writing style. It was a lot to ask from something I was getting for free.
When I finally chanced upon a design I liked, I downloaded it. Most templates come in a zip form and may include a CSS style file, along with any associated image files. CSS can be a little daunting. Essentially, it makes things in the HTML more streamlined. Gives definition to your coding. Don’t be afraid of it! It might look scary, but it’s actually fairly intuitive, once you figure out what parts need to change (if any). And, best of all, CSS is just a simple text file that you can edit right in Notepad.

You’ll want to open the index file with your software. This should allow you to see the working template. Now, you just have to go in and fill in the blanks, or in most cases, replace the filler text with what you really want on the page. HTML can look like a bunch of gobbledy gook, but Kompozer actually lets you highlight an item on the preview tab, then show you that code in the HTML. Very handy when you’re unsure of what you’re doing.

Though I’m sure there are plenty of websites that will ramble on about how to properly code a web page, I found that the best way to do it is trial and error. Always keep a copy of your original files, in case you mess up. But, play around a little. You’ll be surprised at just how easy it can be with these newer programming tools. That being said, if you type in how do I insert an image into my web page into Google, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of help

As for hosting your page, there are plenty of sites out there (again, just type in web site hosting to Google and I’m sure you’ll get a bunch of hits). One in particular does plenty of advertising without my mentioning it here. Their CEO recently decided to hunt and kill an elephant in Africa. Yeah, not exactly the kind of guy I can get behind. There are plenty of services out there. If you’re looking for relatively cheap domain registration (if, like me, you have server space already available), I suggest 1&1. They charge nothing to register the domain itself, and only a nominal yearly fee to maintain the registration (presently $4.99/yr). That shouldn't break anyone's bank account.

Overall, building a web site shouldn’t drive you crazy. As much as I believe it’s a must, things are changing every day. I don’t believe they are so important that you have to invest hundreds of dollars or hours of your time. It’s important to have the platform, but when it comes down to it, people are going to come for your writing, not because you’ve got a flashy web site. The aim should be to make it a functional and helpful tool for readers to discover more about you and your writing. I'm hoping to have mine wrapped up soon (if www.andyrane.com works, then I've finished!).