Webmaster by Chuck Musciano

Web site management tips -- round two

Last month we covered 5 internal housekeeping items. This month we have 5 tips for external Web site improvements

March  1998
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This month we round out our Web site housekeeping tips with five ways to externally improve your Web site: Allow surfers to quickly get at the meat of your site; keep the content lean and mean (throw superfluous graphics out the door); be bandwidth-friendly; embed links that make sense; and support alternative browsers. (2,200 words)

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Back in October and November of last year, I listed 10 tips for keeping your Web site clean and attractive, inside and out. Reader response was absolutely overwhelming. So many good tips were added to my list that I decided to share the best of them, 10 in all.

Last month, I covered five tips for internal housekeeping, all designed to keep your Web pages well-written, maintainable, and portable. This month, we'll close out the series with five tips for external improvement, suggesting ways to make your pages easy to use, easy to access, and valuable to your readers. If you can check off these five tips and the previous 15, your site should be in tip-top shape!


Allow visitors to cruise through
A lot of Web authors forget that much of the value of the Web is in the journey, not the destination. We tend to think that visitors, having reached our site, are ready to settle down and pore over every last bit of information we've crammed into our pages. Why else would they be stopping by?

The reality is that most visitors to your site are probably headed somewhere else, looking for some other bit of information. Your site may have been near the top of a search engine's results page, or may be a secondary link from some other page he or she was reading. In any case, your readers are looking for value. They want to be able peruse your site quickly and determine if a longer stay is warranted.

Think about your own browsing habits. I know I often hit the Web looking for specific data, jumping through a whole list of potential sites until I find the one that has the data I need. I don't like pages that take a long time to load or bother me with splash screens before presenting the real information. For better or worse, the Web has made most of us impatient and intolerant of delays due to poorly designed sites.

Check your site. Do you present a splash screen or other introductory pages before getting to the meat of things? Does a visitor have to wade through several levels of index pages before hitting pay dirt? Or are your pages short and sweet, allowing for quick downloading and rapid scanning? Judge your site from the viewpoint of an anonymous visitor. Are you accessible, or impenetrable? Do you invite a quick scan, or do you force users to work to find what they want?

It's often difficult to make these kinds of assessments of your own site, but visitors are doing it every time they stop by. Make their lives easier and you'll create a happier set of customers who will value your site even when it doesn't have what they're looking for.

Provide value to your users -- don't be a Web tease
While you're busy making your site friendlier for those surfing visitors, make sure you also keep it useful for those who decide to stay a bit longer. Your site should be easy to use and inviting, not a challenge to understand.

Often, Web authors envision themselves as artists, crafting each page as an individual masterpiece. Background art, fancy layouts, snappy graphics, and typographic effects may make your site look great, but they rarely contribute to the value of the information you're trying to convey.

Spend less time making your site look pretty, more time providing valuable information. Here's a simple test: strip all the tags from your pages and read the remaining ASCII text. Is there value in those words? Are you delivering facts to your users? While it's true that some information may be provided by images on your site, the majority of data you deliver is in the form of written words. Are your words making sense? Will users see the value in what you're trying to say?

Once you have users committed to using your site, make their lives easier. Don't advise them to resize their browser window to accommodate your pages. If you can't make your pages look good no matter what the browser window size, you have a serious problem on your hands.

Try to avoid "Under Construction" pages. Nothing is more frustrating than finding a link on a page, clicking it, and getting back an unfinished page. Don't be a Web tease. Either create the page and set it loose online, or disable the link. Incomplete pages are useless. Imagine opening a book at the library and finding the last three chapters blank, except for the words "Under Construction."

Be bandwidth friendly
Like it or not, the vast majority of Web users view the Web at the agonizingly slow rate of 28.8 kilobaud. This is like watching a movie through a paper towel tube: doable, but hardly satisfying. To maximize the experience of most of your visitors, make sure your site gets to their browsers in a reasonable amount of time.

One of the top reasons users abandon sites is boredom: they simply get tired of waiting for the site to download. There are several ways you can make sure that your site arrives as quickly as possible over the 'Net:

  • Remove superfluous graphics. Graphics are huge bandwidth wasters, no matter how much you think they add to the overall visual effect of your site. Background images, in particular, can consume lots of bandwidth and contribute almost no value to a site. If you must include images, make sure you use the height and width attributes with the <img> tag. That way, the browser can reserve space for the image and keep displaying your page as it downloads.

