You're thinking maybe it's time to take the plunge and hang your shingle on the World Wide Web. And what you're wondering is: How much is my personal bridge to the 21st century going to cost me?
Money isn't really the issue. If you already have an Internet connection or subscribe to an online service, you likely can put up a Web page for free or for only a few dollars. The problem is time. How many late nights and weekends will it take to craft a page worthy of the mobs you hope will rush to take a look?
That was the question I faced weeks ago. I'd been thinking about staking out some turf on the Web, but I was put off by what seemed a daunting task: learning the Web's programming language, called HTML, or hypertext markup language. The name alone made my temples throb. My history with programming is gloomy. In the one course I took in college, my final project never ran properly; I've always figured the instructor passed me because he didn't want to see me again the following semester.
Now, however, it's possible to create a handsome Web page without programming in HTML. Software makers are selling "Web-authoring software" that allows you to create Web pages by starting with standard templates and clicking on menu choices to customize them. It invisibly writes the underlying HTML code for you.
If even this sounds too ambitious, there are simpler alternatives. Some online services and Internet service providers will design a page for you or give you the tools to do it easily yourself. I sampled America Online's personal Web section, and was able to create a home page in 20 minutes. The drawback was that choices were limited and there isn't as much room for creativity.
The existence of Web-authoring software gave me confidence to give more complex Web publishing a try. But first I had to answer an important question: Why did I want a Web site? The Web is littered with personal pages that are as interesting as looking at somebody else's family photo album. Entries typically include "My favorite musical groups," "My favorite Web sites," and red-eyed mug shots of the dog and the kids.
SLOPES & LINKS. There are better reasons to create a Web site--starting and promoting a small business, say, or advertising professional services to potential clients. A Web page might help a job search. It can be a place to share information with colleagues. Or it can be a place to have fun--to post a ranking of your favorite ski slopes or announce bold predictions about this year's Yankees.
I decided to use my Web site to promote a recent book of mine called The Last Harvest: The Genetic Gamble that Threatens to Destroy American Agriculture. The first job was to decide what information to include. A personal Web page, or Web site, is actually a series of linked files, or pages, all stored in a directory on a host computer. When you look at BUSINESS WEEK's site, for example (http://www.businessweek.com), the first thing you see is the BUSINESS WEEK Online logo and a menu of choices. That is the home page of the BUSINESS WEEK Web site. When you click on one of those menu choices, you go to a page on a second level. From there you can continue clicking through thousands of pages. But all I needed, for now, was an attractive opening page--called the home page--and a few interesting secondary pages.
As a modest start, I planned a home page describing The Last Harvest with two links--one to an excerpt from the book, and another to an online bookstore, where visitors dazzled by my home page could purchase a copy immediately. I plan to add links to other Web sites concerned with food and the environment.
I will also ask others to add links to my Web site on their pages. That will lure visitors and increase the chance that my site will be listed by Web search engines such as Yahoo! and Alta- Vista.
With the plan completed, I turned to Web-authoring software. To produce my pages, I sampled Microsoft Front Page 97 ($149), Claris Home Page ($99), and Netscape Composer (available free at http://home.netscape.com, and soon on retail shelves for $59). There are at least a dozen similar software packages, including others that can be downloaded without charge. The programs all allow you to do three things: create and edit text, import and manipulate graphics, and add links to your other pages and to other sites on the Web.
Of the three programs I used, Microsoft Front Page was the most elaborate--meaning it allowed more options and was also a bit tougher than the others to learn. Claris Home Page was easy to use, and I preferred its image-editing software to Microsoft's. I used the preview version of Netscape Composer, part of Netscape Communicator. Its screen looks like a Netscape browser, so Netscape users will find it familiar and comfortable.
The manuals that came with the programs were not much use. I got help with Front Page from Microsoft Front Page 97, edited by Denise Tyler (Sams.net, $39.99), one of the many available books. I also discovered a useful primer called A Beginner's Guide to HTML, available free from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/General/ Internet/WWW/HTMLPrimer.html.
With my modest computer skills, it took about two weekends to wade through the software and manuals and create my first few Web pages. Those more computer-savvy than I might well be able to accomplish that in a single evening. Part of the trick is to make sure the links and bookmarks take you where they are supposed to take you. You can check that offline simply by calling up the pages in a Web browser such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer.
LESS IS MORE. If you use graphics, make sure they are small enough to load quickly. Try to limit the size of images, in kilobytes, so each page is 50K or less. On my home page, I included a small copy of the cover of the paperback edition of The Last Harvest. Many computer stores and graphic design shops can quickly and inexpensively scan book covers, photographs, and other illustrations to produce electronic images suitable for Web pages. Such images can be created in many different computer formats, but Web pages most often use only two of those formats: GIF and JPEG. The simplest way to get graphics for your Web page is to download images online. Many government sites offer free use of photos, maps, and charts.
Once you've checked out the links and graphics on your pages, it's time to "publish" them on the Web. I published my pages on a Web server run by the National Association of Science Writers, which makes space available to members for personal Web sites. Before you decide where to publish, check with organizations you belong to and with your employer--you might get space for free. I uploaded my pages using something called file transfer protocol, or FTP. To do that, I downloaded an FTP program from the Internet. It's called WS_FTP Limited Edition, and it's available from Ipswitch Inc. at http://www.ipswitch.com. After a bit of tinkering to get the program to work, I transferred my files to the science writers' computer, and my page was instantly accessible to anyone around the world. I was a published Web page author. I swelled with the pride I might have felt in college if only I'd been able to make that old program run.
Creating a personal Web site wasn't a snap, but it wasn't as difficult as I'd feared. It's more complicated than using the computer to do your taxes but less complicated than, say, learning a new spreadsheet program. If you'd like to take a look at my handiwork, you can find it at http://www.nasw.org/users/ praeburn/. I plan to spruce up my pages in the coming months perhaps even by learning a bit of HTML. I am, after all, the author of a published Web page, thank you. Which puts me in league with thousands of other Web page developers sharing the hope that if we build it, they will come. A few of them, anyway.