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Webmastering 101


By David Reilly

Webmastering 101 is a series of tutorials that teach people how to create their own websites, and how to promote them on the Internet. If you've missed any of the tutorials, you may want to look at the index, and start from the beginning.


Hello! Now that you're familiar with creating simple web pages, and have selected an editing tool you feel comfortable with, the next step is to publish your work to the Internet. Don't worry if you don't have your own web server - there are plenty of sites out there that are willing to host sites for you. Some are commercial services, aimed at professional webmasters, but there are plenty of good free services out there as well.

Finding a site to host your webpages

The good news is that there is no shortage of sites that are eager to host your web page. The bad news is that you get what you pay for. If you're looking for advanced features, such as CGI programming, your own domain name, advertising free sites with large amounts of space, or an unlimited amount of visitors, then you'll have to find a commercial web hosting service. For a professional webmaster, commercial site hosting pages are a great investment. On the other hand, if you're just interested in creating a site for your hobby, or a personal homepage, you may not want to have to pay to publish your site on the Internet. I'll discuss both alternatives and point you in the direction of more information.

Doing it on the cheap - free homepages

For a first time webmaster, free homepages are a great choice. Most "free" sites can afford to offer this type of service by the revenue they generate through advertising. Most sites, such as GeoCities or Tripod, place online advertisements (either automatically or as part of a value-added service) on your site, which is a small price to pay for free web hosting. Of course, there are also other restrictions, such as the amount of space you can use, and restrictions on the types of sites you can have. Most free services prohibit commercial sites, so if you're trying to promote your business or sell products, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Here are some of the most popular free homepage services :

Many free homepage providers offer additional services as well, including email addresses and sometimes chatrooms/forums. Before deciding on a homepage provider, be sure to read their terms and conditions. Violating these, such as promoting or selling products, will usually result in termination of your account, and visitors will no longer be able to access your pages.

Task One - Take a look at three different homepage providers, and compare the services they offer. How much space will your website have? Do they place advertising banners on your site, or open up pop-up advertisements in another window? Do they include a free POP email account? Is it a "free" services, or are there hidden charges or costs for "extras" (such as GeoPlus from GeoCities).

If you find a provider you like, sign up now and see how easy it is to upload your homepage. Most providers use FTP, but others may have different ways. Create a new page, or use one from a previous exercise, and upload it to your new site. Almost every provider is unique, so you'll need to follow their instructions carefully. Once you've uploaded, point your browser to your new URL and check that the pages and images load correctly. Congratulations - you're now a webmaster!

Commercial web hosting solutions

Free homepages are great, but lack the professional edge that web hosting can provide. You can choose to be advertising free, you aren't as limited on the size of your website, and you can use advanced features such as CGI and mailing lists. However, the quality and performance of these hosting services vary - price isn't always the best indicator of performance. At a minimum, you'll want a site that provides good service and support. Some hosts even offer a free trial period, which allows you to see just how good their service is.

So what makes a good web host? Here are a few things to look for

That's a large list of features, so I'll discuss each point individually

Space for your website

While it may not be critical to you at the moment, its important to go with a service that allows you enough room to grow in the future. At a minimum, I'd say 10-15 megabytes. That may sound like quite a bit of room, but as you add more and more pages, you'll be surprised at how quickly sites can grow. Particularly if you plan to develop sites for clients, you'll need a large amount of room for their graphics and pages.

Email and ftp accounts

As a minimum, you'll need one ftp account to upload your pages to the hosting service, but more could be useful if you plan to share the site with someone. Your hosting service should also provide a POP email account. If someone can email you at webmaster@your_site_name.com, it looks much more professional that user34234@myisp.net.

Good support

Good support is vital, because each service is different and you'll need help initially to set your site up. Most services won't help you with things like HTML or CGI, but you've got to be able to get help with account configuration and installation problems. Responses should be swift, and helpful. If your hosting service isn't going to return your requests for help, it isn't a hosting service you want to deal with. Top quality services will also offer telephone support - but for international webmasters, you should be able to deal with your service via email.

