Saturday, 20 February 2010

Review: Google Sites (free option)

Original Article: 30/08/08
Web 2.0 must be maturing; there's a plethora of on-line tools for building web-sites. Since the dial-up FTP connection to one of my free webspaces finally expired, I thought I would give one of them a try: Google Sites. We're not exactly  overwhelmed with web-page building tools for Linux and those we have go way too technical (Quanta Plus) or flaky (Anjuta). Now this isn't an exhaustive test of every Google Sites facility and it's just the free option.

Let's also be quite clear, Google took over an immature product set when it acquired the JotSpot platform (the old name still shows up in places). Google re-launched it with a fanfare, pretending this is the 'missing' piece of Google Apps. Jotspot pitched itself as a public/private intranet-come-collaboration tool which Google would love to become a hosted 'SharePoint-killer'.

However, some key features are missing. Of course, you trust Google's 'cloud' computing model, right? If so, keep taking the medication, there'll be another pink elephant along in a minute. If not, you'll be looking for the 'Site Backup' or 'Export Site' option. Since May 2008, the only comments from the development team are "we're working on it," and " never know when we'll announce...'hey, we finally did it!'" It hints at 'immature product, immature attitude.'

Test-driving Google Sites
I tried to re-create the web-site for my sports club using the site-builder. The short tutorial just about helps you get started. There are sample sites for things like clubs, company intranets, classrooms and families. The 'Create a Site' button takes you to a page requiring only five entries. You name the site, choose a URL in the form site name, and enter a short text description – used for tagging and indexing. There's a prominent indicator for adult content, which site-filtering software will pick up.

Decide whether the site is private or public and delegate authorities to people you want to share the site  – roles are defined for viewer, collaborator and owner. Choose from the twenty themed templates – I find them all a bit 'Fisher-Price' for my taste. From there, you can jump straight into the on-screen page editor. This works well enough on its' own terms, but is severely limited for text styling. I've had to dive into the flat HTML editor inserting in-line styles myself using trial-and-error. It strips out anything it considers 'unsafe' – it's the Google-way or the highway. I appreciate why - iframes, embeds and scripts could totally breach Google's hosting and the end-user's security. However it also limits how you style your pages and you can't even touch a style-sheet.

Announcement pages resemble blogs—a New Post button lets you create a new area on the page with text and pictures, and you can add HTML code, but it's not threaded - all posts are at the same level. A File Cabinet page merely creates a list of uploaded files that can be downloaded. The List page type resembles lightweight project management, with templates for project action items, issues, units. But you can also specify your own column headings for your list.
You can build a reasonable-looking public or private site for free with minimal Google branding. Google Sites is a good service, no matter what your level of expertise, but competitor tools such as Wetpaint ( and Freeweb ( have clearer interfaces and more flexibility.

Pro's and cons of Google Sites builder
  • a decent, no-cost way to build a web-site: adequate 100Mb storage allowance.
  • the builder and editor works within its capabilities and hasn't crashed on me (yet).
  • basic templates for different page types: Web page, Dashboard, Announcements, File Cabinet, and List.
  • options for inclusion of a range of content types - images, video, audio, calendars.
  • a good set of page-building facilities if you spend time playing with all the options. For example, the image handler allows in-page resizing on drag handles, float and wrap options.
  • produces standard HTML pages, no Flash or weird Wiki-text markup code.
  • site sharing and managing capabilities in sensible, jargon-free terms.
  • discrete 'powered by Google' footer is the only trace of branding if you turn the rest off (I can live with that).
  • there are worse site-building tools out there.
  • the editor validates and strips your HTML to its own rules (my layout got slightly trashed) usually with no warnings.
  • if you want styles, or vital things like alt and title tags, you will have to go in to edit the HTML itself – all without any kind of safety net. Find out by trial and error which styles it will or won't accept.
  • no support for PayPal buttons (but there are workarounds) and Google Checkout isn't working either; so serious e-commerce is a no-no.
  • limited gadgets, all with advertising and all slow performers (that's AJAX code for you). Not all available under the Free option, either.
  • manuals and instructions seem limited to a few presentation slides and a short, glossy, but content-free YouTube-style video. It assumes we're all in the dot-com generation and can work out all the tools for ourselves.
  • No site backup – I'm using Webtrack as a work-around.
  • there are better site-building tools out there.

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