How To Make A Fansite Lesson
A slightly outdated lesson on how to get started making your own fansite.
So, you've surfed the fanweb and feel the urge to contribute something to the pot? Or maybe you've already got a site and are looking for some pointers? Whatever the situation, a lot of folks ask us about how to do a website right, or how to make one better.
I'm not an expert in the field, but I know what I'm doing: I get paid to build websites occasionally, AAW is reasonably popular, and thanks to link verifying, I've looked at more hideously bad (and very good) websites than I'd like to think about.
This lesson is far from comprehensive, but it's a starting point; if you have any resources that you've found particularly valuable (or really awful), you can e-mail me about them, and I'll consider adding something. So, let's get started.
- The Fundamentals
- Getting Hosting
- Building Your Site
- Getting Traffic
- Closing Remarks
The Very Basic Basics
Here's a brief rundown on what I'm going to talk about, in case you're entirely new to this whole thing--skip it if you already know what I'm talking about. (If you do feel completely clueless, by the way, I'd recommend checking out a how-to book like "HTML for Dummies" to get you filled in on the basics).
To create your very own web page or site, you're going to need a few things: A place to host your site, some stuff to put on it, a design to put the stuff in, and people to come and check out what you've created.
A webhost, if you don't have a firm grasp on the idea, is a place (usually a business) that will let you store your web pages on their servers so that everybody in the world can get to them. Every website has a host--ours, for example, is DreamHost. Some you pay for, some you don't, and you might even have one already. We'll get to that.
Once you've got a webhost to make your stuff available, you need to actually create something worth coming to see--"content." And you need a design to give people access to it. The design can be simple, or incredibly flashy; anything from a white page with text to some of the animation-filled game-related sites you see around.
Making that design happen requires some way of creating HTML code--basically text with some additional information included that a web browser knows how to turn into the page layout that you actually see. Many programs will do the HTML part for you, but if you want to know what it looks like, select "view source" or "view page source" from your browser's menu, and you can see the actual code of this or any other page.
Lastly, you need traffic, hits, eyeballs, whatever you want to call people visiting your website. And that'll more or less do it.
Hosting: A place to call home
First things first. You've got an idea, but you need somewhere to put it. If you're not ready to start paying a monthly bill, you're going to need a place to host your site for free.
To start with, there are a few major free hosting sites out there: Yahoo Geocities is popular, and there are many others--FortuneCity, AngelFire, and Tripod, to name a few. They all offer a few megabytes of free space and various additional features (blogs, chat rooms, games, etc.). Most also offer some simple tools to help you build a site if you have no idea what you're doing.
However, free hosts all have major limitations; most will make your site unavailable temporarily if it gets too popular, you sometimes don't have very precise control over what the page looks like, and your site will likely be strewn with banner ads and those annoying pop-ups. Check out their sites to pick which one sounds the best to you, but if you have any alternate options, it's well worth looking into.
Let's look at some of those.
It's possible (likely, even) that you've already got an alternate choice and don't even know it. Many Internet Service Providers (ISPs--the people you pay to get your internet service from, like at&t, Verizon, AOL, or many others) give you some free web space with your account, and this kind of hosting is not only faster than most free hosts, but you don't usually have to put up with any advertising. Check out your ISP's website (or call them, if they're local) to see if you've got some free space and how to use it if you do. Again: If your ISP offers web space with your account, it is almost always much better than free hosts (you are, after all, already paying for the service as part of the cost of your account).
Similar options include your University server if you're in college (most supply some free webspace for students), and you might even have a friend with a website and some space to spare. It's worth asking if you know any geeks.
There is also the option of setting up your home computer as a web server, but this usually requires several things: You need to leave your computer on all the time (otherwise your site will suddenly disappear), you need a fast, always-on connection from a company that actually allows you to do this (such as some DSL services, or more likely a college campus network), and you need to know how to set your computer up to do it (which is, admittedly, very easy on most modern operating systems). There aren't all that many people both willing and able to do all these things, and if you are, you probably don't need my help. If you aren't up to speed but really want to take this route, you'll have to look elsewhere for instructions.
My address is a mess!
Among other things, one of the problems of free/cheap hosting is that your web address can be a bit long, or just uncool-looking. Even worse, if you ever move (and your site probably will), you'll have to send people to your new address, and change any existing links to your site.
There's a solution to all that, though--many companies will set up a forwarding address that's easier to remember, and takes people to your site. The additional advantage of this method is that if you switch web hosts, you can just change the address that people get forwarded to, and nobody will notice any difference (especially good if a bunch of people have linked you). A big one is V3; they've got go.to, come.to, and others of that sort.
The final option is to pay for a host, and along with it the holy grail of websites, your own domain name. It's a lot cheaper than it used to be, but it's really not worth it if you're going to put together a sloppy site and then ignore it.
