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Want a Home on Web? Crafting Free Pages Is Fairly Simple

Several sites provide space and how-tos. Some are easier than others--and all caused some frustration, a novice found.

May 17, 1999|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seems as if every self-respecting technology aficionado has a Web site these days. Although I have been writing about Web sites for several years now, I have resisted building my own. Until now.

I'm no high-tech wizard. I curse the network and whack my computer monitor when programs unexpectedly crash. Still, I didn't expect it would be difficult to hang my own cybershingle. After all, there are more than 3 million "homesteaders" on GeoCities alone. The hardest part, I thought, would be coming up with something to say on my Web site.

That prediction turned out to be partly correct. It took me months to develop a "content strategy," as the companies I write about would say. I finally decided to build a site to display pictures from my recent visit to Argentina. (This, I figured, would be cheaper and easier than getting scores of reprints and mailing them all over the world.)

The technical side of creating a Web site was relatively easy. All of the services I tested--GeoCities, TheGlobe.com, Angelfire, Xoom.com and Tripod--caused some frustration, but I could figure out how to use most without reading long instruction manuals or befriending a tech support rep. No HTML programming skills were required, but I did learn a few easy coding techniques. It took less than a day to create a site on each of the services, except Xoom.com.

Before I go on, a disclaimer: I am under no illusion that my vacation photos are of interest to Netizens in general. The free Web-hosting services will help customers promote their sites, but my target audience is a relatively small group of friends and family. I am including the addresses of my sites here only to illustrate my Web-site-making experience, not to show off my design prowess (or lack thereof). Trust me, I'm keeping my day job.

There are dozens of companies giving away home pages. Book clubs can create their own sites at Book-Club.net (http://www.book-club.net), law firms can go online with FindLaw Internet Legal Resources (http://firms.findlaw.com), churches can make their own home pages with Lighthouse Business Services (http://www.lhbs.com) . . . you get the idea. Yahoo lists more than five dozen entries in its "Free Web Page" category (http://dir.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/Companies/Internet_Services /Web_Services/Hosting/Free_Web_Pages).

I decided to start with GeoCities (http://www.geocities.com), the Marina del Rey-based company that invented the concept of free personal home pages.

GeoCities offers 11 megabytes of free space, custom Web design software, an e-mail address and an opportunity for you to make money from your site. Like all the other companies I tried, GeoCities asks for your name, address and some demographic information. The company's privacy policy was readily accessible. (Last year, the Federal Trade Commission accused GeoCities of selling personal information about its members to marketers in violation of its own policies. The company settled with the FTC but denied the charges.)

GeoCities is divided into themed "neighborhoods." I chose to locate in the Tropics, which is geared toward travel. Beginners can use the GeoBuilder program to make a Web page from a template, or can create a page from scratch. The blank page looked too daunting, so I decided to start with a photo album template.

By double-clicking on text boxes and graphics, I could substitute the generic elements of the template with my own pictures and descriptions. A large clip-art library was also at my disposal, though I found most of it to be pretty cheesy. The template was a helpful starting point. But once I got the hang of it, I used the GeoBuilder icons to put text, pictures and links wherever I wanted.

When I was done, it took me a while to figure out that the "Upload" button I had used to import pictures was the same button I needed to move my finished page (http://www.geocities.com/TheTropics/Beach/3081) out onto the Web.

Three of the other services handle novices like me by using an approach to making Web sites that is like doing a Mad Lib word game: Fill in the blanks and out comes a home page. The advantage is that you can get up on the Web much faster; the downside is that there is little flexibility in page appearance.

PageWizard, the site-building software at TheGlobe.com (http://www.theglobe.com), allows you to pick a template (again I chose the photo album option), choose background colors and text, write an introductory paragraph, upload image files and voila!--instant Web page (http://members.theglobe.com/kdkaplan).

The template allows for only two pictures on a page, so I had to make four pages and link them together (luckily there was a Mad Lib-style entry for this too). But the process is time-consuming.

TheGlobe.com generates a pop-up ad every time a new page is called up, so visitors to my site must contend with the annoyance four times instead of just once.

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