Reaching for the middle: Hosted Drupal or Google Sites?

A comment in response to Jim Butz' blog post ("Drupal and Startups: Is there a Connection?") mentions Google Sites, an online system that allows people to easily build Web sites with such "Web 2.0" features as discussion boards and event calendars. Then a comment in Acquia VP Jeff Whatcott's blog said that "Google Labs [is] cooking up their own CMS support division".

Such online "build-your-own-site" systems have always been severely limited when compared to Drupal; on the other hand, Drupal's installation procedure is still WAY beyond the abilities of 98% of the market. So we have simplicity and complexity, both reaching for the middle of the market.

Which will get there "firstest with the mostest"? Google's a good bet -- they're smart folks, and the company has an amazing inventory of existing products they can leverage well. (Calendar, Groups, Maps, and Documents for site building; AdSense for revenue; Adwords for marketing.) The addition of e-commerce features (via PayPal/Google Checkout?) would make such a solution appeal to a lot of small business owners.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking about whether a consumer-level Drupal hosting service could be successful. Some ISPs offer one-click Drupal setup, but a lot more could be done to make hosted Drupal more user-friendly, such as one-click themes and modules, automated backups, integrated marketing services, etc.. The diversity of available Drupal modules could make such a solution more powerful than anything Google could offer... but simplifying and bulletproofing it for a consumer audience is not a trivial matter.

So here are two questions to consider:

  • How is the market segmented? That is, which users would benefit more from a Google Site, and which should go with hosted Drupal?
  • To the appropriate audience, what advantages would a hosted Drupal site have over a Google Site?

These are questions all Drupal consultants will have to answer soon. I hope the discussion we start here helps us all in our business. :)

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Comments

I don't believe there is a large market for generic, preconfigured Drupal sites. People choose Drupal because they can configure it to do exactly what they need. If they didn't need that power, they'd probably go with Wordpress or Google Sites. For "Hosted" Drupal to really take off, it needs to be preconfigured to do something awesome. It needs to provide out-of-the-box functionality that meets the requirements of a niche market. Libraries, online courses, Digg clones.. Those are a few that come to mind. There's potentially endless niches that could be filled, given the breadth of modules available. The trick is figuring out which ones will bring in lots of customers willing to pay enough to make it profitable.

Your comment is wise. Perhaps you point to one way such services could be marketed: As vertical applications. So it's not "Your Generic Web site (TM)", but rather "Your Club's Online Home" (via CiviCRM) or "Your Online Store" (via Ubercart and integrated merchant-card services), "Your Photo Gallery" (via Lightbox2), and so on. But we may differ in our estimates of the size of the market for preconfigured sites -- and the difference might be in that term, "generic". Having 100 themes available in the default installation would take a site far from "generic" in most peoples' minds. :) WordPress.com advertizes "over 60 attractive themes ranging from professional to fun to crazy, and you can switch themes instantly with just a click of a button". That's easy to match. Mix in some preconfigured module bundles and you're already well beyond "generic". As always, "Making it easy is hard". IMHO Drupal's current cheerleaders -- most of whom are technology-minded -- overestimate how much people demand customization, and underestimate how little they want to fiddle with things. I saw this as an editor at MacWEEK Magazine when Apple leadership passed from Gil Amelio to Steve Jobs. As one wit put it, "Jobs took the difficult questions of buying a computer -- CPU speed, drive size, networking connections -- and replaced them all with, 'What color do you want?'." :) And the market went wild.

(Love the Apple quote. Do you have a source for that? It could be my next email sig.) I think in addition to finding the right customers, you have to find vendors who have a reason to offer Drupal. An example that I've been advocating for a while is small local ISPs. Small ISPs are not in a happy place; telcos are undercutting them by bundling Internet access with services that they can't provide (POTS, mobile, cable, etc.), or just by having deep pockets and discounting them out of business. The answer? Bundle Internet access with services that telcos don't have a competitive advantage (or monopoly) in. I'd like to see a Drupal distribution for feed aggregation, [micro]blogging, calendaring, etc. (distributed social networking), that comes pre-installed and running on a DMZ in the modem/router (with perhaps a little more memory than is currently considered standard) that your ISP gives you when you sign up for an account with them. You as the customer get all the trendy services that make the web compelling; you don't have to agree to being data-mined by half a dozen different companies and subjected to classified ads; it's all on a system that you own, control, and is sitting in your house; and the customer support is conveniently permanently located at the other end of the wire it's plugged into.

Hey, Matthew. I, too, feel the pain of small ISPs. First because I went through a string of them in the late '90s as a customer who had to keep switching as they were bought out or went under; second, because I became involved in that industry for a while, speaking at the California ISP Association in 2002; third, because... well, just because. :) Your idea of ISPs using Drupal hosting as a distinguishing feature is a good one. The trouble, of course, is in support: Drupal is currently too complicated for the average person to administer. I think it would work best if the ISP hid hosted sites' superuser privilege from end users by default, so they'd only have to think about selecting a theme, adding content, and doing some minor administration (such as adding/removing menus) -- i.e., making it as "dumb" as WordPress. In other words, offer them only a choice of colors. :) As for that quote: I don't know if this is the canonical origin, but I found it again at this 1999 article in Low-End Mac. I was probably reading it around that time, so it makes sense that that's the first place I (at least) read the quote. (O.K., so it wasn't when the first iMacs came out... oh well.)

