How I stopped worrying and learned to build a Web site

The year was 1996 and, fueled by the fervor of the Internet Dawn, I hunkered down with a Teach Yourself HTML book in order to master the future. I recall the clunky, ugly pages I wrought through those lessons — it gave me a feeling of power not dissimilar to my 1979 experiments with a TI-99 running BASIC, when I commanded the ones and zeroes to:

10 PRINT ANDY

20 GOTO 10

30 END

When the screen filled up with infinite Andys, I thought the days of programming my army of servant robots could not be far behind.

But here in 2009, with three kids and a job hunt going on, I’ve lost touch with my inner Lightman (Matthew Broderick in “Wargames,” remember?). It’s a universal truth that if you don’t use it, you lose it; and any Web-savvy prowess I might have had has long since been superseded by guys who can dream in Flash and fly on Rails. I feel like my father after the carburetor was replaced by the fuel injector: “How do you fix these damn things anymore?”

So when it became clear I should put up a more professional Web site to advertise my freelance services, I wasn’t quite sure where to begin. Who will host my site? How will I build it? What’s the best deal?

If you’re in the same techno-predicament, or if you’re just curious about the process, this post’s for you — I certainly would have appreciated the advice two weeks ago.

The Problem: Build a professional-looking web site to advertise my writer/editor services — and make it fast, easy and cheap!

The Soution, Step One: Identify an all-inclusive Web service that has simple tools for building a site; ideally, it would also allow me to register the domain name and host the site all in one swell foop.

Well, I didn’t believe how difficult it was to get a simple answer to this. Most of the time a swift Google search will drum up somebody with a strong opinion about anything, but the best I could come up with was a Lifehacker.com poll where readers picked their favorite services — but it lacked Lifehacker’s helpful analysis of what or why or which of these jumbled brand names I should choose. If anyone finds a comprehensive (and objective) comparison of all the Dreamhosts, Bluehosts and HostGators of the world, let me know will you?

Anyway, since I really wanted one-stop shopping for buying the domain (akin to the deed to the land), hosting the site (the physical space where the house will stand) and building the pages (the McMansion itself), I came down to two providers:

* GoDaddy (you’ve seen their lascivious commercials), versus

* Network Solutions (the original domain-name registrar of the Internet).

At first GoDaddy seemed the obvious choice — as a major advertiser hitching its wagon to easy, mass-market access to the Web, I figured this would be the simplest option. And it was. For a few moments. But I came face to face quite quickly with an array of increasingly confusing add-ons, options, upgrades, downgrades, simplifiers, complexifiers, added protections, privacy protections, pocket protections, pocket universes and universal health care until I began to not care.

Was I being nickle-and-dimed? Bait-and-switched? I just couldn’t tell. When I figured in the cost of spokeswoman Danica Patrick and 30-second Super Bowl ads, I finally decided they had to recoup their losses with me. I decided to look elsewhere.

(The bright spot of GoDaddy, however, was the automated suggestions for alternate domain names:

I do NOT want to know what's being purveyed at PaintedScottLive.com...

I like how the automated thesaurus switches “Drew” with “Painted” and “Pulled.” And I was sorely tempted by “EasyDrewScotty.com” — cuz, you know, I am easy like Sunday morning.)

Network Solutions, on the other hand, provided a much more streamlined registration process; it was still riddled with options because it has to be, but it concluded with a super-smart sliding-rate calculator that updated my pricing if, say, I lowered my registration length from five years to two, or upgraded from regular e-mail service to deluxe. This tool proved to be important, because I had taken to keeping a clipboard tally of the individual costs of each site just to keep the staggering columns of costs and options straight.

Hint: Each provider offered a more expensive “private registration package,” which kept my personal contact information off the very public registry record; a worthwhile cost for staving off solicitors! Network Solutions provided the clearest example of what life would be like without the private registration:

Imagine the paparazzai who would have hounded me.

I blurred my private info myself in this image — but NS’s clear presentation really forces you to consider what your privacy is worth.

