Top ten free online tools for your business!

You don’t always need to have expensive software installed on your computer.

From image-editing programmes to free online office suites and calendars that you use in your browser or smart-phone, a quick online search will find lots of free tools that can replace a lot of your desktop software, or serve a niche requirement to your business.

To get you started, we take a look at our favourite top ten free online tools for your business!

1. Google Drivedrive.google.com

We start with three different applications from Google. Google Drive used to be known as Google Docs until it extended its service to be a free file-storage facility too.

Drive gives you a free alternative to Microsoft Office: a Word Processor, Spreadsheet and presentation software with pretty much all the functionality of Word, Excel and Powerpoint – but with the added attraction that everything you create is stored online and (as it works in a web browser) you don’t have to download any software to your computer to access it. So, take notes in a meeting on your office computer, then go home and sign-in on your laptop and all your work files are there for you edit and access. You can also import and export files in Microsoft formats, or if someone else is using Google Drive, share the document direct to their account. Amazing!

2. Google Calendarwww.google.com/calendar

Another great free resource from Google is Google Calendar, and once you have signed up for one Google account, all Google tools are then available for you to use. Google calendar is built around the iCal calendar format, meaning you can either use it in your browser or “sync” it with your phone’s own inbuilt calendar software. So add an appointment when you are out and about on your phone, then when you log-in back at the office the appointment will also have been added there too.

You can link a number of different calendars, and calendars of friends and colleagues. Great if you need to manage meetings and appointments for a number of different people working together.

3. Google Alertswww.google.com/alerts

The final Google tool we’re mentioning here is Google Alerts. Alerts is a very simple but powerful tool that will email you whenever Google picks up new websites, stories or content about specific keywords that you set.

If you want to keep an eye on what your competitors are doing, or pick up news for a certain geographical area then this will save you a lot of time of regularly searching the internet.

Google Alerts groups all the results into a single email report for the day, so it won’t flood your inbox if you have chosen a very active keyword.

4. Pixlrwww.pixlr.com/editor

Pixlr is pushing our expectations of what free online software can do. With no need to sign-up for an account, and no need to install any software, the Pixlr Editor gives you an image editor comparable to Adobe Photoshop but without the massive price tag.

If you are a user of Photoshop you will instantly recognise the Pixlr interface, with an almost identical toolbar, layer and history pallet and a whole suite of filters and tools to either edit your photographs or create graphics from scratch.

Pixlr can also import files created in Photoshop, but exports in either its own “PXD” format or the usual “flat formats” of JPG, PNG, TIFF, BMP or export your photos direct to your social media sites. For those who are less experienced with image editing software, there are also two more versions. Express: http://pixlr.com/express/ which has a very simplified interface more suited to tablets; and O-matic: http://pixlr.com/o-matic/ which works more like applications such as Instagram.

5. Dafontwww.dafont.cm

Dafont is the leading free font resource used by professional designers.

If you want a new, different or just really cool new font then you can browse through the site’s repository of thousands of fonts that are freeware, shareware, demo versions or public domain fonts.

The fonts are grouped by design type, most popular and newest – or you can just sit back and browse through thousands of fonts until you find one you like. The font can be downloaded in a single button-click and comes with all the relevant licencing information as a text file.

6. Bubble.uswww.bubbl.us

Bubble.us is a really handy tool for doing some creative brainstorming! With no need to sign-in you can instantly start creating mind-maps (a creative process where you start with a word or phrase in a bubble in the centre, and then branch out with different words and ideas into other bubbles) without having to manually draw in all the bubbles and arrows if you were to create them in Word or a traditional drawing programme.

Doing mind maps on your computer or tablet instead of on paper means you can edit them, rearrange them, or share them with other people. You can export your maps as JPEGs or PNGs and if you sign up for a free account then you can also save them for later – however, as long as you don’t clear out your browser cache it will save your diagram in a tab for a time.

7. Remember The Milkwww.rememberthemilk.com

Remember The Milk is a combined to-do list and reminder service in one. Completely free to use, once you have created an account you can then access it through your PC, or with dedicated Apps on iPhone, Android and Blackberry.

On setting a reminder or task though a very easy to use interface, RTM can send you reminders through your mobile app, by email, text message or an instant messaging service (such as Skype). Set up different lists for different areas of your life (you can have one group for work, and another for shopping for example!) as well as syncing the application with any calendars you currently use, such as Google Calendars or your phone’s inbuilt calendar system. Never forget the milk – or anything else you need to do – again!

8. Free OCRwww.free-ocr.com

A very powerful tool to capture text from a printed document. Simply scan the document and then upload the resulting JPEG (or PDF, BMP etc) to Free OCR, and a few seconds later you will be presented with the text from the JPEG which you can then copy and paste into whatever application you want to use.

It’s not perfect – the interface isn’t pretty and you still need to proof-read the generated text as it can mix-up commas and full stops for example – but in general the better quality of the scan, the better the result.

As very common on free web services, you have to get through a security “captcha” for each scan you upload. However, 10 seconds trying to translate random characters is better than the 10 minutes it would take you to type up a side of A4!

9. Survey Monkeywww.surveymonkey.com

Want to do easy customer surveys, or market research on a new product or service? Then Survey Monkey makes this amazingly easy to do online and (for the basic version) is completely free! Within seconds of signing up for an account you are lead through a remarkably simple interface where you can set up multiple-choice questions, ratings, check-box responses or just allow people to give text answers.

Once your survey is complete you can invite people to fill it out in a number of ways, from simply emailing your contact a link, letting Survey Monkey send the emails for you or integrate the survey into your Facebook page or website.

