Is it surprising that Google’s thrown its hat into the ring of site builders? Not really. Google has already proven that it can do pretty much everything else related to the world wide web, from social media to email.
So, in all fairness to the reigning champ of the web, it’s about time Google gave us a website creation tool. However, it’s important to note Google doesn’t actually have a site builder. It currently has two site builders, one of which has been around for over a decade.
And they don’t offer a ton of features you might expect from the internet giant, including SEO tools, themes, or the ability to customize a lot of parts. They do integrate well-ish with other Google products and share the collaborative aspect that can be found in all of Google’s tools. This means that Google Drive features like Maps, YouTube, Calendars, and Docs can be integrated into users’ websites. This also means that users can work on a single website at the same time without having to worry about overriding anyone else’s work. This is real-time collaboration at its best.
That said, the fact that there are two builder tools introduces some serious issues. For starters, this means that users need to learn about and understand the differences between the two before committing to one over the other. Secondly, Classic is going away very soon. While it’s not an easy tool to use by any means and the websites that come out of it are unattractive, it enables users to accomplish a lot more than the new Google Sites.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of both website building platforms and save you time in having to poke and prod each yourself to see which one is best.
Google’s Site Builder Tools: Classic and New
The original version of Google’s tool is called Classic Google Sites and still exists today, though it appears that Google has plans to phase it out starting in 2018.
Classic Sites has been around since 2006 when Google purchased an enterprise software called JotSpot. Its previous site builder tool (Google Page Creator) was then moved over to the new platform and rebranded as Classic Sites. The purpose of this tool is to enable people to build collaborative (“social”) websites or company intranets on their own. So, things like project wikis, project trackers, training documentation, customer portals — this is what Classic Sites does best.
Then in 2016, Google decided to revamp its site builder in order to align it with 1) the rest of Google’s design and functionality, and 2) other site builders’ capabilities. The New Google Sites definitely looks a lot nicer than Classic Sites and is much easier to use. However, it’s severely restricting in terms of what users can actually build with it.
New Sites is currently being worked on as Google engineers hope to re-integrate the features and functionality that were lost between Classic and New. Until that happens, both builder tools will be available for use, though users cannot switch between the two. This means that a site built in Classic cannot then be edited and published in New, and vice versa. Google has yet to publish the date when users will have the capability to make this switch, but it suggests that it will happen sometime in 2017.
So, this is where we currently stand with Google Sites. Two tools. No clear choice as to which is best since both have deficiencies within them. However, for users that want to use a free builder tool and would love the easy integration with Google Drive, Google Sites (over other site builder tools) may still be the right choice.
A Review of Classic Google Sites
Thinking about using the Classic version of Google’s site builder to build a site for your small business? Here is what you need to know about Classic Google Sites:
Domain and Hosting
Hosting of your website with Google is no different than the hosting of your files on Google Drive.
When you set up a website with Classic Sites, you get to select the name of your site and then the URL will automatically generate based on that name. It will look like this:
However, if you want to purchase your own domain, you can do so through Google Domains.
Google Sites is free to use, up to a point. You won’t be charged for additional features or support like other site builders, but there is a charge once you hit a designated storage threshold. And you’ll have to pay for your domain if you decide to not use the one assigned to you by Google Sites.
If you already have a Google account, there is no signup needed. Simply go to the Google Sites website and start building a site.
It’s obvious that this site builder was built back in 2006 because the interface is supremely outdated. There’s part of the tool that resembles an older version of Google — very minimal, but still not all that great to look at. And there are other parts of the tool (mainly the WYSIWYG), that look like you’re working out of an older version of Microsoft Word.
In Classic Google Sites, there are two types of design choices users get to make. The first is the theme or design they want to apply to their site. Currently, there are dozens of themes available to choose from, most of which look old and unattractive. There are some newer ones available, but they’re super simple and nothing more than a bunch of solid-colored banners (basically, the way Google designs its own sites).
