21 min read
If starting a blog or launching your first website has been on your to-do list for a while, you probably find yourself having a lot of questions.
“Where do I start? What do I look for? And what do all of these terms mean?”
These may be just some of the things you’re trying to find answers to. And as with everything new, it can all get intimidating especially if you don’t know where to start.
Perhaps the first thing you did was to start searching on Google for things like “start a website” or “how to start a blog”. Some of what you’ll see popping up are phrases like “website builders”, “website platforms” and “content management systems”.
I remember how confusing all of this was for me back when I first started. And the fact that there’s a somewhat blurry line between all these terms doesn’t make it any easier.
Besides, what difference does it make anyway if it’s a builder or a platform we’re talking about? They both do the same thing, no?
Well, my friend, not quite.
There is a difference between these terms and knowing what that is will help you pick the best solution for your needs. And, it will also save you hours of searching.
Because you and I both know you’ve got way better things to do with your time, right?
So here’s what we’re going to cover in this first part of the “How to set up your first website” series.
We’ll take a look at:
● publishing platforms
● website builders
● full content management systems
We’ll also briefly talk about whether hosted or self-hosted is the best option for you.
By the end of this post, you should feel more confident talking about these concepts, have a better idea of what options are available and how to choose one over the other.
So, grab a warm mug of delicious cocoa and let’s dive right in!
What Is a Web Publishing (or Blogging) Platform?
Web publishing or blogging platforms are typically free platforms you can use to create a blog or your personal website.
Some may charge an additional fee for things like getting your own custom domain or removing ads from your blog. Most of the blogging platforms available, though, are free and super easy and simple to use. In fact, you’ve probably used or at least have heard about some of them.
And while a lot has changed since the early 2000s in terms of design, customization and use, not to mention the new platforms that have emerged since then, blogging platforms still remain quite popular.
When you sign up for an account with most blogging platforms, they’ll be hosting your blog for you. And by taking the headache of looking for a web host out of the equation, you can have your personal blog up and running in no time.
Here are some of the best-known blogging platforms you can check out:
A blogging service offered by Google, Blogger has been around for almost two decades. It’s free, easy to use, and it’s as simple as blogging can get. It comes with Google+ and Adsense, so if you’re interested in running ads on your blog, Blogger’s got you covered.
The design templates you can choose from are rather limited and so are general customization options that go along with a blogger account. By default, your domain name will end in “.blogspot.com”, but if you have your own custom domain, Blogger will allow you to use that instead, by following a few easy steps.
WordPress.com is the hosted version of WordPress. While it’s free to use, there are also plans you can upgrade to, so you can remove ads, use your own custom domain or monetize your blog through WordAds. Whichever plan you choose, the hosting is taken care of, so the only thing you have to worry about is publishing your content.
If you go for the Business plan, you can also use advanced analytics and SEO, get unlimited storage, use premium themes and remove WordPress branding from your website.
Known as “the Evernote powered blogging platform”, Postach.io is an app created by Canadian company Inputlogic. If you’re a hardcore Evernote fan and are looking for an easy and super convenient way to turn your notes into blog posts, you may want to give Postach.io a try.
The free account comes with a few basic themes to choose from and includes one site. But if you want to make use of the custom domain option or add extra sites, you’ll need to upgrade to their premium plan. You can also choose between three types of accounts: personal, business and education, although I’m not sure how each option actually reflects on the blog itself. When I selected “Business” nothing seemed to change, so perhaps this is just for internal categorization reasons.
The themes available are basic and the app interface is minimalistic and user-friendly. I can see why it’d be a good option for a personal blog or for educational purposes (if you’re a teacher). But to use for business, I’m not quite sure it’s quite the right fit. As for their premium plan, apart from the quite expensive plan, a custom domain and the option to create more than one website or blog, I have to admit it’s unclear what you actually get by going premium.
Tumblr is not what you’d call a typical blogging platform. In fact, it’s more of a microblogging community and a social network than a blogging platform, where you’d expect longer content. Acquired by Yahoo in 2013, Tumblr is particularly popular among teens and younger demographics. It’s a platform where short-form content rich with images, GIFS, and video thrives on a daily basis.
It’s also frequently used as an art- or sketchblog by artists, illustrators, and concept artists. Consumer brands also use Tumblr to attract younger audiences through engaging and shareable content. After all, sharing things with your followers is what Tumblr’s all about. Which is why it’s so easy and they constantly strive to make the user experience even better.
As for design and customization, you will find many gorgeous themes, both free and premium, to turn your tumblog into something more to your liking. You can add your own custom domain for free, giving it a more professional look while still using your Tumblr account.
