Weebling a web

Websites are potentially very useful for a whole host of purposes, which might include advertising a business, posting pictures from your holiday, or any one of a great number of other things.

Creating a website has, in the past, demanded a fair degree of expertise from the user but there are more and more tools being developed, which anyone can use to build a websites. We have had a look at a few of these in the past editions of this column, but a new and very clever service recently came to my attention.

It goes by the somewhat odd name of Weebly, but as I was to find, it’s a capable web development and hosting service. Like many other such services on the web, the basic Weebly package is free, and you are only asked to pay if you have the need for more advanced features.

When you go along to weebly.com, you go through a very brief signup procedure during which you also create your first website. Once the signup is complete, and that only takes a very few minutes, you get taken to the front page of your website which is blank.

Running along the top of the screen are tabs which you can select to change the settings of, or add things to the site. The default tab is the Elements one, which allows you to add elements to your page by dragging and dropping them.

These include titles, paragraph text with a picture, paragraph text without a picture, a two column layout, photo gallery, a YouTube video, and many more.

In building a typical web page, for example, you would drag a title element onto the page, click on it, and type into the space provided. Assuming you then wanted to add a picture to the page, you would drag a picture element onto the page, select a picture from your computer, and click the upload button. Building a page is really a lot easier than it sounds, and certainly takes less time than it would take to read this.

You can also choose a template for your website from a huge list of options, ranging from businesslike to fun. There is also a section which allows you to add more pages to your website, or re-arrange existing ones.

Finally, there is a big orange Publish button which you would click once you’ve built the site to your satisfaction, and it will be visible thereafter to the entire world. The site can have an address like http://yoursite.weebly.com, you can apply a domain name that you’ve already registered, or Weebly can register one for you for a nominal fee.

I was very impressed with the Weebly product and I’m sure that that it would be a very viable way of building a website with features including a very decent blog, a photo gallery, a contact form, an online poll, which will allow you to get your site visitors to vote on issues, or even a forum, which you can set up to allow visitors to the site to chat amongst themselves.

It also allows users to easily add an e-commerce facility to their sites, to sell goods and services, but it probably won’t come as any surprise to know that an online payment processing feature is not easily available to South African users. That limitation aside, however, Weebly is really a first class product.

Added after print version of article appeared: I have heard from Weebly co-founder Dan Veltri (don’t you love folk who return e-mails??) in answer to a question I posed on how you would accomodate your e-mail if you registered a domain with Weebly. It turns out that they offer integration with Google Apps, which means that you use can Gmail and the Google online applications for your business along with your Weebly website.

As far as e-commerce goes, Dan pointed out that accepting online payments is built-into Weebly with the choice of Google Checkout or or Paypal. Neither of these currently offers South African customers the option of receiving payments (you can use them to make payments) but South Africans can embed other payment options into their websites using the Custom HTML element provided by Weebly.

In short, Weebly has done its part and it’s the fact Google & PayPal won’t deal with us, and the fact that our local providers set their prices too high to make it viable to do e-commerce on a small scale, that is really BLOODY ANNOYING !!!

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Websites with Jimdo

This article published out of sequence because it was accidentally deleted.

In the last year or so, I’ve looked at a number of supposedly easy website creation and hosting services and, this week, it’s the turn of one called Jimdo.

Like most similar services, Jimdo offers both free and paid options with the free one being more than adequate for personal websites or casual use. It’s easy to sign on by going to www.jimdo.com, entering your e-mail address and the username you want use.

The system then sends you an e-mail with a link you click to be taken to your site and you can then get started adding pages and content to the basic site that was created for you. This includes some pages it thinks you might need such as a blog, a picture gallery and a contact form.

The really nifty thing about Jimdo is the fact that you do all your edits additions in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface with an options bar on the right-hand side of the screen. The options bar is used whenever you want to change the layout of the site or its style, including choices of font and colours.

There are a large number of different layout option to choose from and it is reassuring to know that you can from one to another at will, without losing content you might have already added. An option I didn’t explore is to find a page you like on the web and let Jimdo copy the layout and style for you.

Sites are created with a navigation bar and you click anywhere on it to get the option of adding, deleting or renaming pages on the site. The same principle of clicking whatever you want to change applies when you want to edit a page element or add something else to a page.

