Three free services for creating instant Web sites

Google Sites has the most features but takes the most effort. Page-o-rama is ultrasimple and also ultralimited. Weebly is smack between the two, offering a mix of functionality and simplicity that's perfect for casual site makers.

One of the fastest ways to share multiple documents with a lot of people is to convert the related files into a mini-Web site. Free site-creation services do all the heavy lifting.

Insta-site services range from the no-muss, no-fuss Page-o-rama to the business-focused features of Google Sites. If you can do without advanced features, Weebly's drag-and-drop approach to page design lets you create a fairly sophisticated mini-site in just minutes.

With Google Sites and Weebly, you paste text and images into prefab page templates. As you create new pages, site-navigation links are generated automatically. Page-o-rama is merely an online text editor that creates one page at a time, each with a unique URL you can share with others. Links between multiple pages have to be created manually.

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All three of the site-creation services I tried out preserved at least some of the formatting of the material I pasted into page templates from Word and other text documents. Still, each page I created required a few minutes of manual reformatting.

Know where you're going before you take that first step
A wise person once said, "Proper planning prevents poor performance." (There was one more "P" in the original, but this is a family blog.)

First, collect the files that will comprise your site. For most people, the files will be made of images and text. Many site-creation services let you post audio and video to your site. The simple sites and pages I created using these three services have only a few pictures and about 1,500 words.

To help you visualize your mini-site's structure before you start, sketch the pages in a flow chart or use 3-by-5 cards to represent each page. Arrange the cards in the order the pages will appear on the site, sort of like a tangible site map.

When you're happy with the layout, choose one of the site templates at Google Sites or Weebly (Page-o-rama has no templates). Start with a simple layout. Two of the advanced templates I used turned out to be a bad fit for the layout of the original documents.

Google's free site-hosting service has much to offer
To get started with Google Sites, sign in to a Google account and click the Create button on the left side of the screen. Select a template (or start with a blank template and choose a theme in the section that appears below the templates). Then enter the captcha text and press enter to open the blank site.

Click the "Edit page" button at the top-right of the screen and enter the text and images that will appear on your site's home page. Click the "New page" button to add pages. You'll be prompted to give the new page a name. Select the page's template in the drop-down menu, choose a location for the page, and click Create.

Google Sites page-creation options
To create a new page on your Google site, give the page a name, choose a template, and select a location. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The new page opens automatically in edit mode. Paste or enter the page's information and click the Save button in the top-right corner of the window to view the page.

Most Google Sites pages have a navigation pane on the left, and other than the home page, they have a comments box at the bottom. They also have an option for adding files that your site visitors can download from the page.

If you prefer to host the site on your own domain rather than on Google's servers, click the More drop-down menu in the top-right corner of the window and choose Manage Site. Here you can change the site's name, description, and landing page. To move the site to a new domain, click Web Address in the left pane and enter the domain in the "Web address" box.

Hosting a Google site on your own domain requires that you change the CNAME record for the domain. Google provides instructions for mapping Google sites to custom domains.

You can change the site's layout, theme, and other design elements by selecting options in the left pane of the Manage Site page. Other settings let you view recent site activity, sign up for an AdSense account for the site, and restrict access to the site. When you're done making changes, click the Save button at the top of the window.

Google Sites' site-management options
The Manage Site page on Google's free site-hosting service lets you change your site's elements, restrict access, and make other changes. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Google Sites gives you plenty of tools for designing and managing your site, but if you're making a simple site with a only a handful of pages the service's advanced features can be overkill. Be careful when you select a template for your site--your content may conflict with the template's inflexible design elements.

Paste-and-click page-creation service keeps it simple
There may not be a faster way to get content on the Web than the free Page-o-rama service. From the service's main page you enter a custom Web address, page title, the page content in a simple online editor, your e-mail address, and the captcha text. Then click the Save Page button at the bottom of the window to open your page.

Page-o-rama Web page creation service
The free Page-o-rama service creates custom Web pages in seconds: enter a page name, the page content, an e-mail address for later editing, and captcha text, then click Save Page to view the result. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Send the page URL to the people you want to share the information with. To edit the page later, click the "edit your pages" link on the main Page-o-rama page, enter the e-mail address you entered when you created the page, and click Send. A link for editing the pages you created will be sent to that address.

Page-o-rama lets you add images, tables, graphics, and special characters to your page. You can also change the page's formatting to an extent and create anchor text, but Page-o-rama is clearly intended for making pages with straightforward text, graphics, and formatting. If you need a basic Web page right now, Page-o-rama's stripped-down features fit the bill nicely.

Weebly finds the right mix of page-design features and simplicity
I've used Google Sites to create a number of sites over the years--most with five or so pages, but one with several hundred pages organized under six headings. In each case I found myself struggling to get the site's content to fit nicely in Google's templates. Then there's Page-o-rama, which doesn't bother with templates at all and gives each page the same boring appearance.

By contrast, Weebly's simple templates let you concentrate on the content of your pages rather than their appearance, while still allowing you to give the site some eye appeal.

Like the other two services I tried, getting started with Weebly takes only a few seconds. Enter your name, e-mail address, password, and captcha, then type in the site name, select the type of site you're creating from the drop-down menu, and click Continue.

Weebly site-creation service sign-up page
Get started with the free Weebly site-creation service by entering the site's name, choosing a site type, and clicking Continue. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

You can use a Weebly subdomain for your site, register the domain of the site name you entered (if it's available), or choose a domain you've already registered. Weebly charges $40 to register the domain for one year and discount prices for multiyear registrations. Domain registrations are available elsewhere for less.

After you select one of the three domain options, click Continue to open the blank Weebly page editor. Choose a site type from the options in the top-left corner of the window. Drag page elements such as text and image boxes, forms, and video playback boxes from the panel at the top of the editor window onto your page layout. Resize the images and text boxes by dragging their edges.

The page elements and settings are listed under various tabs: page templates, new pages, editing pages, granting others permission to edit the page, and other page-management options.

Weebly page editor
Drag and drop text, image, and other elements that will appear on your Web page via the Weebly page editor. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The Pro version of Weebly lets you password-protect pages. A Pro account costs $4 a month for a one-year term. With the Pro version you can delete the Weebly page footer or change its text.

If you want to make the information public, use Weebly's search engine optimization settings to add a site description, metatags, and footer and header code. (You can also hide the site from search engines.)

Options are provided for adding a merchant account, optimizing the site for mobile devices, downloading the site as a ZIP file, and unpublishing the site. The Pages tab is used to exclude specific pages from the site navigation, password-protect a page (Pro version only), or link it to an external site.

Publishing a Weebly site on my own domain required a phone call to my host's tech-support line, but that may have been due to a glitch on the host's server. Weebly recommends having your domain host handle the required changes to the DNS records, but people with a little Web savvy should be able to reset their CNAME records to host their Weebly site with no trouble.

You can see the results of my Weebly testing at my personal domain, while the site I created via Google Sites is on one of Google's servers. The super-simple version of the same material is on this Page-o-rama page.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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