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Virtue of the Small

What's to Know About Making Web Sites?

[note - this page hasn't been updated in a while, and some links may not work]

Well, lots. Rather than expound on everything myself, I've compiled some links. This is not intented to be a complete list; if you ever visit the web design section of a large bookstore, or do a Google search on "web design", you'll understand that I just can't cover everything. However, these links are hand-picked by me to be useful to you. Choose what you want to explore:

Things Everyone Should Know
The Nature of the Internet
Keeping it Simple
Bringing People to your Site
Writing Effective E-Mail
Working With a Professional
Choosing a Professional
Doing it all Yourself
The Well-Equipped Web Developer
Tips on Writing Text
HTML, the seamy (but easy) underbelly
Make sure it works

Things Everyone Should Know

The Nature of the Internet
Here are some fascinating articles that may be worth your time. They aim to illuminate the heart of the internet phenomenon, and are appropriate reading for anyone just entering the world of the net, especially those who are thinking of staking out their own home space. This list will grow as I discover new links; if you know one, please send it to me.
  • An article called World of Ends explains some differences between the Web and television - among other things. Appears to have been published in March, 2003

Keeping it Simple

As you may have gathered, I'm a big fan of simply getting the information out there in an attractive, simple format. I'm not alone:

How Not to Annoy Your Visitors - This is an interesting article I found, and is reprinted on my own site with permission. It's basically a laundry list of things that site visitors complain about; I try to avoid these problems in my own work, and I wish everyone would at least think about these issues.

Another article supporting simplicity - David Siegel wrote a fairly famous book on web design called "Creating Killer Web Sites" in which he advocated all-singing, all-dancing web sites "alive with movement". In this article, you can read about why he's not advocating that anymore.

Bringing People to your Site
Publicity is very important. In most cases, you can't just put up a web site and expect your potential customers to bumble into it. You also usually can't rely on search engines alone to send as much traffic as you want, especially if you mainly work with customers who are physically located in the same area.

Think about how you will tell people that your web site exists; often, this just means including your web address in your business cards and print advertising, but it's easy to forget to do this. Your web site can't be very effective if no one sees it. I'll put up an article here as soon as I find a suitable one.

Press Releases: Here are some pretty good resources about writing and using press releases:

  • CanadaOne's free interactive press release builder - This is also a short online "workshop" that walks you through a few different steps in building a press release, and has an interactive template that, if your press release fits the standard structure, will generate your press release for you. Very nice, even if you're not Canadian.
  • InfoScavenger press release: tips and techniques to get noticed - This is mainly intended to sell the writer's software, but I found it worthwhile anyway. I have no opinion on the software.
  • Common mistakes - This is a good one - very practical, with links to some recommended online news outlets. The actual title is "Write a Press Release".
Writing Effective E-Mail
This is an important task for many site owners. If someone finds you through your site, your only contact with that person may be through e-mail.

Please see this lovely site to get some points to remember about writing and sending e-mail. I kept thinking about writing something like this myself, but I just found that Kaitlin Duck Sherwood had already written it.

Working With a Professional

Choosing a Web Designer/Developer
Jakob Nielsen is a respected authority on some things web-related, and he's written "Who Should You Hire to Design Your Web Site?".

A longer and maybe better article is "Hiring Web People." The author also talks about the different types of web professionals: designers, developers, architects, and so forth. I consider myself a developer/designer with information architect skills.

Doing it Yourself

Even if you are working with a professional, including myself, you may end up wanting to do some writing or updating of your site yourself. If you do your site yourself, though, you'll certainly want to know about these topics, although this is just a sampling and not intended as a comprehensive guide:

The Well-Equipped Web Developer
I often get asked, "What equipment and software do I need to make my own web site?" Here are some of the hardware components I use. You certainly don't need all of it just to make a simple personal web site.

  • Personal Computer. No surprise here. It's not super-fast or fancy; it doesn't have to be.
  • Middle-of-the road monitor. A fancy monitor is not, in my opinion, a requirement for web work.
  • Scanner. This is used to scan in artwork, photographs, leaves, body parts, house cats, food, or pieces of cloth. Scanners are surprisingly cheap, considering how cool they are.
  • Small Intuos digitizer tablet and pen. This is helpful and fun to use with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, but probably not needed if you don't do much graphics work. These can be surprisingly expensive, considering how little they are.
  • Web server. If you're doing one site on your own, you can probably get away without your own web server; just upload stuff to your web host and see how it looks. I have a separate computer at my office, running Red Hat Linux and Apache, which serves web sites and CGI scripts over my internal network, so I can test them safely and easily.