The Soution, Step Two: Build my site with simple but straightforward tools. As I had hoped, Network Solutions did have easy-to-use tools, but they took a little getting used to. After a few hours labor I was already finding shortcuts and remembering oft-repeated steps, which sped up the building process immensely.

To start, you can choose a template from their stack of pre-designed layouts. The designs weren’t as numerous and as varied as I had expected (I don’t have much use for sleeping puppies or surgery-bound doctors), but I’ve since realized that if I really want to pour some customization effort into this, the tools are there to make it possible. These tools may not be very robust for someone used to working high-end design software, but for my rusty purposes, they’ll do for now.

I chose something without default art images (puppies, doctors, et al.) so I could add art of my own choosing, while still allowing me to play with colors and layouts. Not to worry, though, even after you commit to a look, you can switch to another template easily enough later — there will likely be reformatting tweaks you’ll want to do, but when I tested this functionality I judged the re-work to be reasonable and easier than I had expected.

Colors and textures on the templates vary *widely.*

Here, my original design is on the left, but with a few clicks I was able to port the whole thing to new templates in a jiffy. Text colors, sizes and spacing would all need to be tweaked, but the heavy lifting is already done.

The actual act of adding content to your site is fairly easy to grasp. Network Solutions uses a number of basic tools to controlling your pages, the most critical of which is a drag-and-drop function that took some getting used to. The basic templates divide pages into columns and give you pre-determined “entry points” to drag and drop content.

Template view.

Note those blank squares that prompt you to “Drag Content Here.” Using clearly marked tools at the top of this interface …

Note that you click the "Image" or "Text" buttons once to call up the submenu; drag an image or a textbox from this submenu.

… you can choose either images or text boxes to drag into those boxes. Rearranging these elements is intuitive, as is adding and subtracting them, and uploading images and documents from your computer. (Cutting and pasting copy from elsewhere, though, proved clunky. Pasted copy brought along old formatting I often couldn’t undo, so I ended up having to retype loads of resume materials. Boo!)

The only trick that required time to master was how to make a downloading file look attractive. The default setting is to use clunky icons or text; bleah. But I soon figured that I could upload any image (such as the cover of a book I was excerpting), and using a hidden command called “Properties”…

At first I thought this was a sneaky place to hide this, then I realized it was kind of intuitive, too.

… I could attach the image to the actual downloadable document, which prettied up my interface in no time.

Here’s the final product for public display

I chose an alchemy theme. Because I can.

…which my wife tells me is too dark, and I guess I agree. That’s an awful lot of reverse type to have to read. Perhaps I was just channeling my Goth sensibilities when I put this together. But now we know that re-jiggering the “final” product isn’t the end of the world!

All told, I’m really happy with the Network Solutions experience, which I found to have clear instructions beginning with the registration process and continuing throughout. Setting up an e-mail for this domain was a snap, and though it takes some careful reading of instructions to fully understand all the capabilities, the communication has been (so far) clear and keen. I haven’t had to test their customer service yet … but maybe I won’t have to!

EXTRA INNINGS: Early in this process, I did solicit advice from my personal tech guru, Brian E., who suggested I first register my domain through Dotster, then link it to a WordPress blog. These days, he argued, WordPress has become an all-purpose content management system, not just a blog-output device, and he felt WP would provide ample templates for any need. I didn’t end up going this route (sorry, Brian!) because it wasn’t quite one-stop-shop enough. I see now that it might have been a good idea, since I can’t seem to link this blog (where you are now) to my Network Solutions site (so a post here would get repeated over there), but I still don’t regret the gain in simplicity from taking the route I did.

Do you have varying experiences or opinions about your personal Web mastering process? I would LOVE to hear it in the comments.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “How I stopped worrying and learned to build a Web site

  1. K

    I like template #2, with modifications, for what it’s worth. Glad your retort didn’t say “my repetitive, redundant, recurrent, parrot-like squawking wife tells me is too dark.”

    Maybe you should put a poll up for your classy, dedicated readers to decide, although we all know what design-by-committee leads to.

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