Forget about running your business with the phone and personal meetings—here’s all the information you need to set up a site that’ll take a load off you
It’s a daunting proposition to develop a Web site for a home business, especially while you’re juggling between all sorts of tasks to keep the business up and running. Thankfully, you now have a choice of many free tools to help you do just that—but it’s not that simple. Many of these tools are built with personal sites in mind, so choosing what’s right for you requires a discerning eye.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The first (and possibly the most important) part of setting up a new Web site is choosing a good Web host.
The Ground Up
Choosing a Web host isn’t easy—you’ve got all those colourful proclamations of unlimited storage space and bandwidth to sift through, and the catches (there’s always one) are pretty tough to pin down. Your best bet is to get plenty of reviews from people who’ve been using these services, preferably someone you know personally. In any case, don’t cough up till you’ve visited the WebHosting Talk forums (www. webhostingtalk.com) and checked out what people have to say about the host you’re about to choose. Refer to the box What you need, What it is for what to look for when you’re out Web host-hunting.
Then there’s the question of where to host your site—India or abroad? In India, the physical proximity helps—users will be routed through fewer servers before hitting your site, so they’ll get better access speeds. If you’re going to cater primarily to Indian customers, we’d have unhesitatingly recommended hosting your site in India. Unfortunately, there are caveats: Web hosting here is still in its nascent stages, and the odd infrastructure issue can crop up from time to time. There’s also the fact that the prices here seem criminal compared to hosts in the US. This is, of course, bound to change, but it’s a chicken-and-egg situation—more people need to buy hosting for prices to fall, and vice-versa. For now, you’ll get much better deals with a US host like GoDaddy (www.godaddy.com) or HostGator (www.hostgator. com). For a whole lot of features—unlimited subdomains, unlimited e-mail addresses and such (at a price, of course)—visit A Small Orange (www.asmallorange.com) or SoftLayer (www.softlayer.com). The prices are significantly higher, but you pay that price for much better reliability and service.
So you’ve chosen a host and are ready to register your domain name, but to your frustration find that not only is your domain of choice taken, it’s taken by a squatter...
Get It Back
Cybersquatting is just what it sounds like—parking your virtual behind on a spot that should belong to someone else, and then demanding a ransom to let it go. Depending on the URL, you might well end up in a situation where your visitor ends up at the squatter’s site instead of yours. In extreme cases, you might end up in the same situation that the White House did not too long ago—the domain www.whitehouse.com was taken over by a squatter with pornographic links all over, so people who thought they were visiting the White House home page (www.whitehouse.gov) came away with a nasty shock. Court battles ensued, and today, www.whitehouse.com goes to a real Web site.
Cybersquatting is illegal, and while some are content to just choose another URL, you should file a complaint with the Asian Domain Name Dispute Resolution Centre [ADNDRC] (www.adndrc.org) to get your URL freed. The site can be daunting with all the legal jargon, though. If you don’t want to do much dirty work, hire a third party like DNRecover (www.dnrecover.com). Just fill up their form and they’ll give you a cost estimate in 24 hours; once you give them the go-ahead, they’ll do the footwork for you, and when your domain is finally freed, you pay.
Host? Check. Domain? Check. Now it’s time for content.
If you don’t want to pay an overpriced Web design firm to design your site for you, don’t: there are plenty of (perhaps even too many) open source CMSes for you to choose from. From our own experiences and the sheer number of new sites that are adopting them, we can tell you that you don’t need to look beyond Joomla (www.joomla.org) and Drupal (www.drupal.org). Both are quite easy to administer, though if you don’t have geeky leanings, you might find yourself more comfortable with Joomla’s graphical control panel. Both are tremendously customisable, and you’ll also have a wide choice of extensions you can install for even more functionality.
Joomla has another edge over Drupal in that it supports advertisement management right out of the box. You can create clients, associate ad banners with them and tell the system how many impressions the client has purchased for that particular banner. When you’re managing banners, you can also get data on how many times the ad was clicked. You can get all this in Drupal too, but only after installing the Advertisement module.
Drupal’s categorisation—called Taxonomy—takes a little while to understand; at the most basic level, it lets you put content under multiple categories, so you can file an item under “Job” and “Mumbai” at the same time. Joomla, however, supports this only after you install an extension.
