How to Build a Personal Website

There are lots of free portfolio hosting platforms like Behance and Artstation, and similar options for other professions, but these are just what they say on the tin: they are only portfolios and resumes and landing pages, something to look at just once before forgetting about it.

The personal website seems like a thing from a bygone era, but the “professional” sites that have replaced them are stale and static, infrequently updated, and many are incompatible with the modern age of “following” despite readily available technology.

Even among non-pros, there’s now a lack of desire to build something of one’s own, or to play around in freeform creative spaces. Most people don’t have websites at all. The easy alternatives make the necessary effort feel pointless.

People used to have sites to share photos and family adventures — there’s Facebook and Instagram for that now. People used to have sites to share thoughts or public journal entries — there’s Twitter and Medium for that now. People used to amass personal image and resource collections for their super niche fandom — crowd-sourced fan wikis seem to be the replacement for these, along with larger semi-commercial ventures, though there are still a number of living relics that are alive and well.

Arguably, it’s easier than ever to make a website. There are tons more resources and how-tos now, but there are also many more options. In 2000, you more or less had to learn to code. Visual WYSIWYG builders existed, but they were very bad. (Okay, I think the modern ones are bad, too, but more on this later, and they’re still better than they were.)

I think reviving the motivation to pursue a personal website in the age of convenience is the biggest hurdle, but even if you’re enough of a control freak to want to make your own space, where do you even start?

1. Domain Registration

Setting up your own website happens in two parts. Hosting is the plot of virtual land you’re building on. These plots of land are numbered (with an IP address). No one wants to give a string of numbers as directions to get to their house. Domain names are easier to remember and share. A domain registrar keeps track of what IP address each domain name points to.

Most hosting companies are happy to also act as your registrar, but I don’t recommend this. If you ever decide to change hosts (get a different plot of land), transferring domains between registrars is a huge pain in the ass. It’s much simpler to buy a domain separate from hosting, so if you ever break up with your host, you don’t have to pry your domain out of their hands to take it with you — it’s already registered somewhere else and the address info it holds can be easily updated.

Hover's clean and simple UI
Hover has a clean and simple UI, which is great and makes things easier to understand, but it’s still a pain in the ass to move domains from other registrars to Hover (especially without service disruption), which is the main reason I still have domains registered elsewhere from before I started using Hover.

2. Hosting & Site Building

Once you’ve got your domain registered, you’ll need somewhere to point it to. And once you’ve got a plot of land, you’ll need to build something on it.

Many modern hosts center around their proprietary web builders, which are stuffed with hundreds (or at least dozens) of pre-made templates that are “highly customisable.” These builders use visual interfaces, often with drag and drop components, which aim to be more layperson-friendly, but are often overwhelming and complicated all the same. They usually don’t allow users to directly edit any code, limiting true customisation and control. They also lock users into the host — when the web builder is proprietary, you can’t easily export your site and move to a different host.

Traditional hosts, on the other hand, are really only giving you server space. Most give you the option to install popular content management systems (CMS) and other tools, but you don’t have to. You could scratch out HTML pages old school and upload it and that would be your site. Not being beholden to a proprietary web builder makes it much easier to move your site, fully intact, to another host later if you want, but it’s definitely the more intimidating option for the less technically inclined.

Free Hosts

Neocities is a nostalgic dream. They provide free static web hosting and have support for some basic technical things like command line interfacing and remote scripting. There is no web builder, and you can’t install a CMS, so everything you make must be “by hand,” just like the old days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still build some powerful script-based sites (like this tool for making Neopets Food Club bets). Neocities provide some basic HTML and web education, which I think is valuable for basically everyone to know. Lots of teens got their start in the late 90’s with sites like those hosted on Neocities; it was a great learning experience then, and there’s no reason it still can’t be for those with the time.

To me, the biggest downside of Neocities, is that while it’s great as an educational, creative exercise, it’s not really practical for working professionals who want their site to be modern, easy-to-use, and frequently updated, and who don’t have time to learn HTML. Sites hosted there are “networked” in that users can follow each other on the platform, but there’s no native RSS support — which makes sense, given the “manually coded” nature of everything there. You can sort of get a feed for a Neocities site using https://neocities.org/site/sitename.rss but this only logs when a site is updated and not what was updated. You could always manually build an RSS file though…

  • Pros: Good place to learn, allows adult content
  • Cons: Static/manual sites only, requires technical skill, no native RSS support
Neocities editing interface
Neocities doesn’t support FTP access, but you can drag and drop files and edit HTML directly.

