The debate is over. It's no longer a question of whether you should build a Web site. It's a question of when. From eighth-graders to Wall Street analysts, it seems that almost everyone is scrambling to stake a claim in cyberspace. Having reviewed more Web sites over the past five years than I can count, I recently decided it was about time that I homestead a piece of the Web for myself.
I couldn't spend months building my site - I needed to get it up and running as quickly as possible. Fortunately, there are at least a half-dozen software packages that will not only help you lay out a site within a few hours but also generate the arcane code needed to create it.
But there's more to creating a Web site than simply designing the pages. In fact, it turned out to be a 10-step process. You need to create a memorable domain name. You need to find a reliable Internet hosting service. And you need to do something that thousands of Webmeisters have failed to do: figure out why people would want to visit your site in the first place.
Step 1: Sketch out a blueprint.
Before I cracked the Web-page software, I reminded myself that I wasn't building a site for myself: I was building a site for the millions of cybersurfers who might visit it - and for the few who actually would.
"Think about your audience," advised Mohanbir Sawhney, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, whose personal Web site is now in its third generation. "People log onto the Web either to spend time or to save time. If the goal of your site is to help people save time, they shouldn't have to make 14 mouse clicks to get where they need to go."
Point taken. I couldn't sketch a decent blueprint for my site without thinking about who might visit it and what they might do there. My goal was to give readers and TV viewers access to an archive of my articles, along with a way to talk back to me. To make that goal clear, I decided to put a mission statement on my home page.
Visitors couldn't save time if my site were difficult to navigate, so I opted to give it an easily accessible layout and to include a search function on the home page to help them quickly locate articles. I also decided to get a Web address that's easy to remember - preferably one that includes the moniker I use on television, JQ.
Step 2: Be the master of your domain name.
Even if you haven't built your Web site yet, you should register your site's Internet address ASAP. If you wait much longer, chances are that someone else will claim the name that you want - if they haven't already done so. So that people can easily find your site, try to get a domain name that's memorable - one that matches your name or your company's name (as in yourname.com or companyname.com).
To claim my domain name, I needed to register with the Internet Domain Name System (DNS). That meant turning to the InterNIC, a cooperative venture of the National Science Foundation and a Herndon, Virginia-based company called Network Solutions Inc. The InterNIC oversees the registration of major Web addresses, including those bearing the suffixes .com, .org, and .net (these are known as "top-level domain names").
I dropped into the InterNIC site to see if jq.com was available. It wasn't. Hanna-Barbera, a division of Warner Brothers, had already reserved it for Jonny Quest, the science-fiction cartoon character. I checked jq.net, but that too was taken - by someone at Sexxxy.com (for what purpose, I dare not guess). Since I couldn't use my nickname, I searched for a reasonable facsimile of it. I discovered that j-q.com was available, and paid $70 to register that name with InterNIC. (The fee is good for two years; I'll pay $35 per year thereafter.)
A word of warning: Other sites may overcharge you. Make sure you go to www.internic.net, not www.internic.com, an "ambush URL" run by an outfit that will hit you with a $250 registration fee.
And a word of hope: The federal government will soon authorize as many as five new top-level domain names. That change will make possible the creation of billions of new domain names. You can find out about the status of this and other proposed changes to the DNS on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Web site.
Coordinates: InterNIC, www.internic.net; Network Solutions Inc., www.netsol.com; the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, www.ntia.doc.gov
Step 3: Stake out a piece of cyberspace.
There are enough sites on the net to fulfill just about any imaginable need, so naturally there are a few sites devoted to helping you find an Internet service provider (ISP) that will host your Web site. At The List, for example, I found a catalog of 4,200 providers in the United States and Canada. I visited both that site and ISPCheck.com, where I was able to survey ISPs that offer Web-hosting services and to compare costs.
Pricing for Web hosting is, like the Web itself, a free-for-all. Monthly price tags range from $3 to several thousand dollars. There are tiny outfits offering the basics, such as Granite State Internet in Weare, New Hampshire, and large providers offering services throughout the country, such as AT&T WorldNet.
I narrowed my choices by focusing on national ISPs that had a track record, that would be accessible 24 hours a day - and that would still be in business next month. My search yielded two well-known Web-hosting services: MindSpring and Netcom.
