Zoho Sites Review: Great Value, Limited Options
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What could possibly be better than a free website builder?
Well, how about a free website builder with unlimited pages and unlimited bandwidth? Or, a free website builder which links directly to a powerful suite of small business productivity apps? Or how about a free website builder that also comes with free hosting?
In a world where WordPress dominates the web publishing software space, it is easy to lump platforms like Zoho Sites into the same category. But while Zoho does share many broad similarities with WP, it is the differences which are much more attractive.
Offering much more freedom and flexibility than WordPress.com, but without the need to ‘learn’ the development environment of WordPress.org, Zoho Sites is pitched very much at the general small business audience. People, that is, who want a proper business website rather than a glorified blog, but want to be able to build it themselves quickly and effectively with professional-looking results.
If that sounds like you, read on.
Zoho Corporation is a cloud software specialist who, among an extensive range of business productivity applications, offers a website publishing platform as one of its services.
Founded in 1996 as AdventNet Inc. in Pleasanton, California by Sridhar Vembu and Tony Thomas, the company which became Zoho Corporation started out as a network management service. According to Vembu, who still heads up the company as CEO, when the first dot.com bubble burst in 2000, the business was left with just three clients. That is when the idea of developing a business software suite first emerged.
In 2005, the company launched its first cloud app, Zoho Writer. By 2008, as the Zoho cloud suite continued to develop, the company’s products had 1 million users worldwide. By now the Zoho brand was far more recognizable than AdventNet, so in 2009, it changed its name to Zoho Corporation.
Today, Zoho operates 34 different cloud applications in six different suites — Sales & Marketing, Email & Collaboration, IT & Helpdesk, Finance, HR, and Business Process. Zoho Sites, which was launched in 2012, is part of the Sales & Marketing package. All told, Zoho products have 25 million users worldwide.
Despite steadfastly refusing outside investment, Zoho manages to compete with the major business and productivity software players, including Microsoft, Google, and Salesforce.com. By staying focused on small business services, it has established itself as a major force in the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) market, the provision of cloud-based applications on a subscription basis.
Although the company was founded in the US, the bulk of its operations are now based in Asia. Its headquarters were moved from California to Vembu’s native Chennai, India, and the most of its sales and support operations are run from offices in cities across India. It has development sites in Singapore and Beijing, and other offices in Japan and the Philippines.
Entirely privately owned, the company does not publish any financial data, although it claims to invest most of its profit back into product development. It is thought Zoho Corporation would be worth in excess of $1 billion if floated.
The Free Stuff & What You Pay For
Zoho Sites’ headline-grabbing USP is that it offers free website building and hosting. People tend to be cynical about the word ‘free’ and ask what the catch is, so let’s start by unpicking what ‘free’ means in this case.
Anyone can sign up to Zoho Sites and build not one, but two fully functioning websites, completely free of charge, making full use of Zoho’s powerful site building engine. There are no restrictions on page numbers, images, gallery items and so on. What is more, Zoho will even host the sites for you, again for free, with unlimited storage and bandwidth. You need a pre-existing domain name, which can be transferred to Zoho for free, or you can use a Zoho sub-domain. Again, for free.
It really is a fantastic offer. If you want to launch a blog, set up a website for a home business or run a small company, you don’t have anything to lose. If for nothing else, you should consider giving it a go just to test out the site builder — it costs nothing.
There are, of course, limits to the free site building and hosting. The maximum file size for individual objects is just 10 MB, which rules out putting videos on your site. The number of free sites you can build is capped at two, and you can only include two dynamic content features and two forms. You will also get ads on your free site.
If you want more, or don’t want ads on your site, you can pay for hosting. Zoho Sites is not a specialist web host, it is almost as if it offers hosting by default because it has a site builder. It’s hosting options are limited, but the focus is on affordability and simplicity, coupled with the strengths of its site building tool, rather than on choice.
On top of the free option, Zoho offers three paid-for hosting plans, all available for under $20 US a month. The plans are organized in a simple-to-follow tiered structure, so each level builds on the features it shares with the tier below, as follows.
- Unlimited pages, storage, and bandwidth
- Unlimited gallery and slideshow items
- 10 MB maximum single file size
- Up to two forms and two pieces of dynamic content
- Favicon generator
- In-built blog
- Mobile site
- Hidden pages
- Code snippet and header & footer code
- Auto Sitemap
Same as the free plan, but with:
- 100 MB maximum single file size
- Up to five forms and five pieces of dynamic content
- Custom domain hosting
- Ad free
- 301 direct
- Audio player
- Comment box
- Scheduled blog posting
- Social network auto publish
- Zoho CRM forms
Same as Tier 1 but with the following additions and upgrades:
- Up to 10 forms and 10 pieces of dynamic content
- Two author accounts
- SSL hosting
- Page versions
- Password protection
- Newsletter subscription
Same as Tier 2 with the following changes:
- Up to 20 forms and 20 pieces of dynamic content
- Up to 100 author accounts
- Members portal for 2000 subscribers
- PayPal integration with listings for up to 25 products
Just to unpick the differences between the tiers a little, the main advantages of paying for hosting are the larger maximum file size, which allows for more multimedia content, no ads and getting access to Zoho’s popular CRM app.
