Alex Rutar

How to Build a Personal Webpage from Scratch

Contents

An overview of static webpage deployment

What is a static webpage?

Modern webpages are (primarily) composed of three types of files: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Basically,

  • HTML specifies the content,
  • CSS defines the style, and
  • JavaScript allows dynamic behaviour.

Webpages also consist of additional resources, such as images or documents. When you visit a webpage, your web browser requests the documents from a server.

Static and dynamic webpages differ in how the files are prepared before they are sent to the visitor. A static webpage is essentially a collection of files sitting on the server, which are sent directly to the webpage visitor, whereas a (server-sideThis is in contrast to a client-side dynamic webpage which uses JavaScript, but only in your web browser.) dynamic webpage typically consists of a database as well as code to generate the files on the flyThis code can either run in your browser, or the page rendering itself can happen on the server. when they are requested by the visitor.

For example, this website is a static webpage. On the other hand, any webpage which allows you to log-in and have user-specific state is a dynamic webpage. The majority of web pages on the internet are dynamic webpages.

When building a static webpage, you can simply prepare the entire webpage as a directory containing files. In fact, you can make a webpage (using your own device as the server) simply by writing a bit of HTML with no CSS or JavaScript: create a file named index.html with the contents

<html><body>content</body></html>

and, when you double-click on the file, it should open in your browser and show a (rather minimal) page displaying the line “content”.

Dynamic webpages are built in a similar way, except rather than generating the pages in advance, the files sent to the visitor are generated as they are requested. A dynamic webpage will typically have a database used to store the site information, and a web server which uses the database to generate content when requested by the user. This allows substantially more flexibility in content delivery (e.g. webpage state, customization for the viewer, etc.) since the content delivered to the webpage can depend on arbitrary variables whose values are unknown when creating the site. This also allows procedural generation of content, which avoids repetitive code. The main downside is that, since the pages need to be generated for each visitor, dynamic websites are typically more resource intensive and slower to render.

Why static webpages?

However, for a personal blog or site used primarily to distribute information, rather than collect it, dynamic content generation is not necessary! Here is a short list of reasons why you should prefer simple static webpages (if you do not already know that you require a dynamic webpage):

  • Longevity. A static webpage is just a collection of files, which you should also have saved on your computer. So even in the worst case scenario—say your web server disappears—you still have the files for your webpage and you can just put them up somewhere else. Static webpages are also easier to maintain: if you have a dynamic webpage, you need to keep the required tools up to date otherwise everything will cease to work.
  • Portability. If you decide that you want to host your webpage somewhere else, this is straightforward to do. Static webpages are also simple enough that you can host them yourself on a low-power device!
  • Security. Since static webpages are substantially simpler, they have a smaller attack surface and are more secure. There is no underlying server serving requests, or processing user input. Even in hosted situations, there can be problems with the underlying content management system. For example, many Wordpress sites were compromised through an exploit which targeted the plugin system.

Template processing

One downside of manually preparing a webpage is that there is often a large amount of repetition: for example, each article on this webpage has different content but many shared layout features. In order to simplify this process, a common technique is to use a template processor. This is a program which takes files written in a templating language (such as Jinja or Tera), combined with content files written in a markup language (such as Markdown) and converts them into HTML, CSS, and JavaScript files. You first prepare the templates, then write the content files, and then use the template processor to generate the webpage files.

Static website components

There are three main components to static website generation:

  1. Templating. You should choose a templating engine and then prepare the website template. I am personally a fan of Zola; some other common options are Jekyll and Hugo.
  2. Content. The most important part of a webpage is the content! Beyond that, it’s nice if your webpage also looks decent. You need to write base HTML files and CSS style sheets, as well as the webpage content.
  3. Deployment. While it is possible (and not too difficult) to host your own static site server, it is typically easiest to use static site hosting. I use Cloudflare Pages. You might also be interested in GitHub Pages or Netlify.

Of course, templating is mainly a convenience feature, and not strictly necessary when making a small website. I’ll discuss the other two components in the following sections, along with some additional topics in the final section.

A note on editing text

HTML is a markup language, which means that the text represents content, rather than being the content visually. Other well-known markup languages include LaTeX and Markdown.

