DIY or Not: Build Your Own Website

Gabrielle Karol
Posted

We know you’re tech-savvy (or at the very least, able to get to this site). But are you knowledgeable enough to build your own website?

These days, having an online presence is a necessity for almost every small business or freelancer. A website is the easiest way to display all the information that potential clients or customers might need. It gives you an opportunity to “brand” yourself or your business and lets you broadcast what sets you apart.

DIY or Not: Web Design

While you know you need a website, figuring out how to get one is a little trickier. Many web designers charge by the hour: Inexperienced or student designers might charge as little as $20 per hour, while an in-demand professional might charge well over $150 per hour. With a simple website taking upward of 50 hours to build, even a low hourly rate can add up to a large price tag. But while it might be expensive, a professional website with custom features can help you grow your business, and sends a loud and clear message that you’re trustworthy and professional.

In this installment of our DIY or Not series, we spoke to Catherine Hnatov, a web designer for foundations, authors and illustrators, and Ken Herbert, Director of Development Services for dzine it, inc., whose web development firm has worked on sites for American Express, Merck and the United Nations. They gave us the lowdown on when you should call in a professional to design your new site and when it’s worth taking a crack at doing it yourself.

Web designer Catherine Hnatov

Web designer Catherine Hnatov, whose work can be seen at paintwater.com

Call Me If …

You want a unique online identity.

Catherine Hnatov: Web design is important if you are looking to establish a unique identity or want to incorporate your existing identity into a site. There are a lot of sites that allow you to use templates to build your own site. This is an easy route if you don’t have design experience, but your site will look more generic than if you hired a designer.

You want your site to have special features.

CH: If you want your site to have interactive features like animations, slide shows or image shows, hire a designer. A web designer will know about options for these types of features that may not be available through a standard template and will anticipate issues for certain browsers and mobile devices.

Having a slow website is the biggest mistake you could make: People won’t hang around and wait, so it needs to load quickly.

You’re a freelancer.

CH: It’s really important to have a website if you are a freelancer, so people can contact you. Chances are, no one will Google search “freelance writer” and find your site. Nevertheless, it is important for someone to be able to get to your site and find your contact information, and it makes you look more professional when someone asks what type of writing you do. (Learn more about online portfolios: read this.)

Ken Herbert, Director of Development Services at dzine it, inc.

Ken Herbert, Director of Development Services at dzine it, inc.

Don’t Call Me If …

You only need a simple, informational page.

Ken Herbert: For a very basic (and free) site, consider a WordPress blog. They have a lot of great templates to get you started. Make sure your template has an “About” page that introduces your company, a page that lists out your services, a portfolio page with previous work and a contact form. Contact forms are preferable because a user doesn’t have to open another application or window. And because it doesn’t display your email address, a form also protects you from spammers.

LV Tip: Squarespace has amazing templates that you can customize, so your site won’t look run-of-the-mill; they’ll also host your site. It’s not free, but for as little as $12 per month, it will still cost less than a professional designer.

You have strong web skills.

KH: The basic languages you need to know are HTML and CSS—they instruct the look and feel of a website. HTML and CSS will allow you to construct pages and display the information that you need for potential clients and customers. If you are already proficient in HTML and CSS, consider looking into PHP and MySQL, which are dynamic languages. They will allow you to program sites that go beyond static content.

You’re good at following online tutorials.

CH: I actually learned how to do web design by building my own site. I had design experience and knew some basic HTML, but I also had a lot of patience to sit there with an open textbook and take online tutorials. I swear by Lynda.com tutorials, which can help you with almost every situation, from learning a new programming language to customizing a WordPress template. A one-month pass for $25 will give you access to an unlimited number of tutorials.

You haven’t figured out your content yet.

CH: Figure out your content before calling a web designer. You should know what you want to display, even if you don’t know exactly how to display it. The more information you can bring, the better.

Maybe Call Me If …

You can’t afford to pay top prices.

KH: If you go on a site like Craigslist, you can possibly find a student willing to build your site for little or no money (they’re looking to build their own portfolio, after all), or a more junior designer looking for extra work.

CH: ODesk is another site that will help you put together a design team for less. Even though you’re hiring off the web, there’s accountability, as previous customers will post reviews after working with a designer. The site also tracks the number of hours that a designer is working on your project, so you know that you’re not overpaying.

You want to set up ecommerce for your business.

CH: Setting up ecommerce for a business often requires a web designer and a programmer. Because I only do web design, I’ll work with a programmer to set up ecommerce for a customer. A client could go directly to a programmer to set up ecommerce for an existing site, but I’ve found that they work best when managed by a designer.

LV Tip: If you want to try to tackle ecommerce yourself, check out Highwire, which helps you set up an online store. Setup is free, but you’ll pay a monthly fee for the service. There are templates if you don’t have design experience, but you can also customize your store if you’d like.

You want to upgrade your existing website, or you’ve built some of your site.

