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Citizen Media Business Issues: Website Development

(This is the fifteenth in a series of postings about citizen media business issues. See the introduction here. All of these entries are considered to be in “beta” and will be revised and refined as they find a home on a more permanent area of the Center for Citizen Media web site.   To that end, your comments, additional examples, and criticisms are welcome and will be invaluable contributions to this process.)

You have a web host, you have a domain name, and you have an idea for a great site. You might even have a plan to earn a little income with it. The only things left to do before you start writing articles and showing off your vlogs are to design and develop it. That means deciding where the different elements of your site will go, what color scheme you’ll use, how everything ties together, and basically figuring out how to make it look and feel like you want it to look and feel.

The easiest solutions to your development challenges are a) to use a web or blog hosting company’s design tools, which allow you to easily plug your content into pre-created templates; or b) to hire someone to do it all for you; the latter is, of course, monetarily impractical for most individuals just getting off the ground. Fortunately, it’s probably unnecessary, too. Years ago, you had to be a pretty savvy programmer to be able to set up a web page. Today there are so many easy web development tools available that you can launch a pretty nice site without having to call in a professional. Many of the templates offered by web/blog hosts are attractive enough and functional enough to get you started (sometimes good enough to stick with) and web design programs make it possible to create professional-looking websites in a few hours with no programming experience.

So when should you think about hiring a professional? Ask this question first: Will you be selling anything directly through your site? CafePress shops and PayPal transactions don’t count. Do you want to be able to save and retrieve customer or user information? Do you want a message board or a wiki? Answering “yes” to any of these questions means you may have some challenging work ahead of you (and some legal issues related to taxes and maintenance of customer data). You can learn to do it yourself, but these may be the times when—if you have a budget that allows it—you might want to consult a professional. Keep in mind when you’re looking at your budget that beyond the costs of initial setup, you will likely need the designer’s services occasionally down the road, too, for updates, changes, some kinds of maintenance, and so on. There are a number of guides available out there to help you pick the right designer (see here and here, for example).

Once you’ve decided to take care of the design yourself, there are a few different things to consider.

The preconfigured layouts (templates) provided by your web or blog host can look pretty good, but the problem with these (other than their relative indistinctness) comes when you want to change one little thing about it, and you suddenly find yourself digging through a pile of CSS codes. Templates also make outside-the-box designing more difficult because you’re just rearranging a set of elements and altering their colors or putting pictures in them. See our previous post about blog-hosting sites for more on templates and some tools you can use to tweak them.

If you’re starting from scratch, you might consider using a web page design program, roughly equivalent to a word processor. These will generally allow you to type in text and add pictures to a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface using the types of graphical icons and familiar applications that are found in most software suites. The most well-known such software are probably commercial packages like Adobe Dreamweaver and Microsoft FrontPage/Expression Web, but there are also a number of cheaper (even free) programs out there that may be worth checking out. KompoZer and SeaMonkey, for example, are two very good, free, cross-platform (made for Windows, Mac, or Linux) web editors that, while offering different features, both exist as evolved versions of the now discontinued Mozilla Composer (SeaMonkey is still connected to, though not officially developed by, Mozilla). Another interesting free option is Amaya, the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3) web editor, which is also available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, but might cater to a slightly more tech savvy user. For Mac users there is also iWeb, which ships with most—if not all—current Macs as part of the iLife suite. For some less-expensive commercial product ideas, you might want to take a look at Softpress Freeway (Mac), Evrsoft First Page (Windows), and Sandvox (Mac).

While use of this software has obvious advantages, and is probably the preferred method of most amateur developers, there are some problems that occur when it translates the page you’ve designed to a real web page. Often what you see in the program’s preview screen looks or functions a bit differently than it does when actually accessed via web browser (or particular browsers, which is why you should use Browser Shots as soon as you publish). This isn’t usually devastating, but means a fair amount of trial and error will be required if you don’t know how to look at the code and find the problem.

Note: If you plan to use FrontPage, make sure that your web host has “FrontPage extensions” turned on to make publishing easier for you.

Some web hosts provide their own website building software, which are usually in-browser applications that function like extremely simplified versions of a Dreamweaver or FrontPage. For uploading to your server you usually just click “publish” or “submit” – and due to the more basic capabilities, this is about the easiest way to set up your website other than simply choosing an as-is template. Take caution when using these tools, though, because many (RVSiteBuilder, for example) have license agreements dictating that designs created through use of the software cannot be transferred should you switch hosts. In short, if you use RVSiteBuilder to create your website, you must start your web design anew if you decide to switch hosts. Even if you find one that does allow you to transfer your files, the next host’s builder may operate very differently and you may not be able to easily input what you’ve already made. Learning a third-party program like those discussed above will ensure that your design—not to mention the skills developed when using the software—will be able to go wherever you do. See the Citizen Media Law Project’s Legal Guide for more information on evaluating terms of service and other legal issues to consider when getting online.

Most guides to creating web pages recommend that you learn at least some HTML if you’re not hiring someone who does. Having some working knowledge of the language is the best way to ensure that your page looks and works how you intend it to and can save a lot of design and troubleshooting headaches. There are a number of on-line tutorials that treat the subject in varying depths. Community journalism how-to site J-Learning has a tutorial meant specifically for citizen journalists that even covers XHTML, which combines traditional HTML with a newer standard, XML. HTML Goodies and Webmonkey also have HTML tutorials for beginners. If you want to go even further in your education, Lynda has a comprehensive paid-access library of beginner through advanced tutorials that cover Flash, JavaScript, Photoshop, AJAX, CSS, and other useful tools in addition to every language and program we’ve talked about here.

[Note: Thanks to the Citizen Media Law Project for sharing some of this content with us]

(Ryan McGrady is a new media graduate student at Emerson College where he is studying knowledge, identity, and ideas in the in

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