Personal Web sites have been around a long time. Just ask anyone with an old Angelfire or GeoCities page. But now, Internet users have a dizzying array of free, feature-rich services to choose from — no coding skills required.
“These days, personal site builders have a lot more functions, and they’re a lot better because of it,” said Brian Blau, a research director at Gartner, the technology research firm. Still, Mr. Blau noted, the free model has drawbacks. “It has little to do with helping people. It has to do with making money. The free is always the hook. What they’ll sell later is shopping carts and all these other add-on services, because once you’re hooked in, you’re not as motivated to change.”
The market is teeming with businesses based on the free model, which helps companies increase their users and in turn helps them secure financing and advertisers.
Still, for Web users seeking to promote their work or business on a small budget, these ready-made sites are useful. Below is a roundup featuring some free platforms, broken down by category.
QUESTIONS WORTH ASKING Having a wealth of services to choose from is both good and bad. Simply because a company offers 300 fonts doesn’t mean you need anywhere near that. So before you get started, ask yourself three questions: What am I looking to get out of the site? What features must I have? And which ones can I live without? Figuring out these answers before settling on a service can help you avoid potential pitfalls down the line, like dealing with outdated plug-ins and overly sophisticated tools.
GENERAL-PURPOSE WEB SITES When it comes to creating personal sites, the former AOL-owned About.me is a great first option. Like most others, About.me offers social media buttons, a mobile application and a simple sign-up. The free version of the site is also ad-free, with the exception of a company promotion positioned on your home page.
But if one of your must-haves is themes, look elsewhere. About.me doesn’t have them, relying instead on existing About sites (showcased under directories) to help inspire other users. “A lot of parallel products were focused on themes and rigid formats, and we’re more focused on user control,” said Ryan Freitas, the site’s co-founder. “Users don’t need as much hand-holding when they’re given examples.”
Weebly is a better alternative if you want themes. The company offers over 100 of them, from corporate to entertainment. More important, Weebly continuously adds themes and removes old and outdated ones. With Weebly, too, a large majority of its services, including domain name transfers, are free.
“All of our growth has been through word of mouth,” David Rusenko, Weebly’s co-founder, said, noting that the site had an 80 percent Net Promoter Score, which measures how willing users are to recommend the service to others. “We spend an inordinate amount of time on the product, and, at the end of the day, this metric shows how users feel about it.”
If your top priority is social networking, consider Flavors.me. The site aggregates and posts photographs, blog posts, status and other updates from more than 30 services, including SoundCloud, Instagram and Tumblr. Like Flavors, DooID is big on social network integration. The site places your profiles on a single landing page, along with a vCard button on the Web version, so others can download and import your contact data.
If customer service support is high on your list, Wix is a great option. The company’s contact form offers support in nine languages. Additionally, Wix has a call center in San Francisco with over 70 agents to field questions from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern time. On the user end, Wix has an HTML 5 drag-and-drop editing tool, integration with the image editor Aviary and hundreds of fully malleable templates. “We give you templates, but they’re a jumping-off point. You place what you want, where you want,” said Eric Mason, the spokesman for Wix. On the downside, such malleability often comes with more upkeep.
Breezi is less laid back than Wix, which means that you can’t, say, drop an image anywhere you like. But this more restrictive model also makes it less likely that you’ll run into broken links and screen resolution issues. Most impressive is the company’s relatively new design engine, which generates designs on the fly.
“The real problem is that a lot of these sites can’t help a user design. That’s why you have the designer act as the middleman, because the real issue is the know-how,” said Navid Safabakhsh, a founder of Breezi. “You can waste a lot of time using the wrong tools.”
Breezi lets you select your category from among hotel/spa, pet services, consulting and other options. Then you can choose and lock in colors, fonts and other features until you’re happy with what you see.
SHOPPING AND SMALL BUSINESS For business or brand promotion, Facebook Pages is a popular option, mainly because of the social network’s built-in billion-plus users that page owners can turn into “likes” and dollars. Users can also create promotional discounts for their customers.
If you’re in the market for a fleshed-out online store to sell big-ticket items, but don’t want to pay for an e-commerce solution like Shopify, try Etsy. The site lets users create a store to sell handmade goods and vintage items, like furniture and greeting cards. Store owners pay 20 cents per listing, and Etsy takes a 3.5 percent cut of the item’s selling price. For smaller shops, Big Cartel also provides a similar service, with a clean, customizable interface, a one-time monthly fee instead of individual transaction charges and the ability to sell a wider range of goods. But its free version lets you post only five products, and you won’t get the built-in traffic base that comes with a community marketplace like Etsy.
If you want to create a site for a single item, there’s Gumroad. The site is especially good for independent artists seeking to sell their documentary films, songs and books. Like Etsy, Gumroad takes a cut of your proceeds, though it also accommodates deposits in over 190 countries and has a simple checkout process that makes buying easy.
To advertise a bake sale or create a lost dog flier, try Smore. The service is an easy way to create and publish posters online, with the ability to embed videos and Twitter posts.
PORTFOLIO SITES For professional or résumé sites, look into Zerply. Like LinkedIn, your Zerply page can highlight your education, experience and biography, and users can endorse others. For professional writers, two good sites are Muck Rack and Contently. Both sites allow journalists to showcase their work, including published articles. User profiles also display how many times a highlighted article has been shared on social sites like Twitter.
And that’s a small reminder that, ultimately, there’s no such thing as a full free lunch.http://www.nytimes.com