Microsoft offered free Web sites 3 years before Google

If you’re experiencing déjà vu after reading up on Google’s offer to give Canadian businesses a free Web site, it’s for a good reason – Microsoft Corp. did the same thing three years ago.

In 2008, Microsoft launched a similar service in Canada called Office Live Small Business. Business owners could get various domains for an English or French Web site, including dot-com and dot-net addresses, and various free services similar to what Google is offering now.

Google Canada recently became the latest company to offer Web site hosting and construction services for small businesses, all for free with the Get Your Business Online program. The massive Internet brand says its goal is to help Canadian businesses get themselves noticed online and calls its one-year free offering an investment.

Google has partnered with Yola, a hosting firm offering templates, photos and various widgets to help SMBs build their sites.

Related story: Google offers to buy Canadian small firms a Web site

The free package includes registration of a dot-ca domain, 1 GB of storage and no bandwidth limitations. E-mail is an “à la carte” service using Yola, priced at $9.96 for one mailbox with multiple e-mail addresses-for example, joe@mycompany.ca and bob@mycompany.ca. 

Get online or get in the cloud?

Simply having a Web presence is now not enough, according to Microsoft, which is why the company is replacing Office Live with Office 365 for small businesses.

While having a Web site is important, businesses also need to look at their internal communication practices, including communication with vendors or contractors outside of the company, says Bryan Rusche, product manager for Office 365.  

Many of the services offered with the Office 365 suite typically have been enterprise tools, Rusche says. Now, the price point is more affordable for SMBs looking to expand ($7 per user, per month).

SMBs need to ask “how do I run my business, as well as how do I show my business to my customers?” Rusche says. There are several features of Office 365 that would appeal to a business with one to 25 employees, he says. Apart from a public Web site and business e-mails, SMBs can also share their calendars among employees and contractors, he says. The software’s mobile-friendly nature also caters to SMBs, he says, and allows for integration and collaboration.

Integration and collaboration are great, but may be too much for the average SMB, says Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent organization dedicated to research on the company. “They’re big words for a small business,” he says. “If Office Live for these customers was about a Web presence, then Office 365 might not work as well,” he says.

“I’ve been on teams of five people where SharePoint has been incredibly useful,” Miller says, referring to one of the services included with Office 365, but not all businesses might feel they need everything included in a service like Office 365.

But Miller, who was a self-proclaimed “cloud doubter,” says he believes moving toward 365 is a logical transition for businesses looking for the next step after creating a Web site. “It’s a pretty interesting starting point for a business,” he says. “You have to look at the broader picture and see if it will meet your needs,” Miller says.

Related story: BlackBerrys will allow management via Microsoft’s Office 365

Security is also a major concern and reason to consider a comprehensive cloud service rather than a Web hosting provider like Netfirms or Wix. “Free hosting sites don’t often have the same data security and up-time services,” Rusche says. Regardless of your business’ size, these are crucial considerations.

“Security should be first on their mind,” Miller agrees, even if you are using a trusted company. People tend to trust large corporations such as Microsoft and assume all the security questions are covered, Miller says.

While that may be the case, he recommends that SMBs and individuals look into the security practices of the company handling their Web hosting. You need to know where your information lives and what information is being archived, he says.

Microsoft is offering three months of free Office 365 services to its Office Live customers. During that transition period, businesses can decide whether they want to stick to the service or move to another hosting site.

Use the year to see what’s working for you

The free offer with Google, as with Microsoft’s Office Live in 2008, isn’t necessarily a long-term commitment, but works like a trial to see how your business does online. After the year is up, SMBs will have to decide whether to switch providers and move to another hosting site, or continue with Yola.

“We’re hopeful that businesses will realize the value of having a Web site over that time, and will choose to continue with their site,” Andrew Swartz, a representative from Google Canada, wrote in an e-mail to ITBusiness.ca. “After the year, businesses will be responsible for domain and hosting charges going forward,” he wrote.

Related story: 1and1 Internet aims to snag Canadian businesses

With the free Get Your Business Online service, customers will get very basic Web analytics, which include stats on your site’s traffic that can be used to determine your site’s success, says Hema Padhu, vice president of marketing for Yola. Unfortunately, the free package only includes traffic stats for the last seven days. To have a more in-depth knowledge of how your site is doing, you need to upgrade.

Of course, Google Analytics offers free statistics on Web site traffic and is free to use without limitation.

After the year is up, Yola will offer a 25 per cent discount to Get Your Business Online customers. Like other Web site creation services, Yola has several packages so users can upgrade their site as their needs change.

Still, Padhu is optimistic. “We feel confident that customers will stay with us. If Google picked us, our product speaks for itself,” she says.

Harmeet Singh is a Staff Writer at ITBusiness. Follow her on Twitter, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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