Before I brought my first website on line last year, I read a lot of mediocre advice about website building. The problem with nearly everything I read was that it was geared toward creating and running a website using commercial software and a commercial website-hosting company. This advice would have lead me to build a website just like everyone else's--harvesting visitors' data, displaying the mandatory advertisements for the software I was using, and advertising for the hosting company as well. I wanted a personal platform for conveying information, not just another revenue stream for corporate America. Bloated commercial software also would have required a decently-powered CPU drawing more electricity than I wanted to pay for.
Fortunately, I found a way to avoid all that, but it requires learning more than just the minimum of how to use Wordpress. If you're thinking about building your own website, I'll suggest an approach you may not have considered, and I'll tell you some of the lessons I've learned during my first year of implementing it.
First, I'll summarize what I've learned and disseminate some general advice that may be useful to you before getting into the details:
My first website, Cheapskate's Guide, will be one year old this week. So, I decided this would be an appropriate time to tell readers what I've learned about building and running a website. As I said, I did not create any of my websites to make money. If I had, I'm sure my lessons learned would have been very different. I'm writing this article for those like me who want to help their readers while also doing something they enjoy, not for those whose main goal is making money.
My goal over the last year has been simply to create and run a website that helps as many people as possible reduce the money they spend on computers and Internet services. The reason for this is that I've seen so many people make costly mistakes. I've branched out slightly to the related topics of computer security and Internet privacy, because these are important to nearly everyone who uses the Internet regularly. After all, it doesn't matter how much money an individual saves on computers and Internet services if a crook uses them to empty out his bank account. Over the course of the year, I've also written articles about the state of the Internet today and the creation of websites by average people, because I feel these are significant issues.
Now, here is what I have learned that may be of help to those of you who are thinking of creating a website and would like to know the benefits associated with avoiding commercial software and hosting companies.
Although some people seem to be hooked on cat videos, a large number use the Internet to get information. If your goal for your website is sharing information, the most honest and valuable way of increasing traffic to your website is to provide high-quality information. With that end in mind, do your best to use descriptive titles that covey a true picture of the content of your articles. Never resort to click-bait. You are wasting your reader's time. And, if your goal isn't just to make money, why attract readers to your website if you don't have anything substantiative to convey to them?
If you want your website to be well-regarded, do everything you can to make your articles look like they were proofread by a professional. Your goal should be perfect spelling and grammar, well-chosen, succinct wording, and of course great content. I think the highest compliment that I am likely to receive is when one of my articles is stolen and used word-for-word on another website. Here is an example of someone posting one of my best articles. At least this particular thief was honest enough to post a link back to my website. What bothers me most about this theft is that the thief's page lay-out is so much better than mine! In fact, I like it so much, I think I'll steal it and use it to advertise my article:
After writing 20 to 30 articles for Cheapskate's Guide, I thought I was done. I thought I had said everything I wanted to say. But, I knew that a website needs to have more articles than that to entice readers to come to it in the first place. This seemed like a big problem to me. It seemed like I might be stuck with a website full of valuable information that few would read. So, I needed to find a way of creating more articles that were of value to the website's readers. I came up with three solutions.
First, I needed to post articles less frequently--once a week, instead of once or twice a day. This would allow me write articles more naturally as online social trends changed, as companies invented new schemes for separating customers from their money, as the Internet and online services changed in ways that readers needed to be aware of, and as governments and industries colluded to limit individuals' access to information. Posting less frequently would also give me more time to research areas I'm less familiar with. As a result, I could broaden the content of my website with a larger pool of valuable information.
Second, I broadened the list of topics discussed on Cheapskate's Guide even more by adding tangentially-related areas. I realized that readers could benefit from more information about computers and Internet services than just how to get good deals. Although quality and low-cost products and services are important, security and privacy on the Internet are also important, yet not well understood by most consumers. Internet trends are also important--for example, the splintering of the Internet by country and the emergence of new methods for retaining as much access as possible. Then, there is the increasingly successful effort by companies to corral consumers into walled gardens. All of these topics have value to readers and are valid topics for discussion on Cheapskate's Guide. My recommendation is that before you even consider creating a website, pick a theme that you are interested in that is also broad enough to keep you writing for a long time, and that keeps you learning new things so that it continues to hold your interest.
