More than half of all households in Britain have now got internet access, according to the Office of National Statistics. And a growing number of those 13.1 million households are also setting up their own websites.
Once the preserve of computer hobbyists and academic researchers, the internet is now a widely-used resource for booking holidays and travel, buying CDs or DVDs or tickets for events. But the internet is also growing in importance as a place for small businesses to display their wares, and for families and friends to keep in touch.
Creating a professional-looking website need be neither daunting nor expensive. Most internet service providers (ISPs) include an amount of "free" web space with their accounts. This will be more than enough for a basic, personal site. For businesses, a professional web hosting contract can cost as little as £5 a month.
When it comes to putting the site together, imagination is more important than technical prowess. Companies such as the ISP PIPEX and the web hosting company Fasthosts provide online, DIY tools for creating a site. These require no knowledge of HTML, the technical language of websites, and there is usually no charge for using them.
"Web-based building software can be great for people who simply want to put a quick page on the net," says Dan Oliver, editor of Practical Web Design magazine. "The problem with these products is that they restrict how your site looks and functions, and when something goes wrong - as it invariably will - you won't have a clue how to fix it."
If the web-based approach is not flexible enough, there is a wealth of easy to use web design software available. It is quite possible to create a basic site using Microsoft Office applications such as Word and PowerPoint. For more specialist sites, Microsoft sells its FrontPage web design package.
Professional designers and business users often find it is worth investing in software such as Adobe's GoLive or Macromedia's Dreamweaver. If you want a challenge, and are not put off by computer code, HTML is not that hard to learn. There are dozens of books and online tutorials on offer. No specialist software is needed to write a website using HTML: the standard text editor that comes with Windows PCs and Macs is sufficient.
"Many people are put off their own HTML as they think it'll take months to learn, and although many web designers would like you to think this, it simply isn't true," says Oliver. "The basics of HTML can be learnt in a few hours."
Alternatively, if you prefer not to handle any software yourself, there are plenty of freelance web developers who can produce a professional site at a reasonable cost. Stuart Spice developed a do-it-yourself web development kit, Mr Site, which is available from shops such as Utility Retail in Liverpool, and over the internet. Although the software allows users to create quite complex web designs, there are times when it pays to call in the professional. But for the best results, spend time planning the site and researching designers.
"Prices can vary wildly, especially if you want your website to have a database of products or online shopping carts," says Spice. "Also look out for ongoing costs. Some companies insist on a maintenance charge. This they will charge regardless of wheth-er you update your site that month or not. Try to avoid these contracts. Also, ask for some example sites that they have created. You'll get a feel for their quality and reliability."
Another point is who owns the website once it is finished. Some web designers will want to keep hold of the original designs, which makes maintenance easier. But if something goes wrong, and you need to switch designers, this can cause problems. It is best to agree who has the original code from the outset. Similar problems can happen with online web design tools. The design of the site will be closely tied to the service provider. Change providers - for example because you switch broadband ISPs - and you might lose the entire design.
For this reason alone, businesses as well as hobbyists should consider using a web design tool on their own computer. Also, keep copies of relevant images, photos, logos and other design elements as these can be very hard to recreate later on.
But a website, however well designed, will be of little use if no one can find it. One of the best ways to make a website easier to find is to pick a memorable name. Internet domain names - mycompany.com or mycompany.co.uk - are easy to register and inexpensive to own.
Most large internet providers will offer domain name registration as an extra service; dedicated website hosting packages often include one domain name in the price. At Practical Web Design, however, Oliver warns against very cheap or "free" domain registration services.
"It costs an internet service provider £5 to register a .uk domain for two years. This is the fee charged by Nominet UK [the organisation that controls all UK domain names] but the registering ISP will need to cover its administration costs," he says. Companies charging less than this will need to cover their costs in other ways, such as through selling advertising on the site they host.
It is also important to check who actually owns the domain name. It should be in your name, but some companies will keep it in theirs. This makes it hard if you need to transfer the service to another provider in the future.
It might be that the domain you want has already been taken by someone else. In this case, it is best to look for an alternative, according to the web hosting company Fasthosts. If yoursurname.co.uk has gone, try variations such as www.my-surname-family.co.uk. Limited companies, though, are guaranteed to have at least one name available: .ltd.uk and .plc.uk are reserved for the registered companies of that name.
Sam Clarke: 'Our new site has doubled the business we do online'
Sam works for www.addonsworld.co.uk, which sells portable computer accessories not otherwise available in Europe. The company, based in Sussex, has also moved into accessories for mobile phones and iPods.
In December, Sam developed a new look for the company website, using standard tools such as Macromedia's Dreamweaver and Adobe's Photoshop. He also moved the site from a low-cost US service provider to Gloucester-based Fasthosts. The business now has its own dedicated web server.
"The old site was cheap, but as soon as it had a lot of visitors it would buckle under the strain," Sam says. "The value of transactions on our site doubled once we moved. A quality website is reassuring to a visitor if you are asking them to part with their credit-card details."
Zoe Whitington: 'I wanted a cheap way to show off my art'
Zoe, from south London, works in public relations in the fashion industry, but she is also an artist. Although her illustration work is mostly for her own enjoyment at the moment, she has won a few commissions.
Zoe had thought that it would cost thousands of pounds to set up a website, but came across Mr Site's website in a box of software in a store. The software, along with her domain name - www.soulwater.co.uk - cost £30.
It took her a weekend to set up the site using the Mr Site online tools. Zoe was fortunate because, as an illustrator, she already had plenty of material available for the site. All her work was stored on her laptop computer, so it was simply a question of uploading the work to the internet using the site templates.
"I am not a programmer at all," Zoe says. "I only bought my laptop last year, and creating the site was down to just me and the manual."
Despite these modest beginnings, Zoe has had 1,600 visitors to her site since she set it up just four weeks ago. As well as commissions, she hopes eventually to sell finished works online.Reuse content