What is involved with owning a website?

Website ownership is a mystery to most individuals. A website is just a Word document on the Internet, isn’t it? Can’t I just update and manage it the same way I save one on my computer? While a website seems like a simple thing to manage, it does consist of a number of components which require attention and know-how. Understanding these components properly will allow anyone to know what they need to do to start and manage a site and what people are talking about when dealing with others.

Main Components

The main components of a web site are analogous to a physical business. There are slight differences between the physical and virtual worlds, but making these associations can help you remember these areas to manage for your website. More detailed articles on each of these areas will be posted in the future and linked here. I list these in the order they would be performed in setting up a typical website.

An address (the domain name)

Just as a physical business needs a street address for customers and vendors to be able to find it, a website needs an address as well. This is the URL entered into a browser address bar to view your website. There are good addresses — your own domain like www.yourcompany.com which you register and pay for or the alternative, and not as good addresses — utilizing someone else’s domain with either a subdomain (yourcompany.hostingcompany.com) or a directory (www.hostingcompany.com/yourcompany/). An address (e.g. www.yourcompany.com/mylocation/) consists of an optional subdomain (www), the domain (yourcompany), the top level domain (.com in this case) and an optional file path (/mylocation/). Appearances can mean a lot, so acquiring your own domain is preferable for serious organizations while individuals and hobby sites may find the free alternatives they don’t control more attractive. It is possible to migrate from a free alternative to your own domain at a later date, but that is equivalent to moving a business to a new address; you may lose some visitors who still go to your old address until all publications get updated.

Domains are registered and paid for on an annual basis (and are affordable at usually less than $20 per year). However, registering an address does not transfer permanent ownership to you. You are only leasing the address, as long as you keep paying your annual registration fee. Failing to renew the address will revert it back to the pool of available addresses, allowing anyone else to register the domain and obtain rights to it. It is possible to pay for a domain for multiple years in advance, but most registrars have auto renewal options that automatically renew your the domain every year and charge you the annual fee.

Anyone can register and manage a domain name. It is really something an organization should control and manage themselves rather than contract to someone else. When required, get expert advice for issues that are out of the ordinary, but maintain control of your domains yourself.

A location (the server space)

A brick-and-mortar business needs a physical location to conduct its business. This may be a owned piece of property or a leased location. The address will correspond to this location. For a website, you also require a place to locate your business. This is a place for the server software to serve your website from. This may be a hosting company (like leasing a location) or your own servers and connections to the Internet. In general, only the largest companies have the resources to build the data centres to host their own web servers, with the power and cooling requirements, redundant Internet connections and other overhead. Most cost effective for smaller companies is leasing hosting space from one of the many hosting companies. They spread out these overhead costs across many customers, and you only have to pay for the size of space you need, not a whole server. Hosting companies are very cost effective for the smallest organization to even large companies who receive millions of visitors per month, as they allow you to grow from shared hosting to virtual private servers to your own physical servers at their location.

Managing shared hosting can be done by anyone who wants to dedicate a little time and learn the basics. Once you start moving into virtual private servers and dedicated physical servers, more technical knowledge is needed as all server components fall onto you to manage, including the security of the application and server. Sometimes the hosting provider can provide technical expertise to manage your servers for a fee or you can contract many of the freelance administrators to do it for you as well.

A building (the website software)

A building will fit the type of business it is for — a garage will have vehicle bays, a clothing store will have racks and a bakery will have display cases. For a website, the building corresponds to the software used to produce the web pages. In the end, the same web page can be produced by any number of products, but some products are more appropriate than others. The simplest form is to construct your own site with flat (static) pages, coded one at a time. This is only recommended for the smallest of sites as the maintenance time becomes excessive as the site grows or requires a refresh. Next, there are many dynamic Content Management Systems, blogging packages and other software that can provide a framework for producing a dynamic website that is easy to maintain , update and manage. For the speciality sites, custom software may be the direction required to produce a site that can manage the components necessary. There are many open source frameworks that allow developers to quickly build sites to handle out of the ordinary requirements. This puts custom developed sites in a reasonable price range for smaller businesses with a talented developer and a clear vision of what the site should do.

The website software skill level ranges from do-it-yourself packages like self-installs of WordPress on shared hosting to hiring a developer for a completely custom site. There are many designers who can put your design into HTML, allowing you to focus on using the website software to update the site content.

The product (the website content)

Once you have your business location and building picked out, you can focus on your business, which is to sell something. Just like a business may sell tires or vacations, your website will be selling something. Even non-profits and other organizations are selling something, whether it is an idea or a service. Your website communicates what you are selling through its content. The content of the site will be what will be read by your visitors, indexed by the search engines and end up defining your site on the Internet.

Content should be managed by your organization. Outsourcing or contracting someone to produce your content will not result in your message coming across. Content management is the most time consuming part of owning a website and must be constantly and vigilantly maintained for a site to grow and avoid stagnation.

Other Components

Security

To have any e-commerce served from your domain, proper security will be required. This is accomplished with an SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate. A certificate provides the trusted identification of your site and encryption to all visitors to an https:// address on your site. Certificates are only valid for set terms, the minimum being one year in length and range in cost from about $250 to $1000 depending on the type and term length. Notification of renewing a certificate can be received by most certificate providers prior to its term expiring and prompt renewal is a must for any organization less they damage their reputation with clients getting security warnings about an expired certificate when they visit the site. E-commerce and security may be an area site owners wish to work with professional administrators for guidance and advice.

Mail

When you own a domain, you own the ability to create mailboxes for that domain. Having an organization with its own website but not its own mail addresses is akin to having a physical business, but a post office mailbox for a mailing address. The hosting fees you pay almost always include email access for at least a few accounts, so not taking advantage of an email domain you own is foolish. You may require some technical help to setup the accounts and mail clients and setup proper spam protection, especially if you publish the addresses on your site, but you should be using an organization address as the central contact address and check it regularly (at least daily).

Logs

Businesses may want to monitor their traffic patterns and compare with their receipts (actual purchases) to see what their turnover rate is, if people are actually making it into the back room where all the expensive stuff is and so on. A web site has this information as well. The web logs record every visit made to a website, and include information like the time of visit, the page visited and the referring page. Using log analyzers, a wealth of information can be extracted from these logs to provide information on your visitors. Most hosting companies will provide log analysis as part of their hosting package. You may also decide to run the logs through a commercial log analyzer for more information or use software tools which add some code to your website and collect even more data from visitors. Analyzing traffic patterns can help you in decision making and show you the parts of the site that are working at attracting visitors and the parts that are not. Analyzing the data can be time consuming and not completely clear. Assistance is available from many contract administrators on the meaning of the data.

Conclusion

Understanding these four main components and three other components of a website will allow most people to work with anyone confidently or manage a site themselves. More detailed information on each of these areas will be covered in future posts over the next few weeks.