The page versioning system available on the middle and higher subscriptions is a handy site building tool. It stores previous versions of any pages you edit so it is easy to roll back to an earlier version if you decide you don’t like a change. Especially if you are running a large site or plan to be making lots of updates, you should consider this as a great time-saving feature.
Although the middle tier seems to be aimed at your average small business, offering SSL certificates so you can demonstrate security to customers, password protection on pages and a newsletter platform, beware of the number of author accounts. If you want more than two people in your organization to work on your sites, you have to buy the higher tier.
The highest tier offers e-commerce features, but they are very basic. A maximum listing of 25 products is pretty low, even for the smallest online retailers.
You should also bear in mind that there is no control panel for managing your Zoho site once it is built. The site builder doubles up as the day to day content and account manager. There is no installer for third-party apps and scripts, probably because Zoho wants you to use its own. You can import WordPress and Blogger and that it’s it.
You can but new domains from Zoho on any of these plans. Any domain you host with Zoho gets 25 mailboxes free through the Zoho Mail app, with more available as additional purchases.
Subscriptions are charged monthly, or you can get a two-month discount for each plan if you pay for a whole year.
We found it difficult to find specific information about the data centers Zoho uses for its hosting services. However, as a major global provider of cloud software services for small business, it must operate a global network of server and carrier facilities capable of servicing its 25 million customers.
In 2016, the company announced it was opening two new data centers in Europe, in Dublin, Ireland and Amsterdam, The Netherlands, to coincide with the launch of a European website. The security page on its website also details physical, network, and infrastructure security protocols at its data centers, but we just could not pin down where exactly those facilities are. Nonetheless, key takeaways from that page are as follows:
- All facilities are guarded 24/7, 365 by private security personnel, video surveillance, biometric entry and intruder detection systems.
- Connections to all external networks are fully encrypted and secured.
- Operating systems are sliced down to the essentials to minimize vulnerabilities.
- Automatic virus scanning is run on all inbound traffic.
- Each facility has fully redundant multiple power sources, Tier 1 internet connections, network devices and cooling and temperature control so if one component fails, there is always a backup.
- The network is built with a distributed grid architecture to allow for server failures without there being any impact on service.
- The company uses geo-mirroring back-ups, which means customer data is backed up and copied to separate geographic locations for disaster recovery and continuity purposes.
Websites in Minutes
Most businesses that provide web hosting focus on that first, and maybe offer a site building platform as an extra. Zoho Sites does things the other way around — first and foremost, it is a site building environment, and the hosting is the extra.
The Zoho Sites builder uses a very straightforward drag-and-drop interface. You don’t need any knowledge of coding or any experience of web design to use it, all you do is pick the features you want from a menu and drag them into position on your page.
The different features you can choose from are arranged into tabs at the top of the interface, Elements, Forms, Apps and, if you are on the right plan, Commerce. The Elements tab is the main one for nuts and bolts page building. From here, you can click and drag a text box for a heading or paragraph into position, and resize the boxes as you like. You can add images, galleries, videos, tables, buttons and so on using the same process.
If you have ever used common office tools like Microsoft PowerPoint or Publisher, that’s what building a site with Zoho is like.
What you cannot do in Zoho is build a website from scratch to your own design specifications. You have to use one of template themes provided. This is where Zoho Sites really does feel like WordPress. The theme library is comprehensive, and as with all templates what you find is really a matter of taste.
The good news is the level of customization allowed within each theme. You can add widgets, resize elements and move things about on your page as you see fit. Styles are also easy to change to your tastes, and if you decide you don’t like a chosen theme, after all, no problem. Simply switch to a new one without losing your content.
Zoho also allows plenty of room to brand your site as you like. You can create your own favicons to give your site or even each page its own identity, and you can customize the default header and footers simply by dragging and dropping different elements. This means you can remove the Zoho branding completely from the site, even on the free plan.
If you really want to get under the skin of the platform and customize each template, there is an HTML5 and CSS editor included, too. If you have the coding skills, you can use this change any elements and features you like, and add your own — the next best thing to building a site from scratch.
With so many people accessing the web on mobile devices these days, mobile optimization is a high priority for many businesses. If this sounds like a headache to you, Zoho Sites is an ideal option.
Every site you build and customize with the Zoho site builder is automatically optimized for mobile as well as desktop, meaning it looks great on any device. You don’t have to do anything.
