CREATING A WEBSITE

While a website is essential for creating a smart, professional online presence, many people might be deterred from creating one because they think it is technically too difficult, and that it will be expensive to have one created for them. While it’s true that a complex, interactive website with multiple features will require expert knowledge to set up, a more straight-forward ‘starter’ website can be created at a very reasonable cost – whether that cost be in time or money. And even with a limited budget it can still have a modern, professional appearance. But there is more than one way to build a website. Here we’ll look at three of the most popular ways, and explore the pros and cons of each method.

1. CODING

Coding – building with HTML, CSS, JavaScript and other scripting languages – is the ‘traditional’ way of creating a website. This means writing instructions that a web browser can understand and convert into a web page. These languages can be learned, but it takes time and experience – not ideal for someone with no knowledge who is wishing to get a website up and running in the immediate future. The solution in this case is usually to hire somebody with knowledge of these languages.

So what do these languages do? HTML deals with the content of a webpage (usually the text that you read, and the general order of the page contents), while CSS provides the styling (basically making it look appealing). JavaScript (among other options) provides interactivity, and a database on the server can be used to call up information at the user’s convenience. These last two elements are what make web pages ‘dynamic’, as opposed to static pages which do not change their content or appearance.

If we were to use the analogy of building a house, HTML could be seen as the bricks and mortar and all the physical materials that make up the building, with CSS being the drawings and plans for how the house will look when all the building materials are put together. JavaScript might be seen as the water and electricity supply, or even just the handles and hinges on doors – basically everything that makes your house functional, other than as a place of shelter, when you switch appliances on and interact with the things inside.

To further enhance websites, scripting languages such as PHP can communicate with a database on a server and fetch information to the user’s screen when needed, as opposed to the information being placed statically in the HTML that makes up the web page. This element in our house analogy might be, rather aptly, your internet connection, which you use to change the information viewed on the devices in your home at the click of a button or the swipe of a screen. The huge benefit of being able to change the information seen on a web page is that a single page can be created and styled just once, with different content being loaded on to it from the database as it is requested by the user, instead of having many identically styled pages containing different information. The text you are reading now is an example. It is not actually written into this web page, but sits in a database on a server, and is called to this page when required. The search function at the top of the page allows you to filter the different subjects in this blog. Once you select a subject and click the ‘Search’ button, a piece of code looks through the database for any blog entry under that subject name you have selected, and brings these to your page, filtering everything else out, thus saving you the time of looking through an entire blog for the subject that might interest you! This is what makes the page you are viewing ‘dynamic’ – it is the same page but it can display different content at the click of a button. This is a very powerful feature, and one that is essential for some websites to work practically, particularly those with vast amounts of information. Ecommerce websites are a prime example of how useful this function is. Just imagine trying to search for a product you wish to purchase on a website without this feature! You could be trawling through page after page for a long time. Property websites are another example. Having a database behind a website allows the user to narrow their search down to very specific requirements.

The main advantage of creating a website using code is ‘ownership’. Quite simply, if you build a website this way, you will have all the source code, and you would be able to transfer it from one web service to another if needed. So if your web host’s service wasn’t up to scratch, or if they raised their prices and you wanted to go elsewhere at a better price, your website can be moved. The other advantage I find with coding a website is that as a designer you can work on it, or test alterations you make to it, without having to do it over the internet. If you keep a copy of the code on your own computer, it creates an opportunity to work on it at any time, even – for some aspects – without an internet connection.

