A little over a month ago Microsoft launched Microsoft Office Live Beta with a lot of effort and resources but it did not make a huge splash in the media, in the web development community or even with the bazillion affiliate marketers out there always looking for new places to publish content. Something is missing in the message because the product while far from perfect is pretty damn good at an offering price of FREE.
I think perhaps that the message is falling on a highly skeptical market that has learned over the past decade that if something on the internet is “free” then you better be careful messing around with it or just accept going in that free is not really free and there must be some “catch”. When you look at what you get with Microsoft Live Basics at no cost you might begin to wonder indeed just what the catch is or where the gotcha if any is coming from.
Take a look at this feature list…
- Easy-to-use Web site design tool – Get started fast with our easy-to-use Site Designer tool. Don’t worry — it was designed with the small-business owner in mind, so you can quickly create your own Web site.
- The free website and domain name and hosting Select your own domain name (for example, www.northwindtraders.com) and let Microsoft keep your Web site up and running.
- 5 personalized e-mail accounts Access your company e-mail using your personalized free website and domain (for example, email@example.com).
- Storage and data transfer – More than enough space to promote every aspect of your business and plenty of bandwidth to allow lots of customers to visit your site.
- Web site traffic analysis and reporting tools View the success of your Web site with reporting that lets you see how often people visit your site, what pages they visit the most, and their system and browser information.
- Support Our online support pages are here to answer questions and help you get started by providing quick responses to your most frequent questions. One-on-one e-mail support is also available to address other questions.
Well, I was pretty skeptical myself but figured I would sign up and of course, the free part that I doubted most. During sign up, I was prompted for a credit card number, (ah-ha! I thought then digging into the FAQ I found that this was to prevent fraud and ensure people could not get thirty sites for free along with 30 free websites and domain at Microsoft Expense). I went ahead and completed the sign-up and then noticed two, one dollar charges on my card on Aug. 4th, then on Aug. 9th just as promised my two dollars were credited back.
So thus far the “free” test has been passed and thinking further on it, Microsoft would be nuts to pull any type of scam here as the bad PR would be a disaster so I think we can just accept in this case free is really free.
So on to the next question, how does it work?
Rather then experiment with one of my corporate site or one of my affiliate sites with this new technology I decided to play with one of my personal hobbies, it just so happens that in addition to being an SEO and Telecommunications Technical Geek I am also an amateur herpetologist and have been for the past twenty years so I decided to build a site about the African House Snake which is an animal I have been working with a lot lately.
I figured building something that I did not have to take too seriously would give me the patience to learn a new site builder and not be second guessing myself for not using something like FrontPage or DreamWeaver where I could get things done a LOT faster. So I registered African House Snake. Com and proceeded to begin playing with the system.
While I have yet to put up any real content I figured I would post my impressions so far starting with the features promoted by Microsoft. This initial review is based on VERY LIMITED experience and I will continue to post more in depth on individual features as I build out my little hobby site.
Feature One – Easy-to-use Web site design tool, – OK I am biased I don’t really like any site builder so I have to answer this one with a mind on other builders I have used. I would say easy is a relative term. The first time user will get frustrated but will be able to figure things out in time if they take the time to do so. For instance, I had a pretty tough time figuring out how to get a picture of my House Snake as the main site image but I did figure it out and doing it again would be “easy” though I would call doing it for the first time “difficult” or at least time-consuming. I will definitely post more about the builder itself in time.
Feature Two – Free website and domain name and hosting, – This one checks out the hosting provides 30 MB which is plenty for most small business sites or personal sites that would use a free tool like this. The domain is really yours, if you want to take it with you to another host you will then have to pay for it, once you move it, but it is free as long as you use Microsoft Office Live and YOU DO OWN IT personally.
Feature Three – 5 personalized e-mail accounts, – Again this feature works well and is included free. The webmail interface is a copy of the online Hotmail interface so honestly, with just a bit of experience, anyone can use it. An added bonus I discovered while creating an email is you can then make the holder of the account a “user” on the site itself and set permissions to them either as an “editor” or an “administrator” which makes this ideal for group collaboration on a web site. I have not yet tried the “Outlook Connector” but will do so in the future.
