Webbery contents

Webbing for Beginners

- the bricks and mortar

What's a Web site?

A Web site is just some space on a computer, containing some files. That computer (a web server) is accessible to the Internet (or, maybe just an internal network), allowing other Internet users to access those files.

The main type of file on a Web site is the HTML (Hyper-Text Markup Language) document - with the file extension .HTM or .HTML, but a Web site can contain all sorts of file-types - Word documents, Acrobat PDFs, audio files, graphic files, movie files.

There are also some file-types which depend on a particular kind of web server (they tell the web server what to deliver to the reader). These include .ASP and .SHTML -and lots more.

In fact, just about any file which can be opened on a computer may belong on a web site. The limiting factor is - only some file-types are of use to potential readers. Never forget - no matter how sophisticated your web site, if the reader can't read it, you've failed.

Home is where...?

Every site needs a "Home" page, which opens when a reader visits the site. The correct naming of this file depends on the web server being used. Some web servers treat INDEX.HTM, DEFAULT.HTM or WELCOME.HTM as the "Home" page. Some may have special rules (check with your web host). It is also possible to deliver this Home Page via an "active" server.

On this site, anyone pointing their browser at
will actually get

In practical terms, the Home page is your readers' first point of entry for your web site. It should do two jobs:-

  1. Tell the reader what this web site is for, what it's about.
  2. Help the reader find his/her way to the material he/she wants.

What's it all about?

Entire libraries could be filled with books on the subject of conveying such a message to readers. Smooth men in suits make a comfortable living out of achieving it (occasionally).

The one essential pre-requisite for conveying a site's purpose is that its creator (you) knows what that purpose is. Only you can decide - what's it for?.

You may wish to convey the objectives of your web site in straightforward terms, or imply it in oblique and artistic ways. Just make sure your readers can understand it (and that it won't take them ten minutes to download). Don't let "design imperatives" get in the way.

Here, there's only room for one hint: when you've finished, look at your page again, and ask yourself - does each and every element help or hinder the reader to understand what you want them to understand? (Take the opportunity to look at it in several different browsers, to ensure that it actually works properly.)

Where is it all?

The Home page is the fulcrum of your site's navigation. Visitors should be able to find their way to any part of your site with a minimum number of clicks.

On smaller sites, the Home page may include direct links to all, or most, of the pages. On slightly larger sites, it might lead to further "mini"-Home pages, which list further pages.

Or, the Home page might point to a "Contents" or "Site Map" page, so that the Home page can concentrate on explaining the purpose of the site, and guiding the reader on how to use it.

Conversely, it is important that the reader should be able to find his/her way "Home" at any time. Therefore, it essential that every page in a site should have a link back to the Home page.

This is doubly important, because you cannot guarantee that your readers will come in your front door. Many will search for a particular subject via a search engine. This may send the searcher to an address anywhere in your site. There, you will not be able to explain yourself properly. The reader should be invited to come to the entrance lobby, even if he/she came in the bathroom window.

One other thing - there is a temptation to sub-divide a large site into sections, sub-sections, sub-sub-sections, and to create a directory (folder) structure to reflect those divisions.

Resist the temptation. It leads to pages with addresses longer than the text they contain ("http://www.mycom.com/general/particular/precise/exact.htm"). Remember, you will have to type these addresses - again and again. It'll put you off webbing for life.

There's nothing wrong with having a complex "virtual" structure - to help you and your readers make sense of the whole - but keep the directory structure "flat", with no more than one layer beyond the "root".

Name that File

Try to give each file and directory a name which suggests its contents. Some "automatic" web-makers spew out files and directories with incomprehensible names. They may work fine - until you need to find a particular page to update it.

Limit your filenames to eight characters (not counting the extension) - there will be some readers who can't handle more.

Make all file and directory names lower-case, and ensure that all references to those files and directories (in links, especially) are also in lower case.

Where to next?

A page which contains no links to other pages is not a hypertext document at all.

It is the hypertext link which gives the Web its unique value, allowing a reader to follow paths which suit him/her, allowing the "publisher" to offer many different slants on the same subject, or to tailor the content for several different readerships.

In a book or pamphlet, you can write about "the project", with some confidence that the reader has read the full explanation on page one. You can't make any such assumption on the Web. This may be the first time the reader has come across "the project". So, you turn "the project" into a link to "page one", where the reader can find the full explanation.

Similarly, an existing web site may deal with a subject, related to your own. There's no reason for you to re-invent the wheel - just include a link to the other site.