Therefore when writing content for your webpage, it is important to use an editor which accurately represents the contents of the file you are editing. This is in contrast to software such as Microsoft Word, in which the content that you enter on the page is different than the underlying representation. Some popular graphical text editors include Atom and Sublime Text. If you do not want to install anything, Notepad is a built-in text editor on Windows. Similarly, TextEdit is built-in on macOS. For command-line editors, you could consider Neovim or Emacs.

One subtlety is that not all text is the same. Underneath, text is just binary data, so rules are required to convert the binary data into the textual representation: this process is known as character encoding. The most common type of encoding used on webpages is UTF-8, which is the transfer format for the Unicode standard. ASCII is also a well-known encoding, but only supports a very restricted number of characters. Certain older software, such as TeX, defaults to files encoded in ASCII:If you \usepackage[utf8]{inputenc}, you can use Unicode directly in the .tex file. for example, to input directional quotation marks “” (which are Left Double Quotation Mark and Right Double Quotation Mark respectively), one would use `` and ''. However, unless you are forced otherwise, you should try to write all your content in Unicode.

Crash course in HTML and CSS

I’m going to assume you know some basics of HTML and CSS. There are lots of tutorials online; here is a nice one. I’d recommend you read the articles on HTML basics and CSS basics.

In this section, I’ll give a complete (albeit streamlined) description of setting up a basic functional webpage. We are going to create 4 files:

.
├── 404.html
├── index.html
├── style.css
└── writing
    └── index.html

Getting started

Let’s start with a rather minimal HTML file. Call it index.html in your (currently empty) website folder.

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html lang="en">
  <head>
    <meta charset="utf-8">
    <meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width">

    <title>Example Webpage</title>
    <meta name="description" content="An example webpage.">
    <meta name="author" content="Alex Rutar">
  </head>
  <body>
    <header>
      Example Webpage
    </header>
    <nav>
      <a href="writing/index.html">Writing</a>
      <a href="index.html">About</a>
    </nav>
    <article>
      <h1>Welcome to my webpage</h1>
      <p>This is some content!</p>
    </article>
  </body>
</html>

This isn’t the most bare-bones possible HTML file, but it is a good modern starting point for all HTML content on your site. Here’s an explanation of some of the tags:

  • <head>...</head> and <body>...</body>: these are the two main sections of your HTML file. <head> contains the metadata, and <body> contains the content that will show up on your screen when you visit the webpage.
  • <meta charset="utf-8">: declare that the content is encoded in UTF-8.
  • <meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width"> ensures that, if this page is opened on a browser with a small screen, it will not be incredibly zoomed out. This is the bare minimum required so your page looks passable on a phone. You can read a bit about this here.
  • <title>, <meta name = "description" ...>, <meta name="author" ...>: title, a short page description, and author.
  • <nav>...</nav>: website navigation
  • <article>...</article>: the ‘content’ of the page, i.e. your actual article or blog post but without the navigation, header, footer, etc.

Now if you open the file index.html with your web browser (you can probably just double-click it) you should get a page with two links at the top: About, and Writing.

Unfortunately the Writing link does nothing: we need to create that page. Create a new directory called writing and in that directory create a file called index.html. Then, fill it with pretty much the same contents as index.html, but replace the <nav>...</nav> with the contents

<nav>
  <a href="index.html">Writing</a>
  <a href="../index.html">About</a>
</nav>

and replace the <article>...</article> with something slightly different, say

<article>
  <h1>Some things I've written</h1>
  <p>Nothing here yet...</p>
</article>

You can also change the title and description in this new page, as well. Now, if you click on the navigation links, you have two working pages!

Styling the page

We have a functional webpage, but it would be nice to make everything look a bit better. Create a file style.css, and add the line

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="style.css">

to the <head> of index.html and

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="../style.css">

to the <head> of writing/index.html. This tells the browser to look for a file named style.css in the same directory as index.html and in the directory containing the file writing/index.html, which contains styling information. While it is possible to define styles inline in the HTML, this is bad practice since it is harder to maintain (as a general rule, HTML defines semantics, whereas CSS defines style). Also, you should add some more content to the <article> section: perhaps a few more headers <h2>...</h2> and links <a href="...some url...">my link</a>. This will make the styling changes more clear as you make them.

