How to Create Your Own Website: Free and Self-Hosted Blogs

Resources mentioned in this article: GoDaddy (domain names/web hosting) Bluehost (web hosting), WordPress (blogging platform), Blogger (free blogging platform), Studiopress (premium blog templates)

One of the most important aspects of today’s web is the ease with which people can create and share their own content.

This marks a major shift from a culture in which an elite group controlled the publication and dissemination of ideas to one in which anyone can participate.

This includes small things like posting comments or social media posts and curating collections of your favorite links. But a more important part is how simple it now is to set up your own website or blog.

Many people blog about a favorite hobby or current events. But in addition to these personal pursuits, an online presence is all but required today for just about any business venture or project. It is also becoming increasingly common to use a website to create an online resume to help you get a job or advance your career.

Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to set up a website and start communicating your message without any design or programming knowledge. I strongly recommend that you use a blogging platform as most are very easy to launch and maintain.

Why choose a blogging platform for my website?

For some projects and objectives, especially those of a more professional nature, you might not think a blog would be appropriate. After all, aren’t blogs just personal diaries with entries listed in reverse chronological order? Not anymore.

Blogging has come a long way in the last few years. In addition to posts, they now can feature unlimited standalone pages such as an “about” or “portfolio” section, and you can set up any of these to be your default home page on most blogging services. The easy-to-use interfaces allow you to change features and add new posts or pages at the click of a button with no technical knowledge.

Professional-looking blogging design templates are now widely available for free, and the line between blogs and “regular” websites has become so blurred that there is barely a difference anymore, since just about any content management system today displays the latest news on the top of the front page and has some mechanism for user comments.

Essentials for Planning and Setting Up Your Blog: Free vs. Self Hosting

When you are ready to set up your blog, it’s time to choose a platform. There are two basic choices: free and self-hosting, each with a multitude of possibilities.

With free hosting, you don’t have to pay a dime, but you sacrifice a lot in the way of customization options and you have to use the platform’s domain name (ex. yourproject.blogspot.com).

For other projects, though, it is worth it to invest a little bit to give your web presence a professional image. Self-hosting don’t necessarily mean you need more technical knowledge; instead, they allow you to use a custom domain name of your choosing and also give you many more options to customize your blog.

In addition, with free-hosting, the company providing the service legally owns your blog and can technically shut it down at any time—not that you should worry in normal circumstances, but there are horror stories out there. If you self-host, though, you are the official owner and you can feel completely secure about everything that you publish, although of course you do have to abide by applicable laws.

When you’re planning a blog, you should ask yourself who is your intended audience, what you want to include on the blog, and what your larger ambitions might be. If it’s something personal that you’ll be sharing with family and friends and you do not need significant customization, a free host is most appropriate. Blogger, owned by Google, is a great blog publishing service that is free to use and very convenient to manage.

You can also use WordPress.com, Typepad, Weebly, Tumblr or many others and the process will be very similar.

How to Set Up a Free-Hosted Blogger Blog:

Setup for a Blogger blog is incredibly easy. Simply sign in with a Google account on Blogger.com, choose a blog title and address (the url will end in .blogspot.com), and hit continue.

Now all you have left is to choose a theme for your blog. In the past, one of the negative aspects of using Blogger was the limited amount of customization that was possible. The situation has improved, as they now feature a user-friendly “Template Designer” that opens up lots of new possibilities. (WordPress.com, should you prefer it, has a library of roughly 200 free themes you can use.)

Depending on your service, browse around until you find a design that looks good and suits your needs, select it, and you’re ready to start blogging.

How to Set Up a Self-Hosted WordPress Blog:

Many projects, on the other hand, are worth investing a bit of money for a more professional look and the possibility of additional customization in the form of custom design templates, scripts, and plugins. If you are setting up your blog for professional networking or career advancement, you might want to purchase your own domain name so that your website doesn’t end in .blogspot or .wordpress.

Thankfully, setting up a self-hosted website is very affordable, at about $10/year for a domain name and $6/month for hosting.  There are four basic steps, which will be outlined here.

1. Register a domain name

First, you will need to buy your own domain name. This makes your website appear more professional and also gives you complete control to use any hosting platform you want. Carefully choose your domain name, since you won’t be able to change it later. You want something short and straight to the point that makes the idea of your project clear.

