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Personal Website Guide


March 13, 2010

I thought I would collect a few random notes on my experience with putting this website together. With the vast information available on the web I am sure you can find much better sources of information than this page. However if you are overwhelmed by all the information and are wondering how to get started here is what I did.

The Zero Cost Starter Site

I really wasn't all that interested in spending a lot of money on a website that was just for shits and giggles so I thought I would look around at what free services are out there. My search started and stopped with Google Sites. If you already have a Gmail email address then it is just a few clicks to setup a basic page based on a pre-fab template. Additionally, they have an impressive set of free tools you can play around with, all using the single Google account login.

Advantages of a Free Website

The big advantage is you can try out the whole idea of a website with no upfront cost. If you really get into it you can always move your content over to a pay hosted site, which will probably run you a few bucks a month.

Also the free sites usually have website templates available to get started so you don't need to create all the nuts and bolts pages of the site yourself (side bar, navigation tree, site map, etc...).

Another big advantage of a Google free site is that odds are its going to have pretty good up time. I can't think of a single instance when Google was not available.

Drawbacks of a Free Website

There are some sources on the web that say free sites are bad because for one they can disappear at any time and second most search engines omit them from search results so nobody will ever find your site.

As for the first concern of the site disappearing I think could be true of some smaller free hosting sites but Google is a monster of a company. I doubt its going anywhere soon and if you are really worried about losing information Google has a built in copy function to make site backups. If you are really worried about losing information you could probably make backups of the pages manually by saving them to your local hard drive. I don't really think this is an issue but time will tell.

As for the second concern I would like this site to eventually generate some traffic but I won't be heart broken if it doesn't. Like my sidebar says if I happen to be lucky enough to get the cost of a few beers out of the site ad revenue I will be happily surprised. If I get zero cash out of the site it was still fun putting it together. If you were putting together a buisiness website this would definitely be an issue.  

The Google Option

Google Gmail/General Login

If you don't already have one I would recommend setting up a Google Gmail account. Once you have that set up you can use the same login credentials for all their nifty, free tools.

If the specific Google application does not automatically accept your Gmail login credentials just create an account using the same user name and password that you used for Gmail to keep it simple.

Google Sites Website

Once you have the Google email login setup, creating a site is just a few easy clicks at Google Sites. It will be empty and look like a prefab site but you get what you pay for. I chose the Project Wiki template because I planned on using the site to document my various hobby projects

After your site is setup I would recommend clicking around a bit on the configuration settings to see what is possible. Most of the options are pretty self explanatory and there are lots of resources on the web to figure out how to modify the site to your liking.

Its easy enough to create various pages. On this site I have one page for hosting files and one News/Blog page but most of my pages are basic text. You can also upload image files to your site to insert them in your pages. If you click on an inserted pictures there are some basic options to resize the picture, align it to the left or right side of you page (I like my images on the right), and to allow words to wrap around it.

Links on Inserted Pictures

One note on inserted pictures. By default there will be a link on all inserted pictures that simply opens the picture in a webpage by itself. If you wish to put a more useful link in when somebody clicks on the picture the process is not the most intuitive. To put your own link on an inserted picture do the following:
  1. Insert the picture in the web page you are editing.
  2. Select the picture. You should see the picture options box pop up on the bottom of the picture. This tells you that the picture is properly selected.
  3. With the picture selected clink on the Link button in the editing bar at the top of the page. This will remove the default link from the picture. When you do this there is no feedback that anything happened but it does remove the default link.
  4. At this point make sure the picture is formatted on the page how you want it (size, alignment, word wrap on/off). Once you add a link those options will be hidden.
  5. Verify the picture is still selected then click on the Link button again. The link options box should pop up.
  6. In the link options box paste the link that you would like the picture to lead to. The image is now setup with the proper link.
After this process if you need to make a change to the picture display settings (size, alignment, word wrap on/off) you will have to delete the custom link, make changes, then re add the link because the link options hide the picture display options when editing pages.

UPDATE: As of August 2010 it looks like Google made links on pictures a bit more intuitive. The link info box now shows up along side the picture info box when you are editing a page.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is a free website status and statistics generator. Once you setup an account you can extract an ID number that can be entered into the Google site management page. Once its up and running it will shows you the number of people who have visited your site, where they were from (down to the country, state, and city level), how long they looked at pages and which pages they looked at. Its pretty neat. It also plots data chronologically and by region.

