Webmaster by Chuck Musciano

Weeding your Web site -- part 1

A checklist of what to do to keep your Web site healthy and uncluttered

October  1997
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Your Web site may have started as a nice, coherent affair, but chances are that a few "weeds" may have crept in. Is your site a pleasure to view or is it a bit of a hodge-podge? Whatever its current state, complete our 10-item checklist for Web site "pruning," and you'll be in good shape. In this first of two columns we give you the five areas to watch for external pruning. Next month we'll focus on internals. (2,100 words)

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I was discussing my employer's intranet with a coworker the other day, and the discussion turned to an internal Web site that houses our customer service documentation. This site started out as an experiment, designed to prove that we could move large amounts of hard-copy documentation to the Web and deliver it to our customer service operators. We both agreed that the effort was a great success, convincing management that further efforts were warranted. We both also agreed that the site could use a lot of cleanup and fine tuning. "It's grown like a weed," my friend noted, "when we really wanted a topiary."

Are you in the same position? Is your site overcome by success? Did you start out with a grand plan and a few pages, only to wind up with a hodge-podge of images, documents, scripts, and applets? If so, it's time to buckle down, put on your gardening gloves, and do some much-needed weeding and pruning. To help, I've come up with a list of 10 common problems that you may need to address with your site. We'll cover the first five this month, looking to spruce up your site's appearance and usability. Next month, we'll conclude with five tips to make the inner workings as good as the outer appearance. Check off the tips as you check out your site. If you can mark all ten as complete, your site should be in fine shape, ready for solid growth.


External pruning: Polishing up your pages
Start your work by making your site look good to the world. Follow these tips for more attractive, effective pages:

[x] Use effective graphics

In spite of the dearth of bandwidth on most desktops, we all like to augment our sites with graphics. This is a good thing, if the images are consistent, attractive, and serve to increase the value of your content.

Regrettably, few of us have a good eye for graphics and will stick almost any image onto our site if it remotely applies to the topic at hand. Even worse, we'll group dissimilar images on the same page, use conflicting color schemes, and ruin our page layout with bad image sizing and positioning.

Fix the problem by taking an honest look at your pages. Are the image color schemes consistent? Do the images add to the value of your pages? Do your pages flow, making them easy to read and understand? You may need to get the advice of an artist or graphics designer, if one is handy.

Once you've got the right images in the right spots, make sure you aren't using too much bandwidth to deliver the images. Load the images into any popular editor and make sure the color map is as small as possible. Many images can be dithered or reduced to fewer colors without any change in appearance, greatly reducing their transmission time over the net.

Using good images correctly can have an enormous effect on the appearance of your site. Delivering those images quickly makes a big difference in how your site is delivered to your visitors. In both cases, your visitors will thank you for taking the time to use images effectively.

[x] Provide navigation tools

When a site has only a few pages, it is easy to link between all of them, making site navigation simple. As your site grows, those links become unwieldy, and you may forget to create them in a consistent manner. After a while, your pages become disjointed islands, linked in small groups but not as a consistent whole.

Every page in your site should have a planned location in the overall scheme of things. You need to create consistent navigation tools that appear on every page in your site. How those tools work is up to you and is predicated on the design of your site. At the very least, a visitor should be able to get to the top-level home page from every page on your site. It may also make sense to provide a link to an intermediate home page that groups a subset of pages. Sections of a document, for example, may point back to a chapter-level index page, which, in turn, points to the main table of contents. Related items in a catalog may link to a common product index, which, in turn, links to a more general home page.

Whatever your navigation scheme, take time to design and test it. Ask someone who has never visited your site to find a specific resource. Jump to a random page on your site and see if you can make it back to the home page. Always remember that most visitors will not start their visit to your site at the top-level page. If you've been catalogued by a search engine, many people will be jumping to pages deep in your site. I can't count the number of times I've jumped to a site via a search engine and have been unable to get to the top-level page. I'll resort to hacking up the URL in an effort to move up the site hierarchy, but I'm not happy doing it.

Don't put your users in a similar trap. Build effective navigation tools for your site and place them on every single page. Make your site a garden that invites a pleasant walk, not a jungle that leaves folks hacking through the underbrush.

[x] Link to the Webmaster

How proud are you of your site? Would you sign your name to it?

After surfing around the Web a bit, it's easy to see why most people prefer to remain anonymous when it comes to their site. Many sites have little to be proud of, and offering up the name of the source would only invite criticism.

