Planning a Web Site

Planning a Web Site

The last thing you need is to be buried under an avalanche of theory before you’ve had the joy of performing your first few Web creation tricks. However, every new Web site author can save time and effort by doing a little bit of planning before diving in to create a complete Web site. In the following sections, you’ll consider some quick guidelines to get you on the right path.

Types of Sites

You don’t have much chance of creating a successful Web site if you haven’t decided what it’s for. Some people have a very specific goal in mind (like getting hired for a job or promoting a book) while others are just planning to unleash their self-expression. Either way, take a look at the following list to get a handle on the different types of Web sites you might want to create:

Personal sites are all about you. As the world gets more Web-savvy, it seems everyone is building online homes. Whether it’s to share pictures of Junior with the relatives, chronicle a trip to Kuala Lumpur, or just post your latest thoughts and obsessions, it’s no longer unusual to have a personal Web site. In fact, everyone from tweens to grandmothers are jumping in.

If your plan is to create a personal Web site, think about what its format should be, and how you’ll use it. Do you want to post regularly updated news tidbits in a chronological format (in which case, you might be interested in creating a blog, covered below)? Or perhaps you want to create something more ambitious, like an online picture album or a site featuring your family’s history. Either way, you should decide what you want your Web site to focus on before you start slapping together Web pages.

Online diaries or blogs are personal Web sites that are rapidly gaining popularity. The typical diary Web site provides a list of entries in reverse chronological order, which means whenever you surf to the site, you see the latest news at the top of the page. These online diaries, also known as blogs (short for Web logs) are a great way to while away the hours and keep in touch with friends in far-off places. But before you choose this type of site, make sure you have plenty of free time. Nothing says “dead site” like a blog that hasn’t been updated in eight months. By contrast, personal Web sites that aren’t in a date-specific format can linger on quite happily without regular updates.

If you just want to create a blog, you can sacrifice your independence and join the masses on a Web site like The Open Diary (a huge online diary community at www.opendiary.com) or MSN Spaces (a free blogging from Microsoft at http://spaces.msn.com). Alternatively, you can set out to create and host your own blog. However, if you plan on blogging regularly, you should at least consider a blogging tool, which makes it easy to post quick updates even when you aren’t at your computer. Depending on the tool you use, you might not even need to know HTML or have your own Web space.

Note: Blogs aren’t just for your personal life. They’ve become tremendously popular with computer geeks and IT workers as a way to share information and chat about a variety of topics, computer-related or otherwise. Microsoft programmers are the latest audience to get in on the trend (see www.microsoft.com/communities/blogs).

Résumé sites can be powerful career-building tools. Rather than photocopy a suitcase full of paper résumés, why not send emails and distribute business cards that point to your online résumé? Best of all, with a little planning you can add more details to your résumé Web site, like links to companies where you’ve worked, online portfolio samples, and even background music playing “YMCA” (which is definitely not recommended).

Topical sites focus on a particular subject that interests you. If you’re more interested in building a Web site about your favorite music, art, books, food, or Beanie Babies than you are in talking about your own life, then a topical Web site is for you.

Before you set out to create a topical Web site, consider whether other people with a similar interest will be interested in visiting your site, and take a look at existing sites on the topic. The best topical Web sites invite others with the same interest to join in. The worst Web sites present the same dozen links you can find anywhere else. Remember, the Web is drowning in information. The last thing it needs is another Pamela Anderson Fan Emporium.

Event sites aren’t designed to weather the yearsinstead, they revolve around a specific event. A common example is a wedding Web site. The event hosts create it to provide directions, background information, links to gift registries, and a few romantic photos. When the wedding is over, the Web site disappearsor morphs into something different (like a personal Web site chronicling the honeymoon). Other events that might be treated in a similar way include family reunions, costume parties, or do-it-yourself protest marches.

Promotion sites are ideal when you have a personally produced CD or a hot-off-the-presses book to boast about. They’re geared to get the word out about a specific item, whether it’s handmade pottery or your own shareware program. Sometimes, these Web sites evolve into small business Web sites, where you actually sell your wares (see the “Small business” item next).

Small business (or e-commerce) sites show off the most successful use of the modern Webselling everything from portable music players to prescription drugs. E-commerce sites are so widespread that it’s hard to believe that when the Web was first created, making a buck was far from anyone’s mind.

Creating a full-blown e-commerce Web site like Amazon or eBay is far beyond the abilities of a single person. These Web sites need the support of complex applications and computer-genius-level programming languages. Fortunately, if you’ve come to the Web to make some money, you don’t need to give up hope yet! Innovative companies like PayPal and Yahoo now provide subscription services that can help you build shopping-cart-style Web sites and accept credit card payments. You can also show Google AdSense ads to start raking in the cash.

Understanding Your Audience

Once you’ve firmed up your Web site’s raison d’etre, you should start to have a better idea about who your visitors will be. Knowing and understanding your audience is crucial to making sure your Web site is effective.

Not only do you need to understand your audience, but you also need to single out the lowest common denominator in that audience. Good Web designs avoid using fancy frills unless everyone can experience them. Nothing is more disappointing than creating a Web site using the latest graphical wizardry, only to find out that the site’s illegible on a friend’s less powerful computer. To avoid these letdowns and reach as many people as possible, you need to keep your visitors’ PC capabilities in mind as you build and improve your Web pages.