Large bandwidth

Many services will offer unlimited downloads for their customers, while signing up thousands of users who will compete for bandwidth. If hosted pages are too slow, then your site won't be delivering a quality service to your visitors. The best bet is to take a look at some of the hosted sites offered by a service, and see how long they take to load.

Mailing lists & CGI scripts

As a new webmaster, you may be unfamiliar with some of the advanced services you can offer visitors to your site. With mailing lists, you can send email out regularly to your site visitors, letting them know about new content and establishing a dialog with them. With CGI scripts, you can create dynamic pages and forms for users to fill out. With enough practise you could even set up online product entry forms, to sell products on the web. These advanced features go beyond the scope of this lesson, but are handy features you should look out for when shopping for a web host.

Database support

Some web hosts offer database support (such as MSQL, or Microsoft Access). Not all webmasters will have a use for this, but if you're already familiar with databases, you may be able to put them to good use on your site. Be wary though - not all sites offer technical support for databases, and some will charge extra to create your initial database account.

FrontPage Server Extensions

If you use FrontPage to create your websites, this requirement is an absolute must! FrontPage server extensions allow you to publish your website to a hosting service simply by clicking the publish button - there's no need to manually upload files via FTP. With the server extensions, all your dynamic FrontPage components will work properly, such as the Counter or Search Form components. Of course, if you don't use FrontPage, you won't notice any difference :)

Unlimited download/accesses

Many sites have hidden charges, for high volume web sites. Perhaps your site won't be targeting many users, but if it suddenly grows in size, you don't want to be hit with high volume charges. Some sites offer 1GB per month, which should be sufficient for almost any site (unless you distribute large files, or have a mass following).

One thing to be wary of is going with providers that don't care how much volume of traffic you use, and host hundreds and hundreds of users on the same machine/network connection. If everyone is sending out tens of gigabytes a month, your site will be slow. It pays to look at the speed of some of the sites hosted by a service before committing.

Allows commercial sites

You probably won't thing of your homepage as a commercial site yet, but once you begin to add advertising banners to your site you've already stepped over to the dark side! Most commercial services will, but it always pays to check.

Full virtual hosting

This gets a little technical, but there are three types of hosting accounts.

Non-virtual hosting gives you a URL such as http://www.geocities.com/~davidreilly/

Semi-virtual hosting gives you a URL such as http://mypage.hosting.com/

Full-virtual hosting gives you a URL such as http://www.davidreilly.com/

Which looks better? The last is more professional, and people won't even know your site is being hosted.

Own domain name

If you're not interested in your own domain name, you may want to go with a semi-virtual host. However, your own domain name makes your site look professional, and is the same status symbol that an email address would have been three or four years ago. Remember, however, that domain name registration isn't handled by your hosting service - there is an additional fee associated with this imposed by InterNIC.

Possible choices

Here are a few web hosting providers that you may be interested. Each one comes complete with their advertising copy, so you'll have a basic idea of what they're about (with the exception of IperWeb, these are their words, not mine).

For a more comprehensive list, check out http://www.tophosts.com/

Task Two - If you're not satisfied with the limitations of 'free' hosting, then examine some of the services offered by commercial services. Take a look at two or three commercial services, and compare the services and prices they offer. What features do you really require? What features are you willing to sacrifice to reduce costs? If the list above doesn't meet with your needs, look at the TopHost site to find out more information. Remember - you shouldn't rush in and host with just anyone.

Summary

Finding a suitable web hosting service provider, whether free or commercial, isn't an easy task. There's so much information to read, and so many services to choose from. While I can't offer an 'ideal' service that fits everyone, hopefully you will now be better equipped to choose a hosting service.

In the next lesson, I'll show you how to submit your site to search engines, and how to improve its ranking with meta tags. Until then, continue to practise creating web pages using your web tool, and try to find a web host (even if, temporarily, you need to sign up with a free provider). Good luck!

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Contact David Reilly through email - dodo@fan.net.au

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