Hopefully, your site is a source of pride. If so, take a moment and put your name on your pages. This need not (and should not) be something elaborate and ego-building. The world can get by without your picture and life history spread all over your site. Instead, providing your name within a simple mailto URL at the bottom of the page lets the visitor know who created the page and how that person can be reached.

Of course, many sites are not the work of a single person. They are often group efforts or represent a corporate entity, neither of which are suited to having someone's name on each page. In these cases, provide a generic link to a Webmaster's e-mail address. This still gives folks a chance to get in touch with you, even if the method is a bit less personal. You might also include a phone number, especially if your company has an 800 number for general customer inquiries.

That link, personal or generic, is important. People visiting your site may have a legitimate concern or question and may be looking for a way to communicate with you or your company. But above all else, if you put a link on your pages, make sure someone is reading and answering the mail! I remember the red faces at my previous employer when a well-known Internet consultant gave a presentation to top management. She noted that we had a Web site, giving us high marks for its appearance and usability. We swelled with pride, only to deflate moments later when she shared that she had sent e-mail to our contact address, but had never heard back.

Many companies route Web-generated e-mail like this to their normal 800 number customer service organization. Others direct it to their internal help desk or operations staff. Regardless of where you send it, send it someplace where each and every message gets a reply, even if only to say "thanks for writing." Don't turn away business with a bad company infrastructure or inadequate Web pages.

[x] Copyright your work

This may sound strange, given that the Web is a free-for-all where you cannot keep people from taking anything, anytime, from anywhere. Still, your site content is a valuable asset and should be protected like any other publication. This won't keep people from stealing it, of course, but it may give you a legal leg to stand on if your precious content is pirated and misused.

Consult your attorney, of course, to make sure your copyright notices are appropriate and protect the right parts of your pages. Be aware that there are differences between copyrights, trademarks, and service marks, all of which may be used in your pages. Most companies are very aggressive in defending their corporate image; your legal department will be more than happy to give you a six-hour presentation on all of this, I'm sure.

If your site is a private one, simply place a copyright notice at the bottom of each page. Even a minimal statement like © 1997 Your Name. Redistribution Prohibited. goes a long way in protecting your documents.

Be aware that you can also affix copyright statements to images. Many image formats support internal comments, which can be used to hold a copyright notice. The GIF image format, in particular, supports this feature. You can use a tool like giftrans (see Resources below) to add comments to your GIF images. Of course, you can also use giftrans to remove copyright notices from images, but I don't expect any of you will be doing that.

[x] Use a standard style

I've saved my most important tip for last. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than defining and using a consistent style for each and every page on your site. Every page should look like it belongs with all the others. If someone wanders into your site through some low-level page and later visits your home page, they should be able to tell, at a glance, that the two pages came from the same site.

Begin with consistent use of color and text. Are you background colors and images the same on every page? If not, are they complementary and recognizable as a family of colors and images? The background effects of your pages are powerful tools for creating a standard look and feel for your pages. Don't choose them lightly or fail to apply them consistently.

Are your document structuring elements consistent? Do you use similar size titles and headings on each page? Do you use bullets and dingbats on your pages? Are these visual elements used consistently? Like color and imagery, the overall structure of a page is a strong clue to a visitor that two pages are related. Choose a text size and style for your page titles, for example, and use it for every page. Pick a header, <h3> for example, and use it to delimit the sections within your pages throughout your site. Don't use one size header on some pages and another size on others. Think of your site as a book. Have you ever seen a book with chapter one set in one layout and chapter two in another layout?

This sort of style management is much easier, now that style sheets are coming into vogue. By creating appropriate style sheets that can be linked to all of your pages, you can create a single style for your site, manage it within a single set of style sheets, and easily apply it to all of your pages. With this level of control, there is no excuse for inconsistent document styles within your Web site. Even if you don't want to make the leap to style sheets right now, acquire the discipline to create all of your pages in a consistent manner.

How does your garden grow?
Well? Could you check all five items "complete" for your site? If not, get to work! The sooner you get things whipped into shape, the sooner you can grow your site in an effective, efficient manner.

Many thanks to my coworker David Buttgereit for his insightful garden and Web analogies. If any of you have similar pithy assessments of your site and suggestions as to how they might be improved, write and let me know. Check back next month for my other five tips guaranteed to help the inner workings of any Web site.


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. Reach Chuck at chuck.musciano@sunworld.com.

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