Setting Up a Website: The Ultimate Beginners Guide

If you're launching your own business, one of the biggest jobs that you'll likely tackle will be setting up a website.

For most people, this can seem pretty intimidating. Lots of choices to make, conflicting advice, and plenty of ways to get fleeced along the way - as well as a healthy amount of techy know-how required.

To make this all a little easier, we've put together a guide that explains everything you need to do - and gives plenty of advice to help you make the right decision for you along the way.

(We'll be adding more detail to this guide, and creating more in-depth help on particularly complicated steps, over time, so stay tuned!)

Need help?

We're going to share all you need to set up a website by yourself. Even so though, it can sometimes feel a little bewildering.

If you're stuck and need help, or if this all feels a bit much and you'd rather have someone do it for you, then don't panic. There are lots of companies who'll be happy to help you, or who can work through the whole process for you so you don't have to worry about a thing.

We'll be putting a detailed guide together on picking a web design company together soon, but take a look ar our article "5 questions to ask your web designer before you hire them" in the meantime.

Let's get started...

The bits and pieces

Firstly a bit of background about some of the main moving parts that you'll need to think about when setting up a website. We'll go into more detail on these later on, but...

  • Web Domain: This is your web address: the name that people type into their browser to get to your website, for example www.google.com
  • DNS: This stands for Domain Name System. This is a global system that controls where users are sent when they click on your domain name - sending them to the right location where they can find your web pages.
  • Web server: This is the computer that actually runs your website. It receives requests from your web browser to see a web page and sends back the text, images and more needed to display it properly
  • Email server: Web traffic addressed to [email protected] is normally set up to be sent to your email server. This is where your email mailbox exists and where you log in to access your email message. Although your email server can be set up on your web server, these days it's normally a separate location.

Here's a diagram that might help show you how these fit together...

People visit www.iamcurious.co.uk

We use a service called Cloudflare as our DNS server: this tells the users' computer where the email should be sent to or the website can be found

Our email is delivered to our Microsoft Exchange server, and web traffic is sent to Curious' web server

Diagram showing components of a website set up, including domain, DNS server, email server and web server

1. How to get your web domain

If you're setting up a website, the first thing you'll probably want to think about is finding the right web domain name. This is the name that gets typed into a browser by people to get to your website, like www.iamcurious.co.uk.

Domain extensions (the final bit after the ".", like '.com' '.org',  '.agency' & '.co.uk') across the world are looked after an organisation called ICANN, who themselves administrate all domains ending in .com, and authorise other more local organisations to administrate domains in each country - for example '.co.uk' domains are looked after by Nominet.

These companies maintain a register of who owns what domains, manage ownership disputes, and authorise companies to sell domains on their behalf (you can't actually buy domains direct from them).

To buy a domain you'll need to choose a domain hosting company (or 'domain registrar') to buy from. There are loads out there, including Go Daddy, Ionos (previously 1and1) & 123-Reg. They all offer the same domains, but some will have special offers at any given time so it's worth shopping around a little bit.

Choosing a domain

Choosing a good web domain is tricky - but more than anything else, we'd recommend you pick one that is short, easy to type and memorable.

Google has explicitly stated that the domain extension you use has no affect on your website's performance on search engines. But, before you rush in, it is a little more complicated than that.

Studies have shown that users tend to trust '.co.uk' and '.com' domains far more than others. It's likely therefore that, all other things being equal, websites with these domains will see a higher Click-Through-Rate (the % of people who see the link and then click on it) than others. It's highly likely that a better CTR will lead to improved search performance and so the domain you choose can have an indirect effect.

The key thing is to think about your target market and their attitude: If they're young, web savvy and are used to visiting sites with more recent domain extensions like '.agency' or '.io', you're probably safe going off the beaten track; More mature and risk averse? Best to play it safe.

Generally though, if you're business is based in and trading in the UK, then a 'co.uk' domain is probably your best bet; If you trade worldwide, then a '.com' is a better bet; If you're a not for profit, then look at a '.org' domain.

Once you've got some ideas, visit a domain registrar and use their search facility to see if the domain is available. This is a pretty tricky process and finding a good available '.com' or '.co.uk' is hard work. You might have to be creative about brand names, or the domain extension you choose to find a good domain.

