So you want to build a Web site

This is the first in a series of entries on how to plan your website. Whether you are starting from scratch or rebuilding an existing site, I hope this will help you understand how with careful planning you can build a site that serves the needs of your target audience.

Now that you've decided to make a site, you are probably thinking about colors, html and menus, etc. But just as one doesn't hit the ball in one's first tennis lesson, one doesn't start a website by jumping into the code.

Instead, the first question you should ask yourself is: WHY?

Shiloh was a very cute Rottweiler

Why do you need the site?

Initial responses to this question often include things like:

  • My boss said we need a site and she put me in charge because I'm good with computers.
  • I want to learn HTML.
  • I have 50 cute pictures of Rottweilers that I want to share with the world.

While those may be true, they're not the real reason you need to build the site. The real reason involves your goals. (If your goal is to learn HTML, then pick a topic with which you are familiar, and pick your goals accordingly. I'd recommend something with a narrow focus such as the wonderful things you can do with capers as opposed to the history of nanotechnology.)

What are your real goals?

Here at Case I find that goals tend to involve the distribution of basic information, dissemination of knowledge, and a marketing call to action.

Basic information usually includes the location of your office, hours you are available, a directory of staff and faculty in the department, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc.

Dissemination of knowledge involves the sharing of more in-depth information. Examples would include a biography of Bertolt Brecht, a tutorial on the double helix, your grandmother's compendium of apple pie recipes, information on configuring your e-mail program, or reviews of B Movies featuring creatures from other planets complete with cast lists, photos and the names of the costumers.

Marketing (for our purposes) means a call to action. What do you want people to do as a result of visiting your website? Examples might be:

  • Apply for admission to your program.
  • Attend events such as your gaming/pizzafest marathon.
  • Donate money to a memorial scholarship fund.
  • Read Chapters 12-15 before Tuesday's class.
  • Participate in your research project.

Almost all of you will have one or more marketing goals.

So let's say you're the one with the 50 pictures of cute Rotties. What are your real reasons for building the site? Do you just want to share your photos with other Rottweiler fans? Do you want people to hire you to take pictures of their dogs? Do you want to educate the public about Rottweilers and dispel myths about their viciousness? Do you want to provide information about the care and training of Rottweilers so that their owners will treat them with the respect and affection they may need? All of the above? Something else?

Think carefully about this. When you have a clear idea of your goals we can go onto the next steps: Understanding your target audience and choosing the content you need to support your goals.

Happy July 4th!

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  1. You might want to consider posting this on the Case Wiki somewhere. The information is really helpful and putting it on the wiki will help with increasing its search results ranking.

    Comment by Greg — August 25, 2005 @1:00 pm

  2. Heidi, I would like to explore the possibility of a web site for the purpose of distributing a copyrighted book I have written on "A History of the Role General Electric Played in the Development of Numerical Control for Machine Tools." It was requested by, and will be archived at, the Smithsonian in DC. It runs over 300 pgs and would be best copied to a CD for later printing. I have absolutely no knowledge or capability in this area; nor do I know the costs of such. Therefore,this is an exploratoy inquiry at the moment. Is such a possibility for an alumnus? -- Dick

    Comment by Richard A. Thomas '44 — October 13, 2005 @2:57 pm

  3. Please do not set the color css property, and then not set the background-color css property. The w3c validator should catch this, but to see it for yourself, change the default text colors to white on black in your browser and then look at this page. Or

    Comment by Chris — April 19, 2006 @4:41 am

  4. Also, I noticed that your blog template is not as bad as the one that I used in the past, I.E. it is not table-based. Is this template the new default one for the university?

