Webmaster by Chuck Musciano

Tips for proper Web site management

How many of these internal site management ideas can you check off as "complete"?

February  1998
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This month, we detail five site management tips to increase the integrity of your Web site: use HTML validators, understand copyright laws, know thyself, create content standards, and use and keep site statistics. (2,200 words)

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Nothing warms the heart of a columnist more than reader feedback, and my heart is positively toasty these days. Your response to my columns on Web site pruning in October and November of last year has been overwhelming. As you might expect, site management and support is a big issue among Webmasters. Beyond the ten suggestions I offered to keep your site in tip-top shape, many of you sent in dozens of other great ideas -- all worthy of being included in my original lists.

And, if reader feedback makes a columnist happy, grist for future columns will push him or her to the edge of ecstasy. I'd be doing everyone a disservice if I didn't share these additional site management tips, so I'll be listing another ten tips on site management. We'll start with five suggestions for internal site improvements this month, and offer five external site improvements next month. How many of these internal site management ideas can you check off as "complete"?


Use an HTML validator
One of my previous tips admonished all Webmasters to use correct HTML. It's easy to write incorrect HTML because most browsers will make sense of it and let you get away with all sorts of egregious errors. Even worse, some erroneous HTML generates nifty document effects.

Unfortunately, bad HTML can lead to all sorts of problems. New tools expect your HTML to be in pretty good shape, and those nifty effects may work great in one browser and fail miserably in another. Most importantly, bad HTML is usually a horror to maintain, and the person who succeeds you in your job may be hunting you down once they get a glimpse of your documents.

You can avoid all of these problems by running all of your documents through an HTML validator. HTML validators will examine your HTML document and point out every error, problem, and potential problem in your document. They will find all sorts of obvious problems, like incorrect tag nesting, invalid attribute values, and missing end tags. They'll also point out a lot of minor things, like inappropriate use of quoted values, nonstandard attribute values, and other niggling problems with your document. Some will even go so far as to check the validity of your links to ensure that nothing is dangling or broken.

There are two kinds of HTML validators: those that run locally on your server and those that run remotely across the Web. Local validators can be further divided into freeware and commercial software categories; remote validators are almost always free.

You can find a nice list of validation tools on the HTML Validators page, with examples of both HTML and link validators in the free and commercial categories. Visit the page for the complete list; three you should definitely check out are:

  • CSE 3310 Validator
    This commercial tool runs on your Windows 95 desktop and can validate one or more documents at a time.

  • W3C HTML Validation Service
    This online resource is provided by the W3C and is intended to check documents against the new HTML 4.0 standard.

  • Weblint
    This free Perl-based validator runs on your server (preferably Unix-based) and has been around for years.

With all of these resources available, there is no excuse not to be using correct HTML in all of your documents. Start checking (and correcting) now!

Understand copyrights
In the original list of ten tips, I urged everyone to explicitly copyright their work by including appropriate wording and copyright indications on every document you place on the Web. I was taken to task by several readers who pointed out that this kind of explicit labeling is not needed to ensure that your copyright is secured and intact.

Before we go any further, let's be clear about one thing. I am not a lawyer, nor should I play one on the Web. I did once take an interesting trip through small claims court that ended up in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals for the state of Florida, but that, thankfully, had nothing to do with copyright violations.

Those who wrote regarding that original tip are correct. Copyright is acquired the moment you create something, even if you never publish or otherwise make it available to the public. Labeling your work as copyrighted is helpful to your audience, but it is not necessary for the purposes of obtaining the copyright.

The point of this tip goes beyond that first suggestion, to insist that all serious Webmasters acquire a conversational knowledge of copyright law. The flip side of copyright law determines how you can use someone else's work, what is appropriate and inappropriate, and how you can keep from infringing on someone else's copyrights. A little knowledge will keep your site on the up-and-up and keep you out of court. You should also acquire similar knowledge about trademarks and service marks.

And, in case you were wondering, I won my case.

Know thyself
Never forget that your Web site exists to do something. Gone are the days when sites existed simply to exist -- a fun place where you could experiment on the Web. The Web is very much a formal media now, and you need to make sure you are using it correctly.

Every Webmaster should be able to answer a few basic questions about their site:

  • Why does this site exist?
  • Who should be viewing this site?
  • How do we pay for this site?
  • How will we know when this site is a success?

The first question isn't too hard. Are you trying to create market awareness? Are you selling products? Are you trying to deliver information or support to a group of customers? Why are you on the Web? If you can't give a good answer, don't even bother with the rest of the questions, or, most likely, the rest of this column!

