Twelve mostly non-technical tips to reduce the headache of starting a new website (based on my experience)

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Summary: While I am by no means a guru of the web, I am a guy who has worked, tooth-and-nail sometimes, in the deep crud that is building a website and maintaining a server. I'm sure there are people out there who are ten times as good as I am with it, but I do have some advice that might be somewhat usable to those of you thinking about starting up your own site.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

(23:13:55 CST)

Twelve mostly non-technical tips to reduce the headache of starting a new website (based on my experience)

I am not a web guru. I am not even a fan of web gurus. Well, some of them, maybe. I am just this guy who has ran a handful of personal and, yes, amateur websites over the years. I cannot really give you great pointers about layout, colors, syntax, or the proper image tags. I can give you pointers, yes, great ones: no. What I can do is give you some tips about how to avoid some of the worst headaches of designing and running a new website. I'll leave the spelling and the sitemap up to you, these are the non-technical and non-grammatical sort of tips. All twelve of these are based on my personal experience and I have several others fall into one or more of these traps. Overall, these twelve things are almost common sense steps but do get well overlooked when someone is creating a website and it leads to problems later. One last note, while I am mostly focusing on a websites as a whole, this can also work for more limited stuff like online image galleries and blogs to some extent.

By the way, if all you are looking for are ways to optimize, promote, and streamline websites for better search results and what-have-you; then Google has put out a nifty PDF for that.

  1. Ignore most advice you read (at least bring grains of salt)
  2. Figure out what you want from the website to begin with
  3. Have a degree of patience while planning for the long view
  4. No matter what programs you use, get a book on HTML and CSS (at least)
  5. Plan the general layout (this includes file structure)
  6. Balance big plans with reasonable structure
  7. You are going to want to test it (more than a little)
  8. Plan how and if you want to promote it
  9. Build in some sort of metric to see how it is doing
  10. Think ahead about the intellectual property of it all
  11. Make it easy for your readers to communicate with you
  12. Plan on at least one or two major breakdowns

Ignore most advice you read (at least bring grains of salt): I admit that I started with this one because of the irony, but let me explain myself. If you go and Google phrases like "tips to start a new website" you will bring up a handful of pages written by people with such titles as "Web Media Specialists" and "Digital Excursion Engineers" or whatever fake buzzwords they can cram in there. They will tell you things like "Don't make your reader scroll" and "Avoid text as much as possible". Here's my take: just make the website you want. You may read that less than 10% of viewers make it past the first screen, but screw it: If you want to write long diatribes on politics, then do so. Half of Web 2.0 users don't know the difference between "your" and "you're". Only impress that demographic if you want to.

What is more, while I am on the topic, these people rarely have kickass websites. Rarely do their own tip pages make you want to do anything besides close the window. If someone calls themselves anything like a "Web specialist", it is even money that they have never done anything on the web besides claim to be a specialist on it, and you can bet the odds are that they will ignore their own device (own = advice they often copy from other websites by similar individuals). Go to websites like, that get many many hits every single day, and see what they are doing. What works for them that you can inspire you to design to your own idiom? That's better advice than ad-rev seeking specialist can buy you.

Figure out what you want from the website to begin with: Now that you are all ready and primed to ignore my advice, let me tell you the best way to avoid a headache—plan first. Seriously, sit down and ask yourself what you want from a website. Is this just a blog to get your writings out there? Is this an image gallery to document your hometown? Is this a website dedicated to marble collecting? You can change things later, but just sitting down and tossing up subpages and redirects as they come to you is only going to multiply your headache many fold. Be honest, here. If what you want is a lot of attention, then that is going to be different than a website dedicated to being the respectful showcase of your artistic talents. There is also difference between value-added services to customers of your product in an honest marketing websites versus the advertisement-heavy "ad-rev" traps that use buzzwords and search-engine fluffing to get hits. You can make either one, but you are going to have use different tactics.

