5 Free Small Business Website Options

Almost every small business owner I’ve met has faced the same challenge: they need a website. They need it yesterday, and they need it looking good (at the very least better than their competitors). Here’s the rub: after all the day to day small business expenses, they have zero budget for a website, or their budget lies somewhere between a Tim Card with $0.27 left on it and the $20 they just found in the pocket of their spring jacket (woohoo!).

When we’re talking websites, like any project, the project management triangle comes into play: fast, good, and cheap – pick two. This isn’t surprising considering:

  1. 97% of consumers use the internet for research and/or purchases and
  2. Most web professionals make between $40,000 and $60,000 a year

Websites aren’t optional anymore – they haven’t been for some time – and the people who make them aren’t the basement dwelling web-hobbyists they were back in 90’s; many are highly talented and professional individuals that determine the course of a business.

So, what’s a small business owner to do? Well, when you have no budget, why not go with free? Below are five great options for small business owners to get themselves online that only cost you as much time as you’re willing to put into them:

Facebook Page

Creating a Facebook page takes all of 5 minutes, and is a tremendous first step in getting your business online. It provides all the basics: Location + map, contact info, photo albums, and ability to post any content you like. Some small business owners write off because they can’t be bothered, or think it’s just a tween time waster; this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the power Facebook offers. I guarantee most if not all your customers are on Facebook, and 5 minutes of your time to directly connect you to them is a tiny price to pay.

The good: Almost instant web presence, easy to set up and use, directly connect you with your customers.

The bad: This isn’t a ‘set it and forget it’ website; people are going to post and expect a response – neglect your Facebook page at your peril!

Google+

If Facebook is the 900lb gorilla in the social media room, Google+ is the 100 lb chimpanzee. Sure it’s a bit of a ghost town, but like Facebook the 5 minutes it takes to set up and use is well worth the effort to increase your web presence.

The good: Easy to set up and use, regular Google+ users are die-hards

The bad: Google+ has yet to really take off, and don’t forget to be there when someone posts!

WordPress

If Facebook is the currently reigning social media champ, WordPress owns the Blogging heavyweight belt. WordPress isn’t just about blogging though, it’s a full featured content management system that is endlessly customizable and above all easy to use. So while you can create a blog to regularly connect with your customers, you could also create a more static site that doesn’t need as much regular tending as a blog demands. With literally thousands of templates available (free and not so free), the options for your presence online are really endless.

The good: Easy to use, can be learned quickly, tons of templates available

The bad: The best free templates are used heavily throughout the web – don’t expect your site to be unique if you’re using one

Tumblr

Think of Tumblr as the Facebook of blogging. Posts are broken up into common content types: text, picture, video, link, audio, etc. Tumblr is an excellent compromise between the social connection of Facebook, and the flexibility and customization of content management systems like WordPress. With tons of themes available out there, it’s incredibly easy to set up and configure your own Tumblr site.

The good: Easy to use, very user friendly, highly customizable, tons of templates (free or otherwise).

The bad: Tumblr is very social-oriented – don’t let your site stagnate, connect with your customers! (See a pattern here? Take care of your website!)

Google Sites

If you’re looking for a more ‘traditional’ website but want the drag and drop easy set up instead of learning to code, Google Sites is for you. Simple, straightforward and aimed at creating a site in less than 15 minutes by someone with no technical skills, Google Sites has a lot to offer the small business owner.

The good: Easy to use, What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editing

The bad: Templates can be fairly cookie cutter.

LastPass + Yubikey = Synced Secure Passwords

For years now I’ve been using a combination of file synchronization software Dropbox and Keepass to store and share login credentials across multiple devices – my desktop, laptop, Android phone, etc. When Lastpass launched 4 years ago, I was intrigued but skeptical – Keepass has always allowed me to use a method of multi-factor authentication (what I know – password, and what I have – key file), which was a good method of securing my data, but at the time Lastpass did not offer such an option (it does now using a USB thumbdrive).

Geek Tangent: Enter the Yubikey

Flash forward a few years, and Yubikey comes on the scene. If you’re not familiar with Yubikey, it dubs itself as “the key to the cloud”. It’s a tiny, near indestructible USB device that fits on your key chain and generates encrypted one time passwords (OTP).

When you plug your Yubikey into your device, it’s recognized as a USB keyboard device, you place your finger on a small disc, and it generates a 36 character string of random letters; this string is then instantly verified for secure login. Since Yubikey is recognized as a keyboard, it works on just about any device, and even better, since your unique password string is accessible via one tap of the disc, your password is immune to key logging software that could capture your keystrokes. The great folks at Yubico are also big on developers including Yubikey integration in their software, so more and more applications will be using it (WordPress and Truecrypt already do!).

What This Yubikey Stuff Means

What this all means is that you can combine what you know (your password) with what you have (your Yubikey) to create a secure, two-factor method of authentication. Without either piece of the puzzle – password or Yubikey – attackers won’t be able to access your data.This is important, because as any security expert will tell you, it’s not a question of if your data will be compromised, but when. Adding that extra layer of two-factor authentication insulates you for the inevitable.

