How to Create a Useful, Popular Website

by : Michael LaRocca

In this free email course, I'll tell you everything I know about setting up your website and placing it highly in the search engines.

Everything I tell you will also be free. You'll spend some time, but you won't spend your money.

Your two goals, useful and popular, are related. Search engines can bring you a lot of first-time users, but quality will keep them coming back.

How technical will I get?

Well, you have two choices. Learn HTML, or use some free software that lets you create a site without learning HTML.

If you choose the latter option, writing the site isn't much different than creating a Power Point presentation or a word processor document.

I'll address both options. Plusses, minuses, how-to. So whether you're a computer geek like me or a technophobe like most of my family, I'll tell you how it's done.

So don't let the possibility of technical language stop you.


First, decide what you want on your site. I do this with pen and paper. What menu options, what graphics, what sounds (if any). How much stuff to put on each page, because I want each page to be "the right size."

Every graphic (including your background) and every sound takes time to load when someone visits your site. Text (including links) is fast. No page should be larger than 64 Kb, and that size means HTML plus graphics, sounds, etc.

I always try to strike a balance between speed and appearance. If it isn't necessary, it probably shouldn't be there. Only you know what "necessary" means.

I also draw a "flow chart" for navigation, and refer to it as I plan and again as I create. If it looks way too complicated when it's done, I'll create a special page called "Site Map" to help users navigate the site.

In my case:

Index (my home page) leads to:



Bookstores (which leads to OnLineFictionBooks)


I always ensure that a "Tier 3" page like OnLineFictionBooks leads back to the Tier 2 page that leads to it (Bookstores). A Tier 4 page should lead back to the appropriate Tier 3 and Tier 2 pages. Etc. All my pages lead back to Index, which is the only Tier 1 page.

Whenever someone visits your site, their browser automatically looks for a file called INDEX.HTML (or INDEX.HTM for files written with Microsoft.) That's what makes it the Tier 1 page.

If the user's browser doesn't find Index, you don't have a website. So your home page will be called INDEX.HTML (or INDEX.HTM). You can call the other files anything you want, as long as the file extension is HTML or HTM.

A link to a Site Map on your front page that lists all your pages, regardless of what tier it's on, is convenient for users and it ensures that Search Engine spiders find all your pages.

Throughout this lesson, I'm going to assume you're not using Microsoft and call everything an HTML file. (Files that end with HTM, the Microsoft default, are also HTML files.)

As you work, put all your website files (HTML, graphics, sounds) into the same directory. And, remember where it is! If you like, you can give that directory some subdirectories and sort things a bit, but I never do this.

I mention file locations because this, too, is part of your planning.

Your planning stage might take longer than actually writing your website. But for me, writing pages with no plan never works.

So plan!


Once you have a plan for your website, all that remains is writing it, uploading it, and helping people find it.

The big question is, can you learn HTML? If so, do you want to?

If you can and want to learn HTML, you can make your website do anything you want it to. Otherwise, you may find your options limited.

I'll admit that I've only written one page without using HTML. Not one site -- one page. I learned HTML for my job, then maintained my employer's site for two years. All in HTML. The power of HTML impresses me. But, learning it isn't mandatory.

So, how to decide...

Here's a list of sites that will teach you HTML. Look them over and decide if learning this language is for you.

Interactive HTML Tutorial

This is the site where I give away about a dozen free ebooks and link to thousands more.

Writing HTML Tutorial

HTML Goodies

HTML: An Interactive Tutorial for Beginners

HTML Primer


Your homework -- forgive me, I'm a teacher -- is to refine your plan. Also, think about the "learning HTML" issue a bit more if you need to.


So now you have a plan for your website, and you think you've decided whether or not to use HTML. It's time to do the work and make your site a reality.

First I'll show you how to write a website without learning HTML. Then I'll show you how to write a website after learning HTML.


The title is a lie. All websites use HTML. But you can get the computer to write the HTML without learning it yourself.

If you choose to do that, here are five possible methods:

(1) Netscape 6.2 is a free program. If you don't have it, you can download a copy from

Choose FILE, then EDIT PAGE. Now you can design a web page by clicking menus and dragging things around the screen. There's really no HTML function it can't do.

