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Cheaper by Design: DIY WEB SITES

By Michael Tamburo

If you want to get a new Web presence off the ground without spending thousands on a professional site developer, try the DIY approach. Know the limitations and the options. Of equal importance, pick the right hosting company.

Most of the Web sites that typical users visit are developed by professional site designers. The sites are full featured, have numerous layers and incorporate lots of graphics and bells and whistles. The cost to develop such sites can range from a few thousand dollars to as high as millions of dollars, depending on the levels of functionality and security.

But many solo and small firm lawyers presently do not need or cannot afford such complex sites. If you’re in this group, are you prepared to build your own site instead of shelling out the bucks to a design firm? If so, what is the easiest and most cost-effective aproach to do-it-yourself (DIY) site building?

Assume the Basics

For starters, it’s important to be clear regarding the goals of a "DIY" Web site. Those goals should be limited. Otherwise, you’ll quickly get in over your head and the resulting site—if any site results—may well be an unworkable mess. So, before getting into the how-tos, let’s make a few assumptions.

1. The site will be designed to provide clients with basic information about your firm, such as the services you offer and how to contact you. There will be no advanced capabilities, such as interactive forms, ties to databases, credit card transactions and so forth.

2. The site will be limited to a few pages. A more-complex site consisting of many levels and links is something to tackle as your experience grows.

3. The site will contain only basic graphics, such as logos in standard file formats. There will be no advanced graphics, such as Flash animations.

An additional, and imperative, assumption is that you have an acceptable level of computer skills. Don’t bother trying to do it yourself if you’re a novice user, because building a Web site while you’re still learning to use a computer will, in all likelihood, be too much to handle.

All these assumptions are important when trying to create your own Web site. Your first time out, you should not try to get the site to do more than the basics.

Web Site Hosting Companies

If you’re going to build your own Web site, you probably need a company to host it. The hosting company will provide the necessary computer hardware and Internet connectivity to store your site and make it available on the Internet. Although hosting companies typically provide a number of services, there are some particularly important things to look for when selecting a company to meet your needs.

Free and continuous technical support. The benefits of no-cost 24-7 support cannot be stressed enough. Even experienced developers periodically require support from the hosting company—and you want to know that someone will be there to answer the phone when you need help.

E-mail accounts. Most hosting companies provide at least 10 accounts with a basic hosting package.

Guaranteed uptime. Most reputable hosting companies will guarantee that your site will be up and available more than 99 percent of the time or they will credit you for any shortfalls.

Easy upgrades to more advanced plans. As you become more capable in site building, or if you hire a professional to work on your site, you might want to pursue more advanced site features that will likely require an upgrade to a more advanced hosting plan.

Longevity. Select a company that has been in business for at least a few years. When start-up hosting companies go under, it can be a real problem for their customers to relocate their Web sites to another hosting company.

There are many site hosting companies. The one that I like most is NTT/Verio, at www.verio.com or (800) GET-VERIO. It has been in the business for many years, and it continues to provide excellent service and support. Plus, whether you do it yourself or have a professional site developer, NTT/Verio has a hosting plan that will meet your needs. (For a sample of other providers, see the Technology in Practice Department’s "Web Hosting Companies" chart on page 9.)

Your Domain Name

If you don’t already have a domain name for your Web site, you’ll need to get one. Your hosting company can help you obtain a domain name or, alternatively, help you submit the necessary requests to get your domain name to point to the server that is hosting your Web site. If you are a novice here, you will need help with this step. Make sure your hosting company can provide assistance with it. After all, if your clients and prospects can’t get to your site, how will they know how great it is?

The Site’s Construction: Your Two Options

In terms of do-it-yourself site building, there are two options worth considering. The first is to select a hosting company that provides wizards or templates that guide you through the entire process of building the site. The second option is to purchase off-the-shelf software with the needed wizards or templates.

• The hosting company approach. To illustrate how this approach works, let’s take NTT/Verio’s Express Start Plan. For the novice user, this is a great plan that provides the needed tools to guide you through the process of setting up your site. There’s no knowledge of HTML needed. Using company-provided wizards and templates, you can literally create your site in minutes—it’s that easy.

Prices start at $24.95 per month. In addition to the site building tools, that prices includes up to seven Web site pages, 10 e-mail accounts, 24-7 technical support by phone or e-mail, daily backups and continuous network monitoring. The plan also includes credits for uptimes of less than 99 percent. This plan does not provide you with the ability to use your own Web site development software, so you would need to upgrade to another hosting plan should that time ever come.

• Web site software approach. If you want to be a bit more ambitious, then consider purchasing a basic Web site software development package, such as Microsoft’s FrontPage 2002 ($149.95) or Macromedia’s Dreamweaver ($359). Both packages offer a host of templates that you can use as the basis for building your site. There are also books available on both packages, which can help you through the process every step of the way. The templates included in these software packages allow you to easily include more advanced features in your site, such as feedback forms for site visitors to complete and submit online.

If you’re going with an off-the-shelf package, selecting the right hosting company becomes an even more important decision. Many hosting companies are very familiar with Microsoft FrontPage and have implemented the requirements necessary to allow you to easily transfer your completed site to the hosting company. This process is referred to as "uploading" your site. The hosting company will provide you with a user name and a password, which ensures that only authorized users can make changes to your site. For an idea of the hosting fees involved in this approach, NTT/Verio has a Bronze plan that starts at $14.95 per month that is designed to work with Microsoft FrontPage. The plan offers all the features of the Express Start plan discussed earlier (except for the site building wizards), with 20 e-mail accounts provided instead of 10.

Build on What You Do Today

If you’ve held out this long in getting a Web site up and running for your firm, perhaps the wait, in a sense, has paid off. Inexpensive options are now readily available that will allow you to develop and publish your own basic Web site. Make sure you choose the right hosting company and keep your initial objectives simple. You can always add more interactivity to the site as your abilities progress.

Michael Tamburo (mtamburo@conexnet.com) is President of ConexNet, Inc., a privately held Chicago-based company he co-founded to provide connectivity solutions. A software developer since 1986, he specializes in implementing Microsoft-based hardware and software solutions.

 

ACTION

• Also see this issue’s nothing.but.net "Site Redesign Special" on page 9. Erik J. Heels reviews Web publishing software packages and provides site design pointers for more advanced users.