Have a small business in need of a website, but no budget for professional design services? Yahoo, Google and Microsoft all offer free small business site creation tools that can help you develop a professional online presence. Keep reading for an in-depth review of what Office Live Basics, Google Page Creator and Yahoo SiteBuilder include and how they work. Additionally, we’ll consider ease of use, positives and negatives, and recommended uses for each tool.
No knowledge of HTML is required to create sites using any of these services. Experienced webmasters who want direct access to the code or want high-end business applications will need to look beyond these products. The goal of these products is to provide the tools needed to develop a simple, but functional web presence.
The Winner: Microsoft Office Live Basics
One of the more intriguing features of the Office Live Basics program is the free domain name that comes as part of the package. The registration—through Melbourne IT—is a very helpful feature for a small startup that is developing its web presence. And, surprisingly, you really own the domain name outright. Even if you cancel your membership with Office Live you get to keep the domain name. Of course, you would need to make arrangements to pay the annual registration fee for the domain directly to Melbourne IT, but that’s a small inconvenience to avoid the hassle of changing domain names. You’re also free to use existing domain names with Office Live, if need be.
Office Live is an online application so there is nothing to download. You simply log into the control panel from any Internet-enabled computer. With the free account, Microsoft gives you 500 megabytes (MB) of website storage, which is plenty for most small sites. If you need more, you have the option of upgrading to one of two paid services: Office Live Essentials or Premium.
The Office Live Basics application is completely free. The only “catch,” if you will, is the requirement of displaying the Office Live logo on the bottom edge of your web pages. Even though the suite of tools is free, Microsoft doesn’t disguise the fact that they would like you to upgrade to their high-end Essentials or Premium versions. It is also obvious that they encourage users of Office Live to participate in their paid advertising program. They dangle a $50 credit and offer Live adManager as part of the package to encourage business owners to drink the Pay Per Click Kool-Aid.
Being a Microsoft product, you’ll be required to work within Internet Explorer while designing your site. Attempts to use FireFox or other non-MS browsers result in error messages. Fortunately, the browser incompatibility appears limited to the tool use and not to the sites themselves. Sites created using the Office Live tool render properly using FireFox and validate with only minor HTML errors.
The program is intuitive to use. The learning curve is minimized by excellent help text and readily available content-sensitive explanations. Inside the program you have two tabs. The first is for Site Designer selections where you select items that will carry throughout the site. These options include preferences like the central theme, navigation, colors, logos and other options that would be carried throughout every page on your site to produce a consistent look and feel.
Office Live offers a wide variety of themes, colors and layouts—all grouped by subject and all very easy to apply. Simply select a general theme like Education, Health, or Advertising and then choose a graphic logo for your site.
Since Office Live allows you to select themes and colors separately, it is easy to design a unique combination that sets your site apart from the millions of others who were also created with this product. Another nice touch includes a color selector with various pallets that coordinate well. Thus, even design-challenged individuals could create professional-looking, functional websites using this tool.
The second tab in the interface is the Page Editor, which provides you with all the tools to modify your individual pages. Office Live makes extensive use of Word-like formatting icons and a combination of text and graphics to visually explain functions. For example, if you click on the Layout function, a drop down box appears displaying the five different layout options for the page. Thus changing a two-column page to a three-column (or any of the five layout options) is a simple one-click command.
When you start, Office Live serves up a site containing four pages—home, about, contact us and site map. Graphics can easily be moved around on the pages with the use of the familiar drag and drop features included in this WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) design interface. Additional pages may be created to expand the web site and new pages may optionally be automatically included in the navigation and site map.
Positives: In addition to the familiar-feeling interface and ease of use, favorite features of Office Live Basics included the free domain name, free email accounts and free hosting.
Negatives: Be prepared to surrender personal information, including your credit card information before you can use the tool. This was the only one of the three programs reviewed that required a credit card, which was surprising since the product is free. According to the Office Live explanation, a credit card is needed to validate that every customer is a legitimate entity.
A limitation of the Office Live Basics program is that you can’t upload an existing site or get access to the raw HTML code for editing. If you want those features, graduation to the higher-end, paid Office Live options is required.
