Word Crunchers, Etc.

So, You Want to Have a Website!

Planning your website

Vicky Vickers

Do you have some information you want to share with the world? Perhaps you have a great product or service you would like to promote. Or maybe you have a favourite topic, project, or pet peeve you would like to air. So, how do you get started? The main question I hear from people who want me to design a website for them is, "What do you need me to give you so you can start working on it?" Here are some basic things you can do and decisions you can make before you approach someone to design your website.

A place to put your website
This is the most basic need. Websites need a home, preferably on a local Internet Service Provider (ISP). While you can put websites on national or international service providers, e.g. Shaw, Telus, AOL, etc., your options can be limited, athough both the cable and phone Internet providers are offering more complex services as they demand mounts for them. There are also several places on the Web which offer free hosting as long you allow them to put an ad or ads on your pages. These sites may walk you through a simple automated webpage design process. However, their options are severely limited and commercial pages on these sites are not always taken seriously as they are free. Consquently, you may find you receive more personal service at an ISP located in your hometown and as well you'll be supporting a local business. Using a local ISP doesn't mean you have give up a high speed connection, as you can obtain website hosting and e-mail accounts from most local ISPs without purchasing dialup time. Alternatively, some local ISPs now offer packages which include highspeed access along with a large space for your website and several email addresses. Before choosing the ISP to host your website, visit them in person, if possible, to make sure they can talk your language instead of technobabble, can do what you wish, and are friendly and helpful.

A domain name
This is not necessary, but a lot of businesses are going this route now. Why? It gives you an individual identity (e.g. www.mybusiness.com), it doesn't promote your ISP, and it gives the impression that you are serious about your product, service or ideas. Most local ISPs now sell domain names and can help you with the process to obtain one.

Page layout
While this may change as the design process proceeds, it will make a good starting point for your website designer. Remember the KISS (Keep It Short and Simple) principle when designing pages for your website. The initial page should only contain your logo, a short description of what the site is about and an index to the major pages in the rest of the site. If you have any design ideas, e.g. boxes, bold text, heading sizes, places where you want to graphics to go, then provide your website designer with an electronic or paper copy of each page laid out the way you want it. Keep in mind that the Web doesn't work the same way that your word processor works, so it might not be possible to produce the exact look you want.

Your website designer will need words to put on the site - your words. Type these out in text-only format with a clear division between each page or section. Provide the text file on a disk, as an attachment to e-mail or typed into an e-mail message. Keep the pages fairly short so they will load quickly. Remember, what you say is important if you want your website to show up well on search engines. Keep the information concise, Web surfers don't have a lot of patience with long wordy pages. If you want to select a font, keep in mind that it must be one which the majority of the visitors to your website will have on their own computer. If you wish to use a fancy font for headings or emphasis, these will have to be made into a graphic so the fancy font can be seen by surfers who don't have that font on their computer.

Unless your website designer is also a graphic designer, you'll need to provide them with graphics. You can have any paper graphics scanned at most printers in town, or perhaps you have a friend who has a flat-bed scanner (and knows how to use it). You can also provide your website designer with the TIFF files you used for a book, brochure, flyer, etc. and they can convert these to JPG (for photos) or GIF (for line art) low-resolution (72 DPI) files. You will need to provide the graphic files on disk (floppy or ZIP) or by e-mail attachment. If your website designer has a scanner, you can provide them with hard copies of your graphics. You may also want to have other graphical elements such as coloured bullets (for emphasis) and bars (the lines which go across a page to divide it up). You can find these ready made at various sites on the Web, or your website designer may have a library of them. Most graphics on the Web are copyrighted, so if you wish to use a graphic you found on the Web make sure it is from a site which says you can use their graphics or get permission from the site owner to use it. This doesn't apply if you are using their logo to provide a link back to their website, although they would probably still appreciate it if you let them know.

