An In-Depth Guide to Creating a Professional Website
Has it started to feel like every freelancer, consultant, job candidate, and entrepreneur you know has their own website except you? At first glance, setting up a website to showcase yourself on the internet may seem to be more about image than substance, but in reality, there are many meaningful reasons why creating a professional website is a worthwhile endeavor.
One key advantage of having a personal website is that it gives you control over your image, DIY Website Academy creator Jess Catorc tells Forbes.
“Whether you are applying for a new job or starting a side project, most people will search for your name online,” Catorc says. “Having the control over what information you would like to share (including your achievements) is such a powerful thing.”
Here’s your full guide to getting started setting up your own professional website.
First, Nail Down Your Intent
Why do you — or why does your business — need a website? The answer should not simply be “because you think you should have one”. Before jumping into the creation process, it’s helpful to outline your purpose so that as you design, you have a clear goal in mind.
For example, I built my site so that I had an easy place to access my video editing portfolio on a moment’s notice. As a freelancer, I needed a website where I could upload my reel and link additional project examples all in one place. Yes, Vimeo and YouTube offer video hosting options, but I liked the fact that a full website would display my brand. I also liked that it allowed me to make updates to my portfolio without disconnecting previous links I had sent to potential clients.
Next, identify the non-negotiable features that your website will include. Coming up with a list of these necessities can help you determine which website building options are right for you. For example, if you want a website to host your e-commerce company, you may want to make sure that your website theme supports Shopify; whereas if you’re a director of photography, you may want to research which website platforms are best for HD video. Figuring out what your site needs will be extremely important as you turn your vision into a reality.
Plan Your Design
Start doing your research. Find and save websites that inspire you, whether it’s the design, the layout, or the user experience. Save these sites to a Pinterest board so you can come back to them as a point of reference. Most websites will have a tag at the bottom of the page indicating where or by whom the website was created (i.e., a professional designer, WordPress, Squarespace, etc.). If you can’t find that information, feel free to reach out to the website via their contact page to ask. This is a good way to narrow down which design method you want to use. It’s also a great way to determine what qualities you hold crucial to a creative site, whether that be an eye-catching homepage, a succinct menu bar, or some other special feature.
Building The Site: Professional Designers vs. Drag-and-Drop Templates vs. DIY Coding
Now that you’ve figured out your website’s purpose and started to get an idea of the design you’d like to have, it’s time to create! When creating a professional website, there are three main options: code your own site, hire a third-party web designer, or use a DIY website design platform.
Code your own website from scratch.
Coding your own website is always an option. If you have that skill set, then it is a great way to build a personalized platform that works for you. But many people without coding backgrounds find themselves overwhelmed with the concept of learning an entire computer language to build a site. Don’t panic! There are a number of other options you can choose to create a website.
Hire a professional web designer.
Hiring a web designer is a good option for complex businesses looking to create a very specialized site. Web designers can cater to your website needs, building a polished and brand-specific site. Depending on the contract you have with the designer, they may also continue working with you to update the site as needed.
One huge factor in deciding whether or not to take this route is money. Good web designers are often expensive, and while their work can bring your brand to a new level of professionality, it doesn’t always make sense for a freelancer requiring a simple portfolio-based site. The initial financial investment for a professional web designer can be fairly high. If it’s your first time having a website, it may make more sense to build your own until you’ve gained a better understanding of how you will be utilizing it. Then, if you do decide to hire a professional later down the line, you’ll have a clearer vision of what you need so that you can successfully collaborate with the designer.
Another option is to hire an inexpensive web designer on a site like Upwork or Fiverr. Make sure to ask questions before hiring and read detailed reviews to find someone who will be a good fit for your needs.
Do it yourself with a web design platform.
Using a website builder can be a perfect sweet spot between coding from scratch and hiring someone to build it for you. There are amazing companies specifically targeting freelancers and small businesses that will help you build a professional-grade site without a coding background or a major expense. Sites like Weebly, Wix, and Squarespace have created a user-friendly way for just about anyone to create a professional-looking website, all for a low monthly or annual cost (or even for free).
Before jumping into this, it’s important to remember your intent. Different companies are better for different uses. If you need to be able to connect your online store to PayPal, make sure you choose a design platform that supports this integration. If you are a video editor linking digital work from Vimeo, make sure you choose a platform that has this capability. Look back at the Pinterest board you made earlier: Is there a common platform people in your industry are using? Don’t be afraid to ask colleagues which platforms they prefer. Photographers and podcasters may not find the same company helpful, for example—it depends on the layout, third-party connectivity, and general design capabilities needed for your industry.
