How to host your site for free using GitHub Pages

And not just host, but also set your site up to work on a custom domain and automate deployment using Travis CI. Automatic spell and grammar check included!

How to host your site for free using GitHub Pages

And not just host, but also set your site up to work on a custom domain and automate deployment using Travis CI. Automatic spell and grammar check included!

There’s at least a hundred different ways to create your own blog/personal site, whether it’s using shared hosting with any of the myriad of free content management systems, using an existing platform such as Medium or Tumblr (although who in their right mind would do that? 🤯🤣), but why not try something more extravagant?

For rebooting my site, I chose a solution based on GitHub Pages. It’s definitely not a solution for everyone as it’s quite geeky at times, but maybe someone will find the description of my journey interesting or even decides to follow in my footsteps.

Installing the necessary software

Obviously, in order to work with a Jekyll project, I had to install the Jekyll binary itself, and a few more dependencies that were required by the particular template I used.

$ brew install node rbenv
$ rbenv install 2.4.3
$ rbenv global 2.4.3
$ gem install bundler jekyll travis

I like to have my Ruby versions maintained by rbenv so I can theoretically switch to another Ruby version in different directory, if needed.

What is GitHub Pages?

Let’s quickly go over what GitHub Pages actually is. In layman’s terms, it allows you to transform your Markdown[1] documents into a full-fledged HTML pages that can be presented to the end user. The process of transformation is performed by a program called Jekyll and every step of it can be customized. This post, however, does not intend to focus on Jekyll directly, so if you’re interested in that topic, I recommend checking out their documentation, it’s truly comprehensive.

GitHub Pages automatically converts your Jekyll project into a HTML site, with one caveat: it supports only a limited number of Jekyll plug-ins and templates; unfortunately for me, the template I chose, a beautifully simple template called Chalk, was not one of the supported ones. That means I had to adjust the typical Jekyll workflow a little bit:

  • I had to fork the template’s repository and build my work on top of that instead of creating an empty Jekyll project from the command line;
  • I had to run npm run setup to configure my environment;
  • I had to start using npm run local instead of bundle exec jekyll serve to preview the site locally[2];
  • and perhaps most importantly, I could not have GitHub Pages compile the site for me – I’ll get back to this point in a bit.

Configuring the repository

After forking the template’s repository, I decided how my Git workflow would look like: I’d protect the master branch from pushing any commits into it directly[3] and force myself to instead have a pull request for any group of changes I intended to do on the site, including writing a new article. Why? Because each commit that’s a part of a pull request would be processed by Travis, whom I’d instruct to check the spelling and grammar for any modified Markdown files and check all hyperlinks in the resulting HTML pages for any dead links – and put the results of these checks as a comment in the pull request. Only after these checks would pass, a merge back to master would be allowed.

And speaking of merging to master, doing so would also trigger Travis one more time. This time, on top of all the checks mentioned before, Travis would yet again compile the site from Markdown to HTML, remove any unnecessary files, checkout the gh-pages branch and force-push the finished site into that branch, as GitHub Pages serves the content from the gh-pages branch as the website[4].

Configuring Travis

How would such Travis configuration look like? For me, this .travis.yml configuration file provided sufficient:

language: ruby
    - master
  bundler: true
  pip: true
  yarn: true
    - _assets/yarn
rvm: 2.4.3
node_js: "8"
python: 3.4
  - ./bin/setup
  - sudo apt-get -qq update
  - sudo apt-get install -y aspell aspell-en
  - pip install --user proselint
  - npm install -g Cellane/node-markdown-spellcheck
  - bundle exec jekyll build --trace
  - bundle exec htmlproofer ./_site --only-4xx --allow-hash-href --assume-extension --check-opengraph --url-ignore "feed.xml"
  - bundle exec danger
  - test $TRAVIS_PULL_REQUEST == "false" && test $TRAVIS_BRANCH == "master" && "./bin/automated"
  - GITHUB_EMAIL: [email protected]
  - CLOUDFLARE_ZONE_ID: 9f7f8ee361f355357f2463e64a170d0f
  - CLOUDFLARE_AUTH_EMAIL: [email protected]
  - secure: 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
  - secure: 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
  email: false

I believe most of the file is pretty self-explanatory (poke me in the comments below if you disagree), I’ll just briefly touch on parts of the environment section. GITHUB_USERNAME and GITHUB_EMAIL variables are used for pushing compiled website by automated script mentioned just below these. CLOUDFLARE_ZONE_ID and CLOUDFLARE_AUTH_EMAIL are used to identify my zone (domain) and me as an user for when I want to purge Cloudflare’s cache at the end of the build.

