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• Thursday, July 01st, 2010

web pages for dummiesAm I a Web Publishing Dummy?

I was somewhat startled to discover a copy of “Creating Web Pages for Dummies (1998)” on my desk this morning. The book promises I’ll be able to “Create Dazzling Home Pages – In No Time!” I’m still not sure who put it there, or what they are trying to tell me, hopefully that mystery will soon be solved, and hopefully they were thinking I’d get a laugh from it and not that I’d learn something from it. As I glanced at the table of contents, it did generate a grin or two – there’s a whole section devoted to geocites. However two chapters stood out more than the rest “Ten Web Publishing DO’s” and “Ten Web Publishing DON’Ts.” I just knew these tips from the early days of the web would create some laughs, so I flipped ahead and looked at the lists. I could not have been more wrong. Why I was wrong is connected to the fact that there is something very important to note about this book – the ONLY mention of anything search engine related is this brief definition:

Search engine: Web-based services that help you find things you are looking for.

Why is that important you ask? Because this book was written before web designers/developers thought that getting attention from Google was more important than giving visitors good content. The fact that the authors were concerned with content makes both of their lists still (mostly) accurate. Below is the list of ten “DO’s” along with my comments about how they may (or may not) apply today.

1) Do think about your target audience

Who is your Website targeting? A little thought along those lines can make your pages much more appealing to your visitors. Before you begin creating your website, choose the right look and feel and style of presentation that is appropriate for your audience. Include links that your visitors find interesting, not just the ones that you find interesting – unless that’s the point of your page, of course. In addition to using good sites as models (see the next “DO”), research other media, such as newspapers and magazines – the articles and the ads – that have a similar audience as yours to find good and bad examples.

This is still great advice – it’s impossible to deliver great content if you don’t know what your audience wants. Your site might hold the secret formula for free energy from the ocean, but if the reader is looking for instructions on how to make great mojitos, to them, your site sucks.

2) Do use good sites as models

Many good sites are out there. Ignoring those good examples when designing your own site is not the best idea. Take a look around and find the designs that work. Think about why each design you like works well for you. Is it the use of color and layout of the Web page? The fact that the site loads quickly? Well-organized content? Note what works and why, and then strive to duplicate that effect in your own Web pages. Look for conventions in presenting information that Web users have grown accustomed to, neat design ideas, and various types of content. You’ll be surprised how many ideas you get from this huge reservoir of Web expertise.

I had a boss once that was fond of saying “I don’t need you to re-invent the wheel, just find a better way to use it.” Keep that advice in mind while you research other sites for ideas. You don’t always have to do something completely different, just do it better than the rest. It’s interesting to me that in 1998 (when people were lucky to have a 56kbs modem at home) a quick load time and well-organized content where obviously important factors. Today, when most teens (college students) have NEVER used a dial-up connection, we are once again concerned about how quickly our pages load.

3) Do get permissions for content

You can easily peek at the HTML source of any Web page, and that’s a good way to learn new design techniques. But you can also easily grab any content that exists on the Web, even privately owned content that belongs to others. However, the fact that grabbing others’ content is easy does not make it right or legal. It’s also not necessary.

A great deal of public domain content is out there, and getting permission to use private content is not hard. If a Web page does not explicitly say that its content can be freely borrowed, assume that it’s copyrighted or otherwise protected – which means you should ask before borrowing any of it. Many people are happy to let you use their content in order to gain exposure on your pages, as long as you provide proper attribution and reciprocal links. In the process, you may just gain new friends or business contacts, as well as avoid legal problems down the road. (And in case you get tempted to borrow quietly, keep in mind that word of unethical practices gets around quickly on this amazing global network.)

Sadly, this is something that seems to always be forgotten. C’mon folks, don’t be a jerk – it only takes a minute (or two) to do things the right way.

4) Do use links to outside sites

No matter how great your content is, you’d be wasting the most important feature of the Web if you did not include links to sites outside your own. No matter what your topic, you can find complementary sites out there on the Web. Giving your visitors links to those sites is only courteous. If you research your links carefully and organize them well, your links can be a valuable resource to others. In your own Web surfing, you’ve probably found it to be true that one of the best experiences on the Web is the serendipity of stumbling upon some cool link that you had no idea existed; give your visitors that experience. Point them to the outside world. That’s why it’s the Web and not the Thread.

I can recall conversations with clients about this, they would get so upset about me linking to OTHER sites. “Why do you want them to leave?” they would ask. Thankfully, I think most people have now realized that links to other sites are not only NOT evil, but people like them. And, since people like them – guess what, the search engines like links too.

