Last evening, Google, together with its project partners RBC, Rogers, The Globe and Mail, Yola, and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, made a BIG announcement. In an attempt to get more of Canada's 2.2 million small businesses online with a web presence, it would offer free websites, hosting, and a custom domain through an innovative program called "Canada Get Your Business Online".

Obviously there are disclaimers, but there are also some additional perks. Google for example, will offer $100 worth of AdWords advertising free of charge.

In true SEP fashion, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the offer, to see if the perceived value is as great as it seems at first glance. Below, follow some of the questions we wanted answered:

How Simple Is The Process?

I went through the process myself of securing a domain, building a website, and making it live, and WOW ... it is simple and painless! Cudos to all involved.

How Search Engine Friendly is the FREE Website?
To be honest, its quite search engine friendly. Not perfect, but what can you expect for free. My initial expectations were in fact that the FREE sites would be unfriendly, as Google has incentive to drive businesses towards its AdWords product. True to Google's "Don't Be Evil" philosophy however, the sites are relatively search engine friendly. At the same time, Google provides some great tips and advice for making the new website as Search Engine Friendly as possible. Great move Google!

What Happens After Year 1?
The FREE aspect to this offer, ends after 1 year, at which point companies can either choose to stay with, or can switch to a different web host. A number of points worth mentioning:

    1. the cost of the domain will be $34.95 US in the 2nd year, though discounts will be offered for multi-year renewals.
    2. The domain can be transferred at any time after a 60 day waiting period required by ICANN.
    3. The individual who registers the domain ... owns it. Yola does not own the domain!
    4. If a domain/site is transferred, any tranfer fees would be charged by the registrar and not by Yola.
    5. Registrants can renew through a different registrar after transferring their domain away from Yola.
    6. Businesses can also transfer the site content if they choose to, though Yola will make no promises that it will work in all hosting environments.

* many thanks to Laura at Yola for these responses!

How Flexible is the Solution?
Quite flexible! I was again surprised to learn that businesses that choose to participate in this offer, can also load Google Analytics (another great FREE Google initiative). At the same time, businesses can add a limited number of pages at will, can change many elements within pages, and can even sign up easily for Google Places. All very convenient and flexible.

Who's Impacted?
This announcement has to be a tremendous blow to the Yellow Pages Group who have recently made paid websites a key component of their 360 Web Solutions, and invested heavily in an ad campaign to support it..

Bell's Small Business Group is also likely to be impacted, though perhaps less so than Yellow Pages Group.

Lastly, the myriad of small local web designers who might have otherwise got the business.

Google et al ... great work! You've exceeded my expectations. If you're a business in Canada and DO NOT currently have an online presence, then you'd do well by participating in this innovative program. As a Vision Critical/Angus Reid Public Opinion study found ... 55% of SMEs that currently have a website attribute between 6% and 30% of their revenues to their online presence!

Now with a free website for the first year, what are you waiting for? Go ahead ... get online!