How to design a website: A beginner's guide – CNN Underscored

Azalea Dolan
CNN Underscored Money
Published 5:30 AM EDT, Thu March 7, 2024

Today’s consumers have many choices when it comes to who they do business with, and the tiebreaker might just be how good your website is. As Tyneshia Dise — owner of web design agency The Innovative Design Group — puts it, your website is “your 24/7 salesperson.”
Thankfully, today’s technology makes experience optional when it comes to creating an engaging website. Our guide will show you how to design a website from scratch, even if you’re a beginner.
We receive compensation from our partners for Featured Offer placements, which impacts how and where their offer is displayed.
As technology advances, there are expanding web design options for every budget, business and working style. Today’s website designers are strategic partners, often coupling their creativity with user experience (also known as UX) best practices. They can be a great partner for anyone at the beginning of their business journey who doesn’t have the time to manage a website design project themselves.
Thanks to website builders, you no longer need an advanced degree or decades of experience to create a website that converts. These content management systems (CMS) and website-building services put the power of design into everyone’s hands, at a cost small to medium-sized businesses will love.
Related: The best free website builders in 2024, according to CNN Underscored Money editors
“Today’s tools offer small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) a major leg up, and most small businesses do not need to reinvent the wheel,” says Erin Young, founder of user experience agency Slide UX. “Clients are often concerned that templates and CMS choices will limit their creative expression, but the efficiency gains (and associated cost savings) are vast. The level of customization that most SMBs need is well within the limits of what’s possible.”
These website builders offer libraries of templates that are essentially plug-and-play. Widgets and plug-ins allow you to quickly create dynamic experiences with no need for coding knowledge. However, there is some work you need to do before you can start shopping for templates.
If you’re starting from scratch, you need to consider some things before you can embark on your website’s design. After all, your website will need to be more than eye-catching images and pretty pages — it is a strategic tool that turns visitors into paying customers or repeat clients.
These are the steps you’ll need to follow to set up a website that works as well as it looks:
To design a website that appeals to your target audience, you first have to determine who that is. A few questions you’ll want to answer about your target audience are:
“It’s important to think about your website from the perspective of both the user and the business,” says Young.
Additionally, the kind of business you have will play a pivotal role in determining how your website takes shape. For instance, if you’re an e-commerce business, your priority will likely be showing off bestsellers and ensuring a smooth checkout process.
“Sites can serve different, or multiple, purposes,” says Janel Simms of design firm Wagging Labs. “They may want to establish themselves as an expert, inform an audience, generate leads or sell products. Creating a measurable action to track progress is a primary goal of any site.”
By pinpointing your primary calls-to-action — the first steps you want a visitor to take in order to take advantage of what you offer — and your customers’ most pressing needs, you can build a website that makes it as easy as possible for a new visitor see the value of your business offering and take action.
Now that you understand your business goals, it’s time to establish your technical goals. Do you plan to hire a designer to put your website together? Do you plan to maintain the website yourself? Or are you hoping to find a one-stop shop like a website builder that offers design and maintenance? These questions will help you determine what kind of services you’ll need to launch your website.
If you’ll be designing, coding and maintaining your website in-house, you’ll be responsible for sourcing a web hosting service. This is essentially a service that stores your website files on a server and allows you to publish them on the web. Think of it like renting your own corner of the internet. It won’t help you with the look or feel of the website layout; it will just provide the data storage and the ability to make your site available for others to see.
You’ll want to look for a service that has good uptime — so you can avoid costly outages — and provides security protections against malicious attacks. You should also consider the amount of bandwidth you’ll receive from your web host. More bandwidth means faster load times and a better user experience.
Website builders, on the other hand, often function as an all-in-one tool. In addition to providing you with the templates and customization options to build your website, they also act as your web hosts. This means you can build, publish and maintain your website in one centralized place.
When choosing whether using a website builder or going it alone makes the most sense for your business, it’s important to be realistic about how much you’re able to invest in maintaining a website. Consider that plug-ins need to be regularly updated, forms break and dynamic components — elements on a page that change in real time such as interactive forms and pop-ups — get quickly out of date.
A website builder will regularly update its features, but you’ll be in charge of all upkeep for a site you’ve built. “Monthly costs typically include hosting, security, backups and premium plug-ins,” advises Simms. Websites aren’t a one-time investment, so think long term.
If you’ve chosen to go the website builder route, you’re spoiled for choice. There are dozens of options on the market with a variety of strong points. When determining which one best fits your needs, consider these things:
With so many options and considerations, it can be hard to know where to start when creating a shortlist of website builders. Luckily, we did the research for you to identify the best website builders; here are the three that came out on top:
Now that you’ve got the technical stuff out of the way, it’s time to lock down a domain name. Dise recommends choosing something concise, descriptive and easy to type.
