I am often asked by people who are just starting a business about how to get a decent “free” website that can be found on Google. There are plenty of popular free sites advertised on Channel 5 but the problem is that they are unlikely to ever be found on search engines.
Will a free website built using my hosting company’s tool rank on Google?
Probably not because, while Google’s results pages are clever and try to present the searcher for stuff that is in their own country (or sometimes even in their own postcode), they still show results from all over the world. Someone somewhere is already doing something similar to what your business offers and if they have a nice professionally built website, this will likely outrank something free, that you can get from 1&1, 123 Reg, MrSite or Moonfruit.
Also, many of the sites that people build with those solutions are ugly and inaccessible to people with disabilities and you don’t want Google to put your website in the box marked ‘ugly’ or ‘discriminator’ just because of the free web building tool you’ve chosen.
Is there anything free that will rank on Google?
Using the WordPress framework with one of their awesome themes will give you a great head start! A basic WordPress site is free and there are also hundreds of templates available at little or no cost, which means you can personalise your site to reflect your brand. They are relatively easy to build and simple to update yourself, even if you are technically un-savvy!
OK – so let’s assume you are avoiding the free, ugly thing your hosting company wants to give you and you’re using WordPress. Now you can get started!
1. Register your domain
You never actually ‘own’ your domain name, you register it. There are several places to register a domain name and we particularly like Freeparking.co.uk and Cloudnext.co.uk. If you are planning on trading only in the UK for the foreseeable future, buy a .co.uk domain. Never include an underscore ‘_’in your domain name and try to avoid hyphens if possible. We’d recommend keeping it to 3 words or less.
There are different opinions about whether to include search terms in your domain to make Google rank it better but our advice would be to go with something that reflects your brand. For example low-cost-washing-machines.co.uk does what it says on the tin but looks much more spammy than nailseaelectrical.co.uk which, although doesn't include the words washing machines, is easier to remember and doesn't look like it’s trying to game the Google results.
If possible, register the domain for the maximum you can (usually 10 years). It won’t cost a fortune and spammers only tend to register domains for a short amount of time so Google will look favourably upon the longer commitment.
Brand Protection Tip
Make sure YOU are registering the domain in your own name so you own the rights. If your web designer or marketing company are registering it for you, check that they won’t simply register it in their own name because it’s easier for them. Get PROOF of this. If you subsequently fall out with the person who registers the domain on your behalf and they haven’t followed best practice, you will have a nightmare trying to get it back.
2. Find a DECENT hosting company
If your website is your only marketing source, isn't it wise to have it reliably up there 24hrs per day, 7 days a week? We think so.
It’s really important that your hosting company has a robust and reliable infrastructure which won’t fall over and that they will quickly deal with any problems that occur and preferably communicate via phone if you need to talk to a human. The cheaper the hosting fees, the less likely it is to have these important elements. Unless you’re paying thousands a year, your site will be on a “shared server” with thousands of other websites. These websites might have content that you find culturally or morally offensive, they might also attract lots of spikes in traffic, which will in turn slow your website down as they hog all the bandwidth.
Our favourite hosting company is Bison Grid. They are reliable and always have backups so if you get hacked or something goes very wrong, they can restore your site in matter of minutes. They’ll charge you £30 + VAT per month.
Low Cost Hosting Tip
If that’s too rich for your budget then CloudNext are Ok at £20 +VAT per year, but you will have to do all the set up yourself. Jon uses them for his personal experiments and says he loves them. For all business websites though, he recommends Bison Grid.
3. Add your content and images
It’s important to make your website user friendly and easy to navigate. You want your visitor to understand what you do and how they can buy your products or services. You also want it to look nice and portray your brand image. Keeping visitors on your site is harder than you think.
Have a look at our previous articles on writing content and how to find images.
4. Optimise your site
This is what confuses people the most. Search Engine Optimisation? SEO? What’s that? For your first website, it’s putting the right phrases in the right place so Google knows exactly who you are, what you do and what problems you can solve. One of the reasons we love WordPress is that it does a lot for you and makes a website very easy to optimise.
This is maybe a little techy for these simple 5 steps but it gives you enough information to understand what Google is looking for.
5. Submit your site to Google
If you don’t tell Google your site is there, it will probably take it a long time for it to be discovered, by Google’s automated browsers (More info here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNHR6IQJGZs). It’s therefore a good idea to submit an XML sitemap. This tells Google which pages you think are important and that you want them to be seen.
WordPress templates have various different plug-ins to help you do what you want with your site. Yoast is in our opinion, the best and totally essential for SEO. For the site you’re building, Yoast is free and simple to use with great instructions.
Finally, remember there is rarely such a thing as a free lunch.
WordPress in the format described above REALLY IS free. It makes money elsewhere in its business, so can afford to give you its website / blogging platform for free. It’s good PR and the company is run by really nice people who want to make your life a little bit easier.
Yoast does it for donations and some PR. Joost who founded the business is also a great guy who wants to make your life a little bit easier AND stop you being burned by charlatan SEOs (there’s a lot of them about!).
If you’re choosing any other online service and it doesn't cost much or claims to be free, then compare the ethos of the provider to that of WordPress, Yoast (and maybe Noisy Little Monkey). They’re a pretty good benchmark.