(A primer on why and how to get your own dot-com)
1. Waking up to the new reality
February 28, 2002 hadn’t been a good day. I had been dogged by all sort of small annoyances that, taken individually, amounted to nothing but taken as a group seriously threatened to make me go completely nuts. Heck, it hadn’t even been a good week, what with bad weather, an emergency trip to the garage to repair malfunctioning wipers and other assorted annoyances. Already, I was blessing Pope Gregory for making February (all-time champ of the suckiest month award) such a thankfully short month.
Then I opened up my mailbox. There it was, the email I’d been dreading for a while: Geocities.com announcing that “Beginning April 2, 2002, we will no longer provide FTP access as part of our free home page service.”
It wasn’t a complete surprise: Since the dot-com crash of 2000-2001, free services on the web had a harder time surviving than ever before. Cocaine-addicted MBAs were waking up minus the usual expensive hookers to their side and finally realizing that the party was over; from now on, they’d have to work for their money or crawl back to their Republican daddies.
Dot-coms based only on empty promises, ludicrous concepts (Selling dog food on the Internet? Gaah!) and jazzed-up PowerPoint presentations had been crashing left and right, taking with them a small number of idiots and a small army of unfortunate workers. Marketing droids finally realized what most of us in the real world already knew; we hate, hate, hate advertising and our best weapon is utter indifference. We won’t click on banner ads, heck, we won’t even notice them. The promise of an ad-paid web was rapidly shriveling away.
Naturally, all of us free-loading chumps had to face reality. I’d been notified in January that my “free email address for life” would stop forwarding to my main ISP account, unless I upgraded for a low, low price. Even good useful sites were being taken down. Even the disappearance of the bad clueless guys (go.com, etc…) was a bittersweet victory when the good was going down with the bad.
In short, the free web was tightening its noose and Yahoo/Geocities was following suit. Taking away FTP access left only the “Easy Upload” option, a Geocities “feature” that managed to pack an impressive total of two inaccuracies in a two-word name. Effectively, this was making Geocities completely unusable to any serious web publisher.
Obviously, I had a few options to consider. Abandoning my web site was most definitely not one of them.
2. Webmaster, know thy site
The first step, obviously, was to evaluate what the heck I was trying to do with my web site, what it consisted of and where I’d like to take it in the future.
The first part was easy. I have several faults, but none of them is bigger than my intellectual vanity. What better way to show how dang smart I am than to own my own corner of cyberspace? As a budding wordsmith, a personal web site also creates the illusion of an audience and a motivation. Asking me to get rid of my web site is a lot like asking me to sell my house and go homeless.
I was still surprised, though, when I took stock of what my website now contained. The four megabytes of pictures weren’t completely surprising given the number of them illustrating my New York 2001 travelogue. I have two megabytes of PDF files -my quarterly newsletter- in the “hidden” area of the site; that too wasn’t overly noteworthy. What really impressed me was the four megabytes of solid HTML. For anyone keeping track at home, that’s roughly the equivalent of three 500-pages paperbacks. I guess that even adding only a dozen pages per month can really add up after seven years…
My site contained no complex coding requirements, wasn’t going to get more than a dozen accidental visits per day and could probably live a few more months before turning database-driven. Essentially, I just needed a new file server for my site. Though more toys would be fun.
After seven years on the web, I suppose it was time to turn pro and finally stop mooching other free services for my web site. From 1995 to 1998, I used the University of Ottawa’s space. I then turned to Xoom/NCBi until 2000, after which geocities became my free ISP of choice. But, as described earlier, free webspace was becoming and increasingly unsustainable commodity.
I was tired of advertisement screwing up my design. (The fact that they also broke most XHTML validation engine was becoming another problem) I wanted to give a simple memorable URL. I wanted my own email address. In short, it sure looked as if I wanted to own my own domain.
But which one? ChristianSauve.(something) looked like an obvious choice, but was it the best? Was I so vain as to grab it for myself and deny it to the two dozen other Christian Sauvés around the globe? Wasn’t it a bit too egomaniacal as a domain name? I mulled over that question a bit and decided to go for it anyway. There were plenty of regional variations available to my namesakes, personal sites ought to be named appropriately and, furthermore, when you get to the heart of the matter, it would have been more uncomfortable to see ChristianSauve.(something) belong to someone else!
as for the final suffix, .com seemed like the obvious choice. While .ca would have been nicely Canadian, it didn’t have the ubiquitous nature of .com, even among Canadians. .name would have been a possibility, though it’s a touch too English for wide use in the francophone world and wasn’t available in March 2002 anyway.
One last tweak: christian-sauve.com read better than christiansauve.com, which was important to me given that the address would be written far more often that it would be said.
4. It’s a cyberjungle out there, and every tiger wants to sell you web hosting.
It’s a decisive step to decide upon a .com name, but it’s far, far more complicated to select a hosting service for a new web site. Just go to hostsearch.com and do a search; you’ll see hundred, thousands of options. Some of them ridiculously cheap, others hideously expensive.
Obviously, choices had to be made. My first impulsion was to cut the Gordian knot and simply go with Magma, my own ISP. A nice, simple notion, except for one tiny detail; Magma charged roughly 450$C per year for the dirt-simple service I wanted. That was a touch more than I was prepared to pay.
To simplify my search, I set a very simple set of arbitrary rules; my web host would be as Canadian as possible, and would be paid in Canadian dollars. Both a patriotic statement and a sensible decision (it would protect me against the declining value of the Canadian dollar, ensure that my site would be indexed by Canadian search engines and keep my dollars north of the border), it would also restrict my options to a manageable level.
For the next step, I lurked in ott.online, our local techy Usenet group and collected recommendations. (Apparently, I wasn’t the only Geocities refugee) When I had a dozen, I started investigating. Some sites were quickly eliminated from consideration: One had an obtrusive Flash interface that disgusted me immediately (see, Jakob Nielsen?); others insisted to charge American dollars to their local clients. Many expected me to entrust them with two hundred dollars on the basis of only a few paragraphs of information. Worse were those who didn’t even bother putting pricing information on their web site.
Just as I thought Magma wasn’t such a bad idea after all, notwithstanding the extra mortgage, I chanced upon blacksun.ca, a Saskatoon company recommended by quite a few Usenetters. I looked at their web site and liked the extensive description of services, the complete support section and the overall impression of professionalism. A search through the Google Usenet archives revealed only one obsolete warning signal (someone said that their servers were in New Jersey, but a more thorough investigation revealed that Blacksun subsequently built their own server bank in Saskatoon), a few raves and no complaints at all.
It helped a lot that Blacksun offered twice the services of Magma at roughly a third of the cost. 25 Megabytes of disk space, unlimited bandwidth, full CGI-bin (or Frontpage extensions), access to raw web logs… it looked good. I could even solve my Freemail problem by setting up unlimited aliases on my new domain! Oh, and they even register the domain name for you! One reasonable downside; you have to pay for a full year.
5. Let’s go!
Ultimately, paying for christian-sauve.com was an anticlimax compared to the work involved in selecting a web host. Thanks to the maturity of credit card purchases through the web, everything was done and completed in minutes, for an affordable total cost of 155.75$C per year.
Transferring the site from Geocities to christian-sauve.com was also definitely underwhelming… though typing the URL for the first time was a treat!
What’s next? Well, I intend to bask in this dot-com glory for a while. Then Blacksun’s next best hosting package includes full PHP/database support. Hmm…!
Until the next crisis, then, enjoy christian-sauve.com!
(For the continuing saga of how christian-sauve.com is doing, have a look at the site statistics.)