Expanding your reach

Now that you have successfully created your own personal Web site for your self, your family, or your small business, it is time to expand your reach. If you are using Microsoft Office Live Basics to create and maintain your site free of charge, you will quickly realize that there are certain key Web features that are not really offered through this free service. Two of the most important of these key features are the ability to create a blog or other RSS feed, and the ability to restrict access to certain portions of your site.

RSS feeds: Keep your visitors coming back for more
One of the most common ways to expand the reach of your Web site is to offer an RSS feed. This can be in the form of a blog, such as this one, in which you share your ideas, thoughts, opinions, etc. Alternatively, it could be in the form of an update about your site. For example, you can create an RSS feed to notify subscribers about new products you offer, news about your site or your services, or other content modifications related to your site. People can subscribe to your feed to keep informed about what’s happening with your site, or your latest thoughts and ideas.

Sadly, Microsoft Office Live does not offer a specific blogging feature, so you will have to find some other solution for your blog. If you plan on doing a lot of extensive writing/editing, and you need to have a very powerful and flexible blogging tool, I’d recommend Blogger.com, although there are many other options for creating a blog (http://www.wordpress.com/, http://www.sampasite.com/, and countless others). Of course, the disadvantage to any of these options is that your blog will not be hosted on the personalized Web site you just created.

On the more technical side, both Blogger and WordPress offer a feature that allows you to embed your blog within your own Web domain (so, for example, I could change the URL of this blog to “TheWebForYou.LockworldHerald.com” and continue to use Blogger.com as my blogging tool), but unfortunately this requires altering the CNAME directory of your Web site, which is not permitted if you registered your site free through Office Live Basics.

Depending on your needs, this may or may not be a problem. If you just want to establish a Web presence for yourself or your family members, it’s probably not unreasonable to offer two alternative Web sites (one for your primary Web site, and one for your blog). In addition, if you are using your blog to share your thoughts/ideas (as opposed to product information and updates, or company news) with the world, it’s not unreasonable to host the blog outside of your primary Web site. However, if you are starting your own business or using your RSS feed to notify your subscribers about new content or changes to your site, it may seem to be a bit unprofessional to host your blog or RSS feed on a site outside of your primary Web site, especially if you are creating an RSS feed to drive traffic TO your Web site.

It takes a little bit of creativity, but it is possible to host a blog using Microsoft Office Live Basics. However, you will either have to write the XML yourself (for the advanced user) or use a feed-generating program to create the RSS feed codes in a local file (for the novice to intermediate user). You can then upload this file to your Office Live Basics site. Every time you want to update your feed, however, you will have to log in to your Office Live Basics account, delete the old XML file, and upload the new one (with the same filename, of course). It’s a little bit awkward, but it will work. There are countless RSS-type feed generating programs available, in every shape and size. To get started, you might want to try FeedSpring, from Usable Labs. This is a fairly simple tool to create your feed content, and is available free of charge. Although it is designed primarily to upload the completed feed via FTP file-transfer (like most feed-generation programs), it can be used to create a local XML file containing your feed, which can be uploaded as needed to your Office Live Basics site. If portability is your preference, you might want to try ListGarden, a free, small stand-alone application that can be run directly from a flash drive to create and edit your feed. You can create and edit your feed using ListGarden, and publish the resulting RSS/XML or HTML file to a local folder on your computer (or flash drive) to upload to your Office Live site whenever you need to.

Although I don’t have time to go into details here, you might consider using Feedburner.com to “burn” your feed. This means that people who subscribe to your feed will do so through FeedBurner. In return, FeedBurner will offer you some general statistics, such as the (estimated) number of subscribers to your feed and other useful statistics. You can also offer your Feed as an e-mail subscription through FeedBurner. There are many other useful services FeedBurner offers…if you’re going to produce an RSS feed or blog, they are definitely worth checking out.

Restricted Access: Show your clients or friends that you appreciate them by offering them more than the general public
Another way to expand your Web reach, surprisingly, is to protect your content from public views. Again, this is not something offered by Microsoft Office Live Basics. Unlike the RSS feeds, I don’t know of any way to make it work within the new Web site you created with your Office Live Basics subscription. It can be done, however, by using an external free resource, such as SampaSite.com. Although it would be best to keep everything on one site, you probably won’t be able to do that until you’re willing to shell out the cash for your own customized Web hosting solution. If you’re on a budget, you may just have to make the sacrifice and create a separate Web site at SampaSite to host your protected/restricted content.

While it may sound strange to think that restricting access to your site’s content can help you expand your reach, I can think of a few ways that it can help you. For one thing, you may want to create a virtual split-personality. While it might be OK for you to create a strong, publicly-accessible Web presence, you may not want to put your personal or family information out there on the Web for just anyone to view. However, you may very well want to share this information with your friends and family members. By creating a protected presence on the Web, you will be able to share both your public and your private details with the appropriate audiences.

Alternatively, business owners may want to restrict access to certain information, files, or other resources to paying customers or registered users. This can be a way to encourage people to create accounts on your site (and maybe agree to receive your business advertisements/updates) or purchase your products or services. If you can protect your sensitive materials from unauthorized use, you can potentially offer more options to your visitors/subscribers. For example, you may want to follow an increasingly popular trend and offer people access to all of your protected content for a monthly or yearly fee. Or you may want to entice people to stay involved in your site by offering them access to information that is not publicly accessible if they agree to receive periodic announcements from you about new products or services you offer. The limits of what you can do with your public vs. private Web features is limited only by your imagination and business sense.

Freebies: You can do a lot with a little bit
We will be talking about a wide variety of free services that can be used in connection with your free Office Live Basics Web site. This post focused primarily on external resources, but over the next few months, we will discuss a variety of free resources that can be embedded directly into your site. In fact, I’ll show you how to build your own e-commerce application to allow you to sell products or services through your Web site to anyone, and even to collect payments online. Although we’ll use a variety of resources, we will focus pretty extensively on the Zoho line of Web tools, particularly Zoho Creator, which will allow you to build basic Web applications to create, edit, and/or display information to your visitors. We will use Zoho Creator to create a basic application to collect information about your visitors (perhaps to sign up for e-mail newsletters), as well as to create an online catalog of products or services which can be purchased directly from your Web site.

That’s all for today. You already have an idea of where I’m going with this blog over the next few months. The next post will be fairly important, as I’ll discuss how to embed external content in your Web site. In some cases, this is not very difficult, but in others it can cause problems with certain aspects of the Office Live Basics Web site you’ve created. I’ll warn you of some of the potential pitfalls you may encounter, and I’ll show you some workarounds I’ve discovered.

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