You will need to decide on background and accent colours. It's best to stay with a white or other fairly pale or pastel colour for any background, including accent colours inside tables. While you may think white lettering on a dark background looks nice, a lot of visitors to your site won't know how to configure their page setup to handle it and consequently will end up printing a page which only has graphics on it, as the printer ignores the background colour and the white text doesn't print. You can choose dark colours for text highlights, e.g. major and/or minor headings, as they will print; light text colours will print as various shades of gray unless the surfer is using a colour printer. You can even choose a colour for the body of the text if you don't like the default black.

Meta tags
I can just hear you saying "Meta What?". Meta Tags are the invisible bits of information located at the top of each page, which only search engines can read. They usually consist of two items: a short description (up 250 characters) which describes the basic subject matter of your site; and keywords, that is words (up to 1000 characters with no punctuation) which people looking for the type of information, product or service you have on your site would type into a search engine in order to find you. Generally, the shorter the description, the more effective it is, as it's sometimes used below the site title in search engines results. You also need to decide on a title for the site which will appear on the title bar of the browser and as the title in search engine results.

Log-in and password
You will have to provide your website designer with your log-in and password for your website area so they can upload your webpages and graphics. If you're nervous about giving them your password, then perhaps you have chosen the wrong person for the job. Of course, you can always change the password when your website is up and running if your designer will not be maintaining the site. But in that case you will have to negotiate copyright with them.

This is a little tricky, but basically, you own the copyright to the content of the website. Your graphic artist owns the copyright to any graphics they have created for you, although you may own copyright for the concept for the graphic. Your website designer owns the copyright on the code (HTML, PHP, etc.) they have created to make your contents have the look and feel you want. However, you may be able to negotiate with your graphic artist and website design to sign over copyright to you as part of your contract with them. Or you may be able to purchase copyright from them at a later date if you wish.

Picking a website designer
Now you are ready to choose a website designer. Unless you know someone personally who does this, you should talk to two or three website designers before making your final choice. Why? First, partly because of cost, e.g. what do they charge per hour and do they have enough experience to work fairly quickly? A cheap hourly rate doesn't necessarily mean you'll save money. Second, do they have the expertise to produce the results you want. e.g. if you want your website database driven, can they design online databases? The third, and perhaps more important, reason for talking to several prospects is - are they compatible with you? When you talk to them, do they seem to have the same approach to website design as you do? Are they thinking at a level that suits your budget and approach? Does it look like the two of you will get along together?

Maintaining your website
Static websites don't get much response. For it to be effective, you need to plan on making constant changes and additions to it. This will keep visitors coming back to your website again and again to see what's new. Consequently, you will need to keep up a continuous relationship with your website designer in order to keep your website fresh.

Promoting your Website
The search engines won't find your website unless you tell them it's there. Most search engines have an "Add URL" form, athough you really have to search for it on some websites. You may find it easier to pay your website designer to do the initial promotion to the search engines and directories. If they don't provide this service, they may be able to recommend someone reliable to do it. Don't bite on these outfits which promise to promote you to multiple search engines for a very low fee as you have no way of know if they really did so. Again, stick with a small local firm with a real live person you can meet and talk to if necessary.

Making your major decisions regarding your website and being prepared with as much information as you can gather before you approach a website designer will make the selection process a lot easier for both you and the person you select for the job.

This article was originally published in the March 2000 Edition of MACtalk, the monthly newsletter of the Victoria Macintosh Users Group and updated in July 2003.

Vicky Vickers is the owner of Word Crunchers, Etc. which specializes in website design and HTML training. She is a past-president (1994-6) and former webmaster (1995-8) of Victoria Macintosh Users Group (VMUG). She also founded and was the first president (1996) of the Web Enthusiasts Association of Victoria (WEAV).

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Call me today at 250-595-6593 to discuss your website design
or e-mail me at vicky@crunchers.bc.ca

Vicky Vickers, Word Crunchers, Etc.
3290 Shelley Street, Victoria, BC, V8P 4A5
Fax: 250-595-7384 (call first)

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