website design guide for beginners

How to make a website (complete beginner's guide)

This step-by-step simple guide to creating a website is for people who want a professional site with great design and functionality that's easy and cheap to make.

Knowing how to create a website today is more about knowing what website builders, Web hosting services, and Web design tools exist to do the job for you.

Here's the thing: you don't need to understand the internal combustion engine to own and drive a car, and you don't need to learn unnecessary things about how the Internet works to have a website.

Here's an outline of what you'll need to know (click on a link to jump to that section):

  1. Costs
  2. Important concepts
  3. Find a domain name
  4. Ways to create a website
  5. Understand your site's requirements
  6. Choose a Web platform
  7. Choose a Web host (if required)

1. Costs of having a website

It is possible to create certain types of website for free. However, you should be prepared to spend at least $5 - $10 per month (and possibly more) to maintain a website of decent quality and around $20 - $30 per month to host an eCommerce store.

There's a full roundup of specific costs associated with everything from buying domain names, cheap shared hosting plans, VPS plans, dedicated servers, website builders, and eCommerce hosting in their respective sections below.

2. Understand these important components

Terms that you should understand before you can take your first step:

  • Domain:
    • A website domain is the address that people type into their browser in order to view a site
    • Every website needs a unique domain name which will direct the browser to your website’s home page
    • Domains are usually the same as the business name - but not always, because most domains are already taken
  • Web host:
    • A Web host, sometimes also called a hosting service is a company that provides the resources and connection to the Internet that your website needs to operate and serve pages over the Web
    • Most Web hosts offer facilities to purchase a domain name, when you purchase a monthly Web hosting plan from them
  • Website builder:
    • Website builders offer online Web design facilities in addition to Web hosting - i.e. everything, all in one place
    • Modern website builders are easy to use, fast, high quality, and very affordable
    • Using a website builder is the easiest way to set up a website for beginners

3. Find a domain name

Finding and registering great domain names can be a real hassle for small businesses. But, with a bit of imagination and creativity, it is still possible to buy a reasonably cheap domain that works. The problem for most businesses looking to register a new domain is that either someone else is using it, or the dreaded cyber-squatters are holding it ransom.

Researching new domains

Initially, you might type in a potential address directly into your browser to see if someone is using it. Often, when researching new names like this, you'll come across a page covered in ads with a big sign saying something like "This domain is for sale".

Avoid buying from domain squatters to help discourage the practice.

But manually searching for names like this can be a real time-consuming chore. Fortunately, there are registration services like GoDaddy (the world's largest domain registrar) that can help out.

Instead of thinking of a name, and then trying it out, it is far quicker to search for them using something like GoDaddy's comprehensive domain name research service (click on the screenshot below to try it out).

GoDaddy domain research tool

With a powerful search tool at your finger tips, you are now in a position to find new names a lot quicker. Not only will a research tool tell you if your proposed name is taken, it will also:

  • indicate if alternative extensions (i.e. .net, .biz, .org) are available
  • offer related, alternative ideas that may be suitable

At the very least, this speeds up the process of researching which potential site names are available and which aren't. But, there's more...

Get creative

Despite having plenty of suggestions and alternatives at your fingertips, the chances are that you won't be able to find exactly the one you're after. In this case, you have several options:

  1. Pay a premium for the one you want
  2. Pick a longer name that is not taken
  3. Pick a complex name that is not taken
  4. Choose a different extension
  5. Include sub-domains and extensions

Paying a premium: The first option may be suitable if your domain name is available at a reasonable price. However, be careful when purchasing domains for more than, say, $13, as some can get very pricey.

The most expensive domain ever purchased was sex.com, which sold for $13 million.

Longer and complex names: Longer and more complex names may be the best option provided that they aren't too difficult to remember, or actively confusing for people. Don't choose something that is ambiguous, has unusual spelling, or simply doesn't make sense.

Alternative extensions: Do you really need a .com? If your business focuses on a local region, it may be better to get a regional extension like .ca for Canada, or .co.uk for Britain. What about .info and .org?

