How to build, launch, and maintain your website. A beginner’s guide to simple solutions.
Websites aren’t terribly complicated … the real trick is to find a solution that lets you make updates to both the inventory and general page copy yourselves, through a CMS (Content Management System). That way you’re not dependent on contractors to make updates, and you can keep the site fresh, which is important both simply for looking professional, and to keep search engines happy.
I don’t know how much you already know, so here’s the basics. There are three fundamental steps to start with:
1) purchase a URL – the domain name (ChipStreet.com for instance) – from a registrar. You can do this in any number of places, prices range from 6.99 to 14.99 or so PER YEAR depending who you buy from. I like GoDaddy.com, or 1and1.com. This is NOT necessarily (but can be) where you host the site.
2) rent “hosting” space on a shared server [your site takes up very little space, you don’t need a whole server to yourselves]. This is where the website lives – all the files and software that make up the site. This should run anywhere from 4.99 to 19.99 PER MONTH. Don’t get ripped off… I wouldn’t pay more than 9.99 a month. Right now I pay 19.95, and that’s for me to host UNLIMITED sites. The registrar from whom you bought the URL may also provide hosting services. This is a monthly service, and provides you with X amount of storage space and a web traffic allotment. You won’t need much, most plans will give you plenty.
3) Build the site. Many (most?) hosting providers also provide “site builder” tools that make it pretty simple. Some MAY even include some simple tools that you can plug in to the site (to manage inventory, add photos, etc). But likely these tools won’t do everything you want, design or feature wise. These site builders are pretty basic. I’d not use them.
CUSTOM OR CANNED
Having someone CUSTOM CODE a website from scratch (and do a really good job of it), especially one that includes a CMS, is going to cost thousands of dollars, and may not be as stable and reliable as something that’s been built and deployed and updated many times over. I’d recommend researching a PREPROGRAMMED site that suits your needs:
There are places you can buy pre-written website software, many of them niche specific (Real Estate, Restaurants, etc) that may have lots of the specific features you’re looking for (Google is your friend here). You’ll download it, and host it on your own hosting space. It’ll cost you probably hundreds, maybe thousands.
Are there free ones? Yes. Look carefully at how current the code is — whether or not it’s compatible with the latest browsers — and what kind of technical support you will get. Installation may be difficult, so you may end up paying for an install service. And you may have to pay for updates to the software in the future, and for technical support.
Or there are services that provide websites as a turnkey service. They include hosting, support, updates, etc, plus all your favorite features. The drawback is that the site is hosted by them, which may limit your options for growth and support in the future. You don’t own the code, you’re just renting it. If you go this way, make sure you OWN your database — any inventory records, sales history, written content, and any email contacts you collect, must be yours to download and keep if you move services.
There are advantages (reliability and features) and disadvantages (you don’t own the code) to these services.
You should consider just using a BLOG platform on which to build a site. It gives you complete editorial control over creating pages, updating content, adding pics, etc etc. Look at WordPress.com — it’s the top best blogging software out there. I don’t recommend Blogger, or MoveableType, or TypePad, or any of the others. Of course, their fans will disagree. 😉
WordPress.com gives you a FREE blog, hosted on their server, and you can customize pretty extensively. There are LOTS of free skins available (the underlying code remains the same, you can ‘skin’ the site with lots of different design styles and features). My site is a wordpress site. The ADVANTAGE of hosting a free blog at WordPress is that the software is automatically updated, and their hosting service is really reliable. The DISADVANTAGE of having them host it is that all the content is sitting on their server, and you can’t easily move it somewhere else should you for some reason one day want to do that (you can do it, it requires downloading the database, etc). Your URL will be yourname.wordpress.com, unless you pay an annual fee to have your own URL point at the site — something like $10 a year.
WordPress.ORG is where you can download WordPress software, and host it on your own hosting space, giving you complete control and ownership, with your own URL pointing at it. The DISADVANTAGE is that you’ll need to occasionally update the WordPress software yourself when there are updates. It’s just a few button clicks, not a big deal, just not automatic.
WORDPRESS has hundreds of plugins available for it. PLUGINS are features that you can add to a WordPress site with just a few clicks. They’re written by the user community, and most are very reliable. Most are also free.
LASTLY, many hosting providers also provide WordPress software as part of your account… so you can just click a few buttons and WordPress will install on your own hosting account, wherever that might be.
WHAT TO DO
STEP ONE: Inventory and prioritize the features you need — contact form, inventory management, photo uploads, mailing list signup, search capability, social media integration [can the site automatically update your Facebook, Twitter, and so on.
A note on mailing lists: You really should manage the mailing list offsite with a service like ConstantContact.com – the signup form you put on the site would actually connect to your ConstantContact account. Sending emails to large lists is usually discouraged by your hosting provider cuz it’s high bandwidth, and can potentially cause the whole server to be blacklisted as a spammer. And another nice thing is that the db of contacts is independent of the website and hosting service, so if you have to change platforms or hosts or services, you easily retain all your contacts.
STEP TWO: Research the options (services, software like WordPress, etc) and find the one that is most turnkey and simplest to operate that fulfills MOST of your wishlist – you’re not likely to find one that does EVERYTHING you’d want, unless your wishlist is unrealistically reasonable. You will be fastest to market, and easiest to manage ongoing, if you can find one.
STEP THREE: Assure that your hosting service supports the chosen package (if the chosen service does not include hosting already).
STEP FOUR: Buy the URL and get going. 🙂
If I were you, I’d go with:
a) WORDPRESS, using the best real estate plugins, find a good looking skin, and host the whole thing on wordpress.com (paying for the personal URL service) – the whole thing will cost you $9-ish a year to own your URL, 9-ish per year for the personalized URL, and whatever the cost is of ConstantContact or any other offsite services you decide to integrate. The site, the RE features, the hosting, are all FREE.
b) host WORDPRESS on my own server (a little more complex to set up initially, otherwise works the same). The whole thing will cost you $9-ish per year for your URL, and 9-ish per month for the hosting space, and whatever the cost is of ConstantContact or any other offsite services you decide to integrate. The site, the plugins, the skins, are all FREE or extremely affordable.