We'll put more together some tips for choosing a great domain soon!

Buying your domain

Domains are never owned by yourself outright - you rent them on an annual basis (although you can buy several years rental in one go). They typically cost around £8 a year for .co.uk domains or around £20 a year for international domains like .com, but prices do vary so it's worth shopping around and seeing who has offers on.

Depending on where you end up buying your website hosting, or if you sign up to use a website builder, you might also find that they'll offer you a free web domain as part of their package too.

You'll find most common domain names will be already taken, but you will see plenty of popular domains up for sale: these are rented by 'domain investors' (or 'domain squatters') who have rented the domains with the intention of selling them on privately for a big mark up. Some of these prices can be pretty steep - with some companies offering particuarly appealing domains names for tens of thousands of pounds (as an extreme example, www.mobile.co.uk is currently available for sale for £313,000!). These purchase fees are a one off cost and can be negotiated, so if you're really desperate to get hold of the domain of your dream and have deep pockets, this can be an option.

Generally though, most businesses will want (or need!) to take a more creative approach and find a domain that matches your business and that costs just a few pounds instead.

When you do buy a domain from a Domain Registrar, you'll find that after adding it to your basket, you'll be offered all sorts of appealing extras like 'privacy control' or 'search engine registration'.

Although these all sound useful, most of these are totally unnecessary services designed to make the registrar some extra cash, so think long and hard before you say yes to any of them!

By the way, if you're working with a web design company to create your website, make sure that your domain is registered in either you or your company's name, and that you know how to access the account with your Domain Registrar. This is really important to make sure that, if anything goes wrong, you can always get back control of your website.

Passwords, passwords everywhere...

Setting up a website likely involves a fair few different passwords: for your domain, your hosting, your website admin etc.

Although these won't be the first passwords you'll have created, they're probably among the most important to keep secure.  Hackers are everywhere these days, and even small unknown websites suffering hacking attempts on a daily basis - and the easiest way hackers can get control of your website is by guessing your password.

There are a couple of easy ways to keep safe though:

  • The first is by using a different password for each account you have, and making them hard to guess. We get it though - it's an utter pain to remember them all. Luckily password managers are there to help. Apps like Lastpass and 1Password are great - you remember one password, and they look after the rest for you - autofilling websites as you go. They both have free memberships plans and are highly rated for security.
  • The second is using TFA (or Two Factor Authentication). This is the sort of thing where you're texted a code that you have to enter after logging in to prove it's really you. We really recommend turning TFA on if it's available as it makes your site FAR harder to crack.

There are some great tips to set a good password here by the way

2 DNS Records

What is the DNS System?

Pretty much all computers (including Web Servers) locate each other using an 'IP address' (a series of numbers a that looks something like 192.86.53.194). Asking your website visitors to remember the IP address of the computer that hosts your website wouldn't really be very practical, so about 30 years ago the Domain Name System was invented.

It works a bit like a telephone directory for the Internet - translating an easy-to-remember domain name into the IP address where your website is actually located.

Exactly like those old-fashioned telephone directories though, there isn't a single copy. Instead there are many DNS Servers around the world, that all synchronise with each other so that, even if a DNS Server failed, the Internet will continue working as if nothing were wrong.

When you buy a web domain, one of key jobs to do is to set up your DNS records so that computers around the world can look up your domain and work out where they can find your website.

Computers do this by consulting a DNS Server. The DNS Server asks your Domain Registrar where your DNS records can be found. Your Domain Registrar will direct the DNS server to your Nameserver, which in turn provides the DNS Server with your web domain's DNS records. The DNS Server passes the details of the records back to the original computer, in the meantime storing that information in its memory, so that it can provide them more quickly in the future.

All of this happens in just a few milliseconds. The first 30 secs of this video explain it pretty neatly...

You really don't need to know any more than this to set up a website, but if this has piqued your interest you can find out more about DNS here.