CH: For work on existing sites, you can often negotiate a lower fee with web designers. You can also negotiate a fee if you’ve done some of the prep work yourself, like building and resizing images, or laying out the design of the site.

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Your website is loading really slowly.

CH: Having a slow website is the biggest mistake you could make: People won’t hang around and wait, so it needs to load quickly. Websites are often slow because the uploaded images are sized incorrectly. If your website is too slow, call a designer to take a look.

Your business was recently revamped or your website is old.

CH: If you’re restructuring your business, it might be a good idea to put a new face on your website. It doesn’t have to be a drastic change: A slight upgrade will make it look fresh and important. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a business’s website that hasn’t been updated since 2009.

3 Tips for Going It Alone

There are easy ways to improve the traffic to your site yourself, like having links to and from your site. You should also begin to think about SEO, or search engine optimization: You want to be listed as high up on Google and other search engines as possible. Here are some ways to improve your SEO:

1. Tag your website with key words, but don’t waste too much time.

It’s a good practice to tag your posts with key words to make your site easier to navigate, but don’t go overboard. For example, If you have a scone business, add the tag “scone,” but you don’t need “blueberry scone,” “strawberry scone,” “how to make a scone,” etc.

2. Use a variety of words and descriptions on your site.

If you own a restaurant, be specific about what sets it apart. Refer to it as an “organic” and a “vegan” restaurant, and list the specific types of food you serve. A varied vocabulary works best. The more descriptive words you use, the more likely you are to pop up in people’s searches.

3. Name your images.

When you upload images to your site, describe what the pictures are in words—don’t just name them with numbers. This will also help search engines find your site.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jessie.brodsky Jessie Brodsky

    Great post! I want to learn more!

  • JackieAU5

    How timely! I was just talking about this and exploring WordPress last night! I just finished grad school for communications so I have some background in web design and branding, etc. and I have volunteered my services to make a couple of websites for my family members’ small businesses (to be nice) and to beef up my portfolio. I think WordPress is good for a basic site and info and anything special should be left to the pros, particularly if you need it constantly updated. I also suggest using Flavors.me if you want a more modern look or are looking for an individual web presence, like during a job search or of you are an artist for example.

  • http://www.devostea.com Christine Wilson

    I’m a web designer and I’d like to recommend WP eCommerce Plugin for WordPress. You can add this to your WordPress blog for free. It’s fully functional allowing you to sell real and digital products under different categories, display or don’t display tax/shipping, regions for shipping and their corresponding prices (America, Europe, Asia), coupon codes, reduced price with strike through on regular price and integration with the big name pay merchants – PayPal, Google Checkout etc. It’s really great! You can set up your WordPress to look like a website (not a blog) and no one will know! Then it is easy to update your content whenever you want to. However some knowledge of HTML, CSS and PHP will allow you to customize your website the way you want. 

  • http://twitter.com/smthingborrowed SomethingBorrowedNY

    Try shopify as well for e-commerce!  It’s super user-friendly, has tutorials for customization and has a low monthly fee!  www.somethingborrowedny.com uses it for our site, and we love it!

  • ShionA

    I’m not sure if this entire article is straight trolling, but I do want to let people know that when I was a student designer, my peers and I really resented this whole “…you can possibly find a student
    willing to build your site for little or no money (they’re looking to
    build their own portfolio, after all).” The sites we built for these clients ended up with a lot of compromises and usually everyone ends up unhappy, or the site isn’t up to standards and needs to be redone by a professional. There was only one I built that I ever used in my portfolio, because the rest had such limited/nonexistent budgets, I didn’t want to spend any time on them. So just do everyone a favor and build your own site on WordPress. (I’m not knocking it, it’s easy and creates good stable sites.) I’m not sure why we’re treated differently, maybe because our work is digital, not tangible, and people just don’t understand what goes into a well coded site. You don’t expect dentists and plumbers to work for free, and if they did, I’m sure you’d be skeptical.

  • http://senseofcents.blogspot.com/ Michelle

    Great post!

  • http://senseofcents.blogspot.com/ Michelle

    Great post!

  • http://www.smartmouthblog.com Nicole Longstreath

    WordPress can do amazing things, and almost anyone of any skill level can use it. For a more professional look, add a theme. I use one from Genesis.

    If you don’t mind paying a monthly fee and need to be able to get a website up pronto, consider using Squarespace. It is perfect for people who are creative and visual because it doesn’t require any “back-end editing” like WordPress does.

    One final thing. Don’t ever be afraid to reach out to creative professionals with questions, regardless if you think there may, or may not, be a potential transaction. A true professional won’t have a problem chatting briefly with you about your project.

    http://theWardrobeCode.com

  • http://twitter.com/torylynne Tory Lynne

    As an Internet marketer (who does search engine optimization – helping websites rank for and get traffic from the keywords they want on Google, Bing, etc.) and a LearnVest user, it’s very disheartening to see your “Tips for Going it Alone”, especially the first one, “tag your website with keywords”. 

