A beginner’s budget for Brenda

So I’m walking to the worship service when Brenda E. stops me, a woman at church who knows enough about computers where acronyms such as FTP and RDBM aren’t a big, scary deal. Through some horrible twist of fate, she explains to me that she is about to enter the cruel world of creating and maintaining a website, specifically for her homeowner’s association. As Brenda begins to ask me questions about domain names and web hosting when I rudely interrupt her and ask here to email me her questions.

Sorry Brenda, but it wasn’t that you were being an imposition, but rather I immediately began thinking how your questions would make for a relevant and useful article. Thanks so much for sharing them:

I’ve recently agreed to take over our homeowners association website , which is badly in need of updating (your recent discussions on maintaining current content don’t apply just to churches! …more on that later…)

So my questions are…
1. Where do I start with finding a host and registering a domain? I’d like a name that is a bit more obvious, like www.norbeckgrove.com
2. What kind of budget should I plan on (most likely will come out of my own pocket, but I can try to scrape a few bucks from the HOA)
3. I discovered Web Page Wizard in Word 2000 and have actually made a page and put it on the web. I’m debating trying to edit the existing code of our association website or starting over from scratch. Suggestions?

If I were a betting man, I’d wager a dinner at the Hard Times Café Chili Parlor that Brenda’s questions strike a familiar chord with some of you newbies lurking about this site. Go ahead, leave me a corroborating comment, I’ll still pick up the tab!-)

Five-alarm heartburn aside … or should I say speaking of angina … getting a website started and hosted can be a worrisome task to someone who hasn’t done it before. Like driving for the first time, you’re eager to do it. You know you can, but it all seems so overwhelming at first.

First things first, a quick and important clarification, Registering a domain and hosting a domain are two different things. I know this can be confusing because there are domain registry companies that sell hosting, and hosting companies that sell (or bundle) domain name registrations.

For example, most of my domains are registered with GoDaddy.com. It costs $8.95 per year, though currently they’re running a sale on ‘.com’. If you visit their site, you may also notice that they offer some rather inexpensive web hosting options at around $3.95 per month, as well as a $4.95 per month subscription to an online web site generation and maintenance program. When you consider the cost of web editing software such as $199 for FrontPage or $399 DreamWeaver MX, and another $35 to $80 for templates (I’ll describe later), the $47 + $59 per year GoDaddy is asking isn’t all that bad budget-wise.

Oh sure, I suppose you can just get the domain, and then host the site (here, here, here or here), and then use Web Page Wizard in Word 2000 to generate some pages, but if you go down that road, you’re new site is going to be as “crufty” and unmanageable as the existing site. In part because Word does some unusable and inaccessible things to HTML … but also in part because you should always drive your hardware and software decisions based upon your needs. And you’re not going to know your needs until you sit down and redraw an information architecture for the site.

So step number one, register the domain before some squatter gets a hold of it first, then just park it while you proceed to make your mistakes on paper first.

Step two, plan diligently. That is, gather all the documents you can, and organize them. Keep the outline relatively simple, that is don’t go more than two or three levels deep. After that, pages get hard to maintain and users get lost. Some suggested top-level categories might be “about us,” “events,” “activities,” “news,” “regulations,” “homes for sale,” “directory,” and “contacts.” Everything else can fall under one of the above.

It might also help to look at some other sites, though to be quite honest, most of the homeowner’s association sites I visited while preparing this post belong as good examples of bad web design over at WebPagesThatSuck. That said, here are a couple that are passable, including Calumet Ranch, Missouri, Paxton Lake, Horsethief Canyon, CA or Brittany Park and Tarpon Trace Homeowners Association Daily News. All of them have flaws, but it’s the best of the bunch I could find for now.

Then interview users and contributors. Then tweak your hierarchy. What you’ll probably find is that your calendar and your news are going to be the most dynamic elements of your site. That’s not a bad thing because there are a number of weblog and/or content management systems that can help you publish and maintain your website. The problem is that in most cases, you need to know your way around MySQL, PHP and/or Perl in an Apache server platform. Yeah … you knew there was a catch.

So rather than dealing with the learning curve of domains, hosts, servers, languages, databases and other fun stuff that’ll make a full-career out of a volunteer effort, my suggestion is looking at a web host that includes content management or a weblogging system as part of the price of hosting your site. This gets your site online quickly, and leaves you with a framework in which you can walk through self-paced tutorials such as the Yale Web Design Guide at your own pace.

The first host fit the bill that comes to MY mind is pMachine Hosting. For $9.95 a month, you can host your site and have access to a rather powerful weblogging/publishing tool named pMachine that Mike Boyink recently used to effectively create and maintain the Ridge Point Community Church website. And while I myself use MovableType, pMachine not only includes an easy way to post news items, but also provides you with a calendar and a forum.

Yes, that’s a bit more money a month than a free site at Tripod/Lycos, but nothing says trouble like a pop-up ad for an online casino when your kids are trying to find out when the pool is open. You get what you pay for.

That said, there is an interesting offer currently ongoing at 1&1 Internet which allows you to host your site for free, and gives you access to their online website creation/management package, for three years. After that you have to pay. My only concern is that any company foolish enough to give away all that bandwidth may now be around in three years. You get what you pay for.

The other way to go is to purchase a web editing tool, which will give you complete control of your code, but then that also means you’re fighting getting the site online along with trying to learn how to program HTML. This is why I usually recommend that FrontPage users purchase a $35 to $50 template from PixelMill, in part because it saves them buckets of time, in part because the templates that come bundled with FrontPage stink. A good example of someone who benefited from this advice is Frank Ramage who maintains the Burtonsville Baptist website (more good things about him and his site coming soon in a future post).

Personally, though I own Dreamweaver MX, my weapon of choice is TopStyle. $79 bucks for all the CSS you can eat! That said, if you really want to go down that path, then consider purchasing a template from Project VII for $60 to get you started.

Remember, CONTENT is king. Avoid the temptation to gratuitous graphics, gizmos and other kitschy cliché’s. For a good example of what not to do, I would recommend Vincent Flanders’ Son of Web Pages That Suck … and a visit to StrongBad’s Website lesson.

Hopefully that gives those of you who are new to the game a place to start. Remember though, the web is not TV or Movies. Users are goal oriented and totally mercenary when it comes to surfing. Don’t do anything that gets in their way. So keep the design simple at first and concentrate on good writing, good content and good navigation. Then go back and ruin it with non-functional graphics and Flash animations.

If nothing else, remember, it is always easier to make mistakes on paper first.