Smart Sites Built By Nongeeks
Technology has made it simple for anyone to have a Web site, and a lot of homemade pages look it. It's not a problem if you have an amateurish personal home page, but for a business or organization, anything less than a professional look can do real damage to your image.
I serve as the volunteer Webmaster for a growing children's chorus, and when the time came to give our site a more professional look, I realized the tools I had been using were not up to the job. I looked through my software collection--one of the benefits of this job--and gave NetObjects Fusion 5.0 for Windows a try. It turned out to be the perfect program for anyone who wants to design a businesslike Web site without hiring expensive talent or investing a huge amount of time in learning how to use a fancy program. You can see my results at www.childrenschorus.com.
RARE SOFTWARE. At around $275, Fusion is not cheap, especially since Microsoft Front Page offers much the same capability, either as a $95 stand-alone product or as part of Office 2000 Premier. What Fusion adds is the rare combination of a program that offers great flexibility while remaining easy to use. A 15-day trial version can be downloaded from www.netobjects.com.
One strong feature has nothing to do with technology. While most publishers seem to think that online help will do in place of a manual, Fusion comes with a 622-page tome that covers every aspect of the program. If you prefer electronic manuals, an Adobe Acrobat version comes on the CD-ROM. The manual includes a nine-chapter tutorial. Working your way through it will take three or four hours, but when you are done, you will have a sound idea of how to construct a Web site.
Two of the most difficult things about building a professional Web site are creating a consistent design for all the pages and providing a simple way for visitors to navigate through them. Fusion makes both easy. The best way to start is by using one of the 50-some basic styles provided as the basis for your site. Later, you can create your own styles. One simple modification: Create a custom banner, perhaps incorporating a logo, that will be displayed at the top of every page.
Fusion also offers powerful help in making it easy for visitors to move around your site. A site layout tool lets you create a tree of pages and decide how they will link to one another. The result looks very much like a business' table of organization. The program then automatically creates a column of buttons that appears on the left edge of each page. Normally, these buttons link to the home page and to each page on the level immediately below it. But you can change them with a single click so that they link to other pages on the same level as the current page, or to the pages below the current page. If you move a page, the links are automatically updated to reflect the change.
POP-UP PROPERTIES. A significant ease-of-use feature in Fusion is a pop-up window that opens whenever you are working on a page and lets you change the properties of any object, whether it is a link to another site, a picture, a table, or anything else. And the properties change to suit the type of object you have selected. When editing text, for example, the window lets you set characteristics such as type size and color. For an image, it lets you control how text flows around a picture.
About the only criticism I have of Fusion is that it has no built-in ability to edit images. You can, however, set up an automatic link to an editor such as Adobe Photoshop.
If your Web needs are relatively modest, NetObjects also offers a business-site-building service, called GoBizGo (www.gobizgo.com), which is slower and less powerful than the full Fusion. The service, which starts at $19.95 per month for up to 25 pages, includes the cost of running your site on NetObjects' Web servers. Additional-cost services include an online catalog for your products and support for e-commerce.
Whether you use desktop software or an online service, it's a lot of work to create an effective Web site. But with a simple, powerful tool like NetObjects Fusion, you can think less about the technology and concentrate on telling your story to the world. That's a difficult job whatever the medium.