I grew up in a small town in Northwestern Ontario, and in those pre-Internet days, we were very behind the times. When I heard Kurt Cobain died, I was watching the news with my grandfather. “Who’s that?” he asked. “Some musician, I think,” is what I said.
I had heard of Nirvana but had never heard one of their songs, because we only had two radio stations: Oldies and Country. There were no music stores and no book stores unless you drove an hour and then crossed the border into the U.S. The gas station rented a few movies, but if I wanted to see a movie in the theatre, I had to drive over an hour (one-way) and then cross into the U.S.
So, when the Internet did come to my small town, it was mind-blowing. However, at the same time, it was also sort of lame. It’s hard to explain to younger people now, but if you’re my age or older, you may remember when there really wasn’t actually much of anything on the Internet. For many years, I refused to get an e-mail address, because I thought they were a fad.
I saw the potential of websites immediately, however. When I was in high school, the band Radiohead had a website. It had no information about the band on it. It appeared to be hand-programmed by Thom Yorke and just had a bunch of weird, surreal poetry linked in a complex maze to other weird, surreal poetry. (Looking back, it was probably a major influence on my book Ex Machina.)
When I discovered that Radiohead site, I realized that the web would become the publishing platform of the future, somehow. If I had any business savvy, this revelation might have changed my life. Even in my un-businesslike haze, as soon as I could, I bought the domain www.JonathanBall.com. I learned HTML basics and programmed a series of websites for myself. They were all way too much work, but I liked to mess around with them. In 2014, I revamped the site for maybe the tenth time, into its current incarnation, and started feeling like I finally knew what I was doing (or at least what I should do) online.
Over the years, each new incarnation of my website has appeared relatively complex (even if it wasn't), so people often ask me how I built this site and how I run it. This is one of the most common questions I am asked over e-mail.
The purpose of this post is to answer that question, but I wanted to provide that long preamble first, so that you would understand something very important: I am not an expert in building websites. I just happen to have built this one.
I buy all my domains and hosting plans through Hostroute, because they are inexpensive and have great customer service. That’s an affiliate link, and so if you end up also using Hostroute then use the coupon code JBALL to get 20% off any of their hosting packages. I don't know how Hostroute compares to other companies, because I'm not a tech guy. I just know they are cheap and work and have great customer service, so I stick with them.
Make sure you buy a domain with a hosting package. Don’t just use the free hosting that often comes with domain name purchase. It’s not worth it in the long run, trust me. It will be a nightmare of headaches and hassles. You need to be able to support a database if you don't want to learn code or spend forever updating your site.
If you aren’t sure whether you want a website, buy the domain anyway (the name by itself, without a hosting plan) just to save it for later. If you don’t buy your domain name now, somebody else will. Trust me.
I run WordPress off of my site. I like WordPress because it is easy to update and has a lot of theme options, and is very customizable with various widgets and plugins. In the early days, I coded my site by hand in HTML. I don’t recommend that. Use a database content management system like WordPress. If you know some code, it helps, but WordPress is designed for people who know nothing about code.
Whether you end up using WordPress or one of its competitors, you will need a hosting plan that supports databases (sometimes it says MySQL). I don’t know what those words mean, but I do know that WordPress requires that your hosting plan supports a database since that’s basically what it is, if I understand things correctly, which I probably don’t. And look — I am running this website! WordPress is simple but robust.
Get Noticed! Theme
You can get a lot of free and cheap themes to run off of WordPress, and they work great. I started with a free theme, but at the time they were very limited. Now, they are much better. A free theme is probably good for most people.
For most of the others, an inexpensive theme is probably great. I have used a couple of different paid, but not pricey, themes over the years. Some of them looked excellent. You can always tweak these themes yourself, or (better yet) hire a designer to tweak them for you. WordPress is extremely customizable, either through installing free or paid plugins or through manipulating the actual code like a designer might.
I don’t have any particular ones to recommend. It just depends on what you want. Spend a lot of time picking out a theme, especially if you plan to pay for it or hire someone to customize it. Keep in mind that you can always change your site’s theme. It only takes about a minute. You can try out all sorts of different ones, and change it up whenever you want. WordPress is great because you can totally redesign your entire website in five minutes if you want.
You can also get some expensive, high-end themes. That’s what I did. I ended up with the Get Noticed! theme, which was designed by Michael Hyatt.