You can check how the mobile version looks and functions at any stage of building, and use the HTML5 and CSS editor to customize it further if you wish to. What is more, Zoho Sites uses the same URL for your site regardless of the platform, but someone searching on a mobile device will automatically be redirected to the mobile site.
Blogging and Social Media
A blogging platform is included with every site hosting plan. Blogs are built using the same drag-and-drop interface used to build static pages. Depending on the hosting package you have, you can schedule blogs to publish in advance, and you can set up moderated comments. You can also import existing blogs directly from WordPress or Blogger.
Linking to all the main social media platforms is easy, you simply insert code snippets on your pages. On the two highest hosting tiers, you can also schedule new content, e.g. on your blog, to post to your social pages automatically.
Forms and Dynamic Content
One of the big pluses of choosing Zoho Sites is the fact that you can plug in other Zoho apps so easily. If you want to add surveys, lead capture, or registration forms to your site, you can build what you need in the Zoho Forms app and then simply drop them onto your page. You can also use web forms from Zoho CRM, the company’s best-selling app, which will then collect and manage all the information you receive.
Similarly, the Zoho Creator app builder can be used to manage automatic dynamic content updates on your site. If you want, say, to change featured blog articles around, client testimonials, products and reviews, you can set up a database in Creator and set it to schedule the changes.
Publishing Your Site
Until you publish your site, it is effectively in test mode, which means no one can see it while you work on it. Zoho makes it just as easy to unpublish a site anytime you like with a single click, taking it offline if you want to change something.
You should bear in mind that you cannot publish your site without a domain name. You can purchase one through Zoho, or use a Zoho sub-domain for free. If you already own a domain bought elsewhere, you will need to edit your domain’s DNS configuration so it maps onto the new site you have built in Zoho Sites.
This is not something Zoho helps you with, you either need to do it yourself or get your existing domain provider to help you. There are, however, step-by-step instructions on the Zoho Sites Wiki. Domain mapping is also free on Zoho Sites, which is not the case on many rival providers, including WordPress.
SEO and Performance Snalysis
Zoho Sites integrates with Google Webmaster tools and Google Analytics to provide straightforward SEO support and visual reports for your site traffic. It has its own basic stats counter which lets you see how many people have visited your site by day, week, month or year, but if you want more in-depth analysis you should use the Google apps.
Zoho doesn’t go big on promoting its SLAs and support arrangements. We had to do quite a bit of digging around before we found any information, and then it is buried in the general Zoho FAQs, not in the Zoho Sites section.
There it states there is a 99.9% uptime guarantee, with “unlimited e-mail support & telephone support for critical issues.” All tickets are responded to within 24 hours. We can only assume this applies right across the Zoho service range, including Zoho Sites. We also noticed on the Zoho Sites support pages that it plugs “25/5” e-mail support — either that’s a typo, or they don’t do offer support on the weekends.
Zoho Sites is very much a do-it-yourself kind of website building and hosting service. The whole service is set up to enable you to build your own sites easily, without the need for service management, and that’s reflected in the prices. In keeping with that, the online support resources are comprehensive. The Wiki-based user guide is excellent, offering step-by-step breakdowns of pretty much everything you can do in Zoho Sites, with video tutorials in many sections. This is your go-to place if you really want to get under the skin of what you can do in Zoho Sites.
There is also a separate video tutorials section, an FAQs page, a dedicated Zoho Sites blog with lots of extra tips and discussions, and an active community forum.
Zoho Sites provides direct access to company’s other business software applications, many of which can be plugged into your site directly. We have mentioned some already, but here is a quick re-cap:
- Embed web forms on your site built with Zoho’s market-leading CRM management app. You can create different forms for leads, contacts and cases, with all information captured stored and managed in the Zoho CRM app.
- Get 25 free mailboxes from the Zoho Mail app with every site, and purchase more as required.
- Automate dynamic content updates with the Zoho Creator app.
Zoho also integrates its applications with Google’s G Suite. You can add your Google Apps domain to your Zoho site via the Domains section in your Google Apps account. This means you can do things like keep running Gmail from within your Zoho site.
3 Reasons to Host with Zoho Sites
- Great value plans, including completely free hosting for a risk-free option.
- High-quality site building tool with easy drag-and-drop interface – no need to code!
- Access to Zoho’s large suite of business applications – integrate your website directly with the rest of your software operations.
3 Reasons Not to Host with Zoho Sites
- Limited hosting options focused on the small business market. If you are looking for enterprise level capacity, features and flexibility, look elsewhere.
- You cannot build a site from scratch, and there is no support for advanced programming languages like PHP and MySQL.
- No managed service support – Zoho Sites is do-it-yourself web hosting.
Ready to get started? Check out Zoho for all your site-building and hosting needs»
Image 1: Pixabay | JuralMin
Image 2: Pixabay | JESHOOTS