Can anyone give some advice on starting up a website?
January 6, 2008 5:24 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone give some advice on starting up a website? Anyone out there with experience of setting up a website or websites but wasn't actually technologically capable of making the website them self?

Since finishing university I have worked for two companies both of them in or based around the e-business department. I am really into it and I really want to continue in this sector in the future.

As an extra curricular activity I really want to set up a website, I have tonnes of ideas for sites and over the past half a year I have knocked out the unrealistic ideas and settled on a couple of ideas that essentially could be really good. Unfortunately I know fuck all about about making websites and don't really know where to begin in terms of getting it together especially as I can't afford to get someone to do it for me.

So my only options at the moment are contacting people I have worked with who may help me and also contacting already existing websites that I admire and are doing similar things but on different topics and maybe see if they want to help carry my idea and provide me with some useful advice and tools. But I am skeptical this is going to get me anywhere.

I was thinking maybe trying to find a computer science student who has to make a website for a dissertation or something and get them to make it (and pay em a little and help them with the dis) - but where would I find them?

So I was hoping someone out there might have some advice? Anyone had similar experience? Apologies for not divulging the actual idea!
posted by swisspotter to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I would start by looking at the various CMSes out there. In particular, Drupal and Joomla. Setting them up is fairly easy. If you can't do it yourself, you can get someone else to do it for you; it will take them less than an hour. In fact, IIRC Dreamhost has a one-click install option for Joomla. From then on, you can add content quickly. You can start down the road of customizing your site's look by installing one of the many themes that are out there for either Joomla or Drupal, or commissioning a custom theme if your budget allows.
posted by bricoleur at 5:41 AM on January 6, 2008

Response by poster: sounds interesting, has anyone on here used either drupal or joomla to make a website, and what does your site look like?
posted by swisspotter at 5:59 AM on January 6, 2008

I suggest you learn by creating a simple web site, and to do that you need four things:

1) A domain name - Go to, find one that you like that's still available, and register it. It will cost about $8/yr. You can find lots of help at Godaddy, either on the web site or via the phone, if you have questions about the process.

2) You need a web host. For a beginner, I highly recommend one with a good "Control Panel" and something called Fantastico. I suggest They have these two things, they also have lots of online help for new users, and they're inexpensive. They even offer a free one-week trial.

3) I'm guessing that you don't want to learn HTML code. So you might want to use some kind of WYSIWYG HTML editor. I can't recommend one, but if you search, you'll find that question has already been very well answered here.

You also might want to use some kind of "Content Management System" such as Wordpress or Mambo or some other popular choice. That's why I suggested getting a host with Fantastico. Fantastico will allow you to VERY EASILY install a CMS and a lot of other useful scipts without almost any technical expertise. In other words, you could install and begin using Wordpress in about than five or ten minutes.

I'm not saying that WP is the best choice (it's not a true CMS), but you might want to give it a try because it is fairly easy to use and it has is an enormous amount help available for newbies.

4) There is also all kinds of help and resources on the net about creating, designing, and operating web sites. You need to find and take advantage of those resources. You can also find lots of good books at your local bookstores.

One last bit of advice. Don't get bogged down with how your web site looks. That won't matter if you don't have good content that gets updated/added-to regularly.
posted by 14580 at 6:17 AM on January 6, 2008

I currently run 5 different sites using Joomla, and none looks like any other. If you had an email link in your profile, I'd send you links. I've also got one using WP.

WP is really, really, really easy. Joomla is pretty easy.
posted by TomMelee at 6:40 AM on January 6, 2008

Making a website isn't rocket science. Jumping in with a decent HTML editor shouldn't take you more than a week to get a basic handle. You are better served by dealing with things yourself and expanding as you learn more. You might want to consider taking a beginner class in web design or HTML/CSS which will get you off and running.

I have made several web pages over the years without any formal training and have learned from my mistakes. The best thing to understand is that a website is a dynamic information device. You shouldn't try and build a site that is finished forever when it is uploaded to the internet. If you keep content separate from design as in CSS then you can always change it as your tastes and knowledge matures.
posted by JJ86 at 6:59 AM on January 6, 2008

TomMelee, you could use Mefi mail surely?
posted by dance at 7:00 AM on January 6, 2008

Response by poster: I have added my email address to my profile, if you read this I would really appreciate those links to your sites. thanks for the advice so far!
posted by swisspotter at 7:05 AM on January 6, 2008

A good article on CSS Based Design CSS Based Design. Be sure to play with the 'customise' control on the right side to see how CSS can change the look while not touching content.
posted by raildr at 7:07 AM on January 6, 2008

I'd recommend MODx, as it doesn't have a templating system you have to hack or learn and work around or with, you just make a template and the CSS as you normally would. Like every other CMS, there are some templates already available, but the great thing is, you can use templates that are not created for a specific CMS if those templates use standard HTML and CSS.

That said, for a beginner, I would really pay someone to assist you as you'll get up to speed much faster, unless you like to tinker.

