How to Build a Website For Free (or Almost Free)

By Jesse Smith

It’s no secret! Website design does not have to cost thousands of dollars. I often hear from business owners who don’t have a budget for custom design services; but no matter what your budget is, you can still get your business online.

In the end, the cheapest website is one that you build for yourself. No professional certification is required: you can build your own website for minimal cost. If you’ve never done it before, it will probably take you some time; but once you get started, you may discover why we love our work! It is really quite fun to plan, design, and create a website, especially when it has interactive features.

You have many options for free and low-cost website design.

Free Blog Site

Create a free blog. No design is required! Just sign up for an account on one of the many blog platforms, and start posting. Providers include blogger.comwordpress.com, and more. Many businesses get by with nothing more than a public Facebook page. You only have minimal control over your design, but it’s free! However, note that this solution, while free, is not suitable for most commercial enterprises. If you post about your business on Blogspot, your posts are likely to be tagged as “spam” by other users, and your blog may be shut down or “ghosted” (hidden from visitors other than its creator). If you are running a business, then this lack of control is obviously unacceptable. For a more robust solution, you’ll need to pay a minimal amount of money for website hosting.

Minimal cost website hosting.

If you want to have your own website, all you really need is a domain name and a hosting service.

Domain name registration for .com domains typically costs $15 a year or less (with the notable exception of a certain industry leader that charges $30 a year, just because they can). Website hosting for a small website generally costs less than $7 a month.  Just for example, my company now  provides its design clients with eco-friendly “Green Hosting” including unlimited data storage and bandwidth for  just $6.50 a month.

Once you have a domain name and a hosting plan, point the DNS record to your server and start creating your new website.

RVSiteBuilder.

Many web hosting packages come with systems that simplify the process of creating your website. Our system offers RVSiteBuilder, which includes more than 700 design templates that you can use to create your website. It’s not a perfect solution; but for the price, it’s hard to beat!

Content Management System (CMS).

WordPress is not your only option. There are other free content management systems. Joomla and Drupal each have their advocates and true believers. However, thanks to its ease of use and highly involved user community, WordPress has grown in popularity to the point where it is now the de facto industry standard. You can download the latest version from the WordPress website, then follow the step-by-step instructions to unpack it and upload it to your web server. Alternatively, many hosting companies provide a software suite called Fantastico Softaculous, which includes an auto-installer for WordPress. While there are arguably some reasons to quibble with the auto-installer’s default settings, the fact remains that by using the auto-installer, you can have your WordPress website up and running in minutes, without ever having to manually configure your database connection.

Note that because it is such a common platform, WordPress is subject to frequent hacker attacks. Be sure to keep your WordPress installation updated to the latest version, and only use plugins that you really need.

[Update: a plugin that your site absolutely need will be a security plugin.]

Pre-Built Themes

Because its popularity is so widespread, there are a huge number of “themes” and templates designed specifically for WordPress. A few of these themes and templates are free; most of them cost a nominal licensing fee in the range of $65. A quick web search will point you to a bazillion of them. You don’t need a website professional just to install a WordPress theme for you: just unzip the theme folder, make any required edits locally, and then upload the whole thing to the “themes” folder within your WordPress installation’s wp-content directory.

Use Stock Photos

Your website will be more interesting to your audience if you provide some visual interest. For example, look at the many text-only posts in my personal web design blog. Boring! I need to add some pictures; and so do you.

When using photos on your website, always be sure you adhere to copyright laws and licensing requirements. Never, ever just use a photo off of someone else’s website without permission: it’s not nice, and you could get sued!

For low-cost website creation, it’s hard to go wrong with stock photos. There are free stock photo websites out there, but be careful to read the fine print; some of them require attribution, or prohibit use on commercial sites like yours. There are many, many other websites that provide low-cost royalty-free stock photos with appropriate licenses; again, if you perform a quick web search, you will quickly locate several dozen industry leaders. Be sure your stock photo is “royalty-free,” otherwise you may be obligated to pay an additional fee every time your web page is served to a visitor.

