Review: Yahoo's SiteBuilder Easy To Use, Feature Rich
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(James Maguire's weekly column will return next Friday)
Yahoo Small Business Merchant Solutions remains one of the more popular e-commerce solutions as it plays host to thousands of sites.
Armed with a popular name and search engine, Yahoo offers different levels of merchant accounts ranging in price from $39.95 to $299.95 per month plus transaction fees. It's by no means the cheapest e-commerce solution available but is feature-rich and easy to use once you get the hang of it.
While learning the ins and outs of the Yahoo merchant system involves a steep learning curve and can be a time consuming task for newcomers - like setting up a merchant account to accept credit cards, populating the inventory database, setting up shipping options and tax calculators - it has proven itself to be a reliable hosting solution.
Depending on your skill sets and time, creating an e-commerce site on Yahoo can be done in two ways: build it yourself or take advantage of any number of third-party building tools like Macromedia's Dreamweaver.
As a self-professed old school HTML programmer, it's still difficult not to know my code and HTML pages intimately. I still hand code most of my pages and can make changes quickly without making things too complicated. The problem I often run into, however, is that I just can't create the "perfectly designed page." It just takes too much time and often exceeds my limits (or patience) as a programmer.
My limitations hurt me as I designed a site for a startup small business last year that sells women's accessories. Creating my own template took a long time and once I made the decision to move forward, my design skills led to a limited ability to make desired changes. The layout and navigation of the site inevitably suffered.
After spending a few days testing Yahoo's own SiteBuilder software, I have seen the error of my ways.
|Selecting a template design in Yahoo SiteBuilder is easy.|
SiteBuilder works only with Yahoo Merchant Solutions, so its use is limited right off the bat. It also only works on Windows, so Mac users are out of luck, unless they use Virtual PC. However, its functionality for amateurs or pros alike makes it a must-have tool for setting up shop.
The software is a free download from Yahoo and installs without a hitch. Although it is Java-based, performance is on par with most other applications, with an occasional hiccup here and there.
Yahoo touts more than 300 available design templates for Sitebuilder. However, if you want to use any of them you have to manually download them. Only a handful of basic and not-so-pretty templates are included. Downloading new templates is easy, however, with a click on the Tools menu. I downloaded the entire library right away.
My opinion is that Yahoo should include all 300+ templates in the base install, as it would only increase application size by approximately 20 MB. More inexperienced users may not know about the extra designs.
Selecting a template design to use is as simple as clicking on a radio button and moving on to the next step.
Once you have selected a template, you are asked if you want a basic layout with a contact page, 'about us' page and a few others or just a blank start page. The application maps out the selected pages automatically and creates functional navigation menus for each page.
From there, it's up to you to use your imagination. For those of us less artistically talented, there's no reason not to stick to the pre-formatted templates.
|SiteBuilder offers a number of ways to present item boxes on your e-commerce site. The boxes include all the necessary tags needed to connect to your Yahoo store database.|
Yahoo includes short, clear explanations inside pre-placed text boxes or image boxes telling the designer why it may be a good idea to include an image in a certain spot or where it's best to describe your store's services. It may take some thought out of the process, but these suggestions can be rather helpful.
Inserting store items is a breeze. The first time you attempt to insert a "product module" (which includes the necessary Yahoo! Stores tags to create the order button, and insert the item name, description and picture), you are prompted to download your product database from Yahoo. Once that is done, you can select from an array of product order layouts. A great feature.
However, in order to make sure all pricing and product information are imported correctly, you must first make sure your Yahoo catalog database is complete. The price and caption fields must be filled out and the product image must be uploaded. This is all done by logging in to your Store Services control panel on Yahoo.
Including item images in your database will also make them show up on the shopping cart page, which allows shoppers to double-check what they are buying.
Populating the 'availability' field in your database and including this tag with your items will alert customers if an item is out of stock, limited, or in stock.
Adding a shopping cart button is simple, and included are a variety of shopping cart/shopping bag images to choose from. Some of them are quite classy looking.
All in all, I was able to create a functional store page in less than 30 minutes.
|Designing custom page layouts is only a matter of clicking and dropping selected elements in SiteBuilder.|
Publishing your site is just as easy. Simply clicking on "File->Publish to Yahoo Site" is all it takes and the site is ready and functional. No coding necessary and the layout is exactly as it appears in Site Builder.
Pages designed in SiteBuilder can incorporate proprietary Internet Explorer tags. For example, the 'enter/exit' effects cause pages to quickly fade in/out or a left to right sweep. Some may feel this is gimmicky and unnecessary, but I have never seen a site use these techniques and they may add to the appeal of the site.
However, I wouldn't take advantage of some of the other little "tricks" you can insert like Border Patrol, which hovers an image of your choice around the border of a page. Unless you're designing a site for children, this effect would likely annoy your visitors and cause them to leave your site fairly quickly.
There are a number of advanced features included in SiteBuilder. One feature many designers taking advantage of is the ability to create a rollover image effect for navigation buttons.
Other advanced tools allow you to embed music or video clips, create background music and add customized forms for site suggestions or feedback. The included spell check is also a necessary item.
SiteBuilder also includes several proprietary Yahoo tools. These tools allow you to insert a Yahoo search box, a Yahoo map button for including a map location of your brick and mortar store and driving directions, a time stamp indicator and Yahoo ID presence indicator to welcome Yahoo users by name if they happen to be logged in at the time.
One major drawback I found here was that the search box points users to search Yahoo instead of your own store. You also have to contend with a giant, red Yahoo logo on your page. The ability to include a "search store" box is possible, but you have to dig deep into Yahoo's online help system - which getting through can be a lesson in frustration.
Yahoo includes a very easy-to-understand built-in help system. The help system guides you through each step in creating a page, gives step-by-step instructions on how to insert items like images or custom HTML code. The help index is also searchable and broken down by topic.
|The final result after only 30 minutes.|
The same window also houses a basic control panel that lists your sites, allows you to import a current site and has other information links. Be warned. However. When I imported an existing site built with basic HTML into SiteBuilder, the pages were rendered almost beyond recognition. I can't recommend editing an existing design with this software.
Importation also took nearly an hour over a T1 line for a site that is nearly 90 MB in size. That includes large log files and a PHP directory, which I unfortunately couldn't exclude from being imported.
Yahoo's SiteBuilder is a refreshing tool to use for building a professional e-commerce site. Newbies may find that building a site using this or any other software package may be too daunting a challenge. But SiteBuilder's step-by-step workflow and great help system makes using it very easy once you get the hang of it. Even veteran web designers will be attracted by SiteBuilder's ease of use. It will cut down significantly on hand coding, cut site development time in half (if not more) and you won't have to master any special tags that are necessary with Yahoo's stores.
And best of all, it's free.
Devin Comiskey is the Managing Editor for ECommerce-Guide.com
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