Unfortunately, there’s no single set of specifications you can use to build your Web pageseveryone has a slightly different setup. The best thing to do is try out your Web site on different computers, which can be time-consuming. Some paid services can do this for you (see, for example, www.netmechanic.com, which tests your Web site with different browsers and sends you pictures), but they aren’t cheap. You can minimize your risk by keeping this point about visitor diversity in mind while you create your Web site. Look for the design tips throughout the book, and watch out for these common problem areas:

Computer monitors aren’t all created equal. Some computers use a smaller screen resolution (number of pixels), so they can’t show as much content. If you create the perfect Web site for your wide-screen monitor, you might find that it’s unbearably cramped (or even worse, partly amputated) on another monitor.

Colors cause a similar problem. Graphics that look rich and nuanced on your monitor might turn ugly on computers that don’t support as many colors.

Non-standard fonts are another headache. Imagine you create a Web page for a rent-a-clown service using a font named FunnyKidzScript. When you check your page out on another computer that doesn’t have the same font, your text will revert to a completely different typeface. At best, it’s not what you intended; at worst, it’s indecipherable.

Large graphics are another trap that’s easy to fall into if you’re testing your Web site on a speedy computer with a fast Internet connection. When dial-up Web surfers try to see your work, they’ll be stuck waiting for the goods, and might just give up. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to slim down your graphics.

Plug-ins, movies, and browser-specific features are temptations you need to treat with caution. In the world of the Web, anything that limits how many visitors can enjoy your work is a danger. Steer clear of cutting-edge features that aren’t widely supported.

The creators of the most popular Web sites have carefully considered all these issues. For example, think about the number of people whose computers won’t let them buy a book on Amazon, make a bid on eBay, or conduct a search on Google. (Are you thinking of a number that’s close to 0?)

It’s been widely remarked that the average Web designer goes through three stages of maturity: 1) “I’m just learning, so I’ll keep it simple;” 2) “I’m a Web guru, and I’ll prove it by piling on the features;” 3) “I’ve been burned by browser compatibility problems, so I’ll keep it simple.”

The Lifespan of Your Site

The Web is a constantly changing place. Today’s Web isn’t the same as last year’sor even the Web of 15 seconds ago.

Here are two valuable truths about Web site lifetimes:

The best Web sites are constantly improving. Their creators add support for new browser features, tweak their looks to match new style trends, andmost importantly of allconstantly add new content.

When a Web site stops changing, it’s on life support. Many great Web sites have crumbled through neglect.

Think about your favorite Web sites. Odds are, they change daily. A good Web site isn’t one you consult once and then move on. It’s a site that you can bookmark and return to periodically. In a sense, a Web site is like a television channel. If you aren’t putting up new information, your Web site’s showing reruns.

This problem poses a significant challenge. Making a Web site is hard enough, and keeping it up to date is even more challenging. Here are a few tips that can help you out:

Think in stages. When you put your first Web site online, it won’t be complete. Instead, think of it as version 1, and start planning a few changes for the next version. Bit by bit, and stage by stage, you can add everything that you want to your Web site.

Select the parts you can modify regularly, and leave the rest alone. There’s no way you can review and revise an entire Web site weekly or even monthly. Instead, your best strategy is to identify the sections that change regularly. For example, on a personal Web site, you might put news on a separate page, and update just that page. On a small business Web site, you might concentrate your changes on the home page to advertise new products and upcoming specials.

Design a Web site that’s easy to change. This is the hardest principle to follow, because it requires not only planning, but a dash of experience. As you become a more experienced Web maven, you’ll learn how to simplify your life by making it easier to update pages. One method is to start out by separating information into several pages, so you can add new content without needing to reorganize everything. Another technique is to use style sheets to separate the formatting from your content. That way, you can easily insert new material without having to re-format it from scratch to make sure it matches the rest of your page.

Practice Good Design

Every year, hundreds of Web sites win awards for being abjectly awful. Sometimes, they have spinning globes and hot pink text on a lime green background. Other times, they have clunky navigation systems and grotesque flashing backgrounds. But no matter what the design sins, Web sites that are hideously bad are strangely common.

Maybe it’s because creating a Web site really isn’t that hard. Or maybe it’s because we all have an impulse to play with color, texture, and sound, and sometimes new-fangled Web tools encourage our ugliest instincts. For a glimpse at some of the all-too-familiar mistakes go to www.angelfire.com/super/badwebs . You can also visit Web sites like www.webpagesthatsuck.com and www.worstoftheweb.com, which tally not only yearly winners in the worst-of-show category, but also pick out new offenders every month.

Here are a few general principles that can help make sure you never wind up on a worst-of-the-Web list (unless you absolutely want to).

Stay simple (and don’t annoy your visitors). You can cram a lot of frills and goodies into a Web page. But unless they serve a purpose, just say no. You’ll find that exercising restraint can make a few fancy touches seem witty and sophisticated. (Whereas adding a lot of fancy touches can make your site seem heady and delusional.) If you pare down the graphical tricks and distractions, you’ll also make sure that the content of your Web site isn’t overshadowed, and your visitors aren’t driven away in annoyance.

Be consistent. No matter how logical you think your Web site is, the majority of visitors probably won’t think the same way. To cut down on the confusion, from one page to another, use similar organization, similar headings, similar graphics and links, a single navigation bar, and so on. These touches help make visitors feel right at home.

Know your audience. Every type of Web site has its own unwritten conventions. You don’t need to follow the same design in an e-commerce Web store as you do in a promotional page for an experimental electric harmonic band. To help decide what is and isn’t suitable, be sure to check out lots of other sites that deal with the same sort of material as yours.

Creating Web Sites: The Missing Manual
By Matthew MacDonald
Publisher: O’Reilly
Pub Date: October 2005
ISBN: 0-596-00842-2

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