So you want to build a web site

I have a broad base of friends; from those who could explain how the universe was formed (in minute detail) to those that could build you a boat to those that have trouble starting a car… and many of them (from many different backgrounds) have asked me for help or guidance building a web site.

First, let me be clear — I’m not a graphics designer; and I’m much more autistic than artistic… but I understand how the web works (from the nuts and bolts — so to speak; on up)… and that gives me a unique perspective on how to explain to people about building a web site.

One of the first things I tell them is start small; you can grow later, but you need to get a handle on the basics and understand the dos and don’ts inside out.

My generally recommendation is something along the lines of a three page web site — and opening page, an about page, and a contact page… sure lots of sites need more, but almost all need at least those — so starting there will always get you closer to where you want to go.

I also recommend to most people that they start with a pencil and paper, and draw out roughly how they want their site to look — and then look for other sites that have the look that they’re interested in.

After that, they simply need to learn the basics of how you describe your site to a browser — HTML; and probably some JavaScript.

JavaScript???  That’s for programmers!!!

Well yes and no; there’s quite a bit a person can do with JavaScript that just understands the very basics of programming, much of the work are done by people who know JavaScript inside out, and have published a foundation and widgets… so it comes down to almost cut-and-paste (sure you need to understand a little; but if you can learn HTML, you can learn JavaScript).

Along with building a web site you really need to learn a little about search engines, how they work, and what they expect to find when they visit a site… because if a search engine isn’t kind to you, then people just won’t find your site — and there’s a limit to how many people you’re going to point out your site to…

You need to learn more about HTML, particularly META TAGS, you also need to learn about some of the conventions of the web; a file called robots.txt that will tell crawlers and spiders what to do, and what’s refereed to as a site map (that makes it easier for a search engine to do it’s job — thus it’s more likely to index your site).

But just having a site map isn’t enough,you’ve got to make it easy for the search engine to digest all the information on your site; which means you need to learn to avoid Flash, images without ALT TAGS, pages that use AJAX XHR methods to load content on demand (search engines don’t run the JavaScript on a page — so they never see delay loaded content); pages that have JSON data sets used to populate page elements (again search engines don’t run the JavaScript on a page), pages that are broken, and pages that are huge (search engines have limits to how much content they’ll crawl on a single page).

I know, it seems like a bottomless pit of things to learn and keep in mind as you do it — and it’s certainly not made any easier by the fact that like most “professions”, web developers like to exclude as many people as they can by coming up with totally nonsensical jargon to hide how trivial most of this is.

Well, it is trivial (for the most part).

But my advice is, if you want to build a web site — start with the basics, and get the mechanics dead on before you go off the deep end with a “look” that defines your site.

Form is easier to add to function than vice-versa.

Over the next few months I’ll write a few posts on some of the specifics that make building a functional web page easier — and I’ll also share some advice on JavaScript frameworks.

Originally posted 2010-11-16 02:00:41.