Good, Bad, and Ugly Pages

How many frustrating, obnoxious, and useless Web pages have you encountered? Before you launch a site, take the time to do it right.

by Joel Snyder

Where's the beef? --Clara Peller

You have decided to have a web presence, but did you really plan the idea out on paper first? Or did you think that throwing some great copy and artwork on the site would make it good? Before you waste your time and that of the people who will visit your Web site, read the following tips.

Know Your Goal

Being on the Web is not your goal. If you think it is, think again. Create a clearly defined goal, write it down, and stare at it for a couple of hours. Your goal should be specific and detailed.

Too many people want to create a Web page with the idea of "marketing on the Internet" or to offer "customer support and education." Those concepts are a start, but you need to have a clearer idea of what you want to do. If not, your Web site will be vague, ill-defined, and probably confusing. Even if you're not offering up information for commercial reasons, you need to come up with a goal statement. Are you trying to be a quick-in, quick-out place where people can get information? Are you encouraging people to keep visiting again and again? Are you marketing? Educating?

Once you have a goal, keep it in mind as you create every single page. In fact, each page should have its own goal. Why is this page here? What do I hope to accomplish? How can I best present the information? When a page is done, put it aside for a while and then come back to it and ask yourself, "Does this page meet its own goals? Does this page further the goals of the site?" If the answer to either is "no," then something is wrong.

Content Counts

I can't say this enough times. Every site needs information-- something to justify the bits it consumes in the global ether. I've visited too many sites in which you wander around five or 10 pages to find that at the very bottom there isn't anything to see.

Content is king. If you've got content, show it. If you don't have anything to say, don't let those HTML files off your hard disk. If you have just enough content for one page, then keep it at that. "Under construction" pages and content-free pages ("click here to see a picture of an empty Web page") waste visitors' time and bandwidth.

Of course, there could be divergent views on whether what you have to say is useful or not. If it isn't, you could end up on the Useless Pages, which is not where I want to be when I grow up.

While you're at it, give us a rest from guestbooks, feedback buttons, hit counter odometers, awards proclaiming your page is in the "top 5 percent of Web sites," and other useless drivel that some sites use as self congratulation. If your site is good and useful, people will know it (and you'll know it).

Graphics Are a Waste

OK, they're not all a waste. Graphics can be useful. But generally, Web designers stick useless and bandwidth-hogging graphics on their pages without thinking about whether they further the goal of the page or just take up space.

If you're going to stick graphics on your pages, make them useful. Dorky little icons instead of simple bullets are not useful. Huge banners letting the world see (in 16-bit color, no less) your corporate logo are not useful.

Image maps are a particularly insidious form of graphics because they're so completely useless if everything doesn't work exactly right. There are lots of sites I run into that have nothing other than image maps on their front page. If I happen to be running without graphics turned on (which I do to speed things up), I have no idea of what is going on there.

If you're going to use image maps like that, make sure you add text buttons for people to push. Or give people the alternative of taking a text-only path through your Web site. Look at Sun's home page or Digital's for an example of how this can be done. Hint: Try turning off image loading in your browser or use a text-only browser like Lynx before testing these links. If you do support a text-only path, make sure it works through the entire site.

Icons are one place where some Web designers commit heinous crimes. All icons should have text descriptions built into each one. Web sites are not like word processing packages; they aren't visited so often that people really learn the icons used within. A good icon has some graphical element that indicates its function, and it has a text element that makes the meaning crystal clear. Bad icons, like bad graphics, are worse than useless--they hinder the use of your site.

Keep in mind that lots of people are on slow phone lines, have slow browsers, or don't have the time to waste waiting for your graphics to load. If your page doesn't make sense without graphics, redesign it.

I'm no graphics guru, but I know that good Web designers make an effort to intelligently reduce the color depth of an image to make it load quickly. Good designers also know when to use GIF files (for things like graphs and line art) as well as JPEG files (for things like photographs). Beware of JPEG files, though, as not all browsers support inline display of JPEGs. This means that to see a JPEG, the user may have to click on it to launch a separate application or open a second window. That makes JPEGs the worst possible choice for image maps.

Give the Site an Overview

People who enter your site want to find the information they need quickly. Don't think of your Web site as a garden to be wandered through slowly and enjoyed just for the elegance of its layout. Think of your Web site as a convenience store, where people want to get in, find the information they're looking for, and get out as fast as they can. Help them by providing an overview of the site.

When you build the home page of a Web site, show users a map of the site by providing links that clearly indicate what's going to happen. Ask yourself: Is it clear what the readers are going to find by following each of the links? Keep links on the home page of a site relevant to the site so they don't cause more confusion than benefit.

You may want to have an elegant and leisurely feel for most of your Web site. That's fine. Just give the user some warning that this is what they're getting into. And if you're trying to market a product or service, consider building a shortcut through your garden so people can get fast answers.

Keep Anchored

The growth of full-text search engines for the Web (such as Digital's Alta Vista) creates a new problem for Web designers. Before these search engines became available, you had to have some control over how people were going to move through your site. Now, people can be popping to a particular page without having any idea of who or what you are or how your site is put together.

This makes navigation aids on each and every page an absolute requirement. When you look at each page, think about how someone who has jumped to this page from a search engine is going to navigate around your site. Is there a button to take them up in the hierarchy? Can they get from this page to the home page easily? Is there an easy way for them to drill down into your site so that they can get additional information?

Navigation is part of the picture; context is the other half. If you're using special terms or icons, make them self-explanatory.

Every page should have buttons to move up, down (if possible), to the next and previous relevant topics (if there are any), and to the site's home page. Take a look at the Tucson Weekly to see my idea of a perfect set of anchoring navigation buttons.

Allow Searching

A Web site with several pages should have a miniature search engine so users can find the page they're looking for quickly.

Many corporate sites are put together by different parts of a single business. The Web site often mirrors the internal organization of the company because each part contributes a different piece of the pie. The problem is that the way you organize your own company may not fit with the way people look for information. What makes sense to you often will be complete nonsense to someone from outside your company. Searching can help solve that problem, even for small sites.

Searching doesn't have to be an elaborate setup with Boolean elements and fancy qualifiers. What you want to do is let someone who is looking for information on a particular topic find it without having to navigate all the way through the site. Put your "search" button on every single page as well.

Test Your Pages

If I had a dollar for every site I visited that used nonstandard HTML, I'd be a wealthy man. I'm not talking about the strong-arm tactics the billionaires at Netscape and Microsoft have been shoving down our throats. I'm talking about designers who are generating nonstandard HTML just because they haven't taken the time to do it right. Character set errors, header errors, list indenting errors, and other poorly written HTML clog the Web.

Every single page at your site should be tested with a variety of browsers on a variety of platforms. You probably know the difference between Netscape and Lynx, but you also should pay attention to the people running Mosaic, NetShark, Emissary, et al.

When you're testing, remember to flush your cache. Those graphics that come up so nicely on your own screen may take forever to load the first time someone hits your site.

And make sure you dial-in with a 14.4-kbps modem. It's not enough to test from your local hard disk or over a high-speed connection. Even if you think your audience may have higher bandwidth, you've got the whole sluggish Internet between you and it. Your 14.4 modem will simulate pretty well what someone on the other side of the country is going to see.

Joel Snyder is a senior partner at Opus One, an Internet consulting company in Tucson, Ariz.
Reprinted from Internet World magazine Vol. 7 No. 4, (c) 1996 Mecklermedia Corporation. All rights reserved.