The Poor Company’s Guide to Better Web Sites

The other day I was giving a talk at the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives. Everything was going fine until we got to the Q&A period. Up until then, we’d been discussing cutting-edge Web strategies complete with high-priced customer relationship management (CRM) tools and Amazon-like personalization engines. It was all pretty pie-in-the-sky, heady stuff, the big e-biz solutions that have worked for many, many big organizations. You know, it was the kind of stuff those of us in the biz like to talk about.

Then somebody asked the question you hope isn’t asked: “All this stuff is great,” said a voice from the back, “But we don’t have an Amazon.com budget. What can a small organization with a small budget do to make its Web site better?”

Hmm. While we consultants in the room struggled for the correct answer, the sense of discord grew. More and more hands went up, more and more people nodded their heads, and more and more folks looked to us for answers.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have any.

“Phase in your Web presence.” “Start small and collect data now.” “Raise more money.” The answers didn’t seem to quell the crowd. And while I looked around the room, I realized that these folks had a great point.

These are tough times. Budgets are slim and getting slimmer. Organizations don’t have the millions they once had to do fancy stuff on the Web. We all have to tighten our belts. But how?

Although I didn’t have an answer that day, I resolved to see what I could do about answering the question. (It also didn’t hurt that I received some gentle prodding from some of the attendees!) What kinds of tools were out there that could be had for free or for cheap? How could stretched companies make their budgets go further? I began to do some research, and, in the interest of helping out in tough times, this week’s column is a compilation of some of the better cheap stuff I’ve found.

But before you get to the list, let me add a few caveats. First, most free stuff is free because it carries ads. There’s no way around it. Second, if you’re getting something free, don’t expect any support or help if it goes down. Finally, because the advertising-supported model has failed in so many cases, don’t expect any of these tools to be around a year or so from now. That’s life.

But mainly, understand that you get what you pay for. Design and thought can’t be given away. Good design and good strategy have to come from people who know what they’re doing, who’ve been around the block, and who’ve spent a lot of time, money, and effort learning what works on the Web. Even if you can get the code free, cheap design is going to look like cheap design. And cheap service… well, you’ve eaten fast food before, so just let your imagination run wild.

Still, tough times call for tough decisions. If you have a tight budget, think about what’s most important. It may be that it’s better to blow the wad on solid design and settle for custom bells and whistles later on. It’s your decision. But while you decide, check out some of these free tools.

Content Sources

Free (or Cheap) Survey Tools

Publishing Tools

  • Blogger: Free Web-log tool that allows you to post new content every day. The site is currently introducing a pro version that will be priced at $50 annually, but it is cheaper if you sign up now.
  • Radio UserLand: $39.95 tool for publishing and hosting. The application runs as a simple content management system on your computer and uploads content via FTP as you update it.
  • Slash: The code that runs Slashdot, the wildly popular Linux geek community site.

Site Applications

  • Free CGI: Free tools for your site, including form-to-email, interactive games, security, community, and search tools
  • Bravenet: Just about every free tool a Webmaster could want, from polls to cartoons to chat

Search Engines

  • siteLevel: Free search tool from LookSmart.
  • FreeFind: Free search and sitemap tool. Business users must pay. The enterprise charge is $39 per month.
  • Google SiteSearch: Free Google search with restrictions. $599 per month from there.

Chat/Bulletin Boards

  • Beseen: Free live chat. You can upgrade to more features for $19.95 per month.
  • QuickChat: Free, Java-based chat you can put on your site.
  • DiscussionApp: Free threaded discussion board.

Site Statistics

  • The-Counter.net: A $9.95 per month Web site statistics tool
  • WebSTAT.COM: Graphical site statistics service that is free for the basic service

Email

Artificial Intelligence/Customer Service Bots

  • A.L.I.C.E.: Open-source Chatterbot. It can be programmed as a virtual customer service agent, site guide, or just for fun.

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