Before I go into the details of why I chose this theme, let me repeat that you do NOT need an expensive, high-end theme like Get Noticed! That’s just what I use. I like it so much that I would become an affiliate for it, but it doesn’t have a program so I’m not. I don’t get anything out of recommending it, and it’s expensive, and probably more than you need. Nevertheless, I won’t recommend anything else, because I don’t use anything else.
Here’s why I pulled the trigger and splurged on Get Noticed!
The point of this section is not to convince you to buy that theme (I don't make money from selling that theme or anything), but to show you how it’s important to determine what’s important to YOU, and then find the theme that works for YOU. Be willing to pay a little (though maybe not a lot) for what YOU want and need.
When I explain here why I splurged, the point is not that these should be important considerations for you — probably they shouldn't. The point is that you should think about what you want and why, and then find the online tools to support your needs.
- I wanted to paint myself into a corner. I felt that if I spent some “real money” on a theme, then I would feel compelled to use it heavily, so as to get my money’s worth. In for a penny, in for a pound. I never said it was a good reason. However, there’s something to be said for psychologically “pulling the trigger” and convincing yourself to take your website seriously by investing in it.
- It looks great out of the box. The theme I’m using right now is Get Noticed! with NO customization (design-wise). I’ve added widgets, and changed some settings, but I haven’t even altered the colour scheme yet. I haven’t designed the site to look nice. I knew I wouldn’t have time and money for that sort of thing for a while, and I wanted to focus on writing and adding content, not tweaking its look, so I wanted a theme that would look professional and clean right away — and would also be very customizable by a designer later.
- It works great on mobile devices. You want to make sure your theme is “responsive,” which means that it will redesign itself to look better on mobile phones and iPads and such. The Get Noticed! theme does that, and does it better than any other theme I’ve seen. It even moves certain sidebar items, like the sign-up box, to a more noticeable place on mobile phones than similar themes. It’s a very smart responsive design. Probably it will get copied and so the cheaper themes may be doing some of this stuff soon, if they don’t already.
- It has a bunch of “mini-post” options. I really wanted to have a way to post a lot of stuff on my site that was NOT treated the same way as a “full” blog post. A lot of themes allow this in a limited way, but the Get Noticed! theme has a ton of options. I don’t use some of them, and others I use heavily or in unintended ways. It’s very flexible, and it keeps all the “fluffier” stuff separate from my more “serious” weekly posts.
- It has “landing” page types. I create a bunch of pages that are not accessible from the main site, which are special pages intended for special audiences. They are technically available through Google, but mainly available through links I give out exclusively. These might be intended for students, or people listening to a podcast appearance, or publishers, or other smaller audiences that I want to send to some specific page for some reason. For example, I have a landing page meant for editors to whom I’m trying to sell my “Haiku Horoscopes” column. Take a look and notice how the sidebar on this page goes away when you click that link. There are a ton of reasons you might want to have a page like this. They work great for “ad”-type pages. I don’t do much of that, but you might.
Again, I want to stress that this is all just what I use and therefore recommend. I don’t ever recommend anything I don’t love and use. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something better I’m not using, that also deserves love. I’m not the expert when it comes to websites, I’m just the expert when it comes to this website. This site works, so this stuff works. That’s all I know.
I have some other websites, where I do things differently, although they all run off of Hostroute and use WordPress. My site at What Rappers Are Saying just runs some free theme called “Decode” by Scott Smith. (That site is basically a placeholder for a more developed, future site. I set the whole thing up in less than half an hour, which just goes to show you how easy this stuff can be. Don’t be intimidated! Start your own website.)
My site at Haiku Horoscopes uses a theme that was custom-built for me by Ryan Hill. That’s another option, if you know what you are doing — just build your own custom theme! Or hire somebody to do it, if you don’t know what you are doing, and you have some coin to invest in yourself and your site. You can do this stuff very cheaply. Even going with an expensive, high-end theme, you will be out only a few hundred dollars at day’s end.
I hope this is helpful for you, but really, I think you just need to try things. But DO try things, and DO get yourself a website. You’ll need it later, if not now. Also, bear in mind always that you have to ingest recommendations like these cautiously. Your website has to be what you want. Sometimes, it takes years to figure out what you want. It took me over a dozen years to decide how to develop this site. In a dozen years from now, it’ll probably be unrecognizable.
To cap this off, I’ll suggest what I always suggest: Experiment. If you build a site, link to it in the comments, and I’ll check it out. Tell me what works for you.