A Free Website in Less than 60 Minutes?
Not so fast...

A look at Google's small business campaign

A few months ago, I began hearing reports on local radio stations about Google's new offer to give "free websites to small businesses in Iowa". I usually heard these announcements during local news segments, but they were repeated so often and with such a consistent message that I got suspicious. Most cynical scenario: Google used its vast resources and high-level connections in the media to buy airtime on radio stations across the state (or multiple states) disguised as news. More likely: Google knows how to market a product/service, and if you're targeting businesses who aren't already online, then using various internet-based sources may not reach this group of people (even if you're Google, and you own about, what, half of the internet?). Also, they may have company partners in the area who can get the press to mention what they're working on.

At first, I became upset. After all, these radio spots meant our local stations were either getting paid by Google to talk about their "free website program", or worse yet, were giving Google free publicity. "They're a gigantic company," I thought. "Why give them free publicity when there are plenty of local design companies and freelancers who already struggle to get noticed and are experts in web design." I hoped the campaign would quietly fade, but pretty soon, Google's message spread beyond radio and print, and their ads for this service began appearing on TV and online, through their extensive AdWords/AdSense network. This meant that any site I designed with Google's ads on it began running banner ads for a service which directly competes with my company and every other web designer in Iowa. (Side note: you can stop these, or any other specific ads, from appearing on your site - contact me if you're new to AdSense and I can explain how.)

I assumed the "free website" program was a scam, but because I like to have all the facts, I just had to look into this further. Even now, I hesitate to write this article, because it does have the unintended possibility of giving Google even more free press for this service (I won't be giving the web address, but you could find it if you really wanted to). However, they're not the only company to offer a "free & easy website" service, and I think their offer gives us a good opportunity to compare a do-it-yourself website vs. hiring a professional web design company or a good freelance designer.


Here are Google's claims, followed by my analysis of each:

Google claims that it is just trying to help small businesses because, according to its website, "97% of Americans look online for local products and services" but "63% of American small businesses do not have a website."

So far, so good - this is an argument I use to convince local businesses, non-profits, and other groups that having a website designed and maintained is crucial, and a good use of your advertising budget. And since we're focusing on local business here, I would also add the stat from SearchEngineLand.com earlier this year: "70% of local consumers have used the internet to find a local business". They have apparently convinced local business groups (like the Iowa Economic Development Authority & Iowa Small Business Development Center, who are partners in this project) that they are just trying to help. However, is a global company like Google really concerned about small business success at a local level? No, it's much more likely they're trying to get you locked into one of their advertising services, because if you don't have a website, they can't get you to pay for online advertising. Also, they have partnered with Intuit, who wants more customers they can lock into their website services (more on this below).


"With this program, you can have your own business website completed in an hour for Free!"

They are basing this on the fact that you are using a template system, so it doesn't take long to choose a color scheme (which every other business can choose as well - so much for standing out in the crowd), then enter your basic information. You are also limited to 3 pages for your new website. Updating the site is probably pretty easy, since it uses a web-based content management system, meaning you don't have to download any software and there is an faster learning curve than more complex programs (keep in mind that the easier it is to learn, the fewer controls and customizing options you have).

The web design software used in this program is actually offered by Intuit, a company Google has partnered with. You may know them better as the manufacturer of QuickBooks and TurboTax. If you didn't like these programs, you may not like their web design program. I've actually used TurboTax before and rarely had a problem with it, but like most software, it you need it to do something out of the ordinary, it can't help you like a real person can. I would also suggest that web design, which needs creative skills as well as technical skills, can't be as easily done with software to guide you as something like a 1040EZ tax form. (Yes, Tax Professionals, I know it seems wrong to argue against software for web design but not necessarily for taxes. I do think people should still pay for your expert advice. Please don't send hate mail.)


