Why Use Google Sites?

Over the years, I've authored websites in just about every possible way. In fact, in early 2000's at Altuit, we created our own website CMS (Content Management System) called 'Hemingway,' which was shut down just last year due to Open Source availability and convergence of blogs and CMS systems. 

I've followed Google Sites for sometime, and now believe they provide an excellent (and not well known) alternative to more sophisticated, pricey and difficult to learn online website builder tools. Here are some FAQs which may be helpful in evaluating whether Google Sites is right for you.


Why the sudden interest in Google Sites?

After we shut down our own proprietary Hemingway CMS, I started looking around at alternatives to build quick and easy websites for ourselves and some of our smaller business customers. There are a number of criteria I used for evaluating website building technologies. The eventual successor must be:
    • Fast. Fast to learn. Fast to setup and deploy. Fast to edit. 
      Google Sites: 
    • Easy to learn. Not only for me as the designer and implementer, but also for customers, clients, and fellow workers to be able to edit.
      Google Sites: 
    • Simple to Setup. Simple is different from Easy. While WordPress can be considered Easy to use, it certainly cannot be considered Simple to setup. You pretty much need to understand PHP, the Loop, CSS, HTML, XML, deploying to Apache servers and a bunch of other stuff to become fully proficient in WordPress. And, setting up and deploying a custom landing page is more than a little work for WordPress, Drupal or Joomla.
      Google Sites: 
    • Editing On Line. The building and editing software must be easily accessed and usable on the Internet. I reviewed a number of online site builders including Weebly, Wix, Jimdo, SquareSpace and others. While many of them were quite good, ALL of them had one huge problem, they were not...
      Google Sites: 
    • Free. Yes, I know sometimes you get what you pay for. And, I have no problem paying for stuff. But, the problem comes when you have a LOT of sites, some of them only one page long, and each of them requiring their own Domain. Even if you're only paying $10/month-- it adds up very quickly. So, if I'm handling 40 sites, it ends up costing me close to $5,000 per year! Ouch.
      Google Sites: 
    • Secure and Robust. All sites I create need to be secure and not easily hacked. Plus, they should be hosted somewhere where there is decent bandwidth and reliable backup.
      Google Sites:  (bandwidth is not always the best)
    • Powerful. I need the sites to be able to do a lot of different things. There needs to be an easy to setup private area, Gadgets for Twitter, Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and others. Sliders and document viewers. Managed comments and e-commerce.
      Google Sites:  (e-commerce, comments, sliders, social media only available through customizations)

Doesn't Google Sites use Tables and not CSS?

Yep. At first I was pretty put off by this, but then after I started watching how different users started editing content, I started to see how tables worked better for them. They could edit the 3rd column in the 2nd row without screwing up the entire design. So, for me, the tables weren't all that bad. 

And of course you can always edit the HTML on a page, so you can add some of your own CSS (if you know how) for some special effects. Sadly, adding background images in a DIV is something you can't yet do.

Is Google Sites a true CMS?

Strictly speaking, NO. But, there are some 'CMS-like' features, especially if you use some of the special page templates like List or File Cabinet, or using Google Docs for managing page content. And the fact it's NOT a CMS is actually pretty handy, and here's why.

Most the sites I create, either Intranet/Extranets, or public websites, are fairly straightforward. If they're not, then I'll choose a true CMS like WordPress to create the more elaborate ones (like Agilix.com or CIGinsurance.com). Since, as I said, most sites I create are simple, it's important they be easy for customers, associates and clients to edit. And this is where Google Sites shine.

Google Sites has a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) edit mode, where you can edit the page directly. While this isn't great for making CMS-type sitewide changes (like search and replace EVERY instance of a word), it does make it most easy for just about anyone to manage and make changes. With other CMSes, like WordPress, Joomla and Drupal, you typically edit posts and pages in a dashboard where you have to publish in order to see the changes.

Don't all the Google Site Design templates pretty much suck?

Yep. You got me there. Google could use a dose of Apple's design chops. Actually, there are a couple templates which are bearable. Even so, you can start a design from a blank template, and there are a few folks out there who have really pushed the limits here. One of them is Kirksville Web Designs who really opened my eyes to what can be done with Google Sites. I've been able to borrow some of their design tricks, and add a few of my own to create some attractive site designs (see the footer of this page for a list of my Google Site designs).


Doesn't Google Sites use iframes for just about everything?

For those who don't know, an iframe is a webpage inside a webpage. It's a quick and easy way to insert OTHER content into YOUR webpage. In fact, it's currently the recommended way to insert YouTube videos and other specific content directly into a website.

And YES, Google Sites certainly does use them for most all of the Google "Gadgets" you install. And, we know iframes don't necessarily play nice with other browsers, especially mobile. Also, they can't interact with the parent page, so creating a Lightbox effect from an iframe is out of the question. And forget about creating an iframe which can dynamically resize to fit content.

Still, once I got used to how to set things up, I found iframes pretty much behaved in expected ways and have caused me little trouble.

Are Google Sites setup for mobile?

Yes, and No. There is a setting where you can turn on to create a semi-responsive mobile design for your Google Site. Responsive means the layout changes in order to accomodate tablets and phones. In order to create a well-designed responsive web design, you really need access to ALL the CSS for the website, and currently Google does NOT allow this. 