The two lines towards the end of the file that start with secret contain encrypted GitHub token (GITHUB_TOKEN) for the force-push into the gh-pages branch and a Cloudflare token (CLOUDFLARE_AUTH_KEY). You can obtain the GitHub token here (select the entire repo category as your scope) and you can add it into your configuration file by running following command:

$ travis encrypt VARIABLE_NAME=VARIABLE_VALUE –add

The automated deployment script that’s run in the after_success block resides in bin/automated and looks something like this:


# Automated deploy script with Travis CI

# Exit if any subcommand fails
set -e

# Variables
ORIGIN_URL=`git config --get remote.origin.url`
ORIGIN_CREDENTIALS=${ORIGIN_URL/\/\/\/\/[email protected]}
COMMIT_MESSAGE=$(git log -1 --pretty=%B)

echo "Started deploying…"

# Checkout gh-pages branch
if [ `git branch | grep gh-pages` ]
  git branch -D gh-pages
git checkout -b gh-pages

# Build site
yarn install --modules-folder ./_assets/yarn
bundle exec jekyll build

# Delete and move files
find . -maxdepth 1 ! -name '_site' ! -name '.git' ! -name '.gitignore' -exec rm -rf {} \;
mv _site/* .
rm -R _site/

# Push to gh-pages
git config "$GITHUB_USERNAME"
git config "$GITHUB_EMAIL"

git add -fA
git commit --allow-empty -m "$COMMIT_MESSAGE [ci skip]"
git push -f -q $ORIGIN_CREDENTIALS gh-pages

# Move back to previous branch
git checkout -
yarn install --modules-folder ./_assets/yarn

# Purge Cloudflare cache
echo "Purging Cloudflare cache…"
curl -X "DELETE" "$CLOUDFLARE_ZONE_ID/purge_cache" \
     -H 'Content-Type: application/json' \
     -H "X-Auth-Email: $CLOUDFLARE_AUTH_EMAIL" \
     -H "X-Auth-Key: $CLOUDFLARE_AUTH_KEY" \
     -d $'{
  "purge_everything": true

echo "Deployed successfully!"

exit 0

If you don’t use Cloudflare for your domain, you can obviously skip all the bits related to Cloudflare by deleting relevant parts of .travis.yml and bin/automated; however, in my next article, I’ll describe how to configure Cloudflare for custom domain to get both money-free and hassle-free SSL certificate, so maybe hold on until then.

One last thing I needed to set up in Travis administration panel was a token for Danger to use when it wishes to spit out the spelling and grammar check results into a comment on a pull request – that one is obtained on the same page as the token for force pushing, except this time the scope should really be only public_repo, and the token should be stored under the name DANGER_GITHUB_API_TOKEN. You can’t actually add it to your .travis.yml file as GitHub would detect it during your next push, send you a scary e-mail and deactivate the token. Sneaky bastard!
Danger itself is configured in Dangerfile like this:

markdown_files = (git.modified_files + git.added_files).select do |line|

ignored_words = []'.spelling').each_line do |line|
  next if line.empty? || line.start_with?('#')

prose.ignored_words = ignored_words
prose.ignore_numbers = true
prose.ignore_acronyms = true
prose.lint_files markdown_files
prose.check_spelling markdown_files

Configuring the domain

Fortunately, this part was fairly easy. I wanted my site to be available at both and, so I created two A records, one pointing at, the other one pointing at – that’s the first case taken care of.

After that, I created a CNAME entry www pointing at, which takes care of the www route.

Once I was done with that, I entered into the CNAME file at the root of the repository, committed that and after a push, GitHub was able to tell which site to serve and how.

Recap: the entire workflow

After painful waiting for DNS records to refresh all the way down to my computer, I had the site available on my domain. Success!

Whenever I want to make a change (such as writing this exact article), I create a new Git branch, start making changes, start committing and pushing them and at some point, open a pull request. That triggers Travis to create a build out of that pull request, checking my spelling, grammar and verifying that all links work, all images have a textual description and all generated HTML is valid. The results of the build get presented via Danger back to the pull request and from there, I can at any point decide that I want to merge the pull request into master, thus triggering another build that in the end results in the compiled site being pushed into the gh-pages branch from which GitHub Pages serves it to visitors like you.

You might ask, why would one pick such a complicated route to creating a website?

I think a better question is… why not? Putting all these pieces of puzzle together was really fun, and isn’t that the most important thing when it comes to anything new in IT? 🤣

Should you have any questions regarding this setup, feel free to ask in the comments or get inspired by looking at the source code of this website.

  1. Jekyll is actually not limited to having Markdown as an input for the transformation, but can also process Textile and Liquid documents or even raw HTML and CSS. ↩︎

  2. Technically, I did not have to do this. It’s just a convenience method that Chalk provides. ↩︎

  3. I accomplished this by going to the repository’s settings ↝ Branches ↝ Protected branches ↝ master and checking the Protect this branch, Require status checks to pass before merging, Require branches to be up to date before merging, continuous-integration/travis-ci and Include administrators options. The second-to-last option will, of course, only appear after Travis is enabled for your repository. ↩︎

  4. Theoretically, GitHub Pages can also serve the content of the master branch or from the docs subdirectory of the master branch. For my use-case, keeping the site’s source code in the master branch and the compiled result in the gh-pages branch felt, however, like the cleanest possible solution. All of these options can be configured in the repository’s settings. ↩︎