A freelancer's guide to setting up a blog or website

work in progress web design sketches

As a freelancer, having your own personal website can be a powerful marketing tool as a place to establish a portfolio and showcase your high-quality services. SAFREA member Simon Hartley gives food for thought on where to start when considering setting one up.

Hosting and domain

Some web design studios do their own hosting, others prefer to recommend a hosting service that they trust to clients. The detail of this is really much of a muchness, a design studio that does its own hosting is likely to build the cost into their quote anyway. Service providers like WordPress are “free” in terms of hosting, but do not come with the domain of your choosing. If you buy a domain (the named address or identification label for your location on the internet), and you want that domain linked to a functioning site, it has to be hosted. 

The free version of WordPress doesn't offer custom domains, so your domain name would always be www.kimmaxwell.wordpress.com, whereas you might desire www.kimmaxwell.com, and it'll stay like that until such time as you either transfer your WordPress blog to a hosting service, or you buy a domain and ask a hosting service to "point" that domain to your WordPress blog. Either way, you'll pay a fee.

Web design specifications

If you decide you'd like to have a site custom built for your purposes by a design agency (most of which will offer various basic site designs to suit varying pocket sizes), then there a few things to consider. The “limitation” of a designer’s abilities can be summed up in the number of coding languages he or she has mastered, and of course, their talent as a visual artist. Websites are constructed on the basis of a number of designing languages, the most common of which are Java, HTML, XHTML, Flash, MySQL, and PHP. (A designer will code in PHP if they are in the habit of constructing entirely original software for your site. Asking a designer to do this will be expensive.) Its worth asking a designer how many of these languages he or she is proficient in. The more, the better, but like all expert consultants, you pay for what you get.

Ask the designer to see a portfolio of the websites that they have completed. From a layperson perspective, you might pick up some design aspects that you like and can factor them into your design brief when the time comes.

Cost

With regard to the price of a site, just like all freelance practitioners, different designers charge different prices and will use different ways of tallying their total. Some charge per hour, while others charge per stage of completion, and others charge per project (I'm sure there are yet more pricing models). And, like all other freelance practitioners, some are better than others, and therefore rightfully charge more than others.

In my experience with the handful of designers I've worked with, R6000 (*at the time of writing in 2010) is an across the board average for a very, very basic multi-page custom site, domain registration included. An example of a site in this price range that I know of is www.avalongroup.co.za.

This might seem like a lot of money, but there is the misperception out there that what designers do is nothing special. Posting written, graphic or video content on websites is not all that designers do. This process is known as content management, and 90% of the time this is the responsibility of the website owner to update their site’s content. It is the job of the web designer to construct a site around an easy-to-use Content Management System (CMS – examples include Joomla, and Expression Engine among the myriad others). Think of it in terms of this analogy: Posting your content is like hanging a painting on a wall. Designing a website is conceiving and building the actual gallery.

This is a highly specialised, time-consuming task, and if done properly, it is entirely deserving of the fee. Sadly, the majority of web design agencies in South Africa are two-bit, poor quality, dime-a-dozen practitioners who charge cheap rates for cheap work, without explaining the need for a properly constructed site. This makes the job of decent web designers doubly difficult because they have to educate the public.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) 

If income generation is not the main concern with your site, I would take SEO out of the equation completely, unless site popularity is what you aspire to.

SEO is a means of getting your website to the top of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs), without paying for any kind of online marketing, such as Google Ad Words. If youre not actually concerned with generating income via your website, it might not even be worth worrying about SEO. If someone types your URL into their browser, they can navigate to your page just fine, SEO or no SEO. If, however, youre anxious to pick up traffic from people you have not told about your site, then you must consider SEO.

The free, template versions of WordPress etc. are search engine friendly to a degree. They are designed as easy “do it yourself” sites, with no coding required. That is to say, where ordinarily a designer would manually code in your site title tag, the WordPress user simply enters their desired title into a “title” field on the content management system, and the WordPress template automatically converts that into a search engine friendly header tag. But thats just one small example.

It is fair to say that SEO ought to be approached as a separate project. Its not unheard of for design agencies to offer SEO as part of their services, but an agency who doesn’t make it clear that they approach SEO as a separate project probably doesn’t grasp the timeline that successful SEO requires.

Yes, there are on-site design factors such as the coding of your meta tags, title tags, keyword density, consistency of theme across pages in design and site content, and so on that affects your SERPs ranking. However, SERPs is also affected by off-site factors, such as the number of natural links to your site that appear across the web. One link equals one vote of confidence in your site, in general terms.

SERPs is also affected by the number of repeat returns you get from users (search engines are able to determine the number of users returning to a site on separate occasions by tracking their ISP's). If you have a high number of returning visitors, search engine algorithms determine that your site must have something of value, and your site will be ranked higher. In addition, the older a site is, the better. This, of course, takes a long time, a focused strategy, and regular content updates on your part to achieve, hence my advice to stay away from agencies who offer SEO in a glib sort of fashion.

If you're not willing to pay an agency to manage an SEO strategy for your site, remember the golden rule: make your site a pleasure for people to visit, and keep them coming back for fresh, interesting content. That's not the be all and end-all of SEO by any means, but for the smaller webby (that's you and me), it's certainly not a bad place to start as we make our climb up that search engine page. 

This article was originally published by SAFREA in 2010, and some details may be out of date.

About the author

Simon Hartley has been self-studying SEO for years and continues to learn more everyday. Content from this article was originally shared with members of the Google Group in 2010.

 

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