Subdomains & extensions: There are a number of very large websites that made clever use of sub-domains and extensions to create a brand or meaningful URL.

Delicious, for example, used the URL del.icio.us. In this case, the sub-domain was del, the domain icio, and the extension .us. Put together, it made Delicious.

Many other URLs can be made in this way, and the benefit is that the actual domain part may not be taken because it is only a fraction of a word in itself.

Important considerations

Apart from actually finding a name that you can live with, there are a few other issues that you must take into account:

  • Age: New names take a while to start featuring in Google search results. From an SEO perspective, a brand new domain can mean a wait of a few months before Google starts showing some love.
  • History: Since Google Panda & Penguin, many businesses simply closed their doors, and their domains (along with the reasons for their algorithm penalties) came on the market. What might seem like a good domain name, might have some unwanted SEO baggage.
  • Value: Some domain names have greater value than others because they may be attached to relatively high quality websites, with a reasonable PageRank (although this is not necessarily too important anymore). Existing domain names of high quality, that are also well aged, and related to the type of content you will add, can be more expensive.

4. The two primary ways to create a website

  • Use a website builder:
    • Fast. Easy. Cheap. Everything done for you in one place.
    • Requires no experience.
  • Build a website yourself and host it using a hosting service:
    • Slower. More difficult. More expensive.
    • Requires some Web design experience.
    • Requires an understanding of Web hosting, domains, IPs, DNS, servers.

The second option seems really difficult and more expensive, so why would anyone take it? The answer is that building your own website gives you complete control over it, which is useful if you know a lot about building websites.

For 95% of business websites (give or take), however, a website builder is the best option because they are continually updated by really smart designers and engineers, and all the costs are built into the monthly hosting prices - which are really low (comparable to the Web hosting costs you would pay to host your own website anyway).

In fact, so many businesses, bloggers and entrepreneurs are using website builders now, that they have started overtaking the traditional Web design software tools.

5. Understand your requirements

This is quite important because there are different Web design tools and services that cater for different types of websites. Knowing your website's needs allows you to choose the right website builder (step 5) which will save you a lot of time and money in the long run.

Here's a selection of the most common types of websites:

  • eCommerce:
    • Appropriate for selling virtually any type of product online, including digital goods and subscriptions
    • Handles online payments as well as managing products and stock
  • Blog:
    • Mainly for creating written content and embedding other media such as images and YouTube videos – similar to an online diary
    • Blogging is a valuable tool for marketing purposes, as interesting content can end up attracting potentially valuable visitors to your site
  • Professional:
    • Used by traditional businesses to create an online presence
    • Serves as the face of your business on the internet
    • Normally contains important information about your services, products, general company details and contact information
  • Community (including forums):
    • Allows you to build an online community of people centred around a common interest
    • Provides user account management facilities for members

6. Choose a Web platform

There are a lot of website builders out there. Choosing the right one can be a daunting task. The last thing you want is to get stuck with a poor website builder when there are so many awesome ones available.

To make your life easier, we've looked at the most popular ones and compared them by quality, customer satisfaction and ratings, and their overall value for money.

We've paired a list of the top website builders with the type of industry that they suit best - like a wine pairing with your meal. Included is plenty of extra research and information about each platform, as well as step-by-step guides to creating your website using each one.

Bigcommerce (eCommerce)

Bigcommerce online shopping cart website builder

Bigcommerce specializes in 3rd party integrations that can be used to grow your operations effectively. They rely on plenty of 3rd party plugin modules that give you plug-n-play functionality for virtually anything.

All things being equal, if you are planning on selling stuff on different platforms (like Amazon, eBay, etc), or are looking to use the latest cloud based gadgets and technology then this is the right choice for you.

Bigcommerce is best for...

