If there is one thing all foreign teachers in China have in common, it’s that they must have and use a personal computer in order to stay in touch with others, especially friends and family from back home. We’ve observed that even foreigners who were not very computer literate and, perhaps, didn’t spend much time with their PCs back home, do so now that they are in a foreign country. Whereas just picking up the phone and pressing speed dial was the preferred way to reach others before moving to China, that is no longer practical, especially with the considerable difference in time zones, so e-mail becomes the predominant if not sole method for staying in touch. In addition, many rely on their computers as their primary source of entertainment as well. They use their silicon-based companions to play games, listen to music and download movies, especially those who live outside first-tier cities.
As foreign teachers become more comfortable with, if not dependent on, their personal computers and especially the Internet, it invariably crosses the minds of many to start their own website. However, most feel that they don’t have the necessary knowledge or skills with which to do so and usually abandon the idea as too fanciful or difficult. As it turns out, just about anyone can have a presence on the Internet irrespective of computer expertise or prior experience (and a cursory examination of the proliferation of China EFL-related websites on the Net will verify that).
This unit will provide a step-by-step overview on how to create your own website. It assumes no prior knowledge or experience and will outline specifically what is required and the best practices for achieving your goals.
Before you begin exploring options for building a website, you need to spend a good amount of time considering three highly-interrelated issues: subject matter, ultimate purpose, and intended audience. As remarkable as this may sound, most websites fail over time because the creator proceeded with either a vague or, far worse, a conflictual or extremely broad set of topics and ultimate goals in mind, with little or no intention paid to the target audience.
An integral part of considering your subject matter, goals and target audience is to first "know and be true to thyself." The most successful websites are created by individuals who have both a deep knowledge of and love for the content their websites are devoted to: In other words, they write about what they know and know best and have been doing for years. If a retired commercial fisherman decides to move to China to teach oral English, it would be utterly foolish of him to attempt to establish himself as yet another "expert" on EFL/ESL teaching in China simply because he has lived in and traveled throughout the country for several years. Personal experience alone does not constitute expertise. A commuter who has ridden the bus to and from work for 20 years is not, by virtue of his extensive experience as a passenger, an expert on that city's transportation system (although he would, undoubtedly, have numerous personal opinions about how the city could improve its bus system—along with millions of other fellow commuters). On the other hand, it would make a great deal of sense for our commercial fisherman to create a website devoted to fishing in the Middle Kingdom for fun and profit (and that's a site I would probably visit as I like to fish).
Unless you truly are a bona fide expert in the subject matter you are thinking of writing about, interest alone is an insufficient basis for building a successful content-based or educational website. In such an instance, you should consider creating a blog or forum for the exchange of information only, in which you correctly view yourself as a peer of the other forum members and participants. For example, I absolutely love dogs. I have enjoyed their company my entire adult life and I even have one now in China (a miniature Poodle). Despite my deep affection for my dog, it would be rather silly of me to attempt to present myself as an expert on breeding or even owning Poodles in China. I might get visitors to the site, especially if I understand the nuts and bolts of search engine optimization (and know how to play a few tricks on Google), but I won't keep them on my site for more than a page or two. It will become readily apparent to just about everyone at first glance that, although I may be highly opinionated on the subject, there is no real basis for anyone regarding me as an expert in the area of dog breeding in China. In stark contrast to attempting to build a content website with my "expert opinions" as the centerpiece, it would make much better sense to start a forum for foreigners who own pets in China to discuss their various trials and tribulations, best places to buy a pet, and things to watch out for, etc. The point is know and be true to thyself and let that awareness guide your subject matter, the format you choose for your website (see below), and the goals you want to achieve.
Related, and this should be obvious, pick a topic or specific focus for your website that hasn't already been covered ad nauseam. About the very last thing foreign teachers in China need is another anonymous general EFL forum or yet another China EFL job announcement board displaying the very same job advertisements that are copied and pasted from website to website after being posted to one of the two major and very successful China EFL job sites that have been in existence for years.
There are three broad practical reasons for starting a website: to communicate and socialize with friends and family; provide news and important information, and; promote, advertise and sell services or products. Problems often arise when the website creator tries to incorporate two or three aims into the same project because the site's mission and goals become muddled and often compete with one another. Before exploring your options, choose one primary reason for building a website and let that direct your subsequent choices.
Most foreign teachers in China who have built a website use their web presence for what amounts to journaling, i.e., writing about and sharing their experiences in China. Their websites are set up to establish something of a virtual home away from home so that friends and family may visit and catch up whenever it is convenient for them to do so. In such an instance, their subject matter, ultimate purpose and intended audience are all very clearly defined.
Other foreigners may have a special set of skills, a service, or even a business that they may want to market to other foreigners and so the ultimate purpose of their web presence is to promote or provide information about their service or product to others. Again, in such an instance, the purpose is very clearly defined: to sell a service or product line as is the intended audience, i.e., other foreigners in China.