Let’s begin with some basic styling. First, add

body {
  margin: 0 auto;
  max-width: 700px;
  min-width: 0;
  padding: 0 10px 25px;
  font-family: "Helvetica", "Arial", sans-serif;
}

to the file style.css. This centres the text body, prevents it from being too wide on large screens, ensures there is a bit of a space on the boundary when the screen is small, and finally sets a new font (rather than the usual default Times New Roman). The min-width: 0 is useful to prevent large elements from (accidentally) making the page very wide on screens narrower than 700 pixels.

We can also adjust the spacing so that the text is laid out a bit more nicely:

h2 {
  margin-top: 1em;
  padding-top: 1em;
}
nav a {
  margin-left: 20px;
}

And adjust the colour of the text itself to something a bit more pleasant:

body {
  color: #444;
}
h1, h2, strong {
  color: #222;
}

Then touch up the font sizes:

header {
  margin: 0px;
  font-size: 23px;
}
article {
  font-size: 16px;
}
nav {
  font-size: 18px;
  letter-spacing: 1px;
}
h1 {
  font-size: 26px;
}
h2 {
  font-size: 23px;
}

Finally, let’s add a bit of character by styling the links:

a {
  color: #ffa64d;
}

Our webpage looks a bit cleaner now!

Grid layout

However, we need to address some more serious layout problems: currently, the navigation is way too small, and the header does not stand out at all.

To fix this, we are going to use a relatively new CSS technique known as CSS Grid.A nice reference for CSS Grid can be found here. Essentially, CSS Grid allows us to specify layout in a parent element, and then place the children inside this layout.

First, let’s specify the general layout of our grid. We want three sections: a header in the top left (for our title), a navigation bar in the top right, and then a main area containing all the content of the site. We will target the <body> element to set up this grid:

body {
  display: grid;
  row-gap: 5px;
  grid-template-columns: auto auto;
  grid-template-rows: 60px auto;
  grid-template-areas:
    "header nav"
    "ct ct"
}

Let’s break down what this is doing.

  • display: grid: this element is specifying a grid layout for its children.
  • row-gap: 5px: have some space between the rows
  • grid-template-columns: auto auto: we have two columns, and we want to determine their widths automatically
  • grid-template-rows: 60px auto: we have two rows, where the first row (containing the header and navigation bar) has a height of 60 pixels, and the second row is sized automatically based on the content
  • grid-template-areas: ...: assign names to the areas. We have header in the top left, nav in the top right, and ct everywhere else (spanning both columns). Note that the names can be whatever you would like (there is no special meaning assigned to using header and nav).

Now, let’s assign our child elements to the areas in this grid, and do a bit of styling.

header {
  grid-area: header;
  justify-self: left;
  align-self: end;
}
nav {
  grid-area: nav;
  justify-self: right;
  align-self: end;
}
nav a {
  text-align: right;
}
article {
  grid-area: ct;
  border-top: 2px solid gray;
}

Here is a quick explanation of what this does. First, we want the header to be justified to the left and the navigation bar to be justified to the right. Note that align-self: end means that, within the grid row, we want to be placed as late as possible. This is important since the row has height 60 pixels, and without this argument, our header and navigation bar would be placed adjacent to the top of the screen!In general, align refers to vertical placement and justify refers to horizontal placement. Finally, we add a border above the <article> element with border-top: 2px solid gray to visually separate our header and navigation bar from the rest of the content.

Responsive design

Now, our layout looks decent on a computer, but now we might have some problems on small screens! The main problem is that if the screen is narrow, our header and navigation bar will start folding over itself. To fix this, we can use media queries. This is CSS which is applied only when the query is satisfied: in this situation, we want these rules when the screen is narrow (less than 430 pixels wide).

Here, we only change the styling a bit:

  • place the header on top of the navigation bar by changing the grid layout in the body
  • centre the header and navigation bar
  • remove the asymmetric styling on the navigation links

This is done with the following CSS.