Google Adsense

Google Adsense - your path to an early retirement! Yeah right. I guess if you put together a dynamite site that generates tons of traffic you might make some money. I am not going to hold my breath. Its still neat to play around with though and setting it up is pretty easy. The basic process to setup site adds is to first create an account and log into Adsense to get an ID number. Then you use that ID number in your Google sites website. There is a "monetize"  option in the "manage this site" page which will but the strip of Google ads in your side bar. You will need the ID number from the Adsense management page to enter in to your Google site.

Placing adds on the side bar is basically an on/off function in Google sites. You can also insert adds in each page using the widgets like so:

If you really are deluded and think you are going to make money on your site then there are few things to consider about the Google Ads:

  • Don't think you can click on your own adds or tell your friends to click on your adds and expect to get paid. Adsense is pretty good at figuring out "invalid" clicks and if they ratio of page views to add clicks is way off they will ban your account.
  • Anybody can create an Adsense account and put ads on their site. However once people actually do start clicking on ads and any significant amount of money starts to accumulate in your account an actual person from Google will look at your site to verify you have original content. If you have just copy and pasted Wikipedia articles or are using unlicensed pictures from the web don't expect to to get paid. You will probably be banned. The best bet is to write your own articles and take your own pictures. Linking to other pages is fine (and encouraged) just don't blatantly copy someone's work without referencing them.
  • It will take thousands of add clicks before your estimated Adsense earnings move off $0.00. Unless you actively promote your site or come up with something extraordinarily neat don't plan on making a dime.

Google Webmaster Tools

Webmaster Tools
is another free tool that I have spent less time playing around with. I think the application is a way for website owners to self manage how Google indexes their site. Again the usual process to setup it up is create an account and login with your Google login ID. Then you get an ID number you can enter into your Google site via the "manage this site" page.

The only function I have used with this tool so far is to enter in a site-map to my site. This is not as intuitive as you think. You don't enter in a simple link to your website's site-map page. What you are supposed to enter in is your site's auto generated xml site map file. There are instructions on the to show how to do this for a Google Sites website.

After the xml sitemap files is submitted Google will use that to index your site.

Submitting Your Site to Search Engines

Once your site is up and running you can submit the URL to all the big search engines like Google (submit page) and Yahoo (submit page). I don't think the site is instantly available to be searched once this is done. It is my understanding that submitting a site adds it to the big list of websites the search web crawlers periodically run through, which happens about once a month.

There are also paid services that will auto submit your site to dozens of search engines for a small fee. Everything I have read says they really are not worth it. Search engines are designed to avoid auto submitter programs. It seems if you really want to promote your site its better to find web directories to submit. The way search engines are setup to generate page strength results means that having more external links to your website will bumps it up in search results. Directory listings provide those external links.

Alternate Tools

When I started this website experiment I asked a few of my web developer pals for recommendations for web development tools geared for newbies like myself (thanks Krik, Paul, and Craig). A few of the options they mentioned were as follows:
  • Kompozer - this used to be called "Nvu" and is a free HTML/CSS editing program in the same vein as Dreamweaver. It's also cross-platform, with Windows, Mac, and Linux versions.
  • If you don't want code-level control over the site, then try a blogging site like Blogspot, Wordpress, or Blogger.
  • If you like Microsoft products Expression Web is a good tool. The have a free trial available.

I know nothing about these tools but if you are looking at options they might be worth a try.

The Next Steps

Once you have your basic site setup and a few pages of content you will have a basic idea of how it all works. At this point you can start considering taking a few more steps to make your site more unique.

Registering a Domain

The downside of your free Google website is that the web address is going to show that its a free Google site. For example the original URL for this site was http://sites.google.com/site/thehopelesshobbyist/. That is not nearly as impressive as http://www.myfabsite.com. Once again its not hard to take the next step and create your own personal domain name and its not as expensive as you might think.