We'll start with the domain name. Everybody talks about getting your own .com, and it's quite easy, if you don't mind paying for it. Once you've decided on a name and have a host picked out, all you need to do is pick a site to register the name (most major webhosts, like ours, DreamHost, will do it, and there are plenty of other companies). Frequently if you sign up for a year of hosting in advance you get a domain registration as part of the package, so check that before you go registering a domain elsewhere. You can search for available domains (and register them) at Network Solutions, for example, although they're far from the cheapest option.
Actually, the picking can be the hard part; chances are the first name you'll want will be taken. Don't expect to get Animeworld.com (duh) or something like that; you'll do a lot better picking something more obscure, and more specific to your content. Also keep in mind that you can register .net, .org, and even .info domains, too, and there are other country extensions that are available as well: .to, .tv and the like. In some cases you have to live in those countries, but not always, though they do cost more and you will have to find a company that can register them.
Registering Your Domain
And that brings us to the registration process. Rates vary widely; it's not hard to find registration for US$10 per year (again, DreamHost is one example of many), but other places (like Network Solutions) charge as much as $35 per year, and there's no real difference. One suggestion I do have is to watch out for seedy looking registrars; they may be cheap, but at most you'll save a couple of bucks, and I've heard bad stories about people getting locked into hosting somewhere that turns out to be a bum host, or having trouble transferring domains to a different company.
Picking A Host
Which, in turn, brings us to what is really the most important part of getting your own domain, picking out a host for your site. There are some companies that will host a domain name for free, but if you're willing to spring for the domain, it's probably worthwhile going all out for a real host; that way you'll be dealing with (generally) more reliable servers and, most importantly, no ads but the ones you put there yourself.
Hosting for an average site generally runs between US$5 and US$10 per month (more for more features), and the features you get vary a lot depending on where you look. Using AAW as an example, we use DreamHost, who offer a pretty good bundle of features for about $10 a month (if you do go with Dreamhost, use our coupon code "AAW50OFF" to save yourself $50 and help us pay the bills). A Small Orange is a budget host that I've heard good things about, and they have lightweight plans as cheap as US$25 for a year. Remember that you almost always save money by paying for a year of hosting in advance, if you can afford it.
There are dozens of other hosts out there offering a wide range of services, so you should probably do some checking on your own before you pick one. Also don't forget to check your hometown ISPs--many of them offer simple webhosting services, and you can actually get them on the phone if you have questions or problems. Be sure to read around, though, because there are some pretty shady hosts out there, even if they look good.
One final thing to consider if you think all this is too expensive for you: Go in with a friend or two. If you and two or three friends share a hosting plan (many hosts, like Dreamhost, allow that) and a domain name (for example, you're coolstuff.animestuff.com, and your friend is dbz.animestuff.com), then the cost per site comes way down, and in many cases there's still plenty of storage space and bandwidth to go around. Just be sure you trust each other, because if one guy decides to put a pile of MP3s on his site it'll get you all shut down or charged a bundle for bandwidth.
Dot Com Review
Find a host that offers services you like and sign up with them. Then pick out a domain name that isn't taken (don't forget .org, .net, .info, and international suffixes). Finally, find somewhere to register your domain (or do it though your host), and follow the instructions they give you. Your costs will be about $20 initially for domain registration and the first month's hosting (plus a set up fee if you don't prepay for a year--depends on the host), and around $5-10 per month after that, plus another $10 or so every year to renew the domain registration.
I've got a host, now what?
Once you've got somewhere to put your site, you need something to put up. Most of us have no trouble thinking of a site to put together, and I won't be the one to tell you what to do, but I do have a few general pointers if you want your site to be looked at and enjoyed by other people.
Content, content, content...
First and foremost, you should have content. Content is anything at all that makes your site worth coming to--it can be image galleries, reviews, essays, ranting, MP3 downloads, funny stuff, whatever. Just make sure that there's actually a reason for people to come to your site, and something for them to do, see, or read once they get there.
Second, you should have good content. That's a lot more subjective, but I have two general guidelines: One (and most important), make it something that you'd actually want to see yourself--after all, if you would be willing to go to a site to see it, somebody else must be, too, and in theory they're the type of folks you want to attract anyway (besides, if you wouldn't visit your own site, that's not a good sign...). Two, unique is good. That's not to say that you shouldn't do something that's been done before (heck, AAW is an anime review site, which is hardly an original idea), but try to create something or present it in a way which differentiates your site from all the others.
This is easy if you're fond of an obscure series, since anything you do is probably new, but if you've got your heart set on, say, Inu Yasha or Dragonball Z, it might be a little more difficult. If you do a DBZ image gallery, you can almost bet there's another site somewhere that does the same thing better. If it does happen that your choice of subjects is popular, that shouldn't stop you from trying, but you'd do best if you try to do something different; write something original, pick the best of the best images, focus on an obscure character, or organize things in a new way--that sort of thing. Be creative!