Tumblr was conceived as a (micro)blogging platform with support for a larger variety of post types (before that became pervasive) and more networking features, the “reblog” core among them. So wait, is Tumblr a social network or a webhost??

A bit of both? Along with posts, Tumblr lets you create pages, something no other social media platform lets you do. Its theme customiser/web builder has some decent pre-made options while still giving users direct access to the HTML for more full control over how things look, which also allows for user-coded themes to proliferate the community. The fact that Tumblr also makes it so easy to export all your stuff stands out too — other social networks entrap you and your content, but Tumblr’s never done that. I exported 10 years of posts from Tumblr to this website last year. Being able to take your stuff with you when you leave is an old freedom many have forgotten about.

It might be difficult for previous users of Tumblr to see the interface and think of it as their website though, even those who may have used it as an art/sketch dump. As I’ve said, Tumblr has a weird legacy and a distinct culture. It might be difficult not to accidentally reblog random things onto what is supposed to be a personal space. But you can sequester “portfolio” pieces to an appropriate tag, and you can set your domain to point to that tag as a default while still allowing users to browse through the rest of the content.

Stripped down to just the technical bits, Tumblr is a free host with a simple, intuitive platform that gives users a lot of freedom to customise and organise, and that makes it really great as a “web builder.”

  • Pros: Intuitive, decent pre-made options, decent customisation ability, native RSS support
  • Cons: Complicated history/culture, uncertain future, disallows adult content
Tumblr theme editor
Tumblr lets you directly edit the code of your theme.

Weebly has become really popular over the last few years as a free webhost, though you must upgrade to a paid plan in order to connect a domain name. Weebly’s proprietary web builder is one of the better one’s I’ve encountered as it’s relatively intuitive while still giving the user a fair bit of control, including the ability to directly edit the theme code (though you can’t edit the code for specific pages). There’s no option to manually build a site without using the web builder, but you can export a complete, static version of the site as HTML, CSS, and image files.

Square (referral link), the payment processor, acquired Weebly in 2018 and now calls Weebly its eCommerce platform. Many other platforms have options for Square integration for eCommerce, but naturally, Square’s acquisition gives Weebly a big advantage in terms of support. This post isn’t really about eCommerce platforms, but still, if you’re an artist who already uses Square at shows, using Weebly for your website is an attractive prospect.

  • Pros: Web builder is actually decent, raw theme code access, RSS suport, static site export, native Square integration
  • Cons: Paid plan needed for custom domain, proprietary web builder, disallows adult content
Weebly allows direct theme editing
Weebly, surprisingly, lets you edit the many files that comprise your theme, including pre-compilation less files.

Wix is pretty similar to Weebly. It has a proprietary web builder, but while you can embed sniplets of HTML and other code, you cannot edit the code of your website directly. I also think Wix’s web builder is clunky and cumbersome compared to Weebly, but like Weebly, there is no option to manually build a website if you’re hosted on Wix. Web builders are part of the selling point of hosts like Wix and Weebly, but I think it’s incredibly frustrating to work with a web builder if it’s clunky and the vision of your site doesn’t directly match a template it already offers.

I also think most of these interfaces assume that the user will be “one and done” with their website. If that’s what you want, okay, but otherwise, trying to make regular updates to a site via a builder may be annoying. As a control freak with just enough technical knowledge to get by, I know I’m biased af, but the proprietary nature of Wix and similar hosts gives me pause. If Wix makes some change to its builder you don’t like or discontinues support for some feature, then you’d be stuck. Wix doesn’t support static site export, either.

  • Pros: Visual/drag and drop web builder (I guess this is still a pro), RSS support, allows adult content
  • Cons: Paid plan needed for custom domain, proprietary web builder, no raw code access, no static site export
Wix's proprietary web builder
Wix’s proprietary web builder. The number of things I had to click through to replace the image on this template was aggravating.

WordPress.com is a free WordPress host. This often confuses people, but WordPress itself is open source software developed at WordPress.org. WordPress.com uses (a version of) that software. So you can have a WordPress site on WordPress.com, but you can also install and have a WordPress site on almost any traditional host you’re leasing server space from. This site is a WordPress site, but it isn’t hosted on WordPress.com.

WordPress is a powerful platform (it powers over a third of the Internet, after all), but WordPress.com locks many of the software’s core features behind paid plains. One of the things that makes WordPress so dominant is its vast ecosystem of third-party plugins — pieces of software that “plug into” WordPress, allowing for additional functionality and features. Many plugins require subscriptions, but plenty are free. However, WordPress.com has locked the ability to install plugins behind paid plans, so you can’t even install free plugins without upgrading.