To register a domain name its about $10 annually. Also a lot of people seem to recommend using a registrar that provides anonymous registration. The idea is you pay a proxy company to register the site on your behalf and they will keep all your personal info out of the public whois database. This results in you getting contacted by fewer spammers and scammers. If somebody looks up your site they will not see your name but instead the name of the proxy company. Anybody who needs to contact you can leave a message with the proxy company site which you can read privately. The private registration service will cost you another $10 a year. Considering my site contains my linked-in and facebook pages I am not sure if it was really worth the private registration but I got it anyway so I had options.

There are lots of domain register companies out there. I picked one of the biggest and went with them, specifically Godaddy.com. Before I started putting together this webpage I really had no idea what Godaddy did except that they made tasteless Superbowl commercials. It turns out they specialize in the all sort of website related services, included domain name registration and web hosting.

With the basic domain name from Godaddy you get one email address and basic domain name configuration options. When you first register they put up a placeholder site at your domain full of annoying adds. You can setup a site forwarding link and you can also setup a CNAME property so that anybody that types in http://www.yoursite.com will get your Google site page instead. This is how I setup up my personal domain name http://www.thehopelesshobbyist.com/ to link to this site. Once you register a domain name expect to get a call quick call from the registrar the following week to verify you really setup the domain.

On last item to consider. There are rumors floating around the web that some unscrupulous domain registrars will register every site that people search for on their site. Then when the potential domain name buyers come back to actually buy the site they found the name taken and a premium attached to the name if they want to buy it. Nobody has proof of this but I would not start searching for domain names until you are ready to buy one.

The Favicon

See the little hammer icon in your web browsers address bar next to the site URL? That is called a favicon. The default Google sites favicon is fine but if you want to personalize your site with your own icon its pretty easy.
  1. Create a 16x16 icon or find your favorite picture.
  2. Go to http://tools.dynamicdrive.com/favicon/ and use their free tool to create a new FavIcon.
  3. On your Google sites page upload the new favicon.ico file to the top level. The icon should automatically start appearing in the address bar. The file needs to be named exactly as the favicon.ico file in order for the site to recognize it.
  4. If you want to update the icon just re-upload it. The new icon will overwrite the old one.

Donate Button

Once again I expect zero revenue from this site but if somebody likes one of the project articles I figure why not give them an option to donate to my beer fund. The easiest way to do this is to sign up for a PayPal account. PayPal is really useful for Ebay auctions so odds are you may already have an account setup.

Once you have a PayPal account sign in and go to the merchant services page. There you will see a Donate button. Click on that and the site will walk you through the steps to setup a button. What I did was download their button image to my local hard drive then re-uploaded to my Google Site. Once you setup a donate button on Paypal there will be a pre-fab donate link section of text in the "email" section of the button creation page. Once you find that just copy and paste the link text into a link on the donate button image. Then when people click on the button it will fire up the PayPal page where they can donate to your PayPal account.

Reasons This Website Sucks

If you are serious about creating a top-notch website or plan on making a website for a business don't use this one as an example. It is really kinda crappy for the following reasons:
  • The site is hosted for free - yeah, it is Google hosting it and in general they do a lot of things right but you will have more control and options if you pay somebody a few nickels to host your site. I really don't care because this site is just something for me to play around with.
  • The site content is all over the map - I have pages on computer upgrades and rain barrels on the same site. Having mixed pages like this site has really confuses the automated web crawlers, which are a big part of creating the visibility of any site. What I should do (if I cared) would be to have a separate website for each of the main categories.
  • The site does not have a lot of content - I think the minimum for any real site would be triple the current content of this site. I really don't have time to produce that much material.
  • The site name sucks - I really didn't put a lot of thought into the name. If I were to do it again I would make it shorter and closer to front of the alphabet.
  • The site is basically plain text - If I had time I would add some neater features to the site via writing my own java widgets. Something like a voting system on my individual items in my list.
  • I do no promotion of the site - If i had time I would also scan web forums looking for people with questions on topics I address on this site and actively lead them here. I did this halfheartedly with the dual feed rain barrel page when I posted a link to my site on a Garden web forum question on the topic. That page was my biggest hitter for awhile.

Google Gadgets and HTML Scratch Pad

Google has lots of pre-made gadgets that can be added to these sites. Here is were I try a few of them out and other random HTML code.