Let’s get started! An introduction to how websites work, web hosting and what exactly is WordPress? How techie do you need to be and is this really free?
Back in the early days of the internet, making a website sat squarely in the lap of web developers and closet geeks. However things have changed. As long as you’re not a complete technophobe anyone can build a website from scratch. I view it as an essential life skill and in this series of videos and articles I’ll show you what’s involved in creating your own FREE WordPress-based website.
Is WordPress really free?
Yes! WordPress is completely free. You can build a fully functioning e-commerce website using WordPress and WooCommerce for free. Zero pennies. Your only costs will be for web hosting and a domain name. More about that later.
I’m not putting web developers out of business here. As soon as you can afford to do so I do recommend handing this over to the professionals so you can get on with the day job. However by creating your own website you’ll know exactly what’s involved in the process. You’ll know how to carry out your own basic website updates and you’ll gain an understanding of what’s involved in adding more advanced features such as event bookings and e-learning facilities. As with most things on this site, it will arm you with the information you need to know so you can ask the right questions.
How techie do you need to be?
Most people are fairly tech savvy these days and you don’t need to be a total nerd to make your own WordPress website. It’s not rocket science.
All I would say is that I’m going to assume you have basic IT skills. I’m not going to explain basic concepts such as what files & folders are, how to unzip files, how to use a web browser etc. If you’re a complete technophobe this probably won’t be for you. If you’re nifty with a word processor and know your way around Windows you should be absolutely fine with this. If nothing else give it a go and see how you get on.
That neatly brings me on to the PC vs Mac thing. I’m explaining all of this from a PC perspective BUT the fundamental concepts of how all this works should be no different for Mac users. You may need to find FTP software designed for use on Macs, but other than that the PC vs Mac thing shouldn’t make any difference.
Let’s get started! Have a watch of the video below:
How long will it take?
Once you know what you’re doing you can create a basic WordPress website from scratch in under an hour. As this might be your first attempt at doing this I would allow a full day. Also allow a couple of extra days for DNS changes to propagate around the internet (more about that later). I’m going to show you my method of manually installing WordPress from scratch. You can also refer to WordPress’s official guide here.
What if I get stuck?
As you’re going to be getting your techie hands dirty you’ll need to get used to finding information for yourself. There’s a huge amount of free resources on the internet to help you with this – from YouTube videos through to WordPress forums.
I’m happy to help if I can but sadly, as this is a very busy site, I can only provide support to site members and even then it’s not guaranteed in any way! Members can also post questions or general comments to these articles. If you are a member please do get in touch and I’ll do my best to help with basic questions. Please don’t expect an immediate response!
What is WordPress?
WordPress is what’s known as a Content Management System (CMS). It’s essentially a free website builder. That’s right, WordPress itself is completely free. Once you have your web hosting and domain name sorted you can build a very respectable business website for zero pennies.
WordPress make their money by selling plugins and themes. We’ll talk more about those later but don’t worry, everything I’ll be doing to build a basic website will be free. Your only costs will be for a domain name and web hosting.
Just to briefly summarise some of the key concepts we’ll be talking about here:
- Web hosting: a computer on the internet that stores your website
- Domain name: a friendly name for your website so people can find it
- WordPress: the software used to build your website
- Plugin: an add-on for WordPress to make it do extra things
- Theme: an add-on for WordPress to make your website look nice
WordPress.com vs WordPress.org
It’s worth explaining that there are two different WordPress’s: WordPress.com and WordPress.org. WordPress.com is a hosted version of the platform often used by bloggers and the like. Using it you can create a very basic blog site completely for free. However you are very limited in terms of plugins and themes unless you opt for their top-of-the-range ‘eCommerce’ package at around £400/year.
So forget about WordPress.com. From now on we’ll be talking about WordPress.org – this is where you install and host WordPress yourself. It gives you WAY more flexibility and control for future development of your website. This includes the ability to create a fully functioning e-commerce website completely for free! I’ll not be covering that as part of this series (yet) but watch this space.
So in a nutshell you need to install WordPress on your web host so that you can build your website within WordPress. Once it’s all installed it’s no more complicated than using a fancy word processor.
My website journey
So that you can see exactly what’s involved I’m going to take you on a journey of creating this actual website. Now do bear in mind that I built this back in 2018 and things do change over time. For example you may find I change things later down the line as new plugins and themes are released.
All the fundamentals are the same though and it’s still useful to see the evolution from nothing to a fully functioning busy website such as this. So don’t worry if you find the odd step that looks different. If you’re a member you can post any questions below or scan forwards to newer videos and all will become clear.
Why use WordPress?