Troubleshooting tip: If you start designing on a DIY platform and feel lost or frustrated, reach out to customer service. Many of these platforms offer support to help you through the design process.
Initial time vs. upfront money
Between professional web designers and DIY web design platforms, the biggest factor is time versus money. A web designer usually costs more in initial financial investment but will be doing most of the work for you. While a DIY web design does require a subscription fee, it is usually a cheaper upfront cost. However, using one of these platforms can take a lot of personal time to actually build the site. Weigh the upfront costs, long-term costs, and time needed for each of these options. Take into account pricing if you prorate a designer’s upfront costs compared to a monthly subscription fee.
And don’t forget to consider the ongoing fee of website and domain hosting… more on that below.
Website Hosting vs. Domain Hosting
There are two elements to publishing your site: website hosting and domain names. These are usually two different costs because they are two different services. Some companies offer both. (For a deeper understanding of the difference between the two, you can check out this helpful explainer from Squarespace.)
A web host allows users to create and store content (like your website) on their Internet servers. Most web design platforms offer web hosting as part of their subscription fee.
When choosing a hosting plan, it is important to recall your site’s intent because you will be choosing its bandwidth, which will directly affect your website’s speed. Is your site a blog that will ideally have a large number of readers on visiting it at the same time? Is it a shop that will have special sales during which you need to be able to support a rush of activity at once? Are you hosting large image or video files on the site that you need to guarantee can load smoothly? Understanding how much foot traffic and how many intricate elements your site will have can help you determine the hosting plan that makes sense for you.
Other elements of these platforms’ plans can often include ad removal, storage, and marketing perks. Hosting/design plans like this can range anywhere from $5 to $50 per month.
Domain hosts provide domain names that let people access your content. Buying and registering a domain name means that you must choose one that is not already in use, pay an upfront fee, and then regularly renew that domain name. Domain names cost around $15 per year depending on the company you purchase through.
It is important to understand the WHOIS/domain privacy feature when you make your purchase. Read the fine print when getting a domain name so that you are aware of whether your personal information is being publically displayed. Oftentimes, there is a privacy option that will hide your personal contact information from public view in connection to your domain. In general, take time to read the fine print of whichever company you are purchasing through so that you stay informed.
Choosing a Domain Name
So you’ve built your website. It’s time to choose a domain name. Your website design can change as your brand grows, but your domain name is a more permanent decision. While you can always purchase a new one later down the line, it is best to try to get the domain name correct at the start. It is what clients will remember you by, and it will be on your business cards, LinkedIn profile, and email signature. If you later change your domain name, people who’ve already been told the old domain may no longer be able to find you.
Eva Alexandropoulos, CMO of popular domain registrar Namecheap.com, recommends thinking about whether you’d like to create a new brand from scratch with your domain (ex. “Google.com” or “Yelp.com”) or simply describe what your business is (ex. “TripAdvisor.com” or “TechSavvyMom.com”). There are pros and cons to both schools of thought, she tells Tech Radar; creating a new brand name allows you to truly shape your identity in a unique way, whereas a descriptive domain allows for SEO opportunities.
If you find yourself completely overwhelmed with this decision, my advice is to choose something versatile. Many individual freelancers choose to use their first and last names. It makes the domain easy to remember and personally connects you to the site. This way, if your work changes over the years, it doesn’t matter. It is still you producing that work, so your domain still makes sense.
Others will get more specific. If you have an LLC, for example, it may make more sense to incorporate that name into your URL. However, don’t put yourself into a box when choosing a domain. If you recently became a photographer but also have a love for animation, choosing a fun domain name that markets you as only a photographer may not be the best choice. The key is to pick something professional that will be easy for clients to associate with your brand while simultaneously allowing for business growth.
Wondering which domain extension (.com, .net, or something else) to use? GoDaddy, a popular domain name registration site, has a helpful guide.
Publish Your Website
Ready to publish and go live? If you are using a different company for your domain and your host, follow the hosting site’s instructions to link your domain name. Then click “Publish,” and you’re done.
You did it! Congratulations!
As your business grows, continue to keep your site up-to-date with recent work so that clients can watch your company blossom.