The obvious disadvantage to coding, from the point of view of someone who wishes to have a website but has no coding knowledge, is that it requires someone with this expert knowledge and experience. Although HTML is actually not too difficult to learn, it still takes time. And there’s a lot more to a website than just HTML. You could sit down for a few hours and learn the basics, but this would only get you as far as building a very basic website which wouldn’t look very good (if you remember how the first websites from the 1990s looked, picture one of those and you get the idea!). To take things to the next level you would have to learn CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to start to get a website looking good. Even with this knowledge, it still takes some design expertise to get things looking just right. The basic principles of design is also something that can be learned if you set aside the time to do so, but sometimes things still need a designer’s flair, mixed with experience, to do it quickly and efficiently. Even with a designer’s eye for layout, learning CSS would require more hours of studying, and at this stage, with both HTML and CSS in your arsenal, you would only have the equivalent of a house with no water or electricity, using the analogy above. It might look good, and you could live in it, but it wouldn’t be very functional or enjoyable. The next stage would be learning JavaScript, or something similar, to add interactivity to a site. While it is true that some websites can get by with little or no user interactivity required, in modern times it can be an absolute must for many. Learning a scripting language like JavaScript is not as simple as learning HTML and CSS. It’s a lot closer to a programming language, and it can take time and patience to learn, depending on your capabilities. There are other simpler options, and plug-ins available, that will help make a site more interactive, but these can also have a very steep learning curves, and still require a lot of know-how to get them working.

Many modern websites do not stay the same day in day out. Some of the most successful websites change constantly – daily or even hourly. A further cost of building a website with code is that a business might need to employ a person who understands web programming to make updates, or hire a third party to make changes when necessary, or ask someone with advanced IT knowledge to create some form of user interface to form a bridge between a person with no coding knowledge wanting to make regular updates, and the website itself. Clearly this could be costly, and this is where web builders or WordPress become a viable compromise, which we will explore shortly.

With the above in mind, you can see that the two options for coding a website – either learning how to do it yourself, or paying someone with that knowledge and experience to do it for you – involve a cost in either in time or money. Despite these obstacles, having the total control over your website is what makes having a website built with code so attractive, and why so many websites are still done this way even with many quicker alternatives now available. One of these alternatives is, of course, a web builder.

2. WEB BUILDERS

Web builders are usually aimed at businesses looking for a starter website, and with a bit of time, most people will be able to get the hang of one. Interestingly though, some web builders are starting to gain advanced features in common with coded websites, such as options to insert scripting languages, and to run their content from databases, though most of these features still require a degree of coding knowledge and database expertise, or a large amount of time invested in learning how to use these features.

So, setting aside the more complex aspects of dynamic, interactive websites, if you can create a simple website yourself, and this is all you need for your business, why hire someone to create one for you? There are actually a few reasons, but firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it can quite simply be the issue of time. Here’s is a simple analogy: When you want to decorate your house, you could just go out and buy a paintbrush, a roller and some paint and start it yourself, and yet there are still plenty of decorators around for hire. Often, people would rather pay to have something done by a professional, so that they can use their own time more efficiently and concentrate on something else that they’d rather be doing, whether that is work or leisure, and also to get the job done faster and – probably – to a higher standard than they could have done themselves.

Secondly, even with a web builder there can still be hurdles to get over. If there is a particular concept you are after, it is still going to require a spark of imagination, and someone to translate that inspiration into an actual layout. Some turn to web templates, which can be great, but they will also be used by other people, leading to many ‘identikit’ websites which can never be truly original, though this is not necessarily a problem for some smaller businesses who are simply looking for a quick way to get a reasonably good-looking online presence in a short space of time (templates can, in fact, be downloaded as code for web designers to tinker with, and can be a great way of saving time and money even when coding a website). There are also more things to think about than just the layout. If multiple pages are added, you have to be sure that there is a clear menu with links from which the pages can be reached. Any interactivity added to the website might still require some degree of coding (if the web builder even allows this option).

So what are the pros and cons of web builders?

The undoubted plus point of web builders is ease of use. They make it very simple to build a website. True, it won’t necessarily look good if someone is starting it from scratch without much design experience, but as mentioned above, templates are a way around this if design isn’t your strong point. However, while web builders often make it quick to create a website, they are not always ideal for updating a one, especially if this is a regular requirement. That might seem counter-intuitive, but how fast you can change a website created on a web builder can depend on factors you might not immediately think about. The computer you are using is one example. A high-spec, up to date computer will probably interact with a web builder quicker than an average, lower-spec, or older computer, and even so, I have found that typing something in code can often achieve what you are looking for in a shorter period of time than dragging, dropping and moving something around on a page in a web builder. Web builders can also become a very cumbersome indeed if your internet connection is slow. I have experienced occasional moments where I can get up and make a cup of coffee in the time it takes for a text box to move a few pixels across the screen – and I am not making that up! It doesn’t happen all the time, but if you’re up against a deadline it can be extremely frustrating. Creating a website layout in code can be achieved with little more equipment than a text editor and a web browser, and internet speed is largely irrelevant when initially building a website locally on a computer’s hard drive. Of course, if you have no coding knowledge and you decide to take the DIY approach, a web builder is the only realistic option, regardless of these drawbacks.