Once you're done, you can look at your HTML files using Netscape Navigator and/or Internet Explorer. Once you know they're perfect, you can upload them.

(2) If your computer has Microsoft Power Point already installed, you can use it to write a website.

Use it like you normally would, and create a Power Point file that looks just like you want your web page to look. When you're done, click FILE and SAVE AS WEB PAGE.

You can use your browser (Internet Explorer and/or Netscape Navigator) to see how it will look before you upload it.

(3) You can use Microsoft Word. (I haven't investigated whether or not it will add backgrounds.)

Just open Word and create a document like you always do. BUT, when it comes time to save it, Choose FILE, then SAVE AS, then under "Save As Type" choose WEB PAGE.

Again, you can use your browser(s) to see how it will look before you upload it.

(4) Almost every free web host has a series of "templates" that allow you to set up a web page in minutes. may have the best. is also very easy to use, but they only have two templates.

If you can't find a template at either place that is close enough to what you want to use, you can go to any search engine and look for "free web hosting."

If you just can't find a template that's close enough to perfect for you, maybe you can set something up with a template anyway and learn enough HTML to change it later.

After the "Writing A Website Using HTML" section of this lesson is a section on "Choosing A Hosting Service." If you're going to use a template, you might want to look at that now. Or you might just want to go to Bravenet or Topcities and be done with it.

(5) Buy Microsoft FrontPage. I've never used it, nor will I. I like having control of my HTML, and no website generator (including the four above) will give me that. But I do know some folks who use it, and they strongly endorse it. One of them even knows how to write in HTML.

But before you buy any program, ask yourself if you think it'll ever pay for itself. Meaning, are you selling stuff? If you are, can you sell enough to get your money back in profit? If you can't, do you care?


If you're going to write HTML, I salute you. Three choices are:

(1) You can use Notepad or a similar text editor. Not a Word processor! Save the text file with the extension HTML, not the default TXT extension, and your browser will recognize it at as an HTML page.

(2) Many free web hosting services have on-line editors that serve a similar purpose, but I prefer to do my writing off-line because it's faster. And, if you're paying an hourly rate for your Internet access, off-line is cheaper.

(3) I used Notepad for many months, but then I found a better way. It's called CSE HTML VALIDATOR LITE. Imagine Notepad with the ability to open five pages at a time, and the power to validate your HTML code (making sure it's right) before you upload it. That's CSE HTML VALIDATOR LITE, and it's free at

If you have no need to validate your code -- changing contact information or background colors, for example -- I recommend Edit Pad. It's also free, and it's like Notepad with the ability to open multiple pages. HTML Validator Lite limits you to five, but Edit Pad is unlimited.

Once you've written the code, preview it with your browser(s) before you upload it. It might not be quite right. It rarely is for me on the first try.


I'm guessing you have some photos of yourself, friends, family, pets, school, whatever. That's probably why you're setting up your website.

But what about backgrounds? What about music?

Whenever you visit a website, if you see any UNCOPYRIGHTED art you like, just right click it and choose "Save Target As." Then you've got it.

As for music, I don't put MP3s on-line because:

  • The files are quite large

  • I never know which are copyrighted and which aren't

So on one of my sites, I have MIDIs. All public domain, meaning you can take them and use them yourself. Just right click and choose "Save Target As."

OR, you can just go to any search engine and type "free wallpaper" or "free background" to get some artwork, or "free MIDI" to get some free music. Right click, Save Target As.

It's that simple.


If you wrote your site using a template or an on-line HTML editor from one of the free hosting services, this step's done. But you still need to download all those files as backups. Sometimes free hosting services vanish suddenly, and you DON'T want to lose your whole site that way! So keep reading!

If you wrote your site on your own system, you need to get it onto the Internet now.

First you need to choose a web hosting service. A free one, definitely. It's always possible to start with a freebie and move to a paid provider later, but I haven't left the freebies and I've been at this for years.

There are a lot of freebies out there. If you don't believe it, go to any search engine and type "free web hosting." I have no idea what you're looking for in your free provider, but I can tell you what I looked for in mine.

* Lots of storage space. Thanks to all the photos and music, my largest site takes 12 Mb. Since you have all your files in a single directory, look at how large that is. Open Windows Explorer, find the folder, and right-click it to look at the properties. How much do you think it'll grow? Pick a server with AT LEAST 20 Mb.