So, Google Sites current implementation of responsive mobile delivery leaves much to be desired. For my money, I just turn it off and the website displays on mobile just as it does on the desktop. And, for most cases, things work best that way.

That said, I have run across a number of OTHER non-Google sites (ESPN) where they try and do Responsive design and the user experience is... how should I say.. miserable. When I'm visiting these sites, many times I look for the "Desktop Mode" switch so that I can see everything I want and find it where I expect it to be.

As far as editing goes, most of the web pages I create in Google Sites are easily editable using a mobile browser.

Can you build any site with Google Sites?

No. Emphatically NO! If you have any of the following requirements, you may want to consider another website technology.
  • Full E-Commerce.
  • Huge number of pages (100+).
  • High bandwidth delivery.
  • Large expected number of hits and traffic.
  • Super-secure content (HIPAA requirements).
  • Zero Branding (Google always puts their tiny footer links at the bottom of each page).
  • Fully Responsive Mobile design.
  • High level of control regarding SEO'ing a site.
  • Custom, CUSTOM design with everything just how and where the client wants.
  • True RSS feed management (Only Announcements Page template allows for RSS subscription, though there are ways to provide automated notification to site subscribers via email).
  • Need for Gallery-centric theming. Google Sites doesn't have any sort of Lightbox gadget, nor is it easy to implement one as the Lightbox would have to operate OUTSIDE the iframe.
  • Controlled workflow pipeline which needs multiple stage approval before a site goes live.

So, what kind of website is Google Sites best suited for?

There are quite a few projects where you will find Google Sites JUST THE RIGHT TOOL for your website.
  • Intranet and Extranets. I have to tell you, Google Sites is the BOMB when it comes to creating company Intranets and private client Extranets. You can create a client template and then quickly (just a couple clicks) create an Extranet for each of your projects. You can EASILY have sections in them which are private only to your team while the rest of the site is private to both team and client. There are some great tools for creating workflow pipelines (List page template), Blog (Announcements page template) and File Management Systems (File Cabinet Page template). You can also easily add bug report forms and spreadsheets, and all sorts of Google Docs.

    I used Basecamp for a couple years then switched to Google Sites, and it just worked better for everyone. Recently, I subscribed to Podio for a few months, thinking it could replace Google Sites but ended up canceling. NEITHER alternative provided the ease of use, organization and functionality as the free Google Sites. We now manage all our client projects with Google Sites including over a dozen Extranet sites.

  • Small Businesses. If you're a small company and need a 'brochure' site with the ability to easily update and edit, then Google Sites is right for you. You can even create simple PayPal shopping carts, add Google Maps, Twitter, Facebook and Google+ links as well as contact forms, custom image sliders, FAQ's and more. It's easy and VERY inexpensive. Typically a Google Site design for a small business is 20-50% the cost of a WordPress implementation AND MORE IMPORTANTLY it has zero hosting fees.

    Think about it. Say you pay $40/month for hosting. Now you add a few landing pages at $20/month each. Soon, you're paying multiple thousands of dollars every few years. With Google Sites, you can spend the money on driving traffic TO your website, not hosting it.

  • Landing Pages, Squeeze Pages and Microsites. Google Sites excel at creating 1 to 2 page websites. This is because they're really fast to setup, build and deploy. Plus, you can use them to easily do minor e-commerce transactions as well as capture customer information. And setting up domains and sub-domains just couldn't be easier.

  • Personal Sites. Like the one you're now reading. While Google Sites doesn't have an RSS feed for anything but the Announcements page template (I've called mine ARTICLES), you CAN create the ability for viewers to subscribe to changes on your site via email and custom gadgets. You can also create private areas for friends and associates.

  • Web Design Companies. Most Web Design companies can't even begin to look at a project unless it's over $3K. This is because with typical technologies like Drupal, Joomla and Wordpress, you need programmers, designers, information architects, and a server guy, not to mention a project manager. And it all adds up.  

    But with Google Sites, a professional designer can handle ALL of this themselves  and thus gain a competitive price point advantage. In fact there are a number of Professional Google Site design firms out there who start web projects at well under $1000.

Are Google Sites really FREE? I thought a Google Apps account wasn't FREE anymore.

As of December, 2012, Google declared Google Apps accounts are no longer free. Up until then, you were able to have up to 10 employees signed up to use Google Apps and only started paying when you enrolled employee 11. This is important as a site developed in Google Apps has a few advantages over a site developed using a regular Google (gmail) account. Primarily, the biggest advantages are more disk space and the ability to manage your users and sites via a single admin.

For Google Sites, there are a couple ways around this. First off, if you have a regular Gmail account, you of course have access to Google Sites. And, you can setup a Custom Domain just as you can with a Google Apps account.

Still, Google Apps accounts do have more storage available for websites. So, if you have a lot of web assets, or tons of sites, you may want to create a Google Apps account, and there is a way to sign-up for a FREE Google Apps SINGLE-USER account-- at least for now.

Won't Google Advertise on my FREE Google Sites?

Nope. The only thing Google adds to your site, is the mandatory tiny footer text on every page. There are some techniques for masking this text, but it never really bothered me at all, and it provides an easy way to let your clients sign-in to edit their site.

Can you SEO Google Sites?

Certainly. But there are a few limitations. Steegle.com has an excellent article on how to best SEO your site.  Also, it's really easy to add Google Analytics as well as optimize for Google Webmaster.

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