If you’ve been following along with this blog, you’ve already thought about whether you need to establish a presence on the Web, thought about some of the options for creating a personal Web page, and have decided on your online identity. Now, you’re ready to build your very own Web site with your own custom domain name.

Registering your own unique domain name allows you to secure your place on the Internet. Although there are a wide variety of domain name registration services out there, you can generally expect they will share two things in common:

  • Annual charge to register/maintain your domain name: Just to “reserve your space” on the Web, you will probably have to shell out some money to register a domain name. This is a recurring fee you will have to pay every year to ensure that you can keep your domain name. This registration fee, typically around $15/year, will not provide you with a Web site. Instead, it just reserves the name so no one else can claim it.

  • Monthly charge to host your Web site: Once you have a domain name registered, it will be up to you to create and update your own Web site. Unless you are prepared to set up a Web server in your own home or business, this will mean paying someone else a monthly fee to host your Web site, varying from $20 – $199/month, depending on your needs. Hosting, in general, means that they will allow you to store your files on their computers, and their computers will provide the gateway for people to view your Web pages.

Both of these fees are very legitimate and very reasonable. By requiring people to pay for their domain names, they ensure that no one can just come along and snatch up all of the best domains and never put anything on them. Companies who provide hosting services are buying and maintaining their computer systems with the money they generate from the monthly hosting fees.

However, these fees typically make it difficult for people to start a Web site for their very small business or their own personal use.

Fortunately for all of us, Microsoft has recently unveiled a new service, called “Microsoft Office Live” that provides both domain name registration and Web site hosting services. There are several different levels of services provided, but I will only discuss the “Microsoft Office Live Basics” service. This service is absolutely free of charge, and allows you to register your own domain name and build your own custom Web site.

Although I’ve already discussed several options for creating a free Web page, if you’re really serious about building a strong Web presence, you probably want a Web page with your own unique domain name, especially if you don’t have to pay anything! This is an absolutely amazing service, and I recommend you give it a try. No, Microsoft is not paying me for this blog (although if anyone from Microsoft is reading this, I will gladly accept any donations!). I’m just so impressed by what they offer that I can’t help but being a little enthusiastic about it.

To get started with Microsoft Office Live Basics, you simply go to http://office.live.com/ and click “Sign up now” under the “Basics” service area. Microsoft does offer some higher levels of Web hosting for your business for a monthly fee, but if you’re reading this blog, you probably aren’t ready to invest in these service levels at this point.

Once you sign up, you will be guided through all of the necessary steps to register your domain name and start building your site. The entire process can be completed in a few minutes, but you may want to leave yourself plenty of time to explore.

Essentially, Microsoft Office Live Basics will provide you with a domain name (free…not just when you sign up, but for as long as you have your account), web hosting (so people can access your site), and up to 25 e-mail addresses. All you need to have is a high-speed internet connection and Internet Explorer version 6.0 or better (Mac and Linux users may need to download Internet Explorer).

When I signed up for this service to create my own Web site, I was mostly interested in the domain registration and the Web hosting. These are critical to creating an online presence. But as time goes on, I realize that the ability to create multiple e-mail accounts is also a great feature. You probably have at least one e-mail account by now, but you may want to take advantage of the opportunity to register multiple e-mail addresses on your new site for two reasons:

  • To protect your personal e-mail account from spam and general clutter. You probably use your primary e-mail account to communicate with your friends and family. If you are serious about creating a Web presence, however, your e-mail address will often be associated with many of the online services you use. In addition to the regular updates and notifications these services will send you, your e-mail address may be made publicly available on the service Web sites, which increases your “spam potential.” You will probably want to make it easy for people to contact you initially, at least until you’ve built up a sizeable Web presence. However, you may not want all of this traffic getting mixed up with your personal e-mails to friends and family members.

  • To protect your “true” identity: Your primary e-mail address is probably either a modification of your name, or a cute description of your personality (kittylover@aol.com, for example). While it is entirely up to you to use your regular e-mail address or not, you might want to consider creating a new e-mail address that can be used anywhere you “make your mark,” such as comments you leave on blog posts, account profiles for the services you use, and so forth.

    IMPORTANT NOTE: When you register a domain name, all of your contact information becomes part of the public record, and can be accessed by anyone. This includes your e-mail address that you used to sign up for Office Live Basics, as well as your real name and your mailing address. Keep this in mind when you start building your Web site.

What you can do with Microsoft Office Live Basics?

