Online infrastructure for your small business doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. By leveraging many of the free and inexpensive products offered by Google, you can create a website, a domain-branded e-mail system, and a document collaboration platform, all unified under one master login and password.
Once all of the virtual wires are connected, these services are extremely user-friendly, allowing anyone with a bit of web knowledge to become the "system administrator" for their office.
Follow the steps below, and you'll be on your way to a customizable and scalable business infrastructure that lives where your employees do: in the cloud.
1. The Master Key: Your Google Account
Create a free consumer-level Google account (essentially, a Gmail address) that you'll use to administer your business domain.
This could be your existing Gmail address, but if you already have other Google products connected to this account (YouTube, Docs, Blogger, etc.), we recommend creating a new profile -- email@example.com, for example.
Note that for the purposes of this tutorial, this will not be the e-mail address that you'll be using to conduct business and correspond with clients. Consider it the "Master Key" account, which you will use to access the rest of your domain. Be sure to choose a strong but memorable password.
2. Create a Blogger Site
Head over to blogger.com. Log in with your "Master" Google account, and you'll have the opportunity to create a blog on this popular Google-owned platform. Using a blog as your company website has a number of advantages:
- The platform is free.
- The backend is easy to use, so anyone can update or change it.
- Your data can be accessed from any web browser, as opposed to more complicated FTP software.
- Custom templates can get your site looking good even if you don't have web design experience.
- Integrating elements from your business's social media presence is a breeze.
This blog will eventually become your business website, so title it with your company's name. The blog URL is less important because we will be mapping it to your custom domain in the next step, but for consistency, create yourbusinessname.blogspot.com, if available.
Choose the default template for now (we'll be customizing it later). Once you've set up the blog, you'll be taken to the Dashboard, which is where you can start creating content for the site.
You'll have to decide: Do you want a traditional informational business site (with pages, links, etc.)? Or do you want to keep the blog format and create content on a regular basis? We urge you to choose the latter -- business blogging is one of the best ways to distinguish yourself in any field or industry. If you decide to stick with this format, you're off and running. Experiment with your content and layout, and skip ahead for some resources on finding the perfect template design.
If you've decided to stick with a more classic site layout without the blogging format for content creation, you can still utilize the Blogger content management system (CMS). Simply create one blog post that will serve as your home page. Title it accordingly, and add information about your business.
In your dashboard, choose "Design." The "Page Elements" screen is where you can manage and rearrange the items that appear on your site. In the box labeled "Blog Posts," click "Edit" to bring up a list of settings. Since you will only be creating one blog post to act as your home page, uncheck all the items on the "Post Page Options" list. This will remove things like the date, time, and sharing options, and format the entry like a simple page, rather than a post. As this will be your only entry, it will always appear on your home page.
To create static pages (About Us, Contact Us, etc.), click the "Posting" tab and then select "Edit Pages." Pages are formatted like posts, but will not appear as part of the blog feed. Instead, they can be arranged like traditional navigation links at the top of your site. You can also configure the order in which they appear, and whether certain pages are visibly linked in this navigation.
Note that Blogger utilizes Picasa to host images. You can upload post images and business header logos directly through the Blogger interface, but if you want to manage your images more directly bookmark the Picasa Web Albums site, and simply log in with your master Google account to see the Blogger album(s).
3. Design Your Site
Now for the fun part. You don't have to be a web designer to build a great looking blog. There are plenty of free template resources available, particularly for the Blogger platform.
We've previously highlighted some of our favorites, many of which are clean and versatile -- perfect for business use. Additional quality templates can be found on these sites:
You'll need to download the template XML file and upload it to your blog. Under the "Design" tab, choose "Edit HTML." This is an area where advanced users can make more specific tweaks. For now, you can upload the template of your choice by selecting the downloaded file and hitting "Upload." This will change the look and layout of your site, but the content itself (Posts, Pages, etc.) will be unchanged.
Note that templates utilize different layouts and page elements. Changing or altering your template will never erase your content, but it may arrange it in a way that's undesirable. You should always download a backup copy of your current XML template before installing a new one. That way, you can revert back to it if something goes awry.
As you become more familiar with how templates and blog elements work, you may want to do some further customization by tweaking the XML and HTML in your layouts and posts.
4. Register and Map Your Custom Domain With Google Apps
Now for the overhead cost. A whopping $10 will allow you to register your custom domain through Google with one of its registrar partners. Domain registration should be a top priority for all businesses these days, and setting up shop with Google offers the added benefit of its integrated apps -- an e-mail, calendar and document system identical to the free products on the web, but which operate within your custom domain.
From your Blogger dashboard, click "Settings," then "Publishing." Currently, you're publishing on the "Blogspot" domain, but click the link that says "Switch to: Custom Domain." This will take you through the process of checking your domain's availability and making the purchase with a credit card. Because you are doing this directly through your Blogger account, the system will map your site to the new domain name automatically -- no DNS manipulation is required.
Once you've registered yourbusinessname.com, you'll have the opportunity to set up your employees' accounts -- up to 50 of them, as needed. Explore the administrator backend to find out what other settings and features might be useful for your company's workflow.
You're off and running with a complete, cloud-based business infrastructure that you can customize and administer from any browser with one Google account and password. As you begin to experiment with more online content, your master Google account connects you to a host of other useful products like YouTube, Google Voice, and AdWords -- all of which can easily be integrated on your site, and all "live under one roof," so to speak.
For $10 and a bit of DIY time investment, this is a small business web solution that's certainly worth experimenting with. If you give it a shot, let us know if it meets your needs in the comments below.