Building a website: 2016 vs 1998


After almost two years of freelance B2B content writing and consulting, it’s about time to set up my own website; somewhere to share the thoughts and experiences that surface as a by-product of what I do. Launching a website has been on my to-do list for two years now, but I’m usually too busy writing for others. At the start of this week, I was speaking with somebody who is in the initial setup stages of a SaaS technology business. For somebody coming from a technical/development background, it was instinctive for him to code-up a HTML site from scratch. That was the default choice. He needed a home page to slap on the front of the SaaS tool itself. My point to him was that the cloud infrastructure and tools that are out there today are so mature that it is far easier to pick off-the-cloud services and components to build the open, prospect-facing entity he needed. It occurred to me that it was also time for me to launch my own site…if for no other reason than to demonstrate how easy it has become.

Today is Thursday, and so far (in moments between other tasks), I have managed to build and deploy a basic website based on the Zerif Lite WordPress theme. The flow of this process went a little bit like this:

  • Google web domains and hosting
  • Think about which services I’ve heard good and bad things about as I scan the list
  • Hit to check out prices. Happy with prices.
  • Purchase domain name
  • DNS registration (automated by GoDaddy)
  • Install WordPress (automated by GoDaddy)
  • Browse some themes
  • Try out a few themes and make a decision
  • Website design (theme configuration)
  • Populate web content (quite a bit of time spent playing with web copy)
  • Set up a contact form, routed to an email address (included in the WordPress theme)
  • Add Google Analytics

I wasn’t taking notes throughout the process, so there are probably a few other steps that I have either forgotten or happened automatically behind the scenes. Without the help of the WordPress CMS platform, theme and the automated services that GoDaddy provides, it would have taken me weeks or potentially months to get to the same point (although some prior knowledge and experience with WordPress has accelerated me along this path versus a complete novice). If I had chosen the hand-coded, self-hosted route, I imagine I would still be tinkering with the HTML of the first page…and would be creating a situation that would require coding/editing HTML every time I wanted add, edit or remove a page. I don’t miss FTPing files to a web server before seeing a change.

With so much of the process now supported by automation and configurable components, it doesn’t make sense to mess around with HTML any more. HTML is now – for me – something of a redundant skill. I first started tinkering with HTML in 1998 while studying Software Engineering at Napier University – building a simple personal website for no other reason than I was allocated a public_html directory on a server. The opportunity to publish something (anything) on the Internet was too compelling to resist. It was an exercise is coding. I had no audience is mind. I had no objectives to achieve (aside from learning HTML). It was the definition of pointlessness from anybody’s perspective but my own. Nobody had asked for it. Nobody wanted it. It didn’t solve anybody’s problem. I built it. Nobody came. I really hope it doesn’t still exist on a server somewhere in the university’s data centre. Later, I used HTML and PHP to build an online information system (back then people were using the term “Net Native” for software that lived in a browser). At one point (a decade ago) I was hand-coding HTML emails for email marketing campaigns in Eloqua, but even this has now been replaced with drag-and-drop email construction (and this sort of functionality is not even the reserve of the top-end marketing automation tools).

I can remember vividly spending dozens of hours building multiple different versions of my shiny new student website; with different layouts, images, words. Now, the process of picking a look-and-feel takes minutes – browsing a gallery of themes. Even after the selection is made a new theme can be applied without too much disruption. Earlier this week, I tested three themes before I settled on the fourth as “good enough”. I fast-forwarded through hours and hours of throwaway prototyping.

In the age of the cloud and effective service automation, I don’t see why any company would hand-code a website. Content management systems like WordPress dominate. Even the world’s largest organizations are going down the platform route, using extended ERP/Ecommerce platforms like NetSuite to deploy the web and mobile interfaces they need. Who starts with a blank slate these days? Perhaps if you’re a webdev company, then hand-coding a highly-specialised website might still be appropriate, on occasion. But in my opinion, the platforms and tools available today have the requirements of the mainstream pretty much covered.




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