Host Hunting

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

Finding places to post your genealogy Web site is easy. The tough part is choosing between the zillions of companies that offer Web-hosting services. How do you know which one will make the best home for your family history?

Web hosting deals with more than mere server space: It can affect everything from your Internet address to your site’s contents. And with more companies offering Web-authoring tools as part of their hosting packages, your host can influence how you actually construct your site. As you server-shop, you’ll need to consider how much space you need, your skill level, your personal preferences on issues such as domain names and advertising and, of course, your budget.

Virtually yours

Web hosting comes in two forms. Virtual hosting refers to “renting” space on a company’s Web server and using your own domain name, such as <>. Nonvirtual hosting provides you with space on a server, but you use that company’s domain name. Your Internet address (URL) might be <>, for example. Most companies offering free Web space will give you a nonvirtual-domain account.

If you choose a virtual host, you’ll need to register your own domain name. You can do this through one of several registration companies. The yearly fee varies between $9 and $35; paying more won’t get you any more benefits, so shop around for a low-cost registration company (see the list at right for a few options).

The advantages of virtual hosting are obvious: You get to pick your own domain name and your URL is shorter, easier to remember and won’t change if you ever move your site. The downside, of course, is cost — you have to decide whether those perks are worth the extra expense.

Paying your way

Money does talk when you’re shopping for a Web host. Costs vary tremendously — from free to several hundred dollars a month — and are determined by the services you choose. With a paid account, for example, you can pick options such as e-commerce, dedicated servers, unlimited e-mail accounts and more disk space than you would use in a lifetime. Typically, a no-frills service costs under $20 a month and includes 50MB of Web space and one e-mail account.

If you choose a for-fee host, you’ll need to know a fair bit about creating Web pages, including the nuts and bolts of file transfer protocol (FTP), and how to optimize graphics for quick loading. Hosts generally have online help files, but if you’re a brand-new Webmaster, these may not be detailed enough.

Fee-based hosts have many advantages, though, including being able to use your own domain name and having complete control over the appearance of your site. You can add custom-designed bulletin boards, auctions and shopping carts using your own CGI scripts (Common Gateway Interface, used for creating forms and other “interactive” features). Or you can include a Java applet that password-protects your site.

Going gratis

Want a ton of Web space without spending a dime? No problem — in fact, hundreds of companies are eager to give it away. All you “pay” is furnishing your personal information and giving permission to splash advertising banners across the top of your site. The information is for demographic purposes, and the banners generate advertising dollars that keep your site free. Although you don’t have any say about which advertising banners go on your site, hosts do try to match advertisers with site content.

The big players in the free hosting game offer freebies galore, including up to 50MB or more of space, add-on games, search boxes, e-mail forms, guest books, customized local weather and counters. Some even give you the tools to track what time of day visitors hit your site, as well as the Web address they visited just prior to yours.

Using free site-building wizards, you can get your first Web page up and running within 15 minutes, even if it’s your first time. Check out my simple one-page sites at <> and <> — both created within five minutes.

Although free sites don’t give you complete control over Web page design, you can choose from an interesting variety of ready-made templates, including some just for genealogy. After picking a template, follow step-by-step directions to plug in graphics and text. You can also enhance your site with add-ons such as counters and a guest book.

If you don’t know much about computers, or don’t have the time to jump into the murky waters of HTML coding, free sites may be your best choice. True, you’ll give up some design control for convenience, but you can still have a professional-looking site — and in a fraction of the time. In addition, free sites are designed with beginners in mind — this means the help files are clearly written in layman’s terms.

The biggest community of free Web hosting is Yahoo! Geocities <>, with Tripod <> another longtime favorite. Both are loaded with site-building wizards, templates and add-ons.

Genealogy giant RootsWeb <> also gives away free Web space — as much as you want. RootsWeb is a terrific place to expose your site to a huge community of family historians. But you’re on your own in terms of site design because it doesn’t provide templates or step-by-step directions.

Before you go looking for a free Web host, check to see if your own Internet Service Provider (ISP) already offers it. AT&T, AOL and Earthlink are just a few of the ISPs that make free Web space standard fare. Large companies also provide templates — AOL has 90 — and site-building wizards.

Of course, you don’t have to use the wizards and tools provided by free hosts. You can also use WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) Web-publishing software such as Microsoft FrontPage or straight HTML to create pages you can upload to any of these servers. (See the October 2000 Family Tree Magazine for a complete guide to building a family history Web site.)

Playing with passwords

What if you want to share your family research, but don’t want to build a Web site? You can, with password-protected sites such as those offered at <> or <>. These services provide pre-designed layouts, so you can’t move columns, delete categories or pick your favorite colors. Still, the sites are attractive, easy-to-use and an easy way for families to connect — no matter how far apart they may live.

Password-protected sites usually offer about 5MB of storage and include features such as a photo album, real-time chat, a bulletin board and calendar. Creating these sites takes about five minutes. Each person you ask to join will receive a password, and no one can access the site without one. (Which means you can share information only with “known” relatives — your site isn’t out on the Web for distant cousins to stumble upon.)

These sites are great for families who want to share genealogy data or just everyday life. You can post photos, plan a reunion, announce milestone events and share family tree research. Everyone can use the site easily, without any knowledge of Web design, coding or graphics.

Because the site is password-protected, you can exchange addresses and phone numbers without worrying about strangers gaining access to your personal information. And, if relatives move or change their phone number, they can easily update the information on the site.

What’s your best choice?

If you don’t need your own domain name or high-end options, a free Web host will suit you just fine. But shop around — choose a host that gives you enough room to grow, the tools you need and flexibility to create your site the way you want. Tripod and Yahoo! Geocities are good choices for putting a basic site up in minutes. Other free hosts may offer more megs (see the previous page). RootsWeb is ideal for those who want tons of space and lots of design control.

And don’t overlook your genealogy software. Most programs have wizards that convert your data to Web pages, and a few — Family Origins and Parentele — give you free space on their Web site. Family Tree Maker users can use the software to put up an online family tree, but you can upload it only to Family Tree Maker’s site <>. Other programs let you create a site you can upload anywhere.

If you enjoy new adventures, immersing yourself in research and spending leisure time on the computer — and you’re willing to spend the money — a for-fee Web host may be right up your alley. You’ll need to use an HTML editor and FTP software and be resourceful enough to search the Web for fun add-ons that require Java applets or CGI script. And a fee-based host may be your best choice if you’re not really comfortable with advertising on your site. Wherever you decide to post your site, it ought to feel like home.


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From the February 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine