Starting Your Own Web Site

By Shira

Once you've decided you need a web site, it's time to determine specifically what you want to put on it, what it will cost, which service provider will host it, and who will build it.

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What Will It Cost?

The short answer to this question is that it could be free, or it could be very expensive. Different things affect the price tag, and only you can decide which choices make sense for you. With web site hosting services, the old adage, "You get what you pay for," holds true.

Things you need to consider when budgeting for the project include:

  • What your Internet service provider will charge you to host your web site.
  • What software you’re going to use to construct your site.
  • Whether you plan to pay someone else to build and/or maintain your site for you, and what they will charge you to do it.

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Service Providers

Your choice of service provider will affect several things: cost, quality of service, ease of use for your visitors, and professionalism. It's worth spending time on this issue to truly understand what your options are, so you can make an informed decision.

The One You’ve Already Got

The Internet Service Provider (ISP) that handles your dial-up, cable modem, or DSL access to the Internet today may already include space for your personal home page as part of the service for no extra charge. For example, Verizon, Earthlink, and others give every user 10 megabytes of free storage space for building your own site. You may find that’s quite sufficient for your needs. If you don’t plan to add music and video to your web site, you can do a lot with 10 megabytes!

Some of these providers state that their web site services are for "personal" web pages onlyin other words, for web sites featuring hobbies, pets, children, etc. Others don't attach any stipulations, so it's possible to do a small business site with them.

So, before looking further, check with your cable modem, DSL, or dial-up service provider and find out what is available to you.

Free—A Four-Letter Word?

There are service providers who will give you space to put up your own personal web site free of charge. They usually give you a maximum of 5 megabytes for free, and almost always insist that you use the software they provide to build your pages. Some of these are:

My own bias is that these services prove the adage, "There’s no such thing as a free lunch." It’s true, you don’t have to spend any money to have a page with them, but they forcibly insert advertisements on your page. You have absolutely no control over the banner ad that may suddenly pop up at the top of the page, and that’s the first thing people see when they visit your site.

Another problem with using one of these services is that they usually are very, very slow. Part of it is because they keep their costs down by investing in absolutely no more capacity to the Internet than necessary, so your visitors are competing with thousands of other people for access to the host’s computers. The other issue is that they usually implement the ads by putting special programming at the top of your page that looks up which ad to display, then displays it. Your visitors have to wait while that lookup takes place.

Depending on the service provider, you may be forced to use the web authoring software that they provide instead of choosing your own. On the surface it may sound good—you don’t have to buy any authoring software. But in practice, the ones I’ve seen were difficult to use, confusing, poorly documented, and very limiting in what your finished page could look like. On more than one occasion, I've needed to help users of GeoCities and Angelfire figure out how to make changes to their sites, and even with my web expertise I found them difficult to figure out at first.

These issues probably won’t matter much if your primary reason for wanting a web site is to put up pictures of yourself in costume for your friends and family to look at. Many people use these personal home page services to describe their hobbies or put up pictures of the new baby for distant relatives to enjoy, and they’re fine for that. However, promoting yourself as a professional dancer through one of these free services is like performing at a party in someone’s home with chipped fingernail polish, smeared makeup, uncombed hair, a sign saying "Eat At Joe's" pinned on your rear, and a sign saying "Sign Up For XYZ Long Distance Service" on your chest. You get only one chance to make a first impression, and people who don’t like your site won’t come back.

Do you want your own personalized "domain name" such as "", or would you be satisfied with the standard name your Internet service provider feels like giving you? This is going to make a difference in cost. It’s like vanity license plates—for that personal touch, you’ll have to pay a little more. Only you can decide whether it’s worth the extra cost.

I pay my web hosting company something for renting space on their computers. (I have one web site on Valueweb and another on GoDaddy, but I'm not sure I'd recommend either company to someone else. I have a couple of things that have dissatisfied me about each.)

When evaluating web hosting companies, ask what operating system they use for hosting the web server. If they answer either UNIX or Linux, that's a point in their favor. If they answer Microsoft, beware - Microsoft's web server is notoriously easy for hackers to break into. Using Microsoft as the foundation for your web site could put you at risk of security problems.

There is a separate fee that needs to be paid to a domain name registration company for I use two different companies - one of my web sites is registered with and the other with . There are others, too. I suggest comparing prices before deciding which to use.

Shop around before choosing an Internet provider to host your vanity domain name. The lowest price I’ve seen for that service is the $5.25 per month by for a small starter web site, but I’ve seen it much higher as well! Different providers offer different options, like whether to include just one e-mail box or many, how much disk space to give you, etc. Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples when you compare pricing options. Don’t pay extra for options you won’t use!

To get a list of Internet service providers (ISP’s) available in your community and a list of web hosting companies, take a look at:

Most of the sites listed at the above link will list pricing information on their web sites. Some of them also offer domain name registration services.

