Web Development 100

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This post is the first article of what I plan to be a series of articles about the growth of a web site and its developer. In the course of developing several web sites, I, as a developer, have grown too: learning about different technologies, acquiring new skills, and discovering various resources. When I started creating web pages, learning basic HTML coding was enough of a challenge. Thinking about other web technologies--for example, Javascript, PHP, Java, databases, blogs, WordPress, and more--seemed like complicated, abstract quantities that I never expected to use. Leave that to the professionals--or so I thought! I dismissed consideration of many of these technologies, picking a web host that offered only the most basic of services--and now I regret not giving more serious consideration to these technologies. If I were starting over again, I would do things differently. Over the course of the next several articles about web development, I hope to share my experiences, and offer some advice so that others can benefit from that experience. In this article, I will consider some factors that should be taken into account before even starting to code a web site, specifically, factors regarding naming and hosting a web site.

Picking a Domain Name

First of all, I do recommend registering your own domain and having it hosted rather than using a free hosting service. Having a real web site will give you experience with some of the basics of web development. If you continue on as a web developer, having experience with the nuts and bolts, and the business aspects, of having a site hosted is important. If you ever apply for a job as a web developer, and you do not have this most basic experience, you would most likely be disqualified from consideration for the position.

Second, pick a domain name that is descriptive of the theme of the web site and is intuitive. Do not pick a domain name that is nonsense, such as hffjhad1kj5.com. A domain name that is actually a word is much better. Ideally, the domain name should state the theme of the web site. For example, if you plan to create a web site about cooking, you should register a domain name such as cooking.com, mycookingsite.com, etc. Such a domain name makes it easier for people to remember; it is much more intuitive than picking a domain name such as, say, mysite.com. (Note: I am just making up these domain names for the sake of this article; I have not checked to see if these web sites exist.) In addition, later on, when you start working on building traffic to your site, some Search Engine Optimization (SEO) experts suggest that having a meaningful--and topic-relevant--domain name improves a site’s rankings in search engines, resulting in more traffic to the site. (More on traffic building techniques in a subsequent article.)

Once you decide upon a domain name, the next step is to register the domain. Many companies offer domain registration services; a search for domain registration or web hosting should turn up thousands of results (many web hosting companies offer registration services too). The question may now arise, should a person register a domain through the same company they are considering to host the site? The answer to this question is that it is a matter of personal choice. If the company is good, it doesn’t matter. Some people like the convenience of dealing with one company; other people don’t want to give all their business to one company. Myself, I don’t like putting all my eggs in one basket, so I try to spread my business out among several companies.

Picking a Hosting Company

Several factors should be considered when selecting a hosting company. First, there are the technical aspects: How much web space and traffic is provided? How many email accounts come with the hosting package? Does the service include anti-virus and anti-spam filtering? What online services does the company support (for example, Java, PHP, MySQL, etc.)? Do not disregard these aspects, thinking that you will worry about them later.

I would like to elaborate on some of these aspects.

(i) Anti-virus and anti-spam filtering
When a web site is first created, traffic is pretty low, incoming emails are few, and worrying about anti-virus and anti-spam filtering is not a high priority. However, as traffic to your site increases, there is a good chance your email address will get on spam lists and your email Inbox will fill up every day with spam--which may include potential viruses. Having these emails identified--and blocked--before they arrive in your Inbox is a nice feature to have. Presently, one of my hosts does no filtering whatsoever. I receive about 1000 spam emails a day, causing me to waste much time every day simply cleaning out my Inbox. A host that identifies and blocks spam at the server is nice to have.

(ii) Java support.
Java is quite popular right now. Many companies fancy themselves avant garde and are really into Java. So if you think you might want to learn Java, to improve your employment prospects, or for other reasons, make sure your host offers the ability to run Java applets on your site. That way, as you learn Java, you can post your applets on your site. In fact, the same applies to any other web technology you might want to learn: being able to experiment on your own site as you learn is a real convenience.

(iii) PHP support.
PHP is very popular and enjoys a huge support base. With PHP, dynamic pages can be created for which the source code can not be viewed by visitors. (Javascript also allows dynamic pages to be created; however, some users disable Javascript in their web browsers, so the code does not run. PHP does not have this problem; since the code runs on the server, it does not depend upon settings within a user’s web browser.) In addition, several appealing services may be desirable on a web site that depend upon PHP: having a contact form that does not allow users to see the recipient email address, adding a forum, and having an RSS news parser, for example. Furthermore, PHP is one of the requirements for having a WordPress Blog on a site. If you are not into blogging already, don’t casually dismiss the possibility of adding a WordPress Blog to your site. Blogging can be an important aspect of your site, and WordPress provides one of the most powerful and popular platforms for blogging. PHP is offered by so many hosting companies as part of their basic packages, why go with a company that does not?

In addition to the technical considerations made when selecting a web host, there are the business aspects of the decision: location, cost, customer support, hours of operation, etc. If you do a search for web hosts, or read a computer magazine, you’ll come across the major hosting companies pretty fast. However, perhaps you would like to keep your business local. Sometimes it is nice to have your hosting company in the same time zone. On the other hand, you may want to spread out your business over different companies. Personally, I work on a few web sites and like to spread my business out over several different companies in different geographical locations around North America; however, there have been a few times when I have found it awkward trying to contact a company that is three hours ahead of me (I am on the West Coast; my hosting company is in the East). All these aspects have to be taken into consideration.


To summarize:

1) Decide upon a meaningful domain name, ideally one that is intuitive and directly relevant to the theme of your planned web site.

2) Register the domain. The company through which you register the domain can be the same company you also choose to host the site; the decision is yours.

3) When selecting a company to host your site, consider the two aspects of the services they provide:

a) business and customer service:
(i) cost,
(ii) location (time zones and hours of operation),
(iii) reliability and reputation,

b) technical aspects of hosting packages:
(i) web space and traffic allowed,
(ii) the number of email addresses included in a package,
(iii) other services supported, such as PHP, MySQL, the mod_rewrite Apache module, and Java. I would recommend getting a package that at least includes support for the first three. A host that supports these features will provide the basics of a plain HTML web site, plus it will allow you to add PHP-coded features, plus it will allow the option of having a WordPress Blog on your site.
(iv) anti-virus and anti-spam filtering. This option is nice to have, but not necessary. It does stop a lot of garbage email at the server instead of letting it through to your Inbox.

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