Several people have asked me recently about setting up their own website, so I though I would consolidate my explanations here. When you set up a website, there are several different parts to getting it up and running. We can think of these in terms of their analogs for setting up a physical place of business.
On the web, unlike in real life, your address is not tied to the physical place where you (or your files) reside. A domain name is your address on the web. Our domain name is stillindie.com. You can purchase a domain name from a domain name registrar, like GoDaddy or NetFirms. Domain names are unique, like addresses. Only one person can own a given domain. A domain should cost around $7/year.
There are typically three parts to a URL, the subdomain (e.g. www), the domain name itself (e.g. stillindie), and the TLD, or top-level domain (e.g com). These three pieces are separated by periods and make up a URL (e.g. www.stillindie.com). You can think of these as your apartment number, your street address, your city, respectively. You chose what city to live in, then buy a unique street address, and manage the apartment numbers in your building any way you want.
A TLD is the universe from which you pick your domain name. The most common three TLDs in the United States are .com, .net, and .org. Generally these are thought of as commercial, network, and organizations, but there are no rules governing which one you can use. Generally, if the domain you want is available in the .com TLD, you should pick that one. There are many other TLDs available, if you want to go exploring, but remember that most internet users assume a website ends in .com unless you tell them otherwise.
Subdomains are governed by the owner of the domain name, so you can create any number of subdomains and point them to different places if you choose. www.yourdomain.com might point to your website, while mail.yourdomain.com might point to your webmail interface. Some websites will also give you a subdomain on their domain for free (e.g. http://www.webs.com/). Be aware however, that having your own domain name is generally viewed as more professional.
To explore what domain names are available, I recommend DomainTyper, where you can see whether a domain name is available as you type it in.
Plot of Land
Just like you need a plot of land to build a house on, the physical space where you store the files that make up your website is your web host. Some domain registrars also offer web hosting, and while the integration may be appealing, it can make it more difficult to switch if you should have problems with either in the future. Web hosts come in a variety of flavors, but most small sites just getting started will choose shared hosting. Shared hosting simply means the web host is using one server to host multiple sites. This makes it less expensive.
Other options are VPS (virtual private server) or dedicated hosting (your very own private physical server). If you don’t have a specific reason to need VPS or dedicated hosting, you should stick to shared hosting, as it will be much cheaper, and unlike in the physical world where your house is pretty much tied to its plot of land, it is very easy to move your files from one web host to another, should you decide to switch.
A couple of businesses that offer shared hosting are BlueHost and DreamHost. Shared hosting for either of these runs about $6/month, and may require a one- or two-year contract. While both of these companies offer unlimited bandwidth and storage space, you should check these two numbers if you choose to find a different host. Storage or hosting space is the equivalent of our square footage, and simply governs the amount of stuff that you can put on your web host.
Bandwidth doesn’t have a direct analog in our physical building analogy, but in talking about web hosts it is a measure of the amount of data transferred to and from your web host in a given month. A large number of people downloading large files from your website will use a lot of bandwidth.
Once you have both a host and a domain name, you can log into your registrar’s control panel to point your domain to your new host.
Now that you have an address and a plot of land, the next step is to build the house to hold your belongings. In web terms, the architecture that holds your information is usually a CMS (content management system). Just as different types of buildings are suitable for different kinds of businesses, different CMSs are better suited to different types of websites.
Many CMSs are open-source, which means they are free, both in the sense that your don’t pay for them, and in the sense that the way they are built (source code, or blueprints, if you will) is available publically.
There are commercial CMSs available too, but they are not necessarily better than the open-source options. Some of the largest companies in the world use open-source CMSs to run their websites, so don’t worry about using an inferior product. Celebrate the fact that some generous programmers volunteered their time to create great free tools for you to use.
For most small sites and blogs, I recommend WordPress. Some web hosts can automatically install WordPress for you, and if not, it is still a fairly simple process to do in only a few minutes. In my opinion, WordPress is one of the easiest CMSs to use. There are numerous free plugins available to add additional functionality and free themes to change the appearance of your site.
Other open-source CMSs you might use include Joomla or Drupal. Also, the more technically-savvy may build their own CMS using a framework such as Ruby on Rails or Django.
Once your building (CMS) is up and running, the last step is to move in. Add content to your site through your CMS and check out your new website! Tell all your friends. Add links to your website to your profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.
There are limitless possibilites for what to do next, but this is the extent of this primer. If you have questions about anything you read here, please leave a comment and we’ll try to answer it or point you to some more comprehensive resources. I hope you found this introduction helpful and wish you the best of luck in creating your own home on the internet.