Putting It All Together: Yubikey and Lastpass

Much to their credit, Lastpass includes incredibly easy Yubikey integration. Even better, Yubikey offers a bundle to get a Yubikey plus one year of Lastpass Premium for $30, so you’re saving $7 off the price of  Yubikey and Lastpass purchased separately. Now after I login to Lastpass, I’m prompted to insert my Yubikey and provide the secure one time password before I can have access. Sure it’s an extra step, but it’s worth it for piece of mind.

I love Lastpass’ browser integration and mobile features. It makes logging in a snap, and my logins are shared anywhere I go, which is a must. More and more I’m finding myself leaving the ol’ Dropbox+Keypass method in favour of Lastpass.

SharePoint Cleanup: Inventory of All Documents In Site Collection

The Problem

Most of our SharePoint sites are long-running projects or continuing programs that have no end date – meaning site decommissioning will never happen.  As such, document libraries can get pretty cluttered over the years with junk, making it difficult for users to find what they need (especially if Metadata isn’t used!), and bloating up SharePoint storage requirements. A lot of people will say that you can pick up a 2 terabyte drive at Futureshop for $100, but:

  1. Isn’t it better to keep things neat and well organized?
  2. Most SharePoint farms run on storage that costs way more than $100/ TB and
  3. Don’t throw hardware at a people problem! Just clean up already, it will save time, money and sanity!

Unfortunately cleaning up these sites can be a gargantuan job as thousands of files and hundreds of folders (shudder) pile up. The site owners are loath to tackle the big job of cleaning up, because it takes a fair bit of time, and most of the time they don’t even know where to start.

The Solution

Luckily, Gary LaPointe of STSADM (and Powershell) fame has a script to list all documents in the entire farm. This guy is a fountain of knowledge wrapped in a library inside a crunchy chipotle taco.

Gary’s script will spit out a CSV file of every document in the farm. From there it’s simple to pop it into Excel, do a bit of sorting, and conditional formatting to produce reports for your site collection administrators and site owners. With this report in hand, it’s easy to get them to clean things up, because all the problem documents are laid out for them.

We developed criteria for ‘the usual suspects’, ie: red flags that indicate something may need to be archived or deleted:

  1. Item Creation Date > 1 year ago
    Maybe these documents are still relevant, maybe not. In many cases site owners and users had forgotten they existed.
  2. Item Modified Date > 6 months ago
    Like with #1, this is kind of a ‘yellow flag’ – maybe it’s worth keeping, maybe it’s junk.
  3. File Size > 40MB
    This, to me, is an indication that a file needs to be looked at. It’s fairly rare in our case to have an Office document to get this large.
  4. Number of Versions > 5
    Our governance model limits the number of stored versions to 10. Anything more than 5 may need a look at. In some cases site owners had turned on versioning ‘just to see what it looks like’ and forgotten to turn it off – the actual functionality wasn’t used.
  5. Total file size (file size x # of versions) > 50MB
    This nabbed a lot of problem files. Some noteable examples were BMP (uncompressed image) files that were 40MB and had 10 versions – so 400MB just for one file. By compressing the BMP to a GIF or JPG, we took the file size down to 10kb, making the total potential file size 100kb.
  6. Item contains the word ‘Archive’, ‘Temp’/ ‘Temporary’, ‘Old’, etc.
    Big red flag right here. Site members and owners will often ‘cleanup’ their libraries by taking all stuff they aren’t sure about and clicking and dragging it all into a folder called “Archive” (thanks, Explorer View!). A lot of times things were dragged here and completely forgotten about.
  7. ZIP, RAR, TAR and other compressed file types
    This might be a contentious issue, but to me it’s rare that compressed files should be stored in SharePoint. A ZIP file containing 100 word documents has little value in SharePoint simply because they must first download the entire ZIP file, get the doc they need, re-zip it,  re-upload it and replace the old file. Sounds a lot like the pre-SharePoint document collaboration days.
    My other issue with compressed files is that they’re often used to circumvent the banned file types (ie: .bat, .cab, .exe, etc).
  8. Files with extensions > 4 characters
    Again, another tactic used to circumvent the banned file types. Some users would take a bat file and rename it from MyScript.bat to MyScript.bat_rename. Users, please don’t do this.

The above are just ideas on where to start, and totally depend on your Governance model, policies, and your farm. Maybe you’re ok with having .exe files in ZIP files on your farm – that’s cool! The point is to work out what works for you and your farm.

The Result

We’ve already shaved off about 20GB of junk from our farm. Our site collection administrators, site owners, and users were actually really happy to go through and clean stuff up. In a few cases, I was flat out told that they wanted to do it for months but had no idea where to start. We now have plans to automate and make this reporting a regular part of our farm maintenance.