    Comment by Chris — April 19, 2006 @4:45 am

  5. Thanks Chris, I though I'd included that in the stylesheet, but apparently I'd left it out. I've since added it.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — May 16, 2006 @12:47 pm

  6. I've been tinkering with the tableless (mostly) templates for awhile, but we've not officially released them yet. I think what we might do is offer an updated version of the old ones, as well as this new version. offers another example of the new version in use, but on a regular Web site. This will give users of different skill levels more of a choice.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — May 16, 2006 @12:54 pm

  7. Do you know where I can find examples of website blueprints? I'm doing a project and need to find a good one to model after. My project is a startup e-commerce web based e-business, any good blueprints for this sort of planning would be great, Thanks, Dave.

    Comment by Dave Tubb — November 8, 2006 @12:57 pm

  8. Thanks, that tutorial is very usefull, for more informatin about html,css.. look here:

    Comment by globalwarming awareness2007 — April 11, 2007 @3:13 pm

  9. Great insight into why you want a website, enjoyable read.

    Comment by Web Directory — April 24, 2007 @5:52 am

  10. Its really nice to read complete blog. and i found that information in this blog is good for who want to have basic site design.

    Comment by sajid — May 1, 2007 @3:18 am

  11. I like your posts, Heidi, as they are always interesting and helpful. Thanks!

    Comment by Marketing Products — May 1, 2007 @9:23 pm

  12. Heidi.its good help for new students

    Comment by sajid — May 2, 2007 @1:00 am

  13. Very extensive article covering the basic planning aspects of a website

    Comment by shopautodotca seocontest — May 7, 2007 @7:28 pm

  14. Great article outlining website planning but it could be updated to include basic SEO considerations such as keyword research and domain considerations

    Comment by Anonymous — May 7, 2007 @7:33 pm

  15. I wrote about raising your Web site rankings last February. When it comes to keywords I think it is most important to keep them in proper context. Search Engine Optimization is important, but quality content will still win out.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — May 8, 2007 @5:52 pm

  16. marketing is the the hard part of the game, though you have created a site but no one is watching it, then creating a site is useless. Marketing makes the site important

    Comment by mark — May 15, 2007 @5:53 am

  17. While marketing can be tricky, it is the content that makes the site important. If you provide informative content that serves the needs of your visitors, word will spread. If your content is weak, then all of the marketing in the world won't help. You might get them to the site, but they won't stick around and they won't return.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — May 16, 2007 @10:43 am

  18. Great post. However, the reality is different. Instead letting businesses to their product and sales, business development grants will be given to build a website? Are those Web Designers and SEO's really so out of work, that they have made deals to use public money? I wrote an article Website desing, business cards, SEO and stupidity about the topic. Meaningless stupidity.

    Comment by Veiko Herne — May 23, 2007 @6:26 pm

  19. Well, as we go on, we find that building websites are not as complicated as they were 3 years ago. And, more people build websites just for the sake of building one. Usually, plans change as time passes and we suddenly find that websites evolve, and sometimes leading to a whole concept and plan. A "why did I build this website? and how come I'm shifting topic after all the time I've put into building my website?" question. But, it still follow the basics of how anyone approaches building a website. You touched upon great points. As an affiliate marketer, I don't build websites untill I have reasearched some products with high converson rates, then I build a website having these products in mind, and the most important factor when building a website is SEO. Because lets face it, without traffic there's no use of the website, and SEO brings traffic, mostly organic. If you could please write something about SEO, specifically the SEO factors that determine ranking, and I know they are defferent from search engine to another, but most of them have got to be common. I know this topic is very broad and complicated, but I hope that you atleast shed some light on it to get your readers started :) I have already touched upon link building in my blog: I have only scratched the surface, and I'm hoping to go deeper and learn more during the process.

