Taking the net by storm has never been so cheap, or simple. Rhodri Marsden explains the best ways to become the master of your own domain

A good 10 years after we started to accept that the world wide web might have some conceivable use, the process of getting a website up and running is still seen by many as some kind of black art. In the same way that we're happy to turn on the shower but have little interest in the process by which the water arrives, most people are unconcerned about the genesis of websites – up to the point where they'd like one of their own. There's no shortage of resellers who are only too willing to exploit this yawning gap in our knowledge; you'll often see ads urging you to part with hefty sums for your "very own" website – deals which represent a significant profit margin for very little action. People spend years forking out well over the odds for their online presence, but mulling over a few questions before you take the plunge could save a lot of money and effort in the long run.

Do I need one?

Established online services cater pretty well for people's web egos – depending on whether you're happy to be merely an appendage of an existing website. A budding photographer by the name of Hortense McCreedy could showcase her work perfectly adequately by getting herself a Flickr account, uploading her photos, and making flickr.com/hortense her online home. Equally, if words were Hortense's thing, a blog service such as LiveJournal could establish her a home at hortense.livejournal.com, free of charge. The advantage of using these services is that there's often a like-minded community ready and waiting to welcome you. But the pages are often branded, or contain advertising, and customisation options tend to be limited. In short, your web identity could be slightly diluted. Some people don't mind; others would rather have a space that's theirs and theirs alone.

So how do I get my own domain name?

You've decided that you'd like to own hortense.com, or hortense.co.uk, or hortense.biz or similar. Avoid buying it from your ISP, even if they're offering a special deal, and be wary of companies that say you can have one for free – it could mean pain further down the line. Go direct to one of the big players who specialise in domain registration: there's ukreg.com, freeparking.co.uk or names.co.uk (all of whom give good deals on co.uk domain names) or godaddy.com or enom.com (who usually work out cheaper for generic domains such as .com, .biz or .info). Either way, you should pay somewhere between £5 and £10 each year, and you'll always be in control of it; indeed, if you merely wanted it to whisk visitors off to your Flickr page or your LiveJournal, these services will let you set this up with the click of a mouse.

Who should host my website?

Unless your website idea is guaranteed to attract tens of thousands of visitors each day downloading lots of media files (i.e. pornography), it's unlikely to put the internet's infrastructure under colossal strain, and you shouldn't have to pay through the nose. Shop around; there's no reason to consider only British providers (although the current exchange rate dictates that you might get a better deal from people such as uk2.net or fasthosts.co.uk). Some of the domain-selling services mentioned above might offer a good hosting deal, so check their prices, too. Clubbing together with others can save money; dreamhost.com has a $6/month package which includes hosting for an unlimited number of websites. Find half a dozen of you, and you'll each be paying less than £8 per website per year for hosting – and this is precisely how those resellers mentioned at the top of this piece make money out of people who aren't in the know. Of course, companies depending on websites for the survival of their businesses will pay more money for greater bandwidth and zero downtime – but most of us are served perfectly well by the "shared hosting" model that Dreamhost and its ilk provide. Once you've signed up for a hosting package, you just go back to the website you bought the domain from, log on to your online account, and punch in the name server settings your new hosting provider has given you. A few hours later (often only a few minutes), anyone typing your domain into a browser will be directed to your webspace. Now all you have to do is put something there for them to look at.

What about designing it?

While the procedure so far is relatively painless, creating a website that doesn't look like a dog's breakfast is more difficult. The well-trodden route for DIY site-builders has been to use HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)-generating software – of which Dreamweaver is the most well-known – to create the pages and upload them for the world to see. But maintaining such a website can be a headache, and these days most new sites are generated by content management systems (CMSs). You install the CMS on your server space, choose a template, add the content – be it text, images or other media – and the pages are generated automatically.

Installing software on a server isn't always as straightforward as installing an application on your computer, but some hosting companies make it easy by offering a range of CMSs which can be installed via a one-click system. These CMSs are usually free and open-source. A good example is WordPress – software that's generally associated with blogging, but is actually an incredibly powerful tool that can be used to build all kinds of websites. The key is the template, or theme; there are hundreds of free WordPress themes available online, and it's likely that you'll find one to suit you – but if you can't, you can either be brave and learn the rudiments of the PHP programming language, or find someone who'll do it for you. Spending £200 on getting someone to tweak a WordPress template to your requirements is money far better spent than forking out excessive amounts for domain and hosting services. Check out freelance auction sites such as php-freelancers.com to find someone to do the job.

WordPress is by no means your only CMS option. Joomla!, Drupal and Mambo are three others for general website production, with Mambo particularly suitable for those without much technical knowledge. Pligg can be used to build websites similar to digg.com, where a community of users can vote for, comment on and rate other content from around the web. Moodle is targeted at educators who are looking to produce online courses for students on a small budget; phpBB can be used to construct forums and message boards, MediaWiki for Wikipedia-style collaborative websites, Gallery for photographers or image creators looking to show off their talents, WebCalendar for online diaries, Zen Cart for online stores – the range is incredibly wide, and most are designed to be used by people who aren't experienced in burrowing through mountains of code.

Of course, there'll always be a trade-off between the ease of getting a site built and its professional sheen. But these days, it's easier and cheaper to create a functioning, good-looking site than ever before. And don't let fly-by-night resellers tell you any different.

Better by design: How to have a hit site

Don't go colour crazy

Think of your website as you would your own home; if you can't live with seizure-inducing animations and garish colours on your bedroom ceiling, don't put them on your web page. Check out stexps.com for an example of how not to do it – then head to colourlovers.com, the web's equivalent of the Dulux colour wheel.

White space is your friend

Google's exquisite simplicity demonstrates importance of white space – but you still see sites such as havenworks.com or 5safepoints.com, whose creators sneer at the idea of "less is more", and prefer the idea that "too much is better".

Symmetry isn't a solution

Web design isn't easy. Things will often refuse to sit properly on a page – but resist the temptation to centre-align everything in the mistaken belief that making things symmetrical will help. It won't. It'll just make things even more difficult to read. see the astonishing arrangement of text at shakespeares-sonnets.com for a good example of what not to do.

Don't get excited by fonts

Your font folder may be rammed with futuristic or picturesque fonts, but save them for party invitations and stick to seasoned choices such as Arial, Georgia or Trebuchet – as many of the best sites do. And take time to learn some CSS – it's the key to making text look beautiful online.

Avoid audio

It's hard to believe, but not everyone enjoys an unexpected and deafening rendition of the 'Knight Rider' theme tune when they arrive at a website. Help them avoid distress by quietly disposing of any extraneous sounds.

Optimise your images

Save your images as 72dpi, and at the size they'll appear on your site. There's nothing more infuriating than watching a 100 pixel wide image of a giraffe taking 15 seconds to load because it's 8Mb in size (ie, around 1,000 times too big).

Navigation is everything

You might whizz around your own site effortlessly – but that's because you've spent four weeks constructing it. Sit someone else down in front of it – a technophobic parent is always a good option – and if they have trouble using it, don't blame advancing senility. Change it.

Check it with all browsers

You might hope everyone coming to your site uses Internet Explorer, but it's becoming less and less likely as Firefox and Google Chrome become more popular. They're free to download, so there's no excuse not to check that they can cope with your magnificent new creation.