In 2018, WordPress 5.0 debuted Gutenberg as its default post editor, replacing the simple text editor. Gutenberg is a visual, pseudo-drag and drop editor, and, in my opinion, absolutely fucking terrible. I don’t like most web builders, but Gutenberg is somehow especially bad. The free plugin “Classic Editor” gets rid of it, but it being a plugin means you can’t use it on WordPress.com without paying.

Even with a paid plan, some aspects of WordPress are still walled off, such as raw code access for themes and plugins. This is for site stability though, since some technical knowledge is definitely required to make non-disastrous edits to those areas, and the average user isn’t likely to want that access anyway.

  • Pros: Visual/drag and drop web builder, native RSS support, easy import/export
  • Cons: Visual/drag and drop web builder, plugins and other native WordPress features require a paid plan, no raw code access, disallows adult content
WordPress.com's free accounts don't let you use plugins
WordPress.com’s free accounts don’t let you use plugins at all. :(

Paid Hosts

Squarespace, not to be confused with payment processor Square, is the big name in proprietary web builder hosts. You can build a website without paying, but you can’t publish it until you select a plan.

Squarespace’s web builder is extremely template-focused (and, imo, clunky and laggy). Along with whole website templates, individual website sections are often selected from templates, many of which are surprisingly inflexible. For example, if you choose to use a section template with columns of text blocks, the contents of those text blocks don’t support a lot of formatting options, like bulleted lists. You’re stuck with text blocks, because that’s the sort of template you picked.

Squarespace does also have a Developer Mode (for Business and Commerce plans only), allowing for the ability to directly access and modify a theme’s underlying code, but there’s still no individual page code access, ensuring you’re still mostly locked into Squarespace’s system. Like Wix, Squarespace does not support static site exports, and while you can exporting some content, but you’ll lose the layout.

  • Pros: Visual/drag and drop web builder, option for raw code access, your favourite podcast probably has a discount code
  • Cons: Relatively inflexible web builder, proprietary web builder, no static site export, disallows adult content
Squarespace is very template-constrained
Squarespace is very template-constrained. You can start with a blank template or add blank sections, but Squarespace strongly pushes its templates and if you select one, it’s difficult to break out of the mold it sets.

Traditional hosts that just offer server space as a default are everywhere. You have lots options, there are lots of jargony buzzwords, and it can be very overwhelming and confusing. You don’t really need to know the difference between shared, VPS, dedicated, and cloud hosting to get started though. The cheapest, basic (shared hosting) package on any host is usually sufficient for basic website purposes.

Some traditional hosts, like GoDaddy, have web builders now too, but I think half the point of going the traditional route is not having to use a proprietary web builder. So what do you use instead? You can manually build a site with an acronym soup of HTML, CSS, JS, and more, or you can install a CMS like WordPress. There are lots of other CMSs, and I encourage exploring that topic if it’s interesting to you, but getting into them is beyond the scope of this post. Actually, while the basics are here, getting into the deep depths of WordPress is also beyond the scope of this post (I’ll probably write another post about it though).

One thing to keep in mind if you’re an adult content creator is that different hosts have different policies, so you’ll want to look at individual hosts’ Terms and Acceptable Use Policies to verify.

  • Recommendations: A2 Hosting (affiliate link, disallows adult content), HostGator (allows adult content), BlueHost (disallows adult content)
  • Do you need “WordPress hosting”?: No. See next section.
WordPress theme editor
When you install WordPress to a traditional host, you have full control and access to raw theme code, raw plugin code, whatever you want! I’d highly recommend intermediate knowledge of PHP in addition to HTML and CSS before mucking around, but there are many resources.

WordPress

You don’t need “WordPress hosting” to install WordPress on a server. Some hosts do optimise server environments for WP installations and promote that as “WordPress hosting,” but in most cases it’s just a marketing buzz capitalising on the fact that many people have heard of WordPress before and have a vague notion that that’s probably what they want.

Many hosts offer “one-click installs” of WordPress, which is handy. You can also choose to manually install.

Once WordPress is running, you can choose from hundreds of free themes/templates or from hundreds more paid options. For the layperson, I think sticking with the free options is best just for the simplicity. Premium themes tend to be overloaded with lots of unnecessary features and required plugins, and it can be hard to prune them back to something reasonable if you’re not sure what you’re doing. All themes have some degree of built-in customisability, but if you’re comfortable digging into the code, you can do basically whatever you want.

