How to Build a Great Website in 2020
What makes a website great isn't only it's design or how it's built. A great website is going to solve a problem. It will tell a story to the people who visit it and let them know about you or your business. This will be a complete guide for beginners but thorough enough that even more experienced people might find something new.
Who should build their own website?
Anyone can build their own website but it helps to know your limitations and the limitations of any website building guide. It takes some time even for someone with experience to plan, design, and build a new website. If you've never done it before, then it's probably going to take longer for you to do it. Think about the course you're setting for yourself before you begin.
There are many, many, many ways to build a website. This guide is focused on building a website using WordPress and a page builder plugin. If you have some experience setting up your own website then some of this guide might seem a little basic. Feel free to skip any section you don't need.
Once you're comfortable with building a WordPress site, you'll likely find that it in terms of functionality and flexibility it blows away even the best website builders.
Almost every guide like this starts off all wrong.
I'm setting myself apart from the herd by defying conventional wisdom. I've seen many, many website building guides and they continuously make the same mistake. They right away start explaining about choosing a web host, selecting a WordPress theme, or picking a website builder. Even the some of the most established sources for web design advice make this same error. These guides generally start off something like:
- Get the perfect domain name, pick a web host, install WordPress, pick an awesome theme.
- Some kind of magic content writing, blogging, seo, branding, marketing wizard visits your site in your sleep.
- You wake up to find your gorgeous, fully built website has been visited hundreds of times already and there are dozens of sales (or sign-ups, page reads, ad clicks, whatever) in your Google Analytics. (Oh yeah. The wizard set up your Google Analytics too.)
This might be the standard for just about all website building guides but actually starting to build your site that way is a huge mistake. How could that ever, ever, ever work?
A Better Approach to Building Websites
I organized this guide with the same steps that I use for my own web design clients.
What makes a website great isn't only it's design or what tools are used to build it. A great website tells a story to the people who visit it. It lets those people know about you or your business. It convinces them that they've found just what they need. Always remember that you're trying to reach people and that you have something that you want to tell them.
Most people won't care about how you built your site, what technology you used, or how long it took. These things are important (but mostly only to you). For everyone else, the only thing they'll care about is the result. How your website looks and how it works should never get in the way of this. Your website needs to have one or a few specific purposes. You want your visitors to do something like, read your content, set up an appointment with you, buy your product, or sign up for your email list. Never forget this.
No matter how excellently you build your site, you'll soon (hopefully) learn something new about your business or discover some new bit of information about your target customers. All of a sudden, your site needs updating or even a larger scale revision. A website should be seen as an itegral piece of a larger marketing effort. You'll find yourself iterating your site as your marketing plans are refined.
These are the sections that I'm including in this guide (so far). Every one of them is essential. But don't let lack of progress with any one of them derail you from the big picture goals. Remember: you want to get something online! If you get stuck with any one of the sections - just muddle through it and move on. The best website you can imagine building will still never be a perfect masterpiece. It will always be a work in process.
- Know Your Reasons and Set Your Goals
- Start Planning Your Website
- Write Your Content
- Pick Your Tools
- Choose a Web Host
You'll learn more and more as you go. Follow the steps as best you can and build something! Then take a break from it for a while. After your rest, go back without any mercy and look at it again. I'm here if you need a hand or some advice.
Know Your Reasons and Set Your Goals
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. -- Peter Drucker
Why do you want a website? What problem is your website going to solve? If you don't have a quick, simple answer to these questions then you should pause and reflect before doing anything else.
Keep in mind that there are no bad reasons but you do need to have a reason. Websites that don't have a defined purpose are the worst.
With a solid understanding of the purpose for your website you can easily save yourself from wasting weeks or months of your life and thousands of dollars. If you know why your doing something, you're going to do it better.
To get things moving, here are a few general reasons to build a new website or redesign an old one. We can start with some general goals for a business or organization website.
- Increase awareness - tell people what you're doing
- Get more leads or improve lead conversions - make sure that you're getting your message out to the right audience
- Make more sales - turn a website visitor into a customer
- Provide better customer support and improve customer satisfaction - keep your customers happy
- Promote a product or professional event
- Collect donations for a cause
Business types things aren't the only reasons to make a website. There are plenty of non-business or personal reasons to have one.
