Using Google Sites to create a community website

Through a request for help on iT4Communities, I’ve been working with the Cutteslowe Community Association over the past few months on a website to advertise their community centre.

They wanted something simple, that would be easy to update, and had already put some thought into the contents of the site, but they wanted help in sorting out hosting for it. Rather than just find hosting for the few pages of HTML that they had created, I wanted to use a hosted platform that they could update themselves over time, and that would be free. I’ve been using WordPress a lot recently, but decided to give Google sites a try.

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The site was very easy to get started with, and to allow multiple people to edit. It also allowed us to keep the site private until we had finished working on it, then put it live.

Although the structure of the sites is very customisable, the layout is less so. You are stuck with a side navigation bar, unless you want to create your own images and cobble together a top bar navigation theme. You can’t change default font sizes, and if you customise the theme at all, then try out a different one, you lose your customisations. I also found that the formatting had a tendency to go a bit haywire if you copy text into it from elsewhere, and the HTML editor was terrible. I spent way too long trying to get the space in a table to look half-decent and ended up creating the table elsewhere and pasting the HTML back in. I hope I never need to touch that page again.

So, the site is now live and although I think it could be prettier, it is a good start. A lot of the pages have already been updated by the Association, so I am confident that it can be maintained.

There were quite a few suggestions that came up during our discussions, for other things that it would be useful for the site to do, so I am going to stay involved for a while and figure out the best way to:

  • Add audio and video files to showcase work done by the youth group (anyone know of the best youtube-like site for hosting audio?)
  • Add a Donate now button.
  • Increase the site’s prominence in search results. I have added Google Analytics, and the site is already ranking on the first page of Google. I’ve been contacting other sites that refer to the Association, so that they can add in links to us. The site could probably mention some key phrases slightly more prominently so if it’s not creeping up the rankings in a few weeks I’ll see what changes we can make to the text without overloading it.
  • Improve the design. We got to the stage of having a site that contained the right information and structure, but there are quite a few UI tweaks we would like to make.

It was also interesting to see non-technical computer users having to figure everything out for themselves. The Association has 2 permanent members of staff who spend a long time on computers with very little formal support. Having someone able to offer advice about email signatures, or free photo-editing packages also seemed to be valuable to them. I have long thought that there is scope for training packages for non-profits and small businesses on how to make the most of free resources that are available online, and that still seems to be the case. A look through the current appeals from iT4Communities certainly suggests that many charities are looking for ways to work remotely, to manage their data more effectively or to communicate with their volunteers better.

I’ve been in touch with the local organiser for iT4Communities, at OCVA, and she knows of quite a few other organisations that might like something similar to even this very simple site, so if you’re interested in helping out a community organisation with a bit of web-mastery, check them out.