WordPress is the industry standard CMS for building websites. It’s used by everyone from hobby blogs through to some of the biggest websites in the world including The White House, Vogue, Walt Disney and Time Magazine. Out of the box it will give you a very respectable business website. Using the vast amount of plugins and themes available you can make it do anything you would ever want a website to do.
Above all, and this is probably THE most important reason to host your own WordPress website: YOU’RE IN CONTROL OF IT! It’s your website. You can move it to any host you like and any web developer worth their salt will be able to manage it on your behalf if things get too busy.
Contrast this with the likes of Wix and Squarespace. Nothing against either of them but you really are tied to their platform once you start using them. If you want to switch provider later down the line you’re looking at starting from scratch. Not only is this a huge task but it could also massively damage any existing search engine rankings. Having said that, if you don’t want to get your techie hands dirty it may be a better option for absolute technophobes. Although if it were me I’d rather pay a developer to build a WordPress website for me. At least then it’s MY site and I can do what I like with it.
If you’re employing the skills of a web developer always make sure you retain full IP ownership of your website. You should be provided with all admin usernames and passwords as standard. If there’s any sign of your developer holding your website hostage, run. Run very fast.
How do websites work?
Before I go on, as usual I’m using affiliate links here to help cover the costs of putting together this information. It doesn’t cost you a penny extra but if you could use my links to buy your hosting etc. it would be massively appreciated! More info here. Thank you!
There are essentially two major services required for any website to function:
I like to use 123-Reg for my domain names and SiteGround for web hosting but you can use whatever services you want. You can use a single service provider for your domain names and web hosting however separating them out can give you a little more flexibility later down the line. For example, if you have a problem with your web host it’s relatively easy to change hosts if you don’t need to muck about with domain name transfers as part of the process.
Domain names in a nutshell
Domain names are like a telephone directory for websites. They take the hard to remember number of your website (in the form of an IP address e.g 18.104.22.168) and turn that in to an easy to remember name (google.com).
This telephone directory is stored on computers all around the internet – they automatically make copies of themselves so that there’s no single point of failure. This process is known as replication and the overall system is known as DNS (Domain Name System). DNS can get pretty complicated but all you need to know is:
- You buy your domain name(s)
- You point your domain name(s) to your website
- You continue to pay for your domain names (normally yearly) for as long as you want to keep that name
- Stop paying for the name and it eventually goes back in the pool for someone else to buy
- Generally speaking once a name is gone it’s gone
Web hosting in a nutshell
Web hosting can be split down in to two main functions:
- File storage on the internet
It is possible to build a website using only file storage however a WordPress website (and most modern websites) also requires a database. This is pretty standard these days but 10+ years ago you’d have to ask for the database bit.
Using cheap web hosts for WordPress
I’ve had horrendous problems in the past with cheap web hosts so BE WARNED! If a web host’s pricing seems too good to be true it probably is. In my experience if you’re using cheap web hosting and your site is running slowly it’s almost certainly the web host to blame. The host will try to blame your website.
They’ll get you to install caching plugins and make a range of complex modifications that shouldn’t be necessary for a simple website. It’s a load of bobbins. I’ve had this exact experience with several web hosts in the past and it was all blatant lies – plain and simple. Their servers were overloaded and no amount of changes on my side would fix that. No, you’re not being paranoid. It’s your host to blame… normally.
WordPress needs decent web hosting. This is important not just for performance of your website (how quickly pages load) but also for security. I had serious problems with one host where my websites kept getting hacked. They blamed my websites and wouldn’t accept any responsibility for the problems. It transpired that the hackers had gained access to their back-end systems and were hacking websites from within the web host. No level of security on my side can protect against that. Needless to say I swiftly terminated their services.
That’s why I’ve settled on SiteGround for my web hosting. It’s a good balance between cost and performance. My websites run fine, security is good, support is good and costs are fair. Hopefully it will stay like that!
How do I see how fast my website is?
Having a fast website is REALLY important these days. People simply aren’t prepared to wait for pages to load. You can check the performance of your site in a few different ways. Google’s PageSpeed Insights is good but my personal preference is GTmetrix. You can set up a free GTmetrix account and it will generate a full PDF analysis of your site with recommendations of how to fix any problems.
Typical costs for WordPress hosting
The cost of web hosting suitable for WordPress can vary dramatically and the most expensive options aren’t guaranteed to be the best. You could be paying anything from £20 to £1000+ per year:
- Cheap hosting – £20/year
- Mid-range hosting: £130/year
- Expensive hosting: £1080/year
The above is based on a simple website receiving maximum 25,000 visits per month. Prices include VAT.
