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Small Web Sites Can Be Beautiful

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For little or no more cost than the price of Internet access, individuals or small groups can build their own websites to promote purely personal interests or avocations. With the right combination of low or no cost tools, some pointed investigation into what’s possible and what’s not, and a bit of elbow grease, almost anybody can put a small site together for all kinds of uses. You won’t find fancy shopping carts, fancy databases, or high-end animation on such sites, but you can share information, display photos or artwork, and reach your audience quickly and effectively.
Ed Tittel is a regular contributor to InformIT.
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Open any computer magazine nowadays and flip to the section near the back called the display ads. Here, you'll find 4 to 16 small advertisements per page, many of which offer low-cost Web hosting services, sometimes for as little as $9.95 a month, seldom do such offers rise much above $29.95 per month. Before you dismiss such offers out of hand, stop to think a minute about what a small, well-crafted website could do for you, your family, a church or volunteer group, a sports team, and ... well, you get the idea.

What's more, people who sign up for Internet access with a service provider often overlook the typically small "free" amounts of Web space that many such accounts include. Although you'll almost always pay extra for a URL that features your own domain name — for example, www.bobwsmith.com instead of www.yourisp.com/users/~bobwsmith — you can often consume as much as 5 to 10 MB of disk space to pull a small website together at no additional cost. If you do seek the solace or superiority of your own domain name, expect to pay at least $30 a year for that privilege, and anywhere from $10 a month and up for your website.

Figuring Out the Fundamentals

At a profoundly fundamental level, websites consist of a collection of files, where most files are usually of two or three basic types (though more elaborate schemes are not only possible, but inevitable, they apply to more sophisticated sites than you may want to build for the narrow applications I cover here):

  • Web documents: these files use a special markup language designed for the Web called the Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML, or they may use a more modern version called the Extensible Hypertext Markup Language, or XHTML. Either way, such files usually end with an .htm or .html extension. Simply put, these files contain the words that appear on Web pages, along with hidden instructions that tell a Web browser what those words should look like when you see them on your computer screen.

  • Images: these files contain graphics information ready for a Web browser to grab and display along with the text that surrounds them on a typical Web page. Such files are usually in one of three graphics formats (though others do sometimes occur):

    .gif: graphic interchange format, an early compressed file format designed to capture graphics data in compact form (quick to download, easy to display). For reasons too tedious to explain, CompuServe has a proprietary interest in this widely used graphics format.

    .jpg: joint photographic experts group, an industry group that defined a compressed format for the display of photos and other high resolution artwork. JPEG images support variable compression, so that more highly compressed images occupy smaller files but don't look as sharp, and less highly compressed images occupy larger files and look very sharp.

    .png: portable network graphics, a modern compressed file format also designed to capture graphics data in compact form. Unlike .gif, .png is not subject to proprietary concerns or limitations.

    All three formats are quite common in Web pages, and all work well with currently available Web browsers.

  • Basic scripts, programs, or controls: These are magic widgets that allow your users to interact with your website, be it to fill out a form, order an item, or sign into a guest book. At the simplest level, these programmatic elements are treated as part of a "standard recipe" within a Web document to produce some desired functionality. This level of interaction is easy to add to a Web page by following a recipe, or a monkey-see, monkey-do approach. Stepping up to the next level of Web customization is a whole different story, however, and one best left for the experts, or those with way too much time on their hands!

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