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Website Basics

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So, you've decided your business or organization needs a website.  You've been checking out web design and hosting services, and come across strange terms like 'bandwidth' and 'FTP'.  I've written this article to help explain some of the basics of websites and how they work.

Let's start with some definitions:

  • Server - these are the millions of computers that store all of the files that make up the Internet.  They are always on (well, sometimes they have problems, but it's relatively rare).  When you 'go to' a website, your computer finds the server that has the files making up that website, and the server transfers a copy of those files to your computer, so you can see them.
  • Upload - what you have to do to transfer your website's files to a server.  You can usually do this in more than one way, and some ways are easier than others.  Two main methods of uploading are: through a special webpage provided by your webspace host; or by using an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) program.  Most websites have limits on how much storage space they'll give you on their server, but it's usually so large that the average website will never reach that limit.  Some websites also have limits on how much uploading you can do each month, but again, average websites shouldn't have to worry.
  • HTML files - the files that make up a website.  Usually (but not always) made up of files with an '.html' extension (HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language).  They contain all of the text of the webpage, and special commands to let computers know how to display the webpage (like centering some text, making it bold or colored, different font types and sizes, and so on).  Pictures are separate files (usually .gif or .jpg extensions), and the HTML file also has commands that tell the computer where to put each picture on the page, and how large or small to make them.
  • Bandwidth - a measure of file transfer energy.  All websites are composed of files of different sizes (usually expressed in kilobytes, or KB).  Generally, the more complicated the website, the larger the file sizes.  When you go to a website, and the server lets your computer have a copy of the website files you're wanting, the server uses up energy to transfer those copies to your computer.  The bigger the files, the more energy the server uses.  This energy is called 'bandwidth'.
         Some servers have a limit on how much bandwidth your website can use each month - after that, they either don't let anyone see your website until the next month, or they charge you for the extra bandwidth your website visitors have used.  Other servers have 'unlimited bandwidth', so you're not charged or shut down (their fees may be higher, however).
         As an example, we'll use the All Breed Training Club of Akron's website.  Their website consists of eight pages, using a total of 146 KB in webspace.  The Mysaga 'standard' package (the category this website fits into) allows 1 GB of bandwidth per month.  There are 1,024 KB in one megabyte (MB), and 1,024 MB in one gigabyte (GB).  The All Breed Training Club will reach that bandwidth limit when a total of 7,182 people have each visited every single page on their website within one month.  Although thousands of visitors to your site every month would be great, the reality is that the average local business or organization rarely has to worry about exceeding bandwidth.
  • Website address - a series of numbers that computers use to identify websites - also known as a URL (Universal Resource Locator).  Website owners can also get a 'domain name', which is a unique name that can be used in place of the numbers.  It's usually easier to remember websites by name than by number.  For example, if you want to go to Crosswinds, where my website is hosted, it's much easier to remember crosswinds.net than it is to remember 216.18.117.40!
  • Browser - the program that your computer uses to 'read' webpage files.  Common ones are Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer (MSIE).  They are very similar, but sometimes interpret some HTML commands differently.  WebTV is another type of browser - basic pages usually display well, but some fancy effects like Javascript (a kind of program) or Flash don't always work.
  • Dial-up, cable modem, DSL - ways people connect to the internet.  Dial-up is the slowest (it takes longer for the server to transfer the website files to your computer), but it's less expensive than the others, and many people still use it.  Cable and DSL are faster, but more expensive, and still not available in all areas.  On basic webpages that do not contain large files, the difference is not very noticeable, and dial-up is more than adequate.  The larger the files, the more obvious the difference, and the longer your webpages will take to load for people using dial-up (and huge files can load slowly even for people on cable or DSL).
  • Search engine - websites where you can type in a word or phrase (like 'Labrador retrievers'), and get a list of webpages that have to do with that subject.  You can pay to get listed on a search engine (and many businesses will willingly take your money and promise you'll get listed more prominently or faster), but you can also submit your website information to search engines for free.  Even if you don't submit your website to any search engines, chances are you'll show up on their lists pretty soon anyway.
    However, for most local websites, you'll get the most visitors not from search engines, but from people who find out about your website from things like:
    • Your website name listed on flyers and other literature;
    • Links from other websites having to do with a similar interest; and
    • Word of mouth (or email) from people who know about your website.

In general, to have a website on the internet, here are the steps:

Create a website.  You can do this on pretty much any computer, you just have to create the right files (or pay someone to design your website for you).  There are programs you can use that will help you design your webpages, or you can learn the basic HTML commands and write the HTML files yourself.  It's actually not all that complicated to make basic pages, and even do some of the fancy-looking stuff.  And it's good to know the basics, even if you're going to use a program eventually.  You can be more precise, and you'll know how to fix things if the program doesn't make the page look quite like you wanted it to.  Hint - check to see how your website looks like with at least MSIE and Netscape.

Find webspace somewhere.  There are many hosting providers that will offer you webspace (storage space on their server for your website files).  Some are free, but there's usually a catch - commonly, they put advertisements (banners or pop-ups) on your pages, which is annoying to many people, and may advertise things you'd rather not have associated with your website.  Other hosting providers charge a fee, and in return they don't put ads on your website.  It's not hard to find ad-free webspace for under $10 per month.  Crosswinds, where I maintain several websites, is currently charging $6.97 per month for a generous amount of webspace, with larger packages available.

Get your own domain name (optional).  Chances are, your hosting provider will provide you with a website name, the most basic being something like: "webhost.com/yourname/".  If that's fine with you, use that.  However, you may be able to have a simpler 'subdomain' type of name (sometimes for an additional fee), which would look more like this: "yourname.webhost.com".  A bit easier to remember, but there's a third option - your very own domain name!
     The most economical way to do this is called a 'redirect'.  You can do this through any one of the many domain name services.  You pay them a fee (sometimes one fee to register the name, and a separate fee to redirect it), and they register your domain name with InterNIC (the people who have final authority over registering internet names).  With a redirect, it doesn't matter where your webspace is - you set it up with the domain name service so that when someone types in your domain name, the service sends them to wherever your website is.  A normal cost is about $15 to $20 per year.  Check with your hosting provider first, as a subdomain name, domain name and/or redirect may be offered or included as part of your design or hosting service.

Upload your website files to your webspace.  The hosting provider where you got your webspace will have information on how to do this (or they may do it for you, if you're getting a total website design and hosting package deal).  You'll need a password (you get this when you sign up for webspace), and this password should be guarded carefully (as it gives access to your website files), and changed every once in a while (yearly is OK).

Tell people about your new website!  Publicize it in your newsletter or advertisements.  Put the website address on your business cards.  Send an email to current friends and clients (PLEASE don't send unsolicited emails to publicize your website, even to lists you've bought as 'potential clients' - such emails are often against the terms of service of many email accounts).

Keep your website updated.  If you have a calendar page, keep it current.  Make sure to update contact or other information if it changes.  Add new content occasionally to give your website visitors a reason to come back - monthly articles, updates on new products or services you're offering, or seasonal news about your business or organization.  Check your website occasionally for links that no longer work (especially links to other websites).

Keep a backup copy of your website.  Two copies are even better - one for a backup, and the other to use as a 'working' copy, to make changes to your website files and make sure they look OK before uploading them to the server (and making a new backup copy).  Server problems are relatively rare, but if your server does have a problem and loses your website data, it will be a simple matter to re-upload your files from your backup copy.