The Internet is the greatest experiment in human expression in the history of civilization. Anyone with something to say can put his or her views out there for anyone in the entire world - from Peoria to Beijing to Havana - to see. The Internet is fast becoming a necessary business tool, so any country that limits access to it cuts its own economic throat.
If you do any shopping or product research on the Internet, you know that the same things that apply to politics apply to business. So if you're planning to create your own presence on the Internet, especially if it's for your business, you want to be sure that your site is a pearl - useful, informative and attractive.
The first step to any Internet presence is to decide whether to register your own domain name. Domain names are at the root of every address (URL) on the Internet. You would want yours to be something like www.yourcompanyname.com. For a business, domain names represent a very inexpensive way of building prestige. Provided that it is not already taken, just about anyone can register a domain, which is done with Internic - a company that currently enjoys a government granted monopoly on the process. The cost for registering your own domain name is only $35 per year, with the first two years payable up front.
Another advantage to owning your own domain is that you can take it with you. Every web page must reside somewhere on an Internet server, which is really just a computer with a permanent Internet connection. If you own your own domain, Internic's Directory of Network Services (DNS) determines where your page can be located, and if you move your page from one server to another, the change is transparent and effective as soon as the DNS gets updated about the move.
The other way that you can have a presence on the Internet is through something often referred to as "Virtual Domain" hosting. This is where you use someone else's domain as the first part of your own address, yielding something like www.myhost.com/yourcompany.
Virtual sites are typically less expensive (often free actually - more on this below), but they obviously lack the distinction that your own domain name offers. And for a business that will print its URL on their stationery, owning your own domain also means that you won't have to worry about changing your letterhead and business cards when you change servers.
For most businesses, unless (and maybe even if) they have a real computer guru on staff, a professional should be consulted about establishing their Internet presence. This is especially true if they're considering an "active" page with scripting, such as forms, order entry, data lookup, etc. These techniques are typically beyond the scope of the average user.
But a "static" personal web page, which is really nothing more than a mixture of text and graphics, can be an excellent beginning to a basic understanding of Web Sites, a great way to spread your views, and good for keeping family and friends informed.
Thanks to some recent developments, WVNET users are now able to create their own Internet soapboxes, and the best part is that it is FREE. The space on the server (up to 2 Megabytes) is included as part of your monthly fee, although only Virtual Web Sites are available.
WVNET has also gone to some lengths to make instructional information available to anyone willing to invest the time to learn how to create proper web documents, and the process is easier than you might think.
The purpose of this series of columns, then, is to outline the basics, mention the most critical aspects of the process, and point out certain pitfalls that you may encounter that have not been covered in your ISP's documentation. If your Internet Service Provider (ISP) is someone other that WVNET, much of what is detailed here should still apply in one way or another.
In addition to your ISP, there are companies that are advertiser-supported, such as Angelfire and Geocities, which offer free web space. These servers (and most ISP's) also offer a very easy step by step process, enabling even the most technically challenged to create a crude home page.
Unlike the slightly less restricted space provided by your ISP, however, the Virtual, "free home pages" from the advertiser-supported servers remain the property of the company offering the service. You are stuck with their rules (and their advertising on your page) and could lose your place (or content) at any time.
Regardless of whether you use the space provided by your ISP or one of the advertiser-supported servers, if you're the least bit discriminating, you won't be happy with the generic looking "page" that you'll get from completing the form. You'll at least want to splash a little color onto it and change the layout of some of the information.
Certainly, the space is lacking here for a complete primer on the process of creating a home page. This process should begin with a basic, but clear, understanding of HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) and FTP (File Transfer Protocol). You can obtain such an understanding by following the WVNET links or those of your own ISP.
HTML refers to the basic language used to create web documents, and there's nothing at all complicated about it. Basically, you have embedded "tags" ("invisible" except to the browser software) that surround the text and graphics on the page. These tags are usually framed in the angle brackets < and >, and they have an effect on the text (or graphics) that they surround. The simplest HTML tags may specify a typeface size or a font attribute (i.e., bold). Other tags may refer to a graphical image or a link to another web document.
The latest office suites and word processing programs on the market offer HTML "generators" which will take your word processing or desktop publishing documents and convert them to HTML. This might be a good way to start a personal home page, but if you're planning to use the web for business or you're a perfectionist, it would be wise to develop a basic understanding of HTML (or contract with a professional Webmaster). The documents generated automatically by these office programs are typically flawed.
These generators are only as good as the programmers who built them, and my experience has been that there are a lot of people trying to do this work that barely understand what they're doing. I spend a lot of time cleaning up such work for people, and in a future part of this series, I'll give away some basic secrets and reveal what I consider the most common mistakes made by budding Webmasters.
Meanwhile, anytime you're browsing the web, and you see something you'd like to do on your own home page, you can simply click on "View" and then "Document Source" and you'll see all the HTML tags involved in that document. There's really no better way to learn HTML.
In a future installment, I'll tell you how to move your creations to your ISP's web server and give WVNET users the correct URL's to start them on their way to beginning their own free home page.
Art Glick dba Almost Heaven Electronics