Netcom offered to set up my site for an initial charge of $50 ($45 per month thereafter). In return, I'd get 30 MB of storage space and around-the-clock access to my Web site. MindSpring offered to take care of the domain-name registration and the fee, and to set up a 20-MB, full-access Web space for $120 ($49.95 per month thereafter).
Coordinates: The List, www.thelist.com; ISPcheck.com, www.ispcheck.com; Mind-Spring Enterprises Inc., www.mindspring.com; Netcom On-Line Communication Services Inc., www.netcom.com
Step 4: Lease a piece of the Web.
If your site requires a sophisticated online database to track customers, a place to store thousands of pages of product information, and a direct, high-speed connection, you'll have to pay thousands of dollars for a hosting service. My site didn't need all that, but I did want to include dozens of articles, as well as sound and video clips. So I cobbled together a list of questions to ask the people at MindSpring and Netcom.
How much storage space do I get? I figured that my site would initially take up about 25 pages. It would be mostly text, with a couple of tiny pictures and one 60-second video clip. All that would eat up about 5 MB of storage space, with the video clip alone accounting for almost 2 MB. The moral: If you plan on uploading lots of multi-media bric-a-brac, get as much space as you can afford. I decided that 15 MB would give my site enough room to grow.
How much bandwidth do I get? Bandwidth refers to the amount of information that visitors to your Web site request from your host server. Each time some- one hits your site, the bandwidth demand goes up. If your site remains relatively obscure, then the 2 GB of bandwidth per month that MindSpring allots in its basic package is probably enough to handle all of your traffic. (Netcom's introductory package delivers 1.5 GB per month.)
However, if you put pictures of a naked Pamela Anderson Lee on your Web site, more people will hit your page, your bandwidth will rise precipitously, and you'll end up paying more. Some companies charge as little as 2 cents per additional megabyte of bandwidth; others charge as much as $1.
Since my site would be PG-rated, I decided that the standard allotment would be enough to handle my traffic.
Do you support streaming audio and video? Most of the gee-whiz sounds and animations that pop up on Web sites are simple files - audio clips with WAV or AU extensions, for example, or video clips with MPEG or AVI extensions - that you can download to your own site. But it's easier for visitors if you use streaming audio and video, which plays even as the visitor downloads the file.
I wanted to include streaming audio and video clips on my site, which meant that my Web host had to have the proper server software - such as RealNetworks's RealAudio and RealVideo, or Macromedia's Shockwave. It turned out that MindSpring's basic package supports streaming audio and video. But Netcom requires that you make special arrangements up front to use this technology.
What's your "uptime rating"? It's hard to get a good read on how Web hosts measure up on the customer-satisfaction scale. That's because there's no accepted standard that rates Web-hosting companies. But you can get clued in on their reliability by asking about their uptime rating, which tells you how often they encounter problems (software glitches, electrical outages, hacker attacks) that knock them offline.
When I put this question to several ISPs, I didn't always get a straight answer. Some companies report an outage only when their entire system shuts down - which certainly doesn't help if you're on the part that keeps crashing. So I visited sites that run on the Web hosts that I was considering and emailed inquiries to the sites' creators. It turned out that users were pretty happy with both Netcom and MindSpring.
Coordinates: RealNetworks, www.real.com; Macromedia's Shockwave, www.macromedia.com/shockwave
Step 5: Prepare to move in.
Mindspring offered most of the options I needed, so I signed up for its hosting service. I filled out a few forms online, and an hour later, MindSpring had prepared a Web space for me to move into. Many other Web-hosting services, I discovered, take up to two weeks to make the same arrangements.
Step 6: Assemble your toolkit.
Constructing an attractive yet usable Web site requires the panache of a graphic designer, the diligence of a programmer, and the organizational sense of a Webmaster. I'm a writer, and I have none of these skills. Fortunately, there are software programs that will help me fake them. I had three criteria for choosing a Web-authoring tool:
No HTML required. I tested several packages that would let me create pages without having to mess with HTML, the "hypertext markup language" that controls the look of Web content. So-called "WYSIWYG" ("what you see is what you get") editors let you cut and paste text, photos, and graphics into pages while keeping the underlying HTML code hidden. But I also wanted the flexibility to do some HTML hacking when absolutely necessary.
Easy-does-it site management. I also looked for an "automated site-management" feature, which would allow me to upload changes to my Web site with the push of a button. Furthermore, I wanted the program to look for broken links to other pages and to alert me whenever I linked to a page that no longer existed.