Last, I came up with a method of increasing my creativity. It involves allowing my mind to wander onto thoughts that are of interest to me. Usually my mind wanders onto these topics: 1)technical thoughts related to computers, 2)computer projects that I would like to start, and 3)computer problems of my own that I'm trying to solve. Many of these are fitting material for Cheapskate's Guide. So, basically, I discovered that daydreaming about things that interest me also gives me ideas for articles. With this method pointing me toward interesting things to write about, I am also more enthusiastic about writing!
The Internet contains an enormous pool of articles touting the importance of SEO (Search Engine Optimization). What these articles don't emphasize enough is the fact that, even if you follow all of Google's rules, Google will still almost completely ignore your website for the first year or more.
Until about a month ago, I was lucky to get a handful of click-throughs from Google in a week. Since then, I've been getting a handful a day. This is just not a significant source of traffic to my website. This lack of attention from Google may have something to do with the fact that I have chosen not to use Google analytics or any services that report my website statistics to a third party. Or, it may simply be due to the fact that until now my site has been less than a year old and has not had much traffic. I call this the high-school popularity problem. In high school, some people are unpopular simply because no one knows who they are. So, the popular people avoid them, because they aren't popular. It's a catch-22.
I'm fairly sure I know the method Google has employed to shut my website out of search results. Google has chosen keywords for my articles that have nothing to do with their subject matter. Not until just last month have Google's keywords begun to be more relevant to my articles. The slight improvement is not because of anything I've done. I haven't changed the format of the header section of my articles in six months. Although I've broadened the topic base of my articles somewhat, I'm still writing close to the same types of articles of the same length on mostly the same topics. The only thing that is different is that my website is a little older, and I'm getting a little more traffic--not so much from Google, but from other sources.
Had I known that Google would nearly completely ignore my website for the first year, I would have ignored many of Google's rules for SEO. Instead, I would have concentrated on making a pleasing format for my website and writing articles that appeal to my readers. I wouldn't have concerned myself nearly as much with Google's or others' advice about page layout, choice of keywords, having plenty of numbers in the text, article length, quality and number of links, underscores in file names, and title length. As far as I can tell, none of that has made a bit of difference over the first year of my website's existence. I'll have to wait to see whether it makes a difference in the second year.
Some marketing experts recommend spending 80% of your time marketing your website and 20% writing content. If my goal were to make money, I might agree. But, since that's not my goal or what I enjoy doing, my time is spent in almost exactly the opposite proportions. I can live with lower traffic if it means I'm providing valuable, high-quality content to a few while enjoying what I'm doing.
I've learned not to get hooked into providing free content for social networks without getting anything in return. I'm talking to you, Reddit! The problem with most social networks like Reddit is that they want to increase traffic to their website, but they aren't concerned at all with boosting the readership of your website. As a result, they make rules against posting "blog spam". What they call blog spam is nothing more than a link back to your website! It doesn't matter how well-written your article is or how many of their readers like it, they will ban you for doing this. My philosophy now is, if a social network is unwilling to help me increase my website's traffic, I'm unwilling to help them increase theirs.
Although most people take this approach, my advice is don't publish your website as a Facebook page or use someone else's software to create your website. If you do, you could be forever subject to their rules and at the mercy of their whims. Unless you happen to be a politician, they will tell you what you can and can't write. They will decide whether to continue presenting your articles to the world or whether to confiscate everything you have written (if you don't have backups). They effectively own your work. You are working for them. They will use your website and its contents to spy on your readers and drive them to their websites and away from yours. They will decide whether to continue updating their software, or not, allow you to continue using it, or not. Eventually, you may be forced to abandoned it for something that better meets your needs. The possibility of no longer having access to a specific piece of website creation software after you've written hundreds of articles in a proprietary format is a potential nightmare. Do yourself a favor; don't fall into that trap.