GoDaddy.com is the biggest domain registration website and their prices are very reasonable. (It will cost around $10 per year for a .com domain) You can do a search right on GoDaddy to see if your desired name is available, and if it is, you can purchase it at the click of a button to secure your place on the world wide web. (Browse GoDaddy for a domain name) Another cheap domain registrar is Namecheap.

2. Purchase hosting

After you secure a domain name, the next step in setting up your blog is to purchase web hosting. This means the storage space on a website company’s servers where your site’s files reside so they can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. You typically make a commitment from one month to a couple of years, and you can find web hosting for as cheap as $6-7 per month.

(Note: If all you want is your own domain name, then you can actually purchase that separately and then use domain mapping (WordPress.com) or a custom domain (Blogger). It will continue to be hosted on the company’s servers, though, and your customization options and legal ownership will still be limited.)

If you’d prefer to stick to one company for all of your website needs, you can also host your website with GoDaddy. Another major host with cheap prices and great service is Bluehost. Take a look at these options, or other affordable hosts such as Hostgator or Dreamhost, compare features and pick the one that works well with your goals. They all will provide good customer service, but Bluehost’s has been the best in my personal experience.

3. Install WordPress

Once you have a domain name and hosting plan, you need to actually create your website. There are a variety of ways to create websites, ranging from hand-coding HTML and CSS to using a variety of site-builders, but I recommend WordPress, which is both a quick and easy way to get your website up and running and also a robust content management system.

WordPress is widely considered the best platform for self-hosted bloggers due to its flexibility, its open-source nature, and the huge library of over 20,000 free plugins created by an active developer community. These plugins are basically small pieces of software you can download and install on your site to add just about any functionality, such as an email contact form, a set of social media sharing icons on each of your posts, or a robust shopping cart. WordPress itself is written in the PHP scripting language and uses a MySQL database to store your posts, pages, and comments and display them in the manner you choose.

Both GoDaddy and Bluehost offer an easy one-click install of the WordPress software. With GoDaddy, for example, go to the Hosting Control Center and click Your Applications. WordPress will be one of the first options. In Bluehost, navigate to Site Builders and then WordPress from your Control Panel.

4. Pick a Theme, Install Plugins, and Start Blogging!

After WordPress is installed, you need to choose a template for your blog’s style and presentation. This is the same general process as with free themes, but there are some key differences here. First, there are many more theme designs available for free for self-hosted blogs, which you can find either by searching directly in WordPress or through a Google search. And since you have full control over your theme files, you can customize and improve them to your heart’s content.

You can also decide to buy a premium theme or hire someone to create a custom design. One popular provider of premium themes is the Genesis Framework by Studiopress. (Socialwebqanda.com runs on Genesis.)

In addition, there are a few key plugins you should install before you get started.

Akismet: This is a robust system to block spam comments, which can be a big problem once your blog has been online for a while. The plugin actually comes installed automatically, but you need to take a minute to register for a free API key to activate it.

Digg Digg: Adding social sharing buttons to your blog posts enables your readers to share them with their friends and networks, expanding your reach and allowing you to connect with new people. This plugin allows you to easily choose from a variety of social networks and display them in a number of locations, including above, below, and floating to the side of your posts.

Fast Secure Contact Form: Every good blog has a way to contact its author, but sometimes you don’t want to share your private email address. In addition, filling out a simple form is easier for readers than taking an address and pasting it into their email client. This plugin sets up a simple but highly customizable contact form that sends any messages sent through your blog to your email account.

Google XML Sitemaps: This plugin creates a sitemap for your blog and makes sure Google, Bing and Yahoo are aware of all of your pages as well as new content as you post it. It can significantly speed up the indexing of your new posts and lead to more search engine visitors.

These are only a few of the thousands of plugins you can add to your self-hosted WordPress blog. Take a look through the plugin directory and see what might be useful for your own blogging goals. Once you’re satisfied, click “add new post,” type away, and start publishing your own addition to the world of the social web.

In summary: Resources mentioned in this article: GoDaddy (domain names/web hosting) Bluehost (web hosting), WordPress (blogging platform), Blogger (free blogging platform), Studiopress (premium blog templates)

photo by binsurf