* No popup ads. This is a BIG deal to me. All free hosting sites have ads, but you'll note that Topcities doesn't use popups. Just a banner at the top of all my pages. I can live with that. My no-popup rule knocks Tripod and Angelfire out of the running.

* Accessibility from anywhere in the world. This knocks out very popular freebies like Freeservers (formerly my favorite) and Yahoo Geocities. Oh, and Tripod again. China doesn't like them, and I live in China.

So now, your assignment is simple. Decide where you're going to put your new website. I chose but you don't have to.

Once you've made a decision, you'll have to apply for an account and fill out some information about yourself, including the name you want for your site.

Usually the web host will send you an email to confirm your address. You respond to it, and you have access. Then it's just a matter of sending your files.


For the beginners... Upload means to send files to another computer. Download means to take files from another computer.

(If your files exist on a server but not on your own hard drive, you'll be downloading!)

Some web host providers have excellent file transfer abilities built right in. Topcities is especially strong in this regard. Or, you may need an FTP server program.

FTP simply means "File Transfer Protocol." In short, a way for your computer to talk to the one your hosting service is using.

You can pick up a free FTP program at Drop down to the bottom left and click Try WS_FTP Pro. It's a stripped-down version of the commercial version, but it'll do everything you need and it never expires.

Depending on the speed of your connection and the sizes of your files, this step can be very quick or very slow. But either way, you don't have to do much work. Just click a few buttons and let 'er rip!

(Now might be a good time for a refill on the beverage of your choice. I know I had a few as I wrote this lesson.)

Once you transfer all your files, you have a website. Your hosting service will tell you the URL (address). Make sure it works, surf it a bit, and just enjoy the fruits of your labor. Then tell your friends and take a break!

Congratulations! You're a webmaster now!


Hello, webmaster!

That's right, you're a webmaster. You've got a website.

But, you probably want to improve it, and you probably want people to know how to find it.

This is the final lesson, and probably the one you'll keep referring to. Fortunately all its resources are online, so you can just bookmark a few pages and go to them as necessary.

Now that you have a website up and running, you might want to look at Is Your Website Unfriendly? (

If you're programming in HTML, Web Colour Codes ( is an easy way to find the six-digit hex code for whatever color you may be seeking. This is especially useful for background colors, as fast good-looking graphics can be hard to find.

After you've uploaded your web pages, running a diagnostic Will tell you how long it takes them to load at various modem speeds, how compatible they are with older browsers, how to improve problem areas, if you have busted links, etc. These are all free.

Speaking of busted links, download Xenu. I have over 1000 outgoing links on one of my websites, and it checks them all automatically. I manually check the ones it claims are busted.

You can find my complete list of diagnostic tools at:

That page also contains a few more goodies you might want to use. Software & Graphics, and CGI Scripts.

Speaking of CGI scripts, visit if you haven't already. (This won't work in China.)

Scripts are defined as things where the user can send info back to your website. Guestbooks, feedback forms, newsletter subscriptions, chat rooms, games, you name it. Things HTML just can't do.

Bravenet lets you use their scripts, free. You just copy and paste a small bit of HTML code into your site and they handle the rest. It's worth a look, AFTER you use the scripts that your free web host gives you. contains my analysis of Search Engine placement. It'll take you some time to go through all that.

I recommend running the diagnostics before you submit to the Search Engines, because some Search Engines penalize or even ban pages with badly-written HTML.

Then, swing by The Web Marketing Checklist at to make sure you've done everything you're supposed to. contains a large selection of free ebooks. Many are about website and newsletter promotion.

Have you subscribed to my free newsletter yet? It's called Mad About Books, but it covers more than that. As I discover new ways to improve and promote my websites and newsletter, I include them in my newsletter.

Good luck with your new website!

Best regards,

Michael LaRocca

Michael LaRocca's website at was chosen by WRITER'S DIGEST as one of The 101 Best Websites For Writers in 2001 and 2002. He published two novels in 2002 and has two more scheduled for publication in 2004. He also works as an editor for an e-publisher. He teaches English at a university in Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, China, and publishes the free weekly newsletter Mad About Books.

Copyright 2004, Michael LaRocca