Stealing Is Bad
Finally, you should pay attention to where you get your content. Creating stuff yourself (especially if it's not available elsewhere) is the best way to do it--write a fanfic or an article, scan some images, or better yet draw your own fanart. Borrowing from other sties, on the other hand, just means that you've got the same content as somebody else. If you do want to borrow images, MP3s, art, or whatever else from other sites, it's almost always good form to ask first. It's obvious that a lot of the stuff on anime fanpages is quasi-legal anyway, but even so, there's no sense in making enemies by "stealing" somebody else's stuff for your site. Besides, asking is easy.
One related thing you should never, ever, do is link directly to other people's files (especially large downloads like MP3s). First of all, it's rude (you're letting somebody else do all the work and come up with the storage space without their site getting the credit/hits). Second of all, it can actually be mean; if too many people download files, their sites can get removed from a free server, and it's worse if they're paying for hosting--exceeding your monthly quota can cost serious money (that may have been compensated for if the site had been getting income from banner ads or whatever), and will more than likely result in the disappearance of both their site and the cool stuff. This is bad for you, it's bad for them, and it's bad for the anime-web-browsing public in general.
None of this relates to linking to other web pages (like this one), of course--nobody minds that (or nobody should mind it, anyway--it's the point of the web). Just don't link directly to files.
If you already know what you're doing, you probably won't care about this, but if you're just starting out, a few tips might help. There are many ways to create the HTML that'll make your pages look the way you want them to. You can use templates or fill-in-the-blanks design programs (most free hosts have these, or your computer may have come with one). You can start from scratch and use a graphical design program to ease the creation process; again, your computer may have come with one, the Seamonkey browser (an offshoot of FireFox) has this feature built in, and even Microsoft Word is capable of exporting HTML. Or you can learn some HTML and code everything from scratch using a text editor (that's what I do, if you're wondering).
Which one you choose depends a lot on how much time and effort you want to put into design (those three options are in order of how easy they are to do), but whichever you use, there are a few simple tips that are almost guaranteed to make your site more fun for the viewers.
One thing that's always a good idea to pay attention to is how people get around; make sure that the links from one part of your site to another are easy to find and take you where they say they will (or, as the case may be, tell you where they'll take you). Also make sure that people can actually get around; there's no sense in having cool pages if nobody can find them. To do a good job, you should grab a piece of paper and draw a quick diagram of which pages lead to which, and see if it makes sense, or if there are dead ends and deeply buried sections.
As far as visual layout goes, you already know that there is a huge variety of what web pages can look like. As far as I'm concerned, though, there are only three basic tacks worth taking: Simple and fast, slick but relatively clean, or Flashy and plug-in equipped. There's nothing wrong with any of the methods, as long as it's done right, but the first one is the easiest to do right. Remember that while you gain something in visual appeal with each progressive level of style, you also lose something; the more fancy graphics on a page, the slower it loads and the less likely it is to look like what you want it to once it's finished loading on somebody else's computer. And, while there's nothing wrong with background music, Java applets, and Flash animations, they take time to load, tend to slow things down, can occasionally crash browsers, and of course if folks don't have the right plug-ins, you've got a hole in your page. So, choose wisely.
Actually, I take that back about background music. There is something wrong with it, everybody hates it. Don't do it.
I may not have much advice on what to do, but having looked at literally hundreds of fansites, I will offer a few tips on what not to do.
- Don't have a bunch of really huge images in the middle of a page; they take time to load and rarely do anything for your design (image galleries are, of course, a completely different matter). Also, don't use "size" tags to fit a large image into a small space on a page--that just makes it load very slowly, and if you're not careful they end up getting squeezed in one direction or another so they look funny. Likewise, small images expanded to fill a lot of page just look ugly.
- Having a whole bunch of images on a page isn't a good idea, either, especially if they're big--that takes even longer to load, and it usually clutters things. Image galleries are again different, but even then, it's probably better to do smaller thumbnails or informative text links to keep the load times faster, and at the very least try not to put too many images on each page of the gallery.
- Be careful with backgrounds; if you can't read the text on top of it, that's bad. Make sure that the color of your text contrasts well enough with whatever pattern or color you're using for your background, and try to avoid really ugly color combinations, too. In any case, very busy background patterns/images are usually not a good idea--they're hard on the eyes, and make any text hard to read. Never just stick a picture in the background because it looks good on its own--that almost never works unless it uses very subtle colors.