Summarizing Service Provider Options

To summarize, the pros and cons of the different options described above are:

Type Of Service



Your Existing ISP
  • May be offered at no extra cost
  • Address not too difficult to remember
  • Convenient
  • Might limit number of pages (for example, AOL)
  • If you change providers, your address changes
The Free Web Host Services
  • Free
  • Often are very slow
  • Often long, hard-to-remember address
  • Possible limitations on number of pages or amount of space
  • If you change providers, your address changes
  • In-your-face ads appear on your pages
Your Own Domain Name
  • Easy-to-remember personalized address
  • You can change providers without having to change your address
  • Gives the most professional look
  • Costs more than the other options

Shira's recommendation: if you're not sure you're ready to commit a lot of time, money, or effort to your web site, start by putting up a simple site using the free personal web site space that your ISP already provides as a free add-on to your dial-in access to the Internet. You can later move to having your own domain name if you wish.

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A recommended set of software tools for managing your site include:

  • A web authoring tool that creates html files
  • A graphics tool for touching up scanned photographs or pictures from your digital camera. It needs to be able to resize the images and handle some simple special effects such as dealing with red-eye.
  • Ftp software for transferring files between your personal computer and your service provider's remote computer. This is built into many web authoring tools.

Web Authoring Tools

I personally use Adobe Pagemill for managing my web site. Unfortunately, Adobe has discontinued this product so you can't buy it any more, but I still use it.

I don't recommend using any of Microsoft's products. My general experience has been that Microsoft (whose web authoring product is Front Page) rushes their products to market with many defects that can waste a lot of your time as you try to learn the product, and their documentation is often unclear.

  • I also discovered that Microsoft Publisher inserts an advertisement for Microsoft at the bottom of every page it creates, and I found that offensive—if Microsoft wants to advertise their products on my web site, they can jolly well pay me cash for the privilege.
  • I found that Microsoft Word makes stupid decisions regarding how to translate your document into html, resulting in web pages that need quite a bit of editing.
  • The html created by Microsoft products often doesn't work with such popular browsers as Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Safari (on Macintoshes), etc. It only work well only with Microsoft's own browser, Internet Explorer. I want all my visitors, regardless of browser choice, to be able to enjoy the full functionality of my web site. One of my friends once used Microsoft Word to create her class schedule and posted the html it created to her web site. Only Internet Explorer users could read it - everyone else saw a blank page. This resulted in her losing students, and of course that means she lost money - all because she used a Microsoft product.

Graphics Software

When you use photos from your digital camera, or you scan traditional photos, you often end up with an image that needs to be resized for the web and possibly modified a bit. For example, you might want to fix a red-eye problem.

Here’s where to start in evaluating that dizzying selection of graphics products out there:

  • That "lite" version of Adobe Photoshop known as Photoshop Elements can do simple editing, and produces high-quality results. Its price is low, and its functionality is somewhat limited, but it's a good product for consumers who don't need sophisticated features.
  • I personally use the full professional version of Adobe Photoshop, but it's not for everybody. It's powerful, but very expensive and difficult to learn. I recommend it only for people who are comfortable with learning unfamiliar technology.

Your friends may be able to give you good suggestions as well on which tools they like to use on preparing their web sites and why. Maybe they can even show you a demo. I recommend looking around.

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Hiring Someone To Do It For You

If you would rather not spend time at the keyboard figuring out how to build your site, maybe getting someone else to do it for you is the answer. Maybe one of your students is web-savvy and would be willing to barter putting up a web site for you in exchange for private lessons. Or, maybe one of your friends "knows someone" who puts up web sites for a living.

Before reaching agreement with anyone to do your site for you, ask for the addresses of other sites they have built. Visit those sites and explore them in depth. Do they load quickly, or do they take forever to come up on the screen? Are they visually attractive, or do they look as if they were slapped together in a hurry? Is the navigation structure clear and easy to follow? Do they use lots of gratuitous special effects just because the creator knows how, or are special effects limited to situations where they add value?

Types Of Designers

In my experience, web site designers often fall into one of the following categories. Make sure you understand which category the designer you’re considering falls into, and choose someone whose style is compatible with the kind of site you want.

The Graphic Artist

This designer specializes in beautiful graphics, but pages sometimes seem to take hours to load, and the navigation structure for finding what you’re looking for isn’t always clear. Text is an inconvenient necessity, and is held to a minimum. The site may require users to get special plug-ins to their browsers such as Flash in order to display. Advertising agencies are often heavily populated with this type of web designer. Sites created by these designers are usually very pretty to look at, but they may alienate your visitors due to taking a long time to load and having cryptic navigational clues.