In general, stores that aim to sell high volumes of products through multiple channels will get the most from Bigcommerce:

  • Mainstream - books, electronics, etc
  • Virtual products, subscriptions, memberships, magazines, etc
  • Multi-channel, catalogues, directories, etc
  • Mail order
  • Online only

Bigcommerce offers excellent usability, design and a powerful range of features, and is well reviewed and liked. We scored it as follows (Hint: click on the name below to follow our step-by-step guide to setting up an online store with Bigcommerce):

NamePriceFeaturesPopularity¹Reviews²Value³
BigCommerce$25+ /montheBay + Facebook integration. Email marketing integration. Abandoned cart saver. Single page checkout. No transaction fees.6989%

Weebly

Weebly online website builder for professional sites

For complete beginners, Weebly is arguably the best way to build a high quality, professional online presence (which you can do for free). It is fast and very easy to use.

Not only that, the quality of the websites they produce are excellent, and Weebly came out top of the pile in our SEO comparison of the top site builders.

And while they are expanding their functionality to things like eCommerce (check out Weebly eCommerce vs. Bigcommerce), there are still some things they are better at doing.

Weebly is best for...

Weebly has a strong focus on designing sites for specific purposes, and, in particular, they focus on professionals and organizations:

  • schools
  • churches
  • professions - lawyers, doctors, etc
  • estate agents
  • skilled trades - plumbers, electricians, etc

What's nice about Weebly is that they take a lot of planning and research out of your hands by allowing you to choose a focused template at the start of the design phase. This means you are never more than a few clicks away from having a great site template/design.

Get started with Weebly right now.

Shopify (eCommerce)

Shopify eCommerce software
Shopify is arguably the most popular of all online shopping cart solutions, and this comes down to the fact that it is really easy to use (even for people who are allergic to technology and the Web), and is technically superior.

So, for example, it is known that the speed of a store often has a significant impact on the conversion rate of that store. As you can see from our forum answer Which is the fastest shopping cart software?, Shopify is generally the fastest.

Shopify is best for...

Choose Shopify if your priority is to capture a specific niche market and dominate it, or, sell high-value items to focused target markets, like:

  • Boutique store
  • Arts & crafts
  • Expensive, high end, luxury items
  • Bricks & mortar store

In our review of the top shopping cart solutions, we scored Shopify as follows (Hint: click on the name below to follow our step-by-step guide to setting up an online store with Shopify):

NamePriceFeaturesPopularity¹Reviews²Value³
Shopify$29+ /monthFull featured CMS. Free SSL. Advanced store analytics.9990%

Wix

Wix website builder for visually dynamic sites

Without doubt, Wix are the masters of creating highly visual, stunning and emotive websites for their clients. They stay on top of the latest technology and developments to put a lot of cool features at your fingertips.

We did a direct comparison between Wix & Weebly and noted that Wix tended to be ahead of the curve when it comes to updates, upgrades, and new development.

However, the price you pay for visually rich design is worse performance, and while Wix is no slouch, it isn't as fast as Weebly.

Wix is best for...

Anyone who wants a strong focus on visual media will find that Wix is ideal. Rich media like online videos, images, and animations are all part and parcel of Wix design aimed at:

  • artists
  • musicians
  • architects
  • crafters
  • designers

Wix also has a thriving app marketplace that can add cool features to your site - think along the lines of 'interactive portfolio' that wows prospective clients, customers and employers.

Get started on a Wix site for free.

WordPress

WordPress CMS website builder hybrid

WordPress is a CMS (Content Management System) with a strong focus on building blogs. It is by some measure the most popular choice of blogging platform amongst the CMS and online website builders.

I've included it on it's own here (as opposed to bundling it in with the other CMS software) because wordpress.com is essentially an online blog builder. You can download WordPress from their .org site if you want to design and develop it yourself, but for most people, simply using the website builder version is suitable.

WordPress is best for...

Let's not fool around here. While there are plenty of modules that allow WordPress to function as all sorts of different things, it is, at heart, good for one thing:

  • blogs

While WordPress is well-established, and a market leader, I have noticed that many webmasters have complained about organic search traffic drops as a result of using plugin modules on their WordPress blog.

Google isn't playing around any-more. Install the wrong SEO module on your WordPress site, and you can kiss your traffic and revenue goodbye.