@media screen and (max-width: 430px) {
  body {
    grid-template-columns: auto;
    grid-template-rows: minmax(40px, auto) minmax(30px, auto) auto auto;
    grid-template-areas:
    "header"
    "nav"
    "ct"
  }
  header, nav {
    text-align: center;
    justify-self: center;
  }
  nav a {
    margin: 0 10px;
  }
}

The minmax(40px, auto) means that we want to row to be at least 40 pixels tall, except that we should make it taller if the elements inside require it. We also adjust the header and navigation bar to be nicely centred, since they are now placed on top of each other (rather than side by side).

Now, our webpage also looks respectable even when viewed on exceptionally tiny phone screens.

Throughout this article, the links have been written in the form href="style.css". This specifies a relative link: the file path is taken relative to the directory that the file in which the link sits. The syntax href="../" specifies that we are referring to a file in the directory containing the current file.

However, when deploying the webpage to a server, you will want to write the links in the form href="/style.css", which will give a link to the root of your website. This tells the browser to take the base URL (for example https://example.rutar.org) and append the link. However, when browsing files on your device, the base URL is the root of your filesystem, i.e. /, so /style.css will (attempt to) link to the root of your filesystem directory, which was not what we wanted!

Moreover, there is a convention for linking directly to files HTML files: files with the name index.html are given special treatment. Suppose your directory structure looks like the following:

.
├── index.html
└── writing
    └── index.html

Now, you can reference the file index.html with href="/" and the file writing/index.html with href="/writing/". This is the standard way to include files in your project repository. To summarize, here are the changes we need to make:

  • in both HTML files, change href="style.css" to href="/style.css"
  • in writing/index.html, change href="index.html" to href="/writing/" and href="../index.html" to href="/"
  • in index.html, change href="index/writing.html" to href="/writing/" and href="index.html" to href="/"

Our links will no longer work properly when browsing the files locally, but when our webpage is online, the links will now work properly. We also want to deal with the case where the user tries to browse to a link which does not exist. For example, on this site, if you navigate to a URL like https://rutar.org/does-not-exist, you will be shown a page explaining what happened.

For this to happen automatically, we simply need to create a file 404.html at the root of our directory, with some content explaining that the page is missing. The 404 is a HTTP response status code, where the server tells the client that the page you are looking for is missing. Often, the server will default to showing the contents of the /404.html file.

Here is an example of this file. This file also has proper naming of links, as discussed above.

Finishing up

You can view the complete website at https://example.rutar.org. The files themselves can be found on GitHub. You can ignore the additional files: those will be explained in later sections.

Here are some direct links to the files which we have prepared above:

In my opinion, the best way to learn more about HTML and CSS is to take a website which you like and use the View Source or Inspect Element functionality in your browser. The MDN Web Docs are an incredibly rich resource which contain almost everything you might want to know about web development. Whenever I need to look anything up, that’s where I start.

If your browser is Safari on macOS, you can enable some nice development features with the Safari developer tools option. For example, this allows you to emulate different browsers, and enter a responsive design mode which allows you to manually modify the screen size and view how your webpage will change.

Firefox also has similar functionality built into the Firefox developer tools, and the Google Chrome browser in Chrome DevTools.

Deployment with GitHub and Cloudflare

Now that we have created our personal webpage, we want to make it publicly available! In order to do this, we will use GitHub to host our files, and then integrate Cloudflare Pages with our GitHub account to take the hosted files and deploy them to our domain.

GitHub is a hosting provider for git, which is software for tracking and saving changes to a set of files. In fact, I would recommend that you learn how to use git locally, and then integrate it with GitHub. However, the tutorial for setting this up is beyond the scope this article! If you are interested in this, you can find some pointers to get started on the git webpage and on GitHub.

For site deployment, I will cover two main options: using GitHub Pages, or using Cloudflare Pages. Both options are free. General, Cloudflare Pages is a more robust web hosting solution than GitHub Pages, whereas GitHub Pages is specialized for GitHub repositories. Here are some benefits of using Cloudflare Pages over GitHub Pages:

  1. Easier custom domain setup. Since Cloudflare is also a domain registrar and DNS provider, they will manage many of the details for you which makes setup substantially simpler.
  2. Support for multiple sites. GitHub Pages restricts you account to 1 site per account, whereas Cloudflare Pages lets you have as many options as you would like.
  3. Repository privacy. Unless you pay, GitHub Pages requires your repository to be public. It is possible, but somewhat complicated, to work around this requirement. Cloudflare Pages lets you link public or private repositories.

