Ning, the Palo Alto start-up that lets you build “social applications” for free, has gotten a lot easier to use.

This is the company co-founded by Marc Andreessen (of Netscape fame) and Gina Bianchini, which launched back in October, and took criticism for being too difficult to use for regular joes (you needed to know programming for some of it).

But in their update announced today, you will see how easy they have made it to create all kinds of applications, featuring all sorts of mashups. We created two different applications, Silicon Valley Dating, and Bob’s Restaurants, each with four clicks. We skipped a lot of the possible personalization, but the ease of use is impressive. (One nit: Ning says you can make your sites private, but it wasn’t clear to us how to select this option).

There’s a lot going on at Ning; so much that it can be slightly jarring for the newcomer not used to having tag clouds, boxes of friends and toolbars following them around.

Each created application stays within Ning, another reason you get the feeling there’s a lot of action. You can search any application with a new search bar. You can also see who is using each Ning app, and can add them as friends in your address book, from within the app. Your profile follows you around as you jump from app to app. A space on your profile lets you connect with friends (see partial screen shot below). Also new are ways to bookmark and build and share new applications.

We caught up with Gina several months ago, who told us she’d added the ability for users to run their own ads — a right that costs $7.95 a month. Ning is also selling premium services, including the right to map your own domain name to Ning, the ability to hide your source code and to get more storage and bandwidth.

This is the sort of thing you will have to go in and play with yourself, and see whether you like it.


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