Templates are the other type of “design” option users get to choose from. A template isn’t a design so much as a layout for a specific type of site. So users are presented with options like classroom sites, soccer team, travel journal, project wiki, intranet site, contractor site, project tracking, and so on. An entirely pre-built site with design, content, and pages is then populated into the website. It also appears that other people can create and publish their own templates for anyone to use. But like with themes, these templates are not very pretty to look at.
Ease of Use
Now, the aesthetics of the themes and templates is obviously an issue. No one wants to create a website that looks like it came from the ‘00s. However, if you’re not publishing the site to the web and it’s merely for internal purposes, that might not matter.
Classic Sites is not easy to use if you intend on redesigning or customizing the content. It really is like using an old version of Microsoft Word. There’s no drag-and-drop either, so it will require a lot of trial-and-error on the part of the user to figure out how to create and edit their web pages.
This is one of the areas where Classic outshines New, and I think Google is aware of this and is one of the reasons why they are keeping Classic alive for now, at least.
Although the features of Classic really aren’t suitable for any business website that people want to be published on the web, there is a lot more that can be done with this site builder than the newer version. For instance:
- Add text boxes and customize text using header formats, stylization, fonts, etc
- Add images from Google, a link, or upload
- Insert a table of contents
- Update the number of columns in the layout
- Turn the footer on/off
- Add a sidebar and place it to the left or right of the content
- Update colors
- Integrate additional Google tools like Google+, Groups, and Hangouts.
There are also “Gadgets” that are supposed to accomplish similar results as plugins and extensions in other builder tools. However, the gadgets don’t really work well nor do they serve a purpose for the types of sites you can create with it.
Integration With Google Apps
Because of its simplicity, the Classic site builder doesn’t really integrate too much with other Google Apps, even though you do access it from your Google dashboard. You can integrate with Google tools like Google+, Groups, and Hangouts.
As you can see in the screenshot below, the interface is extremely simple, and not really suitable for building a full business website.
The settings for Classic Sites are more comprehensive than the ones you’ll find in New Sites; however, there are so many different settings that it’s easy to miss the ones you want. User permissions, mobile-friendliness, theme updates, and more can all be done here, but they’re not easy to find.
Sites designed with Classic are not automatically responsive. There is a random setting you have to switch on to enable the site to be viewed on mobile devices.
According to Google, only some users of Classic will be able to transfer their old websites to New Sites. Alternatively, you can choose to move the content yourself. Find out which will work for you here. Classic users tired of the outdated interface who want to get up to speed with New Google Sites can rejoice. Just be careful…
There are no built-in SEO features in Classic Google Sites. For example, you cannot edit meta descriptions or meta tags. Even if there were built-in features, they would likely be outdated as best practices have changed dramatically since the builder was released.
A Review of New Google Sites
So, the classic Google Sites is clearly outdated. What about the new version? Here is what you need to know about New Google Sites:
Domain and Hosting
This is the same deal as Classic Sites. However, I was not able to find any spot where you can add a custom domain. This may be one of those features that’s not yet currently available for New Sites. In the meantime, remember to select the option to not have search engines show your site when you hit the “Publish” button.
Same as Classic: it’s free unless you pass Google’s free storage threshold.
Again, signup is the same as classic. If you’re already on Gmail or Google, then there is no signup process. Just get started.
For those of you who like Google’s latest design (known as Material Design), then you’ll love New Google Sites. In addition to just being an all-around better-looking builder tool, it’s highly intuitive. So if you know your way around other Google interfaces, this one will be a breeze. It even uses many of the same icons to accomplish similar tasks, so the consistency there is a bonus.
As of writing this, New Sites only has a small handful of themes available. While they look a whole lot nicer and more modern than the options available from Classic, the themes don’t do a whole lot except place a header image and title onto your site. You can select your own accent color and font (from a very limited amount of options).
But really that’s all you get.
There are currently no templates available in this site builder. Everything needs to be built from scratch with the exception of the aforementioned home page header image.
Ease of Use
In addition to redesigning this new builder tool to match the rest of Google’s new streamlined interface, there is now a drag-and-drop available. This makes the process of creating new content and pages much easier than in the Classic iteration. It also brings this tool more in line with how other site builders work (which was probably Google’s intention in the first place).
