By Fred Langa -- Editorial Director
AT WINMAGWEB'S HotSpot site (http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm), we select and highlight one outstanding Web site per day from among the hundreds of nominations we receive. Usually, the sites we select offer something a cut above: great content, dazzling graphics, downloadable goodies, innovative use of advanced browser technologies and so on. So far, almost half a million people have visited the site, which suggests that a lot of us agree on what makes a site a good one.
But, my Lord, there are a lot of bad sites out there.
Chances are either you or your company operates a Web site or an intranet site, or will do so soon. Having seen tens of thousands of sites over the past few years, I've tried to boil down some of the most common--and easiest to avoid--problems:
Most people build their first Web site locally, off a hard drive or a fast LAN connection. Often, they end up with dazzling sites. The graphics are incredibly rich, the sound is beautiful, the animations nifty, and all work like a Swiss watch. Unfortunately, most of us will connect to their sites with a 14.4Kb-per-second or 28.8Kbps modem talking through an often-slow and usually bursty Internet, making access to the sites a form of slow torture. Here are some hints to help you avoid this problem:
Create small Web graphics at the lowest acceptable pixelation and color depth. Simple graphical elements such as buttons and bullets usually look fine in 16-color mode. You rarely need to work in 24-bit color depths.
Try saving your graphics as both GIFs and JPEGs to see which gives you the smallest file size at an acceptable resolution. The difference in file sizes can often be as surprising as it is unpredictable. Some wags refer to corpulent JPEG graphics as "J-pigs."
If you must use large graphics, don't spring them on your site visitors without warning. Try using thumbnail previews so readers can choose whether to download the full version.
Avoid huge image maps. Often, the use of text and a few well-chosen graphical buttons will be far easier for your site's visitors to download, navigate and use than a large image map. If you must use an image map, keep it as small as possible, at the lowest color depth you can get away with.
Use similar smaller-is-better logic for all page elements. For instance, use compact MIDI files instead of bloated WAVs for background sounds, and use Java applets, VBScripts and in-line AVIs only when they add something meaningful-and keep them small at that.
Your Web designer may have a 500-pound, professionally calibrated 21-inch multi-megawatt monitor, but your site visitors may have cheesy LCD laptops or crummy 14-inch VGA monitors that haven't been degaussed since the Earth's magnetic poles reversed. Among other things, watch for:
Also bear in mind that Web pages are meant to be viewed on screen, and on-screen text works best when there's very little scrolling. If your text runs long, break it into several pages and let readers jump from page to page instead of forcing them to scroll through one elephantine unit. And break long lists into separate sub-lists, unless you have a compelling reason not to do so.
Don't roll out half-baked pages or sites. All sites and pages evolve, but if yours is so unfinished that you need to warn your visitors, it's not ready.
Make sure all the links on your pages do what they're supposed to do, and that all the other features work properly. You'll only frustrate your site's visitors if they don't get what you promise them, or if they run into syntax errors and other weirdness.
Web content can be almost anything except repackaged print material or stuff that merely duplicates what's readily available in hard copy. The Web lets you do so much more than the print medium. You can interact with your readers or empower them to get exactly what they need from your site. Limiting them to what they're already able to do in print ensures your site will fail. Besides, merely duplicating what you already offer elsewhere is a sure-fire way to annoy those site visitors who travel the Web on their own dime. If they've already seen the material elsewhere, you've just wasted their time and money-and you'll be hard-pressed to get them to visit you again.
Don't use a feature just because it's cool. For instance, don't use Frames (bordered areas of a browser window that can function as independent mini-browsers in their own right) when an ordinary table will do. Framed pages can be deathly slow. Likewise, don't use Forms for free-form text or as a substitute for e-mail. They're a great way to let readers place orders, fill out questionnaires and reply to you with formatted information, but it's no fun typing running text into a small, vanilla Web window.
And before you build a site that requires a browser extension or add-in, know that at best, many of your site visitors will have to download and install the add-in before they can use your site. At worst, with a browser-specific add-in, many of your visitors won't be able to access your site at all. (Even today, something like 20 percent of visitors to public sites don't use Netscape-and that percentage is growing.) Your safest bet is to be browser-neutral wherever possible. If you do use a proprietary plug-in, provide a viable alternative for people with other browsers.
Most everyone now uses a graphical browser to surf the Web, but some people don't have a choice. For example, people with visual handicaps often use text-based browsers, sometimes coupled with text-to-speech synthesizers. Don't shut them out. If you provide alternate text behind your graphics, everyone can use your pages-an important legal issue in business intranets, and an important human issue everywhere.
Don't turn your visitors into guinea pigs. Before going public, test your site on a variety of systems, screen resolutions, color depths and access modes (such as via a 14.4Kbps modem connection, or the slowest common speed your site visitors are likely to use). Make sure that what worked great on the development systems will deliver in the real world, and that the site is responsive. One rule of thumb suggests top-level "welcome" pages should show something almost immediately upon access, and completely load in less than 20 seconds with a normal connection.
Got your own list of deadly Web sins? Drop me a note.
Fred Langa is Editorial Director of CMP's Personal Computing Group.
Contact Fred via his home page at
http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm, in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find his E-Mail ID Click Here