Why you should choose a Nameserver

When you buy a website domain, your Domain Registrar will create an account for you and provide you with a dashboard where you can manage its settings. As part of this process the Registrar sets up default DNS records for your website on its own Nameservers - these are a computer who's primary job is to relay information about web domains to DNS Servers when asked. To make sure that your website continues to work smoothly even if there's a problem, they're normally allocated in pairs (with names something a bit like ns1.domainregistrar.com & ns2.domainregistrar.com)

Now it's absolutely fine to simply log into your dashboard and use the default Nameservers, but if you can cope with an extra step, we'd recommend you think about using an alternative service to manage your DNS.

Why? Well, we've found in the past that default Nameservers provided by Domain Registrars aren't the most reliable, and quite often cause your website to appear unavailable.

There are lots of alternative providers out there including Google & OpenDNS. We're big fans of Cloudflare (and use it for all of the websites we build and support). Not only does Cloudflare host multiple copies of your Nameservers across the Internet, making it much faster and more resilient, it also offers a clever service that hides the actual IP addresses of your Web Server. This makes it much harder for hackers to target your site. Cloudflare's set up process is also very straightforward, walking you through the steps you need to take to get your site working.

To change your Nameservers, create an account with your chosen provider. This will copy in your DNS records and let you know the names of your new Nameservers. Then just log into the dashboard for your domain at your Domain Registrar, go to the 'Manage DNS' settings, and update the default Nameserver names with the ones you've been given.

A bit about DNS Records

If the Domain Name System is a bit like a telephone directory, then DNS Records are the individual directory listings.

They tell computers what to do with the various different types of web traffic they might want to send to your domain: in particular where to send emails, and where to find your website.

DNS records look a bit intimidating (and there are plenty of web professionals that struggle to understand them) - but as long as you're careful, they're fairly straightforward to set up.

Most DNS records comprise of 4 different elements;

  • Type:  This states the type of DNS record that's being used. There are four commonly used ones you'll frequently see: 'A Record', 'MX Record', 'CNAME' and 'TXT'
  • Hostname:  Used to specify what traffic to your domain should be affected by the record. Using the @ symbol means apply the rule to all traffic to the domain. You can apply rules to specific subdomains - for example 'ftp' would apply the rule to all traffic addressed to ftp.yourdomain.com.
  • Points To:  Sometimes called Target, this is the location the record is sending the traffic to. It's generally in the form of an IP address.
  • TTL:  Stands for Time To Live. This is the length of time before the DNS Server will check back to see if your record has changed. By default the TTL is 14400 secs (4 hours), and doesn't normally need to be changed.

Here's a brief overview of the record types and an example of each:

Type Hostname Points To TTL
A Record
The most frequently used type of record, these are used to point your domain's traffic to your Web Server's IP address.
You'll often see two records as shown here: one for traffic to your root domain and one to send www-traffic*
A

A

@

www

192.36.554.36

192.36.554.36

14400

14400

MX Record
Used to define where email is sent (to Google's Gmail server in this example)
MX @ aspx.google.com 14400
CNAME
Used to translate one domain name to another: for example, this record shows autodiscover.yourdomain.com translating to autodiscover.google.com
 CNAME autodiscover autodiscover.google.com 14400
TXT
TXT records simply return a string of text. They're often used by third party services to prove that you are the owner and have control over a domain. They'll ask you set up a TXT record with specific 'hostname' and 'points to' values, and then can check you've done as they ask.
TXT @ v=spf1 a mx ip4:69.64.153.131 include:_spf.google.com ~all 14400

*When creating a website it's useful to remember that http://yourdomain.com and http://www.yourdomain.com are actually two different websites (although users are normally automatically directed straight from one to the other). That's why instructions for the two different types of traffic have to be set up separately.

Setting up DNS records

Before you panic, you don't have to work this out by yourself! Your chosen email and website hosts will give you detailed instructions on the exact records you'll need to set up.

All you have to do is to go to your Nameservers, create the correct type of DNS record, and copy and paste the values in. Once completed, your web or email hosts will normally then check your DNS and let you know if everything is set up correctly or not.

Support teams are used to people struggling with setting up DNS records and are really good at walking people through this process, so don't be afraid to ask for help if things aren't working the way you expected.

Coming soon!

We're just putting togethe new chapters on 'Building a Website' and 'Setting up Email' - we'll update this guide just as soon as they're finished.

So what next?

Looking for help with your website? Get in touch with us here.

Or you can share your thoughts below - we'd love to hear what you think.