How to set up a professional website... yourself

You've decided you want to put together a professional website for yourself or your business. Let's assume the basics include a domain name and a website that doesn't look like it was built by your neighbour's son. The most important thing you need to do is start by asking yourself the right questions.

The questions you need to answer before you build a website

  1. What am I expecting the website to do for me? What drove you to set up a website? Was it for marketing and product information purposes? Was it for customer service? Was it as a sales channel?
  2. Who will visit the website? Clearly define who you expect to use the website and why. This allows you to create a set of use cases to ensure your website meets the needs of customers. Understanding who is visiting and why will guide how your website should look and work. 
  3. Should you be doing this yourself? Sometimes you don't have a choice, but if the answers to the above two questions have you building a customer sales and service website, integrated with your support and logistics systems, you're probably out of your depth and need to start a bit smaller, or get professional help.

Step 1: Register a domain name

    Hopefully if you're doing this for an existing business you already own your domain name. If not, chances are someone else does and you'll need to buy it, or choose an alternative. If you are just starting up, you can be a little more creative, and name your business based on the domains available. If mycompany.com is not available and buying the domain from the current owner is not an option, you should get creative and think about alternatives that suit your business. For example if you are running a kayak hire business and your name is Waterworks, you probably wouldn't get waterworks.com but you probably could get waterworks-kayaks.com

Searching for a domain name

    Visit a domain registry service like Hover or Domain Tools.  I used Hover to register my domain and I like their suggestion system that provides alternative domains should the one you want not be available or for sale.

Things to bear in mind when registering the domain

    Once you select an available domain and proceed to register it, the process should be fairly simple but you will be shown a number of additional options that will increase the price. You don't have to take extra services when buying the domain but an email service may be useful if you want a simple option for mail.
    Some registry services will "lock" your domain to them, particularly the low cost providers, which means that you may be stuck using their service, or pay a fee to move to another service provider. So check the terms.

Step 2: Getting a website hosting service

    Once you have a domain, you need somewhere to put your website. Given you'll be setting this up and managing it yourself though, I'd recommend using a service with a built in Content Management System (CMS). Sites like Wordpress and Squarespace allow you set up your own website and manage the content simply. Wordpress is a good option if your budget is very low. You can attach your domain to a Wordpress.com site for a nominal annual fee.
    I choose to use Squarespace, although the costs are higher with a monthly fee, you get what you pay for. Domain 'mapping' (connecting your domain name to the site) is part of the service with Squarespace and they offer a bunch of designs that look great and are very easy for the novice to change. Even for a professional website builder like me, the simplicity of the system saves time and makes it easy.

Setting up your website

    Once you've registered with your web host, you'll need to set up your site. Start simply, follow tutorials and remember to create the pages that adhere to your initial objectives. Do not create a bunch of pages you'll fill in later. Nothing looks worse on a website than a bunch of navigation links that point to blank pages.

Connecting your domain to your website (domain mapping)

    This may seem a bit daunting but actually it's very easy. You need to change one setting at your registry service and one setting at your web host.
  1. At the registry service you will need to go to the DNS settings page and create an extra record. In the settings it will ask you for Hostname (you put "www"), record type (you choose or type "CNAME") and value (you type in your web host URL). That's it.
  2. At the web host you will need to go to your settings page and look for the setting that says something like "Domain name", on Squarespace it's "Claim domain" and all you need to put in is your registered domain. It may take a while for the DNS system to update but in my case it was instant, I typed in my domain name in a browser, and instantly got my hosted website.

Step 3: Measure visits to your website

    Web hosts may offer some analytical tools but I'd recommend setting up a Google Analytics account. There's a fair bit to it so you may want to read the instructions but essentially, when you set up a profile for your site, Google Analytics will give you a code that looks something like UA-XXXXXXXX-1 which you will want to go back and copy into your site settings. On Squarespace a place to put this code can be found under the general admin settings.
    I'll cover what's important to look at another time, but for now, just make sure you're measuring, and looking at the reports, to see what people do when they visit your site. That should guide how you prioritise your effort.

Step 4: What about actually putting the site together?

    As you can see, we've barely scratched the surface. All the information above has only got you to the point of having a shell ready to build with. With so many variables, I'm not going to be able cover the mechanics here but setting yourself up with a web host that provides a CMS for you to create your site is the best first step, making it a lot simpler for you to begin the journey yourself.