Office Live Basics Conclusion: Office Live Basics produces an attractive and functional website free-of-charge. For a small business on a tight budget that wants a basic web presence, this is a great tool. The program itself is fairly robust and offers a site statistics package that provides top-level reports. For needs beyond basic, including a shopping cart, database or custom scripting, you’ll need to pay for a higher-end version. Microsoft has a clear migration path built into the Office Live suite of site tools. At any time you can upgrade to either of two paid, feature-rich packages that provide better business application capability.
Runner-Up: Google Page Creator
Google Page Creator offers free hosting and 100 megabytes of free storage. You are required to have a Gmail account, however, to use this tool. Since this Gmail name will be used in the site name, choose carefully.
The name lends a clue that this is really not a site-creation tool, but rather a page tool. Since there is no common template available in this suite, each page you add or modify is treated separately. If you want to build and maintain a multi-page site, find another tool!
While page cloning is available, the feature is inconspicuous and, no doubt, many users will miss it causing them to build new pages from scratch. Pay close attention. I’m going to save you a lot of work. Here are the secret steps to cloning a page:
- Start at the Site Manager menu
- Check the box on the left side in front of the page name you want to clone
- Go to the More Actions drop down menu at the top of the page, then
- Select “duplicate” from the list
Unfortunately, if you modify the navigation or “look” later, you’ll have to go back to each individual page and update them all separately. Publishing is an easy task and, if you decide you don’t want a page to go live, Google includes a handy “unpublish” option found in the “More Actions” drop down menu.
Google Page Creator does allow the uploading of pages built elsewhere. If the lack of standard template design and navigation bothers you too much, you can build the site elsewhere then upload it. This will allow you to take advantage of the free hosting and 100MB of free storage offered with this tool without having to suffer through some awkward processes.
As mentioned, you must have a Google Gmail account to get access to Page Creator. That’s because your Gmail account will be used within your URL. A word of caution: Your page URLs will be formatted as “http://yourGmailAccountName.googlepages.com.” I recommend setting up a new Gmail account using the site name you want included as part of the new sub-domain name. One feature Google recently added to Page Creator is the ability to create up to five different sites using different URLs within the same Page Creator account. Very convenient!
The tool itself is easy to use, but had fewer features and a lower level of support than either of the others reviewed. Page Creator does offer a variety of “layouts” and “looks” (as they are referred to). However, the “looks” in Google Page Creator have predefined colors—unlike with Office Live where colors and themes can be changed independently—so you forfeit the ability to customize your palette.
Positives: Free hosting is a nice benefit, especially when there are no ugly banners or framed advertisements like with some free website hosting options. If you can tolerate the ugly googlepages URLs then this free hosting option might be for you.
As with Office Live Basics, and in contrast to Yahoo! SiteBuilder reviewed below, Google Page Creator is an online application so you don’t have to worry about downloading any software.
Negatives: The lack of a standardized template is a major concern. Without a way to make navigational, and look and feel changes across a multi-page site automatically, Page Creator quickly becomes undesirable as a site maintenance tool.
The long Googlepages domain URL is a red flashing light that identifies the site as a free site, which might be viewed as unprofessional. It would be nice if Google gave the option to use an existing domain name or to buy one from Google (like you find with the Microsoft tool), but neither of these are options. If you use the tool, you will have “googlepages” in your URLs.
Google Page Creator Conclusion: Basic simple page creation can be done relatively simply, but the tool is rather inflexible so options are limited. Page Creator is good for creating one-page sites or perhaps landing pages. It might also be a good application for mini-sites, but every page added would be cumbersome to build. You would also have a maintenance nightmare on your hands if you made any changes that affected the entire site.
Runner-Up: Yahoo SiteBuilder
Yahoo’s latest version of SiteBuilder is touted as a free design tool. Although the design tool itself is, indeed, free, there’s a definite catch. You can’t upload your website unless you sign up for Yahoo hosting… and that isn’t free.
Think you still want to try SiteBuilder? You’ll have to work for that opportunity! You won’t easily find a link to SiteBuilder in the Yahoo small business area. Since Yahoo ties the tool to hosting, the link is buried within the hosting package. In fact, in order for me to test SiteBuilder, I had to first find the hidden link! I found it was more easily located by typing “Yahoo Site Builder” into a search engine than trying to track it down on Yahoo’s site. Save yourself time and use the link above rather than try to find the link on their site.
Yahoo SiteBuilder has an excellent tutorial to provide any hand holding you may need. I found the tool very straightforward and believe most people should be on their way to building a site within minutes.
