Saturday, August 20, 2011

Google Sites: Why I Believe in WYSIWYG Again

If you have been looking for a mindlessly easy way to create and host slick-looking websites, your life is about to get a heck of a lot better.

I recently discovered that Google Sites provides an amazingly usable interface for creating websites without programming. Sites I've created using Google Sites include a site for Graduate Women at MIT (screen shot to the left) and a personal wiki for posting links to useful things. In this post, I describe what you can use Google Sites for, what you can't use Google Sites for, and how to get started using Google sites.

Google Sites is really done well--not only does it provide support for a comprehensive set of website creation actions, but it also gets the little things right. It has the following advantages:
  • Easy creation of websites, wikis, blogs, etc. You can edit web pages the way you edit Google Docs. Google Sites has four built-in templates: a regular website (editable almost exactly like a Google Doc), an announcements page (for making a blog-like page) a file cabinet (for uploading files), and a list (for entering spreadsheet items). This makes it quite easy to public many kinds of content.
  • Easy publishing of content such as spreadsheets, documents, calendars, and photos. Google supports easy embedding of other Google technologies such as Docs, GCal calendars, and Picasa photos/albums.
  • Collaborative site editing. Google Sites has the same collaborative editing format as Google Docs, making it easy for several people to work on a website together.
  • Automation of site creation tasks. Google Sites gets many of the details right. For instance, you can copy and paste the contents of another website into a Google Site with the formatting preserved and images appropriately displayed and linked. Google Sites also makes it easier to include an image: it supports automatic resizing and automatically inserts a link (which can easily be removed) to the real photo.
  • Customizable templates. Google Sites supports many design templates and also allows the user to change properties such as the appearance of the navigation map (along the top or on the side, tabs or boxes, etc.) and colors and fonts for the text. Google Sites also allows the user to insert a logo into the header (More actions > Manage site > Site layout > change logo)--the GWAMIT site above was done this way.
  • Escape hatches. You can view and edit the HTML source of any page. I find this helpful when there is a weird space I can't get rid of in the Sites editor--WYSIWYG* can only take you so far.

If you want to make a site with a unique design or a lot of functionality, Google Sites may not be the way to go. As for design, Google imposes a fairly standard template onto the site and doesn't allow editing of style sheets, making it difficult to get a page with a different format. As for functionality, it is not completely straightforward to embed Javascript for things like Facebook Community pages and Twitter feeds. Google Sites does allow the user to insert Gadgets wrapping HTML/Javascript, so it should be possible to wrap arbitrary functionality inside a Gadget and then put it in the page. (There is at least one gadget for wrapping Javascript, but it didn't work for me.) I found this helpful post about creating a Google Gadget to wrap Javascript to display a Twitter feed.

To get started with Google sites, go to sites.google.com, activate your account, and start making pages. To create a new site, click "Create new site." Once you choose a template and a name, you'll be directed to a page for editing your site's homepage, the page that shows up under http://sites.google.com/site/[your site name]. You can edit this site just like a Google Doc. You may also create other pages for your site, link to them, move them, etc. Google has a nice getting started guide here.

* What You See Is What You Get.

2 comments:

Jeremy H said...

The whole GApps suite is surprisingly nice. The PGSS Alumni website is run on Google Sites, and all our databases are GDocs spreadsheets.

Also worth noting is that you can get the full GDocs suite for your personal domain for free.

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