- Find a job, get a promotion, or change careers - this is a resume site
- Share your personal and professional projects - a portfolio site
- Write about something important to you and connect with like-minded people - a blog
- Promote an event like a wedding or reunion - event site
Start Planning Your Website
Failure to plan is planning to fail. -- Benjamin Franklin
This memorable comment on planning usually gets attributed in different places to Benjamin Franklin and sometimes to Winston Churchill. It seems that when we come across a piece of wisdom that rings true we often want to attribute it to someone with a reputation for being wise or clever -- even without any evidence. Yay internet!
Plan to succeed
My experience with dozens of small and medium sized businesses has shown me that planning is not just important, it's absolutely essential. From what I've seen, how seriously my clients treat the website planning phase of a project directly matches how serious they will be about the rest of their business. This is the part of a project that separates the people who want to be successful from those who are just messing around.
Before you start planning, here's a quick thought exercise:
Think about visiting a website for a restaurant where you want to eat. When you get to their website, the first things you'll be looking for are their location, hours, their menu, or a phone number to make reservations. Those are the main reasons to go to a restaurant's website. Everything about that site should make it easy to find out that important information.
You might find yourself interested in the immigrant history of the restaurant's founder and how her parent's started in 1938 with next to nothing. But the real reason you went to the site was because you wanted lunch.
Keep your restaurant website thought experiment in mind when you plan your own site and remember to ask yourself what information will be most important to your visitors.
Your website plan needs to have the necessary building blocks for your site but it shouldn't kill your creativity and passion for your project.
Here are the main topics to cover in your website plan.
- Who are you talking to? This is often called your target audience. It could include very specific demographic details about the age, income, education, and so on. Or you could be more focused on personal interests such as Star Trek fans or people who read Sci-Fi.
- What questions will they have? Don't wait for people to ask these questions. Answer them right up front. I'll cover this more in the section below on writing copy. For now, think about some questions that they might have about your site and what you're doing. Then come up with some answers.
- How will you get these people to your site? This is entirely a question of marketing. No one wants to pour days or weeks of effort into something like a website only to hear the sound of crickets when they launch. Are you going to use online ads? Search engine optimization (SEO)? Social media?
Your answers to these questions depends on what sort of website you want to have. If your goal is to build a business website that captures new leads for a service your audience could be very different than it would be for a non-profit's site that is seeking donations.
PRO TIP: Start building your target audience well before you plan to launch your new site. For starters, this could mean building up a social media following for your project on Instagram or Facebook, engaging with your target audience on Quora or Reddit, or setting up ads on social media and driving traffic to a sign up form so you can collect email addresses.
Go back to the goals you thought about earlier and then think about the people who you want to see your website.
Decide what you want to tell those people.
- Figure out how you should present this message to best reach them.
Map your new website
- What sections do you need on your site?
- Start small and achievable. Think about your site as a work in progress and start only with the absolutely essential sections that it just can't exist without. You can always add more sections later.
- Organize the site with a numbered outline or a diagram. In the web design world, this is called a visual sitemap or a site diagram.
Here's a simple numbered site outline for an example site with 4 top-level pages and 3 lower level pages in the main navigation.
0.0 Your Website’s Home Page
This next one is a slightly more complicated real world example from a dentist’s website that I redesigned. Imagine what a site outline for a website like Amazon.com must look like.
<1.0> About Us
<1.1> Comfort-Centered Approach
<1.2> Your Care Team
<1.3> About Your Dentist
<2.0> What We Offer
<2.1> Cosmetic Dentistry
<2.2> Preventive and General Dentistry
<2.3> Dental Implants
<2.3.1> Single Dental Implants
<2.3.2> Implant Overdentures
<2.4> Porcelain Veneers
<2.6> Teeth Whitening
<2.7> Pediatric Dentistry
<2.8> Oral Sedation
<2.9> Dental Emergencies
<3.0> Success Stories
<3.1> Before and After Gallery
<4.0> Insurance and Financing
<4.1> Free Consultation
<4.2> Dental Insurance Plans
<4.3> Payment Plans
<5.0> Patient Resources
<5.1> Special Offers
<5.2> New Patient Forms
<5.3> Old Oakland Dental Blog
<5.4> Helpful Links
<6.0> Contact Us
<6.1> Request an Appointment
<6.2> Map and Directions
Site Map <0.2>
This visual sitemap was built in Google Drawings. I used Google Drawings to show that a simple free tool will work just fine. The design I used for the individual tiles is based on some of the custom tiles available for Omnigraffle. The end result is pretty nice looking too.
