How Not To Make a Lame Web Site
Amazing, but true: since posting this page in 1996 and revising it in 1997, 1998, most of these "tips" have become passé, and some are no longer valid.
- Tend the garden: dynamic content generation and scripted behaviors are now common. Learn them, but only use them as needed. Just because you CAN doesn't mean you WANT TO.
- Check your look: So many browsers, and IE is now the most popular (as seen in my logfiles, at least). Stick to standardized HTML, or run scripts that control the look for each browser. I find the former to be easier.
- E-mail, e-mail, e-mail: I get spammed from so many directions it's not funny. Alas, many spammers use software that harvests addresses from any discernable MAILTO link you provide. I had to wipe all but a few of mine, and can't recommend enough to use CGI rather than HTML MAILTO links for inviting contact. Still, you should offer a way to be contacted.
- "Take a picture": with the speed of the Internet increasing, there's no harm in just bookmarking a remote location. I have archived useful references on my own notebook, but some authors have asked me not to. 'Nuff said.
I keep the 1998 version of this page up as an anachronism, a relic, a reminder that once the Web was new and pedestrian. But be aware that its timeliness has evaporated. Take with a pinch of salt. ;)
The Web As A Learning Curve
I've attended some conferences, workshops, and gotten myself all muddy digging in the trenches. Particularly, I've gained invaluable experience mentoring young people on the 1996 and 1997 Marin County Fair web sites, and designing sites for partners such as the Novato Unified School District. I can share some of my acquired expertise with you as a consultant; here's a little taste of what I've picked up.
Why put this page up? Well, I've learned a bit from others on the Internet. It's time I put back. This is my contribution to the vast, opinionated library of HTML learning pages on this, our little Web.
Chunk up your information.
Large pages are a pain to download; whatever speed you access the Web at, someone's doing it slower. Readers also may not want (or know how) to use the scrollbars or page navigation keys. So don't make pages too long, or too intense. Naturally, my reviews and columns are consolidated units, but "home" and topic pages can be split up into logical sections. The whole HTML format is a structural document specification ... and so works best when you use it to impose structure, rather than appearance.
Tend the garden.
Change things. Water the plants. Churn the butter. Regularly. Daily, if it's that kind of site. But let the readers know that the produce is fresh, and that you want them to know that. Use flags when possible.
Remember, though, that this is not a "real time" communication platform. The 'Net provides store-and-forward transmission at its most convenient. It's important to append date-time stamps to your pages so the reader grasps the timeliness of your information. Bottom line: if your site keeps developing, evolving, your appreciative readers will return regularly. If you let it go stale,... who's going to come back to notice your new stuff?
Check your look in the mirror.
It ain't just Netscape out there. Lots of people ... lots of browsers. And you never get a second chance at your first impression. Make it a good one -- preview your pages in several browsers like IE, Mosaic, Opera, et al. This way you can ensure that you have a semblance of a consistent look.
Of course, if your site is one of those "Best viewed with...." (see the bottom of this page) sites, you're thumbing your nose at anyone who simply can't use it (usually hardware or operating system constraints). Lynx users will curse you for your silly imagemaps and images sans ALT tags. If you can afford to insult those users, go right ahead.
Test your code.
Mercilessly. Use something like Weblint to ensure your code is up to snuff. What works in your browser might splooge someone else's without mercy. Play it safe. Take your hat in hand and subject your damnable code to some quality assurance testing.
Brand identity counts.
Make your look consistent, and pleasant. Avoid images and colors that may offend other cultures (it's a World Wide Web, remember?). Establish a visual "personality."
Save the recipe, eat the cake.
Don't keep handcrafting this stuff. Come up with style guides, templates, procedures, consistent methods of production and presentation. Automate as much as you can. Don't let the management of your site cut into your window gazing.
The Web provides a cross-platform, universal user interface on one, huge, distributed library of information. That's an amazing opportunity ... to stick your foot in your mouth, if not just shoot your foot off entirely. Don't act like everyone has, or should have, your kind of
- Operating system
- Web browser
- Sense of humor
Be alert to what you're saying about yourself, and consequently, to others.
E-mail, e-mail, e-mail.
You're on the Web ... you're digital ... and you do have a computer, don't you? You use e-mail, don't you? Well, then ... provide e-mail links (or, better, some kind of real-time messaging) on as many pages as you can. Let your reader write something, too,... to you.
Aside: in the past few months, I've received surprise letters from around the world, from people asking questions about myself and my articles. This is not empty advice: ubiquitous mailto links really work!
You're part of something bigger than the both of us. Invest a consistent amount of your time in siteseeing. Read what other people are saying ... and look at what they're doing. Don't just steal their Stupid Code Tricks, take a reasoned gaze at the whole site. (See above, Brand identity counts.)
"Take a picture, it'll last longer."
If you've found a page that you're going back to regularly ... if it's a reference that you really value ... hey, save it on your own system. It will load quicker when you need it, and you'll exert less load on both your provider or gateway, and the 'Net at large.
Don't. Just don't. Telling the world that a particular page isn't even done yet,... is like announcing Windows 95's shipping date several years ahead of time,... and not making the deadline. If you're working on a page, keep working, and make it available when it's presentable. I don't know anyone who likes to waste their time downloading a page that says, essentially, "We're still figuring this out."
Backups, backups, backups.
The only good data is backed-up data. And the only good backup is an off-site backup. There are various good arguments for this:
- How valuable is your content?
- How long did it take you to compile your content?
- How long would it take you to reconstruct your content?
- How much would it cost you (time and money) to reconstruct your Web site?
Think about it. If you're spending time and money on your Web site, spend an eensy-weensy bit more to back up your Web site.
Treat your password like a toothbrush.
Use it often, change it regularly, and don't share it with your friends. When you log on to the system to update your Web site, you should be identifying yourself (your user name), then authenticating yourself (your password). Protect your data, and the resources of your provider's systems: keep your password private. Use a minimum of 6-8 characters, a random word not related to you or your system, with an imbedded punctuation character or number anywhere but in the first digit. Another excellent method is to use a phrase to create an acronym. I personally like to use mispelled words. Don't use consecutive characters on a keyboard ("asdf"); don't put your password on a PostIt note on your monitor, and don't use something that's printed around your desk.
Some good models are
- agdgth7 ("all good dogs go to heaven").
- spinch5 ("spinach" mispelled)
Keep It Readable.
As discussed by John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen, writing for the Web is very different than writing for print, or for anything else that came before, actually. Their research has shown that:
- Reading on a computer screen is 25% slower.
- 79% of web users scan, rather than read word-for-word.
- Web readers tend to be antsy. They want to interact with that darned mouse, and click something. If they don't, they're bored.
- People are busier. According to Barry Ziff, of MCI, "... The average worker at a Fortune 1,000 company uses six different communications tools and sends or receives 178 messages per day." [Inter@ctive Week, January 12, 1998.] Users simply do not have the time to read if they don't find what they're looking for quickly and easily.
They succinctly propose several suggestions:
- Write 50% less than for print copy.
- Write for scannability. Use 2-3 levels of brief, meaningful headlines. (<H1>, <H2>, etc.)
- Write in the inverted pyramid format favored by journalists.
- Use the structure of HTML to break up information in relevant "nodes of information." Keep the main page concise, and shove detailed, background information to subordinate pages. (See above, Chunk Up Your Information.)
Nielsen is a super-brainiac in the field of Web usability and online interfaces. In addition to a more in depth coverage of this topic, he has a number of fascinating articles at useit.com. Please go visit.
Last revision: 11 September 1998