Static Websites with webgen

How to use webgen

The static website generator webgen has been in development for over a decade now. It provides the essential functionalities out of the box and is easy to use, even for non-programmers. Designed to be a general purpose static website generator it can be used for any kind of website, not just blogs.

In this post I will show you how to create a basic website with webgen.

First Steps

As with most applications written in Ruby, webgen is just a gem install webgen away. After the installation, the webgen binary is used for everything, from creating the needed website structure to generating the output files (see webgen help for all available commands).

When webgen is invoked in a directory that is not a valid webgen website, it tells you so:

$ webgen
INFO  Generating website...
INFO  No active source paths found - maybe not a webgen website?
INFO  ... done in 0.02 seconds

So we need to create the website directory first. However, before we do that we install an extension bundle that provides some pre-built templates:

$ webgen install templates
Installed webgen-templates-bundle

Now we create the website and populate it with the “andreas07” template:

$ webgen create website --template andreas07 demo -v
INFO  [create] </>
INFO  [create] </ext/>
INFO  [create] </ext/init.rb>
INFO  [create] </src/>
INFO  [create] </src/andreas07.css>
INFO  [create] </src/default.template>
INFO  [create] </src/images/>
INFO  [create] </src/images/bodybg.gif>
INFO  [create] </src/images/sidebarbg.gif>
INFO  [create] </webgen.config>
Created a new webgen website in <demo> using the 'andreas07' template

By using the -v option webgen provides more output, in this case showing us the created files. We see that inside the demo/ directory a src/ directory was created with some files and the files ext/init.rb as well as webgen.config.

Website Structure

The most important file for webgen is webgen.config because the existence of this file means that the directory contains a webgen website. This file is used for setting configuration values, like the main language or base URL of the website. To see the full list of available configuration options, use webgen show config or the configuration reference on the website.

By default webgen expects all source files to be in the src/ directory and puts the generated files into the out/ directory. All temporary files are put into the tmp/ directory (which can safely be deleted).

The ext/init.rb file is for extending the functionality of webgen by writing Ruby code. It is not needed in many cases and can be deleted.

Generating the Website and Adding Content

Now that we have created the basic website structure we can use webgen to generate the output files:

$ cd demo
$ webgen
INFO  Generating website...
INFO  [create] </>
INFO  [create] </andreas07.css>
INFO  [create] </images/>
INFO  [create] </images/bodybg.gif>
INFO  [create] </images/sidebarbg.gif>
INFO  ... done in 0.02 seconds
$ webgen
INFO  Generating website...
INFO  Nothing has changed since the last invocation!
INFO  ... done in 0.02 seconds

As you can see webgen supports partial website generation, i.e. it only generates those files that have changed since the last invocation.

You might have noticed that no HTML file was created. We will remedy the situation by creating a page file. Page files are those files of a webgen website that get transformed into HTML files. So we create the src/ file with some content and rerun webgen:

$ cat src/
title: Homepage
in_menu: true
# My Homepage
This is the first page of my homepage!
$ webgen
INFO  Generating website...
INFO  [update] </>
INFO  [create] </index.html>
INFO  ... done in 0.08 seconds

This file consists of two parts:

  • The first part is the meta information section where information about the page is defined. We defined the title of the page and an additional meta information called in_menu.

  • The second part, after the second line containing ---, is the content of the page file.

All page files always have at least one content section but may have more, see the Webgen Page Format page for details.

If you open the resulting out/index.html file in a browser you will see the following:

initial website page

What we can see is that the page’s content was transformed into HTML (see the middle part) and embedded into a template. This is the main purpose of every static website generator: Provide means for using other markup languages like Markdown to ease writing the content, and a templating system to avoid duplication of the main HTML markup that defines the layout and look of the site.

So where is that template? It can be found in the source directory as the file src/default.template. Template files follow the same format as page files but most template files don’t use the meta information section.

If you look into this template file you will find that it contains a basic HTML structure with some additional un-HTML like statements:

  • Line 10 looks like this:

    <link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="{relocatable: andreas07.css}" media="screen,projection" />

    This would be as standard HTML <link /> tag except for the value of the “href” attribute. The contents is actually what is called a webgen tag which is a system for adding dynamic content without programming.

    Each tag has a name, in this case “relocatable”, and may contain parameters, in this case “andreas07.css”. The “relocatable” tag looks up its parameter in the tree of files webgen knows about and creates a relative path to that file. This allows us to preview the generated HTML file without a webserver because all generated links are relative.

  • Another webgen tag is found in line 19:

    {menu: {options: {sort: true, mi: {in_menu: true}, absolute_levels: 1}}}

    This tag creates a HTML menu by filtering the files webgen knows about using the given options. In this case each menu entry needs to have the meta information “in_menu” set to “true” (remember: we added that meta information to src/ and it must be on level one in the directory hierarchy.

  • The last line we look at is line 37:

    <webgen:block name="content" />

    This definitely does look more like an XML tag than an HTML tag. It is a special tag that webgen recognizes and it means that the content should be placed here.

If a page file doesn’t specify a special template file using the “template” meta information key, the default template is used. And templates themselves can even use other templates which is useful, for example, to embedded a post into a special post template that itself is embedded into the main template.

And this is all you need for a basic website! Just add some more page files, fill them with content and you are good to go!


By knowing about the configuration file webgen.config, what page and template files are and for what they are used, as well as the webgen tag system you can create a basic website without knowing a programming language.

If this short introduction roused your interest in webgen, have a look at the webgen documentation to see what else is possible with webgen.

You can also have a look at existing websites that are done with webgen to get inspiration:

  • Since the only file for a webgen website that has to exist is the configuration file, a webgen website can easily be maintained next to the source code of a project. See the website of cmdparse and the corresponding webgen.config file as an example.

  • webgen can also be used for more complex websites like the website of webgen itself. This website uses some extensions in the ext/ directory but most things are handled through built-in features, e.g. the sitemap, RSS feeds and the automatic API documentation generation.

  • This website is also done with webgen and shows that simple blogs can be done with webgen out of the box.