There are quite a few dedicated diagramming tools available. I won't weigh in on the best ones right now.
Gather your content
Content is the most important part of a website. It's more important than design, or hosting, or the platform on which a site is built. -- me
Your website content includes everything you put on your site. It's all the images, logos, downloadable files, products, and very importantly it's all the copy.
Website copy is the name for all the text on your site. That includes every paragraph, video title, product description, headline, and even button text.
Gathering your content is the first real test of your website plan. If you took the time to plan out all your pages then you already have an idea about what information needs to be on each page.
Now is the time to think about SEO. But for now don't think about it too much.
In this guide, I'm not going to do a deep dive into keyword research, long tail vs. short tail strategies, or any of the other more advanced SEO ideas.
Before you start writing your copy, you should start by just thinking about a few things.
- You're writing something that you want a human to read - not just a search engine.
- Think about what you're trying to write and then imagine a friend (real or imaginary) and then write down what you would say to that person.
- Stay focused and don't stray off the topic. If you're writing about a product or a service you provide, then write only about one of them at a time. Then move on to the next and write about just that one.
Write your own copy
In my experience, this is usually the scariest thing for my clients. Because it's scary they usually put it off until way too late. Don't do that.
Many people haven't written anything other than an email or a Facebook post since college. That absolutely doesn't mean that you can't successfully write at least the first version of your website copy.
Hire a professional copywriter
Where to find a copywriter:
- Referral from someone you trust. This is ideal way to find any new service provider. Just be sure that the copywriter has experience and/or capability with writing for your topic. A skilled copywriter who writes extensively in the health and beauty area may not do as well when writing for a tech site.
Images are just as important as copy and the same guidelines apply.
Pick Your Tools
There are a lot of ways to build a website. I've organized these steps into this specific order because choosing a tool before knowing how it will be used doesn't make sense to me.
I'm not writing this guide for the ultra web-tech savvy, big-data crunching, global domination crowd. That means I'll be staying away from the more complicated ways to build a website. I'll also be avoiding every content management system (CMS) except WordPress. Some other options (I'm looking at you Drupal) are great but there's a steep learning curve for beginners.
This guide is for everyone else who just needs to be online and needs to do it well.
- Website Builders
- WordPress - The fastest growing CMS used by over 28% of all the web—and 60% of all sites that use a CMS.
- WordPress + A Flexible Theme and a Page Builder Plugin
If a website builder like Squarespace or Wix is the perfect fit for what you need, then any service you choose will handle hosting and you can skip step 6.
Choose a Web Host
Siteground is the perfect web host for most people. They have a great reputation for reliability and customer service. Their competitive pricing makes them a really good option for newer sites and their more expensive packages ensure that you can stick with them while your site grows.
If you manage to outgrow Siteground, then WPEngine is your solution.
About This Project
This is a self-funded project. By saying that, what really I mean is that this is almost an entirely non-funded project. When I can, I use affiliate links to point back to the signup page for a page builder. If you decide to purchase a plugin and want to support my work, all you need to do is use the links on this site when you buy it.
In the interest of full disclosure, I used Beaver Builder Pro to build this site. That's because personally I like it and am familiar with it. I don't have any "special" relationship with the company. For that matter, none of my reviews are solicited and I receive no direct compensation for any of my reviews.
Instead of working in secret for weeks and months before having a big reveal, I'll be adding reviews as I complete them. Think of this as watching a website being built in public. I started this project with some of the most popular plugins first. If you check back occasionally, you'll probably see a number of rough drafts and revisions.
Support me and this project by buying me a coffee (or a beer).