You don’t need to know anything about HTML to use Microsoft Office Live Basics. Once you’re signed up, you can start building your site right away. You have a variety of tools to enable you to create and customize your Web site. You can upload and include graphics on your site, as well as text, tables, and some HTML (if you’re so inclined).

You can also change the look and feel of your Web site by choosing from a variety of pre-set color schemes and basic images, as well as choosing between a few very basic options for the navigation structure of your site.

Your free site comes with 500MB of storage, 10GB of bandwidth, and up to 25 custom e-mail addresses that can be accessed via the new Windows Live Hotmail. This is more than enough to get you started, but if you outgrow any of these features, you can purchase upgrades for a small monthly fee.

What you can’t do with Microsoft Office Live Basics

Although I’m a huge fan of Microsoft Office Live, I freely admit that this is not ever going to be a perfect solution for every Web site. The free service certainly has some limitations. Over the next few months, I will help you find creative ways to work around these limitations where possible.

Your options for color schemes on your site are fairly limited. Although there are enough options for you to create a decent-looking site, you will not be able to specify your own color scheme, nor will you be able to create your own style sheet (at least for the primary pages on your site).

At the top of every Web site created through Microsoft Office Live, you will have a header banner containing your site’s name or logo. You are given several options for the appearance of this portion of your page, but your choices are limited to the pre-defined styles Microsoft offers. Again, there are enough choices to make a decent-looking site, but your customization options are limited.

Although you will not see excessive advertisements on your site, you will have to put up with a Windows Live search bar at the top of your page (It’s pretty unobtrusive, but it’s always going to be there), as well as a Microsoft Office Live logo at the bottom of every page (with a link to the Microsoft Office Live services page). I don’t find either of these items to be distracting or disturbing, but it’s important to know that you can’t turn them off.

You may not be able to embed certain external content (including revenue-generating advertisements you select, such as Google’s AdSense program), so don’t plan on making a lot of money by advertising on your site. This is one area we will explore in much greater detail over the next few months…there are ways to work around this inconvenience so you can embed external content or advertisements on some pages in your site, if you’re willing to get a little creative. I don’t know if this restriction is an intentional effort from Microsoft, or if it’s just a glitch. It appears that the tracking scripts that are used to track your site visitors (which are embedded on any page you create in the design center, like it or not) interfere with the page’s ability to load external content. Every time I’ve tried to run external scripts on my site, they have bogged down the server completely, and the page would not load.

Note that you can embed external content via an iframe, but not via a script. If you want to embed music or video files, I believe you can do so through the standard embed tag.

In general, you can not have interactive content on your Web site. The closest Microsoft comes is to offer you a “contact us” form that visitors can use to send you an e-mail (if you don’t want to reveal your e-mail address). This is a nice feature, to be sure. But in today’s Web 2.0 world, people do expect to be able to interact with your Web site. This is another area we will explore in more detail over the next few months.

The last thing to point out is that there is no security available with Microsoft Office Live Basics. Whatever you put on your Web site is going to be freely accessible to anyone in the world. Keep this in mind, especially if you’re creating a family Web site. Anything you put on your site can be viewed by anyone and used for any purposes. Of course, if you’re starting a small business, this is exactly what you want.

For those of you who are a little more tech-savvy (or is geeky more appropriate?), it might be worth pointing out that your domain name is registered by Microsoft on your behalf. This means that you will not be able to manage your domain. Some services (like blogger.com and wordpress.com) claim that you can make your blog a part of your own domain by modifying the CNAME registry for that domain. This is an excellent service, but unfortunately, you can’t make any changes to your domain registration when you use Microsoft Office Live Basics.

Is it worth it?

Don’t let these inconveniences fool you. Just having your own Web page with your own custom domain name is enough to make the service worthwile. Whether you’re creating a family Web page, a “home base” for your Web presence, or a small online business, establishing your own Web site is a key factor for success. And, with a little bit of ingenuity, you’ll be able to create a dynamic, interactive Web site to fit your personal or business needs, and no one but you will ever know that you have any limitations to your Web site.

That’s all for today. In my next post, I’ll talk about starting your own blog to support your online presence. If you’re just building your reputation, a blog is an excellent way for you to get noticed. Although you can’t host your blog effectively on your Microsoft Office Live Basics Web site, it’s probably worth starting a blog elsewhere. A blog will help you build a reputation for yourself, and it will also make your visitors feel connected to your site.

Once I’ve outlined the process for setting up your Web site and starting your blog, I’ll get into the really fun stuff: how to make your Web site interactive. We’ll discuss ways to embed external content into your site, build applications to collect and/or display information from your visitors, and even build your own e-commerce solution. And we’ll do it all without spending a penny!

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