Editor's Note: I received a question from a new author who was confused about websites. Rather than answer from my limited scope, I consulted one of Pikes Peak Writers' resident experts and asked him for advice on the topic. Am I glad I did. This article is part one of a two-part series. Because it's lengthy and chock-full of information, we've broken it in two. Part two will run on Wed. March 22.
By: Patrick Hester
When it comes to websites, most writers agree – it can be a confusing mess. I hope to cut through that today and make it as simple as possible for you.
Having a website is important for every writer. Nearly 60 percent of searches are now from mobile devices – and when someone is in a bookstore and searches for you, or your stories, or something similar to you and your stories, you want them to find you. And you want them to find the right you with plenty of mentions of what you write and anything you’ve had published and where they can buy or read those stories.
How to make this happen? A website.
What is a website?
This may sound very basic, but I wanted to talk for a second about what a website is. For our purposes today, a website is a domain name you have registered, and some sort of coded file structure hosted somewhere that resolves into a visually pleasing display people can interact with. The two are very different and I want you to understand that right off the bat.
A lot of places will offer you a website for $X a month and ‘take care of all the heavy lifting’. Not all of these sites are altruistic, and I’m going to caution you against them. I’ve encountered plenty of businesses who make this offer and in the fine print say that they own the domain name, website and all of its content. This means if you decide they’re charging you too much, or if you just have issues with them, they’ll hold onto the website name – like www.YourName.com – unless you pay some fee to break it away from them.
The domain name is what people type into the web browser to go directly to your site, or what pops up when they do a search. It could be your name, the name of your book if you’re creating a promotional website, or the name of your series or world. It could also be what we call a subdomain, which I’ll get into a little further down this post.
There are two kinds of websites you could have as an author, and each has pros and cons associated with them.
Blogs are great for authors who like to write a lot, update their fans and readers on what’s going on, any events where they’re going to be making an appearance, news, etc. They’re also great for keeping your name out there in the search engines when people search for things. Search engines love blogs because they tend to be updated a lot and offer useful information. A search engine will ‘crawl’ every website on the Internet in order to provide results for people who are searching for things. The more often your website has new information on it, the more often those search engines will come back to look at your site again. This is called ‘indexing’.
With a blog, you can have ongoing and updated content with your Posts, and static content with Pages. You can tie posts together using Categories and offer up a pretty user friendly experience for anyone visiting your website.
That’s the pro of a blog. The cons are in writing new content for it. If you’re in the right mindset, spending an hour a week or more writing out blog content and scheduling it might be perfect for you and not a burden. It’s when you’re not that kind of writer that things can become more difficult. Maintaining a blog means writing posts often enough to keep people and the search engines coming back.
I always advise writers to start off slow when it comes to blogging. If you write a post a day, every day, for three months straight, you are creating a ton of content which is great. But you’re also setting an expectation with your readers that you’ll always give them a post a day. If that becomes burdensome, you can turn off some readers who come to the site only to find you haven’t posted anything in a week or two.
Start slow and find a good balance, then maintain it.
Static websites are what I would call ‘old school’. These are pages created by programming code – either by hand or using some sort of Content Management System which is a fancy way of saying ‘website software’. The pages don’t change often, which means search engines don’t come by very often to see if anything has changed. The direct effect of this is that your website can appear to be ‘stale’ in the eyes of Google or Yahoo, or the other search engines out there. A well put together static website can look great and be a resource the search engines use, but not come back to for another six months or even a year. Any changes you make in that time won’t show up anywhere. You can tell the search engines you’ve made a change, but it’s an extra step you have to take, and for every search engine out there – which means research and time.
A good use for a static website is as a landing page or site. As an example, you could build one to promote your new book and leave it there forever (or as forever as you can get on the Internet). The page would only contain information about your book, images of the cover, and links where to buy. You can also do this on a blog as a static page. If you run ads on Facebook, you could direct all the traffic to this page/site to determine how well the ad did.
I feel the need to add that there is a third option. But really more of a sub-option of the first – Blogs. I mentioned above something called Sub-Domains. Probably the fastest way to have a website RIGHT NOW is to sign up with a blog platform like Wordpress.com, Blogger.com, or LiveJournal.com, to name just a few.
These sites offer quick blogs, a lot of times for free, but with some limited functionality. It can get you up and running in a matter of minutes, but your domain name – the name of your website – would be what we call a sub-domain of their website name.
Using Wordpress.com as an example, you could sign up with them and have a domain name of yourname.wordpress.com. You could use a limited version of the wordpress software to build and maintain your site, but they would take care of things like hosting and you wouldn’t really have a fee to renew. They offer more bells and whistles if you pay for them, but you could totally have a ‘free’ website up and running right the heck now.
Having said that, I don’t recommend doing this.
If you’re a writer (or business) and you want to project a professional appearance, having a dedicated domain name like www.YourName.com is a must have. You can put it on your business cards or bookmarks or whatever else you hand out at conventions, book signings, etc. Adding to that an email address like firstname.lastname@example.org is even better. It’s absolutely a perception thing, but one most people expect of a professional. You went that extra step. With a sub-domain you can’t really do that.
Many of the sites I mentioned above will offer a custom domain name as part of their services, which means you can register a domain and use it with their software. That’s a way to go if you’re interested and it does work. There are usually fees associated with doing it this way, and you should always check the fine print to make sure you’re not signing anything away by setting something like that up with them.
Another way to go would be to register your domain name, then setup hosting and email somewhere and install CMS software to manage it all, which is what I want to talk about on Wednesday. Stay tuned.
About the Author: Patrick Hester is an author, blogger and two-time Hugo Award Winner. He lives in Colorado, writes science fiction and fantasy, and can usually be found hanging out on his Twitter feed - @atfmb. His novel, SAMANTHA KANE: INTO THE FIRE is available at all major retailers. His short fiction can be found in the anthologies Space Battles: Full-Throttle Space Tales #6 and An Uncommon Collection, as well as the eBooks Conversations with my Cat, Witchcraft & Satyrs, Consumption, Cahill's Homecoming and Cahill's Unfinished Business. His Functional Nerds and SF Signal weekly podcasts have both been nominated for Parsec awards, and the SF Signal podcast was nominated for a 2012, 2013, and 2014 Hugo Award. His Scrivener Quick Tips articles exploded on social media and the web in 2012, and he’s been teaching writers how to use the software ever since.