Image: Computer scientists operating the ENIAC's main control panel at the Moore School (via Wikimedia Commons)
I spend most of my life online. My work revolves around my ability to cultivate a strong digital presence and, frankly, I spend a good deal of my leisure time surfing the web as well. So it’s really important that I’m able to direct and manage my digital footprint.
Kelli Marshall nailed this topic in a recent Vitae piece in which she laid out a solid plan for taking charge of your online presence. I want to expand on one part of her plan -- not only because I think it’s vital, but also because I happen to think it’s fun. She wrote about the importance of having a website so we can control the primary narrative of our web lives. Building a site with a URL that corresponds with your actual name will almost certainly ensure that Google will display your site first in the search results of those who look you up.
Now if you’re anything like I was five years ago, you don’t have the first clue about how to build your own website. I wanted one but I didn’t even know where to begin. As Kelli mentions in her piece, it’s actually pretty easy to build a basic website these days with a template from a company like Wordpress. But even that process can be confusing for someone with no previous knowledge of how the web works. You might know theoretically how to change the oil in your car, but actually crawling under the chassis and loosening the plug from the oil pan is another story.
So without further ado, here is a quick five-step plan that even the least web-savvy can follow to build a site from scratch.
As Kelli mentioned, there are several platforms from which to choose. Some of the best known are Wordpress, Blogger, Squarespace, Tumblr, and Weebly. Feel free to explore them all. But my advice: Go with Wordpress. The Wordpress platform will give you more options than Squarespace and allows you to create a better-looking website than Blogger or Weebly. Tumblr is cool, but not the best option for a professional website.
Step 1: Go to Wordpress and click the big blue button that says Create Website. Fill out the short form with your email address and desired username. Then pick the URL you want for your website. Wordpress allows you to maintain your website completely free if you use its default format of sitename.wordpress.com.
I recommend using your name as the web address. For example, your domain would be: yourname.wordpress.com. That will help your website show up in search engines when people query your name. You want your site to be in the top three or four search results, and having an exact match domain will help make that happen. Once you’ve completed the form, scroll to the bottom of the page and click to create your website.
Step 2: Time to set up house. Once you click create, you will be taken to a screen that asks for a couple of additional details. Choose a title and tagline for your site. Your title can simply be your name or you can go for something different. Don’t worry -- you can change that site name at any time.
Step 3: Choose a theme for your website. This step is the technological advancement that now allows everyone to create a nice website. You don’t need any previous knowledge of coding or web development. Choosing a Wordpress theme basically means choosing the style of your website. The background, the colors, the font, and the placement of the sidebar are all variables that will be determined by the theme you select. There are literally thousands of free themes available in Wordpress, so you shouldn’t have any shortage of options. Just pick a style that looks good to you and go for it. Here again, you can easily change the theme at any point in the future.
Once you select a theme, you will have the option to customize it. During this set up phase, Wordpress prompts you to make some changes to your theme like adding a background or tinkering with the menu. If you feel comfortable doing that, go for it. If not, don’t worry about it--you can always do this later once you have the site up. The next step is to connect your social media accounts to the blog. Skip that step. It’s unnecessary. Same for the following step, which will prompt you to write a post. Skip it for now.
Step 4: Visit your new website. Type the URL into a browser and you’ll see what you’ve created. It won’t look like much at first, but now you have a website and you’re ready to get started with the design. Congrats!
Step 5: Add content.Now that your website is active, it’s time to put something on it. Pages, posts, and widgets are all important elements of website design. And they’re all super easy to add. But before I get to that, let me point out a couple of terms you should become familiar with.
Key Terms for DIY Web Design
As you begin to fine-tune your new website, keep the following key words in mind. The Wordpress dashboard is a control panel that only you can see. Wordpress gives you a default view of your dashboard, but I prefer the Classic Dashboard. The dashboard is part of what’s known as the backend of the website because visitors to your site can’t see it. In the dashboard, you’ll see a menu in the left margin that gives you options for editing your site and creating new pages and posts.
You will also have access to your site stats from the dashboard. Here you can see how many people have visited your site on a given day and how they got to it. Warning: Those stats can become highly addictive once you start to get a decent amount of web traffic. I’ve been known to burn hours away while closely watching them. Play around with the dashboard and see what options are available. It takes some getting used to at first, but it’s not difficult.
Another useful tool in developing your website is a design element called a widget. Widgets are little boxes that allow you to place information in the margins of your website. You can add a Twitter account or contact info or links to your favorite blogs. From a design perspective, I recommend using as few widgets as possible because they can distract from the main content. That being said, you might want to add a couple to give your site some character.
Adding Pages to Your Website
You should add a few pages to your new site in order to create a more complete professional profile. Remember that you add new pages from the Wordpress dashboard. In order to access the dashboard and the backend of your site, you’ll have to be logged in using the credentials you established in Step 2.
I’ll reiterate Kelli’s advice to include an About page or a Bio page that gives some information about you and your scholarship as well as a professional photo. It would also be smart to make a page entitled Scholarship, or Publications and Presentations or something like that. On this page, list your professional accomplishments. If any of those publications are available on the web, you should create a hyperlink so visitors can easily check out your work. The Wordpress text editor makes hyperlinking easy.
If you teach, you might add a page that lists your courses and includes a short description of each. Later, once you’re a web-design rockstar, you can move on to creating websites for your courses and hyperlinking to them from your personal site.
Finally, you can create a page for your CV. You can simply copy and paste your CV onto this page or you can craft the design depending on how you want the page to look.
That’s about all it takes. You can be up and running with a decent website in less than an hour from the time you read this article. It will take you a little while longer to make the site look good, but that’s my favorite part about creating on the web -- it’s always a work in progress. Your creation is always dynamic and ever-changing, never a finished product. Don’t like the way something looks? Revise and redesign.
Steps for Building More Advanced Websites
Once you master the basic website, there are several more options for continuing to build on your knowledge. I won’t go into great detail here, but just know that, when you’re ready, the next step is to buy your own domain and set up a hosting account. That way, you can remove the “.wordpress.com” from your URL and you will also gain much more control over the design of your website. Owning a domain and a hosting account requires a bit more investment, but you can take care of it all for around $100 a year. Once you move to a self-hosted site, you will have access to thousands of plugins which let you incorporate all kinds of cool features into your website.
Five years ago, I had absolutely no idea how to build a website. To give you an idea, when I built the first version of the Adjunct Project it was on a wing and a prayer. Now I build multiple sites each month. And for most of them, I use the very process I described in this post. If you’ve always wanted your own website, then you truly have no excuses left. Get on it. And if you hit any snags or have any questions, send me a message or a tweet. And, by the way, let me know when you get your website up. I want to see it!