web pages for dummiesPut your visitors before the engines

In my last article I published a list of “TEN DO’s” from the 1998 edition of “Web Publishing for Dummies”, today we review ten things the authors thought you should NOT do. You might be surprised, as I was, that all ten are still applicable today.

The great thing about this book (if you ignore references to CompuServe, Prodigy and GeoCities) is that it was written before the search engines moved to the front of everyone’s mind. The information presented is primarily focused on creating a better experience for your visitors, and that is something that we should all be working towards.

Take a moment or two and review this list – did I miss anything?

1)  DON’T inadvertently limit your audience

Be careful when designing your pages not to inadvertently limit your audience by using some oddball feature that can’t be read by large numbers of people who use different Web browsers. Stick to basic HTML and Netscape additions through Netscape Navigator Version 2.0. Think twice before using HTML frames, Java programs, or ActiveX programs; many people won’t be won’t be able to access them. Warn people if you u se nonstandard features. Often providing alternative pages, such as text-only versions of your pages, is worthwhile. And including links to the software that works with your pages often pays-off; a link to Netscape if you use Navigator-specific tags, or a link to the RealAudio site if you include RealAudio sound, are two good examples.

This is still true, however, this advice is all-too-often ignored.  While the various browser makers are getter better about following standards, some still offer “extended capabilities” that some developers take advantage of; ignoring the fact that the rest of the world probably will see none of their hard work.  A larger problem though is the remaining site-owners that insist on having their site mostly in flash.  Years ago people were leery of flash because not everyone had it, and the download for the player was large (based on slower connection speeds), eventually though the folks at Adobe managed to get flash pre-installed on almost all machines.  This made some owners and developers think is was OK to go 100% flash.  WRONG. Aside from the SEO issues (that’s a whole other post), there are millions of people that access the web via mobile devices that have no idea what to do with your flash pages.

2)  DON’T abuse netiquette

Abusing the etiquette of the Internet is easy to do and can bring you a lot of negative attention. If you make any serious offenses, your Web service provider’s server may remove your page. And you can even get into legal problems. Avoid dubious practices such as spamming, sending unwanted e-mail to publicize your site; flaming, being fervently disparaging of other people or other Web pages; or putting up offensive material without some kind of warning label. Netiquette is an amorphous and evolving area of online behavior, so you may want to join a Web-oriented newsgroup where you can ask questions before publishing. Also, check out this site for more info: www.fau.edu/rinaldi/netiquette.html (link no longer valid).

Netiquette is as important now as it was then, just the ways people can ignore it have changed.  I used to say “if you wouldn’t do it in front of your mother, don’t do it on the ‘net”.  Then I moved to Texas (it’s hard to believe what people here will do in front of their mothers).  Even if you WOULD do something in front of your mother, the web may not be ready to see it.  Don’t make assumptions about anything – ever.  Ask lots of questions, participate in the community.  After you know what they want – make sure you have at it.

3)  DON’T “borrow” content without asking

Make sure that content you get from the Web to use on your own Web page is labeled as being freely available for reuse, or else get permission to reuse it. Most people are quite happy to help if you ask nicely and credit their work. The best part is that you make some good contacts with other interesting people. You also keep the law on your side.

Stealing is wrong people, no matter what you call it or how you do it.  Aside from the legal and ethical issues, this is what the search engines call “duplicate content” and it’s a good way to get your site dropped from the listings.  You want good content? Create it yourself, or pay somebody to do it for you.

4)  DON’T make your site hard to navigate

Beginners often organize their pages so that their sites are hard to navigate. If your site has more than two levels, you should give some thought as to how your visitors will navigate it. Nobody likes wandering from link to link with no idea what is where or having to follow ten links to find one piece of information. Keep the relationship between your pages simple. Make it clear which links are internal to your own site and which go out to other sites. Provide an index page or a common menu. And make navigation work consistently throughout the site.

Good site structure is becoming even more important, at the 2010 SMXAdvanced conference, one speaker used a slide that said something like “site structure + SEO = BFF”.  This is another case of the engines liking something that is good for users.  Users have always liked it when it’s easy for them to get around a site and find what they want – now the engines like it too.

5)  DON’T abuse graphics and multimedia

The biggest mistake beginning Web authors- and some experts- make is overusing graphics on a page. Keep in mind that not everyone has fast, expensive T1 lines (special high-bandwidths phone lines) wired directly to their home PCs; by far, the greatest majority of folks receive your web page via a more limited 28.8 Kbps modem. Keep your page size, including text and graphics, under 100K. Here are ways that you can do this without sacrificing design flexibility;

  • Convert all photos to JPEG format.
  • Use simple icons and banners- images without very many colors or complex textures-in FIG format
  • Lay out your site to limit the amount of graphics on any one page, adding pages if you need to display more graphics
  • Use thumbnail icons to give access to larger images

All those strategies make your pages smaller and faster for others to download. Your Net surfers will thank you.

Raise your hand if you ever connected to the ‘net via a dial-up connection…bonus points if you remember what your “baud rate” was.

Of course page load times are still important, though I can’t imagine a non-mobile page being under 100k anymore.  Once again (you may get sick of hearing this) the search engines are mirroring what users like;  Users want fast load times and the engines have started putting more emphasis on it as well.  Even though most homes now have super-fast connections, and even mobile devices are getting faster, you’ll want to make sure you tweek every ounce of speed out of your site.

6)  DON’T forget ALT tags and text-equivalent menus

Another basic mistake is not using text-equivalent menus forgetting that many people surf the Net without graphics turned on. Who would turn off graphics, you ask?

Many home user turn off graphics to speed things along, downloading only the graphics that they really need. Some people pay a high hourly rate for their Internet access, especially in much of the non-Western world, and turn off graphics to save money on their connection time. Others receive Web pages via e-mail because they don’t have a direct Internet connection. And some people who are visually impaired use the web with software that translates text-but not graphics-into spoken words. Always use the ALT tag to provide text equivalents to your graphics, as described in Chapter 7. Using the ALT tag is easy to do and will make it possible and easier for all these people to access your content.

It’s somewhat disturbing to me that the primary reason (according to the authors) to use alt-tags was for potential cost savings for users and the last reason was for screen readers/visually impaired.  Sadly, it’s only slightly better now.  Most people include alt text in their images because it helps with search engine indexing and the fact that it helps with screen readers is a nice bonus.

7)  DON’T forget the basics

Your site may be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but if you forget to include contact information for yourself in the site, how will you find out that you misspelled “bureaucracy” all over the place? Similarly, you won’t get many orders for your spiffy new widget if you put the ordering information five levels down in a web page called “fruit bat guano statistics-1876.”

More basics:

  • Use mailto: tags (HTML tags used to specify your e-mail address; for example, <A HRES=*MAILTO:comments@mysite.com>).
  • Include a copyright notice
  • Add an index
  • give credit where credit is due
  • Make the important info prominent. Be ready to revise, based on user feedback.

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