Use a Template

Website templates are an eye-catching and low cost starting point for a new website. From a marketing perspective, it’s unlikely that you’ll find a template that perfectly matches your brand’s image; but if you are not yet concerned with the need to project a particular image for your business, then it’s entirely possible that a template-based website will be entirely adequate for your needs for now. Like WordPress themes, most templates cost less than $65. Unlike WordPress themes, templates don’t come with a content management system; but it’s generally simple to import the template files into your website editing software to swap out the placeholder text for your own content. Some templates may require you to have the ability to edit Photoshop files or Flash source files in order to change fundamentals including your company name, so be sure to check the template type against your own software and abilities before you press the buy button.

Alternatively, if you find a template that you really love, but you want someone else to customize it for you, many professional design service providers are happy to help you with this need. The company that sold you the template may offer the lowest price on basic template customization services; but if you are looking for a more personal level of service, or additional marketing to go with your template customization project, just ask your local marketing design professional.

Several years ago I created a handful of website templates that are currently no longer available through Basementia Design; but this was never central to my business model, and the designs are no longer what you might call cutting edge. Looking at it now, I note that the customization options omit critical necessities, such as creating additional pages from your template. Naturally such services are available for an additional fee; please call for a quote. Alternatively, if you conduct a quick web search, you will quickly find untold thousands more templates available from the industry leaders in this field.

Create Your Own Website from Scratch

If you are planning to create a small website and you have some knowledge of HTML coding, you probably have no need of a content management system. You can edit your five basic web pages yourself. You could go to a site like w3schools and learn how to code by hand; but that makes more sense if you have an academic or professional interest in the technology behind the web page. If you just want to get it done already, it might be easiest to start with an existing framework.

For example, I built a little Online Layout Generator Tool [link deleted, sorry but this tool is no longer available] that lets you select options such as the width and the number of sidebars to be included in your design; then it generates a generic web page. You can then copy the source code and use it freely as a starting point for your design. With its focus on XHTML and hastily selected (some might say “horrible”) color choice options, I am aware that the system is beginning to show its age; but you can easily change the colors, add background images, and apply your own custom formatting to make the design your own. Maybe someday I’ll write an update that employs HTML5 with CSS3 and better colors… but don’t hold your breath.

While you’re waiting, you could instead choose to implement the HTML5 Boilerplate. This framework offers the closest thing possible to cross-browser support for the emerging web standards of HTML5 and CSS3. Of course, from a visual design perspective, the Boilerplate is a completely blank slate without even so much as a “Hello World.” But if you’ve actually read this far, we can assume that you are adventurous and genuinely interested in learning something new, so go for it!

Free Software

Here are some free resources to help you create your new website.

FTP software.

When it comes time to upload your files to a web server, FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is by far the most hassle-free method. FileZilla is relatively easy to use, and has an active community of developers and enthusiasts who provide some degree of support, if you need it.

Coding and development.

You could write all your code in any plaintext editor; but it is much nicer to work in an environment that makes your work easier with code hints, syntax error highlighting, and a function that helps you balance your braces. When I’m not using the costs-money industry standard developer software, I like Notepad++ for HTML coding, or NetBeans with the PHP and MySQL plugins for development work. Whatever you do, don’t use a word processing program to write code: such software automatically formats your text with XML, rendering your code useless.

Graphic design and image manipulation.

For free software that edits (or creates) bitmap images, I recommend GIMP (that’s the GNU Image Manipulation Project). GIMP has a steep learning curve, but it offers many of the same features as the pricey Photoshop. If you need something simpler, don’t overlook OpenOffice: it is hardly a robust design suite, but it offers basic paint tools and .pdf exporting, all at a price that can’t be beat. Finally, I am personally intrigued by the possibilities offered by the online Aviary suite of design tools, including the “Raven” vector editor. Rather than download and install the software, Aviary is entirely cloud-based: you create your graphic designs from within your browser and store your files on Aviary’s server. Of course, you must create an account to actually do anything with it; but the service is free for now, and has been for quite some time. I’m sure they will eventually begin charging for certain features, but for the time being, they seem more interested in providing a fantastic service.

Final Notes

As you administer your website, be sure to adhere to best practices. Use a different strong password for every login you create: at least 8 characters long, using a mix of numbers, symbols, and upper- and lower-case letters. Use SSL, TLS, and/or FTPS when they are available.

Best of luck, and happy designing!

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