Finally, there are more themes—both free and paid—available for Joomla. This shouldn’t make too much of a difference, since the option to hire a freelancer to design a theme according to your specifications as always open. Overall, if you’re maintaining your site yourself, pick Joomla for its straightforward approach.
Google To The Rescue
One of Google’s more interesting projects in recent times is Google Apps for Your Domain. It lets you, in short, use Google services like Gmail, Calendar and so on with your domain. So when people sign up for e-mail on your site, they’ll see the familiar Gmail interface (complete with the counter that shows them how big their inbox is getting), but they’ll have an address that ends with @yourdomain.com. You’ll also get all the other natural goodness that Gmail offers—rugged spam protection, IMAP access and integration with Google Calendar. If you pay for the Premier Edition ($50 per account per year, with 25 GB storage for each), you even get a 99.9 per cent uptime guarantee and 24-hour support.
|What You Need, What It Is|
|Storage Space: If you’re building a site that’s mostly text, even a 500 MB hosting plan will do. For many hosts, the average is around 5 GB, which is quite ample.|
Bandwidth: This is the amount of data transfer allowed to and from your site. If someone downloads a 400 KB image from your site, for example, you’ve used up 400 KB of your bandwidth. You’ll usually be well under your bandwidth limit (mostly around 25 GB or so) in your site’s early days.
Content Platform: The language that your site’s content is written in. PHP is standard for a CMS, so hosts that don’t support it should be crossed off your list. You might have to pay extra for Ruby on Rails support—the platform has started to gain a lot of attention. It’s not as hassle-free as PHP, though.
Databases: Where PHP is standard for content, MySQL is the standard for databases. Look for a host that offers at least five free MySQL databases with their plan. Beware of some Indian hosts: their plans might look attractive, but you’ll have to cough up extra for each new database.
Overselling: One of the universal truths of hosting: just like hotels overbook rooms and airlines overbook flights hoping that someone will decide not to show up, Web hosts sell you storage space and bandwidth hoping that you won’t use it all up. They might sell 5 GB of space to ten people, but host all those sites on a 20 GB hard drive. It’s a relatively safe bet—for a small business site, even 500 MB is a lot, so no upper limits might be hit. Just remember that everybody oversells—that’s how they get their plans to look so attractive.
cPanel: This is a site administration control panel that’s filled to the gills with features, and is very easy to use. Among other things, it features Fantastico, an installation script that automates the installation of a variety of CMSes.
Load Balancing: This is a feature of more expensive hosting plans: your site is hosted on two different servers, so visitors are intelligently directed to the one that has less load. In addition, if your site has to be updated, it’s done one server at a time, so the site itself is never down.
Shared Hosting: Like the term implies, this means that your site won’t be the only one hosted on the server. This is your best choice in the beginning, when your site isn’t getting bombarded with traffic. Once visitors to the site increase—or if you face performance hassles—you can consider moving to dedicated hosting, where you’ll be the only site on a particular server (naturally, this is more expensive).
If visitors need to know your schedule for upcoming weeks or months, you can use Google Calendar to publish them. Thanks to configurable access restrictions, you can choose to show visitors only when you’re free or busy, and hide the information about the actual event. If you’re working with someone who you can’t meet with every day, Calendar becomes an invaluable collaboration tool as well. Also included in the package are Google Docs and Spreadsheets, though they’ll be more useful to you and your team than to your visitors.
Some Random Wisdom
You can check out demos of Joomla and Drupal at OpenSourceCMS (www.opensourcecms.com) to see how they suit you, but we recommend actually downloading and setting it up on your PC using software like WAMP, which installs Apache, PHP and MySQL to your Windows PC, then uploading the lot. If you’ve chosen cPanel hosting, you don’t even need to do that—just use Fantastico to install the CMS you want and start building your site. If you decide halfway through not to use it any more, you can uninstall it just as easily.
Finally, always get yourself a .com domain—nearly everyone uses the [Ctrl] [Enter] combination when they enter URLs (thinkdigit [Ctrl] [Enter] takes you to www.thinkdigit.com in any browser, for instance), so if you get yourself, say, a .net domain, you’re just making visitors type four characters extra, and nobody wants that.