Academic Website I: Why a Personal Website is a Great Idea | Hendrik Erz

Abstract: Creating a personalized website to present yourself to the world is becoming more and more popular. Many colleagues and acquaintances have asked me over the past two years to explain how I created this website here. Today is finally the day I begin a long series of articles that will tell you everything you need to know to build your very own, personal, academic website.


Over the years, many colleagues, friends, acquaintances and random people on the internet have told me that they would like to have a website as I do, but they don’t know where to start. I have received many requests to write a few blog posts outlining how to actually set up and maintain an academic website. And indeed, a personal website becomes more and more the norm. So here it is: An article series on how to create your own, personal, website!

In the coming weeks, I will be publishing a total of seven articles, each of them dedicated to one part of the process of thinking about, preparing, and setting up a personal website. Currently, the rundown goes as follows:

  • Reasons for why a personal website is a good idea – this is what I will be going through in this article.
  • Choosing a domain name: The most important decision you need to make will be your domain name. However, if you are not careful, scammers will snatch your dream domain from you and hold it hostage. Therefore: do not google your dream domain name just yet! I will explain why, and how to safely buy your dream domain in this article.
  • Anatomy of a successful website: Before you decide how to set up a website, you should think about what is required. When it comes to websites, the sky is the limit, but this also means that you will need to balance the time you are willing to put into setting it up vis-à-vis your needs. Some websites are extremely easy to set up but don’t give you many options to customize, and others are very cumbersome but can even brew coffee for you. In this article, I try to outline what is important when thinking about websites so that you can make an informed decision.
  • Hosting your first website: After you have a domain and a general idea of what your website will look like, you need to actually set it up. In this article, I will run you through three different options of hosting a website: A static site generator, a website hosting service, and hosting on a dedicated webspace/server. I will also cover how to connect your domain to your website.
  • Telling Machines Who You Are: When thinking about creating a website, you will mostly think about the actual target group you want to visit your website: other academics. However, there are also robots on the internet; and many of those are not bad (as in “botnet”) but very good for you (as in: they scrape your website to help other people find it). In this article I want to explain a few things that you can do to make it easier for search engines as well as social media to find and present your website.
  • Migrating Your Website: You just set up your first website, and now I’m already telling you how to level it to the ground again! This article completes the circle to give you all the knowledge you need to adapt your website to your needs. If you are just a PhD student, it may be sufficient to create a simple blog on WordPress.com, but as you progress in your career, getting a dedicated and more customizable website may be in order. Here I tell you what you need to think about before calling the moving company.
  • Dirty Tricks: Having a custom website opens up almost endless possibilities of doing great things. In this final article, I share a few of the dirty tricks that I found very helpful for structuring, organizing, and adding content for others – and you – to quickly find what you are looking for. It will be a loose and likely incomplete selection of cool things you can do once you have your own website.

Are you missing any areas that you would like me to cover that are not already part of the series? Then please just ping me either on Mastodon or Bluesky, or drop me a mail, so that I can add additional articles as necessary! I want this to be as helpful to you as possible, which I can only promise if you tell me if something is missing.

But now, let’s get started.

Academics and Websites

Getting a website as an academic is comparable to fish getting some water. The internet started in academia (and not on Facebook), so it is a natural habitat for any academic. The very first website has been created by Tim Berners-Lee while he was working at CERN in Switzerland. His main idea was to enable academics to share research results as well as data with other researchers around the world without the help of the postal service, pigeons, or going to conferences.

Of course, nowadays, websites look entirely different. Today, websites do not just contain data; they also facilitate communication, or present a company or person. And this is what you want to do: Have a space online where you can present yourself as a person.

But why should you do this? There are better reasons than “Academics created the internet, so I must be there, too”.

You Already Have A Website!

The first realization that you should come to is that you already possess a website: your institute’s one! Whenever you work at a university – as a PhD student, a Postdoc, or any type of lecturer/professor – you will receive your own website. Take a look at my institutional website: https://liu.se/en/employee/hener68

Cool, right? Well, I want you to think about a few issues.

First, your university controls your institutional website. This means, they can arbitrarily change it if they deem fit, or they can choose not to add things that you would like to have. A university needs to control its own brand, and if you would like to criticize your university for some decision, it will be very hard to do so on your institutional website. And even if your university accommodates your request, it may take a few days for them to approve changes. This means that changes to your institutional website will always be a tad slow.

Second, you cannot change the design or layout. While your institutional website reflects that you are part of it, it doesn’t necessarily reflect your personality. You may dislike its design, but even if you don’t: your staff page reflects your university, not you. This also means that you are constrained by whatever design limitations they impose, which might make it difficult to add images, dynamic content, or other custom things that you want to add.

Third, and most gravely: upon switching universities, that website will be gone for good. An institutional website has a limited lifespan that ends the second you are no longer employed at or affiliated with your current university. Now, you may think “But I’ll get a new website from my new university” and you are certainly right. But the internet is unforgiving, unfortunately. Your colleagues, friends, and acquaintances first have to know the new URL to your new website. And search engines will for some time after your institutional website is gone still link to that one. They have no way of knowing that this new website that just appeared in their search indices represents the same person as the website that just disappeared. So you will have to wait – in the worst case a few years – until, when someone googles your name, your new institutional website will appear on the first page of the results.