As an online publishing platform, Medium offers something slightly different from blogging, although in many ways similar to it as well. Anyone can join and use the platform for free and start publishing articles right away. You can follow stories and tags you’re interested in and use your own custom domain, too.
You can write your post directly in your browser and publish it when you’re done. The user interface is clean, uncluttered and simplistic, and it allows you to write in a distraction-free mode using the full-screen option or directly within your feed. If you have a voice that needs to be heard or you’d like to share your opinion about something you deeply care about, Medium is the platform you need. Just write, edit and hit publish.
It’s also a fantastic way to build awareness for your business and to connect with fellow writers, creatives, entrepreneurs, and bloggers. You can connect it to your Facebook and Twitter account to follow what your friends are sharing and to grow your network by following new and exciting people. And if you’re like me and don’t appreciate seeing ads or cluttered websites with promotions of all sizes and colors, Medium has a policy you’ll probably appreciate.
Popular for keeping a journal, microblogging, or simply dabbing your feet into blogging to test the waters, these platforms offer an appealing and hassle-free solution for many. Especially if you’re a freelance writer, Medium has become a fantastic place where you can gain exposure and establish yourself as an expert in your niche.
For artists and creatives, Tumblr may be a good place to explore short-form content with a mix of multimedia, and for those interested more in just writing and updating a blog, Blogger and WordPress remain great options to consider.
What Is a Website Builder?
A website builder is a web hosting service you can use to set up your website in just a few minutes. You register your account and build your site online, without doing anything else other than creating your pages, picking one of the available free or premium templates, and adding your content.
Website builders are usually free, which also means they come with certain limitations. That being said, some service providers may offer paid plans to remove advertising and their branding from your pages.
Every website builder comes with a certain amount of templates you can choose from to customize the look of your website. As for the setup process, it’s simple, straightforward and typically easy to go through. However, for free plans keep in mind that the support will usually be limited.
Let’s have a look at some of the most popular website builders.
Wix — Free and Paid
With Wix, you get a beautiful website you can fully customize to reflect your interests and area of expertise. It will be optimized for SEO and you can use your own custom domain, too. One-page designs are also available for those who want to keep it simple and easy to maintain.
The Wix Editor
Where things get interesting is right before you start building your website. Here, you can choose between two options: the Wix ADI (Artificial Design Intelligence) and the Wix Editor with its drag and drop features, customization options, apps and social buttons for your site among other things.
The Wix Editor will let you choose a theme and then lets you customize it. But the Wix ADI asks you questions in order to learn what you need from your website and tailor it to your personal expectations and needs. You either type your answers or tick a box to indicate which option applies to you. Then, you wait for about 5 minutes for the ADI to finish the process and to reveal your unique website.
The Wix ADI
Wix claims that no two websites will be the same, so perhaps you should try for yourself and see if they’re right. The ADI was super easy to use and offered clear instructions on what to do next. While it was a little slow when it came to saving new changes, it was a pleasant alternative to the drag-and-drop editors most website builders use, and a nice surprise that you can get a beautiful, clean website in just a few minutes. Here’s what the interface looks like:
The Wix ADI Interface
With a premium plan, you get extra features and more options, such as extra bandwidth and storage, as well as the option to remove ads. It’s not entirely clear which features are included in the free plan, especially since new features are being added all the time, but they’re most likely for the paid plans. Apart from the ads, however, your website will have almost everything you need in place.
Weebly — Free and Paid
If you’re looking for an easy way to manage your website from your smartphone when you’re on the go, start an online store or just to launch your website, Weebly may be a great option for you.
Once you choose what type of website you’ll be creating, name your website and choose a theme you like, you’re ready to start putting your content together and customizing the look of your new website. You’ll be basically tweaking the theme you selected and replacing the content with your own. You can, of course, adjust all the elements, and the drag and drop features of the website builder make it easy to find your way around the user interface.
The Weebly Interface
There’s a clearly outlined plan comparison showing you what you get with your free or premium plan, so if at any time you feel like you could use some extra features and options, an upgrade button has been conveniently added to your dashboard. There’s an App Center available as well, where you can choose among free and paid apps to add to your website.
Jimdo — Free and Paid
Jimdo offers an easy to use drag-and-drop solution to build your website within minutes. And if you know some HTML and CSS you can easily customize your page to your liking and make any extra adjustments you’d like.
On the free plan, your website will have the default “.jimdo.com” subdomain. But if you decide to upgrade, you can enjoy extra features like SEO optimization, site stats, an email account, an online store and a free domain with no ads, among other things.