Assuming you know why you exist, who should be viewing the results of your hard work? Existing customers? Your competition? Women between ages eighteen and forty-five? Once you figure our your target demographic, you need to answer one more question: how does this group know how to find your site? Are you registered in all the search sites? Are you advertising? Do you couple your URL into legacy media like print and television ads?

Once you have a reason for being and a customer to acknowledge the same, you need to pay the bills. Many sites are funded as a cost of doing business and subsidized by the sale of products. Other sites must be self-supporting through online advertising or similar tactics. As your site grows, the cost of maintaining it will as well. If you define early on how to pay for your site, it will be much easier to get extra funds down the road. Site funding that is hidden in other budgets will suddenly become a thorn in someone's side. Because your salary may be carried as part of the site cost, you may have a vested interest in ensuring long-term funding for your site.

Finally, define your success. A previous boss of mine used to ask, "How do get an A?" When will you consider your site a winner? Will it have to drive a certain amount of revenue? Get a certain number of hits? Service a certain number of customers? Only you know. By defining success correctly, you set expectations among your management and can ensure that you are perceived as an asset to the company.

Define and enforce content standards
Nothing is more irritating than a site that is inconsistent, confusing, and difficult to understand. Often, these problems are caused by a lack of content standards for the site. Content standards define, in clear terms, what is acceptable and unacceptable on your site. They should cover everything from color and imagery to link styles, page layout, and writing style.

Content standards are especially important when a site is managed by a team of contributors. It is all too common for different authors to put their own twist on a page -- even in slight and subtle ways. Unfortunately, these slight twists clash as a visitor moves from page to page on your site. If one author writes in the passive voice and another in the active voice, your visitors will notice. If some pages have navigation tools at the top and others at the bottom, your site will be confusing. Content standards, along with enforcement of those standards, can keep these kinds of errors from happening.

Even if you are a solo Webmaster, creating content standards is still a good idea. It forces you to think through your site design and make decisions in advance. If you decide to design a page months later, it may help to review those standards to see what you had in mind when you first conceived the site. Most importantly, when your site becomes so successful that you must hire an assistant, those standards will make it much easier for that person to understand and support your site.

Keep and use statistics
Numbers are wonderful things. It only takes a few to prove almost anything you can imagine, and the right chart or graph can make the difference between making your point and being ignored.

Your Web site is generating numbers constantly: hit rates, browser usage, data transfer rates, and all sorts of other metrics. These statistics can be divided into two groups, both of which you need to understand and exploit.

The first group of site statistics includes all the measurements of your site's health. These include basic hit rates, data transfer numbers, referrer logs, and agent logs. Using this data you can make sure that your site is up and running effectively. At the very least, your hit rate will tell you that people are visiting your site. If you probe deeper and examine hit rates as they change throughout the day and week, you'll learn more about your customer base, when they like to visit, and when lulls occur during which you might choose to update your site.

Data transfer numbers give you an idea of how many bytes you are pushing through your Internet connection. Are you bandwidth bound? It may be that your usage spikes a few times a day, but that the rest of the day you are running at fairly low volume. In these cases, you could switch to a cheaper, slower connection without impacting most of your users. If your site is pushing the limits of your connection all day long, it's time to upgrade that link.

Referrer and agent logs let you know where people are coming from when they visit your site, and which browser they are using to visit. You can use this data to see who is linking to your site (perhaps a reciprocal link agreement is in order) and which browser is most popular among your users (warranting some content change to better exploit that browser).

The second group of statistics helps you improve your content and prove the worth of your site. By more closely analyzing your hit rates and patterns, you can see which pages are most popular. These pages should be tweaked and perfected because they are seen by your largest groups of visitors. You can also see which pages are ignored, possibly warranting elimination from your site. Finally, you can see how people jump from page to page on your site, letting you know if your navigation tools need improving.

Once you know how people visit your site, and in what volume, you can begin to prove that your site is being used correctly, justifying further investment and growth. That is, of course, if you followed the previous tip and correctly defined your site's metrics for success.

Get going!
There. That should be enough to get you started on another round of self-examination and improvement. Next month, we'll look at five more tips to make your site a better place. As always, if you can think of more items to add to this collection, don't hesitate to drop me a line.


About the author
Chuck Musciano has been running various Web sites, including the HTML Guru Home Page, since early 1994, serving up HTML tips and tricks to hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. He's been a beta tester and contributor to the NCSA httpd project and speaks regularly on the Internet, World Wide Web, and related topics. Chuck is currently CIO at the American Kennel Club. Reach Chuck at chuck.musciano@sunworld.com.

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