    Comment by Link Building — June 11, 2007 @10:37 pm

  20. Great post Heidi keep coming.

    Comment by BKP — June 18, 2007 @8:19 am

  21. Hi Heidi your post is really interesting and useful.Keep posting.

    Comment by Joel — June 19, 2007 @8:54 am

  22. A couple of people have mentioned how to implement SEO on websites. I'd like to touch on the subject and hope i dont digress from teh main topic. As far as my experience goes, SEO is not really a great mystery; if you get the basics right, your website will start ranking well. So what are the basics? I'll see if i can think of the most important, which are: 1.Good css based website, without tables or flash or java... 2. website code and css validated to w3c 3. Well written UNIQUE and fresh content on every page - DO NOT copy other sites 3. correct use of your keywords within your tags (header, meta, title..) 4. Having a site map for search engines to navigate through your website 5. Continuously adding new content 6. Getting incoming links to your website If you can do teh above well, you will rank well. Its a method i tried and tested and got ranked above 200 million others just by using teh basics. Good luck

    Comment by web design — June 26, 2007 @3:56 pm

  23. Even as old as this article is, the information is very relevant, especially the part about WHY. There are too many websites out there with no call to action, and educating site owners is a hard task. And Joel? You're dead on correct...

    Comment by Scott Hendison — July 10, 2007 @10:29 am

  24. Thanks for this quick tutorial I think it will help me and Reddinet!

    Comment by website design worcester — August 5, 2007 @11:20 am

  25. thanks for this useful blog, i hope you will be doing more similar posts in the future?

    Comment by internet marketing services — August 6, 2007 @8:17 pm

  26. the best way to start learning is to use dreamweaver and use the graphical interface to show you what the equivalent html is

    Comment by internet marketing services — August 6, 2007 @8:19 pm

  27. Yes dreamweaver is the only way i think i learned a lot about html by using it although it does get it wrong sometimes but a good tool never-the-less

    Comment by website design guy — August 28, 2007 @4:52 pm

  28. Dreamweaver is a great tool, but it really helps to learn HTML. If you rely too much on the WYSIWYG editor you may miss out on the nuances of the code as well as create bloated files that have extra code you don't need.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — August 29, 2007 @3:07 pm

  29. Yes dreamweaver is the only way i think i learned a lot about html by using it although it does get it wrong sometimes but a good tool never-the-less

    Comment by bob ryn — September 8, 2007 @2:02 am

  30. for information my favorite html editor is dreamweaver but css editor is ms frontpage

    Comment by OknooRap — September 10, 2007 @10:45 am

  31. I've used a number of different tools/programs in the past to enable me to build good quality websites, and they all have different strengths and weaknesses. But I have to say that Dreamweaver cuts the mustard above anything I've ever used. To me, it is the industry standard, and always will be. I'm also keeping my eye on a new product called Site Rubix. Apparently, it enables you to construct a website from within a drag and drop enviroment, without any html knowledge. Possibly not suitable for those that have advanced HTML knowledge, but it's interesting to see how things evolve online, if it proves to be as promising as it suggests, it should be very interesting.

    Comment by Design Edge — October 3, 2007 @9:54 am

  32. The basic principles enumerated here are timeless. But the advent of Web 2.0 (and related ideas) dictate that a web designer consider elements of interactivity and participation. This is no longer about comments and forums.

    Comment by Ajeet — October 3, 2007 @12:04 pm

  33. I think the above are useful comments when considering building a site it is important to ask your self why and the goals of the website, both long and short term. By not doin this I have got myself trapped in a situation where over time I have has to redesign my own website at lest four times! Had I taken the time to plan everything from day one I would have saved a lot of time

    Comment by Cosmetic dentist — October 3, 2007 @8:36 pm

  34. I agree that it's important to think carefully about what the underlying reason is for a website, the dogs example fits the bill perfectly :) Nice article

    Comment by WebSite Developer — December 4, 2007 @3:32 pm

  35. I teach web design at a University here in Minneapolis and this is very good information!

    Comment by Minneapolis Web Design — December 11, 2007 @5:37 pm

  36. I have a webdesign firm in Livepool this is great info

    Comment by liverpool designer — December 24, 2007 @10:08 pm

  37. So, 3 years later, people still keep finding all these principles alive. Is technology progressing at all? :)

    Comment by Ajeet Khurana — January 7, 2008 @5:15 pm

  38. I like your post. The Web is filled with junk info and if people in general put a little more thought into why they should even have a site in the first place things would probably be alot different. As someone who has built plenty of sites through the years, however, I actually think the most important part of the formula for creating a useful site is passion. A lot of hard work goes into building a site worthwhile of other peoples attention - to keep plugging at it you need to be motivated in a way that only passion can produce.