The one note I want to mention about this is that, while the drag-and-drop is convenient, the results are not great. For example, say you add a YouTube video to the page. It’s automatically imported as a left-aligned video and is pretty small in size. If you expand the size of the video player, the blurriness of the original (and, yes, it was blurry) only gets worse.
Alignment also isn’t something you can easily toggle between left, middle, and right for certain elements. Instead, New Sites uses gridlines so you can drag your element into position, which is likely to lead to issues since there’s nothing that tells you when you’ve hit a gridline or how even something sits between them. It’s not the ideal way to help users build a site piece-by-piece.
While there are few features that can be customized in New Sites, they’re much easier to apply than in Classic, which is a good thing because there are no templates to rely on here.
Here are some of the features included in New Sites:
- The Pages menu is where you can create new pages, duplicate them, and create sub-levels in your menu.
- The Insert menu contains all of the features where you can add text, images, content from a URL, a dividing line, Google documents, YouTube videos, an entire Google calendar, and more.
- A logo can be added to the top of the website.
- Navigation can sit in the top-right as a horizontal bar or as a hamburger menu in the top-left.
- The background image can be customized in the header and a readability layer can be added so that the title text is easier to read.
- A favicon can be added (that is the little icon you see in the tab of your browser from certain sites. For Digital.com, it is a teal “D”).
In addition, each new section that’s added to the site can have a unique background styling applied to it. The choices include an image background, solid white, and two different “emphasis” backgrounds with different colors to make them pop.
Integration With Google Apps
Even though the New Google Sites still isn’t a professional tool, it does integrate with other apps, including Google Analytics. You can easily import data and content from YouTube, Google Maps, or your Google Drive. See the right sidebar of the screenshot below.
There isn’t a lot you can do with the Settings in New Sites. One feature you can use is to limit who can see your site by selecting a specific audience.
So, all that control that users had in Classic — regardless of how hard it was to find — isn’t available anymore. Part of that may be because Google found that users didn’t need those settings. Part of it may be because those settings are automated.
There is no longer a choice to make your New Site mobile-friendly. Instead, when viewing your site in Preview mode, you can view it from a smartphone, tablet, or desktop view, which indicates that these sites are all automatically responsive now.
One thing to note about New Sites is that it only works if you have the latest Chrome or Firefox browsers. If you’re working out of anything else, you’ll have to remain with Classic until you’re ready to change browsers.
There does not appear to be any SEO features in the new Google Sites. Any optimization would need to be done manually, and with no access to coding that could prove difficult. There is, however, some talk that Google ranks sites built with its site builder well regardless of content. However, there is no way to predict if that is true or if it will continue. Again, this isn’t really a good site builder for external sites.
Is the Google Sites Site Builder (New or Classic) a Good Choice for My Small Business?
This builder tool is most definitely not ideal for a public website. I really wouldn’t even recommend it for a company website either since it won’t be the best reflection of your company as a whole. Classic’s designs are downright awful and you’re basically stuck having to use its templates built in the ‘00s to serve as the layout. And Google Sites’ new designs and features are too basic to actually build a fully functioning website with.
What Can I use Google Sites For?
For now, if you want to stay within Google and like the fact that the site builder is free, then use it for collaborative interfaces. Use it for scheduling school sports activities. Or for publishing information about an event with directions to it. Or for creating a repository of Google Documents you want a bunch of people to have access to from one centralized and branded location.
If you want to avoid all this back and forth, compromisation of quality, and want a site builder that will do much more for your company’s website, then take a look at Google My Business instead. You can get a free website automatically generated from your Google listing, which will offer you some online presence without any work.
But if your goal is to publish a usable site to the web and generate revenue and business from it, you may want to pursue other site builder options.
Google is urging new users to start using New Sites to build their websites, with the promise that more features are coming soon. But Google is also telling users that they can stay on Classic for the time being (at least as of 2018). When the feature build-out is complete and Classic is gone for good, we’ll have to revisit Google Sites to see if it’s become a true contender in the site builder space; it just isn’t at that point right now.