Tech, Dev and Gadgets

7 free tools to transform your website from simple into spectacular

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I hope you enjoyed the review of 5 free web hosting solutions for geeks. So now you have a website, but it feels a little bland and needs some sparkle. Try a few of these free tools that will add some dynamic bling in a jiffy.

From plug ‘n play comment systems to social media integration to rich dynamic data storage service, there’s a little bit here for everyone.

Disqus

One of the simplest and most effective ways to make your website interactive is to add the ability for people to comment on content. However, this introduces a great opportunity for complications. It’s not hard to create a simple database to store comments, but then there are problems with spammers, cross site scripting security and the fact that you have to have a database and server side programming.

Disqus is free “commenting as a service” and provides solutions to all of the above. As a matter of fact, you can see Disqus in use on this site. It plugs in easily to many CMS systems such as WordPress but also can be used on any website by including a few HTML/Script tags.

Users can log into Disqus on one website and will automatically be recognized on other sites, making it easy to comment without having to register every time. It also supports logging in with numerous social media and even psuedo-anonymous services.

It will also help drive traffic to your website, and if you like, allow you to make money by putting “related links” next to your comment box. I noticed a big jump in the traffic to my blog by enabling Disqus and it’s ability to feature my blog posts.

Setup is amazingly quick and easy, you should try it!

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is one of the most powerful and feature rich analytics platforms you can buy, and for most sites, you can use it for free. If your website gets less than 10,000,000 page views per month there is no charge.

You get all of the usual reports, such as monthly page views, visits, bounce rates and the most popular pages in your site. You also get reports on mobile vs. tablet vs. desktop visitors as well as popular screen resolutions and browser plugins. You can see what countries people visit your website from, what languages they speak and even track how much revenue your site is generating, either from shopping cart sales or through ad placements.

If you advertise with Google you’ll love the tight integration, providing the ability to track campaigns and learn which ads produced the highest conversions. If Google Analytics cost $100 per month it would still be a bargain, but even better, it’s free!

Share This

Some people create websites in the hopes of attracting people to read their content or take an interest in their products and services. (why have a website if you don’t care about these things?) One great way to allow more people to find your website is to make it easy for your existing site visitors to share your links with their own friends and connections?

Share This is a free service that does just that. Nearly every social service is provided as an option (I dare say every service, but there’s probably one obscure social network not included) and you can easily customize the links to prominently feature the services you like best.

Next to the share buttons for common services you’ll see share counts so you and your site visitors know how many people have posted the link to your site on the various social media services. Customization is simple and you can simply copy and paste the links into your site for quick results.

Stackmob

Have you wished to have dynamic content on your site but don’t have the ability to use PHP, Ruby or other dynamic server side capabilities? You are in luck because Stackmob makes it easy to create dynamic, rich websites without any server-side technologies. This free service uses Javascript tools to store and display your content.

There are free and non-free components, but the free aspects provide such a wealth of options most users will be content without paying any money. You can password protect your data, collect, edit and delete database records and even upload custom Java components if the tool you need isn’t available.

If you’ve wanted to learn the Backbone.js MVC framework you should take this training course from the Stackmob team which will show you how to create a Backbone based web app that stores all of it’s models in the Stackmob service.

Social embedding

If you are like me then you may have found that with the advent of social media you blog less and tweet/G+/etc more. This can leave your website looking stale which is not good for keeping your audience engaged. A better way is to keep your site fresh by embedding your social streams into your site.

Ditto and Tint are two services that provide rich, multi-network social content into your website. Both are extremely customizable and easy to use. Ditto focuses more on drawing attention to specific messages while Tint focuses on providing a river of content from multiple networks to your site visitors. Check them out to see which is best for you.

Hello bar

Sometimes, when we visit sites, we have a very narrow focus and we don’t see important announcements or featured items on the site. If you want to share this kind of information with your visitors you’ll have to overcome this “blindness” in one form or another.

Check out Hello bar, a tool that shows an attention grabbing banner on your site a few seconds after the page loads. It features social media integration and advanced customization options to help you deliver your message effectively.

Contact forms

Almost every site needs to show forms. Maybe you want a simple contact form or a more advanced survey or even collect data into a database. Fortunately for you, every site can offer this for free with no programming!

If your needs are simple you should checkout Wufoo, which provides a host of free and non-free services. The free package enables simple form collection but is well known and regarded for it’s simplicity. However, it can be easy to outgrow the free service.

If your needs are greater but your budget is still zero, check out Google Drive (née Google Docs) which has a spreadsheet feature that is like an online Microsoft Excel. One amazing capability it provides is the ability to collect form data into a spreadsheet. Users never see the spreadsheet, they only see the form, and you can receive an email notification every time data is collected. The fields and format are highly customizable, including the ability to change the look of your forms, collect data over multiple pages and even allow users to come back at a later time and alter their submission.

What did I miss?

More amazing services are becoming available every day, what have I missed? I’d love to hear your comments.

Web guy, big thinker, loves to talk, teach and write. I make technology easier to use @ John Deere ISG.

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