A 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 95% 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 http://goo.gl/s3uVEN. I offer the following comments to supplement the original article with the other 5% 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. Blogging software is easy enough to learn, and it lets you place your newest information—an announcement, article, or something else—right at the top of the web site’s home page to greet your viewers as soon as they enter your website. This dynamic display encourages viewers to return to your website time after time.

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.

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 to WordPress Customer Service. 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 of creating your own web server and installing software on it. You can consider that option 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 get sick or lose interest 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 http://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: http://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 initial site free of charge by using the http://www.Wordpress.com/PodunkGenealogySociety subdomain and then upgrade to your society’s own domain name (www.PodunkGenealogySociety.org) at a later date.

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

Whats-NewFor 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. As explained earlier, you want visitors to the web site to see “What’s New” when they first visit the home page, and the blog’s main page fulfills this beautifully.

Information that is less time-sensitive, such as transcribed census records, images of old homesteads, back issues of the society newsletter, and FAQs (Frequently-Asked Questions) can be added to static pages on the same web site. You may want to add calendars of future events and more. WordPress itself has many options; you can also 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 with too many widgets vying for the reader’s attention. 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 it 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.

Need an online chat room added to the web site? A chat room can be especially helpful for reunion planners who prefer to meet without trekking to a single location. It can also help society members stay in touch between physical meetings, either to socialize or to collaborate on a project. 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. These can be added to your website by linking to another webpage that you create with add-on tools. You can find a variety of tools that will simplify such sales. Lots of web sites that will sell ebooks and e-pamphlets for you 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!

8 Comments

I have just gone live with a WordPress site to present my surname study results and have been very pleased with the ease of design and with updating capabilities. Strongly recommended. I have linked this with TNG program (The Next Generation) to present my data on family history individuals (17000+) which I also found to be an excellent program especially for searching. Very easy to use – you just feed in your GEDCOM. Have a look at the site ” coldwell.info “. As a member of the Guild of One-Name Studies I get the site hosted for free in perpetuity!

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Question, can I convert my Google Blogger blog to a WordPress blog using my Blogger backup (.xml) file? Are there import provisions?

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I was rather thrown off by the mention that a custom domain name can be added for $99 per year. I assume that’s a typo, only because I’ve purchased several domain names, and they’ve ranged between $10 up to the most recent renewal on one that was $12 just this month from Google Domains (for a .com).
Am I missing something as to why a domain would cost $99/year?

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    —> Am I missing something as to why a domain would cost $99/year?

    Purchasing a domain name can cost from $7.99 to perhaps $50 or so. After it is purchased, ASSIGNING that domain name to a specific web server usually is a separate charge.

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    Ohh my, had no idea there was a separate charge. I’ve only ever assigned domain names to a few blog sites (I believe both were on Blogger) and there was no extra charge to do so. Thanks for the info!

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There are other options for creating simple, low-cost websites for genealogical societies. I don’t intend for this to be an advertisement for Weebly, but I describe it here as another – very easy! — option.

Weebly is a multi-purpose online website/blog/ecommerce creation tool. There are other similar companies that offer website creation tools, but this is the one I use and am most familiar with. It is very user-friendly and WYSIWYG.

Because it is online, you don’t have to download any software to your computer, and you don’t have to use FTP. As soon as you enter or change information on a page, you click the “publish” button, and the web page is updated immediately.

Weebly has several plans. The Free plan is really basic, and you can’t use your own domain name with this plan. There is also a Starter plan for a small monthly fee, but this plan lacks some features that a genealogical society might want to use. I use the Pro plan (currently $12/month), which includes full site search, option to have memberships, password protected pages, a web store with up to 25 items, etc. All Weebly plans have no restrictions on the number of web pages you can create, and only the Free plan limits the amount of storage you can use to 500MB. Otherwise, storage use is unlimited.

All paid plans offer the option to create a blog on your website. This allows you to have a regular website with information about your organization, provide links to genealogical information, upload photos and scans of genealogical records, etc., along with the blog which might focus on your organization’s news, for example. Paid Weebly websites also have the option to list items for sale with a small percent of the sales going to Weebly for transaction fees. The number of items you can have for sale varies, depending on the plan you choose.

Also, for all paid plans, if you sign up and pay for more than one month at a time, the price is reduced. This pays Weebly for hosting your site. The only other fee you will have is for your domain name. You can buy it from Weebly, but they currently charge $20/year, and you don’t have to buy if from them. I bought my domain name from Google for $12/year. If you don’t already have a domain name, you don’t have to buy it until you are ready to go “live.” When you are ready for that, you will link your website to your domain name — wherever it is – using the easy-to-follow instructions on the Weebly website.

Weebly also has an excellent Help Center where there are basic instructions (including how-to videos) about how to get started, as well as about how to do all of the special features. For example, there is a whole section of articles on Blogging, which includes scheduling blog posts, using the RSS feed, sharing blog posts with Facebook and Twitter, etc.

I hope this is helpful!

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