After gaining the technical skills necessary, I was able to successfully run my own website on my own computer with only open source software and software I wrote myself. You can too--if you are willing to learn the required skills. I cannot overemphasize the peace-of-mind that I get by having the freedom to run my website the way I want and write whatever I want on it. I could not have had this freedom with a Facebook page or even by employing commercial website creation software and running my website on a hosting company's server using their software.
From what I've seen on the Internet, far too many website creators let their websites become unnecessarily bloated. They try to run all sorts of unnecessary software for manipulating data and displaying cool-looking effects. They also have too many overly-large pictures on their web pages. The real secret to keeping down the cost of running a webserver is to minimize the data transmitted and the amount of work your server's CPU has to do. I think the best way to do this is to avoid software that you don't need (especially the commercial variety) and to reduce the number and size of pictures. These actions reduce the need for a powerful CPU and large data transmissions, both of which increase the size of the bill you will receive each month from your ISP and electric company or hosting company. If you do it correctly, you can run a lean website for years on pocket change. So, if you are an individual running a website as an avocation, not a vocation, keep it lean.
Become technically competent enough to avoid being corralled into the Facebook pen or into using Disqus or other commercial software. These are just two examples of solutions that are of questionable value, require you to funnel visitor data to some corporation, or entrap you with a proprietary data format. You may argue that it would take you too long to acquire the necessary skills, or that it is unrealistic. My response is that if you intend to create and run websites over the long term, not just as a lark for a few months, it pays to do your best to develop as many skills as you can along the way. Think of this, not as a waste of time, but as a learning opportunity. Remember, the more you learn, the more traps you can avoid.
So, what to learn, and where to start? First, learn the basics of website administration. Learn how to pick a domain name registrar, how to register a website domain name, and how to use the registrar's website to add subdomains and so forth. If you want to be able to send email from your website, learn how to do that.
Next, learn to write HTML web pages by hand, without relying on commercial web page creation software. I can imagine you groaning at the thought. However, I write all of my own web pages by hand in the Linux "vi" editor. Every last one. As far as I know, every Linux computer on the planet hosts the "vi" editor. So, I don't have to be limited or locked-in by Sitebuilder, Divi, Wordpress, or whatever. Not only is writing HTML fairly easy and fun (and yes, annoying at times), but by doing it yourself you begin to understand, among other things, why everyone is making such a big fuss about modernizing HTML and why Google is forcing website developers to build mobile-friendly websites.
If you intend to continue running your own website or websites over the long haul--especially of it's for the rest of your life--I recommend that you eventually get to the point of learning how to host your website on your own computer. Most people choose to hire a hosting company, but you get the most flexibility and control by running your website on a computer that is in your physical possession. Initially, you may want to start with a hosting company while you're learning how to deal with the non-trivial issues surrounding self-hosting. Learning how to do this may take quite a while, especially if you don't know Linux. I would avoid using Windows as the operating system for your web server, simply because you lock yourself into putting up with the whims of Microsoft, or as some like to write it, Micro$oft. When you're ready to consider hosting your website yourself, you may want to read a comprehensive guide I wrote on that topic to get an idea of what you'll be up against. My guide is a step-by-step procedure that I developed for hosting a website on a tiny Raspberry Pi 3 from home. By following that procedure, I created my own website that ran fabulously well, even under a very heavy traffic load for a small website.
Great benefits can be had from writing your own code. Let me give you just one example of what I'm talking about. A year ago, I was amazed at how difficult it was to find a PHP script for counting the number of times a web page is viewed. I saw a substantial number of commercial software products whose creators implied that we lowly website developers couldn't possibly accomplish this herculean task without their help. They promised to provide the help we apparently so desperately need in return for permission to track our visitors and put their ads on our websites. Because I had experience writing "C" and C++ code, I suspected this sales pitch was flimflam. But, I didn't know PHP. Luckily, I soon discovered that PHP is nothing more that "C" with some built-in functions that are specific to web-related tasks. So, I learned the basics of PHP in two days, and I wrote my own page-view-counting script. The hilarious thing is that the script I wrote is only 19 lines long, and I only need to add one line of code into each web page to count the number of views it gets. So what are these software companies really providing? Not much, in my opinion. And, in exchange, we allow them to advertise for free on our websites and in many cases spy on every visitor that views a web page or posts a comment!