The Techy

This designer is a computer nerd who loves to play with special effects. Her sites are loaded with music that automatically starts to play when the user first arrives, pop up menus that pounce when your mouse passes over certain parts of the screen, blinking animations, chat rooms, and other technology toys, whether they add value or not. They show off her technical prowess, and they’ll draw attention away from you and your dance-related message. A web site created by one of these designers is like a dancer who incorporates cane dance, sword balancing, double veil, floor work, a drum solo, a hair-tossing Saudi dance, and melaya leff all into a single 15-minute performance.

The Opportunist

This designer is someone who sees a way to make an easy buck doing web sites for other people. The hapless dancer who hires this designer will end up with a site that has misspelled words, graphics that take a long time to load, and disorganized content. These people just don’t bother paying attention to detail.

The "Dream Designer"

This one knows how to make a nice-looking site that loads quickly and easily navigates users to the information they’re looking for. These are rare! So how do you find one? One option is to browse lots of other belly dancing sites on the web, and see which ones have an overall design that you admire. Send e-mail to the owners of those sites to find out who built theirs, and then approach that designer about doing one for you.

How To Evaluate Designer Candidates

Before hiring a web designer, remember that her work will reflect directly on you. It’s critical to select someone you trust to listen to what you want and deliver what you ask for. If you were going to hire someone to create a custom dance costume for you, you’d probably either want to see examples of work she has done in the past or call references. Do the same homework before hiring someone to build your web site.

Here are some suggestions on how to evaluate a prospective web site designer. Before you meet with the designer for the first time:

  • Explore the web sites of lots of other belly dancers. Look at them with a critical eye. Which ones do you like a lot from your perspective as a visitor? Why? Print out samples of their pages. Which ones do you find really annoying? Why?
  • Make some basic decisions about what you'll want on your site when it first debuts. How many "major" topic areas? Examples of major topic areas might be information about your classes, your dance troupe, your availability as a performer, your credentials, and merchandise that you sell. Make plans to include 2-3 (or more) informative or entertaining articles that are not commercial in nature. These will get you word-of-mouth exposure when your site makes its debut. Will you want sound clips or video? If so, how many clips, and how many seconds long for each?
  • Decide how many photographs you want to put on your site when it first debuts. The more photos you want to put online, the more you'll probably have to pay.
  • Decide how you might want your site to change 6 months from now and one year from now.

When you actually do meet with the designer, here are some questions to explore:

  • Ask the designer what software she uses to build web sites. If she tells you she uses a Microsoft product (FrontPage, Word, or Publisher), run away as fast as your legs can carry you! Microsoft products really are that bad.
  • Take with you the printouts from the sites you liked a lot. Show them to the designer and tell her why you like them. Tell her what things you did not like about the annoying sites. For example, if you discovered that white text on a black page background doesn't print well, and you want your users to be able to print the pages of your site, that's something you should tell the designer.
  • Find out what it will cost to have a links page with about 20 entries. Maybe you don't think you need a links page, but later, when you're promoting your site, you'll probably want to ask other web sites to link to you, and some of them may refuse to do it unless you link back to them in return. So plan for it now.
  • How much will it cost for the initial set of information and photos that you have planned? How much will it cost to make the changes you envision 6 months from now and one year from now?
  • What are the addresses of other sites this designer has done? You'll want to visit them to see if you like them! Specify that you only want to see sites she has personally built herself, not sites that she helped someone else build. Ask for the phone numbers of other clients that she has built sites for, so you can call them for a reference.
  • Ask the designer to tell you what, in her mind, constitutes a successful web site. Listen carefully to what she says. Make sure that her idea of "successful" matches yours. If she first asks you what you want to accomplish with your site and then addresses your question by talking about the things that are important to you, that's the sign of someone who could be a great partner. For example, suppose you say that you want your site to generate more students for your local classes. A good prospective designer will then talk about how she will consider the site successful if it generates enough new students for you to cover your cost of putting the site online with some extra left over as profit for you. A bad prospective designer will completely ignore what you said you want to accomplish and will talk about things that aren't relevant to you, such as having one of the coolest sites on the web through the use of leading-edge technology.
  • Tell the designer what you hope the web site will do for you, and then ask her what specific things she would do with the design in the interest of helping you accomplish that goal.
  • Ask whether the designer offers promotion of your site through search engines and directories as part of the service, and if so, how much extra (if anything) it will cost.
  • Ask whether the designer will design some custom graphics for your site, such as an animated drawing of a shimmying belly dancer. If so, find out what the cost would be. Photos are certainly good to put on a site, but other graphics help give it life. If the designer says she is not an artist and cannot create such graphics, then ask what she will do to make your site graphically appealing.

If you have some computer skill, time, and interest, you might consider having the designer create your initial site, then take over management of it yourself after the first edition is complete.

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In Conclusion….

Handling logistical details like these can be a nuisance, just as creating flyers and doing mailings is a nuisance. But if you want a web site, they’re steps you’ll need to work through. Once you figure out how to handle the issues described in this article, you can focus on the fun part of choosing pictures to feature online, deciding what to say, and promoting the site!

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