My top 15 FREE web tools for small business

When Tim Berners-Lee was creating the network that’s popularly credited with being the first internet, it was all about sharing stuff for free. Now, over 20 years later, the open source movement is as strong as ever and the web’s still a fantastic source of FREE stuff.

In fact, there’s a business tool for just about everything you need to create a professional online presence, using low-cost or free options. Here’s a few of my favourites!

1. WordPress

Free content management software & web hosting. You can’t beat it. There are lots of options – like the free hosted wordpress.com or downloading the software (www.wordpress.org) to customise it yourself. SquareSpace or Eden Platform are strong, low-cost alternatives. In Australia the Getting Business Online project offers free sites using the MYOB Atlas tool. And Google sites is another basic option. 

2. Free website designs

If you’re using one of the free content management systems above, you’ll get a choice of design templates. But if you’re site’s just got a few pages and static HTML suits your needs, there almost unlimited free designs to choose from. Sites like Dream Template or Free web templates offer literally thousands. You could spend a day looking through them all.

3. Stock.XCHNG (free stock photos)

I love this site – a stock photo exchange. Amateur photographers share their work and it’s mostly free to use (check the terms for each photo).

4. Gmail (free email hosting)

Host your email, with your domain, for free. That is, you can have an address like info@publishingservices.com.au (go on, send me a message) and host it through Gmail, making use of the calendar synchronisation and other small business tools.

5. The rest of Google’s toolbox

I’m lumping these all together – Google docs, maps, alerts, calendar, blogger, mobile – they’re all unique and separate tools that would probably make the list in their own right. Add to these:

6. LinkedIn

Social networking for professionals. Get real leads, connect with peers, share information on benchmarking and best practice. Yammer is another good social networking tool for within your business.

7. Open Office

An open-source alternative to MicroSoft’s tools.

8. Mozilla

More than just a web browser, Mozilla is open source web at its best. The code is absolutely free and you can download it, modify it and re-release your own browser no questions asked. The open source community also contributes to a wonderful library of add-ons that make Mozilla more than a browser. There are link checkers, accessibility tools, site speed reports – have a look yourself.

9. Issuu (a flash way to present PDFs)

Here’s a recent discovery of mine (there are a few of these tools around but this one’s so simple). Take your stock-standard Adobe Portable Document File (PDF), which is a free tool in itself that we shouldn’t take for granted, and turn it into a flash (another free tool) application so you can embedd a page-turning document into your website. Just looks so nice!

10. YouTube

Ok, you already know about it but, stop for a moment to think about how wonderful it is. If you can remember (or imagine) what it was like having to format your own videos and try to have them stream from your own server, you’ll appreciate every opportunity to use YouTube. Other options like Vimeo offer a similar service.

11. Mail Chimp (free enewsletter tool)

Choose and modify your templates, and get a fantastic looking HTML newsletter. Wonderful for small business.

12. Drop box

A free file transfer alternative. Don’t have an FTP site for moving large business files around? This provides a secure way to move them. Send This File is another and You Send It offers free trials.

13. eBay stores

Ok this isn’t quite free but when you think of what it costs to build an online store, it’s nice to have the option to set up your own on ebay and integrate it with the rest of your online presence.

14. Xenu Link Sleuth

Check your links and more! It doesn’t look flash but this little web crawler tool has a lot of cred. It’s light and fast and it just scans huge volumes of pages quickly. Scan your site for broken links, create XML sitemaps and more.

15. Wikipedia

Last but not least, perhaps the best free business tool available on the web is the wealth of information. Wikipedia is the poster-child for the best that the web can be – collaborative, expansive, global, ever-changing, adaptable and very, very useful. WikiSpaces is a free tool you can use to create an editable wiki space for within your own organisation.

Your favourites

These have been some of my favourites, why not share yours. Post a reply – what’s your favourite online business tool or freebie?

Segment everything!

Summer Lit review Part 1: 

Web Analytics: an Hour a Day

Web Analytics: An Hour a DayAs is summer tradition, I took to the holidays as a chance to get some reading done. This year I picked up Web Analytics: an Hour A Day by Avinash Kaushik.

Here’s the key take away message and the one quote I think can, on its own, change the way you do web analytics and save you a long read:

“Your instinct on seeing any metric should be to desperately want to segment it 3 levels down at least”.

If you haven’t come across him Mr Kaushik is the author of the infamous web analytics blog Occam’s Razor (named after a principle of logic espoused by a 14th century friar, which roughly translated, means ‘entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity’ – and it’s hard to argue with that!).

I picked up his first book in preference to his second because it seemed to focus less on the latest tools and more on the process of picking insights from the huge quantities of data available for any web sites.