CMS - Drupal, Joomla, etc

Drupal CMS
I've included CMS software here for completeness. I use Drupal myself because that is what I have the most experience with. However, I do not recommend CMS systems for small business owners and entrepreneurs.

There are a number of reasons why CMS systems are no longer suitable for the small business startup. But I can demonstrate one of my own problems quite easily:

As of 2014, it is very important to incorporate responsive Web design into your site to cater for the rise in mobile device usage.

This site is built on Drupal 6, which has no responsive Web design facilities available. I either have to develop everything myself, or upgrade to a newer version of Drupal. However, there are so many customizations to the site, that upgrading is a huge undertaking, complex, frustrating, and annoying.

Using an online website builder means that you are always up-to-date for free. You never have to learn anything technical because it is always handled for you. Unlike CMS systems that eventually always do require specialized skills and knowledge to operate.

Hopefully, by matching up the website builder with the type of business it is best suited to, you'll be able to start a website in no time at all.

7. Choose a Web host (if required)

Assuming, for whatever reason, you have decided to go with a custom designed website that requires hosting, then you will need to take an additional few steps to get online. Namely, finding a hosting service & plan to suit your needs.

What is Web hosting?

A Web host offers an online file system, database, bandwidth and other facilities that are required to operate a website online. This is distinct from the website itself.

Hosting companies offer different packages to cater for different website requirements. Important considerations are:

  • Server resources (i.e. memory, processor speed, dedicated server, VPS, shared server)
  • Bandwidth
  • Connection speed
  • Location
  • Up-time
  • Support

In general, you should opt to pay a bit more for quality support and up-time guarantees because these will help to ensure that your blog or website doesn't suffer from down-time.

Different types of Web servers

In general, a Web host will put many websites and blogs onto a single server - shared hosting. This is what happens with low cost packages (usually a few dollars per month).

The server shares its resources to serve webpages from all of these sites. This provides a cost effective solution for serving many websites at once, but leaves each website with limited resources and susceptible to problems experiences by other websites on the same server.

VPS (Virtual Private Server) provides a better solution by dividing up the server into non-negotiable chunks. This guarantees each website a certain amount of the server's resources and provides a far more reliable and robust solution for only a small increase in cost - usually a few tens of dollars a month.

Dedicated servers, as the name implies, are dedicated to a single website. The entire server - with all it's memory, CPU, etc - serve one site. This provides greater resources to serve busier or more popular sites, but also incurs higher costs - sometimes several hundred dollars per month.

Often, high quality Web hosts will offer managed dedicated servers. Managed servers are monitored by technicians so that website owners don't have to worry about software upgrades and other server maintenance issues.

Here's a roundup of the best hosting plans categorized by the type of server hosting and cost...

Best shared hosting

Shared hosting is the cheapest option available, and you can often find this type of hosting available for only a few dollars per month. In general, however, it is better to opt for slightly more expensive plans if you value support and reliability.

Also, if you think that your blog or website might start generating reasonable volumes of Web traffic, it may be better to go with VPS from the start.

RankPlanPriceServerSupportReviews*Value**
1SiteGround shared hosting$4+1-click setup. 99.9% uptime guarantee. Free domain. Money back guarantee.24/7 support.884%
2Yahoo! Small Business $3+$75 ad credit. Free domain. Money back guarantee.24/7 phone support.777%
3Webhostingpad $2+Unmetered bandwidth. Free domain. $200 free marketing credits. Money back guarantee.24/7 U.S based support.672%
4iPage$2+Free domain. Free, exclusive security suite. Site building tools. Money back guarantee.24/7 phone support. Calls answered in under 2 minutes.671%
5Netfirms$3+Unlimited bandwidth. Free domain. $150 online advertising credit. Money back guarantee.24/7 support.670%

Best VPS

VPS offers a cost-effective middle ground between shared and dedicated hosting.

A VPS server can have more than one account, but the server's resources are divided up into set chunks - which means that your account is guaranteed a certain minimum level of resources and bandwidth (unlike shared plans).

