If you own a laptop or desktop computer, you'll know that the disk inside it contains your files and folders. Sometimes you want to let the world know about something and publish your files on a web page where the rest of the world can read or download them.
In simplest terms, a group of published files on the web is called a web site.
In recent years, there has been a revolution in the way that content is published on the web . Free Content Management Systems (CMSs) such as Wordpress1 and Drupal2, and Social/Business Networking sites such as Facebook3 and LinkedIn4 have made it easier than ever for doctors to author content for the web.
We can be driven to publish for a variety of reasons. Many of us belong to specialist societies or local specialist groups where there is a need for a web site to publicise group activities, encourage new members or as a point of contact. At a personal level, we may want to publicise our CVs if we are in the job market.
Go back ten years and authoring and publishing on the web required some skill. The expectation that content authored using word processing tools such as Microsoft Word could easily and seamlessly transfer to the web was often unrealistic. Documents published on the web are written mostly (but not exclusively) in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML)5. HTML is quite different from the language used historically by word-processing software. In more recent times, word processors have been getting their act together as developers have realised that we want to be able to put text on the web just as easily as we put it on a piece of paper. Old habits die hard though, and the convergence between content destined for print and web remains incomplete.
The big change that has crept insidiously through web publishing in recent years has been the move away from authoring pages on a local PC and uploading them to a web site. Given the format issues outlined above, it is increasingly common to use a Content Management System where the user logs in to the web site and does all the authoring online.
Content Management Systems
Among the more popular free systems, Wordpress (www.wordpress.org) has established itself globally as a simple and easy to use CMS. It is currently in version 3.x and claims to have over 25 million users worldwide. Another popular CMS is Drupal (www.drupal.org). Drupal is more powerful and flexible than Wordpress and as a consequence, the learning curve is a little steeper, but both systems are supported by a huge global community of developers and users. As they are both modular systems, the range of functionality is equally huge. The amount of technical knowledge required to become a CMS author is relatively small compared to that required for bespoke web site design, although a basic understanding of how the web works is always helpful, and becomes essential if you want to deploy content other than words, pictures or video.
Publishing Audio and Video
At one time considered slow, difficult and expensive, video and audio are now everywhere on the web. Of the many sites that allow users to publish audio and video for free, YouTube (www.youtube.com) is by far the most popular. There are so many advantages to deploying your audio or video within YouTube that it's hardly worth mentioning alternatives. If you have a short video clip that you'd like to play in your web site, simply upload it to YouTube and create an embedded link to it in your web site. Many CMSs will have tools for this specific task.
Similarly, audio files, music or podcasts can be uploaded to any of the free audio hosting services and a similar embedded link created in your site. A bit of advertising in the clip is a small price to pay for someone else taking the overhead of streaming the data (their problem, not yours) and your clips are automatically indexed by the major search engines.
Getting Started - The Basics
To publish a file as a web page, the file has to be stored on a computer that has a permanent "always on" connection to the Internet. This type of computer is sometimes called a web server. Your home computer can be set up to publish web pages too, but there are some drawbacks. You would have to leave it on all the time, putting up your electricity bill. The speed of home broadband connections is generally much slower in the outgoing direction than incoming, so if a lot of people want to see your web page at the same time, your computer will not be able to push it out fast enough. Someone trying to view it may have to wait a long time.
Web hosting is the storage and publication of files on a computer (web server) that is always connected to the Internet through a very fast connection. The files are always available to view from anywhere in the world by anyone with a web browser.
What is the difference between free and paid-for web hosting ?
Home and Business Broadband users will generally have a contract with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) such as Virgin Media or BT in the UK. Sometimes ISPs provide web space for free as part of their package of services. Let's say you want to use this space for publishing some of your own web pages. Here are a few of the issues that may come up :
- The amount of disk space (web space) that my ISP provides is not sufficient to hold all my files
- When I upload a file, my ISP puts their advertising banners on it
- I can't get my domain name (e.g. www.mydomain.com) to stay in the address bar when people visit my site - instead I get the address of my ISP followed by some folder names.
- I want to have a forum or a blog but my ISP doesn't have the tools to do that.
To build a professional-looking web site that is fully integrated with your personal or business identity, it is vital that you have plenty of web space to host it and that the web server can deliver the full range of rich content found on the modern Internet. Paid-for web hosting gives you greater flexibility, more space and the computers that store and publish your files will be faster and more reliable.
A quick word about registering a domain name - the address that visitors see in the address bar of their browser when they visit your site. Domain names are the real estate of the Internet and popular names are difficult to come by these days. Many hosting companies will also have a domain name registration service that allows you to search for and buy unregistered names. Some top-level domains (TLDs) are best avoided - .info and .biz are the poor relations of .com and .co.uk and should only be used as a last resort. If you're lucky enough to find the name you want at a reasonable cost (new, unregistered names are generally less than £10 per annum), you can register it in your own name and it remains your "property" until such time as you let it lapse.
Social and Business Networking
Finally, rather than build a web site, you may find that all your needs are catered for by a Facebook Group. At the time of writing, Facebook is estimated to have 800 million users, so you needn't worry too much about the requirement for the visitors to be Facebook users themselves. If your need is for a CV and some self-promotion, LinkedIn probably makes more sense than going to the trouble and expense of a personal web site.
This article has not mentioned data security or hacking which are important topics but considered beyond the scope of this brief overview. Bear in mind that almost any content published on the web is public unless careful safeguards are put in place to protect it. Do not publish anything that you are not prepared to take responsibility for, or that could be misused by the wrong people, of which there are many on the web.
1. Wordpress http://www.wordpress.org
2. Drupal http://www.drupal.org
3. Facebook http://www.facebook.com
4. LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com
5. HTML http://www.w3.org/html/