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September 4, 2013 View Original Article

How to Build a Website

The tools and services you need to create professional webpages are at your fingerstips. Some are free; others will cost you for real power under the HTML and style sheets.

By Eric Griffith

Some of us have blogs and some of us have personal webpages, but the bread and butter of the World Wide Web is the website—that is, a collection of related webpages filled with data, media content, and often ecommerce options, all found at the same domain name. When you think of the Web, you're generally conceiving of a collection of millions of websites.

If you need a website your options to build one are almost endless. You can hire someone to design and code it, or try your own hand. Work with a company that hosts your pages, or find a Web service that also hosts. Use an online service to create pages, or a third-party software tool. Or if you're truly a gearhead, use a plain text editor to create a site from scratch. How you mix and match these decisions depends on your skills, time, budget, and gumption. None of them are wrong, but some can be very right.

We're here to give you a cursory introduction to services and software that can get you started building your own website, even if you have no experience at all. Keep in mind, none of these tools will give you an idea for a winning website—that's on you. They also won't make you a Web designer; a job that can be very distinct from building a site. Still, these sites, services, and software will ease some of the headaches that come from a lack of extensive expertise in HTML, CSS, and FTP.

Blog as Site

A blog is a unique subset of website thanks to its familiar layout: new content sits on the top of the page, scrolling down reveals older posts, and older archived content links off to another page. When someone needs to build a website quickly, a blogging service is typically easy and fast. (At least, it's meant to be.)

The big names in the business are Blogger (4.5 stars) and WordPress.com (4.5 stars). Both are PCMag Editors' Choices because they are incredibly easy to set up, customize, and use on a daily basis. Both offer site hosting so you never have to learn FTP tricks, however you are usually limited to their design options.

By adjusting how you use Blogger or WordPress archives you can make new webpages for each entry. If your site is a catalog of products, then each product becomes a new entry. In Blogger, you can then enter Settings, select "Show at most 1 post on the main page," and you'll get a new page for each post. Tracking the URL for each is as simple as visiting your blog's "Posts" section to find them; you can then create links to those pages as needed. Sites created on Blogger and WordPress are typically mobile-friendly the minute they launch and are usually free, but it will usually cost cash to set up a domain name that works with the site.

Yahoo's Tumblr is another incredibly popular blog platform that lends itself to shorter, more visual posts. You can however find themes that give you a more "website-y" feel; there are instructions out there to modify a Tumblr theme for this purpose. Being a little more involved it's not going to get your new site up and running quite as quick.

Newer blogging services like AnchorFeathers, or Medium stress the writing and publishing over cohesiveness, but sure are easy to use.

Personal Webpage/Nameplate Sites

You might not need a full-blown website; just a little place to park your persona on the Internet. In this case you can just get a nameplate site, or as I prefer to think of them, a personal webpage (rather than a multi-page site). The difference is the links on a personal page usually go elsewhere: to your social networks, your wish lists, your playlists, or whatever else is linkable.

About.meFlavors, and Vizify are three of the top sites in this area. The first two set the standard—you upload one big photograph as the background for your personal webpage, then artfully overlay info and links to create your digital nameplate. These free sites help you pull images from your social networks or from a hard drive, then provide the tools to make the text and links work unobtrusively, though it really behooves you to check out other personal pages for an idea of what works. For $4 per month About.me gives you a custom .ME domain name and email, Google Analytics access, and priority support; paying Flavors $20 a year gets you a domain name of any kind, a mobile friendly view of your page, and its own real-time stats.

Vizify, on the other hand, is "powered by your data," creating a Flash-based animation of a "site" based on info you provide. Its #FollowMe service lets you turn your Twitter feed into an animation for the site. At the moment you can't upgrade for features such as your own domain name though.

If you're job hunting and want a fancy online resume, try Visualize.MeRe.vu, or Zerply. They create stimulating resumes for the modern candidate and require minimal work from you (if you've already got your job history as part of LinkedIn, at least). They're all free so it's worth giving each one a spin.

Artists with major portfolios to show off shouldn't feel left out. There are a number of personal page/site builders that display your work better than Flickr or Instagram can. These visually creative sites include JuxBrushdCargo Collective, and BigBlackBag.