As your site starts taking shape visually, you can add plugins for additional features and functionality, including integrations with lots of third-party applications. Some typical plugins might include functionality for contact forms, mailing list sign-up integration, analytics integration, SEO-related stuff, social media sharing or cross-posting, spam mitigation, and software security.

To be honest, I wish I could recommend a simpler CMS than WordPress. Don’t get me wrong: I like WordPress, but I don’t think it’s very layperson friendly. It pretends not to be, but it’s big and complicated (and that’s why it’s powerful). Particularly if you want your site to be more than a traditional blog or a basic portfolio — it can take a lot of time to get a WordPress site just the way you want it, doubly so if you aren’t technically inclined, which brings us back to…

WordPress.org's theme gallery
WordPress.org’s theme gallery.

Proprietary Web Builders VS Open-Source Software

Web hosts which use proprietary builders do tons of heavy lifting for you. You don’t have to worry about the details of the code, and you definitely don’t have to worry about stuff like PHP versions or software compatibility, upgrades, and bug fixes. Maybe you can’t get the site to look exactly the way you want, and maybe you’re trapped on a specific host because you can’t really export what you have, but that can be worth it to many people who don’t want to be involved with the nitty gritty of things.

Using open source software (OSS) gives you a lot more control, but it often requires frequent updating and manual upkeep, at the risk of security vulnerabilities and other headaches. WordPress being the most used CMS on the Internet also makes it the most targeted CMS on the Internet. And what good is control and portability if you don’t have the technical ability to take advantage of it? You can hire out for help — there is absolutely no shortage of WordPress developers, at least — but this can costly or come with other problems.

Less popular OSS also has the problem of not being well-maintained, which means few people are working to keep the code updated and secure. Most OSS is maintained by the free labour of developers fueled by basic interest and pursuit of better, but without meaningful financial incentive, many projects get abandoned over time. That’s what happened to Wolf CMS, a much, much simpler CMS than WordPress, which I liked for a lot of reasons. This has happened to a number of WordPress plugins over the years, too.

Thankfully, the WordPress ecosystem is large enough that there are multiple options for any given feature, so even if one plugin becomes defunct, you can use something else (or, since the plugin code would be available to you, you could maintain it yourself or hire someone to…), but still, it can really suck to rely on the whims and goodwill of random developers with no direct ties to you. Even for OSS that’s well-maintained, the direction and path of its development may be different than what you want (e.g. WordPress Gutenberg).

There are also proprietary CMSs, like Ghost, which offer much more power and customisation than typical web builders, but unlike with OSS, it has an actual company behind it to ensure ongoing development and technical maintenance. Those solutions are probably overkill for a personal website though, while things like static site generators are, ironically, far too technical for the average bear.

Quick start instructions for Jekyll
Quick start instructions for Jekyll, a popular static site generator. You know shit isn’t meant for laypeople when the ~easy quick start~ instructions are via command line.

3. Updating Your Site

Once the site is up, most people stop. They’re done. That’s it. Maybe they’ll remember to update it every few months or years, but often not.

What is there to update with?

Sketches and doodles; works in progress and rough ideas; mundane thoughts; small, pointless anecdotes; collections of inconsequential musings. All of the things that people freely throw onto social media are all fine on a website if you ask me.

We just need to get away from the idea of a “professional portfolio” for it to feel right. A website doesn’t have to just be a resume, and really, if your employers and clients are finding you on Twitter and Tiktok, does your website really need to be so “professional”?

If your industry still demands it be, fine; have a separate, boring website if you must, but throw things onto a personal website, too. For fun! If you can have a professional and a personal Twitter, you can do it with websites, too.

But that’s extra work! And everyone’s got better things to do. Working professionals gotta work; students gotta student. Artists need time to actually produce their craft, but they’re often also their own agent, accountant, operations manager, social media manager, publicist, and if they do eCommerce or conventions, their own booking agent, store manager, product manager, marketer, and order fulfillment, too. Who has the time to update a website on a regular basis? And why would they do that instead of updating Patreon or Ko-fi or something with built-in monetisation?

“Satisfaction” isn’t intrinsically valuable, but frankly, neither is art.

There are reasons if you want there to be and if you look for them, though.

Screenshot of Sketchblog index
The sketchblog on this site has over 4,000 posts in it.

About the author

Kiri is a Seattle-based artist, writer, and (brush) pen enthusiast with over 12 years of convention vending experience and a lot of opinions.