You can easily step through the site creation wizard, which guides the initial steps of setting up your site. The program offers a whopping 380 templates to chose from! You can also decide what pages to create on the fly (with reassurances you can add or remove pages later). Plus, this tool offers to link pages together with a navigation bar. And Yahoo includes one feature in SiteBuilder that isn’t present in the other two tools: Spell check. This is a valuable feature, and is missing from the other two offerings.
The template means your website will have a consistent look and feel along with standard navigation for ease of use. This is a huge improvement over Google Page Creator. You could actually create, run *and* maintain your website using this tool.
As with the Office Live product, you begin with a standard template that affects the look and feel for the entire site. If you later change the navigation or theme on one page, SiteBuilder offers to carry those changes out on every page.
After you build a site and click “publish,” you are prompted to log into your Yahoo web hosting account. This is where you realize that—although the SiteBuilder tool is very impressive and allows you to build a fantastic website—all your hard work is for naught unless you pay Yahoo for hosting. Additionally, a quick peek at the file source code revealed some issues. SiteBuilder inserts hooks into the HTML to allow the tool to maintain the code. These hooks make the raw file unusable as a web page without going through the SiteBuilder publish process. Using the raw files without using their paid hosting would be difficult because the necessary HTML cleanup would likely be beyond the level of non-technical site owners.
Positives: Options are placed logically, where you expect to find them. Even doing more advanced activities like changing file names was simple. SiteBuilder lists your pages in a format similar to Microsoft Windows Explorer making it intuitive. You right click on a file name and select “rename”—just like in Windows—then simply rename the file. And this system is smart! After you rename one file, a popup appears asking if you would like to update all the pages linked to the old name. One word of caution: Be careful changing file names you’ve already published as there is no capability to redirect requests for the old page name to the new name.
Negatives: The biggest negative of the Yahoo tool is that, unlike Office Live and Google Page Creator, hosting isn’t free. You can use the SiteBuilder to develop the site free-of-charge, but to publish it (make it live on the web) requires a paid hosting contract with Yahoo.
Another negative is that SiteBuilder is a downloadable Java application. While downloaded software isn’t bad in and of itself, there are some downsides you must consider. First, you have to store the application on your hard drive, which requires available disk space. Second, with a downloadable application you can only use the tool from the computer where the program resides. If you want someone else to use the tool, they have to use your computer. If your computer has catastrophic failure, you have a problem. Last, with a downloaded application your computer must have all the required files needed to run the tool. That actually came back to haunt me while testing SiteBuilder.
After downloading and using the tool, the application locked up. I couldn’t kill the application with an control-alt-delete combination of keystrokes, so I had to resort to a hard reboot. I started up the tool again and a few minutes later it locked up a second time. After another hard reboot, my IT guru noticed the version of Java on my computer was old. Since Yahoo SiteBuilder runs Java, it needs the most current version. Most applications check for compatible versions during installation. Yahoo SiteBuilder did not.
My recommendation—before you install Yahoo SiteBuilder verify that you have the proper version of Java on your machine. If you need to update Java, I recommend clicking to the official JAVA website (http://www.java.com, and choose the “Java Software Free Download” link) rather than the Microsoft site. If you download the Java JRE from the Microsoft site you will need to upgrade a second time because as of this writing the version available from Microsoft is seven updates behind the current version!
Yahoo SiteBuilder Conclusion: This was by far the most intuitive and easiest of the three tools reviewed to use. If you have used Windows or Word you will have a very small learning curve. However, the requirement for paid hosting—and the fact that paid hosting isn’t mentioned until *after* you’ve completed the design—seemed rather sneaky. If you’re in the market for a web host and if you don’t require high-end business applications, this is a terrific tool that enables novice webmasters to develop working websites that are easy to maintain.
In this review, Microsoft Office Live Basics is the “winner,” but not a clear winner. Site-centric editing, free hosting and a “real” domain name are all pluses, but the credit card requirement, on-site MSN logo, and the annoying up-sells to other products prevent if from gaining my unequivocal recommendation.
Depending on the needs of your small business, each of these three fills a niche. For a small business who has no concerns using “googlepages” URLs and needs only a single page website, Google Page Creator may be adequate. Yahoo SiteBuilder was extremely easy to use, but you’ll need to factor hosting fees into your budget. None of the free tools allow ecommerce or business application solutions, but for a small business first venturing onto the web, they are definitely worth a look.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.