Full Site Online Services

When it's time to go beyond the blogs, beyond the resumes, beyond the page of links; which service do you turn to for a full-blown site that can handle all of above plus host images, and maybe even e-commerce, with a simple interface anyone can master? There's no lack of them, but the leaders of late are not household names. For instance, take Jimdo. This German-based service has been around since 2007 and now hosts well over eight million websites. The hallmark of Jimdo is ease of use, where a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor lets you adjust every page and add maps, music, video, social links, chat, and more. If you go with the free option ads appear on your pages, but you can nix them for $90 a year, or $240 a year for business with the Pro version. Paying also brings more design options; a custom domain; search engine optimization for Google, Yahoo, and Bing; and an ecommerce storefront. Jimdo just launched an iOS app that allows almost full editing of your site right on an iPhone or iPad, with plans for an Android app to come.

Here's a quick look at other worthy options to consider: Weebly features a drag-and-drop interface and beautiful themes; mobile apps for posting to the site; blogs, site analytics, and search engine optimization. There's no e-commerce however. It's free, $4 per month to add branding, or $8 per month for the whole enchilada.

No one has more or better-looking site templates than Wix. There's also a drag-and-drop interface, and all elements of the site are customizable with lots of help and support. Wix has its own app market to add functions to your site. It's free to start, but you'll want to go premium starting at $5.95 a month to get a domain, $10.95 to get rid of ads, or $15.95 a month for the pros. Ecommerce options come in at $19.90 a month. It's cheaper if you sign up for a year.

Squarespace has beautiful templates that work well, especially for visual content like slideshows. They also scale well for mobile devices, formatting images to multiple sizes. There's a Squarespace Manager app for iOS and Android. Bloggers on Tumblr, Blogger, and WordPress can import everything here. Squarespace sites are free for 14 days, after which you start at $10 a month ($8 if billed annually), then go to $20/$16 for unlimited bandwidth and traffic and pages, or $30/$24 to integrate an e-commerce storefront.

With Sidengo pick a category for your site (small biz, product, restaurant, artist, etc.) and it'll serve up a template to fit your need. It cheats by making each "page" a new HTML5 layer you access on a click, but the effect works well. The basic free version is smartphone-optimized and for $10 a month you also get a custom domain, Google Analytics, and the ability to integrate your Sidengo site into a Facebook page. You only pay more if you want multiple sites.

Content Management Systems

If you're looking to build a presence for a larger organization that requires serious back-end power, you may need a content management system (CMS). A CMS manages all the content you put on your site, from text to video to audio to documents. It can be custom-built, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and be more complicated than particle physics. That said, several are free and pride themselves on staying simple—at least for those with some Web publishing experience.

Software like DNN/EvoqDrupalJoomla, and WordPress (separate from blogging at WordPress.com) are all powerful, open-source tools you can install on your own Web server (or rented server space) if it meets all the criteria. You'll need to work with a Web host that supports technology like PHP, SQL databases, and the like. If those are terms you actively avoid or fear you may want to stay away from these platforms.

Website Creation Software

For years Adobe Dreamweaver has been synonymous with webpage creation.Dreamweaver CC (4.5 stars) is our PCMag Editors' Choice because it is, quite simply, the world's most powerful Web editor. It's gone from being a creator of HTML pages in a WYSIWYG interface to being able to handle programming pages in PHP, Cold Fusion, JavaScript, and more. Its liquid layout lets you see how pages look at different browser and screen sizes—even on smartphones and tablets. It's about as code-heavy as you want it to be.

The downside is that it's only available as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription service. You can get Dreamweaver CC for $19.99 a month alone, or as part of a suite of apps for $49.99 a month.

Prices like that may leave a bad taste in your mouth. If you're on a Mac however, there's another option: RapidWeaver 5. It's a WYSIWYG webpage editor with full code access and FTP support for uploading pages. There are plenty of built-in templates to get started, all for the one-time price of $79.99. On Windows there's a plethora of choices. Xara Web Designer 9 starts at $49.99 and promises you don't need to know HTML or Javascript to create sites based on their (mobile-friendly) templates. The premium version ($99.99) throws in extra widgets, support for animation and presentations, and a lot more graphical goodies.

If you don't have a design already in place and think templates are too limited, considerAdobe Muse. It's a unique little program that concentrates on letting you design. Templates are handy, embeddable Web fonts are great, and the sitemap view may be the best way to get an overall feel for what your site will have. Export it to HTML and you're ready for upload. It's part of the Creative Cloud bundle and also available individually for $14.99 a month with a yearly plan.