(It was a little confusing that once you set up the email account, you get a message about setting permissions, clicking on that link took you to the right place but the “new user” you just created does not show up, you then have to create that same user with the same info as a “site user” but doing the whole thing took less then 5 minutes my first time)
The Need for Web Analytics – Part 1
Feature Four – Storage and data transfer, – The promo says “more than enough storage and transfer”, and it is a decent allotment of 30MB of storage and 10,000 MB of Transfer. That should cover just about any small business. Anyone using heavy graphics or rich media with good traffic may need more but at a cost of zero, it is hard to argue with that allotment of space and transfer.
Feature Five – Web site traffic analysis and reporting tools, – This is pretty basic you can see the number of page views and unique visits, the percentage of browser used, most visited pages, your highest exit pages, and some other common stats. What is missing is the most valuable information of all, the “referring source” and “search phrase stats”. So you can see how many people come but not where they come from or what they searched for to find you. I do hope Microsoft fills this gaping hole. It does appear if you “upgrade” to Essentials you get referring stats, perhaps that is the lone “gotcha” with the free version.
The Need for Web Analytics – Part 2
Feature Six – Support, – Like many “support sections” of Microsoft Products, (and to be fair many other vendors), all the answers seem to be there it is finding them and understanding them that is most difficult. I think any engineer-driven company needs common people, who have never used the product before, to then learn the product with the engineers support documentation, the organize support information and translate it to basic English prior to publishing for the public. The tech language is pretty basic so they did get that down pretty good it is the arrangement of the data that makes some tasks hard to find.
The Need for Web Analytics Part 3
Overall it is a great tool and again at a price of free and accepting the fact that it is in Beta you can’t complain much. Still, I have several suggestions for Microsoft to improve this product and make it more useable and simply work better.
1. They really need a “view and edit HTML source” option. Many marketers have a lot of cuts and paste the code they need to implement or may want to use a third party tracking tool or run contextual ads. These are just a few reasons a site admin would want access to the Code Level. In fact, so far this is the ONLY site builder I have ever seen without the ability to edit the HTML.
2. It is one thing for you to be required to use Internet Explorer to edit and manage your site. One can hardly blame Microsoft for making it this way as part of trying to maintain their lead in the Browser Wars. Like most techy types I use Mozilla Fire Fox for my browsing needs but I don’t mind using IE to run an online Windows Application that just seems like a reasonable requirement (especially in Beta). Yet the site should display correctly in all common Browsers.
Anywhere from 10-15% of web surfers use FireFox so the site should display properly in it. I found that if I left the site at “100% of a window” it displayed fine but when I set it to “centered” and “780 Pixel Width” (where it looked much better by the way) it displayed perfectly in IE but had issues in FireFox. One, the site did not “center” it remained left justified in the FireFox Browser. Second, while the pixel width of 780 was obeyed it then cause some alignment issues with the tables on the site.
Here are some screenshots showing the alignment and centering issues,
Properly displayed in Internet Explorer
Shown with Errors in FireFox
These issues indeed need to be corrected as much as Microsoft would like to have 100% browser share it isn’t going to happen so a webmaster must ensure his site displays properly for all common browsers. I simply set the site to 100% of a window for now and it appears to display properly in FireFox.
I will report more depth in the future about individual features and I am sure I will find more to complain about but I would expect Microsoft is listening to the market and will continue to improve this product.
In fact, while toying with the system as I wrote this article I was asked to take an online survey by Microsoft so they are making the effort. I do give them a lot of credit for making that effort. Indeed, the questions were in regards to many of the issue I have brought up in this article so they are certainly on the right track.
In summary, the tool is reasonably easy to learn to use, it is free and you can have a team of up to five working on, building and developing your site. The uses are many from a primary small business web site, to an academic or online publishing site or even a site set up to appear as “third party” in nature to promote your primary web site.
I think Microsoft has a real hit with this concept but more effort needs to be made in getting the message to the market,