  • Break long pages up into multiple smaller pages. Users can then download each page quickly, reading as they go, rather than waiting for a single long document to download. This is especially important if you use tables to control document layout. Browsers usually can't display a table until it has been read and sized in its entirety, so a long document, even text-only, contained within a table will appear blank to the user until it's been completely transmitted.

  • If you must provide graphics, consider providing preview thumbnails and links to the larger full-size image. That way, users can decide if they want to take the time to download the full image, instead of having the image forced on them every time they visit the page.

  • If your site allows searching, enable users to constrain the search, reducing the time they spend waiting for results. For example, if you provide the ability to find a local reseller of a product, allow the user to enter her state of residence before starting a search. That constraint should make the search much quicker, reduce the load on your server, and deliver the result more quickly.

Embed links that make sense
This may seem a bit obvious, but make sure you put links in your pages. Not just links to your other pages, but links to related sites, products, and vendors.

Linking to your own pages is obvious. Make sure that you can reach all of the pages on your site in a logical manner from any other page. This means that every page needs a consistent set of navigation tools that link to the next, previous, and parent pages on your site. It's easy to forget that most visitors don't enter your site via its top-level page. Instead, they wander in three levels down, deep in the document hierarchy, and get hopelessly lost trying to find the rest of your site. There should be an obvious way to get to the main page of your site from any other page, and there should be effective links between related pages on your site.

Lots of sites have effective internal links, but far fewer have effective links to other sites. Remember, it wouldn't be a Web if we didn't link everything together. One of the most significant values you can add to your pages is good links to related sites. This allows the visitor to find other places that may pique his interest, or probe deeper into a topic that you touch on briefly.

There's a simple reason why most sites don't have these kinds of links: it's hard work. It takes time to find links to related sites, and it takes ongoing effort to make sure those links are up-to-date and correct. Still, your job as a Webmaster is to provide value to your users, and those links are important. Take the time to link to related sites, whether it's a site with content similar to yours, a vendor of a related product, or just a site that provides good background material on a word or phrase you use. A link-rich site is far more valuable than a site that's just a dead-end on the Web.

Support alternative browsers
Some of you may actually be surprised to learn that a good percentage of your users are reading your site with something other than Netscape or Internet Explorer. It's easy to assume that the whole world uses these two browsers and design your pages accordingly. Unfortunately, you may be alienating a portion of your readership as a result.

Alternative browsers exist for a variety of reasons. There are hundreds of other browsers out there, bundled with other software packages or under limited release from niche vendors. Many "browsers" are, in fact, robots or other automated site indexing tools, using one of several popular libraries of site access tools. While no human will see the results of these browsers, they still need to view your pages in a coherent manner so that they can build their indices or update their search engines.

Alternative browsers also exist for the disabled. In particular, browsers exist for the blind and the visually impaired. How would your site fair when translated to Braille? All those clever images are useless; items that could have just as easily been represented as text are simply lost when rendered as an image instead. Other browsers are intentionally text-only, targeted for user environments where the only display device is a 24x80 dumb terminal. How does your site look when rendered on a 3270 display station?

Another class of browser has graphical capabilities, but in a limited sense. The popularity of WebTV and similar interfaces places great constraints upon the page designer. Can your site stack up when rendered with just a few hundred pixels? How about in a monochrome graphical display in a hand-held PDA? A huge variety of devices will soon have access to the Web, and you may find your site popping up in all sorts of unusual places.

Last but certainly not least, we often forget that most popular of all browsers, the printer. At some point, all of your pages will be printed. Will they look good? Will information be lost due to background image dropout or strange font color conflicts? An increasing number of Web authors are providing links to printer-friendly versions of their sites, with fancy formatting removed and easily printed text flow. You should always take the time to print your pages on a black-and-white printer to make sure things are acceptable.

Next month
Whew! That should be enough tips for anyone...Take some time and get your site up to snuff, because next month we'll begin an up-close look at HTML 4.0. Do you need to update your site to take advantage of its new features? Check back in April to find out, and keep those tips and tricks coming!


For some alternative browsers take a look at: Other resources:

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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