Science has a number of avenues of communication in the modern age. The most engagement comes from live interactions, often in real time, so for unfolding scientific events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, extreme weather, and space missions, social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Instagram can provide wide reach with little to no technical expertise required by the science communicator. All of the infrastructure that goes into spreading your message is taken care of, which is great, but access to your audience is out of your control. This is not usually an issue, but as demonstrated by Facebook in early 2021 where all Australian news media sources were silenced (including scicomm pages like the Bureau of Meteorology), relying on an external platform does require compromises.
The dynamic that makes these social media platforms useful is the immediacy of access to new information, but this forum can also help to spread misinformation, and older information tends to get lost in rapidly growing news feeds. Websites are almost the opposite in approach – the information on the websites doesn’t change very often, but it is often easy to find and is more detailed than can be presented in threads of 240 character blocks.
Having your own website gives you the control to write articles or create resources that can be referred to in the long term, often linked back through the social media platforms. A website also provides flexibility to do a lot more outside the constraints of any one particular social media platform – not just post quotes, photos and videos, but also share documents, manage access to exclusive content, and even sell products and services.
If you believe advertisements from website service providers, setting up your own site sounds easy. It is, if you want a cookie-cutter site to share basic information pages, but you’re also then locked in to playing in that particular sandbox, and adding functionality often ends up costing hundreds of dollars per feature. By then you’ve invested time and money and you can feel trapped…
If you want to keep your costs down and do it yourself, there are several steps and technologies that need to be set up before your website can start filling with content.
DIY Website Setup – the technical stuff
- The first thing you need to do is choose a domain name, which is harder than it sounds because you’ll probably find that most simple words or phrases are already registered with a top level domain (TLD) like .com and .org, so you have to get creative or use a different TLD where the name is still available. Just be aware about the cost of keeping the domain – the first year is often discounted to maybe $10, so check what the annual renewal costs are as they might jump to $50-100 per year. After your first year you’ll probably be invested in the chosen domain name, so you don’t want to get stuck paying high annual domain fees. You can use services like godaddy.com or crazydomains.com.au to search for available domain names and rates.
- The next stage is to decide where to host your site. This involves picking a service provider that runs a facility full of computers connected to the Internet, and you’re going to pay them to use a small chunk of their resources to keep your website online. The domain vendors will often offer WordPress hosting services (we’ll talk more about WordPress in a minute) with the domain name purchase, and although convenient it’s not usually the cheapest long term option. Make sure you compare the monthly or annual charge for the WordPress hosting offered by the domain vendor with other WordPress hosting providers.
- Once you choose a hosting service, you need to link your new domain name with your host to complete the chain. This is configured in a domain name server (DNS). These three steps of domain name, hosting service and DNS link can be a little tricky, but once the chain is established, you should be able to login into your blank WordPress site and start creating content.
You should also check if your hosting service offers free email accounts with your domain name – often this is an extra cost, sometimes charged per email address. Some services include this free.
If it’s done right, the whole process from buying a domain name to having a website online and ready for editing can be just a matter of hours.
Website Content Creation
WordPress is a content management system (CMS) used by around 40% of the top 10 million websites on the Internet. You may have heard of it as a blogging platform, but it is also a system that you can build a website upon from scratch. It’s like Microsoft Word for websites – a blank canvas where you can start building content by typing paragraphs and dragging in pictures, then organising those pages into menus. There are many other CMS out there, but most people seem to be able to pick up WordPress with little instruction.
The beauty of WordPress is in its simplicity and expandability. You can easily create chronologically ordered Posts (for a blog – i.e. articles like this one) or Pages which are permanent web pages that link from your website menu or from page/post content. You choose the look of your website from thousands of Themes, many of which are free, often with Premium features that if you find desirable can be unlocked with a one-off payment. The home page of most WordPress themes are now customisable in their own right and can have a very different look to your standard content.
Like Themes, WordPress has thousands of Plug-ins that add functionality to your website, many of which are free, some with premium paid features. Plug-ins are needed for some basic features such as creating Contact Forms, but this is also the way you can integrate features like eCommerce and payment gateways into your website.
Although it sounds like it could get expensive to create something that looks and feels professional, just look at this website as an example – it has no premium themes or plugins, and only requires annual hosting and domain fees to keep it running. This biggest cost in making a good website is the time you put into it.
Come back again soon where we’ll talk about creating a clear brand that you can build your Science Communication service/business and website around.