Websites for Authors

This post was originally written as a guide for writers who need web representation, but aren’t sure where or how to go about getting it. As I wrote it, I realized that it applies to almost any small business.

 

What You Need To Know About Websites

Few writers have the time or inclination to master web design and development in addition to the craft of writing. It’s same old dilemma – are you a writer or marketer (or designer or web programmer or whatever)? Since I’ve got almost 20 years of web experience – ouch – when you put it that way, it is a long time – I thought I would throw together a quick guide for writers who want to write rather than fumbling with websites, getting ripped off by developers and the like.

 

Do Writers Need Websites?

Yes. The simple fact is that websites serve as ads, icons and beacons in the virtual ocean of information. Fifteen years ago, a website was a $30,000+ investment. Now, they are free.

Free. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Sure, you might pay for a skin, theme or paint scheme, but media companies are biting at the bit to give you free web space. Yes, there are features and add-ons that can cost, but you can also set up a beautiful website, complete with shopping cart, for nothing more than a few hours of your time. And no, you don’t need to become a web developer.

There are some terms coming up – for the non-savvy (ugh – who is that? It’s 2016, right?) it can be overwhelming, but don’t get discouraged. In brief:

  • Web developer: typically a programmer that builds complex websites using structures like .net or .php.
  • Web designer builds the front end – makes it look pretty. They’ll typically say, “I know someone who can do that,” when you ask them a hard question like “Can you encrypt my contact form?”
  • Host: this is service you almost always have to pay for. It you’re paying more than $50 a month, you’re getting ripped off.
  • Content management system (CMS): this is how you, the writer and non-programmer will interface with the website. Some are free, some cost. Anyone who wants to charge you a monthly fee for a content management system is taking advantage of you.

 

Picking A Developer

Keeping the aforementioned in mind, there are always circumstances where you will want something more – something unique and custom. Most of these things can be done through a CMS, but the universe is big and the inevitable will always occur.

So how do you decide whom to give your hard earned marketing budget to? That’s the ten million dollar question. Some developers charge by the hour. Some charge flat fees. I even know some who charge for free software. A service fee isn’t unreasonable, but we all know markups can get out of hand.

With a content management system, in fact with much of the open source software the adage “you get what you pay for,” is wildly inaccurate. There are dozens of free CMS platforms. Free.

Are they good? Well, they’re as good as the person operating them. If you paid $10K for a website, I’d look long and hard at what you got for it.

The ideal website company will have both developer and designer onsite, that work as a close team. The developer typically has an attitude of “jeez, that’ll be hard.” Just ignore them. If you can imagine it, it can be done using the Internet. Here’s a great example of a website that’s not brochure-ware: http://www.warof1996.com/.

This site, the one you are reading this article on, is brochure-ware – just a spot with info. When you are selling your creative endeavors – which do you want?

Another factor when picking a developer is the team – the initial meeting or consultation. When staff members disagree or give conflicting information, you have an issue. When there’s no developer in the meeting be wary! You’re relying on an account representative, who may or may not have experience with web development to relay your needs to the design and development team.

Be sure to get a second opinion. A web developer that comes highly recommended by one person may fail completely to meet the needs of another. Ask two developers the same question and compare their answers.

Recommendations and testimonials are hot right now – it’s a Yelp/Google/WoM thing. It’s real – it’s how we all make purchasing decisions. But, consider the source: If someone who just got their first website is in love with their developer, good for them, but are they really a valid source for recommendations?

You should also be able to cut and run, with your website files, at any time. If the developer wants you to sign for months or even years, run away!

Finally, be wary of puzzled looks. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know, I’ll find out,” but when that’s accompanied by a look of utter confusion – run!

 

Be Wary of Awards

Many communities like to promote small business. They do so by having contests and the like. Here in Madison, we have “Best of Madison,” for a zillion categories, from Best Craft Beer Bar, to Best Law Firm and back again. That’s just one of the annual ego-stroking events that the community indulges in. Other communities are the same way from Chicago to L.A.