Have a degree of patience while planning for the long view: When you start actually building the website, you are going to need patience. There are going to be kinks: DNS updates will take too long, Apache will sling a rod on occasion. Research your options before you commit to anything. There are a lot. Make sure you have what you need to bring about what you want, assuming it is possible. You do not want to start off designing static pages for an Apache server and then realize, later, you really wanted ASP on a Microsoft backend. You do not want to start off with pages in a database and then change your mind that you really just want basic HTML with some Flash. You'll want to kill yourself before the switchover is complete. Once you start generating content and tweaking it, keep the fixes smooth and even. What's more, you are probably not the lucky .0.05% that is going to get tons of attention right off the bat. Do not generate a ton of content and then spam it everywhere to get fast attention. Get the content up, make it the kind of stuff people want to link to (hey, you can call yourself a "Web Specialist" and then all of you can link to each other and drive up Google ranks!), and gently promote it at a steady pace. Or, hell, promote the crap out of it and make a quick buck and a quicker headache. Just realize the slower the start, the better chance you have to get things under control before it gets big. You go too hard and too fast, and people will not stick around to see where you are going. Plan for the long view. Make all of your decisions count for time and give it a few years.

No matter what programs you use, get a book on HTML and CSS (at least): A lot of people are going to end up with a WYSIWYG style editor, or some combination WYSIWYG and source editor; but everyone should get a basic book on HTML and CSS (at least). Include some PHP in there if you are brave, some server side stuff. The more the editor does for you, the less control you get on the end product. What's more, if you use some like Word or OpenOffice, they can throw in tons of code that can create weird effects down the road. Few of them pass a lot of strict tests. They also can make it harder to track specific style-sheets, and to allow the little exceptions you need to make certain parts stand out. I recommend everyone look at their source code at least once, for most every page. There can be some ugly errors there, just "overlooked" by the browser. On a lesser note, streamlining your website by hand-coding it will help for hand-held machines partially because it will be all that much sleeker.

Plan the general layout: Up there, I told you to look at other websites. Do that some more. See how blogs tend to be laid out, how image galleries tend to look? You definitely do not have to follow precise suit, but there are certain ways that people expect to see things. At any rate, you want to know what you page will look like before you start spewing content in there. I recommend an external style sheet. Don't worry about that if you don't know what it is, just yet, but what it boils down to is that you can make a general style for your entire site instead of for each page. You want to look this up or use a application that can handle them for you. As you change this overall style, it will update every page on your site. This stops you from having to hand-edit each and every page. Maybe not a big deal if you only three or four, but some of us (like me) have something like 500 pages of various sizes. Screw that monkey. This also includes, by the way, the file structure. You want to think ahead here. If you try squeezing all of your site into two three folders, or all into the root folder, you are going to run into issues. What about pictures, all 300 you have posted? Do you really want to scroll through all 300 every time you want to edit one? Get some folders, and some subfolders, name them sensibly, and use them wisely. You will save lots of headache later with these pieces of advice.

Balance big plans with reasonable structure: Another headache is over-reaching. Some of those Web Specialists will go on and on about how to spruce up your site and how to make a dozen different classes for every tag (if you don't understand those words, just follow along as best you can). You know what? You make fifty or sixty classes of stuff, and you will juggling all sixty trying to recall what each one does. This goes, too, for things like forums and wikis and Flash and Java and interactive content. If you go crazy, you will spend all day trying to fix relatively minor glitches that have to be snaked out. You can add later if you like complexity, but if you start complex you will be tired of the thing before get all of your content posted.

You are going to want to test it: Test it. What's more, padawan, put down the Internet Explorer and use Firefox. Then, use Opera. Then, prove your stuff by using something like w3m, Lynx, or Konqueror (the first two should be available anywhere, might need Linux/Unix to get a good copy of the last one). Those latter three are very specific and very strict with code. The big browsers play nice and will overlook glitches. Those "little" browsers will tell you exactly where you page is broken. You know what else? You want to find your mistakes before a prospective client finds your mistake. Do not assume that their browser is going to be as friendly as yours. Maybe they don't have the fonts you have. Maybe they use a bigger font size, or a smaller resolution. Test it. Make sure it still works. It may just not.