No matter which plan you choose, however, your website will look sharp with the beautifully designed templates you can choose from. If you really can’t pick one, the template filter should help. All of the templates are mobile friendly, so responsiveness won’t be an issue whether your visitors are using their smartphone or tablet. And if you decide to switch to something different along the way, you can do so without worrying about losing your already existing content.
SnapPages — Paid (Free 14-Day Trial)
A website that’s hosted in the cloud means faster loading times and less lag. With SnapPages, you also get a website that’s optimized for Search Engine Optimization (SEO). You can connect your social media and promote your content to your followers. As for spam, with the anti-spam filtering that comes with your website, you won’t have to worry about getting any spammy comments.
Your website will be mobile-friendly and one that’s easy to build thanks to the drag-and-drop page editor. And if you plan on running an online store, you’ll be able to easily integrate Shopify, Paypal or Square and start making your first sales.
SnapPages has two paid plans, Pro (easy and simple to use) and Dev (for more advanced users with some coding experience). The interface includes everything you need to customize the look of your page and theme and it’s fairly easy to navigate between every option. Keep in mind that you’ll be able to have only one panel open at a time, perhaps to prevent the editor from getting cluttered with panels and tiny windows.
Virb — Paid (Free 10-Day Trial)
Once you go through the setup process you can create the pages you want, add a blog, and choose any of the recommended pages based on the type of theme you choose for your website. There is an option to use your own custom domain, enter your site’s SEO description and link your Google Apps ID in the settings, too.
Virb has a selection of themes depending on the website category you need (portfolio, business, music a.o.). You can customize your theme’s look in the design section of the dashboard, and if you know your way around CSS, you can easily make some modifications to the look of your website. And while you’re working on your website, you can keep it in maintenance mode, which is great if you want to make sure it doesn’t go live before it’s fully ready for the world to see.
And with that being said, it's perhaps useful to keep in mind that website builders have both good and could-have-been-better sides:
Usually short learning curve due to drag-and-drop features
Quick and easy setup process
No coding skills needed
Come with templates to choose from
Most will provide free custom domain
User-friendly interface in most cases
Ads on free platforms
Limited choices, templates, themes and add-ons
Some templates feel quite generic
Basic analytics on free plans
Limited SEO options
If it shuts down, you’re left hanging
Despite their limitations, website builders are a step further compared to the blogging platforms we covered previously. Not overly demanding in terms of tech skills and perhaps a quick solution to get a site up and use as a portfolio to showcase some of your work.
And if you’re looking a quick and easy way to set up a website for free (or pay a small fee to remove those annoying ads), this would be a good place to start. But if you’re going to invest in a monthly fee, wouldn’t it be better to consider another, more pro-looking option instead? We’ll cover those options in the next section.
What Is a Full Content Management System?
Without getting too technical, a CMS or content management system is basically an application you can use to make website changes without touching any of the code.
In a way, this application acts like an interpreter: it takes the back-end code of your website (tech language) and turns it into something you can see (visual language). When you customize your theme or add content, you can immediately see what it will look like once you’ve saved and hit the preview button.
As you can probably tell, to manage your content and customize your website becomes a matter of a few clicks instead of hours of frustration. Since you don’t get to deal with any of the back-end code of your website, it’s convenient to rely on CMS. Plus, the learning curve isn’t that steep either, so you can get used to this platform fairly quickly.
WordPress comes in two versions, a .com and a .org version. The first is the free blogging platform we covered earlier and which is hosted on WordPress’s servers. The second is the self-hosted version, which you’ll need to host your website through a web hosting company of your choice.
WordPress is considered the go-to option for many bloggers, freelancers, small business owners and even larger businesses. Perhaps one of its biggest advantages is that it’s open source, which means that anyone can contribute and work on this platform, as well as create plugins for WordPress.
This is also one of the reasons why WordPress has become so common to use for website building. At the time of writing, there are 47,262 plugins in the WordPress repository. That’s A LOT of options you don’t get with other platforms.
But, what are some of the things WordPress excels at and what are some of
the things it lacks?
● Highly customizable and many templates, plugins, and tools are constantly developed for this platform. Whatever your issue might be, there’s a 99% chance that someone’s had the same problem, which makes finding solutions just one search away.
● It’s solid as a system and one of the go-to options when you’re launching a website.
● If you invest some time learning a few basic things, you can create a website you’re proud to show off.
● Analytics, themes, free and premium plugins for easy email marketing setup, and more
● Open source = free to use and comes with its famous 5-minute installation (which is not that easy if your hosting company doesn’t provide you with the right buttons to click)
● Your website is 100% yours, so unless you decide to shut it down one day (or WordPress magically disappears) you don’t have to worry about anything else other than having an active hosting account for your website to live at.
