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Jun 18, 2021

Genealogy Society’s Guide to Building Simple, Low-Cost Web Sites

I was planning to write a Plus Edition article aimed at genealogy societies who wish to create a new web site or to improve an existing web site. While researching the article, I discovered that a similar article has already been written. The other article isn’t specific to genealogy societies but the information in A Nonprofit’s Guide to Building Simple, Low-Cost Websites is about 99% the same as I would have written in my article for genealogy societies.

Since most of the information I planned to offer is already available elsewhere, I will suggest any interested reader should first read the A Nonprofit’s Guide to Building Simple, Low-Cost Websites article by Chris Peters at https://bit.ly/3gIP7A6. I will then offer the following comments to supplement the original article with the other 1% of the information that I wanted to write about.

First, I strongly support Chris Peters’ suggestion to use blogging software as the society’s primary web-development tool. Most of today’s blogging software offers a variety of options so that any genealogy society should be able to tailor any of the leading blogging products in a manner to meet the needs of the society. To be sure, there are more sophisticated products available, such as Joomla, Drupal, and others. However, if your society has the expertise to install, configure, and maintain one of these sophisticated products, you probably aren’t reading this article on “How to get started!” If you are new to creating web sites, I suggest you start small and simple. You can always expand later.

WordPress is the most popular blogging platform available today. The company claims that WordPress now “powers” over a fifth of the Internet. There are other blog hosting services as well. However, I don’t know of any service that is better than WordPress and its offer of free hosting. Additional options are available for WordPress for modest fees, however.

I have been using WordPress for several years and find it has been a “no brainer.” It is easy to use and has proven to be very reliable. The couple of times I have had questions or needed something fixed, I sent an email message. The questions have always been answered and the problems resolved within a very few hours, including nights and weekends.

The only thing that is complicated about WordPress is the fact that there are two versions: a hosted blogging service at WordPress.com and software available at WordPress.org that you can download yourself and install on your own web server.

For a society that is just learning about web sites and available technologies, I strongly suggest you ignore any thoughts about creating your own web server and installing software on it. You can do that later after you gain experience, define the reasons for doing it yourself, and identify the webmaster(s) who are qualified to do the work. Until then, take the simpler approach: have someone else do all the technical work while you focus on adding your society’s information. On WordPress.com, you can rapidly create a new blog entirely for free, with a reasonable amount of customization and very little technical knowledge required.

For the remainder of this article, I will ignore the idea of creating your own web server and installing software on it.

NOTE: Never have only one webmaster. People sometimes lose interest or get sick or otherwise become unavailable at inopportune times for a variety of reasons. If your only webmaster suddenly becomes unavailable, who will step in and take over? Have a backup.

First, go to https://learn.wordpress.com/get-started/ and read about the various options available. Also look at all the other “how to” articles listed in the column to the left at https://learn.wordpress.com/get-started/. You will find a lot of good information there.

Pick your choices and then create a free WordPress.com account.

You can select any of 200+ free themes with even more themes available for a fee.

You may want to add a custom .com, .org, .net, .info, .biz, .co, .me, .mobi, or .tv address, such as www.PodunkGenealogySociety.org or whatever is appropriate for your society’s name. Doing so will cost $99 US per year. To be sure, you can simply use a free subdomain of WordPress.com, such as: www.Wordpress.com/PodunkGenealogySociety. However, doing so looks less professional and also makes your web site a bit harder to find. Of course, you can always build your site first free of charge by using the www.Wordpress.com/PodunkGenealogySociety subdomain and then upgrade to your society’s own domain name at a later date.

Purchasing the society’s own domain name also suggests the new online publication will be more permanent.

For frequently updated information, such as announcements of meeting dates, announcements of new society publications, field trips, and more, simply post the information in a blog post. You want visitors to the web site to see “What’s New” when they first visit the home page.

Less time-sensitive information, such as transcribed census records, images of old homesteads, back issues of the society newsletter, FAQs (Frequently-Asked Questions), and more can be added to static pages in the same web site. You may want to add calendars of future events and more. WordPress itself has many options and then you can find hundreds of additional “plug-ins” (WordPress calls them “widgets”) created by third-party producers that will add even more functionality to the site. You can find information about many WordPress widgets at https://en.support.wordpress.com/widgets/.

One word of caution: don’t overdo it with widgets. Some web sites look as if the webmaster tried to add one of everything. I have seen web sites that are an eyesore. Simpler is often better. I suggest you start out with a simple design and then cautiously add new things as you gain experience.

Make sure the sponsoring organization is prominently mentioned. A public profile isn’t mandatory, but most societies will want to have contact information prominently posted. If the society owns a library or has a designated place for meetings, make sure that is quickly visible to every new visitor to the site. To edit your public profile in WordPress.com, click your Gravatar in the top right to head to Me → My Profile. When you comment on sites across WordPress.com, this is the information associated with your account.

Need an online chat room added to the web site? See https://wordpress.org/plugins/tags/chatroom for information about 11 different available chat rooms that can be installed within seconds.

Eventually, the society probably will want to sell online ebooks of the society’s publications or possibly sell tickets to upcoming seminars and conferences. You can find a variety of tools that will simplify such sales. Lots of web sites that will sell ebooks and e-pamphlets may be found by starting at http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/sell-ebooks/. For admission to conferences and events, almost everyone uses EventBrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/.

Adding an effective web site will enhance your society’s image, attract new members, and broadcast the society’s products and services to the entire world. It will be far more effective at publicizing the society’s efforts than any printed brochures.

The time to get started is NOW!