The simpler it is, the easier it will be for visitors to remember, find and share. Remember, long domain names are just one typo away from leading your valuable visitors somewhere else on the web. Additionally, descriptive domain names will help search engines catalog your website, which can boost your organic traffic.
Finally, consider which extension works best for your business; .com is the most common, but it might not be the best fit for you. Consider if a geographic-specific extension (such as .ca or .uk) or one of the other common business-type extensions (like .org or .net) would better fit your needs.
Another benefit of using website builders is that you can purchase your domain name directly through them. Many even offer promotional discounts on your domain name when you purchase a specific website plan.
While this may seem a little cart before the horse, getting a sense of what content you already have and what you need to create will be a huge help in determining what pages you need and what site structure makes the most sense. This includes images, videos and other brand assets in addition to written copy.
For example, if you have a ton of great case studies, you may want to prioritize a testimonials page. Or, if you have a lot of content to share about how your business works, it may make sense to break it down into different pages so it’s easier to digest.
This is also a good time to ensure that your content strategy is polished and customer-centric. Some things you’ll want to pay attention to include:
“Customers are focused on what they want, while most business leaders are focused on how to deliver it,” says Young. “Customers don’t always care ‘how the sausage is made,’ and they don’t know the names of all the ingredients in the sausage, either. Focus on what your products and services are and why customers should want them.”
Doing this content audit now means that you’ll begin the project with a clear sense of what work needs to be done. This streamlined process will save time and minimize the likelihood of having to do costly rework.
Now that you have a sense of your content and the pages you’ll need, it’s time to wireframe it. A wireframe is essentially a map of your website, laying out all your pages and the navigation required to get to them. Consider the user journey you want site visitors to have — meaning the path they will take to complete a desired action — and keep your calls-to-action top of mind.
When putting together the structure, focus on navigational elements such as:
You should also consider creating a custom 404 page, an FAQ and a page for your privacy policy. These pages may not be the shining stars of your website since they don’t directly convert visitors to customers, but they will contribute to a more positive user experience overall.
Now that you’ve built a website full of content designed to give your target audience a great experience, let’s make sure they can find it. SEO (search engine optimization) is the practice of enhancing the relevancy of your content — including pages, links and images — and increasing your visibility to search engines so that your website ranks highly when relevant keywords are searched.
There are many ways you can optimize your site, but some quick wins include:
Mobile browsers make up more than half of all internet users worldwide, so if your website doesn’t look good on a phone screen, you may end up losing valuable customers. The good news is that most website builders offer mobile responsive templates that adapt to different screen sizes automatically.
It’s still a good idea, however, to run your own tests. Try loading your website on smartphones and tablets in different browsers to ensure it provides the experience you’re looking for.
It’s finally time to send your website out into the world and let it do the selling. But don’t let it stagnate! As Young says, “Websites are not [one]-and-done projects.”
It’s important to monitor the performance of your site using an analytics tool, such as Google Analytics. This can help you determine what pages people tend to drop off of, what features or products are getting the most attention, and where you might be able to streamline.
“Outdated websites cause confusion and potentially a lack of trust with your audience,” says Simms.
Dise recommends testing your forms, refreshing your keywords and performing a content audit once a quarter to ensure that your website is your top-performing salesperson.
We receive compensation from our partners for Featured Offer placements, which impacts how and where their offer is displayed.
Designing a website can cost $0 or in the tens of thousands of dollars depending on the level of complexity you choose. Website builder plans range from $5 to $500 per month based on how advanced your required features are. Website designers charge around $75 per hour for their services and web hosting services cost between $2.95 and $400 per month, depending on if you choose shared or private hosting.
If you plan to work with an external design partner, budget for six months. If you’re planning to use a website builder, budget for two to four months. This process can be longer or shorter depending on your resources and how much research and work you’ve already done.
Your website should make it immediately clear what your business does, be easy to navigate, look good on any type of device, have a consistent look and feel, be concise and easy to scan, have plenty of visual elements and make it simple for a site visitor to take an action.
This depends on how much time and money you’re willing to spend and what level of support you need throughout the design process. Web designers can help you conduct user and competitor research, develop goals and establish your brand identity on top of building a website. If you require less support throughout the process, DIY could be a great option.
Yes, with some limitations and contingencies. There are a few website builders with free plans; however, they may limit the number of pages you can have, charge commission on purchases made on your site, or provide non-standard domain name extensions (aka subdomains).
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This content is for educational purposes only and is not intended and should not be understood to constitute financial, investment, insurance or legal advice. All individuals are encouraged to seek advice from a qualified financial professional before making any financial, insurance or investment decisions.
Note: While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they’re subject to change at any time and may have changed or may no longer be available.
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