Bear in mind that including an "off-site" link imposes a responsibility on you - you will need to check the link's viability from time to time.

You should also make it very clear to your readers that this link will take them elsewhere. For one thing - you don't want to get the blame if the other site turns out to contain inaccuracies.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (but takes a lot longer to download)

Your site will have graphics; pure text pages are rare, and usually boring. Indeed, without graphics, the Web would have little appeal for readers. Successful use of graphics can make the difference between a poor site and a good one, between a good site and a great one.

But unsuccessful use of graphics can turn a useful site into a useless site.

Let's start with a couple of general (but immovable) principles:-

  1. No graphic shall be used unless it,
    • helps the reader use the site better
    • helps the site achieve its purpose more effectively
  2. No graphic shall be a single byte bigger than it actually need be.

But the first condition is directly under the web-designer's control (and responsibility). If a graphic takes so long to download that your reader gives up and goes elsewhere, you have failed. If your reader decides he doesn't like your colour scheme, and judges your site by that criterion, you have failed. If your reader gets the wrong impression about what your site is about (because of an ill-chosen graphic), you have failed.

Readers have no duty to visit your site, no duty to read policy statements, no duty to "understand" what you meant. Readers have every right to judge you by your words, your pictures, your colour scheme, your grammar, your layout - anything they like. If you want readers, you have to consider every reason they may have for not liking your efforts.

Remember it's the reader's computer you're using; you're a guest.

Once you have your graphic files, put them in a directory of their own. This will make maintenance much easier. On my site, I've gone one step further, by splitting my graphic files into two directories - one for screen "furniture" (buttons, logos, bullets etc.), one for pictures (photographs, drawings, etc.). So, I can keep track of the graphic files better.

This has the added advantage that I can exclude hits to the "furniture" from web usage reports, and get a much more meaningful result.

The Design Thing

I can't teach you how to design your pages; I'm not sure anyone can. My prejudice (and experience) is that form should follow function. Once the purpose of a site is clearly understood, once the necessary elements are identified, once you know what's it for?, a design should emerge. I'd go so far as to say that the site's purpose should determine its content, and that content should determine the design. In my opinion, anyone who starts off with a design, and then tries to fit a web-site into it is misunderstanding the task. But, I don't claim to be a design guru.

Print-based designers often have great trouble working with the web. They are flummoxed by the lack of layout control and panicked by the inability to rely on colour reproduction.

You might not be doing your Design Department any favours by dropping this task in their lap. By all means ask their advice - especially if you have things like corporate colours or company style standards - but my advice would be to ensure they don't control the whole process.

There is one essential factor - consistency of quality. You might design a page of breathtaking beauty, but if it contains a glaring misspelling, your reader will remember the misspelling long after the beautiful design has been forgotten.

If a site has one slinky page, and twenty boring pages - that site will be less effective than one with twenty-one boring pages (although it would be better if all twenty-one were a little less boring).

As it happens, there are good practical reasons to aim for consistency. The consistent re-use of screen "furniture" has the double benefit of reducing the load on the web server, and speeding up the readers' access. Consistency of design also makes it much easier for readers to find their way around a site - for example, having the same navigation buttons in the same position on every page, so the reader knows where to find them.

This consistency also helps you maintain your pages; if you need to change one element (which may appear on several pages) it helps if that element is defined the same way on each page.

In time, style sheets will make such consistency easier, but one cannot yet rely on your readers' browsers understanding style sheets - at least, they can't be relied upon to understand them the same way.

You will need to settle an overall style - to be applied to all pages. That doesn't necessarily mean that every page looks the same - only that it should conform to a set of rules. It does mean that every element which appears more than once should be exactly the same, whenever it appears. It does mean that the font usage should be the same, that colours should be the same (unless you are using colour to differentiate one set of pages from others) and that logos and buttons should always be in the same place.

Of course, pages are going to differ - your Home page will not look the same as a price list page - so your rules will need to be general enough to cope with such variety of content. Also, you need to bear in mind the pages which have yet to be created. At the beginning, your site may not have any photographs (for instance), but that may be something you'll want to add later. You should decide, now, how you intend to handle them - how your rules will apply to them.

Remember, you're starting a long process - this isn't a one-off exercise. Things will change.

Webbing for Beginners - Planning
Making an Intranet
Don't go Near the 'Net!
Don't forget Winona
Are You Sure You Don't Know?
Webbery Index
© David Craig 1997 David Craig 2001 Send me a message<