Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Google Sites

After I took a class on self-publishing, I realized I was CEO of my one-man media empire. That meant taking www.stevendamron.com more seriously. The story I'm telling today is implementing my site on Google Sites, and about how you can create your own website for free (except for domain registration charges of about $10 per year).

If you're building your own one-person media empire, you need a website. You have many options, from do-it-yourself to paying a consultant. This post is about doing it yourself. You can get a great result if you pay a consultant, but you will pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for design and implementation, then more for maintenance. I highly recommend that route if you can afford it because you can focus on things you do well instead of learning website design, implementation, and maintenance.

Originally, I built my website on Google Page Creator when it first came out, and was pleased with the result. Then I found out Google will transition all Page Creator users to Google Sites this year. So, I reimplemented my site on Google Sites. Here are some Google Sites observations and tips.

Google Sites is really great if you want to run a wiki-type site for a small organization. When you sign up, you get an account that allows you to create multiple users for your account. So, if you have staff or consultants in your media empire, you can give them their own accounts with their own email and access to all the resources in your account. If you run a one-person media empire with multiple projects, you can use permissions to give users access to specific services in your domain. For instance, you can create a subdomain, like projectone.stevendamron.com, that can only be accessed by users working on projectone.

Google Sites is not great (but not awful) for creating an outward facing website. The website layout options Google Sites gives you look like a wiki (think wikipedia). If you can live with the design constraints, this has many advantages. For instance, wikis make it very easy to add and update information, automatically provide navigation tools for your site, and track changes to your site (important if you have multiple contributors). As an aside, I liked the Google Page design options much better. Over time, I hope Google improves the design options for Google Sites.

There are two other major constraints with Google Sites that I hope Google changes soon. First, you can't code HTML directly. In Google Page Creator, users could hand edit HTML. That makes it easy to fix, for instance, formatting when the GUI design interface didn't yield exactly the right result. It also makes it easy to add javascript. The advantage of not writing any HTML is that you can't write HTML that doesn't work, so it's idiot-proof. The disadvantage is that you can't implement javascript code very easily, certainly not by cutting-and-pasting it into your site. The workaround for javascript is something called gadgets, which I'll talk about in detail below.

Second, there is no support for Google Adsense (there is, however support for Google Analytics). If you want to monetize traffic to your website, you'll have to find other ways, like affiliate sales at Amazon (which I haven't checked yet to see if it works).

With gadgets, you can implement javascript if some kind programmer has provided a URL which points to a gadget that implements the javascript you want. For example, I wanted to display photos from my flickr account. There is pull down in the Google Sites page editor where you insert a gadget. Unfortunately, there are a zillion flickr gadgets, and it took me forever to look through them and figure out they didn't do what I wanted. Next step was to search the web, which yielded a few gadgets that display slideshows. It was not clear how to implement those gadgets. Here's what I learned. You find the URL of the xml code for the gadget (usually by clicking on a link the developer has provided). It's not intuitively obvious this is what you're looking for because the page that displays is full of xml gobbledygook with an error message at the top. You cut-and-paste this URL into the Google Site custom gadget interface, and then the custom gadget interface will query you for any input parameters. In the case of the flickr gadget I found, that meant cutting-and-pasting my flickr feed javascript URL.

Google Sites needs to simplify the entire gadget implmentation process, and make it possible to implement a gadget in your own domain.

You can see the fruits of my labor at www.stevendamron.com. I will use this free service for the foreseeable future. If Google doesn't provide me with the tools I need to monetize my website, all this work is not in vain. First, I will have produced the content for my website. If I need to switch to another Content Management System for my website, I already have the site navigation and content worked out. Second, if I decide to hire a consultant, I can provide my current website as a specification. That makes it easy for the consultant to bid, and much less expensive to implement. I'm using Google's Blogger service to blog (blog.stevendamron.com), and it has most of the capabilities missing in Google Sites — I'm hopeful these features will find their way to Google Sites.

A final word if you're doing it yourself. If you are willing to pay $10-$50 per month, there are many Content Management Systems available for niche markets. For instance, if you're a writer building your one-person empire, consider a service like Author Friendly. These services typically provide tools targeted for the market you want to address, like selling books.

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