Cloudflare probably also has better server performance, but for a small static webpage, the difference is minimal.

On the other hand, the main reason to prefer GitHub Pages over Cloudflare Pages is decreased complexity: as we will see below, GitHub Pages is very easy to set up, especially since we already need to host our webpage code on GitHub. The Cloudflare webpage is also rather developer-oriented, so the dashboard can be a bit confusing to use at first.

With GitHub Pages, your default URL will be your-username.github.io , where your-username is the username you use to sign up for GitHub Pages. With Cloudflare Pages, your URL will be project-name.pages.dev, where project-name is something you can choose individually for each webpage.

Creating the repository on GitHub

First, you need to create a new repository. I would recommend that you follow the instructions here. Here are a couple notes:

  1. If you are using Cloudflare Pages, you can name the repository anything you would like (you do not need to choose hello-world). If you are using GitHub Pages, you must name the repository your-username.github.io.
  2. Optionally, you can choose the Add README option, which you can later modify to provide information on your webpage. This file will be used to display information on your repository page.
  3. You can also choose to either make your webpage public or private. A public repository means that anybody can view (but not edit) your GitHub repository, whereas only you—or anybody you give permission—will be able to see the repository if it is private. If you are using GitHub Pages, your repository must be public.

Once you’ve finished creating the new repository, you need to add files that we created earlier! To do this, click on the Add File option, beside the Code drop-down menu in green.

  1. If you choose the Upload files option, the file will be placed directly into the folder. To upload files to a subfolder, you need to click on the subfolder first and then choose the Add File option. Somewhat inconveniently, this requires the folder to already exist.
  2. If you choose the Create new file option, you can specify the filename directly and copy-paste the contents into the built-in browser. In order to put the file in a subfolder, simply provide a filename containing a backslash. For example, to add the HTML file for the Writing tab, enter the name writing/index.html.

Once you have added the file(s), click the Commit new file option at the bottom. It is simplest to choose the default option (Commit directly to the —— branch).

When you’ve finished, the repository should look something like this.

If you have decided to use GitHub Pages, your page should automatically deploy after a few minutes! To see the status of the build, go to the Actions tab. You can also see the current status in the Environments section of the sidebar on the right hand side.

Deploying on Cloudflare

In this section, I will recommend that you follow the instructions in the Cloudflare Pages documentation for complete detail. The general idea is to navigate to the Pages tab, select Create a project, and follow the instructions. You need to link your GitHub account so that Cloudflare can automatically read the code and update your webpage whenever the code changes.

Here are a couple notes:

  1. The Project name that you choose will be used to create the default domain. For example, I named my project webpage-example and my default Cloudflare–provided URL is https://webpage-example.pages.dev.
  2. Under the Build command, simply write exit 0. Leave the Framework option and the Build output directory as their default values.

Once you’ve finished, click Save and Deploy, wait for the build to finish—this will take a few minutes, even though there is nothing to build—and then your webpage will be publicly available!

Adding and modifying content

Now, to make edits to your webpage or add new files, simply edit existing files or add new files to the GitHub repository. Once the changes are committed to the repository, Cloudflare Pages (or Github Pages) will automatically update your webpage! Note that there will be a delay—approximately two minutes—from when you commit the change, until the changes are available.

A note on git and commits

Underlying GitHub is the git version control software. Essentially, a commit is a complete copy of the state of all the files that git is tracking, at a given point in time.Internally, git only saves the differences, or this would take a large amount of storage space! Because of this, git saves your entire history, which makes it relatively straightforward to undo changes and view the state of your site in the past. Git is also useful to version control other important files!

It is also possible to have multiple versions of your content using git branches. For example, it is even possible to preview a development branch automatically using Cloudflare Pages.

However, doing anything complicated in the GitHub browser is either tedious or impossible. Because of this, I would recommend using git locally, modifying files on your computer, and then synchronizing the changes with your GitHub account.

