A couple of years ago, I wrote a guide to web hosting for small non-profits having relatively simple content management system based sites. Since then several acquaintances have asked about personal web hosting for DIY efforts by folks who are not software engineers. This article explains the planning you need to do in the beginning and why I use WordPress for this DIY site.
This guide is intended to be of some service to my artist, dog breeder, and hobbyist friends making promotional sites or personal communications sites like this one. There are many hosts out there but most of what is written evaluates hosts for use by small agencies and solo web services consultancies. There is little for the DIY community.
Before you pick a host
It is best to do some homework before you pick a host. Those who have approached me for advice have generally not done this. They want a website but have not defined their goals, audience, established functional requirements (the types of content the site must be able to present), or a conceptual design (navigation, page layouts, planned page content). Think about this stuff first. It will make picking of a host, template, and theme much easier.
Selection of a hosting environment, template, and theme is easier if you know what page types the site will have, how the pages will be organized, and the page layouts you prefer, and the types of content that the site will present to the audience. Before shopping, decide how you would like your site to appear. The pages making up your site should have a common color scheme, branding elements, type face family, etc. Find some examples you like that can guide your choice of theme.
- Decide on your top level menus, page layouts, sidebar usage, and footer usage.
- Make wireframe mock ups of each page, sidebar, header, and footer. Decide what goes in them. Give them names
- Will older folks be reading your site? This sets restrictions on type size and type face weighting.
- Will mobile users be reading your site? If so, you need a site that lays itself out appropriate to the screen real estate available and the capabilities of the browser that is rendering the site. Such hosting environments are called responsive environments. It is the need to work with phones and tablets that is driving the move away from static pages built with MS Frontpage or Adobe Dreamweaver to pages rendered by a content management system such as WordPress or Drupal.
- Will your site be serving documents, music, or video? How much? This will rule your storage needs.
- Will your site present any content copyrighted by others? If so, you will need a royalties agreement for any music or video that you offer. ASCAP and BMI have small site licensing contracts that allow you to use their client’s music on your site for a small monthly fee. Otherwise ensure that you hold the rights to the material you serve or conform to fair use limitations.
- If you cover a popular song, record your performance, and serve it to the public, that counts as a public performance and you must pay royalties to the composer and arranger.
- Similarly, playback of video you shot and added recorded music to is a public performance of that music.
- Identify photos you need, find stock images and license them, or make photos. Obtain releases from people identifiable in the images to allow public use of their images in your context.
- If using Creative Commons licensed images or recordings, ensure that you comply with the license grant regarding attribution, commercial use restrictions, and derivative works.
- Estimate the amount of media you will need to store.
- Estimate the number of page views you expect. Most small sites will have less than 100 visitors a day and most will view only the promoted pages.
- Decide how you will promote updates to pages. Using Facebook group pages and Google+ Community pages and Twittering to promote site updates is a good way to obtain page views.
You can do this bit yourself or engage a local graphic artist to help you with colors, type faces, logos, diagrams, and stock images.
The Hosting Environment
Hosting is a service. You’re renting a pre-engineered environment that will implement your site and present its content to your audience. The tools to build the site are part of the site itself but are visible only to logged in administrators, editors, authors, and contributors.
- You should not have to worry about obtaining the site codebase, configuring the web server, installing the code base, configuring the content management system, mapping the site to a domain, updating the OS, or updating the site codebase, making backups, performing failure recovery, etc. The hosting service should do all this for you.
- You should not have to worry about obtaining web server plugins, provisioning web server working memory or any of that web server techie stuff. The hosting service does all that for you.
- You should not have to worry about shared hosting vs containers vs virtual machines vs host clusters. The hosting service does all that for you based on your capacity selection.
- You should not have to worry about capacity planning: web access, host speed and storage, etc. The hosting service should do this for you. You pick a site size range and live within that range. Most small sites will have only a few page views a day and less than 1 GB of storage.