"Free domain name and hosting for one year"

That's always good. After the first year, you renew your hosting/domain fees for about $7/month (subject to change based on Intuit's rates). Still not bad considering they'll let you continue month-to-month instead of an annual contract. As I mentioned before, to get this low price, you are limited to 3 pages, but of course Intuit is happy to upgrade you to a Business Lite package for $10/month, which will allow you to have up to 10 pages (want to sell products with an online store? That service starts at $20/month). As far as web hosting goes, that's still not too bad, but they don't mention any limits to the physical space your site takes up or how much traffic your site can receive. Hopefully they are generous with this, but if not, a successful site could have more visitors than expected, at which point you would pay additional fees. By comparison, I've worked with web hosting companies which would allow you the space to have several thousand pages and more visitors than you could probably ever get for the same monthly cost.

The other catch here is that if you do cancel, you can't move your completed website design/content to another provider, because you used Intuit's proprietary design system. You can move the domain name, but they will still own the design, so you'll be starting almost from scratch.


"Free local business listing on Google Places"

This is already a free service from Google, and if your web design company hasn't automatically offered to set you up with this, they really should (in addition to Mapquest and other free listing/map services). It takes very little time, but Google doesn't want to seek out companies to convince them to take advantage of it. After gathering information about several hundred companies the hard way (part of a website I recently helped design), I don't blame them, but they're really just trying to make their own Maps section more accurate with less work, by having you enter your information for them.

Side Note / Shameless Plug: For those of you who live on the south side of Des Moines or are looking for businesses and things to do in the area, please visit the site I designed and help maintain - www.southsidedesmoines.com. Created with the input of "southsiders" for other south siders, the site hopes to encourage people to buy local and take advantage of local events.


"Free tools, resources, local events"

Most of these are events sponsored and created by the partner groups mentioned above, so maybe they'll be helpful to small businesses, or maybe they won't (I've had mixed results when dealing with Chamber of Commerce or Small Business Development Center groups). Some of them could also be events which are already free without this program.

Another tool they're referring too is the site Statistics. This is either a built-in Intuit option or done through Google's Analytics program. Analytics is a very good program, which I would probably recommend for most websites, but then again, it's already a free service you can add to any site. Not exactly an added value just for those who join the program.


"$75 Google Adwords coupon"

This part is a good deal, because you can lose a lot of money at first when trying to get results with Google's AdWords program (where you create pay-per-click ads to appear on certain Google search results pages or other sites which allow Google's ads). It's enough to get started, if you were planning on using their service to advertise online anyway. If you weren't, they're hoping to get you hooked into the advertising program.

The "free website" they'll help you create also has the ability to easily add AdSense advertising on your site. This is the other side of Google's advertising program, where you act as the publisher and display banner ads on your site, which pays you a portion of the money received every time someone clicks on the ads. This isn't necessarily a bad program, but a 3-page website you design yourself is not likely to earn much ad revenue, since you need a lot of visitors to the site or many more pages (like a blog or news site would have).


There you go. I know small business owners always have a shortage of time or money, usually both. Maybe this service will help some of these local small businesses with tight budgets, but the partner groups involved could have just as easily put their support behind any number of Iowa web designers, which would have helped our state's communities all around and kept money in the local economy. To others (the ones with the shortage of time) who took the time to read this, I hope it was time well spent, and I understand if you still think this program would be a good deal for your business. In my experience, though, the only thing less effective for businesses than not having a website at all, is having one which looks unprofessional or has not been updated in years. So, if you do choose to try out one of these "free website" programs, take note of the amount of your own time you're spending on site maintenance (hint: it will be more than an hour, despite other claims), and let me know if you ever need me to take over the job of updating or re-designing your website!

Matt O'Gara
Owner, OGara Graphics

Note: Being located in Iowa sometimes means companies will test out new ideas here first. Other times it means we are behind the rest of the country. I know Google has rolled out this program in other states like Texas, so maybe this is all news to you or maybe by the time you read this, your own state will have already joined in a similar program. For the purposes of this article, we're talking about Iowa, but the program details are most likely the same in other states, too.

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