There are also many options to test changes locally before committing them to your GitHub repository. For example, you can use the built-in Python web server, or a more robust option. This way, you can test changes to your site without interfering with your webpage, until you are confident the changes are doing what you expect!

Further topics

Custom domains

If you followed the instructions above, your URL looks like your-username.github.io or project-name.pages.dev. However, it is also possible to host your website under a custom URL. Beyond the aesthetic benefits of having a distinctive URL, there are a few additional benefits:

  • Domain name perpetuity. Domain name registration is regulated by ICANN, and domain name ownership is protected under certain rules. Even if your registrar goes out of business, the domain name is still legally yours. On the other hand, while GitHub and Cloudflare Pages are likely to remain in business for at least a few years, on long timeframes—say multiple decades—there is risk that these sites will cease to exist. Having your own domain guarantees that your site is always available at the same address on the web.
  • Email routing. It is also possible to use your domain name to route emails. For example, you can contact me at alex@rutar.org. Again, this is useful since it is a perpetual email address associated with your name, and you do not need to worry about losing your address if your provider goes out of business.

There are a few parts to setting up a custom domain. First, you need to register a domain name, and then you need to set up DNS to associate your domain name with the address where your webpage is hosted.

In terms of domain registrars, I would recommend one of the following:

I would definitely be careful with other hosts—certain popular domain registrars engage in shady practices such as registering domains that you look up on their site so that they can make you pay more money for them! Domain name pricing is also problematic, since many registrars will allow you to register a new domain for a low cost but then charge high renewal fees!

In this tutorial we will use Cloudflare. Conveniently, Cloudflare manages DNS and name registration simultaneously, which makes it very easy to set up a new domain. Moreover, if your site is already hosted on Cloudflare, adding the correct DNS records to make your site available can be performed semi-automatically.

Domain name registration

In order to register a new domain, carefully follow the instructions in the documentation. It is important to provide accurate information here, since as discussed before, domain name ownership gives you certain legal rights, and providing correct information is required to maintain this. Note that this information will not be displayed online since Cloudflare uses WHOIS redactionWHOIS is a protocol which enables lookup of domain ownership records. You can see the records for my domain here..

Setting up DNS

Essentially, DNS provides a standardized way to convert web addresses, e.g. https://rutar.org, into IP Addresses. As a mildly crude analogy, one can think of DNS as a mapping from house addresses to GPS coordinates.

Conveniently, since we are also using Cloudflare for DNS, the domain is automatically linked to the DNS page. To see your DNS record page, navigate to the Websites tab, select your domain name, then navigate to the DNS tab.

Adding a record for our webpage

Finally, adding the record for our webpage is straightforward: navigate to the project configuration page (in the Pages tab) and select the Custom domains tab. Input your custom domain name and select Continue. For a bit more detail, see the documentation.

Once you’ve done this, you might have to wait a couple minutes for the DNS to propagate (sometimes, you need to refresh your own WIFI connection) and then your site will be available at your domain!

Adding a favicon

A favicon is a small image loaded by the browser and displayed on the website tab. There is a lot of different advice on how to appropriately set favicons, and unfortunately a lot of it is very outdated.

These days, modern browsers support SVG favicons and this format is the simplest and most robust way to add a favicon to your webpage: it is lightweight and scales properly. There are lots of tools available to create SVG favicons—I used this site. You can also just download an icon from a place like font awesome. If you want to create a custom icon, you can use an online SVG editor.

To add the favicon to our webpage, first copy the icon file, say icon.svg, to the root of your project directory. Then add the following line to the <head> of each page on your site:

<link rel="icon" href="/icon.svg" type="image/svg+xml">

This tells the browser that there’s an icon located at /icon.svg, and that it’s an SVG file.

If you wish to support more devices, I’d recommend that you read this favicon article. The next most important file to create would be a favicon.ico file: this will display the favicon even on outdated browsers. Image favicons are somewhat more flexible than SVG favicons, since it is easy to convert most visual files to an ICO file.For example, you might consider this site to generate favicon files from existing images. Thanks to a reader for this nice suggestion!