5) Do use graphics and multimedia

A prime attraction of the Web is that it is designed to present graphical information, yet there are still many beginning Web authors who are intimidated by graphics and shy away from using them. Include a picture, icons, bars, and graphical menus in your Web page. Go ahead, try out transparent and interlaced GIFs. Multimedia is a great addition tool one or two sound files, a QuickTime movie, even a simple animated GIF can really liven up a site. The bottom line is that sites rich with graphics and multimedia are much more interesting than purely text-oriented ones. Give it a go. (But be prudent)

This is still true, in fact it’s been shown that pages with images actually get more readers than those without. Just don’t go overboard, you don’t want to give people seizures.

6) Do think before you create

It may sound basic, but a surprising number of people lust jump in and start throwing around text and HTML tags with no clue about where they’re going or what they want to accomplish. That approach is fine if you just want to play around – in fact, that approach can be a lot of fun. But if you want to make a good impression on the Web, sitting down and thinking about a few things ahead of time really pays off. Sketch your Ideas on paper. Then describe them to someone else and ask for feedback. This prep work forces you to consider things that you may not think about otherwise: Page layout, graphic design, relationship between pages, target audience, content structure, link grouping, and other issues that, when properly integrated, can make your site a first-class Net surfing experience.

Back in 1998 look and feel were among the biggest concerns of somebody building a website. The web hadn’t started creating applications yet, sites were mostly information storage locations. While look and feel are still very important today, you need to go beyond that in your planning phases. Think about your site structure, what directories, file names, tags, categories – even how much traffic you might eventually get. It can be difficult to gather all of this, but if you don’t get it right in the beginning, your growing pains might be bad enough to kill a whale.

7) Do ask for feedback

You’ll be amazed by what people say about your pages. (Some of the comments may even be complimentary!) Put your e-mail address on your home page and ask for comments. People who have never before seen your site will have a good, fresh perspective and can give you feedback on things that you may not have thought about. Everyone can benefit from outside input. Criticism by your prospective audience is not only useful, it’s also educational. You can learn a lot about what people expect and want. Criticism can’t hurt anything but your pride, and it almost always improves your site.

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when people would only tell you what they think of you if you asked them. Now, in the era of Twitter and Facebook, it can sometimes be difficult to make them stop talking about you. That can be good or bad, depending on what they are saying – but in any case – LISTEN TO THEM.

8) Do test your pages

Testing your pages is easy. You probably don‘t send e-mail without spell-checking lt. Similarly, you should not put up your Web pages without testing them. That means looking at your pages on your own machine before testing them on the web – follow links, see how graphics and text fit together and so on. Also, looking at your pages in different browsers doesn’t hurt. If you can`t do it, ask a friend or even a stranger to help. Oh, again, don t forget to spell-check your pages.

This is just plain crazy-talk, right? While some people are comfortable throwing up gibberish, I don’t know many people who enjoy reading it. And, as the authors pointed out – make sure all your images load correctly, links are coded with valid addresses and yes, even on 2010 you STILL have to check your site in multiple browsers.

9) Do publicize your site

Nothing is more frustrating than putting up a site that no one visits. Fortunately, publicizing your site is not hard. Add your site to the popular indexes, for example, through the excellent “Submit-it” site: www.Submit-it.com (NOTE: This is no longer a submission site)
You can also post to appropriate Usenet newsgroups, put out a press release, or shout it from the rooftops. Just building a site doesn’t necessarily mean people will come to it. You still have to get the word out.

Of course site promotion is still important, but I would certainly suggest you avoid sites/services that claim they’ll submit your site to thousands of engines and indexes. Press releases, done correctly are a good way to start. Does anyone use UseNet anymore? You should make sure your site has a valid sitemap for the engines to crawl, but beyond that – there are lots of ways to promote your site.

10) Do update your site

A static site is a boring site. True, it works for some purposes, but in general, if you want people to continually revisit your site, you must keep it updated. The best sites are those that continually provide new and interesting content. Include pointers to information that’s frequently updated, like “Thought for the day” or “Links to new, cool sites.” Let users know how often to expect updates and be sure to showcase new content. A “New” icon next to recently added or updated content can work wonders.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “content is king” more times than you care to remember, but it’s based on the fact that both people and search engines like for you to keep your site fresh and the easiest way to do that is with a steady stream of new content.

There you have it – Ten Web Publishing DO’s, straight from the web design time machine. What did you do then that you find yourself doing again today?

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