Whether you explore using a web builder yourself, or pay a web designer to do it for you, the main issue for web builders (as opposed to coding a website using HTML and CSS) is that once you have built it on the platform of your choosing, it is effectively stuck there. Remember I mentioned earlier that the advantage of coding is that you have ‘ownership’ of the original code? Web builder sites won’t usually let you transfer your site elsewhere, so if they suddenly hike their prices, or the service gets less than desirable, or they go bust and disappear (unlikely, but not impossible), you could potentially find yourself with no website. Now, that’s not much of a worry if you have built a simple website, since you won’t have lost much time, or expense, if it disappears or you want to ditch the host. If you wish to switch to another platform, it probably won’t be too difficult, time-consuming or expensive to rebuild a simple site elsewhere. However, if you use a web builder to create a big, complex website (and it is possible to do this), you face the risk of losing it all should you choose to have your website hosted elsewhere. As I mentioned, some web builders do have background databases, which is extremely useful for keeping all your text content if you choose to display it using this method (you can download the database into a file that can be opened on a spreadsheet, and saved on a computer), but while this will mean you have all the text content from your website, you won’t have the styling that goes into creating its look. Using the more traditional coding method guarantees that you own and can keep every aspect of your website’s design, as well as any text you put in the HTML files, and you can transfer it should you find a better deal elsewhere. This is the major advantage of coding, and a big reason for not using web builders. But of course it comes at a price in time and cost. There is, however, another way.

3. WORDPRESS

WordPress is, in a manner of speaking, a crossover between a web builder and a website created with code. You can start with a template, or a site can be built from scratch in code, and there is a user interface which makes it fairly simple to alter text and images in a website without requiring specialist knowledge. This is fantastic when building a website for a client that has no HTML/CSS knowledge but wishes to update their site regularly. But WordPress is also very flexible for web designers, in that they can ‘dig down’ and access the code to alter the appearance of the website, making it a very versatile platform. Add to this the huge array of plug-ins, which can give you anything from a contact form to an ecommerce shop, and you can see why it is such a popular and powerful way of getting an online presence. Almost two in every five websites you come across will probably be a WordPress site, so I would imagine there is little chance of it vanishing any time soon! And with many web hosts supporting WordPress, there is the flexibility to transfer a website elsewhere if needed.

So which route to choose? I have gone down each one at one time or another. Web builders are great for quickly getting a good-looking site up and running. If you feel confident you could have a go yourself, but obviously a web designer will most likely do it much quicker with more desirable results – as well as being able to add a few practical functions. If you are looking for a straight ahead “I am here, this is my website, this is how you contact me” approach then this could be the way forward. You do, of course, have to keep in mind that once you have created your website on a web builder platform, it is stuck there, and you will have to start again from scratch if you wanted to go elsewhere in future. And also that if the company that provides the platform ever disappears – however unlikely this may be – so does your website! The other thing to keep your mind on is that if your business grows, it might outgrow the capabilities of a web builder at some point in the future.

If you choose to have a website for your business, which avenue you decide to go down depends on weighing up a few factors: How big will the site be – a single page or multiple pages? Will it be interactive? Are you planning to make a lot of updates and changes over time? Will it contain lots of information, and will users need to call up only the necessary information that applies to them? Will information be a two-way exchange – will the user input data as well as call it from the website? Ultimately it is down to personal choice, and weighing up the pros and cons, but answering the questions above will hopefully point you in the right direction. Have a chat with Spire Designs if you are thinking about launching a website, or if you would like to modernise an existing one, and we will be happy to advise.