Free Web Sites

My local Ham Radio club had two web sites hosted by a small company that decided one day that they wanted out of the business. Without notifying any of their customers, they pulled the plug, Scrambling to find an inexpensive solution, I was "volunteered" to create new web sites running on a more reliable host.

There are tons of inexpensive hosting companies charging only a few dollars a month that offer easy to deploy web sites using Wordpress or other user friendly development platforms. Unfortunately, that's what got us into this situation. I decided that if you want reliability, go with a big, well established company. 

This web site is running on a platform called Google Sites and has had no downtime or loss of data for the several years that it's been in existence. My only cost is for the annual WT4Y.com domain renewal. The website itself is totally free. I decided that free is a good thing and my local club's web sites are now back on the web hosted by one of the largest companies in the world.

There are several steps necessary to get your website up and running:
  • Register a Domain Name if you don't already have one.
  • Create a new or use an existing Gmail account.
  • Create your website using the Google Sites feature in Gmail.
  • Verify to Google that you own your domain.
  • Redirect your Domain to the Google Sites website.

Register a Domain Name

There are so many Domain Registrars, it can get a little confusing to choose one. I can narrow this down for you. When you're ready to redirect your domain to your Google Site, you will want the ability to redirect your "naked" domain to your site. Normally, Google Sites only allows you to direct a sub-domain such as www. For instance, I cannot direct wt4y.com to my site. I can only direct www.wt4y.com to Google Sites. This can get very confusing for people when they get the dreaded 404 error trying to access your site without the www prefix. Fortunately, certain Domain Registrars allow you to direct your naked domain to your www sub-domain which gets around this limitation of Google Sites.

My preferred registrar is GoDaddy.com and my club's registrar is NameCheap.com. I know for a fact that I can redirect my naked domain using these two registrars. I also know that many registrars do not have this feature. Before you choose your registrar, make sure they offer this feature.

Create a new or use an existing Gmail account

The only limitation I know in Gmail is the requirement for at least 6 characters in the account name and the name you choose must be available. It does not matter what Gmail account you use or what you name you Google Site, you can still redirect your domain to it. After your Gmail account is set up, you're ready to develop your web site.

Create your website using the Google Sites feature in Gmail

Here's another tip for you. Use the Chrome web browser. Chrome is a Google product and it works flawlessly with Gmail and Google Sites. I have encountered several problems trying to use Internet Explorer while developing my site and some things just don't work properly. When your site is finished, all the modern web browsers will render your site properly, but use Chrome when editing your site.

After logging in to your Gmail account, use the Apps button to find Sites. The Apps button looks like a little checkerboard and is located in the upper right portion of the Gmail page. Click on Apps then "More" then "Even more from Google" and scroll down until you find Sites. From this page you can create a new website. I won't go into all the details because there are thousands of web pages that discuss the creation of a Google Site. In summary, create a new site, choose a template and theme and start development. Caution: In Google Sites there is no provision to change site template. Once you choose one, you're stuck with it. To use a different template, you have to create a new site. Templates are customizable though, so before you abandon a site, see if you can change it to something you can live with. Themes can be changed at will so pick one and swap it with others to change the look and feel of the site.

Verify to Google that you own your domain

Now is the time to start associating your site with your domain. The first step is to prove to Google that you are the "Master of Your Domain". (If you're a Seinfeld fan, you'll recognize the reference). To verify your domain, go to https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/. Make sure you're logged in with your Gmail account. Select "Add Site" and enter your domain name. When you try to add your domain name Google will want you to prove that you own it. Google will give you several options. I have found the easiest way is to add a custom TXT record to your domain using the DNS manager of your registrar. Add the custom TXT string provided by Google Webmaster Tools and click "Verify". It may take a few minutes for the registrar's setting to change. 

The next step is to associate your domain with your site. While viewing your site in the Sites Editor, click on the "Open More Actions menu" (the icon that looks like a gear in the upper right of the page) and select "Manage Site". On the lower left side of the Manage Site page, select "Add Web Address". Here you will add www.your-domain-name. For example, I added www.wt4y.com. If you have successfully verified your domain, you will get no errors.

Redirect your Domain to the Google Sites website

Now the fun part. Go back to your domain registrar and add a record to your DNS. You will be adding a CNAME (alias) record. The record will be called "www" and the value will be "ghs.googlehosted.com". This directs visitors to www.your-domain-name to your Google Site.  At this point a visitor trying to access your site without the www prefix will get a 404 Web Page Not Found Error. This is where you take advantage of a feature offered by some, but not all, registrars. Go to your registrar and access your domain. With GoDaddy, it's called forwarding. Forward your site to www.your-domain-name. In my case, visitors trying to access wt4y.com will be forwarded by GoDaddy to www.wt4y.com. With NameCheap.com, login and select your domain (if you have more than one). Then select "All Host Records". Add a new record with the name "@" with a value "www.your-domain-name" (e.g. "www.wt4y.com") with a type "URL Redirect (301)". Be very patient. Changes to settings on your domain could take from a few minutes to a day to replicate to all the DNS servers on the web.

If you ever want to create a sub-domain, for example weather.wt4y.com, go to Google Sites and create your "weather" web site. Select Manage Site and under Add Web Address, enter weather.wt4y.com. You will not have to verify ownership of your domain again. Then go to your domain registrar and add another CNAME called "weather" with the same value "ghs.googlehosted.com". A few minutes or a day later and your new website will be open to visitors.

With every Google Site you create, you get 100 MegaBytes of space. I believe the total amount of free space you get with each Gmail account is 15 GigaBytes total which includes all your Sites, all your emails and documents stored on Google Drive.

Hopefully this tutorial has been helpful. Let me know if you spot any mistakes or have questions or suggestions,

Gary WT4Y