Since a lot of friends know I have my own website, it isn’t uncommon to get questions about how they get their own website, dipping their toe in the vast sea of having their own presence online. Usually I frame the discussion around three questions.
A. Do you want your own domain?
This is almost always a no-brainer for people as they often think in very specific terms and have some domain names in mind. My domain, polywogg.ca, is registered to me and only me. It is the same for every company on the planet that has a site, usually. They all register a domain name that is unique to them.
It isn’t the only way to go. Lots of people use free sites at various hosters and end up with sites like “http://AndreasWorld.wordpress.com” or “LoveOfBooks.blogger.com”. Their “unique” presence is still there but the hoster’s name shows up too. For some, they don’t care about that; for most, they do.
If you care about having a site that only has your name in it, you need to register a domain. If you don’t, you can go with lots of hosters that will give you an address like above. Or even trick out a bunch of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Now, the REAL question is more difficult, and for me it’s not a question. I do not and will not register a domain with the same company I choose for my hosting of the site. Let me explain.
When I put my website online, I need two things:
a. A registrar who tells the internet that polywogg.ca is registered to me and also tells all its internet friends where to find my website (the technical numerical address of my site); AND
b. A server of some sort that hosts the files and content for my actual website.
A registrar and a hoster. I need both. And lots of people who are hosters will also offer registrar services. And some registrars have also gotten into hosting. A fully-integrated service, as they pitch it.
Yet there is an inherent conflict of interest for them. Sure, they have to do it all properly and everything, but when you register your domain, it actually records four pieces of information — a registrant ID, a tech ID, an admin ID, and the DOMAIN NAME SERVICE (DNS) address where your website can be founded (like your REAL IP web address that the internet servers use, not the word form users see).
For most people registering a personal site, the DNS will be given to you by your hoster; the admin ID is likely you; and the tech ID may be whoever is helping you set up the website or just you. Regardless of who is doing the registry, these three things are pretty much the same across the board. The problem comes with the REGISTRANT ID.
This basically says who owns that domain. When you do the registry yourself, it should always say you. However, here’s the kicker…sometimes companies that offer cheap registries and hosting packages actually find it easier to just register themselves in that field. They may also register themselves as the tech or admin ID, which is not ideal, but not too problematic, they’re easily changed. But the owner / registrant ID requires the registered ID holder to agree to any changes.
Most people don’t think anything about this. And if you ask the hoster, they’ll tell you there’s no issue. You just move the registry to somewhere else. But unless you have that in writing, why would you simply trust them?
There are countless stories on the web of BADHOSTER X registering a domain “on behalf of” customer Y. Fast forward five years, the person’s needs have changed in what they’re looking for in a website, and they see lovely HOSTER Z sitting over there with exactly what they’re looking for at the right price. No problem, Y will just move from X to Z. And then X says, “Whoa, wait a minute. We want your business. Let us do blah blah blah.” And so they delay and cajole the person into staying. And eventually it turns acrimonious as the person just wants to leave, and BADHOSTER X won’t relinquish their ownership of the domain. They’ll let the DNS address point to another service, but they won’t do it quickly (they serve their own customers first), and what a surprise, they’ll only do it after paying an admin fee. If you’re Mr. or Ms. Big and Popular site, sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, look at our sliding scale…we’ve been discounting, so now you have to pay our full admin fee based on usage, and oh look, they want $1000 to transfer your domain.” It’s extortion, pure and simple, and yes, it is indeed illegal.
Is this a frequent problem? No. Is it a possible problem? Absolutely. They also might just jack the rates after year 1 for your renewals (you have to pay a yearly fee to keep the domain registered to you).
When I went to register my domain, all the experts said “do it separately”, it’s just less risk of future hassle, and while a bit more manual, not egregiously so. And I did. I found Canadian Domain Name Services in Canada, registered all three of my domain names with them over time, and that’s the only service I do with them. They now offer hosting too, but I don’t need that. I just need the basic service I signed up with them for, and it works perfectly. No muss, no fuss, no extortionary practices if I decide to move my website hosting. Which, by the way, I have done four times in my website’s life. Just deciding that the previous hosting wasn’t what I wanted. Three clicks later (almost), and I was with someone else’s hosting package, so I just closed the previous one. And if any of the hosters gave me a hard time, I didn’t care — I just went to the registrar and pointed away from that hoster to my new hoster, leaving me with an up and running site. By contrast, if I was in dispute with my old hoster, they could literally hold me and my website hostage if they were also my registrar.
And yes, ALL the current hosters will offer you deals on your initial registry to get you to join, and almost ALL of them will register themselves as the owner of the domain. You decide if you want to trust them with that part of your site.
In the end, the question is easily answered by a simple metaphor…if you paid a lawyer to register your business, would you let them register themselves as the owner?
