Back when the internet was a new wild untamed frontier small businesses flocked to sites like the now defunct Geocities to mark out their territory on the web.
They were often instantly recognizable amateur hodge-podges of clipart, blinking text and inexplicable music clips and while some evolved over time to their own domains and added pointless Flash intro page animations many watched the new Web 2.0 wave coming and decided it was too hard and have become detritus, abandoned to entropy.
That hasn’t changed the fact that small businesses looking to get started on the web need a platform. Often they can’t afford to go to bespoke developers, and they don’t need a complex CMS or integrated back office (when they do need those things, then they can probably justify the cost)
A couple of years ago there were a few second generation platforms appearing that allowed people to host sites that were more than just a Blogspot or Live Spaces blog – they provided layout tools and themes and pre-defined blocks of functionality and you could even make them appear on your domain not on someone else’s sub-domain (a friend of mine once described that as “Trailer Park Hosting” and I’ve never quite shaken that image).
Office Live from Microsoft is one such platform offering a one-stop shop will integration into back end facilities such as email and document management. It has free and premium offerings with varying levels of functionality and support.
Weebly is a simpler alternative that doesn’t try to offer as much but does provide a lot of flexibility and is really easy to get started with.
Both platforms provide themes to set up basic layout for your site, though at Weebly you have a lot of control over the underlying HTML and CSS – with premium accounts you can make quite significant changes to the layout and look of your site. Weebly offers an affiliate scheme so satisfied users can get a small reward for recommending them – that helps offset the (reasonable) premium costs.
While Office Live tried to provide everything you need in one place (though some functionality – for instance adding a blog – requires using a couple of different Microsoft services) Weebly instead allows you to include either pre-defined components from other services (a Flickr slideshow, or a Google Maps for directions, Nabble forums, or pre-defined Miniclip games as well as Google Calendar and Paypal integration) as well as some of their own services (they have an integrated blog for instance – which doesn’t support Windows Live Writer yet so the downside is you have to edit it online)
Both provide a “one stop shop” if you want to use your own domain name to host your site and both are adding new features and functionality – though it pains me to say Weebly is probably the more agile of the two.
I was surprised how functional and easy to use Weebly was. It’s had great reviews in Time, TechCrunch and others – and my wife can use it which can’t be a bad thing!