Content Management System or Static
I don’t do static sites using MS FrontPage or Adobe Dreamweaver. These tools cannot meet the needs of todays broad spectrum of rendering devices. The legacy tools produced static HTML that implemented a site’s visual design. With the advent of smart phones, tablets, and big displays, yesterday’s static code tools are unable to produce pages that render well on today’s wide variety of display sizes and browser capabilities.
A content management system such as Drupal or WordPress avoids this limitation by separating the information to be presented from the description of its rendering. The content management system receives the browser and display information and uses this information to select the best page layout and rendering for the target device.
WordPress, my old friend
This blog is a WordPress 2014 theme site. The reason it is at WordPress is simple. I knew of WordPress and liked their free open source software plus paid service model. They offered the features I needed to write these essays with stylish good looks.
WordPress is now for regular websites
Since I started the blog, WordPress.com, the business, realized that they were leaving the DIY small business site market to others and wanted a piece. This year, I dropped by the WordPress home page and found that WordPress offers themes that have the blog as the home page and themes that have a regular page as the home page. This second group of themes are good for organizational websites.
- Free sites will have ads at page bottom or between articles
- Free sites have domain names like your-blog.wordpress.com
- Add supported domain mapped sites like retired-moocher-dave.org are inexpensive, $26/year or so for domain registration and mapping
- Paid small scale sites are $100/year for hosting. Registration and mapping is extra. Elect the “Go premium” option and you’re add-free and have a broader set of themes to choose from.
Getting Started with WordPress
When you build a WordPress site at wordpress.com, you will pick a theme. The theme establishes the sites look and feel and loads a set of curated plug-ins that determines the content types that the site can present. Blog themes are pretty basic in the plugins included. I expect that the general sites may offer a richer set of plugins differing with the intended use of a particular theme.
Selecting a theme determines the site’s look, menu structure, etc. The site’s plugins determine the site’s functionality. This includes the data types that the site can store and render.
If a calendar is important to your sports league site, you need to ensure that the theme includes a calendaring feature or that a plugin is available that provides the associated data types and widgets.
In WordPress, each datatype requires a plugin that creates the proper database tables, allows creation of the data, for example, entry of events, and renders the data either in a list or some more visual manner like a calendar page with events listed in each day’s block. The plugin may create a custom page type or provide a widget that allows the content to appear in the theme’s widget areas.
So selecting a look, setting a theme, and locating and loading plugins from the curated set wordpress.com offers is the first step. WordPress.com is good about curating plugins. Automattic (parent company of WordPress the project and WordPress the service) develops many of these ensuring that they are broadly compatible and maintained. WordPress the service allows only curated plugins. Commercial hosting services like Pantheon allow you to load third-party plugins but it is best to choose these through the catalog that Automattic maintains. Those in the catalog have a track record.
Verify Availability of all Needed Content Types
Once you have picked a theme, develop examples of each content type that the site must present using the page layouts, widgets, and plugins that you have chosen. If something is missing, locate a plugin that provides it now. If you can’t find a critical plugin, you need to consider another content management system or engage a design consultancy that can locate the needed plugin or develop that content type for you.
Why WordPress for DIY
- It is easy to use
- It is easy to extend provided you can locate a plugin meeting your needs
- If you stick to WordPress curated bits you don’t have to worry about the site going obsolescent or obsolete requiring a rebuild in a new environment.
- WordPress.com worries about all the reliability, availability, and security stuff. As long as you stick to curated plugins, WordPress automatically updates for you.
- Appearance and function are separated and appearance can be changed as long as the old and new themes have compatible sidebar regions and region names.
- WordPress is inexpensive for simple sites like this one
- WordPress themes offer both home page blog and back page blog
- WordPress at WordPress.com does not support user loaded plugins to maintain stability in the large-scale hosting environment.
- Independent providers such as Pantheon can host customizable WordPress environments.