Not only should your ultimate purpose and intended audience be crystal clear to you from the onset, it should also be abundantly transparent to anyone who visits your site. For example, if your ultimate goal is to sell travel guides and books about China, don’t first pretend to offer a free educational website devoted to helping and servicing the needs of foreigners traveling through the country. Although this appears on the surface to make sense as a clever tactic, i.e., to first establish traffic and “customer loyalty,” in fact, it almost always backfires in the end because first, it attracts the wrong type of traffic and second, website design and format considerations ideal for one type of purpose may not be ideal for others. If the service or product you are hoping to sell has intrinsic merit, then let that speak for itself. To underscore this point, if you haven't done so recently, pay a visit to the home page of Amazon.com, the most successful e-commerce site on the Internet. You should take note of two things: First, it is immediately apparent that you are visiting a virtual store, and; second, they did not start their business by first pretending to be a book review forum.
Once you have defined a clear purpose and know who your intended audience is, you will need to consider the type of website you should build. All websites on the Internet can be classified as belonging to one (or more) of the categories discussed below.
There are essentially eight broad categories of websites that comprise all the sites you will ever visit on the Internet. In fact, most foreign teachers will only need to consider the first four or five of the following eight, but we'll list all of them here for the sake of completeness.
Although these could be treated as three separate steps, they are best considered concurrently because reaching a decision on one will necessarily affect your options regarding the other two. The subsection on website platform will address itself to the first four types of websites only, as these are by far the most commonly employed by foreign teachers in China.
To a large degree, the type of website you decide to build will dictate the platform you will use, although not entirely. The term "platform" here refers to the type of client application or software package that will be used to create your site. As a rule, there are several options to choose from, for each type of website, depending on the particular hosting service you have decided to use.
However, websites that are composed of various content types or that will require community interaction will need to be built with more complex development software solutions referred to as content management systems (CMS).
The four most popular CMS packages in use today are Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal, and Plone. Each package has its own set of strengths and weaknesses and which one you choose will depend entirely on your development needs, budget, and level of expertise. For an excellent comparative analysis of the four aforementioned packages, it is highly recommended that you read the March 2009 report Comparing Open Source Management Systems released by Idealware, a nonprofit research organization established to advise small U.S. nonprofit organizations about software solutions.
Blogging software is actually a specialized type of content management system (CMS) software package. These packages are ideal for setting up personal websites and small brochure or content websites where only one person will be adding content.
Theoretically, you have 20 free or open source code programs to choose from, in addition to four other proprietary programs that require the purchase of a license (see Wikipedia's article on Weblog Software for a complete current list). However, as this website would be for personal use only with no plans to generate income in the future, you probably will not want to spend a considerable amount of money on hosting. If you then decide to go with a free hosting plan, the platform or program will most likely be decided for you, i.e., you probably won't have a choice. Free developer-hosted programs (platforms) are extremely popular with foreign teachers in China because: 1) They are entirely free, and; 2) They don't require any computer programming knowledge.
The most popular developer-hosted platforms are Blogger (owned by Google), Windows Live Spaces (owned by Microsoft) and Wordpress.com (financially sponsored by Google Adsense banners). How it works is that you personalize the host company's domain space by choosing your own subdomain name (see sidebar), e.g., MikeInChina.wordpress.com or ShanghaiVicky.blogspot.com (the domain name for Blogger) and the space is paid for by outside advertisements you have no control over. Depending on the hosted platform, you will have some choice in themes and style.
Wordpress is by far the easiest and simplest to learn and use but it's also the most limited of the four packages and only supports two types of content: blog post and page. Joomla and Drupal offer a great deal more flexibility in content type and future expansion but the learning curves for each are considerably steeper and will probably be avoided by those who are not very familiar with Internet technology. Finally, Plone seems to be the package of choice for very large organizations, such as newspaper and magazine websites, but requires extensive expertise to install and configure. For example, Discover Magazine has been developed exclusively with Plone.
The reality is that unless you plan on developing a large and complex commercial website where several people from numerous departments will need to publish content with different layouts, blogging software, such as Wordpress, will be more than adequate to meet your needs and just about anyone can install and use it. Most of the China EFL-related brochure and content websites you will come across have been built with Wordpress.
Forum websites are the easiest to build in our opinion. Although there are numerous platforms to choose from, the three most common are phpBB (now in feature-rich version 3), VBulletin, and Simple Machines Forum (SMF). Just about any China EFL forum you have visited has been built using one of these three platforms, although some older sites still use Tetra-WebBBS, an HTML-based bulletin board system. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses and you should thoroughly familiarize yourself with each program's features to choose the best one for your particular needs. In each case, the appearance can be highly customized with the use of themes or styles and special features can be added with the use of "plugins," as is also the case for the aforementioned blogging software as well.