B. Do you want a dynamic site or a static site?
If you read any web design advice on the web, they’ll tell you that static sites are the worst possible thing to do. But they mean something different than what this question means.
What they mean is that sites need updates and new content in order to generate buzz and traffic. New things to encourage people to visit your site regularly. What they mean is “dynamic content”.
In my case though, I mean two things — is there going to be dynamic content (as per above) and are you going to want to change the look and feel, menus, etc. on the site over time?
If all you want is a relatively static site — both for content and design — then there are lots of simple hosters out there that offer HTML-based websites (simple web pages) with slick looking templates. You go to their site, sign up for a hosting package, choose a template, and voila, your site is designed. You add your info, some pics and graphics, and you’re done. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy.
GoDaddy used to be the biggest player on the block for this. Then companies like WIX came along. They’re cheap, they’re slick, it all works pretty well. The only thing you’ll have to do is provide your credit card, click some buttons, and then go tell your registry whatever info the hoster tells you to enter (it’ll basically be something like “Your DNS entry is AndreasWorld.wix1.com” and you’ll go enter that in the registrar site — it’s basically like telling the post office where you live).
There are GREAT sites and templates available. Prices can be as low as $5/month or even lower if you pay by the year. So why wouldn’t everyone use it? Because it isn’t easy to modify the template. If you decide you don’t like the colour of the lines on a table? Well, good luck changing it. Maybe it’s easy, likely it’s not. Some features aren’t even available to be edited, regardless of your technical ability, unless you’re a pro.
Cheap, easy, fast, and relatively professional looking. But it’s not easy to update regularly (nor change the design).
Others, by contrast, want to basically add new content every day. A story. A photo. A post. A new page. Random thoughts. If this is what you are after OR you will be mostly static but with lots of sub-pages, then another solution is better. Officially it’s called a CMS — content management system.
The most common CMS available are blogging platforms aka blogs or gallery platforms aka photo galleries. If you’ll be mostly posting text, you want a blogger; if you are mostly posting photos, you might want a gallery. And of course, just to be confusing, most galleries allow you to have blog-like posts and most blogs also offer galleries. But if you’re mostly text, go with the blog.
There are two main blogging platforms that are like Wix or GoDaddy — already available blogging setups ready to go. One is called blogger.com, and the other is WordPress. Blogger is entirely a self-contained site, you can host your site with them (with your own domain, just like Wiz) and have a bunch of templates to choose from. Click, click, click, you’re good to go. A little basic in their offerings, but you can be blogging in minutes. Literally.
WordPress took a different approach. Yes, they offer both free and paid online accounts (as does Blogger), and the more you pay, the more power you have. Even the most basic site though is more powerful than the free site (and you can have your own domain as opposed to polywogg.wordpress.com). Like Blogger, you can be up and running in minutes, but there is more power under the hood, so it can be a bit more daunting.
The alternative approach they took though is that they ALSO offer their software as a full download and you can run it on other hosting platforms i.e. I am registered with a company called Web Hosting Canada, and can install WordPress to run on it. There are competitors out there too — Moodle, Joomla, Drupal, etc. Actually dozens, if not hundreds. But WordPress is the biggest player.
Running your own “install” of WordPress might sound daunting, and it is at first. But there aren’t that many menus under the hood, and they are relatively intuitive after you finish with setup. Plus there are thousands of templates available to tweak to your heart’s content.
Definitely more work, but the payoff is that a blog is inherently dynamic. Write a new article, post it, and BAM, instant dynamic content. If you don’t plan to do that, then stick with a static site.
C. What else do you want on the site?
After you get through the basics of a static or dynamic page above, you should be leaning one way or the other. Now I need to make your life more complicated. What else do you want on the site?
Do you want a guestbook? If you do, it is easier to do and control with a dynamic site (after all, static sites don’t inherently let you make simple updates like adding your name to the page).
Do you want a catalog of products that might change? If it’s a few services or products and they are relatively the same all the time, maybe just price changes, you can go with a static site. If you want a lot of products listed (almost like a gallery), you need a dynamic site.
Do you want sidebars, banners, advertising, changing menus, galleries, calendars? All argue for a dynamic site. The more “custom” you need it, the less the basic static sites are going to meet your needs.
What am I not telling you?
If you are going to hire someone to do the design for you, none of the above may matter. If they are good, they’ll set you up with a solution that meets your needs today and tomorrow. Of course, there may be a small conflict of interest in their advice in that they may get more money out of you if you redesign later.
So, in short:
- Simple site, not much change in content, few pages, basic web presence — go with static site;
- Changing content, multiple pages, regular updates, evergreen web presence — go with dynamic site like WordPress.
At least those are the basics.