Google recently relaunched Sites, and I used it to start my own private social network

Sunday, 04 December 2016

Google Sites is a free tool that allows you to create simple, clean and functional websites. You can have a site live in minutes. No coding skills needed. No need to buy a domain name or pay for hosting. And no, Google aren’t paying me any money to say good things about it :p

Sites is awesome, here’s why

After recently moving back home from China I’ve started cooking for myself again. I’m a lousy cook, so I wanted to put my favourite recipes in one place to make life as a home-chef easier.

I went to create a Docs file in Google Drive but then I saw that Sites was now an option. I’d used Sites before and found it to be clumsy and ugly. But back then I couldn’t access it directly from Drive’s right-click menu, so I figured they’d updated it, and decided to give it a try.

Almost instantly I realised that making my recipe book with Sites was a much better choice than with a word processor i.e. what I’d been doing habitually my whole life.

After all, there’s a reason that websites are designed the way they are (in a tree-like navigational structure, with groups of pages and clickable hyperlinks etc) and not as a Word document: in many situations they’re a far better way to organise and interact with information.

I created my first page in less than a few minutes: Mum’s curried lentils. Found a picture online and bam! I’d basically launched the personalised equivalent of a full-blown, professional recipe website in 5 minutes.

Curried lentils

There it was. Nicely organised, easy and quick to access (by URL, just like any other website). Just what I wanted.

There was another motive behind me creating the recipe book. Everyone has that staple dish they can always fall back on. And for each of my close friends and family, these dishes tick most of the boxes I need them to: cheap ingredients, no meat, minimal gluten, quick and simple to prepare, and enough fuel to power 3-4 physical workouts a week. I wanted their recipes.

So I made them editors of the site and asked them to take 5 minutes to contribute their best dishes. And almost without thinking, I had created our own private social network, built around an interactive library of information that we could all use and contribute to.

Cookbook Sites homepage

Bean burgers

I got excited about Sites as soon as I realised that it can be used to bring friends and family closer together like this. Kind of like how you have a WhatsApp group with your family or closest mates. Except here you’ve got fun collaboration focused around a common interest.

Another idea that immediately sprung to mind was a Site for sharing tips and recommendations for travel destinations you’ve been to. Give it a try yourself and see what you come up with!


Another way to use sites: create your own wiki

If you’re like me then you’ll have your own little libraries for all the topics you’re interested in. A folder for each one filled with densely-packed Word docs, inconsistently-named Excel sheets, random images and whatever else is relevant.

Tip: Take them all and put them in your own wiki.

I would have loved this when I was at school. One of the topics I most enjoyed studying was modern German history. What I’d do now is create a Site and populate the home page with all of the sub-topics I’d covered: everything from the Spartakist uprising, to the Gestapo, to economic policy under Schacht.

I’d copy over my notes, factual research from the web and add in pics and videos (you can embed YouTube videos in a few clicks). I’d embed maps to mark the locations of significant events. And instead of fumbling my way around chunky Word docs using a clumsy table of contents, I’d glide through well-ordered pages and connecting ideas using hyperlinks, just as I’ve been doing my whole life on the internet.

The point is, I didn’t have coding skills then and even now they’re not good enough to set this kind of thing up hassle-free. Sites allows you to seamlessly bring this lagging part of your digital life into this century.

All of the basic design work is done for you: just select your design theme and colour scheme. Copy and paste messy fonts, sizes, colours - and the text is neat and tidy automatically. Images format almost automatically. The only job you have is to link the pages.

Now you have your own German history wiki. And if you want to expand it to become a World history wiki, all you need to do is add new pages. And if you think your classmates, or friends, or the rest of the internet might find it useful, then share with them directly or make it public. Simple.

Sites would have been perfect for my study notes from high school, university and professional exams like CFA. But really you can use it for any information that you’d typically store in a series of folders with documents that contain sections and sub-sections. I’ll be using it for topics ranging from Mandarin study to meditation, to calisthenics and startup resources.

Benefits of Sites


 I’ve only scratched the surface here with what you can do with Sites. There are a few features I haven’t used myself so haven’t discussed here. Let me know what you decide to make!

If you have zero coding skills but want to build things on the web that are more complex than your Google Sites, I always recommend One Month’s web development courses to friends as the best place to start. It’s all learn-by-doing, so you skip the theory and get straight into making things. I learnt the bulk of my coding skills from their HTML and Rails courses. I signed up for their referral program which means you can get 10% off when you sign up for any of their courses with this link.



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