As is true for creating blog websites, you will also be able to find free developer-hosted phpBB and SMF platforms for creating your own forum website. Such examples include Boardster.net (phpBB) and FreeSMFHosting.com (SMF). The two caveats mentioned before will apply here as well: you will only be able to create a subdomain name, e.g., mickeyseslcavern.boardster.net and your forum will be plastered with external advertising. The other downside to using a free forum hosting service is that if your forum becomes popular and you decide to move it to a private domain hosting company, you will have to pay an access fee to personally backup the database so that the forum can be moved to the new host. Nevertheless, this is still a relatively inexpensive and painless way to get started.
For those who are firmly committed to building a website and staying with it for the long haul, purchasing a domain hosting service is the best if not only way to go.
The rapid proliferation of websites on the Internet has resulted in a burgeoning of new domain hosting companies over the years and, consequently, prices continue to drop as features become more competitive. Essentially, you have two basic ways to go: purchasing a dedicated or a virtual server. Dedicated servers are for large businesses and corporate entities and generally start at $175 per month. A virtual server is just about what all small businesses and individuals use. It is essentially a large server that is virtually partitioned into several distinct areas, each supporting a different domain account, much in the way you might partition your hard drive into several virtual volumes. A virtual server will be more than adequate for meeting your needs and an excellent package with all the bells and whistles will run you about USD$95.00 per year. If you don't currently have a credit card, you should consider applying for a secured international credit card at the Bank of China (see section on Banking in China for more information).
As a rule, web hosting companies in mainland China and even Hong Kong are inadequate for use by foreign teachers. For one thing, their packages are terribly over-priced, poorly featured, and, far worse, everything is in Chinese. There is a lot of down time and customer service and technical support are virtually non-existent. Consequently, you should only consider Western-based domain hosting companies. China's interconnectivity to the West is improving all the time, so this should not be a problem and Middle Kingdom Life is hosted on a server in the states.
When considering various plans and options, there are several minimum server and application requirements you should be looking for, as follows.
Prices will vary depending on how much space and bandwidth are provided and, also, on how many additional domains you can support on one account. The minimum amount of space seems to be 500GB and many providers are now offering unlimited space, additional domains, and bandwidth to stay competitive. The beauty of having your own virtual server is that one server can host several domain names, i.e., you can run more than one website on your account simply by registering additional domain names (see below). A good place to start your investigation of domain hosting companies is to check out the page Top 10 Best Web Hosts (2008).
Choosing a domain name for your new website is kind of like naming your child: It's a big decision and it's one you will have to live with for a long time (especially once the site becomes busy).
The amount of attention and care you give to selecting the right domain name will depend entirely on what your ultimate goal is for your website. If the website is going to be used only or primarily for touching base with friends and family, then it doesn't really matter what name you choose just as long as it hasn't already been registered. You can check the availability of any domain name on a variety of websites such as CheckDomain.com.
However, if you plan on using your site to generate income one day, then selecting the right domain name is a critical consideration. Ideally, it should contain as many keywords as you want your readers to find you on. For example, let's say you want to create a website to sell Chinese antiques. An excellent domain name choice would be chineseantiques.com. A not so good choice, in the short-run, would be oldknickknacks.com. Search engine optimization (SEO) experts all seem to agree that the domain name plays more of a role in search engine placement results (SERP) in the first year or two than it does over time—but two years is a long time to wait for a return on your investment (see discussion below on search engine optimization).
All domain names in use on the Internet must be registered with ICANN and end-users cannot do so directly, so everyone must go through one of the approximately 500 official domain name registrars. Simply use your favorite search engine to find the least expensive registrar that comes up. Registration of a domain name under anyone of the major first-level domains, i.e., .com, .net., .org shouldn't cost more than USD$8.95 per year. Most of the auxiliary first-level domains, e.g., .info, .us, .biz, etc. can be registered for much less. Interestingly enough, the first-level domains .com.cn and .cn are among the most expensive to register at about USD$30.00 per year.
A decent domain name registrar will offer you lots of extra features to purchase, most of which you don't need at all, but one such feature that some might consider useful, if not necessary, is private registration. ICANN requires that domain name registration contain public contact information: However, at the time of registration, you can purchase the use of a private proxy that will be listed in lieu of your personal information (think of it as purchasing an unlisted telephone number back home). The fee for this service is generally around USD$8.00 to $10.00 per year.
Most domain hosting companies will try to sweeten their offers by offering free initial (one-time) domain name registration through their own proprietary registrar when you open up an account. I don't recommend accepting this offer. Register your own domain name through a separate registrar and then use the registrar's name servers to enter the DNS information for your new hosting company. Transferring the registration of a domain name to a new registrar can be done with persistence and over time, but it is a big hassle, so if you do decide to change domain hosting companies in the future, it will be considerably easier for you to do so if the registrar is different from the domain hosting company. I am personally aware of a colleague who actually lost his highly established domain name when trying to change domain hosting companies.
