Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Top 100 Sites
This article Your Waterway Website is the copyright of Jim Shead - A guide to setting up a waterways website. First published in Waterways World in May 2004.
Why would I want to set up a waterways website? If that's the first question that occurs to you then you are thinking on the right lines, you need a reason and there are dozens of them. You may want to promote your canal society or boat club, you could have a passion for your local canal and want to share it with others. Perhaps you have written something that you can't get printed or has been published but is now out of print; maybe you just want to share your boating holiday with others or do you just love the idea of being a webmaster? I won't try to give an exhaustive list because there are so many different motives that prompt people to publish on the world wide web.
How do I start?
The first thing to realise is that setting up web pages is not difficult and that anyone who has managed to look at other websites and write a letter on their computer can set up a simple website of from one to a dozen or so pages. Having said that we can forget about the technicalities while we consider what your web site will be like and who is going to visit it. You may already have a good idea of what you want or you may not, in either case the first thing to do is to get on line and start looking at what is there already. Enter into Google some key words for your area of interest whether it is "canal hire boats", "oxford canal" or something more obscure like "London Cambridge Junction Canal" and see what is out there. Don't duplicate the information on another site unless you can do it better. Try to find a niche for your site - many sites have been set up because the someone has searched the web and discovered a gap. While you are looking around also note what you like and hate about the sites you visit, from the colours used to the ease with which you found your way round the site and the information available. This will help you decide what to do and what to avoid when you design your own pages.
Producing Web Pages
Before we start considering loading any pages on to the web it is a good idea to try setting up a few pages on your computer to see them working locally on your web browser. Web pages are written in HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) that is not really a programming language but is rather a text file with a set of tags telling the web browser how to display the information on the page. You can either write HTML yourself or you can get a web design software package that will produce the HTML code from your design.
I recently conducted a survey of waterways website owners and found that about 20% of the page production methods mentioned related to HTML text editors of various kinds. The other 80% used web design software and those mentioned most often were Microsoft Frontpage and the newer Dreamweaver, accounting for about 20% each. Around 7% of people were using both web design software and using HTML because even the best packages can't do everything that can be done in Hyper Text Markup Language. Building a web page using HTML is not that difficult, for example look at this web page:-
Now look at the code that produced the page:-
The tags that instruct the browser are contained between the < (less than) and > (greater than) characters. It is not possible within the scope of this article to explain all the tags but this information, and more about building a website, can be found on my website at http://sitebuild.jim-shead.com together with details of my survey of over a hundred websites.
Choosing a Web Host
Having produced a few web pages the next step is to find a web server to "host" your pages. If you already have a connection to the Internet you may find that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) provides some free web space for you or can provide web space if you switch to a different service package. If this is not possible you can consider either switching ISP or staying with your existing ISP and getting a separate company to "host" your pages.
There are plenty of ISPs that will provide a service for just the cost of local rate telephone calls. If you do require more web space than is offered by these deals then there are hosting packages that will give you extra space. The good news is that most people are happy with their ISP. In my survey 66% thought their ISP was very good or excellent and none rated them poor. The most adverse comment was "Not too happy with adverts" on a free service.
Loading Your Website
You will need some software to load your web pages onto the host server. If you have bought a web design software package, such as FrontPage or Dreamweaver, you will find that file transfer facilities are included, otherwise you will need to get a file transfer program (FTP). These are easily downloaded from the web and many of the basic versions are supplied free. The market leader seems to be Ipswich WS-FTP but CUTE FTP, Terrapin FTP and several others are available. Not everyone needs to go through this process as some ISPs provide free development software that allows you to build pages directly onto the server. This is not as generous as it may seem because it ties the user to the ISP. If you have to change ISP then you will need new development software and will have to download your pages to transfer them.
With our pages now on the server they are available to the whole world, but will anyone notice them? The top advice from my survey of webmasters was that search engines, and particularly Google, were all important for getting visitors. You can register directly with Google UK by clicking on "Jobs, Press & Help" at the bottom of their home page then taking the "Submitting Your Site" option. There are also services that will submit your site to the major search engines, just enter " Submit it free" into Google and take your pick, but you don't need to pay to have your site submitted to thousands of search engines because most of them are not that important. Another site that is worth submitting to is the Open Directory Project at http://dmoz.org/ that has real people assess the site before it is listed. This takes a long time and acceptance is not guaranteed but the Open Directory is used by all the major search engines. Also make sure that you have completed the element in your HTML page header. This can be used to give a list of keywords for search engines to use.
Another thing that is worth doing is getting links to and from other sites that have an interest in the waterways, your local area or some other common interest. You can also join the waterways web rings, the largest being the UK Canals Web Ring and the UK Waterways Web Ring. If you belong to one of the waterways newsgroups a mention of a new site, or some interesting updates, may see a rise in visitor numbers and don't forget to put your URL on the bottom of your emails, on letter heads and other printed material. For businesses and other organisations this can be a big factor as they need to be sure that their web address appears not only on advertising, newsletters and business cards but also on displays, vehicles and boats.
Before you do all this it is worth considering domain names. These are web addresses that you can choose yourself, which most companies and an increasing number of voluntary organisations and individuals have. To register your own .co.uk, .org.uk or any other .uk name only costs about £3 a year and could save you much more. Supposing your present ISP gives you a bad service or puts up prices and you need to change to a new ISP. With your own domain name you just load your web pages on to the new ISP's server and redirect your domain name to the new server address, so people using your URL do not notice the change. On the other hand, if you are using an ISP provided URL, it may have to change and you will need to inform everyone who was linked to your site as well as changing all your printed material etc.
Having mentioned earlier that free FTP programs are available it would be as well to point out that there are a lot more free programs and services available. The best known and most popular are site counters that display how many (or few) visitors have visited your site. There are also site search facilities, newsletter, email lists, bulletin board, guest book, visitor statistics and even shopping trolley software all available for free to enhance the facilities on your site. To help you develop and maintain the site there is more free software including HTML text editors and some very useful software that will automatically check all the links (internal and external) on your site. Free software is available by download from the web but some useful programs can be found on the covers of Internet magazines.
Words of Advice
I asked for advice on setting up waterways web sites and received over ninety replies from webmasters, giving 277 individual pieces of wisdom. The top advice was to keep it simple and easy to navigate and keep it up to date, an aim on which a few admitted falling short. Don't include flashing headings, unnecessary animation or other gimmicks. Make sure that your pages will load quickly and that your graphic files are optimised. You need to remember a lot of boaters will be accessing your site via a mobile phone link. What interests most visitors to your site is the content which should be relevant and useful. You need to research other websites and spend some time planning a site that will fill a gap. Allow enough time because like most projects it can take longer than expected. You don't need to do it all at once you can start small and develop the site over a longer period.
If you are new to all this don't be put off, we were all beginners once, and there is plenty of information on the subject on the web, in magazines, the bookshops and at your local library. Some of the best waterways sites have been created by people who have never built a site before and who have picked up what they need to know as the site was built. The technicalities are not what makes a web site interesting, it's the content, presentation and ease of use that are all important.
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