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First impressions of the new Google Sites

Posted on: June 7, 2017

Recently I created a seminar and workshop resource in the new version of Google Sites.

I tried the new Google Sites out as soon as it was publicly released, but had no reason to jump on the bandwagon. According to my account, I last edited a new trial site in April.

I had good reason to not adopt the new version immediately. New releases are always buggy and there was no tool to mass convert old Sites to new ones. It has been months since the new Sites creation tool was made available to all and my concerns are still valid.

But first, the good stuff.

My old Google Sites list looks like a roll of toilet paper while new Sites are photos in an album. This is because the new version looks like Google Drive with thumbnails of Sites. This gives it a more modern and unified look.

I created several pages using my MacBook Pro and thought that they looked better and more functional on my iPhone than on my laptop. It took me a moment to figure out why.

I discovered that the design templates insert lots of white space between page elements. Depending on your screen resolution, the elements might spread out too much on a desktop browser. Mobile browsers have less real estate, and while the elements are squished into a smaller screen, the white space creates a pleasing balance.

The navigation on mobile is restricted to the expandable “hamburger” menu (see GIF above). This is not intuitive to users who are not familiar with this mobile standard.

However, the navigation on a desktop always remains in view at the top. Depending on the template you use, the navigation bar might even change colour to remain obvious (see GIF below).

The page creating and editing interface takes some getting used to if you are an old Sites user like me.

For example, once you find and insert an element like an image or a video, you can drag-and-drop it into place or resize it. While this sounds convenient, you have to follow Google Sites rules. One rule is that it decides how many columns there are on the page. Another is that each element is assumed to be standalone.

The number of columns seems to be decided on how large the element is; larger artefacts create fewer columns while smaller ones create more. Refer to this TechCrunch article for a GIF of this.

The standalone element rule seems like a fair one until you realise that each page has chunked elements, e.g., header-text-image chunk; video and source chunk. After inserting separate elements into a page as standalones, I had to drag them one on top of the other to associate them (see GIF below). This was like grouping items in PowerPoint or Google Slides. However, there did not seem to be a way to ungroup them quickly.

The interface is designed for creators with no knowledge of HTML. While this seems like a fair assumption, it dissuades more advanced users from tinkering under the hood. This means not being able to fine-tune or customise the look of a page or to add outside-Google elements.

During my two hours of creating and editing, the new Google Sites interface produced the same error message four times. Unfortunately, I did not have the presence of mind to screencapture them. Fortunately, after I clicked “OK” on the messages, the editor interface refreshed and I did not lose any work.

Other bugbears I have with the new Google Sites:

  • I like how you can search for and use freely available images. However, Sites does not attribute such images. This not only prevents Sites creators from giving credit where it is due, it was a lost opportunity for Google to take leadership in the open resource movement.
  • The new Sites does not offer uploads to each site or page. If you do not already have an element online, e.g., an image of a QR code or PDFs, you need to upload to Google Drive first and then insert it from the Sites interface. The old Sites allowed you to upload a limited number of files to every page.
  • Each page in the new Sites does not seem to have comment threads anymore. Perhaps Google wants to distance Sites from its wiki roots and the feature has low usage. However, this is shame because comments are a way to capture the history and development of collaboratively-generated pages.


Video source

Despite my complaints, I am glad that Google not only decided to keep Sites alive but also gave it some love and development. The Sites faithful like me had to wait a long time for this and I hope Sites becomes a mainstay instead of an odd poor cousin to G Suite. After all, the pages in Sites are a way to bring the rest of the family together.

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