Every page element, such as a block of text, a picture, or whatever, is kept in its own container and is highlighted if you move your mouse cursor over it. You can move it up or down on the page, edit its content, delete it, or add a new element to the page.

There is a wide selection of elements that you can choose from including headings, text blocks, text with a photo, photos on their own, picture galleries of various kinds, videos, tables, forms, horizontal lines, and a comment/guest book.

You just select the element you want to place on the page and it’ll open an appropriate dialog box that you would use to input and format the content. It is really easy to do and, if you make a mistake and put the heading below the text, for example, it is easy to select the heading and move it up.

As a keen photographer, I enjoyed the picture gallery feature which allows you to select a bunch of photos from your computer and upload them into a slideshow gallery or as thumbnails which the viewer can click. There is also the facility for displaying photos from your Flickr account or those of other people.

Jimdo’s interface is the easiest and most intuitive to use that I’ve yet come across but it still manages to offer you more options than most. It would be my choice if I wanted a quick site although I would probably opt for the paid option, at $5 a month.

The free option is not at all bad but it is paid-for by the adverts which appear on each page. Another benefit of paying is that you get to use whatever site address you want, instead of a generic one like yoursite.jimdo.com.

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Web creation made simple

In the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about building websites and playing with another couple of online tools for doing so.

The first of these is known as Tank and was brought to my attention by Alan Alston, who is its co-founder and designer. It can be found at withtank.com and is free for anyone to use, although there are two paid options available with enhanced features.

The emphasis has been placed squarely on making Tank easy to use from sign-up to actually completing a site with it. The first screen you see when you’ve signed up is a dashboard where you can create sites or edit existing ones.

Building a site is a quick process which includes giving it a name, description, and choosing what sort of site it’ll be from a list possibilities such as business or individual. You can also elect to do your own thing and start with a single page that you can add to as required.

You then get taken to a sitemap page where you find a list of the pages in your site and you can start to put content onto them by clicking the one you want to work on. The editing page presents you with spaces for entering content for different areas of the page including the main body and the text that appears on the side of the page.

The most noteworthy thing about Tank is that, in the interests of simplicity, there are no tools for formatting the content on your page. You just type the content in and add formatting instructions yourself, which is very easily done.

A # at the beginning of a line of text, for example, means that it will display as a large heading, and two ##s mean that it will be a slightly smaller heading. You can display pictures by uploading them to the page you’re working on and then copying and pasting the unique link you’re given into the place you want the picture to display on the page.

The fact that you do not have a what-you-see-is-you-get facility does take a bit of getting used to, but you can always preview the page you’re working on by clicking the it’s name at the top of the page. Tank has its own set of formatting instructions which you can use or, if you know it, you can use standard html code as well.

The choice of layout options, or skins, is limited to three basic ones, which can be customised to a great extent by choosing your own colours logos and pictures. At the moment, you can add ordinary pages, photo galleries and blog pages which can be used for that or for posting news items.

The free sites created with Tank will have an address like sitename.withthank.com but you can, by signing up for one of the two low-cost packages available, use whatever address for your website that you want.
An added bonus is that you will be set up with Google Apps so that your organisation will not only have a website, but e-mail facilities using the address you’ve chosen, and access, for all members of the organisation, to Google’s online office suite and calendaring programs.

Tank is a very simple little tool for creating a website and adding content and may be frustrating for experienced web designers. It intended target audience, however, is likely to be more comforted than frustrated by the relatively limited range of options available.

I think Tank is pretty simple to use and, although I think that there are some minor improvements that could still be made to the interface, I think most people could use it to build a useful site.

Next week I’ll take a look at a much snazzier German web creation and hosting solution.

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Making site building easier

Hetzner South Africa has been hosting local websites since 1999 and has recently launched a new tool to make it easier for people to build their own sites and to add content to them.

The browser-based SiteBuilder tool is available at an extra charge with all the Hetzner hosting packages, and I was given the opportunity to fiddle with it for a while. You’re given the option of using SiteBuilder when you log onto your website’s control panel and, when you click the button, you’re first warned that it will overwrite any website that you may have made on your own and uploaded.

Building a website with it is a pretty simple seven-step process which includes specifying the category the site will fall into; personal, business, or whatever, and then choosing a design from a fairly large range of options. The design can then be personalised with a logo and the choice of text colour and typeface.

