So you’ve decided to set up a personal academic website. Good move. When you have ownership over your lab website you have complete control over it. But where do you start?
First, you must decide what’s your tolerance for ease of use and flexibility. Are you the kind of person who wants something simple to use and is okay with not being able to move the image 10 pixels up? Or are you comfortable learning new technology and want more control over the layout?
If you are in the simple-to-use camp, I’d recommend a website builder like Squarespace. From talking to lots of investigators, it’s fairly easy to get up and running. I’ve seen both well-laid out and clunky lab websites built with Squarespace. This brings me to my big takeaway.
You can build a great website with pretty much any website builder tool out there.
They are just that, tools. The best one for you is the one that allows you to communicate what your audience needs to know about the lab and that you are going to use regularly.
I will say, I’ve seen more issues with faculty that have chosen to use some of the other website builders out there. Again, not the say that it can’t be done, but I suggest being safe and starting with Squarespace. The other nice thing about Squarespace is that there is a community of designers who work exclusively with Squarespace. So, if you ever do get in a pinch and there is something you just can’t figure out, you can find someone to help you.
I personally use WordPress to build my sites. It’s flexible and relatively easy to learn. The WordPress code is open access, so anyone can use it to create a website. It powers somewhere between 1/4 to 1/3 of the world’s websites. Have a question? Consult YouTube or Google, and you’ll find a plethora of tutorials. Still stuck? As with Squarespace, there is a large community of designers and developers who specialize in WordPress that will be able to help you.
Even though the code is free, you need someplace to host the files as well as all the other stuff you will display on your website, namely photos and documents. There are two main ways of hosting: WordPress.com or self hosting.
With WordPress.com, a lot of the hassles that come from self-hosting a WordPress site are taken care of for you by Automattic, the company that created WordPress. You don’t have to worry about purchasing separate domains, hosting and themes. You won’t have to worry about security or backups or updates. It’s all included.
Depending on which plan you choose, you have more or less control over which themes you can choose from, how much you can edit the design, whether you can integrate Google Analytics, and whether you can add plugins (extensions that add additional functionality), just to name a few.
If finances are an issue, at the very least choose the Personal plan so you don’t bombard your website visitors with ads. You will be stuck with the standard, free themes, and you won’t be able to edit the theme you choose, integrate Google Analytics or add plugins. But if you want a simple set-up and don’t care about changing stuff, then you can get away with the Personal plan.
The Premium plan allows you to choose from all the premium themes, add custom styling and integrate Google Analytics. I think that is the best choice for lab websites.
If you are thinking about adding any external plugins, then you can go with their Business plan, but at $25 per month (the current price as of 5/22/20) I think you are better served with self-hosting at that point.
Setting up a self-hosted WordPress website does take a bit more time at the beginning of your lab website adventure, but you’ll have a super flexible platform that can morph and grow over time. Want to add an SEO plugin, no problem. Found a cool theme you want to use? Upload it.
You will have to purchase hosting (the place where the WordPress files are stored and served up to the interwebs), a domain name (the name of your website, for example, www.mylab.org), and most likely a theme (website template or layout builder).
My service providers of choice are Hover for domain registration, FlyWheel for managed WordPress hosting and the Divi theme from Elegant Themes. These are exactly what I use when I build self-hosted WordPress sites.
I love Hover (affiliate link). That is high praise for the domain registrar business. Their dashboard is easy to use, which is more than I can say about other domain registrars I’ve used. And Hover is competitively priced. It’s a win-win.
This is the “hosting” part of self-hosting. The place where all your files are stored. Flywheel (affiliate link) is a managed hosting platform, which means they take of securing your site against attacks, and they make sure it’s always up and running to the best of their ability. I’ve never had an issue with my site going down with Flywheel. I have, however, had issues when using budget hosting in the past. Like that time a former colleague wanted to refer me for some work at his university, but my website was down, yikes!
There are other managed WordPress hosting companies, but I’ve been a customer for many years and have never had any reason to change. I’ve moved sites from other hosting platforms to FlyWheel, and their customer support was super helpful.
Go with the Tiny plan to start. It’s $13 per month with all the flexibility of the WordPress.com business plan.
There are tons of theme companies out there. Feel free to do your own research. I’ve been using the Divi Theme (affiliate link) for several years now. Its builder is fairly intuitive and will make you feel like a full-fledged web designer. If you are the kind of person who wants fine control over the format of your pages, you can do a lot without knowing any CSS.
Learning Divi is not without a learning curve, but isn’t almost everything good? They also have several prebuilt layouts in their library (essentially the same as a theme) so you don’t have to start from scratch.
A final thought about domain names
Regardless of how you decide to host and build your website, you are going to have to choose a domain name. That’s the unique name you type after the “https://” to get to the site. I recommend securing a .org domain for your site and name it whatever you call your lab (lastnamelab.org is pretty common). Don’t put dashes in your domain name if you can help it. Try lastnamelaboratory.org or another combination instead. Also, don’t put your university name in there. They probably won’t be too happy with that. And the whole point is that it’s portable. There are also other extensions other than .org. If you are creative and can figure out how to use them, by all means go ahead.
Final tip. Never ever let your domain name go unpaid. Trust me. Bad things ensue.
If you have any questions about creating your lab website, feel free to contact me.