Lastly, we are scattered on the internet. We do not just have an institutional website, we also have social media accounts. For academics, this was for the longest time Twitter, and now it is Mastodon and Bluesky. However, here the same applies as for switching institutions: search engines and your acquaintances will take some time until they realize that this new Bluesky account that just appeared is actually you.

Search engines – as well as humans – follow a crucial heuristic when it comes to trusting things they see online: they will only trust information from websites they already trust. This means: they trust your institutional website, but if you create a new Bluesky account, they won’t trust that this is really you unless you (a) literally send them the link via email, or (b) you link it on your institutional website. And then, they have to go to your institutional website to verify it’s your account, which many don’t do.

As you can see, sticking exclusively to your institutional website has a lot of difficulties. This leads me to the next section:

The Benefits of Your Personal Website

A personal website has a lot of benefits; many more than I will outline here. But I want to highlight a few of these benefits that I deem especially worthy.

First, a personal website is your brand. This means, on your personal website you can market yourself as you want. For example, are you working in a history department, but you are more the computer guy? It will be difficult to adequately express this on some constrained, institutional website. But if you have a custom personal webpage where you changed many parts yourself, this will already communicate to other people that you have some understanding of computers. This makes it much easier to convince other people that you know the trade than adding a line on your institutional website that effectively reads as “Web design is my passion”.

Second, a personal website enables you to build trust. Your personal website is going to stay, wherever you are. Your institutional website changes, but what changes on your website is only your institution. This means that both search engines and fellow academics can rest assured that, once they know your personal website address, whatever is on there is probably true. This is also good when communicating where you are active online. Take for example my homepage: I have added a notification that I now have a Bluesky account, which makes it easy for both humans and robots to verify that the Bluesky account is, in fact, my own one. Because why would I link to an impostor account? The same holds true in many other instances.

Third, you can put whatever information you like onto your personal webpage. On an institutional website, you are kind of constrained to a single page, where you have to stuff your CV, your publications, a research statement, your educational history and what not else onto a single page, making it convoluted. On a personal page, you can create dedicated pages for every piece of information you would like to put out there.

One particularly useful thing that I found out just this year is that a personal website allows you to create custom landing pages. This is already one of the “dirty tricks” that I will go more in depth in the final article of this series.

A landing page is a webpage that people “land on”, when they open a link. Every website has one; and for me, it’s what you see when you type “www.hendrik-erz.de” into your browser’s address bar. But you can create additional ones.

This year, I was at IC2S2 in Copenhagen, and I realized that I needed to give people further information if they were interested in my poster, such as articles that I have already written on the topic. They could’ve searched for that content on my website, but who does this? Right: no one. So I decided to collect all that information that might be of interest and added it to a custom landing page with an easily memorable link.

Have a look for yourself: www.hendrik-erz.de/ic2s2. This website is not linked anywhere else (well, except now in this article). Instead, I put a sheet of paper with that link next to my poster:

A selfie in front of my poster at IC2S2 2023 in Copenhagen where you can see the piece of paper I used to direct people to my custom landing page.

Since the link was reasonably easy to memorize, I could rest assured that some people would actually go there. This has immense benefits. First, I could contextualize my poster within the context that the readers of the website would all be at IC2S2. But, even better: by looking at the website analytics, I could see how many people have actually visited the link, giving me a rough estimate of how popular my poster was. Since I did not link the page anywhere else, every click must have come from a person standing in front of my poster. Have a look: With my analytics, I can see that 29 people have actually looked up information. July 20th was the day my poster was actually presented. The clicks the day before was just me seeing if everything worked as intended.

A screenshot showing the people who have visited the custom IC2S2 landing page on my website during the conference.

This isn’t limited to custom landing pages for conferences, though. You can use the same strategy to create custom course pages. My supervisor, Étienne Ollion, does this, for example. For his courses, he adds material such as lab code and further resources to a special, password-protected page that he will share only with the course.

However, these few examples only scratch the surface. There are many more possibilities once you have your own, personal website. But I nevertheless hope that, even if you weren’t convinced that a personal webpage is a good idea, you are by now.

Conclusion

This concludes the initial article that outlines why a personal website is a good idea. Many of those of you who have asked me for this article series probably didn’t need convincing, but since many additional people will come across this blog, I think it is just fair to start with the original motivation.

If I got your attention (or you were one of those initially asking me to write this series), make sure you read the next article: how to choose your own domain name. As I mentioned earlier: Don’t google it yet, I will explain why. But you can already start to think about it. (Again, do not type it anywhere into your computer, yet!) In the next article, I will then explain to you how you can actually buy that domain in a safe way without having a scammer snatch it away from you and demanding high ransom for you to actually get it.

So stay tuned!

P.S.: I will add this article series as the older one on “How I work” on my resources page.

Suggested Citation

Erz, Hendrik (2023). “Academic Website I: Why a Personal Website is a Great Idea”. hendrik-erz.de, 24 Nov 2023, https://www.hendrik-erz.de/post/academic-website-i-why-a-personal-website-is-a-great-idea.

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