The next step involves creating the actual pages in the website including top level pages, such as Contacts or About Us pages, and sub-pages below the main ones. SiteBuilder creates buttons on each top level page which link to the all the others and, beneath them, you can create sub-pages which link back only to their main page.

An example of this might be if you had a top-level products page and a sub-page for each product which link back to the main product page. You can create a number of different sorts of pages including ordinary pages, blogs, web forums, photo albums, search pages, and quite a few other types.

The next step is to add content to the pages and this is done by selecting the page you want to add to, clicking on sample text already on the page and pasting your text into the space. Text and pictures are contained in blocks called paragraphs and each page comes with at least two, but you can put any number of additional ones on the page, if want them.

You can adjust the settings of the website and, for example, add a description and keywords that will help people to find the site, once the search engines have classified it. The last step is publish the web pages to the live site so that they will be visible to visitors of to the site.

You can create new pages and add them to the site or edit existing pages at any time. The changes can be saved and you can continue working until you’re completely happy, but the changes are not carried over to the live website until you publish them again.

I initially had problems with SiteBuilder and experienced a couple of crashes and difficulties with uploading picture files. I was using the Firefox browser and things improved markedly when I switched over Internet Explorer.

On the plus side, I think that SiteBuilder would actually make it easier for an inexperienced person to create a website and, with the many design choices available, to make it look pretty decent. I think that most people would be able to work out how to create a site with it, but I must say that its interface could stand a lot of improvement.

It is quite powerful in many ways but is lacking some really basic amenities like the ability to adjust the size of a picture or choose whether it should be positioned left, right, or centred on the page. You can test drive the system for free by going to hetzner.co.za and clicking on the SiteBuilder link on the front page.

Previous columns at allan-fishnet.blogspot.co.za.

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Easy peasy websites

Building websites used to be the province of people without much of a social life and an abiding passion for writing convoluted code using Windows Notepad.

Things changed for the better with the introduction of word processor-type programs that allowed you to put together web pages as easily as you a could a letter. It was, unfortunately, still quite a business transferring completed pages to the Internet where they could viewed by the world.

The next refinement for non-professional users were online services which offered built-in tools that could be used by site visitors to build and administer their own websites. There are quite a number of these to choose from but I recently found a very good new one.

On a recent visit to Google (www.google.com), I struck gold when I saw that they were now offering a free website creation and hosting tool called Google Sites. You’ll find the home page at sites.google.com and, if you already have a Google account in the form of Gmail, or whatever, you won’t even have to register for the new service.

Instead, you’re presented with a big Create Site button which launches a page which asks you for a few bits of key information like what you want to call the site and what colour scheme you want to use.

A possible snag is with the site location which is usually just the site name repeated. All will be well unless you have chosen a site name, and therefore location, that is already taken by another user.

You do not have to think of a new name for the site but you do have to type in a new location and keep on doing that until the system accepts the one you have chosen. The name of the site might be Cats but the location could end up as cats23, for example.

The location is important because it forms part of the site’s address that you give to people so that they can view it. Using the example above, the address of the site would be sites.google.com/site/cats23.

You are initially taken to the blank front page of the new site, once you’ve created it, and you can begin adding your content. On the left there is navigation area which will contain links to all the pages in the site and there are buttons labelled Create New Page and Edit Page.

Clicking the Edit Page button fires up a word processor-like tool which lets you work with the page you’re currently viewing. There are a lot of options including layout, formatting and features that will let you insert tables, pictures and videos into your page.

There are also a wide variety of pre-built elements, or gadgets, that you can add to your pages including clocks, calendars, games and, my current favourite, one that loads a picture of a different swimsuit model every time you open the page.

Once your page is complete, you just click Save, and your page is now visible to the world. Creating a new page is likewise very easy and all you have to remember is to access the Page Settings feature to confirm that your new page should appear in the contents list on the left.

Google Sites is very much easier to use than it sounds and I believe that it could be very useful for people wanting to create a web-based portfolio or brochure. It could also be a very useful collaborative tool for businesses and other groups because it allows many people to work on one site.

That would be useful for people working on a project who would all be able to upload any file, create or edit pages, and generally keep all information relating to the project in one place. In this case, of course, you would most likely only allow invited team members to view the site.

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