The bottom line is that I discovered that I was able to write the software I needed to run a small website. No commercial software was required! I do, of course, use an open-source operating system and and open-source webserver software. But, the rest of the code is mine. And, it does what I need it to do--without compromising my visitors' privacy.
Many who give advice about running websites claim that comments increase web traffic. I'm not so sure. I'm seeing maybe one or two legitimate comments for every 2000 page views. Four times that many are spam from people selling viagra, amoxicillan, clothing, real estate, etc. As far as comments boosting the number of visitors to my website ... I just don't see how one or two comments per 2000 readers is likely to noticeably increase traffic. But, so far, my visitor comment forms are still active and available for receiving your comments.
Visitor comments come at a price. I have to delete spam comments manually, because I don't use commercial software with capchas. As I said, I don't use capchas, because they eat up CPU power and Internet connection bandwidth, and because commercial capcha software mines website visitors' data. Having my own self-written visitor-comment software allows me to avoid this. It also allows me to avoid running a sluggish, database program required by commercial visitor-comment software. I've written before about my annoyance with CPU-intensive general database software that can easily be replaced with simple and fast self-written code.
This week, I came upon a solution that I hope will at least partially solve my visitor-comments problem. I added an extremely simple robot-screening test to my code. You can see how I implemented this solution in the comment form at the bottom of this page. I'm hoping it will work at least 80% as well as a capcha. That would be good enough to enable me to continue to avoid using capchas.
I would like to be able to continue accepting visitor comments. Reading comments from people who appreciate what I've written helps to motivate me. A couple of people also asked me to provide an RSS feed, which turned out to be very helpful. How about leaving a comment telling me what you think of this article?
It is a sad fact that small websites don't usually get much traffic. Most can expect only a couple of thousand page views a month after a year or two of operation. What I'm telling you is that you will probably never earn a significant amount of money from a small website. So, don't set your hopes on that. Set your sights on something other than money--like providing a valuable service, becoming a better coder, or learning more about the process of website creation. Whatever it is, have fun with it and learn as much as you can.
Once in a great while you may get lucky and attract some attention. For example, I recently published an article on another website that I have been running for about five months. On this other website, let's call it site-B, I was only getting around 5 to 10 page views a day. Publishing an article and sharing it on social media often generated a few hundred page views over a day or two. Recently, I hadn't published anything on Site-B in over a month. Then I decided to write about a particular topic that caught my attention. I posted links to the article on the same social media sites that I always use. However, instead of a few hundred views, this article received more than 20,000 views over the next 12 hours. Forty-eight hours after submittal, it had received a total of 37,000 views. This one article received ten times as many views in two days as my entire Site-B website had received in five months! Needless to say, I was surprised and pleased.
What was immediately apparent to me, however, was that my article received this huge response, not because it was a great article, but simply because the right person took notice of it and commented on it. This person had a large number of followers who also read and commented on it. In fact, on the social media website where it attracted attention, the article received close to 300 comments in the first 24 hours. A few people on other social media sites also saw the article and posted it on their sites, including two Reddit forums. However, no one on any of these other sites took any significant notice. A single person's notice had changed the response to this article from a few hundred readers to tens of thousands!
The moral of this story is that social media is extremely fickle. Accept this. Enjoy your moment in the spotlight. Then, go back to the normal routine of running your website and forget about your 15 minutes of fame.
Many people on the Internet write about how to create and run a website. Some of them give such poor advice that I wonder if they've done it themselves or are just writing a guest blog post for someone else's website. I hope I've given you a better view here of what running a website is really like and clued you in on a less well-known way of going about it that may work better for you. If you decide to create your own website, I wish you good luck.
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Guide to Computers and the Internet. All rights reserved.