Time to grow up and get a big boy website

Can you run a business without a decent website? Probably not.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

So my website used to stink. It was hosted on an old P4 desktop in my basement running via dynamic DNS with my 3mbps DSL. It was a Joomla! site and, although Joomla! is awesome open source software, I needed something that was easy to customize, simple to build, and very clearly organized. The overall "bloginess" of the site and my complete lack of time to mold the CMS into the website I wanted and needed was showing through in what looked remarkably juvenile. This was not the way to sell what I do as a consultant and writer.

As I wrote last week over on ZDNet Education, I wanted to dive deeper into Dreamweaver than I had for some time and see just how well it justified its price (versus open source IDEs and web-based creation tools), so a complete site redesign was in order. It was also time to shut down that old desktop, stop being so bloody cheap, and pay for some space on a web host. The old desktop wasn't actually much of an issue aside from the constant power it pulled in my damp, buggy, frog-infested basement. A P4 with a gig of RAM runs Ubuntu Server like a champ; a LAMP implementation, even with a GUI, doesn't need more horsepower. The real problem was bandwidth and uptime out here in the woods where my chickens seem to have a penchant for munching on low-voltage wire and potential clients were noting that they weren't always able to get to my site.

It's one thing to use a dynamic DNS provider like no-ip.org to host a blog or family site on a household network. It's another to actually try and grow a business and give people the impression that you might possibly have some degree of professionalism and talent. So I looked at the usual suspects of 1and1.com and godaddy.com, having used both recently, and poked around for even better deals (at my heart, I really am cheap; besides, I'm freelancing now and paying for my own health insurance, so cheap is the name of the game).

It turns out that 1and1 seems to be an all-around great deal. It was cheap and reliable when I first used it 4 years ago and it remains not only inexpensive but easy to administer and includes a lot of value-added services. Built-in blogs (I've become quite a Wordpress fan and already installed it on a separate subdomain, so I won't be making use of 1and1's software, but it's ready to go for anyone without website experience), easy DNS management, built-in CGI scripts for contact forms, several web applications like Moodle and PHP-based bulletin boards, and a web-based site manager make $7 a month mighty easy to swallow (especially when the first 6 months are less than $4 a piece).

GoDaddy was competitive in terms of price and features, but its management dashboard is horrifically complicated, making users jump through seemingly disconnected sites to reach buried features. Feel free to share your favorite host in the talkbacks.

Next: So what have I done so far? »

So far, I've been able to create two instances of SugarCRM for clients, install WordPress, and easily connected Dreamweaver via FTP to the site. While none of this is exactly revolutionary, access to the site has been fast and the administrative control panel makes it almost too easy to manage everything from the 25 included MySQL databases to the full site structure (if you're using Firefox or IE, that is).

And Dreamweaver? I hate to admit it, but, like the rest of the CS5 suite, Dreamweaver is well worth the price (like I said, I'm really cheap). There is no easier way to manage style sheets and site assets and the WYSIWYG editor is the best in the business. If you need to churn out sophisticated, professional websites quickly or manage large sites with complicated CSS and/or scripting, there is no better tool. When the goal is productivity, Dreamweaver CS5 is your friend. If you're not in the business of creating web content (or a business that will require you to frequently create it), then there are cheaper (or free) alternatives. However, the style sheet inspector and its integration with the code editor alone may be worth the cost of entry.

My website is still no masterpiece of graphic design. I'm a decent writer and passable geek, but a graphic designer I am not. However, the site is clean, clear, and professional, designed to scale and expand quickly with style sheets and reusable code blocks called through PHP. I have a ways to go and need to get my personal blog configured. I'll be using Dreamweaver to customize that as well since Wordpress integration is quite good. However, I finally have a site that I'm happy to put on a business card and my email signatures.

Because the cost of shared hosting is so low, I also have a platform where I can easily prototype, test, and deploy solutions for clients, expand to allow sales of books and merchandise, test web applications for ZDNet, and so on, all for not much more than the cost of the electricity it took to run my old basement "server."

So what's the takeaway here? There's no excuse for a bad website, Dreamweaver can make even run-of-the-mill web programmers look like code monkeys, and, for dollars a month, small businesses owe it to themselves to let hosts like 1and1 take care of web hosting and DNS for them. Our focus needs to be our customers, building our brands, and growing our businesses, not dealing with basic infrastructure that can be handled so cheaply elsewhere.

Editorial standards