For great books on fundamentals, I'd recommend CSS Mastery, Web Standard Solutions, and HTML Mastery once you've learned HTML. I have no recommendations for an introductory HTML book as I haven't looked at one in years.
posted by juiceCake at 7:41 AM on January 6, 2008

I agree that depending on how complex your site is going to be, either Wordpress or Joomla are easy-to-use bases for your site. And Dreamhost does, indeed, offer one-click-installs for both platforms, making it even easier....
posted by DecemberRaine at 7:43 AM on January 6, 2008

Another way to get started is to set up a Blogger blog and then play with css and html to customize your template. This is how I learned css, so that by the time I had outgrown Blogger, I was able to move to Wordpress pretty easily.
posted by Biblio at 7:56 AM on January 6, 2008

I use WordPress and Dreamhost. Easy as pie, and you can still get your hands dirty in the HTML, CSS, PHP, and any number of other acronyms if you so desire.
posted by danb at 7:57 AM on January 6, 2008

I'm a Drupal man myself. Don't confuse the backend CMS with the look, because they are two entirely different issues. There is definitely a learning curve for Drupal, but I love it.
posted by thedanimal at 8:39 AM on January 6, 2008

A free account at is a good way to get up an running quickly.
posted by The Deej at 8:43 AM on January 6, 2008

Response by poster: I need it to be a bit more sophisticated than anything from wordpress to be honest I need a way of centralising news articles from various different websites (a la Digg) while allowing for voting and commenting. That will be the main focus.
posted by swisspotter at 8:51 AM on January 6, 2008

A couple points:
I would first recommend for your hosting (at least to begin with). They charge by usage (for the bandwidth and storage you use), and are responsive to support issues related to using a shared hosting server environment.

Two possible routes for building your site include the above-mentioned CMS approach; i.e., reading the included template files and code, then customizing it yourself using a text editor, helped with the use of borrowed bits of code found elsewhere online or in books. (For example, at Dynamic Drive). If the CMS approach doesn't sound appealing, an alternative is to use software which will generate code automatically, such as the Adobe Dreamweaver and photoshop combo, the caveat being that the code that Dreamweaver outputs is less usuable in a CMS.

If you go with a CMS, I would recommend you browse Open Source CMS for demo-installs, as well as alternatives to Wordpress, Joomla and Drupal. Depending on how much code you want to modify, any of those would likely be acceptable, but if you are looking to build a 'community site' or forum, a CMS like Vanilla or the wordpress-relative bbPress deserve a look here--- again, it all depends on what function the site will be aimed to serve.
posted by acro at 9:23 AM on January 6, 2008

For HTML, you need this book, and then this one. The CSS pocket reference would probably also come in handy. Frankly, even starting to think about building a website without at least some knowledge of HTML/CSS is a bad idea, because even if you outsource the actual construction of the site so many little things during the day-to-day will need HTML.

From basics to more experienced, I'd still recommend this book and this one. If you've got some spare cash after all that outlay, this one isn't bad either.

I'd personally stay away from the afore-mentioned CSS Mastery - I didn't find it that useful, as a lot of the techniques illustrated are available online for free, and once you get to the stage where you're using them you don't really need the hand-holding of a book. Of course, YMMV.

Also, previously.
posted by djgh at 9:26 AM on January 6, 2008

I need it to be a bit more sophisticated than anything from wordpress to be honest I need a way of centralising news articles from various different websites (a la Digg) while allowing for voting and commenting. That will be the main focus.

Wait, so you really dont know anytihng about this stuff and essentially want to make a professional grade slashdot/digg clone? I think this will be difficult to do for even an experienced web developer let alone someone who is still learning the in's and out's of notepad html editing. You absolutely will need to know javascript programming, database/sql programming, dynamic scripting (php, asp, etc), etc etc etc before you can even touch the part of "what does your website look like." For a customized backed you'll need to hire a developer or start taking classes for a year or so. You can probably learn how to pretty up the css and other design parts in much less time, but your problem is that you need a seasoned developer if you want something beyond what plug-n-play toys like wordprss can give you. I think its easy for non-technical people to assume this stuff is all kids play that can be learned over the weekend (because they stopped by some teenagers myspace page and were impressed), but it really isnt.

Hire someone.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:33 AM on January 6, 2008

This was liked at metafilter recently:
posted by acro at 9:40 AM on January 6, 2008

I need a way of centralising news articles from various different websites (a la Digg) while allowing for voting and commenting. That will be the main focus.

ok, I just wrote a long ol' thing about how much building a website actually costs, but if you're just talking about putting together a Digg clone what you want is either Pligg, Drupal, or Joomla.

Pligg does digg-style voting/link submission out of the box. Not sure if it does auto-RSS aggregation. This can be done with Drupal, but I'm of the opinion that if you want Drupal to do anything worthwhile out of the box you need to be a developer -- and a Drupal developer at that, as Drupal has a number of coding principles that are very different from the way most people are coding PHP these days. Joomla can probably do this too -- there are more Joomla contractors available but I've heard it's a little bit junkier under the hood -- I wouldn't know, as we went with Drupal at my work.

