The Practical Mac

Building a Web Presence on a Shoestring, Part 2

- 2001.10.23

Last week, we looked at several inexpensive and free programs to create your own simple Web site. This week, we explore how and where to publish your creation on the Internet for all the world to see.

You have created your first Web page. Congratulations! You want all your friends to see it, so you have been carrying your trusty PowerBook 1400 all over town and showing off your creation to anyone who will watch. But now you also want Uncle Bob in Des Moines and Cousin Sam in Boise to see your page as well. You think about taking a week off and driving across the country, but then you think, "There must be a better way." In fact there is, and this week we show you where to put your new Web site so it is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. And all this on the cheap - or even for free!

The first issue is where to put your Web site. There are a number of companies that will give you Web space for free, usually in exchange for a banner ad placed on each of your pages. I was excited about writing this week's article, because I already had it pretty much finished last week. I was going to tell you all about what was then my favorite free Web hosting site, 20m.com.

About three days ago, I received an email site telling me that everything was going to change! My maximum storage would be limited to 12 MB, the maximum file size would be limited, and the bandwidth would also be limited. Of course, I can choose to pay a monthly fee and these changes won't affect me. However, that kind of defeats the purpose of seeking free hosting in the first place. I maintain about five sites with 20m.com, mostly for nonprofit organizations. I will now start over trying to find a new "favorite" free web host.

If I had published this entire article last week, half of my advice would have been outdated by now. This drove home a critical lesson: The importance of teaching one to fish, rather than merely giving away free fish. With that realization, the focus of the second half of this article changed. I will still note some examples of sites and tools, but I will focus more on giving you the information necessary to evaluate other sites and tools that may appear long after this article is published.

It seems that every time one free Web host goes under or starts charging, another springs up in its place. In your search for a free hosting company, it is important to realize that whatever choice you make today probably won't wind up being your final answer. As my experience illustrates, the situation can change at any time. Here are the criteria I believe you should use in evaluating a free hosting company for your site:

  1. Is it really free? Read the fine print. Some sites claiming to be "free" are only free for introductory or evaluation periods. After a certain period of time, you have to either start paying or your site is closed or restricted.
  2. How much storage space do you receive? Let's face it, if you are shopping for a free Web site, you are probably not anticipating a heavy volume of ecommerce. None of the sites I maintain on the free servers are larger than 3-4 MB total. For most of you, 5 MB of storage may be enough. Ten is probably better, and twenty more than enough. When calculating, remember that the quickest way to eat up storage space is with image files. Be mindful of those GIFs and JPEGs - and be sure all your images are in one of these formats. Bitmaps and TIFFs, in addition to causing some difficulty in viewing, are huge in size compared to the Web-friendly GIF and JPEG.
  3. Does the site limit the maximum file size? The way I look at it, they should not care how you distribute your 10 MB allotment: one 10 MB file or hundreds of smaller ones. However, some Web hosts look at it differently. If file size is restricted, make sure your largest file is within the limit. Realistically, even if the limit is a relatively small 256 KB, a file this size could take several minutes to download on a dialup connection, so it is better to avoid large files anyway.
  4. Does the site meter your bandwidth? Do they limit you to a maximum number of gigabytes per month? If so, run, do not walk, away. This is my pet peeve, whether the site be free or fee-based. Think for a minute the conundrum this places you in. You have just put up a great new Web site. You want the whole world to see it. But you don't want to exceed your bandwidth quota for the month. What to do? A bandwidth limit puts you squarely at odds with the very purpose of what most people want for their site: traffic. This is my one deal-breaker for a Web host. If they meter bandwidth, they are automatically and summarily disqualified from my consideration.
  5. Is the speed adequate? Many free web hosts try to deliver a staggering amount of content over an incredibly small amount of bandwidth. Visit the site and click through some links. If you can, visit some sites hosted there. Are they slow? If your site is sluggish, you won't get many repeat visitors.
  6. Is the site reliable? Visit several times over the course of a week or so, preferably at different times of day. Are there any problems with the site? You want a home for your Web site that is as stable as possible.
  7. On what platform are the sites hosted? Linux, Unix, Solaris, or Mac OS X are best; pre-X Mac OS, Novell NetWare, and OS/2 are acceptable; any version of Windows is not. Compared to the Unix-based OSes in the first group, Windows is extremely unstable and has significant security flaws.

There are several prominent free Web hosts. GeoCities, Angelfire, and Fortune City are among them. However, I have noticed sites on each of these hosts responding slowly on numerous occasions. Don't forget Apple's iTools on Mac.com. That is going to be the first stop on my new search. I have been very impressed with the reliability and speed of my mac.com email.

Before you make your decision, my advice is to go to Yahoo! and do a search for "free web hosting." You will receive a very large list in return. Go down the list and check out any that seem interesting. Remember, it's free!

Since the focus of this article is creating a Web presence "on a shoestring," I won't take a lot of time or space discussing fee-based services. However, if you find your site growing to the point where you need more than your free host can offer, or if you just don't like the banner ads and are willing to pay for their removal, here are some suggestions:

http://www.macserve.net

Their basic package is $100 a year with a $20 setup charge. You receive 50 MB of server space and two email addresses (can be set up to forward). There are also other features not relevant to a beginner-type setup. As the name implies, all hosting is done on the Mac platform. Although they don't specifically mention it, I believe they give unlimited bandwidth. I have not used them, but I believe they are worth checking out.

http://www.westhost.com

Their basic package is $8.95 per month for 25 MB, with a $19 setup fee. Some of their features include:

  • Unlimited email forwarding
  • Unlimited Traffic/Hits
  • Secure Server (SSL)
  • POP email account(s)
  • Web based Control Panel
  • High-speed Multiple T3 connection
  • 24 Hour Tech Support
  • Diesel Generator and UPS Power Protection
  • Backups Performed Every 3 Days

as well as other features you probably don't need as a beginner. All hosting here is done on Linux servers. I have personally used this company for several sites I maintain and have never had any problems.

All of the information above was taken from the respective web sites. When evaluating a fee-based host, you should use the same criteria as with a free site. Always do your homework!

Next, you will need a program to transfer your files from your Mac to the Web host. Many HTML authoring programs (including my favorite, Claris Home Page) include built-in support for transferring your files. Some Web hosts provide a Web-based method for uploading your files. My experience with Web-based upload systems is that they tend to be slow and buggy.

If your authoring program does not have built-in support for uploading files, you will need an FTP program. My favorite is Fetch. This is actually the only Mac FTP program I have ever used. It is simple to use and compares most favorably to the numerous Windows-based programs I have attempted to use over the years. Fetch is free if you are affiliated with an educational or nonprofit organization; otherwise it is a $25 shareware program. It is readily available on most any download site such as Tucows or Shareware.com.

I hope your Web creating experience will be a pleasant one. Those of you who tried your hand at creating your first Web pages, please email me when you get them posted. I would like to take a look. We might even be able to spotlight some of them in future articles.

Update: I want to thank reader Ric Davis for bringing the following information to my attention in response to last week's article:

It may be worth mentioning in your Web presence articles that the HTML editor in Netscape 6.1 is OS X native and produces rather nicer HTML than AppleWorks, the only other X native option or earlier versions of Netscape composer.

I am looking forward to downloading Netscape 6.1 and trying this out! LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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