    Meta keywords (the tag being referenced here) has ABSOLUTELY NO EFFECT on your website’s ranking in Google, and little to no effect in all other search engines. Since Google owns the market it makes very little sense to spend time and effort doing this to no avail (and no business to show for your hard work). 

    Search engine optimization (SEO) is hard, dedicated work that takes time and can’t be ignored. If you’re going the DIY route, be sure to do your homework and use trustworthy sources (it’s not magic, so don’t let anyone try and pull the wool over your eyes, either.)Google’s SEO Starter Guide is a great place to start: http://static.googleusercontent.com/external_content/untrusted_dlcp/www.google.com/en/us/webmasters/docs/search-engine-optimization-starter-guide.pdf

    And good luck on your venture!

  • http://www.fleckbites.com Gina

    I wrote a brief article, Tips for a Successful Website, on my blog here: http://www.fleckbites.com/2010/11/tips-for-successful-website.html. I’m an interactive project manager and my husband is an art director, so I may be biased, but I do agree that there are times when using a professional may not be the most prudent. However, if you want to project a professional image, I definitely suggest using a designer in almost all situations.

  • http://www.kclmoneycoach.com Kelley Long

    Great points. I paid a firm $3,500 for my first website and while I received a ton of compliments on the design and feel, I still wrote all the content and quickly discovered a few areas it was lacking (it had a Blog page, but no way for people to sign up for RSS) and had to pay $80/hour to have any changes or updates done.

    My mistake was that I didn’t do a lick of research before jumping into this project, and if I had, I’d have learned that I could easily do my own since the purpose of my site is purely informational.

    This winter I decided to bag the old site and create my own using GoDaddy’s Website Tonight. I know some people cringe to read that, but it worked for me: $250 and about 15 hours and I have a new and improved website! Searchability isn’t as much of a concern as having someone who has heard of me being able to find out more online.

    Thanks for an informative article!

  • http://www.kclmoneycoach.com Kelley Long

    Great points. I paid a firm $3,500 for my first website and while I received a ton of compliments on the design and feel, I still wrote all the content and quickly discovered a few areas it was lacking (it had a Blog page, but no way for people to sign up for RSS) and had to pay $80/hour to have any changes or updates done.

    My mistake was that I didn’t do a lick of research before jumping into this project, and if I had, I’d have learned that I could easily do my own since the purpose of my site is purely informational.

    This winter I decided to bag the old site and create my own using GoDaddy’s Website Tonight. I know some people cringe to read that, but it worked for me: $250 and about 15 hours and I have a new and improved website! Searchability isn’t as much of a concern as having someone who has heard of me being able to find out more online.

    Thanks for an informative article!

  • Lily

    Okay, I’m a designer and having a student build a website for little or no money is bullshit. I’m angry that you would even LIST this option because people take advantage, a student could agree to do a website for cheap but with hours of revisions and calls with a client, ultimately they could end up working for less than minimum wage! Even with this the site may not be up to the persons standards and no one will come out ahead.

    Everyone and their mom seems to be a designer these days because everyone can get an adobe suite but doing this kind of thing DEVALUES the profession! not to mention unless its an internship and they are working under professionals students shouldn’t have to work for free!

  • http://www.mangomoney.com Mango Money

    I think building your own website is a great idea, especially if you’re just starting out or you’re creating a side business. And I agree with Nicole– WordPress can do amazing things. In fact, many businesses use WordPress for their sites (we do– http://www.mangomoney.com/blog/    and    https://www.mangomoney.com/). 

    WordPress is user-friendly, and like Nicole said, most anyone can do it. I’d recommend building your own site and then once your startup generates some income, you can use that to pay someone to “clean it up.” Besides, you’ll already have all of the necessary information on the site, so it will take them less time, and you’ll be charged less! When you’re ready for a professional to step in, you might try posting something on Craigslist for the best deals. 

  • http://www.stylebaggage.com/ Nellene

    Great article. I agree that Lynda.com is amazing!! I was completely computer illiterate and I was able to start a blog using Lynda.com. I don’t typically learn well from tutorials either, but it worked for me. You can also learn things like Photoshop, etc… I have done all I feel comfortable doing on my own. Now I have been looking into hiring someone. For me, I’m interviewing people that come recommended. That makes me feel comfortable that I know what their capable of and have a proven reputation my with friends or colleagues.

  • Dinitagach

    Tumblr is easy, I started a comedic blog about unemployment there called Bureaucracy for Breakfast super easy to use http://bureaucracyforbreakfast.tumblr.com/

  • http://www.bmwysp.deviantart.com Jennifer Megan Varnadore

    I tried making a website with actual software once. I wish I still had that software.

  • http://grahamfreeronline.com Graham

    Thanks for the info and advice I have in the past used WP and found it easy to use and a quick way to get online.