    Comment by Mr Skin — January 15, 2008 @6:40 am

  39. I like your posts very much! They are always helpful. Thanks!

    Comment by EX — January 21, 2008 @6:39 pm

  40. Great post Heidi ! bookmarked :)

    Comment by Képeslap — January 23, 2008 @2:05 pm

  41. Excellent post. All people starting out in Web design should read and re-read this and let it soak in.

    Comment by SEO Training — January 29, 2008 @3:37 am

  42. This should probably be renamed the ever eternal truths about web site building or something that has a religious connotation to it :) just kidding. But it is good to see a sensible list that is evergreen

    Comment by Ajeet — March 18, 2008 @3:04 pm

  43. nice site and very nice read. thanks for the interesting 30 minutes it took to scan and read.

    Comment by web design — March 22, 2008 @12:23 am

  44. How about updating this info to include the much-hyped web 2.0 style?

    Comment by AK — April 2, 2008 @3:01 pm

  45. I think the above are useful comments when considering building a site it is important to ask your self why and the goals of the website, both long and short term. By not doin this I have got myself trapped in a situation where over time I have has to redesign my own website at lest four times! Had I taken the time to plan everything from day one I would have saved a lot of time

    Comment by indir — April 6, 2008 @12:41 pm

  46. great post.thanks for informations.

    Comment by estetik — April 10, 2008 @11:48 am

  47. I agree that social networks are going to play a huge role in business development strategies moving forward. There are new technologies and marketing media already associated with these sites, especially facebook, that marketers are finding useful. I don’t think we can really fully grasp the scope of how these website communities will adapt in the future, but it is clear that the business world needs to pay attention to the trends. It is important not to get left behind when it comes to online marketing...

    Comment by Chris — April 10, 2008 @11:51 am

  48. Really nice post, thanks.

    Comment by Bidding Directory — April 12, 2008 @10:17 am

  49. Great article thanks for sharing. I must agree to a comment reality is different ;-)

    Comment by hammock chairs — April 13, 2008 @5:31 am

  50. nice site and very nice read. thanks for the interesting 30 minutes it took to scan and read.

    Comment by Hileler — April 13, 2008 @8:28 am

  51. I teach web design at a University here in Minneapolis and this is very good information!

    Comment by Saglik — April 13, 2008 @8:30 am

  52. the best way to start learning is to use dreamweaver and use the graphical interface to show you what the equivalent html is

    Comment by indir — April 13, 2008 @8:34 am

  53. I am an assistant professor in multimedia, web design in India. Really it is a very great discussion.

    Comment by — April 29, 2008 @2:48 pm

  54. The plans necessary in building a website can be quite complex depending upon what the site is about, this a great resource that can help anyone who is building or thinking about building a site, there are so many factors to consider today when designing sites that it can take quite a while before a good design is decided upon.

    Comment by Web Design — April 30, 2008 @7:54 am

  55. This is excellent info, I am web designer, I always suggest to plan carefully and you get what you want. Great post

    Comment by Web Design Lincolnshire — May 14, 2008 @5:38 pm

  56. Its amazing this blog started in 2005 and its 2008. Unless I missed a post I dont see mention of Blogs as the new SEO and Design platform of our modern times its SEO and Design in its best most usuable form web 2.0 any one go figure. Web Design has taken a back seat to value and for a good reason.