- Don't just assume that your design works the way you think it should. Nobody can try everything, but it's always a good idea to go to your own site once it's on the web and make sure that there aren't any obvious broken links or things that don't look right. It's also a good idea to load up both Firefox and Internet Explorer on your computer and take a look at your site in both of those browsers; it's not uncommon for a page to work fine in one and have non-functional links or weird graphical errors in another. You might think that everybody uses IE these days, but Firefox and similar browsers is getting steadily more popular, and even version 7 of IE fixes a lot of the quirks in previous versions, so it renders pages much more like Firefox than like version 6 or earlier.
- Don't intentionally leave sections empty or use "Under Construction" pages. If you've got something, put it up, and if you don't, don't leave a hole in your site where it'll go--just add it and a menu link when it's done. There are few things more annoying to a reader than thinking "Ooh, pictures!", then finding an error or "Sorry, not finished yet" page when they click on the link.
- Remember that not all people have huge monitors, monster computers, and fast internet connections; generally keeping your site fast-loading and clean enough that it will look ok in a small browser window is almost always a good idea, or at least warn people if that's not the case. If you want to be really nice, have a separate version without all the flashy sparkles.
- Bonus Tip: An animated GIF or a bit of Flash animation can be fun, but don't go overboard--if there's a lot on one page it's confusing or downright annoying. Inducing seizures in your readers is not something you should work at.
The last step. You've got a host, you've got a site, and now you want some traffic. There's no perfect formula for traffic, but speaking as someone whose site gets a fair number of hits, I can at least make some suggestions.
To start with, don't expect your site to suddenly become as popular as CNN.com or something. That's only going to happen if you've got naked pictures of Boris Yeltzin, and even then all your traffic would be wackos, not anime fans. Real traffic is something that builds up gradually over time. Yes, your site will start modest, but if you work at it, people will come, and (if it's good enough) come back. To get this to happen, here are three general guidelines:
- Have something worth seeing: this is pretty much covered by the content section up above.
- Have a reason to come back: if your site is a shrine type deal, then it might reach a completed state, but websites almost always have room to improve, and if you add stuff on a regular basis people who like what they see will have a reason to keep coming back.
- Give people a way to find your site. Submitting to Google is mandatory these days, but there are others as well. Search engines work best if you've got something obscure that people won't find elsewhere if they're searching. When submitting, always follow site submission rules exactly (read carefully!).
- Remember most people get to anime sites through other anime sites. Getting listed by anime link sites is probably much more effective than any standard search engine, and is a good place to start. Anipike a big one, but other, smaller sites may be worth trying too. Even after that, look around at sites with similar stuff (especially if you've got a site on an obscure series); getting linked by (or even partnering with) other sites on the same subject is a very effective way to help the right kind of folks find you. Besides, if you like your topic well enough, you probably already know where people interested in it go (if not, figure it out!).
- Bonus tip: don't over-hype yourself or make a huge point of your traffic (particularly lack thereof). Calling your site the greatest anime site on the 'Net when it clearly isn't won't get you anything but laughed at, and nobody really wants to hear about how upset you are that only 20 people visited your site last week. Displaying awards, having a counter, or bragging a bit when you hit a number to be proud of (100, 2000, whatever) is fine, of course, but don't get too hung up on it--people came to your site for anime, not to hear about how popular you are or want to be. (Then again, it never hurts to be ambitious!)
I'm Ready for Serious Traffic
Ok, so maybe you've got time to burn and are really serious about getting traffic, and you aren't afraid to work for it. Again, there are no guarantees, but if you really want the hits, here is a good gameplan.
First, make sure you really have good content and plenty of it... and have it ready before anybody even shows up. Second, be ready to add something at least once a week or two--unless you've got a news site, that's about how often they're likely to stop by and see what's new. Third, make sure you've got a host that is at least reasonably reliable--nothing will get rid of people faster than a "host not responding" error. Fourth, make sure that your site loads relatively fast and that there aren't any broken links or missing stuff. If it's not there, you can tell people it will be, but don't link it yet--"page not found" errors are another quick turn-off, and generally unprofessional.
Once you've got a solid design, solid content, a proper host, and are ready to update regularly (maybe even have been for a few weeks) then and only then do you start advertising and submitting your link to the right search engines. There's always a boost of traffic when sites first get linked (both from "Hey, this is new" surfers, and from "What's New" pages), and that's your chance to snag repeat viewers when they like what they see.
Things that build community like chat rooms and discussion boards are another great way to get people coming back, but there's a serious critical mass issue when you first start one, and there are literally thousands of competing gathering places on the Net. Waiting until you've got a reasonably solid rate of traffic, then opening a chatroom or forum, is probably the best way to get people to hang out at your site.
Now, keep it up. Over time, if you've got something worth seeing, you'll build up a solid reader base and that traffic you're craving.
That's about all the wisdom I have to impart. This overview offers some common sense that, if you follow it, at least shouldn't hurt your site any. And one more thing: Remember that you're doing this for fun (or should be), so enjoy yourself!