By generic, I mean Drupal as a simple blog, which is basically what you get with Drupal out of the box. With some preconfiguration, you can add in WYSIWYG editors, drop down menus, pretty themes, and all the other user-experience improvements contrib has to offer to make Drupal easier and more intuitive. But, I'd suggest that Wordpress and Google have already taken the easy and intuitive blog crown. And they're likely to keep it, because that's what they specialize in. One look at Wordpress's admin area vs Drupal's admin area will tell you the story. I'm not sure Drupal is compelling enough to win users in that market. Wordpress isn't going to stop focusing on being the leading blogging platform. As long as Drupal is focused on other areas, like building more advanced developer APIs or better database abstraction, we're probably not going to catch up. I'm not saying those are bad things to be focused on, Drupal just has different priorities. Drupal specializes in being modular and extensible. That's what makes it a great platform for customization. And that's why I think niche customization is where it can win customers.

Hey, John. I have to disagree with your statement that one gets a "simple blog" from Drupal out of the box. I'd argue that it's neither simple nor a blog. ;) But I agree with the rest of your post. Thanks!

John, Drupal is not limited to Blog. Its just one of several features Drupal has. You can see Drupal being implemented in critical websites and business processes. Hence Drupal stands out of line in preferred CMSs for websites. Websites solutions do have a great market, google, yahoo all are into this market, yet you will see new entrants in this business every fortnight. Such solutions are a quick way for new business to ensure their quick web presence, everybody needs a medium to publicize their business ASAP and want to reach out to as many as possible audience across the globe, and none other than internet & website can help meet these objectives. If creating website gets that easy to click & configure then nothing like that. I hope Drupal solution announced by Galaminds has been built with those objectives in mind and I'm sure this area is going to be very competitive. If I was to go online I would prefer such a solution rather then wait for several days to get into design details & designer & programmer & configurations, and the interesting part is after all those efforts I'm going to do all the same things that is already available in these solutions. I see a great future for these solutions.

I just read about the Drupal - Hosted Solution announcement by Gloscon/Galaminds & my response was with that point of view.

This discussion mirrors very closely a lot of internal discussions I've been in around the office at Acquia lately. Defining the "more than a blog but not just a white label social network" solution is the challenge IMHO. Blogs are a little easier because it's a simple pattern and most of the customization is in the area of themes. When you break outside that well-worn groove, the requirements get blindingly diverse very quickly. Drupal thrives there, but only with a lot of customization, including module configration and custom theming that is well beyond the internal skills or available budget of many site owners. But if we can crack this code and define a concept for something simple but insanely great, we can bring a horde of new people to Drupal. But we've got a long way to go... Jeff W.

Hey, Jeff -- good to see you here, and now I feel stupid for not installing "subscribe to this thread by email" functionality until last night. Now I can only wonder whether you'll see this response. :) Anyway... your reply surprises me somewhat, because I was under the impression that Acquia was focusing on the enterprise market. The idea that you might be aiming for the consumer market is very, very interesting. It's ambitious, and (as you know) a very different master. What's coming out of this thread is the need for a framework for vertical integrators -- i.e., ways for independent Drupal consultants to make money by serving specific industries such as real estate agents, bands, churches, nonprofits, etc. That's how (for example) Oracle does it, and I hear they're doing pretty well. :) But I assume you've had these discussions. :) Cheers, --Tom

It does take a solid command over multi-site and install profiles along with payment integration to make this happen. CCK and Views is not a good option. Most hosted solution provides will go the module route to build new verticals over CCK/Views because they would want to retain the client for a long time. We have an offering coming very soon in this space. Roshan

Hey, Roshan. I took a trip to your site and was intrigued by the announcement yesterday that you plan to offer Drupal certification. I'm about to write a blog post about that. :)

Tom, Thanks for covering our certification program efforts. Here is what I posted about our Hosted Solution offering that basically has theme selection, managed services, etc. http://www.gloscon.com/blogs/roshan/sneak-preview-gloscons-hosted-solution-offerings Roshan

I look forward to seeing it when it's ready.

Tom, After weeks of testing, we just released Galaminds solution. You can find it at http://www.galaminds.com Roshan

I just posted a blog entry to let people know about your new service and get comments. Congrats!

Hey Roshan, Have you heard that Bryght have ceased operations. You (Gloscon) now have Galaminds, Acquia is coming up with Fields & Garden and Lullabot too is coming up with an unnamed project. All of these are Drupal hosting products. After Bryght saga, do you still have steam to continue on it?

I played around with google sites last year and was kind of impressed, but it didn't give all the flexibility I was looking for. Since then i've been mainly working with Wordpress, but need to check out Drupal.

Ok, Google sites is not even in the same league as drupal as far as extensibilty is concerned, but It's is possible to setup and develop nearly all internal and external google settings/project/add ons/elements etc.. in a few days. This alone is perfect for developers..nearly anyone with basic skills could setup a google site. Developers then can take over the complications and get instant feedback from a mass of 'newbies'. In this way, Drupal needs a solid hosted core with auto updates that do not effect themes and modules etc.. Drupal's priorities are scattered to wide because of drupals potential. I think most agree if it takes too much time to develop to the perfect drupal, it will be too late! Back to basics! This is my first google site , it was so easy, I just made it a little project to learn google sites and alot of google technologies. www.goopal.org

Wow... it looks like you put in a LOT of work to create goopal.org! I'm amazed I haven't run into it before. When did you launch it? I agree with your points, obviously. Have you seen the Drupal Gardens preview video? I can't wait for the first releases... I'd love to be able to recommend (as you say) "a solid hosted core with auto updates" etc.

In my experience small businesses don't have the time or the inclination to build there own websites, however easy it is or the benefits it could bring to there company. After all, Blogger and Wordpress have been around for ages and they would have a site on one of those platforms. The sad fact is if they are not on the first page of SERP's, they are never going to get any business from Google.