RankPlanPriceServerSupportReviews*Value**
1IX VPS$55+1.5TB+ transfer. 50GB+ storage. cPanel. 2 dedicated IPs. 768 MB+ RAM.24/7 live chat support.882%
2HostGator VPS$20+cPanel. 10GB+ storage. 250GB+ transfer. Full root access.Semi managed. 24/7 support.880%
3GoDaddy VPS servers$30+3 dedicated IPs. 1GB+ RAM. 40GB+ storage. 1TB+ transfer. Intrusion prevention. Network monitoring. Security.24/7 phone, email, Web support.779%
4myhosting business VPS$46+1.5GB+ RAM. 1.2TB transfer. 80GB+ storage. Free domain name.24/7 managed support.670%
51&1 Virtual Private Servers$30+2GB+ RAM. 50GB+ storage. 1TB+ transfer. Server monitoring.24/7 support.670%

Best dedicated

Dedicated servers are the most reliable type of hosting, and generally offer the best in performance and reliability. Hosting companies also tend to prioritize support requests from dedicated server clients, so you also benefit from a greater level of qualified human technical expertise.

The following table was taken directly from our research into dedicated server hosting for business at top dedicated server hosting comparison table.

RankPlanPriceServerSupportReviews*Value**
1HostGator dedicated server$175+Intel Zeon 2.3GHz. 10TB transfer. 4GB memory. 500GB RAID drives.24/7 premium support. 24/7 server support.883%
2SiteGround premium managed dedicated servers$300+Quad core Intel Xeon. 5TB bandwidth. 4GB+ RAM. 500GB+ SATA drives.Managed. Active server monitoring. 24/7 prioritized technical support.981%
3WP Engine premium (WordPress only)$100+Baked in CDN. Unlimited transfer. 30GB+ storage.Fully managed.980%
4GoDaddy dedicated servers$80+Intel 2 - 4 cores. 5TB+ transfer. 2GB+ RAM. 320GB+ drives.24/7 technical support. Server concierge. 24/7 network monitoring.7.579%
5NEXCESS dedicated (WordPress & Magento)$135+Dual - quad cores. 1.5TB transfer (more available for purchase). 2GB RAM. 500GB+ drives.24/7 technical support. Managed server options.775%

Best specialist hosting

WordPress is so popular that it warrants a section of its own specialist hosting services that do nothing other than pursue the art of perfecting WordPress hosting. Currently there is one dominant player in the market...

WP Engine

Unlike the other two companies that offer a huge range of plans and services, WP Engine focuses their offering on high quality WordPress hosting.

Because speed, reliability and performance as such critically important factors for business websites, it makes sense that services like WP Engine would find a market with corporate clients.

Here's something to think about:

"Google says they lose 20% of their traffic for each additional 100 milliseconds it takes a page to load. Speed matters. Google also incorporates your page-load time into your site’s search rankings. Faster sites win, literally. "

It makes sense for organizations using WordPress to go with WP Engine because their entire value offering is centered around making WordPress faster, more reliable, and more secure.

In fact, their EverCache server technology can deliver WordPress pages in 15 milliseconds. Even if you aren't 100% convinced that page speed is as important as I say it is, what about security?

For corporate websites, security is absolutely essential. A hacked site can be devastating for your brand and revenue stream. That's why WP Engine promises to scan and fix any hacked sites they find for free.

WP Engine only offers one type of WordPress hosting, that comes in 3 pricing tiers:

  1. Personal ($29 per month)
  2. Professional ($99 per month)
  3. Business ($249 per month)

Any enterprise that values speed, reliability, security, and expert technical support has little alternative. WP Engine is a must have for WordPress based sites.

So that's the end of our beginner's guide to creating a website as quickly and easily as possible. Hopefully, you are now confident enough to get started on the right track - saving time, money, and plenty of effort in the process.

Are there any other tips you would add to this guide? Have you recently built a website using one of the leading website builders mentioned here?

Share your Web development and design experiences in the comments.

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