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Build a business website for next to nothing


It’s true what they say: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you want a professional website worthy of your company, you’ll have to pay for hosting (at least). This needn’t be expensive, though – and when it comes to building the actual pages you can use fully featured, free software to create a high-quality site.

Open-source content-management system (CMS) WordPress is the best choice for creating most business websites. It’s free, easy to use and well supported, with many internet hosts offering wizard-style scripts that make installation a one-click process. Although originally conceived as a blogging platform, WordPress is now widely used on professional websites and there are thousands of high-quality designs that can be applied to suit your business, many of them free.

Setting up web hosting

If you’re setting up a site for a new business, do yourself a big favour by choosing the right hosting package at the outset. The ideal package will allow you to use your own domain, offer WordPress installation and feature reliable, ongoing hosting for a low price. As an example, we’ve chosen 1&1’s WP Basic package (1and1.co.uk/wordpress-blogs).

Of course, there are also plenty of other providers to choose from, including award-winner Heart Internet. Although the specifics of setting up the hosting will vary, the rest of the process is much the same once WordPress is installed. Another important part of the process is registering your domain, since this will be crucial to your identity and branding.

This needn’t be expensive, either, with the most common domains – .co.uk, .com and the new .uk – ranging from about £1 to £10 per year. It normally makes sense to register your domain with the firm that’s hosting your site, even though you could probably save a few quid by choosing two separate companies. Keeping one point of contact makes configuring your internet space simpler, and ensures any support issues won’t fall through the cracks. That said, it’s worth double checking the terms: 1&1’s WP Basic package comes with free domain registration, but it’s tied to the package – if you cancel your hosting, you lose the domain. It’s much better to register your URL separately: you can still do this through 1&1, or by transferring an existing domain to your 1&1 account.

This way, you can simply switch to a different package, or host, if the WP Basic package doesn’t work out. Registering a new domain via 1&1 is as simple as going to 1and1.co.uk/domain-names, typing in your preferred address and clicking Check. If your choice is available, click the trolley icon to add it to your shopping cart. During the buying process, 1&1 will entice you with offers of hosting and other add-ons – just ignore these. Next, you’ll receive an email with the subject line “Contract Confirmation”, which contains your customer ID at the bottom.

Use this to log in at 1and1.co.uk/login and check your Instant Domain Registration package is in place. Bear in mind that the domain will take 24 hours or so to propagate across the web, so it’s best to set up the hosting the following day. When you’re ready, head to 1and1.co.uk/wordpress-blogs and follow the order process for the Basic package.

When prompted, indicate you’re an existing customer and that you don’t want to buy a domain as part of the setup process. Again, you’ll receive a contract confirmation email; when you log in to your 1&1 control panel, you should see the WP Basic package listed alongside the domain. The last thing to do is assign your domain to the WP Basic package.

To do this, click on your Instant Domain Registration package, then click Domain Centre. From the Transfer/ Move Domain dropdown list, choose “Move additional domain between packages”. Select your domain in step 1, then the WP Basic package from step 2; confirm in step 3 before clicking Move Domain. You’ll now need to leave an hour or so for the package transfer to take place before setting up WP Basic.

Installing WordPress

If you already have hosting, WordPress may already be installed – or may be available for one-click installation from your hosting provider. If not, it’s a good idea to make contact and see if there’s an easy way to get hold of the software: it’s perfectly possible to perform a manual installation yourself – but you’ll need shell access to run the necessary commands. If you’re using a 1&1 WP Basic account then you can simply visit the online control panel and click the “set up WordPress button” at the top (if this doesn’t appear, scroll down and you’ll find WordPress under 1&1 App Centre), then click Install.

You will now be prompted to give your website a title – this will usually be the name of your business. Click Create Website. Choose a memorable but unpredictable username (not “admin” or anything similarly obvious) along with a secure password and, under Type Of Installation, select Free Mode. Although Safe Mode may seem the better choice, the latest version of WordPress updates itself, so the benefits are marginal; Free Mode gives you access to a larger selection of themes and plugins.

Click Continue and 1&1 will ask you to choose which domain you want to assign to the WordPress install. This is where you select your independently registered URL and click Assign Domain. WordPress will now be installed, and you can test that it has worked by typing your URL into a browser. Don’t worry – the plainlooking web page you’re looking at is the default WordPress design that we’ll be modifying before we launch.

