I recently received an email from a visitor asking if it was possible for him to create a website without buying a domain name. This article attempts to answer this, and on the way, tries to clarify a misunderstanding about creating websites that usually accompanies such a question.
The short answer to the question is "yes". But you should really read the long answer. The devil is in the details.
Judging from the way my visitor asked the question, he probably did so after reading the articles "How to Create / Start a Website: The Beginner's A-Z Guide" and possibly also "How Much Does It Cost to Set Up a Website?".
If you have not read those articles, you may want to at least read the Beginner's Guide since this article assumes that you have some basic knowledge of what "domain names" and "web hosts" mean.
Some web hosts, mainly free web hosts, allow you to create a website even if you don't have a domain name. To do that they create a subdomain which they associate with your website.
For example, if your web host is "example.com" (not a real web host), they may create a subdomain called "chris.example.com" which you can use for your website. Visitors typing "chris.example.com" will end up at your website. You don't have to pay for such a subdomain name, since you don't actually own it; the web host owns "example.com" and can create and delete whatever subdomains they wish.
There is a huge cost associated with not paying for a domain name. What you save in pennies today, you will pay back in pounds later (and maybe with your site's entire life as well).
It is a well known fact among seasoned webmasters that free web hosts close with great frequency. It's not just the small kid-in-the-basement web hosting operations that close. Even big ones close too. For example, in recent memory, Google closed their Google Page Creator service. Approximately around the same period, AOL also closed their member pages, leading to a huge uproar among the large number of webmasters who hosted their sites there. And then there's Yahoo's Geocities, one of the earliest and arguably the most well known of free web hosts. That closed too. And these are just the famous web hosts run by big name corporations. I didn't mention the smaller operations.
Each time a free web host closes, sites that are hosted on those hosts disappear forever. The webmasters of those sites cannot say, hey, no problem, I'll just transfer my site to a new web host and keep my web address. Their web addresses, like the "chris.example.com" mentioned above, don't belong to them. They belong to the owner of "example.com" which is their web host.
Perhaps you think, "No big deal. I'm a shrewd strategist and have kept a backup of all my files. All I need to do is to go to another free web host and get a new web address, like 'heng.another-web-host.xyz'. Once I publish a backup of my files to that address, I'm good to go."
It's not that simple.
When you lose your old web address, you lose all your regular, loyal visitors, people who have bookmarked your website and return frequently to find new information. When they click their "Favourites" link, they will end up at a browser error page. Do you seriously think they will assume that you've moved to a new web host and search the web for your new address? Websites disappear from the Internet all the time. They'll just say to themselves, "Oh well. Another one bites the dust."
Not only do you lose your old visitors, you will also lose all visitors, at least for some time. When you lose your old domain name (or more accurately subdomain name), all links pointing to your website from the search engines and other websites will automatically be broken.
The problem is actually worse than it sounds (yes, worse), for the following reasons.
As mentioned in the article How to Improve Your Search Engine Ranking on Google, search engines like Google rely on links to your site from other places to figure out whether it is valuable enough to list in the search engine results page. When you recreate a new website that has nobody linking to it, since it's at a new address, your new site is considered less valuable than your old one. This is the case even if all your content is exactly the same as your old site.
It takes a very long time for you to be able to build up the links that you had previously. Sure, you can go to all the websites linking to you previously and tell them you've updated. But not everybody will update their links immediately, if at all. Without those links, the search engines are not going to regard your site as very important. Without the search engines, you will have no visitors.
So you see, once you lose your old web address, it's like starting with a new site all over again. You'll have to publicize your site and do all the things you used to do when your site was new, to get visitors. And it'll take some time before the traffic to your site even gets back to what it used to be.
This is the reason why those webmasters who had sites on AOL and all the other dead free web hosts were so upset. By the time the free web host closed, their site had already amassed a certain number of visitors per day. Moving web hosts, with the associated change of web address, meant that they had to start all over again.
Contrast this with what happens when you have your own domain name. When you change web hosts, you take your domain name along with you and attach it to your new location. The change is (mostly) transparent to your visitors and the search engines. As far as they are concerned, there is no change of web address, and your site can be reached at the same location as before. If you don't mention it on your website, your visitors probably won't even know you moved hosts.
"But my site is just for fun," you say. "I'll buy a domain when I'm serious about making a proper website."
When I started my first website, it was just for fun. It was a place for me to post a few of the programs I'd written and dump my bookmarks which I had annotated with my own notes. Later, I also wrote short articles about my experiences with creating websites to help visitors who kept emailing me for help. I never planned for that initial play site to be anything other than a toy.
The beauty about websites you create for fun, as a hobby, is that they are genuine. They are not fake websites created so that you can earn a quick buck. You pour your soul into it, and the love you lavish upon it can be seen in your content. And people notice. And when they notice, they'll come back for more.
What I'm trying to say is don't underestimate this first website that you're creating "for fun". I never stopped working on that first site. It is still here today. You're looking at it. It's now split into two, and known as thefreecountry.com and thesitewizard.com.
But because I did not know the things I know today, I created my first site on a free web host, without my own domain. I used my web host's address. As a result, when I changed web hosts, my web address also changed. This occurred a few times over the years before it finally dawned on me to get my own domain name. In other words, what I mentioned above is not a hypothetical scenario I dreamt up in my spare time. It's something I paid dearly to learn.
Your site may be a hobby site now. But who knows what will come of it in the years ahead?
I subtitled this article "The High Price of 'Free'" because as you can see from above, it's really more expensive in the long run not to get your own domain name. Domain name prices are cheap, at about $10 a year (depending on which registrar you choose), so it's really wiser to just buy a domain for your site before you start out. Even if you really decide to abandon your website later, you'll only have lost that $10 (or whatever amount you paid). But if your site really takes off, that paltry sum will become a worthwhile investment that pays off many times its original amount.
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