The first rule of developing websites if you are not a developer is LEARN TO WRITE A SPECIFICATION (SPEC) AND WRITE A THOROUGH ONE. This will not only help you focus what you want out of the site, it is your main tool for getting good results from programmers. Programmers are smart, but most of them tend to "think like programmers" when problem-solving and do what they think is best for the user IF the user was them. This usually leads to real complicated interfaces and options. A programmer is not necessarily a UI expert, so your spec helps guide them through how the interface should look and work. Expect to pay $100/hour for a good developers time (in the US). You can contract work out overseas -- competent coders (meaning they get the job done but it's often ugly under the hood) can be hired from India at around $15/hr, but communication is an issue -- again this is where your extremely clear, plain english, illustrated spec will save you. They are usually pretty good at doing modifications, so maybe this is your best bet -- install pligg somewhere, mock up your modifications, and spend a couple grand getting someone to make them.

As to whether you can get a computer science student working on a dissertation to do work for you for free (yes, paying them a little is free, or essentially free)? No. Don't be that guy. Every developer who goes somewhere where there are people with "good ideas" for business (they usually skulk around user group meetings) has been asked to work for free, or maybe even offered "equity" ("I'll give you 5% to build my entire product for me, and I'll provide all the brilliant ideas because you probably don't have any of your own that you could also implement and not get paid for!"). There is pretty much no reason they would want to do this, unless you have proven yourself capable of raising investment money (and they're crazy and like working for free) or you are very very very lucky. Also, I'm of the opinion that very few students would be interested in building a CRUD website as a dissertation project -- it's just not that interesting of a computer science problem. If you want to get your site built, you are going to get faster results by figuring out what your budget is (I'd suggest at a BARE MINIMUM you'd need $10k -- that number would be for modifying an existing codebase with overseas work)

The other option is, of course, to learn some development chops. You can do this -- there's a lot of self-taught web developers floating around the internet (to the chagrin of many people with a BS) and your problem is probably not that complicated -- you're don't need to be some kind of algorithm writing whiz to create a digg-style voting site. Learning how to do it RIGHT can take years, if not decades, but very few people have ever let that stop them. Working on a website is a lot like working on a car. Very very very frustrating, then very satisfying when everything works right. If you're all interested in having your ideas implemented on the cheap, DIY is the absolute best route to go. It just means you're looking at a longer timeline for results.

ok, that turned out to be pretty long too. Hopefully you haven't taken any offense at my "websites cost money, if you want to build one and can't do it yourself, don't be cheap" attitude -- but I think if you don't spend enough at the outset you're going to be both unhappy with the product AND out money that could've been put towards building it right.

Dan -- is that you? Are you still in Berkeley? We actually need some Drupal help here pretty soon
posted by fishfucker at 9:57 AM on January 6, 2008

I think its easy for non-technical people to assume this stuff is all kids play that can be learned over the weekend (because they stopped by some teenagers myspace page and were impressed), but it really isnt.

Hire someone.

I guess I could've just seconded this and saved you 10 minutes of reading.

although I would add, WRITE A SPEC, THEN hire someone. This tutorial looks like a pretty good guide to what a spec is and how to start writing one.
posted by fishfucker at 10:00 AM on January 6, 2008

Ah crap. This tutorial.
posted by fishfucker at 10:01 AM on January 6, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks guys the advice is very, very useful. As for the 'its easy for non-technical people to assume this stuff is all kids play that can be learned over the weekend' , I am very aware of how difficult it is thus the request for advice, in fact all this advice has given me a headache as to what to do but I am sure I can assimilate it and begin to make a final decision. Hiring someone is out of the question, I don't have the money! hmmm fuck knows where I am going to begin....but please keep the advice coming, if anyone has anything else that is.

thanks once again.
posted by swisspotter at 10:15 AM on January 6, 2008

It's not an appropriate project for a dissertation, but it's definitely a project an undergrad could do as an unpaid internship or project for credit. You might start by contacting the c.s. department at a local college for a recommendation. Or it may even be a good project for a motivated group of high school kids.

However, you may have to lower your expectations if you go this route. Shoot for a good beta site or proof of concept as the outcome from free help, rather than a completely functional professional grade online community. If you get something out of it that's decent, then you can take it to a professional and pay for tweaking and polish.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:32 AM on January 6, 2008

If you don't have the money, but you have time, then I suggest you grab webhosting space somewhere, install pligg, and do the modifications yourself. The web has a long history of progress being made by people with no academic technical background. In the beginning you will get very discouraged, but it's an excellent investment in yourself and your career even if the website does not end up being successful.

Even if you end up being more of a web producer or project lead than a developer at work, it's always nice to work with guys who have at least a little taste of the nuts and bolts, so they understand what the developers are up against.
posted by fishfucker at 10:52 AM on January 6, 2008

Sorry, I keep forgetting about mefi mail. Links sent, along with some other tasty info.
posted by TomMelee at 12:10 PM on January 6, 2008

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