It’s okay. In fact, it’s good – but be wary of popularity contests. Don’t be fooled by a cute “award” logo. Being selected as the “best” by popular vote is nice – it means you’re popular. But in the case of web developers, most of those who voted don’t know the first thing about web sites! It is literally the equivalent of chimpanzees selecting the best scientist based on who offers the most bananas. Conversely, avoid a web developer with no reputation at all.

 

Contracts and Traps

As mentioned before, there are dozens of blog/CMS tools available. The one I recommend is WordPress. Its versatility is staggering, the product is designed from the ground up for search engine optimization (SEO) and modular functionality. The power of the platform comes from plug-ins, which varies from SEO to Shopping Carts, Themes, Testimonials and more.

Now – there’s the important part for writers (and anyone else, really): the thing is FREE. Free as in it costs you nothing to set up or maintain. If you know how to use Facebook, you can use WordPress. And you do use Facebook, don’t you? You’re on it, right now, aren’t you? Thinking about sharing this article with your writer friends. Well, do it!

In fact, this website is WordPress based and if you scroll down (do it real quick then come back) you’ll see sharing built right into the page. I didn’t do that. Once I told WordPress where my Facebook page was the rest of it is automated. Again, FREE. 

Many developers want to lock you into a contract – which makes sense – we all like recurring passive revenue don’t we? You’ll be paying for a CMS or the hosting fee or email set-up, or a contact form or any one of dozens of features that are, mostly, free with WordPress.

Other CMS systems include Mambo, Joomla, .Net Nuke, et al. They all work basically the same way. However, WordPress as of June 2015 runs over 20% of the Internet. That’s a huge proportion if you consider the hundreds (thousands) of platforms available.

Developers who want to charge you for a CMS interface so you “can update the site yourself” are taking advantage of you.

Consider:

  1. Will this developer be around next year?
  2. Are they updating this CMS software when HTML standards are updated?
  3. Are they billing you for something you won’t ever use?

 

WordPress Help

YES! You found something in WordPress you don’t know how to do! It was inevitable. Here’s the solution:

  1. Go to http://www.google.com
  2. In the search box, enter you problem as a question with the word YouTube behind it. Example:
    “How do I add images in word press, YouTube”
  3. This will typically pull up a video from YouTube that shows you exactly what you need to do! It’s like magic. Sorcery? Technomancy?
  4. (Okay, you caught me – I just told you to Google it)

 

Someone Built My Website

…and I bet it’s sweet! You’re really not looking for anything more than “brochure ware,” (you know, name, contact, what you write and how fans can get it), so that’s a great deal. However, you should think of your website as software – and software needs to be updated regularly.

This is one of the primary advantages of a CMS – most do it automatically when a new version is released. No stress, no mess, not even a notification email if you don’t want one.

SEO

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is big business these days. The important thing to remember is that SEO is designed to manipulate Google – and that’s impossible. Google has over 200 variables it takes into account, only about seven of which are known the world. The best way to rank well with Google is to write great content. You’re brochure-ware website might rank well for some obscure search phrase, like your book’s title or an authors name, but words like “fiction,” or “writer,” (or anything else you can imagine) aren’t going to happen. Not easily anyway. So, anyone who sells your SEO results… well, be skeptical. That’s not to say SEO isn’t real – but most businesses simply don’t have the budget to even attempt to manipulate it.

 

What You Won’t Get With WordPress

WordPress can do a lot of things – but it’s not Superman (at least, not yet). The software uses a “theme” system to create the visual appearance of your website. There are literally tens of thousands of themes. But if you want a website that features a pink dragon speaking Portuguese while playing hopscotch, and the personal blessings of Thor, you might not find it. I don’t know – maybe you will. There are a lot of themes.

The second thing you won’t get with WordPress is a bill.