    Comment by Blogempire — May 22, 2008 @11:02 pm

  57. Hi Mark A Briody from Sydney Australia, After reading the information here I realised that some of your readers might not know how to build a website if they have limited funds. I myself was in that situation only two short years ago. By searching on Google I found some really simple and relatively cheap software that allowed me to build websites. After learning how to build a website I realised very quickly I also needed two other important necessities… I needed to implement compelling copy to my web sites along with a call to action and not to forget a one kick butt heading that captivated the reader. The next thing was learning how to get targeted traffic to my sites. The three things – building a website, compelling copy and targeted traffic are like an all in one machine for anyone looking to build a website (in my opinion) These days I build websites for small business owners and have some of these sites ranking very well in Google’s organic search results. I hope this short piece has helped in some way. Thank you kindly, Mark A Briody Internet Marketing Entrepreneur

    Comment by Mark A Briody — June 18, 2008 @10:59 am

  58. I think under marketing, you should also add, "To make money" as a reason under marketing. Donating is nice for some people. Others would prefer to make money before they can donate it.

    Comment by Idaho Falls Web Design — July 9, 2008 @11:05 pm

  59. Quite interesting actually, i'll have to bookmark your site now to check out what other things you might say. ;)

    Comment by dekor — August 11, 2008 @4:43 pm

  60. "What are your real reasons for building the site?" This is a good question indeed. I know many people who ask for a website and they do not know why they need one. And they expect that once they have a website, they will have more clients which is not true. It's important to view your website as part as your marketing plan.

    Comment by RoWeb Design — August 12, 2008 @2:28 pm

  61. Yes I totally agree with you. The biggest struggle I have when I chat to a new client is regarding what they want their website for, what they want it to do and what content goes on the website. As I don't design sites to look pretty I focus more on a site that Google will like and implementing compelling copy to sell what ever the customer is trying to sell. Seems to really please the few customers I've done work for. Yes a marketing plan is important to the all round design of a website too...I couldn't agree more. It's unfortunate most business owners will never realise this. Much appreciate your comments. All my best. I've build some really simple sites recently (one for a friend) and given these people some marketing stratagies for their websites resulting in much larger profits. And yes I agree that if there is no money in it for them

    Comment by Mark A Briody-Website Designer — August 17, 2008 @9:43 am

  62. Great article! I know someone mentioned something about the article being old but I think the "why" never changes. Regardless of whether you were building a website 5 years ago or you'll be building one 5 years from now, it's important to keep your goals in mind. I took a class in high school called "computer literacy" and I also took "computer fluency" in college. They both taught us about HTML and creating sites and stuff but it was tough stuff. A bit more complicated than I thought. There are definitely some websites and software out there that help out with that. I've had the opportunity to work with Homestead lately and they're quite helpful. They have website building software which can oftentimes be easier than creating your own website from scratch. I guess it depends how knowledgeable you are about HTML and stuff. Anyway, definitely a great post. I'll be sure to bookmark your page and watch out for other posts from you.

    Comment by Marcela Curran — August 18, 2008 @4:16 am

  63. Planning a website means deciding on the core elements and purpose, choosing the technology that best suits the needs and outlining the structure. In non educational websites choosing a domain is equally important. Everything is defined by the purpose as the some technologies or platforms better at one thing but worse (or less suited) than others. For example creating a blog is better suited by a bloggin platform than a CMS like Joomla. But with Joomla you can have a blog and a forum and dynamic content among others. Today someone can create a website without learning HTML or PHP but doing so will boost the result and customization options.

    Comment by website creation guides — August 18, 2008 @8:36 am

  64. Great post Heidi, If I may Mario stated. Find a problem - deliver the solution - you can't go wrong. Another thing to be aware of is trends - if your building a website on current trends - you need to stay well updated - coz they can change over night - leaving you high and dry. There is so much more to look out for - the right domain, the right hosting, keyword research, what platform to build your site on, how much to outsource, maintenance, link building..etc etc... and you get the picture. The key is to take action - start and the rest will follow