Plan how and if you want to promote it: The second best way to promote your website is to include it in your contact information: business cards, Facebook/LinkedIn pages, Resume, your e-mail signature. There it is for those who have some point of entry into knowing you. There are other ways. RSS feeds aren't exactly promotion, but they can bring back casual browsers later. You woo them in with a particular page, they pick up your RSS/Atom feed, and then they come back for later pages. Stuff like Twitter and Facebook works as far as letting people know you have updated, but I would use sparingly and don't "repost" your previous updates too often (truth be told, I only use tweet per post and I sometimes feel like I am overdoing it). People are getting better and better at simply tuning repitition out. Going around to message boards and other people's websites and posting crap about "Come look at my site!" is bad. Very bad. Unless you have damned good reason (and no, desperate cries for attention do not count). By the way, what's the best way to promote your site? Awesome, dependable content. If people like what they see, they will pass that URL along, they will add that RSS feed, they will add that Twitter feed. That's the glory you want. Even a single mistake may just be enough to drive them away. Make your words honey and gold, people, honey and gold.

Build in some sort of metric to see how it is doing: Trust me. You are going to want to know. Who referred them to you? What search did they use? How many times has someone used this page? It can be your bane or your boon, to see how well your site is honestly loved.Find some way to check the logs, run a page count, keep up with trackbacks, and such. Google has a set of Webmaster tools you can use but they are not the end all and be all of it. I recommend digging up something to look up referrers. I made up my own program, but I'm sure several servers/hosts support that more intuitively. You not only find out who is linking to you (so you can return the favor or see what is working), but you find out people who are fake linking to you so you can ban them. At any rate, you are going to die if you just try and guess. Make sure you know who is using your page (well, at least roughly have an idea).

Think ahead about the intellectual property of it all: The web is full of thieves. It is also full of honest people who consider themselves your friends by copying something you wrote and passing it on. If your content is good, someone is going to sometime use it somehow in a way you are not fully comfortable with. Partially, that's just the way of it. Having a plan ahead of time works, too, though. Make sure you got your copyright or Creative Commons notices up, and that you have an idea of what rights are yours. If it does happen, plan on contacting whomever did it and letting them know. Then maybe follow up to their ISP. You do have rights. Just keep in mind that it's the Internet and there are hundreds if not thousands of people touching your site monthly. Someone might right-click and save-as, if you know what I mean. That's part of the ballgame. (Yes, by the way, there are tricks to stop this from happening, but I have never seen one that did not make a website worse for it, so use them sparingly if it all)

Make it easy for your readers to communicate with you: The best metric, as well as the best way to feel justified in writing your website, is to make it easy for your readers to comment to you and talk to you. This does not mean making comment page like pre-built blogs have, just a readily found e-mail address mixed in with, say, a few instant messenger SNs that they can use to talk to you. If you get a lot of readers, you might want to try a more automated forum/comment section but be aware of the problems that they might cause. If you are a lone webmaster then having to sort through tons of spam is not going to make you happy.

Plan on at least one or two major breakdowns: Finally, there are going to be days when you realize you just wrote 200 pages but forgot to include a necessary link. Or, your database is going to die. Or, you are going to hacked. Something bad is going to happen. Make a regular back up of your site, first off. Secondly, learning a handful fo command-line scripts to go through and edit pages is not a bad idea (when I rewrote my sidebars, I used scripts to change something like 500 of them within a couple of hours including scripting and confirming time). Finally, figure out which of your friends you can call on in an emergency, even if all they do is buy you a beer and give you a shoulder to cry on.

Well, that's my twelve. Hopefully some of them helped you somewhere. If not, well, I had fun writing it. Happy designing.

Si Vales, Valeo


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