A few years ago, I may have spent this first paragraph trying to convince you that you need a website for your practice.  But, I suspect that if you are reading this post, you are far beyond that.  Building and maintaining a website for your practice is no longer just one of the many marketing tools available, but an essential tool.  Since we have that out of the way, let’s move on to why you are really reading this post, that is to learn how you go about creating a website, the essential components to incorporate into your website, who you should turn to for assistance, and how to determine whether your site is working for you.  This series is organized into four separate parts:  1) website building blocks, 2) website design and development, 3) website maintenance and analytics, and 4) search engine optimization.  This first post, Part I:  Website building blocks, will walk you through the steps you’ll need to take before you can design your site and get it online.

First, you need to SEARCH for an available domain name.  Once you know the name of your firm or have a few ideas, you will want to check to see if that domain(s) is available.  Your domain name is your web address and will be used to identify your website.  To search for available domains, you can use www.whois.net or lookup services provided by domain registrars and web hosts (see below for domain registrar and web host options).  Whois.net and other lookup services will tell you whether that particular domain is available, and if not, they will suggest similar names that are available.  If possible, choose a shorter URL and one that ends in .com, which is easier to remember and more conventional.  When registering your domain name, you may want to register the same name with other extensions (.org, .us, .net, .biz) to exclude others from registering those names in the future.  If you have your heart set on one domain in particular and it is not available, check www.whois.net to find out whom it is assigned to and make contact.  I tried this with www.heidialexander.com, but I couldn’t convince the owner to sell it to me.  So, don’t get your hopes too high.

Second, you need to REGISTER your selected domain name.  To reserve your domain name, you must register it.  By registering it, you are purchasing ownership to that domain name for use as long as you continue to renew it (typically on an annual basis).  If you are preparing to build a website (rather than using your domain name only for email purposes), domain registration should be accomplished through whatever web hosting service you choose to host your website.  This means you will need to decide on a web host at this point.  If you cannot bear to wait to register your domain name, you can go ahead and register with most online registrars/web hosting companies (i.e. Go Daddy, Namecheap.com, Bluehost.com, 1and1.com, Name.com) and later transfer your domain to whichever web host you choose.  Centralizing your domain name and hosting service with one company makes it easier to renew your domain and hosting on an annual basis (you can also change your web host account to automatically renew your domain and hosting every year).  If you are contracting out your website work be sure that your developer does not register the domain in his/her firm’s name, which may cause problems down the road (including issues with domain transfer, renewals, and problems should the developer go out of business).  When you register you may be presented with an option to privatize your information (i.e. name, address, email, and phone) for an additional cost.  If you will be using this domain for your law office, there is no need to hide your business information because this should be available to the public on your site anyhow.

Third, you need to SECURE a web hostA web host is required to house your site.  Most solo and small firms will use shared web hosting available from third parties.  These companies allow the firm to rent space on their server on a monthly or yearly basis.  Pricing from most of these companies is comparable at approximately $10/month for a typical basic web hosting package.  Many of these companies are now offering unlimited storage and monthly bandwidth as part of their basic package, as well as multiple email addresses.  In addition, you will typically be able to host multiple domain names and subdomains.  A subdomain may be used to host an entirely separate website (but will still use your primary domain extension).  For example, we could setup the subdomain “www.howtosetupawebsite.masslomap.org” and create a new website apart from our primary site www.masslomap.org with resources on how to set up a website.  When shopping around for web hosts, ask other solos/small firms what they are using and whether they have had a positive experience.  You can also check review sites such as CNET’s web host reviews and bestwebhostrating.com.  Based on personal and anecdotal experience, attorneys have found the following hosts suitable:  Bluehost.com, Dreamhost.com, Hostgator.com, NetworkSolutions.com, and InMotionHosting.com.  I find that the two most important considerations when selecting a host are customer support and reliability (i.e. 99% up-time).  Most of the online providers have a control panel for simple user-friendly access to functions such as adding or deleting email addresses, creating new domains and sub-domains, backing up your site, and more.  When utilizing services of any outside provider, be sure to take a look at the provider’s security measures and policies to ensure yourself that the provider has reasonable protections in place to preserve confidentiality and security

Note:  There are some all-in-one solutions that will provide domain registration, hosting, email, web design and development, and may provide other services such as search engine optimization.  Flavors is a free service, whereas SquareSpace is fairly cheap.  Google’s Get Your Business Online (“GYBO”) initiative provides free domain registration, free web hosting for one year, customizable templates, and online tools and training.  Other more pricey and robust options for lawyers include services from FindLaw, LexisNexis, and Avvo.  While these are good options if you plan to take a hands off approach and want something produced quickly, be aware that if you later want to move your site elsewhere, it may be a difficult and costly endeavor and you may end up back at this post following the steps I have laid out.  Following the steps in the post should ensure personal ownership of your site and provide your firm with the greatest flexibility when it comes to managing your web presence.  

Fourth, you need to CREATE and SET UP your email.  For the most part, you will need to go through your web host to set up your email addresses (i.e. Name@YourDomain.com).  Setting up your email address using your domain as your email extension is more professional than using an email extension that is associated with your email service (i.e. aol.com, gmail.com, yahoo.com).  Most hosts allow you to create multiple email addresses and forwarding addresses (email addresses that forward to another email address).  You can also set up your own email client, which syncs and retrieves messages from your web host server.  Some of these clients include Gmail or Google Apps for Business, Outlook, and Mac Mail.  Many of the web hosts have customized instructions on how to set up your email client, specifically for Outlook and Mac Mail.  For example, here are instructions for setting up Outlook and instructions for setting up Gmail for Bluehost users.  Google Apps for Businessno longer free as of this past December 2012 – provides you with the ability to use your custom domain with Gmail, in addition to the suite of other services and applications well suited to help attorneys work more effectively.  You can create multiple user accounts / email addresses within Google Apps, rather than going through your web host.  Upon sign up, follow the Google Apps Wizard to complete setup.

Now that you have selected and registered a domain name, secured a web host, and created and set up email, you are now ready to move onto Part II – Website Design & Development.  In Part II, which will be posted on February 1, 2013, I’ll discuss whether and what you should know before hiring a professional to design and develop your site, do-it-yourself solutions, and what content you should include in your site.