I would highly recommend staying clear of ultra-cheap hosting for WordPress – you’ll be tearing your hair out within days. For me SiteGround is a good starter option. They also have more expensive packages you can move to as your site becomes more popular – they should be absolutely fine for basic business websites.
Having said that, if you’re planning on building a huge site that could have many millions of visitors then you might want to up the ante. Here’s the sort of costs you could be looking at:
- SiteGround GrowBig plan – £130/year
- WPX Professional plan – £375/year
- Kinsta Pro plan – £540/year
- WP Engine Growth plan – £1080/year
Will my website be hosted in the UK?
This is another very important consideration. You want your website to be as close to your visitors as possible. If your site is predominantly accessed by customers in the UK then make sure it’s hosted in the UK! There are also legal considerations about where you’re storing customer data. This is a big topic. I’ll keep it simple for now – if you’re in the UK make sure your site is hosted in a UK datacentre. That doesn’t mean you have to use a UK company – most web hosts have servers in datacentres all around the world, but it’s worth checking this is the case before signing up.
A slightly more in-depth overview of web hosting
The file storage element of web hosting is no more complicated than a computer on the internet that stores your files and runs 24×7. Web hosts design these computers (servers) so that they’re as resilient as possible – in other words if something breaks, like a hard drive, your website won’t die. They can normally be repaired without even switching the server off. The web host’s job is to keep your website running at all times and they use a lot of very clever technologies to make this happen.
So why do you need file storage AND a database for WordPress to work? Well the file storage handles all of the static content – things that rarely change, for example images and core website code.
Dynamic content is all stored in the database. It includes things like the actual web page text, news articles, links to images and this actual post that you’re reading now. The database is almost entirely text based and you can read the raw content using tools such as phpMyAdmin. Look, here’s this actual article (before I edited it… again!):
I don’t particularly advise touching phpMyAdmin unless you really know what you’re doing. But you can see from the above how data is stored. WordPress handles all of this for you – you don’t need to think about it.
The important thing to remember is that the database stores all of the actual content of your website. The files turn that database into a functioning website.
Let’s get started!
So to start building your WordPress website we need to do two things:
- Upload the required files to your web hosting
- Make a database
I’m assuming you’ve already bought your domain names and web hosting by the way! If you haven’t do that now. This might all sound complicated but it’s VERY simple. Creating the database will take under 10 seconds so don’t panic!
What is FTP?
In order to copy files from your computer to a computer on the internet we use a thing called FTP (File Transfer Protocol). This is very similar to Windows Explorer but it’s specifically designed for copying files to the internet. Why do we need to do that? Well we need to install WordPress on your web host. Where do we get WordPress from? Easy – WordPress.org. You can go ahead and download that now if you like. Visit WordPress.org and click ‘Get WordPress’:
WordPress will be downloaded as a single .zip file:
Once you’ve downloaded the .zip file (in this case wordpress-5.5.1.zip but your version will be newer) you’ll need to extract the contents of the .zip file. Put it in a folder on your computer. We’ll need to access this several times so don’t forget where you’ve extracted it to:
How does a WordPress website work?
Before we continue with the installation let me explain how a WordPress website is structured. Content on your website can either be one of two things:
Posts and Pages are very similar but there are a few key differences and if you understand those now you can start having a think about how you’ll structure your own website.
What are Pages?
Pages can be broken down in to a full hierarchy if you like or you can keep the structure flat. Entirely up to you.
What are Posts?
Posts are used for articles and news content. When you visit your favourite ‘News’ website, the articles themselves are ‘Posts’. This is a Post. You can tell since it has a ‘Published on’ date at the top. Pages generally don’t have that.
Posts don’t have any hierarchy but they can make use of two things that Pages don’t have:
Categories and Tags are used to organise your site and this is very handy when you start to build up a lot of content. A Post can have any number of Categories and Tags.
For example you might have a website about cooking. On that website you might publish a daily recipe. Fast forward a year and you’ve got 365 separate recipes. How are you going to organise that content to make it easy for your visitor to find what they’re looking for? The answer is through a combination of Categories and Tags.
Now there’s almost an infinite number of ways of organising this content and it will vary hugely from website to website. Here’s the important thing to remember:
- Categories can easily be added to menus
- Tags cannot
So personally speaking, if I think at a later date I might want to add an item to one of my menus such as ‘All Cake Recipes’. Then I’ll make a Category called ‘All Cake Recipes’. This Post is in a Category called ‘How to Build a Business Website’.
We’ll leave it there for now. In the next article we’ll buy our domain name and get everything up and running. If you spot any errors in this article please get in touch. If you’ve got any questions you can post them below by becoming a member. Don’t forget to subscribe on YouTube and please join my mailing list.
Last Updated on 23 November 2020 by Andy Mac
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