Good software is very important:

  • FTP software. This is how you actually transfer files from your computer to your web server. I use WS_FTP Pro, and I think it's great. It works, consistently. It's great.
  • Telnet software. Not everyone will be able to make use of this, but if you have a wonderful web hosting provider, like I do, and enough knowledge of UNIX commands to be not too dangerous, you may be able to connect to your web host through telnet or SSH. For this purpose, I use a snazzy little program called CRT Term. For a more secure connection, there's software for "Secure Shell" - a free utility called PuTTY. If you have no idea what all this means, don't worry about it.
  • Browser sizer. This is a piece of software that automatically resizes your web browser to show what a web page would look like at different screen resolutions. This is very important. I found a program called BrowserSizer that was what it's name said, and it has been very handy.
  • A bunch of web browsers. It's a really good idea to have a whole bunch of web browsers installed, so you can check out how your site appears in each of them. Microsoft and America Online don't make this easy - you can only have one version of Internet Explorer installed at a time, for some reason, and it's not possible (as far as I know) to view sites in America Online's browser without actually being connected to America Online - but one does what one can. I have at least seven browsers installed at the moment, including Opera, a very nice browser you may not have heard of.
  • HTML Editor. This is different from a "WYSIWYG" editor like FrontPage (someday I'll write a whole bunch of well-reasoned, crystal clear prose on why you shouldn't use FrontPage). Editors allow you to edit text, which, for web pages, is HTML. For a long time, I've used Arachnophilia, and I recommend it to my clients who want to update their own pages.
  • Windows' own Notepad software works OK for this, too, but can be tedious for complex pages. I personally use vi. vi (or VIM, the "Improved" version) is a little odd at first, but positively liberating for touch-typists who edit text (and HTML) on a daily basis. It is free and is available for Windows.

  • Graphics software. The standard and somewhat expensive tool of choice for designers everywhere, Adobe's Photoshop gives good results. Paint Shop Pro is a more moderately-priced piece of software for the same tasks. For work that will be resized, like logos, or drawing any kind of curved shapes, a vector-based graphics program like Adobe Illustrator or Xara is strongly indicated.

Tips on Writing Text

Please see my own page about this, and here are some additional references:
I don't use their product, but efuse.com has several good articles on web design. Their article "Writing for the web" has solid advice, and I actually agree with most of it.
Here's a high-level approach to a good writing process: "How to Write Effective Text". It talks about figuring out what you want to say and making sure what you write is relevant for your site's visitors.
"Seeking & Receiving Feedback" explains how to tell if you've done a good job. I think it's important not to underestimate this aspect of creating your site.
"Why Write or Read Stories? talks about the importance of fictional stories, but I think there's some relevance to writing for many web sites, too. It discusses why "you can't talk in just facts and numbers".

HTML, the Seamy (but Easy) Underbelly

You may first wonder, "Why would I want to"? I can think of several reasons; I'll try to find time to list them all here soon. Some links for now:

I know what you really want: "Learn to Program HTML in 21 Minutes". This also has some basic insights into the principles of good web design - all in a single page. Thank you, Philip Greenspun!

A Beginner's Guide to HTML has been around for a long time, and will give you a good solid introduction to HTML. It assumes that you know how to use Windows Notepad or a similar editor, and that you know how to view your HTML documents once you create them; to do this, just save the documents and open them in your web browser using "File/Open File" or a similar command, or drag the document's file icon onto the web browser - this assumes you're using Windows.

The introduction to the document can sound kind of formidable and technical - it was originally written for Unix users, but is still plenty useful for Windows users. You might want to start at Tags Explained, although the top of the page is here.

Once you are familiar with HTML, you can make good use of an HTML reference like The Compendium of HTML Elements.

I personally prefer learning new skills from books; the one I recommend for beginning web designers is Lynda Weinman's Creative HTML Design. I think my copy is no longer the current version, but she's a respected author and you can't go far wrong with any of her books.

Make sure it works.

You can use either the W3C HTML Validation Service or the EWS Weblint Gateway to check your HTML code for errors. Once you have uploaded a page to some public web server, you can submit both your page's URL and the HTML standards (yes, there's more than one to choose from) you want your page to conform to, and the service will return the result (a list of errors, if there are any) to you immediately.

If a web developer really knows what he is doing, he may deliberately leave some errors in the HTML code, but it's usually nicest to have pages that have no errors.

You'll also need to view your web pages in as many browsers as possible, especially older browsers, to make sure that all of your information is accessible and that nothing too heinous happens to your design. In fact, I regularly use Netscape 3.04. It is to be expected that your site won't look exactly the same in every browser; that's part of the beauty of the web - it's flexible.

One very valuable tool that I have recommended is BrowserSizer. It will automatically resize web browsers so that you can see what a person with a smaller monitor would see. I and many of my clients have larger monitors, but there are a lot of people out there with smaller or lower-resolution monitors.

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