The problem

As Avinash says:

  • Your web analytics tool won’t provide any answers,
  • It won’t even provide any questions,
  • It just dumps data on you.

Don’t mistake access to Google Analytics as the solution to measuring your site’s success.

The solution

1. Questions need to come first (harder than it seems).

Do you have SMART goals for your website?

If not, he implores us to stop producing ‘data pukes’ in the form of meaningless reports that don’t drive actionable insights, and to create some specific, measurable goals.

If possible, define some conversion goals in your software. Want users to view 3 pages or more? That can be a conversion. Perhaps you want them to download a catalogue? Make that a conversion goal.

Things will never be perfect so don’t wait until you have perfect data capture. Insights can come from trends.

2. Segmentation

Next create some custom reports that segment your data. Almost any statistic becomes meaningless when you look at it applied to your entire website. Especially if there are multiple user groups targeted and different types of tasks to complete on the site.

One segment of your users might like to read information about your business – the more time they spend on the site the better. Another might want to contact you directly with a sales enquiry so forcing them to spend more time on the site is bad.

So what does your time on site statistic mean if it’s looking at both groups? Nothing. Segment your data to look at each group separately. Then break it up into a smaller chunk by segmenting again. And again.

Segmenting allows you to answer some specific questions like how many of the users contacting me came from my enewsletter and how many of these converted by downloading a catalogue?

That’s data you can learn from.

3. Everything in context

Finally, he espouses context as a key to understanding all measurements. So you have 45 people downloading your catalogue yesterday? So what? Presenting this in context with stats over an 8-day week and you can instantly see where you are.

Similarly, simply reporting on a 13-month (rather than 12-month) basis instantly gives you like for like comparison with the same time last year.

His enthusiasm and directness can also be contagious. I can honestly say, the hours I spent reading his book were hours I expect to save with the insights I’ve gleaned.

And… I know I’ll get regular updates from his blog.

DIY, until you need some help

Today’s post is about how I managed to turn a simple computer upgrade into a week’s lost work and the equivalent cost of a brand new machine. And though I may have also ground another layer of enamel off my teeth in frustration, it got me thinking.

As a small business owner or sole trader you’re often expected to juggle all sorts of skills that would be the responsibility of specialists in a larger workforce. You’ll often manage your own books, market and promote your own services, manage your tax – the list is long and if you’re a sole trader it may be unwritten and endless – everything’s your responsibility.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t outsource. For some things it’s a necessity. Knowing where to draw the line is the art and science of running a business.

Whether you decide to throw time or your money, at your problems, neither approach is wrong. It depends on the stage of your business and which you have more of.

It also depends on your skill set. BUT how well can we judge our own skills in areas we’re not familiar?

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing

Here’s the rub – not being a subject expert, it’s the things you don’t know that you don’t know, that’ll hurt you in the end.

I like to think I understand how to put PCs together. But the reality is that I do to a point. (After laborious investigations, it seems my hard-drives don’t like my new motherboard – thanks to Geeks 2 U for eventually coming to the rescue).

Knowing when you’re beaten

We all have our specialities and we all live in a world of incredible complexity, that’s mostly hidden from us.

IT folk probably know this better than most, but as someone who works in the publishing industry, I see it too. Publishing information on the web or in print is a process and you get better at it the more you do it. If it’s your job and you do it for many years, you can expect to learn a thing or two.

At face value it looks like the sort of thing everyone could do for themselves. And it is. But if your specialty is somewhere else, don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Google’s SEO starter guide

Google first published it’s Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) starter guide 2 years ago, but a new update has just been released on its Webmaster Tools site.

Download: Google’s Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide

The beauty of the guide is, like everything Google produces, it’s simple and useful.

For those new to SEO it summarises everything you need to know, and for more experienced site owners there are some reminders – straight from the horse’s mouth – as to best practice for making your site Google-friendly.

The basics haven’t changed much since my SEO basics post in 2007. But this is a great document for bringing SEO to life, replete with cute little Googlebot cartoons and links to a wealth of resources. For example, below, Google engineer Matt Cutts explains the anatomy of a search result.

Some of the useful insights I took away for managing a large site:

  • A reminder of Webmaster tools’ handy content analysis section that points out if any of your meta tags are too short, long or duplicated
  • Some useful help on the importance of Google-friendly URLs
  • An explanation of 301 redirects and the rel=”cannonical” link element, which ensure duplicate URLs don’t confuse poor Googlebot
  • An introduction to the open source Sitemap Generator Script Google has helped produce (in beta testing phase) and image sitemaps
  • Google’s 404 widget for presenting useful and friendly ‘Page not found’ messages
  • A whole new section dedicated to Google’s separate mobile search functionality.