Site security

In order to prevent malicious parties from hijacking your web traffic and impersonating your site, it is important that all HTTP connections are encrypted with HTTPS. There are many opinions on why HTTPS is important.

With Cloudflare Pages and GitHub Pages, this is automatically managed on your behalf: if you navigate to your site, you should a small lock symbol somewhere near the address bar. If you click on this lock symbol, your browser will show some information about the connection.

However, beyond serving your content over HTTPS, there are some other site security features you can implement with a minimal amount of effort.

Basic security headers

HTTP headers are used to to pass additional (often meta) information with the body of the HTTP request. One usage of HTTP headers is to make guarantees about the content and prevent your site from being misused, or the content from being hijacked.

In order to add headers to your site hosted on Cloudflare, you simply need to add a file called _headers to your project directory. The syntax for the headers document is of the form

[url]
  [name]: [value]

You can read more about the _headers file on the Cloudflare documentation.

For now, populate the file with the following contents:

/*
  X-Frame-Options: DENY
  X-Content-Type-Options: nosniff
  Referrer-Policy: same-origin

This adds the following headers to any HTTP request set to a URL matching the /* pattern (that is, every URL on your site):

  • X-Frame-Options: This prevents your site from being embedded on other websites.
  • X-Content-Type-Options: Don’t let the browser guess what type of content you are linking. This requires that you properly label the content type in linked content, e.g. type="text/css" from the CSS link.
  • Referrer-Policy: Control what information is passed along when a visitor clicks on links in your site. The value same-origin means that, if a visitor to your webpage navigates clicks on a URL that is not on your site, no information is passed along.

Content security policy

A content security policy (CSP) is a way for your site to declare what type of content it is serving. This can be used to guarantee that the content on your site is sent exactly as you intended, along with some other features.

For our example site, since all the content is served from the same domain (self), and the only non-HTML content we are serving are CSS pages and images (for example, the favicon), our CSP can be pretty restrictive. Here’s what we will use:

Content-Security-Policy: default-src 'none'; img-src 'self'; style-src 'self'; upgrade-insecure-requests; form-action 'none'; base-uri 'none'; frame-ancestors 'none'

Here is an explanation of the various components.

  • default-src 'none': by default, we are serving no content other than HTML.
  • img-src 'self' and style-src 'self': include CSS and images, but only from the same domain.
  • upgrade-insecure-requests: redirect http:// to https://.
  • form-action 'none': do not send HTTP forms anywhere.
  • base-uri: none: the document base URL is just /.
  • frame-ancestors 'none': similar to the X-Frame-Options: DENY from before, since it prevents your site from being embedded elsewhere.

To see more details on creating a content security policy, the MDN page has a nice explanation. Note that if you want to include JavaScript (or other content), especially content loaded from a different domain, modifying your CSP will require a bit more work.

HSTS Preload

Essentially, HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) provides a list of sites that are hard-coded to be using HTTPS. This list is used by your browser to guarantee to prevent connecting to a site on the list without using HTTPS. If you are committed to using HTTPS, you can register your site for HSTS Preload.

In order to implement this, you need to register your site at the URL https://hstspreload.org. Most of the steps are already done: the only thing that remains to be done is to add the Strict-Transport-Security header as follows:

Strict-Transport-Security: max-age=31536000; preload; includeSubDomains

You can also view the status of your domain by using the search bar at the top of the page.

Another option is to enable this on Cloudflare directly: follow the instructions here. You must set the Max Age setting to 12 months, and I would also recommend selecting all the other options.

Complete header file

Here are the contents of the _headers file, assuming you have implemented all of the recommendations above.

/*
  X-Frame-Options: DENY
  X-Content-Type-Options: nosniff
  Referrer-Policy: same-origin
  Content-Security-Policy: default-src 'none'; img-src 'self'; style-src 'self'; upgrade-insecure-requests; form-action 'none'; base-uri 'none'; frame-ancestors 'none'
  Strict-Transport-Security: max-age=31536000; preload; includeSubDomains

You can also see the file here.

There are many ways to verify that the headers are loaded properly on your site. The Mozilla observatory page is a nice resource, along with https://webbkoll.dataskydd.net/en/ for giving more detailed information and recommendations.