Theme it

Broadly speaking, the way you add functionality and visuals to a WordPress site is by choosing themes and installing plugins. 1&1’s WP Basic package includes a wizard that takes you to the WordPress Dashboard and helps you begin the setup process.

If you’ve used a different provider, you can access these options from the Appearance and Plugins menus. The first thing we suggest you do is click the Get Started button and choose Business Website from the list of site types. This filters the themes you’ll see at the next step, so you won’t be swamped by inappropriate designs; for this example, we picked the Sparkling theme from Colorlib, but one of the great strengths of WordPress is that you can try out as many designs as you like without affecting any other aspect of the site.

Whichever you pick, make sure it’s responsive – this will always be in the description of the theme. Click the Select button to install Sparkling. The wizard now invites you to add a selection of useful plugins: we recommend you choose WordPress SEO, Google XML Sitemaps, Site Manager, Simple Page Ordering and Akismet from this page. We don’t have space to describe these plugins in full, but a quick web search will provide details on how they can help make your site easier to find, manage and keep relatively free of spam.

We also recommend installing the Jetpack set of plugins – this provides all sorts of useful features, including website statistics, integration with social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, and warnings if your site goes down. You can find a full list of Jetpack features at wordpress.org/plugins/jetpack – and you can find the installer by clicking Plugins at the left of the WordPress interface. You should see Jetpack at the top, where you can click Install Now. If it isn’t there, use the Search Plugins box to find and install it.

Jetpack is built by the company behind WordPress itself and requires a free account with WordPress.com, the widely used blogging platform. To set this up, simply install Jetpack and click the “Connect to WordPress.com” button. There are plenty of other plugins to choose from, to enhance your site in various ways. Some work behind the scenes, while others add visible elements – usually in the form of “widgets”. Go to Appearance | Widgets and you’ll see a series of widget areas, the main one being Sidebar.

Available widgets are listed on the left, and you can drag and drop those you wish to appear onto the sidebar, reversing the process for those you want to remove. For example, by adding the Twitter Timeline widget (part of Jetpack), you can embed your recent posts into the site’s sidebar. By dragging Blog Subscriptions onto the page, you can allow users to sign up for updates by email – a powerful feature.

Spit and polish

You can now take a look at your site by opening it up in a separate tab. It won’t be too impressive at this point, but we’re about to polish it up. First, we need to reorganise the site’s structure so it works as a business website rather than a blog. To do this, go to Pages | Add New, create a homepage – for now this can simply be a placeholder – and click Publish. Now, go to  settings | Reading and, under Front Page Display change “Your latest posts” to “A static page”. Choose your new homepage from the Front Page dropdown box and this will now be the page that greets all visitors.

We can add features to the homepage by making use of the three widget areas that appear beneath the text you added when you created the page. Go to Appearance | Widgets and drag and drop widgets into the areas marked Homepage Widget 1-3. Note that you may not see the same arrangement of widget areas if you’ve selected a different theme to us. It’s now time to start filling out the site content. Create a Contact Us page and click the Add Contact Form button (another function provided by Jetpack), then choose which fields to include and click “Add this form to my post”.

You’ll probably also want an About Us page, plus further pages you’re offering relating to the service or product. The WordPress interface is very simple to use for adding content: to insert images, click Add Media on the Edit Page screen. Inviting visitors to comment on your pages is a good way to add value to your site, but spam can be a problem. Go to the Dashboard and you’ll see a prompt to enable the Akismet plugin. As with Jetpack, this needs to be linked to your WordPress.com account; once you’ve done this, it will do an excellent job of filtering out junk comments. To keep the net tight, go to Settings | Discussion and select either “Comment must be manually approved” or “Comment author must have a previously approved comment”.

Now you can get more ambitious: the walkthrough (see Installing a carousel and polishing up your site, p33) shows how to add a carousel to your homepage and smarten up the site. With this done, the first version of your new website should be ready to roll. In the coming weeks, aim to enhance it, adding plugins or widgets to suit your particular customers.

You should also install a database backup plugin, so you can make a regular copy of the site in case of disaster. By choosing a WordPress-based hosting package, you’ve set up a professional web presence in next to no time, with no need for specialist expertise, and with minimal investment.

It’s easy to manage and will be SEO-friendly, so you’ll have a head start on rising through the rankings, and if you’ve chosen a responsive theme it will be suitable for viewing on all devices. It’s never been easier to create a high-quality website that will enhance your reputation, so if your business is still getting by with a holding page, it’s time to upgrade.