● Gets expensive if you need help from a developer or want premium plugins/themes.
● May not always be the best solution for YOUR website, if blogging and content don’t play a central role in it.
● Can become a nightmare if you hired someone to set it up for you and have no idea how the content editor your developer installed works.
● While there are many resources and help available online in forums, on Quora, and theme customization services offered by developers, it doesn’t make the process of DIY frustration-free. In fact, it’s VERY heavy on the frustration side.
● Customizing your theme can be a nightmare, especially if you have zero knowledge of CSS and HTML. (What’s a child theme again?)
Squarespace is a 3-in-1 kind of a deal. It’s a content management system with its own website builder, a blogging platform and a hosting service provider all in one.
Basically, it’s what every creative envisions for their website: a gorgeous and drool-worthy place to showcase their creative awesomeness,
And while I haven’t personally used Squarespace for my own projects yet, I was curious to see how the interface looks like and how different it feels putting together a website in Squarespace. Overall, it was quite a pleasant experience and anyone can easily create a good-looking website, even without a lot of design knowledge. The user interface makes it very easy to make the changes you need.
So, what can Squarespace do and how good is it actually at it?
Easily customizable design features (but with some limitations)
Free custom domain for the first year
Fabulous for clean and sleek websites
Great themes to choose from
14 days to try
Limited plugins available
Other email marketing integration options via HTML code (besides Mailchimp)
No official PayPal integration (if you have or plan to have an online shop)
Not too great for a lot of content updates
Does not have membership site option
Custom fonts don’t always show in all browsers
Hint: If you’re planning to set up an online store and sell your own digital or physical products (whether that’s posters, custom designed T-shirts or ebooks and tutorials), you may want to check out some of the popular ecommerce solutions like Shopify, OpenCart, and Woocommerce. Another option to sell your creations on websites like Etsy, many creators and crafters’ choice.
Both of these content management systems are preferred by professional bloggers, creatives and small-business owners. Each has its strengths and weaknesses and they can both be remarkable solutions.
However, WordPress can seem a little more intimidating at the beginning, and perhaps you may need to learn a few basic things about how to make the most out of your theme and which plugins you should use. Once you do, you’ll feel a lot more confident and you’ll be able to create a stunning website, just like you would on Squarespace (if not better).
On the other hand, if your needs are more basic and you know you just need a page to showcase your work, perhaps Squarespace with its gorgeous themes and easy customization options would be a more suitable option for you instead.
How Do I Choose Between Hosted and Self-Hosted?
Now that you know more about the options you’ve got available, it’s time to decide if you’ll choose a hosted or self-hosted solution for your website or blog.
To do that, you need to consider what your main goal with setting up your blog or website is going to be. Forget about plans and budgets for a second and try to answer this one question:
Will it be for personal or professional use?
Knowing what you’re aiming for will make your options clearer and it will lead you to the right direction option-wise. Because, why would you get into the trouble of setting up your own website and paying for hosting when all you want it to blog about your daily life or hobbies?
You can get a premium theme on Tumblr or publish on Medium as a starting point. If later on, you decide that you’d like to do this as a side-hustle and are ready to invest in it, you can then consider switching to a self-hosted option.
However, you should note that when you choose a hosted option, you don’t really “own” the page your create (even if it feels like it’s a space you can call your own little corner on the web). Instead, you’re just borrowing some space on the servers of a company. So, if one fine day they decide to shut the service down you won’t have any say in it.
On the other hand, if you are seriously thinking about becoming a freelancer, starting your own business or growing your blog, then going with the self-hosted option right from the start is a much better and more reasonable alternative.
Considering this move involves considerable expenses on your side, the next crucial step is to figure out what you need to know before you make your final decision. And that’s exactly what we’re going to cover in Part 2 of the “How to set up your first website” series.
It’s tough to stand out online these days. Websites are registered daily (every second, actually) so if you’re planning to start your business the right way and be taken seriously, having a website you're proud of is an absolute must. Which is why you need to know what you’re aiming for and choose accordingly.
If you want to start a personal blog or just have a go at blogging, perhaps going for one of the free blogging platforms could be your best bet.
However, if you’re planning to establish your presence in the online world as a creative, blogger or online entrepreneur, you need something more than “just an okay” website. You need stellar.
By now you should know your options and what each of them includes. In the next installment of this series, we dive into the five must-answer questions you need to ask yourself before you start a website.
Are there any other beginner-friendly platforms you know of or have considered using to launch your first website?
Blog post image: RawPixel