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?

Adwords users – Don’t Panic!

If you make use of Google’s pay-per-click Adwords program, you may have had a nasty surprise recently.

When I left the office last Friday the Adwords accounts I manage were looking the best they’d ever been. Saturday morning, was a different story.

The Quality Scores assigned to each keyword had plummeted overnight. One of the standard account management tasks is to ensure all your keywords have a Quality Score of 5 or above out of 10. Friday, they all did – with many 10/10 scores. Saturday at least half my keywords were 3/10 and only a handful were over my cut off point of 4!

My initial response was to start pruning by deleting the 3/10 keywords – until I realised the extent of the issue. I would have had to delete almost all of them!

If you’re in the same boat, we’re not alone. The current consensus seems to be that there may be a bug in Google’s bot that crawls accounts and assigns the scores. Everyone who has experienced this problem is continuing to see the same performance from their ads.

But conspiracy theories abound – is this a new algorithm? With no announcement? It’s probably a profitable mistake, with lots of advertisers forced to up their bids to regain footing.

No official word from Google. 

In the face of comparably overwhelming complexity and seemingly insurmountable inconvenience, the HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy always presented it’s users with the words – Don’t Panic! 

So now we wait. The alternative would be to delete what are still quite good performing keywords, despite their scores.

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.