Prefab pages. Finally, I needed a Web-authoring package that had enough prefabricated templates to let me create a less-than-repugnant site in less than two hours. I have better things to do than labor over navigation bars and cutesy animated cartoons.
Step 7: Frame up the site.
After testing nearly a dozen packages, I found that Microsoft's FrontPage 98 best met my requirements for building a Web site. The software walks you through the construction process by asking you to specify a type of site (for example, personal or corporate) and the kinds of pages you wish to include (such as one with a photo or animation, or one with a form for customers to fill out). Using your answers, FrontPage builds the pages for you.
Then, using a canned list of about 30 "themes," you can select a design scheme for graphic elements and background colors. FrontPage applies the scheme to each of the pages, giving the site a consistent look and feel. Every time you make a change, the software automatically corrects the corresponding menus and links, from the first page to the last.
It was almost too easy. I copied in articles that I'd saved as word-processor files, and in just a few seconds, FrontPage converted them into the HTML format. The software even made it easy to drop in a short video clip. That said, I still hit some speed bumps.
Using the preview mode, I soon discovered that many of my subheadings were too long for the template's menu bars. Instead of "Fast Company Articles," I had to settle for "Fast Co. Articles." And when I correctly changed some HTML code, FrontPage would sometimes change it back - despite my best attempts to prevent it from doing so.
Nevertheless, after just two hours of work, I had cobbled together a site that wouldn't embarrass me, and I raised the curtain on j-q.com. Was my work complete? Not exactly. I soon found glitches I needed to fix and colors I just had to change.
Coordinates: $150 for Windows and Macintosh. Microsoft Corp., www.microsoft.com/frontpage
Step 8: Do the finish carpentry.
To fine-tune my site, I turned to a more mature Web-authoring pack-age - Macromedia's Dreamweaver, which would let me make precise adjustments. While Dreamweaver has the WYSIWYG convenience offered by FrontPage, it requires you to do some HTML coding.
Unlike FrontPage, Dream-weaver quickly solved the problems that I had with changing HTML code. It also gave me complete control over the latest DHTML (Dynamic HTML) features. DHTML lets you create headlines, for example, that dance around a Web page - without requiring a visitor to download some special plug-in to view them. As of this writing, DHTML doesn't work exactly the same way in Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Fortunately, Dreamweaver lets you preview your pages in several different versions of each browser, so you can check compatibility before you post your pages to the Web.
Coordinates: $299 for Windows and Macintosh. Macromedia Inc., www.macromedia.com/software/dreamweaver
Step 9: Arrange your furniture.
In the days that followed my launch, I uploaded page after page, magazine article after magazine article, onto my site. And I soon found it difficult to get a good overview of how the longer articles were laying out. I needed another software tool, one that would let me quickly skim articles that were already formatted for Web publishing and view how each new page was affecting the entire site. Trellix 1.0 turned out to be the solution.
Trellix was written by Dan Bricklin, who helped launch the PC revolution by creating the first spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, in 1979. His latest software invention reinvents the electronic document. Trellix gives documents an organizational structure like that of a Web site. It lets you build and organize multiple-page documents and link them to one another.
You can write directly in Trellix or import a lengthy Word document into it, and then use the program to create an HTML document. A graphical map on each page shows how all the other pages are connected. You can then break the document into smaller, easily digestible pages. As you skim through the map, you can jump from one page to another with a single mouse click.
I found Trellix's map to be a tremendous help. By glancing at the layout of my longer articles, I realized that I should add introductory and summary pages - which the articles didn't need when they ran in magazines. But Trellix showed how summary pages would be a boon to Web cruisers, who otherwise must scroll though interminably long pages.
Coordinates: $99. Trellix Corp., www.trellix.com
Step 10: Never stop adding those finishing touches.
I've accomplished all that I set out to do: I built a virtual storehouse of my articles, and I provided a convenient way for readers and television viewers to dish out feedback. But I take no great pride in reporting that I've been sucked into the world of Java junkies, those Web addicts who spend hours looking for new multimedia gimmicks to add to their sites. Indeed, I've spent many a late-night hour adding spit and polish to j-q.com. After all, launching a Web site is just the first step. The construction process never really ends.
Contributing editor John R. Quain www.j-q.com appears regularly on CBS News's "Up to the Minute" and can be seen on CNBC's "The Edge." He lives in New York City.
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.