The no-cost Internet bandwagon continues to accelerate, with Web sites, Web storage space, Web-based software programs and Internet service providers offering free services.
Some Web sites even let you build your Web site for free, then host it for free as well.
I’ve tested most of the major Web site creation tools that you have to pay for, including Macromedia Dreamweaver, the hottest HTML editor among professional Web designers, and Microsoft FrontPage, the most popular product but one that forces you to use other Microsoft products to take full advantage of it.
I wanted to find out how well the free tools compare with the pay tools. So, using Homestead (http://www.homestead.com), a free service I had heard and read good things about, I created a Web site for sinus sufferers called Sinusitis FAQ (http://www.sinusitis.homestead.com).
Like similar services such as GeoCities (http://www.geocities.com) and Tripod (http://www.tripod.com), Homestead is targeted more to home users than business people. I was thus surprised to find e-commerce tools available. You can, for instance, add a shopping cart to your site and even accept credit-card payments.
Creating a site with Homestead is straightforward. You can start with one of the supplied templates and customize it for your purposes by dragging and dropping elements right onto the page.
Still, free comes with its limitations. Building a Web site from a Web site is slow going, you have much less control and versatility compared with pay packages, and your site must display a banner ad at the bottom of each page.
Whether you use a service such as Homestead or conventional tools, there are plenty of other free offerings to enhance any Web site. Most offer free basic services and pay upgrades; some are ad supported. It’s best to resist the temptation to filch material from other sites, easy as it may be. Some sites even offer a wide selection of purloined copyrighted music and art. Stick to the up-and-up and you’ll avoid legal hassles.
ArtToday (http://www.arttoday.com) provides access to more than 40,000 high-quality, fully licensed Web graphics, free of charge. Various levels of pay access offer more clip art as well as photos, fonts and sounds. Partners in Rhyme (http://www.partnersinrhyme.com) provides a large library of public-domain sound effects and royalty-free background music.
Page Talk (http://www.pagetalk.com) lets you put a button on your site that visitors can click to hear your voice. You just copy a few lines of HTML to add to your site’s source code, then phone a toll-free number and record a message of 20 seconds or less. It’s totally free.iSyndicate (http://www.isyndicate.com) lets you add syndicated written, graphical, audio or video content from more than 800 different sources. Some of the content is free, some costs.
If your site includes a lot of content, one helpful, professional touch is to provide visitors with an internal search engine. Atomz.com (http://www.atomz.com) lets you add either a simple or sophisticated search engine to your site and sends you a periodic report of what visitors are searching for. The service is free for sites with fewer than 500 pages.
Interactivity is the Internet’s greatest strength, and can be added to your Web site, free of charge. Beseen (http://www.beseen.com) can outfit your site with a message board or chat room. SpellChecker.net (http://www.spellchecker.net) gives visitors the option of spell checking their messages.
Creating forms that visitors can fill out is no easy matter. Response-O-Matic (http://www. response-o-matic.com) makes it easy-using a supplied template, you just fill in the blanks. Whenever a visitor completes a form, the service e-mails you the information.
If you’re building a Web site as a storefront, instead of using a service such as Homestead where this is a sideline, you’re better off using a specialized service. Bigstep.com (http://www.bigstep.com) provides “wizards” that walk you through the time-consuming process of setting up sophisticated e-commerce features, such as a catalog and reports. The service is free, though you’re charged fees if you accept credit-card payments.