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
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
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
attributes with the
<img> tag. That way, the browser
can reserve space for the image and keep displaying your page as it
- 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
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.