Personal Academic Webpages: An Update on How-To’s and Tips for 2015

Rochelle Terman
March 03, 2015
A magnifying glass on a globe, displaying 'WWW'

Three years ago, I wrote a guide for scholars looking to build a professional web presence. “Despite the ubiquity of personal academic websites,” I wrote, “the process of setting up a site remains daunting to many scholars outside of computer science.” For this reason, I provided basic tips and tricks, best practices, and an overview of tools that can help scholars make their own webpage.

That blog remains one of the most popular pages on the Townsend Center’s website, suggesting that scholars are still in need of practical, how-to knowledge to get up and running with their own website. There is now a greater expectation that academics—especially graduate students going on the market—have a website. At the same time, a lot can change in three years, especially when it comes to technology. This blog updates that original post, to see what’s changed, what’s stayed the same, and what you need to do to quickly, easily build your own academic web presence in 2015.

Why a Personal Website: Goals, Visitors, and Communication

Let’s start with what hasn’t changed in the last three years: the basic communication goals motivating a personal academic websites. A website is always a means to an end, not an end in itself. Scholars should keep asking themselves: Why do I want a web presence? Who will be visited this website? What do I hope to communicate to visitors?

In addition to having a clear vision of communication goals, scholars must come to a realistic understanding of their capabilities. As was the case in 2012, a free profile on a department website remains a perfectly functional option for faculty. Graduate students should take advantage of their department’s students listings with a brief biography and a public link to their CV, stored in DropBox or Google Drive. If you have one, include a link to your personal website as well. Many visitors will come to your personal website after browsing profiles on a department’s webpage.

URLs, Hosting, and Platforms

It is now more common than ever for graduate students and early-career academics to build a personal website outside of their department profile. The good news is you now can do a lot more with less money, time, and technical know-how than you could three years ago.

The options surrounding domains, hosts, and platforms have expanded since 2012, and the range of choices can be daunting. To help cut through the forest of possibilities, here are some of the most successful strategies I’ve seen in the last three years:

1. Biggest Value: Google Sites + Custom Domain

Google Sites has really upped its game in the last three years. Google has made the platform easier to use and added more options for content (the information on the page) and themes (the look of the site). For an academic looking to build a basic 4- or 5-page site—with information on biography, research, teaching, and CV—Google Sites is the cheapest, easiest option.

Google Sites will also give you a free domain in the form of https://sites.google.com/site/my-name/. But for scholars who want a more personal touch, you can purchase a domain from Bluehost or Dreamhost for $10-$15 a year, and change the DNS records to “point” to your google site.

Google Sites is simplest option to get a site up and running quickly. But its simplicity comes at a cost in flexibility. With only a few themes available, don’t expect to be able to fine-tune the site architecture or aesthetics.

2. Greatest Flexibility: Private Hosting + WordPress

For scholars who want a lot of flexibility, but still can’t be bothered with "hard coding," I recommend using WordPress on a private hosting plan. That’s wordpress.org, the open-source content management system; not wordpress.com, which is a private hosting service. Personally, I host my WordPress sites on Dreamhost but any WordPress-friendly hosting company will do. They typically cost $6-$12 a month, and usually include a free domain.

WordPress is the most popular content manage system in the world. Its free (once you’ve paid for hosting), easy to use, and extremely powerful. My own pe rsonal website is in WordPress. It’s more involved than Google Sites or SquareSpace, but it’s infinitely more flexible, with thousands of free and paid WordPress plugins which you can use to add new features. It’s especially great for academics who want a blog, more complicated site architecture, or interactivity. If you have materials you want to share with students behind a password wall, for instance, WordPress is the only option listed here that can do that.

Hundreds of free themes are available to make your WordPress site look nice. Even more premium themes are available for $15-$40 a pop, offering what is essentially a “site-in-a-box,” including those specifically tailored to academics. Incidentally, this is a great option if you’re looking to set up a cheap, but professional-looking website for a working group, center, or institute.

While easier to use than Drupal, the more complex open-source content management platform used by the Townsend Center website on which this blog appears, WordPress still involves a learning curve, especially for the more advanced options. So for scholars who don’t have a lot of time to set up a beautiful site, or who are too intimidated by WordPress’s installation processes, other options might be more suitable.

3. Most Beautiful (With Least Effort): SquareSpace + Custom Domain

Perhaps the biggest change in the web landscape in the last three years can be found in the rise in proprietary personal website services such as SquareSpace, Weebly, and Wix. Some of my friends swear by SquareSpace, which is especially good for artsy types who want to feature a portfolio or include media on their site.

The personal plan for SquareSpace starts from $8 a month, making it as affordable as WordPress hosting plan. Unlike WordPress, however, SquareSpace doesn’t come with too many options. A personal plan allows for only 20 pages, a blog, and two contributors. The templates and plugins are very limited.

But what it lacks in flexibility it makes up with in ease of use and beauty. SquareSpace is for the person who wants a stunning looking website that can be made quickly and easily customized, without ever having to worry about hosting, plugins, or code. Plus every annual plan comes with a free custom domain.

Content Architecture, Navigation, and Design

Like fashion and furniture, web design changes with the times. Departments, universities, and institutions should expect to give their site a facelift every few years or so. But for academics with full schedules of research and teaching, simplicity is still the best strategy when it comes to their website. No matter which building strategy you chose, the guidelines posted in the original article having to do with content architecture, navigation, and design still hold today.

Include standard pages, such as biography, research, CV, and contact information. Organize your site with a simple, clear, and intuitive navigation system. Follow design best practices by being consistent with typographic elements; limit use of color to 1-2 accent colors on a white or neutral background; and design like it’s a billboard, not a newspaper.

Perhaps the greatest change I’ve seen in the last three years is an improvement in design and usability of personal academic websites. Part of this is due to the expansion of tools and technologies that cater to the beginning web builder. But hopefully it is also due greater knowledge, resources, and confidence on the part of the academic. Three years from now, the academic without a web presence will be a thing of the past.