Ten years ago, creating a good website demanded an obscure, even downright weird set of skills.

Basic HTML was easy enough to learn — I remember picking up the basics over a long weekend, preparing to move a set of technical documentation into a HTML-based online help system. But getting websites to behave themselves in the era’s finicky, non-standardized browsers required all sorts of tricks with browser detection, nested tables, transparent spacer images. It was a little like being a tour guide in a particularly chaotic and ill-designed city.

If you had a small business in the late ’90s and wanted to promote it online, you generally hired one of these online tour guides — maybe a Web-savvy design shop, maybe just a college student who’d picked up some HTML — and paid a small fortune for them to build and deploy your website. And if you weren’t lucky, chances are you ended up in a situation six months later where the developer was gone and no one on your staff was quite sure how to get the site updated.

The situation is much better today. Web technologies have grown exponentially more sophisticated, and good developers can do things that really turn your head. And even though they still grumble about the hacks and compromises required to support older browsers, the ideas of standards compliance and consistent design have finally taken hold.

For all those gains, though, a surprising number of smaller organizations are still stuck with legacy sites that they don’t really control and can’t effectively leverage. I helped a friend of a friend the other day who had a company website but didn’t know how to access it. They were expecting to pay hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars (just like last time, I suspect) to update a site that, by today’s standard, was about as bare bones as you can get.

Instead of helping them get server access to update their existing site, I used the opportunity as an excuse to test drive one of the many free website creation tools that have sprung up in the past several years. Google Page Creator and SynthaSite have gotten some good press lately, but I opted for Weebly.com, and it turned out to be a nice tool for the job.

Using the simple click-and-drag interface on the Weebly website, I was able to recreate the small business’s existing site in less than an hour. No coding skills were required, which is always a little disappointing if you have them to use, but great news for entrepreneurs who have plenty else to do without mastering the intricacies of CSS.

The site got a nice look-and-feel improvement, thanks to Weebly’s well-designed site templates, and I was able to quickly add some slick new features using prebuilt widgets: I uploaded photos to Flickr and streamed them to the site’s sidebar, embedded a Google Map with the company’s location, and set up a file download for the PDF version of their product catalog.

Best of all, the ongoing maintenance is dead simple. The business owner can just go to weebly.com, log in with her free account, and make edits, add features, and more in a couple of clicks.

So if you need a company website and don’t know where to start, you might hold off on cutting that big check and see if you can’t just do it yourself. Weebly (and probably its competitors too) even offers low-cost domain hosting, so you can put your new site up at yourcompany.com. Not bad for an hour’s work.

Josh Cochrane
Director of Online Marketing