A Web Primer for Newbies

21/12/2011 14:26

A Web Primer for Newbies (with apologies to hard-core techies)

So you've decided that you need a website for your small business. That's good. But chances are, you're also unsure of what to do at this point — beyond handing over money to those who create websites and being at their mercy.

Even though people like me might benefit from your situation, my recommendation is that you familiarize yourself with the basics before forging ahead. Not only will the basics enable you to speak intelligently to someone about what you want now, you'll also arm yourself with important information about meeting your future needs. So if you truly know nothing about how a website becomes that "thing" that you surf on the web — and I'm assuming that you have had experience with that, at least — read on for the essential details.

Internet? WWW?

What is the difference between the internet and the world wide web? These days, people tend to use the terms interchangeably, but to be picky, the internet is the infrastructure (the hardware and communications backbone; i.e., a network) on which the web (essentially an elaborate information system) runs. A website that someone creates for you needs to be put on the world wide web, from which it can then be accessed by people connected to the internet.

Domain Name

You've likely heard stories about people who made big money in the early 1990s by selling domain names. "McDonalds.com" is a prime example of how one person made significant pocket change for himself by selling a domain name to a large multi-national that didn't have the foresight to register its namesake on the world wide web.

One of the things that you need to do if you want a website is to register a domain name for your company, with a domain name registrar. Since many organizations register domain names to accommodate their email service, you (or someone) may have done this already. If you currently receive email at yourname@yourcompany.com, you're one step ahead of the game.

Otherwise, think of a few ideas for domain names and cross your fingers that one of them is still available. A variety of sites can confirm availability for you. You're also not limited to the [dot] "com" extension (officially known as a TLD — a top level domain), although that's the usual choice for commercial sites in North America.

Your web developer (also referred to as website designer, webmaster, etc.) can provide you with information regarding where/how to register your chosen domain name. Cost varies, but it should not be more than $20 per year. Regardless of who pushes the keys and pays for this simple transaction, request (and get verification) that you are registered as the actual owner of the domain name.

As you may have guessed, your domain name is ultimately your calling card on the web, so shorter is better.

Web Host & Web Space

Your website represents you on the web. With a domain registered, you now have a name and address on the web and can be found by others. (Web addresses are like phone numbers; you can keep them when you "move".) The next step is to find a landlord to rent you a suitable place to live on the web. (And yes, to carry this analogy further, you can be your own landlord and own your own home, but generally speaking, you don't do this unless you're a very large company or have specialized needs.) The "landlord" is known as a web host, where you live is commonly referred to as web space, and the lease on your place is known as a web hosting plan or simply hosting. In quasi-technical terms, a web host operates a bunch of computers (known as servers or more specifically, file servers) that connect to the internet; your website files are copied to (uploaded to) these computers to make them accessible through the world wide web.

Your web landlord will typically offer three types of living arrangements, with space and associated amenities ranging from basic to high-end. Fees are shown as monthly rates, but most hosting plans are payable on a yearly basis at a discount. Pricing is extremely competitive. If your needs are minimal and you're not actually conducting business online (i.e., you don't sell product through your website), your hosting costs can be as little as a dollar a month. A small business that runs a website simply to convey information does not need an elaborate hosting plan, so ask questions if you're looking at more than $75 a year (and even that's high). There is absolutely no reason to pay for features and services that you won't use, because any good web hosting company will readily upgrade you to the next level without penalty if your needs change.

If you don't have a domain name already, here's some good news: the company that registers your domain will usually offer hosting options. Your web developer should be able to recommend a one-stop service.

FTP Access

FTP stands for file transfer protocol; it's usually the method by which the files that your web developer creates (i.e., those that comprise your website) are uploaded to your web host's servers. In essence, FTP allows you to move in and out of your home on the web. To use FTP, you need the following: 1) FTP software to access and communicate with the file server, 2) an FTP address, and 3) a username and password, since this is meant to be a secure process.

Free FTP software is widely available; your webmaster can direct you to various options. Your web host will make known its FTP address (usually something like ftp.hostcompanyname.com, or it could be a straight IP address like and provide a username and password for access when you set up an account. These are essentially the keys to your home on the web. If you have a website installed, anyone with these keys can modify (i.e., damage, take down, etc.) your site. If you don't have a website installed, anyone with these keys can "move in" and use your web space for his/her own purposes.

Your web developer usually has FTP access to your web space before your website is turned over to you. Use your best judgement regarding how this situation may need to change after your site is uploaded and running. For example, if someone in your company plans to maintain the site, change the password.

Web Files

A website is composed of a set of files — collections of bits and bytes that generate text and pictures. While "a website" is referred to in the singular, no website originates from just a single file. This page that you are reading right now is controlled by a single HTML (hypertext markup language) file, but to achieve its complete look, it calls upon seven other files. Most of these are for the associated graphics; each picture incorporated into a website becomes an individual file.

When you engage someone to build a website for you, you are paying for the creation of these web files. The other "stuff" that's been mentioned to this point — the domain registration and hosting arrangements — are secondary services that most web developers will handle for you, but they're usually charged for separately, since a hosting company receives that revenue and not your web developer. It is not unreasonable for your webmaster to charge an admin fee, however, to act on your behalf in these transactions with the hosting company.

By the way, making arrangements for hosting and designing the site are not interdependent. Someone can pursue both streams of work simultaneously or one after the other; it doesn't matter. The only issue is time. If a site is to be launched as quickly as possible, establishing an account with a web host early ensures that a website can be uploaded without delay after development and testing.

Website Maintenance & Ongoing Costs

So now your website is officially "out there". What about making future changes? If you need to edit something, will you simply call your webmaster? If the answer is yes, you may want to set up a maintenance contract or some other written agreement regarding hourly rates and expected turnaround time.

One more thing: domain registration and hosting are on-going costs. You can pay for more than one year of domain registration at a time, but at some point, you'll need to renew it. Beware of a well-known "scam" concerning domain name renewals. You may get telephone calls, letters, or faxes asking for payment when your domain is up for renewal. Do not just pay these invoices without carefully inspecting their source! You may inadvertently transfer your domain to some other registrar (which usually charges for renewals at an inflated price) and not realize your mistake until much later.

A Final Word about Hosting Plans

Monthly fees for hosting depend on the bundle of included services. In general terms, the larger and more functional a site is (such as an online store), the more crucial the choice of an appropriate hosting plan. Sites that are popular have to be concerned about the amount of data transfer (commonly referred to as bandwidth) allowed; the more "hits", page views, or downloads from a site, the more data transfer is required to accommodate the traffic. Large sites with elaborate content (such as an online encyclopedia) might be most concerned about the amount of physical disk space provided. That said, an informational website for a small business shouldn't have issues with any of these features; the limits on the lowest level plan offered by a host company will more than suffice. Therefore, your ongoing costs for hosting should be the same or even less than what you pay at the start.