The power of Survey Monkey becomes clear once people start answering your questions though, allowing you to view the results in real-time, filtering the data down as you see fit or exporting into to various charts for detailed analysis.

10. The Design Mechanics domain name checkerwww.thedesignmechanics.com/domains

Launching a new company, service or website but don’t know what domain names (website addresses) are available to buy? Usually, you want your domain name to match your company name so finding out what is available is very important.

The Design Mechanics’ domain name checker is a free, quick and easy tool where all you need to do is enter the domain you want to check (without the “www.” or the “.co.uk” / “.com”) and the checker will instantly let you know if the domain is available as a .co.uk or a .com. Once you’ve found an available domain you want, you can either buy this through your current domain name supplier or contact us direct and we will secure it for you!

Making sense of the Cookie Law!

In 2011 a new European e-Privacy directive came into law dictating how websites can use “cookies” to track what a user does on the Internet. In essence it affects every website owner in Europe, but the lack of action by almost every major website to comply with the directive, and ambiguity in the law itself is leading to mass confusion and even profiteering by some companies offering overpriced “cookie audits”.

To help bring some clarification to the “cookie law”, here’s The Design Mechanics’ guide to what the law means to you.

1. OK – what are cookies anyway?

Cookies are small text files that a browser saves to your computer when you visit a website. Every time you visit Google, Amazon and every major commercial website, new cookies will be added to your computer so that website can remember you. In the majority, they are completely harmless and downright useful. How does a shopping site remember what you have put into your basket before you reach the checkout? How come you don’t have to log-in to Facebook every time you visit it? Because the website remembers you by storing information in a cookie.

Although cookies can’t contain viruses, it’s this remembering your behaviour on the Internet that has caused unease with some Internet users. Have you ever searched for something on Google, only to then start seeing adverts for that what you were searching for on other websites? This isn’t a coincidence, it’s because cookies are remembering your activity – usually without you being aware.

2. What is the new “cookie law” I keep hearing about?

The “cookie law” is part of the European e-Privacy directive and became law in this country in May 2011, however the UK government deferred the law by one year saying that they needed to find a “business-friendly” solution to implementing it. As of yet, this “business-friendly” solution has not appeared leaving ambiguity in both the web-design and business communities.

The law says that a website should explicitly obtain the permission of a visitor to save any cookie on their computer that isn’t “strictly necessary for a service requested by a user”. So for instance, a website that needs to use a cookie to remember what’s in your virtual shopping basket while you navigate around an e-commerce site doesn’t need to gain your permission. A website that remembers if you are logged-in or not, tracks your behaviour or plugs into social networking sites needs to tell you it is doing this and ask you to confirm it is OK – most likely by presenting you with a pop-up that you need to confirm when visiting a website, or a landing page that asks you to give your permission before entering.

Ironically, for a website to then remember if you have given your permission or not, it would have to use a cookie – meaning if you do not give your permission then the site has no way of saving this information and would have to ask you every time you visited!

3. Does my website use cookies?

If you ordered a standard website from The Design Mechanics, then it is very unlikely that it will use cookies. The only case where we may have used cookies is if you have asked for Google Analytics to be installed which tracks users to your site, a Facebook or social media plug-in, or an e-commerce site which only uses cookies for remembering a user’s ordering data, and so does not fall under the cookie law.

If you didn’t order your website from us then you need to talk to your web design company to be completely certain.

4. I’ve received a letter / email saying that my website may be breaking the law – what should I do?

Most likely it will be a web design company or consultancy “fishing” for business by using scare tactics or profiteering by trying to sell you a “cookie audit”. At the worst it may be a scam by a company looking to get access to your server – remember, never hand over your website, email or FTP details to a third party company that you do not know and trust explicitly.

As of yet, no action has been taken against website owners so any “official” letters purporting to be from the police, Nominet, the government or your Internet service provider saying your website is breaking the law is almost certainly a scam or hoax.

5. So how do I comply with the law – should I even bother?

If your website does use cookies that are not explicitly necessary for your website to operate (such as to track behaviour, make money from online advertising etc), then to comply with the law you need to gain visitors’ permission to use cookie technology. How you gain this permission is open to some interpretation, but it cannot be “implied permission” – so a user has to actually click on something saying “yes – you may save a cookie on my computer” before they can use your site or cookies can be enabled.

An example of this can be seen on the government’s own Information Commissioner’s Office here: ico.org.uk – not really what people want to put on their websites! Unfortunately, this has been introduced as a blanket-law against all non-essential cookies, so even harmless cookies such as used in Google Analytics to monitor how many people visit your website, or a website remembering your preferences from visit to visit have also been outlawed without explicit permission.

It is unlikely that this law will simply disappear but many people think that in its current form it is unworkable. The government’s own admission that a more business-friendly solution needed to be found has only added to the uncertainty. Combined with the fact that, as yet, the only people to have complied with the law are the ICO’s office and people selling cookie audits it is safe to assume that if you are a normal business, and your website is just an online “brochure” of your services then this directive is not aimed at you. It is aimed at websites that collect, in bulk, information on where people go on the Internet and use this to target adverts and services at them based on their online behaviour.

David Evans, group manager of the Information Commissioner’s Office has already said that they don’t initially intend to go after companies whose websites don’t comply with the law, but rather will investigate companies that they have received complaints against. However, when the first high-profile cases are brought against Google, Facebook, Amazon and the like to try and make them comply with the law – then it’s worth sitting up and listening to the outcome and evaluating if that affects your business.