A very successful blog and forum can be set up and maintained with virtually no computer skills whatsoever, especially if you are willing to use default and custom themes "as is," or are using the free developer-hosted option. However, if you want to customize the look and layout of your site and especially if you plan on creating a brochure or content website hosted on your own domain name, it will serve you quite well to acquire some knowledge of HTML (hypertext markup language) to use in creating cascading style sheets (CSS), as well as an HTML editing program such as Dreamweaver, the Swiss Army Knife of website design and creation.
The look and layout of most pages you visit on the Internet is controlled by some version of the HTML computer language. If you spend just a little bit of time familiarizing yourself with some basic commands, especially those used for styling a page, you will attain far greater control over your entire website. Even though, for example, Wordpress is based on the PHP programming language, the look and layout of the blog are controlled entirely through HTML. Purchasing and reading through one or two good books on CSS is a highly recommended investment if you are serious about your website.
Free online developer-hosted platforms that allow you to design your own website "on the fly" are extremely limited in what they can do. Again, if you are serious about building a successful website, you should learn how to use an HTML editing program such as Dreamweaver, the application that is most commonly used by professional website designers. There are literally hundreds of third-party application plugins that simplify even the most complicated projects.
A successful website will use well-placed graphics judiciously, which means you will also need to familiarize yourself with how to use a graphics editing program such as Adobe Photoshop or, better yet, Adobe Fireworks. Learning how to use these programs like a professional does take a considerable amount of effort, however, it is not necessary to acquire a high level of expertise in order to create very desirable results. At the very least, you should learn how to reduce the size of a graphic and how to optimize it for use on the Internet. Just a few hours of your time learning how to use a few of each program's basic features will yield major returns on your investment.
Finally, you will need a program to transfer your edited files and the finalized version of your website from your computer over to your new domain host. This is achieved by using an Internet protocol referred to as File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and a client application created to communicate with your host's FTP server. There are actually many free and perfectly fine FTP applications out there: I use a free FTP client called Filezilla and am very satisfied with it.
If your new website is intended for personal use only, then you can really skip this step as well as the next one altogether. The reality is, even if you do absolutely nothing to optimize your site for the search engine bots, they will still find you and index your content, unless you have specifically instructed them not to by uploading what is referred to as a robots.txt file, which is typically placed at the root of your website inside the /public_html folder.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is important if you want anyone to find you other than those you have directly given your URL to (uniform resource locator, or Internet address). Search engine optimization is the focus of literally hundreds upon hundreds of books that are currently available through online booksellers, so we're not going to cover the topic in depth here. If it is important to you that as many people see your website as possible, do yourself a favor and first familiarize yourself with the field of search engine optimization before you do anything else. Keep in mind though that it takes at least a year, sometimes two, to become competitive in search engine result placement.
What all the SEO experts agree on is that you need to write for people, not search engines. Your content must be rich and original, as well as interesting. In truth, SERPs (search engine result placement) can be manipulated in the short-run but, usually, there is no long-term advantage to engaging in "black hat" SEO tactics and, typically, those caught engaging in questionable practices, such as setting up nominal "sister sites" that link back to the main site, are penalized over time. I see new China EFL-related sites emerge every week (it seems) that have been very cleverly set up to appeal to the search engines but, unfortunately, not their readers. They get the traffic, sure enough, but they don't keep anyone on their sites for more than eight seconds. I would hardly call these websites successful even though they've managed to achieve very impressive search engine result placement on targeted keywords.
Monitoring your website's vital statistics is the only way you will know if your SEO strategies are working as well as whether the search engine spiders and bots are able to properly access and index your content. Website statistics consist of a very broad range of information such as: how many visitors and visits you are receiving in any given time period; which pages are the most popular; the average number of pages being viewed per visit; the average duration of each visit; the most popular landing and exit pages, your "bounce rate" (the percentage of users who enter and exit your site from the same page); which files are being downloaded and how often, and; what terms your readers are using to search for content on your site, among dozens of others.
In closing, a former mentor of mine and a truly wonderful and remarkably kind man, Dr. Steven Glick, who was a senior psychoanalyst at the New York University Psychoanalytic Institute, once told me many years ago "Do what you love and the money will follow." As it turns out, he was entirely correct. Pick a topic or subject for your website that you are extremely passionate about, throw yourself into developing it as a labor of love and, in ways you never imagined, opportunities to make money from it will emerge. We guarantee it. The very last thing you should do is start a website with the primary goal of making "big bucks": That is a proven way to fail and we guarantee that as well.