    Comment by Free Joomla Templates — September 24, 2008 @11:27 am

  65. I have to address the content comment above that reads along the lines of: if your content is weak, all the marketing in the world won't help. Very true. From a search marketing perspective, content delivery is growing to be more and more important. From an SEO/SEM standpoint, more people searching online are becoming comparison 'shoppers' as time goes on. In other words, you may rank well, but more conversions are occurring for better designed and more content relevant websites -- and they may rank lower on the search engine totem pole of merit. In many cases, no longer is it important to be number one, but be: #1 with the best content or not #1 with the best content The marketing 'call to action' from a content point of view is almost as important as the 'call to action' words. The synergy of the two is what is key here. Best, Joe Overit Media

    Comment by Web Development in New York — October 10, 2008 @3:05 pm

  66. I love your blog, so I've gone back. Pretty way back with this post, but you do have it in the menu so it sticks out :) Reading this and thinking how has web development changed over the years. All the stuff in this post still holds true, albeit that you posted this in 2005. You need to understand and want a web site for a reason. Some people just think they need it when they really may not.

    Comment by Domains at Retail — October 17, 2008 @1:46 pm

  67. Couldn't agree more Joe. I've had a number of small business owners on the phone with me this week wanting me to get them front page listings in Google. The challenge is, their website may obtain the traffic from their SEO results but that is about it. Their content is not optimised, nor is it compelling in anyway. These business owners won't listen when I try to help them on the subject so it makes it challenging when you are trying to do the honourable thing. I bet you web developers are nodding your heads right about now :) I think I might email them the link to this post just so they can hear it from inside professionals like you and others on this site. Thank goodness for posts like this. Mark Briody

    Comment by Mark - SEO — October 31, 2008 @8:53 am

  68. I have found that WordPress is a very good content management system that has some very good plugins that help with effective control of what the Search Engines see and what does and does not get indexed. Seo Press Formula has some good videos about getting your site ranked well in the search engines.

    Comment by Tom Ogden — November 3, 2008 @5:10 pm

  69. Excellent brain clearing information. Why do you need it and what are your goals? Simple and direct. Thank you (and the picture of the Rottie is also nice)

    Comment by Jed Rose — November 9, 2008 @4:40 am

  70. Very good advice. So simple and yet so often ignored. Get the "why" and "what" right and the rest will follow. Cute dog, too.

    Comment by Jed Rose — November 9, 2008 @4:50 am

  71. Thanks for the information provided. The blog was posted in 2005 and still there are interest in this topic. Let me share my experience in build websites. 1. Find a niche An example will be Espresso Makers 2. Research on the niche 3. Design the website using Dreamweaver. (I learn how to use Dreamweaver and CSS through the internet and books) 4. Tie up with merchants to market the products. 5. Design the site to be SEO friendly. 6. Push to the web server 7. Starts to link with other sites. 8. Have some form of stats like AWstats or Google Analyser to monitor 8. Be patient and wait for results. Thanks for the information provided.

    Comment by CE - Coffee and Espresso Makers — December 13, 2008 @10:15 pm

  72. Great article! Planning your website requires very careful thought from headline, key word placement, valuable content and design focusing on the needs of your niche.

    Comment by Make Money — December 23, 2008 @12:31 am

  73. Thanks for your insightful tutorial. I was wondering if you would be willing to consider a new perspective for this content. While this information is great for someone wanting to design their own website, what about a company that wants to hire a designer. There are specific ideas that you touch on that could be re-written from a business-owner's perspective to outline how to go about preparing content, choosing layout/design, and publishing a website. Great information that is useful for the new developer or the one-time developer. Thanks for your insight, jase

    Comment by jase — January 6, 2011 @1:02 pm

  74. Jase, Yes, at some point I plan on writing a new version of this that also speaks more directly to the business community. It's simply a question of time. When I do that I'm thinking of also publishing it as an e-book.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — January 13, 2011 @8:26 am

  75. Thank you for the useful information in the tutorial and also the insightful follow up comments. As a small business owner, I for one would be very interested in e-book you have planned.

    Comment by Marsha - Chair Mats Website — January 13, 2011 @3:44 pm

  76. I am really looking forward to the new version of this article as you seem to capture the most important information so it does not get lost in the details

    Comment by Boatyard — February 11, 2011 @2:33 pm

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