:: Advice to the new website creator

For the novice, creating a website can be both a fun and a daunting experience. Unfortunately, all too many new web authors seem to burn out, leaving half-completed websites littering the net. Here's some tips I've collected over the years, which should hopefully go some way to helping new website creators stay productive, on-message, and sane.
  1. Content is King
    Too many websites have lots of groovy design features, fancy fonts and colours, and cutesy animal graphics. These have nothing to do with the content of the site, make things look cluttered, and worst of all they take up lots of your effort in adding them. Sure, it can be fun to decorate your website like a halloween float, but don't do this at the expense of putting in the information that your visitors came to see. Instead, spend your effort in adding as much textual information as a visitor is possibly going to need. By all means use graphics and images, but make sure they're going to be of interest to your visitors.
  2. Webpage design is easy - but designing bad webpages is really easy
    Modern tools like Composer, Dreamweaver and the like make designing web pages pretty easy - it's very like using a word-processor like Microsoft Word. But this power can be difficult to wield sensibly - it's very tempting to make flashy websites with little content. As noted above, stick to content at the expense of all the flashy stuff.
  3. Design your site to meet visitors' needs
    Why would someone want to visit your website? What information do they want to find there? A good website is designed with fulfilling these "user tasks" as the primary goal. Say, for example, that you own a small cuckoo-clock shop. Visitors are going to want to do things like: Similarly if your site is for your rock band (and you want people to buy your CDs or book you for their venue) then you'll need photos of the band, details of what kind of music you play, details of how someone would buy your CD, and perhaps some mp3 format clips of your music. Most importantly, you need to give contact information. Similarly, for a professional organisation, you'll need information about the organisation, details of meetings (times, places, prices), information about membership, and contact information.
  4. Font and colours are (probably) not your friend
    It's very tempting to start changing the colours of text and the background, and to change the fonts that are used. This is often a mistake, and it's really quite hard to do it properly. Remember that the fonts which appear on your machine may not be present on someone else's (particularly if they run a different operating system to you), in which case their browser will fall back on its default (read: rather uninteresting) font anyway. Moreover, font sizes, styles, and colours can be a barrier for users with visual disabilities - the less you specify these things, the easier such a disabled user can change things to suit themselves. Lastly, there's the matter of taste - it's all too tempting to have multicoloured bold flashing underscored text on a bright green background. A review of the appearance of most major websites shows that they overwhelmingly favour black (or very dark) text on a white (or very light) background, and that most use two or occasionally three different fonts. An unfortunate favourite of new web designers is to put white or yellow text on a black background. I can think of exactly one website where that doesn't look deeply amateurish (that's, which was very skillfully designed).
  5. Don't use background graphics
    Beginner website designers seem to love putting repeating background graphics on their pages (you know, those annoying logos or photos that appear behind the text). Don't do that. It almost always makes reading the text more difficult, and it always makes your page look cheap and cheesy. Sometimes you'll find special graphics which are intended for just this purpose - they look like textured paper or rock, and are pretty plain (so text on them is legible). These aren't nearly as bad, but don't do them either. Websites aren't written on papyrus, and they aren't chiseled into stone, and your site will still look more amateurish by dint of doing this. Notice that popular sites like ebay and msn don't use background graphics. Apart from the unfortunate visual effect they cause, background graphics also mean your visitors have to download more stuff - and big background graphics will take a long time. If you must use them, make sure the page looks good even when they don't load (or while they are loading) - and let's face it, if the page looks good without them, you don't need background graphics at all!
  6. Try your site out on different browsers
    One might hope that all web browsers will show your page in just the same way, but this is seldom the case. Frankly, the more control you try to assert (by explicitly specifying the sizes of tables, fonts, colours, etc.) the more likely it is to look different on at least one browser. Supporting all possible browsers can be a tough job - each browser has bugs, and seemingly their authors conspire to make sure they're not the same bugs. Nevertheless, once your page works in Opera, Konqueror, Safari, Mozilla, Links, and Internet Explorer, then you can be confident most of your visitors will be able to use it without problems. In particular, testing it in the "accessibility" and "emulate text browser" modes of Opera finds all kinds of problems you'd never notice if you only tested it in Microsoft Internet Explorer.
  7. Don't make too many pages too quickly
    Once designers discover how links work, they're tempted to make lots of pages and link them all together. This is fine, if there's a decent amount of content on each page - but if each page has only a few lines, then you risk annoying your readers, who have to click around more than is really necessary. Every website should start as a single page, and only grow to multiple ones once the first becomes ungainly.
  8. Use structural markup
    HTML tags like <h1> are called structural markup This means that they represent the structure of your website. So don't use them just to get large, bold text - use them to delineate the major sections of your website. Later, if you don't like the appearance of the, you can always use Cascading Style Sheets to alter their appearance, while conserving their structural meaning.
  9. Sound is (mostly) bad
    Most web surfers listen to music, radio, or TV, while they browse the web. If your website contains sound (particularly sounds or music that play automatically when a visitor opens your website) then that will interfere horribly with what your visitor is already listening to. The worst thing, something you should never do is to play music when a visitor arrives, and having little sounds (clicks) that play when the visitor moves their mouse over things is almost as bad. If sound is the purpose of your website (e.g. if your site teaches saxophone playing, contains archives of old folk music, or examples of the cherokee language) then of course it's appropriate to have lots of sound - but always have it located in clearly denoted links - so the link text would say something like click here to listen to a C-major scale.
  10. Don't call yourself a webmaster
    Unless you want to sound like some kind of Dr Who villain, you probably don't want to call yourself a webmaster (I'm mostly kidding about this one, but any mystique that may have once attached to this activity is entirely gone).
  11. Don't say "under construction"
    The whole web is under construction, the whole time. The web is also full of websites that are "under construction" which haven't been altered since 1997. Don't put your site up until it's slightly useful, and once it's up don't break it for the sake of more content which you haven't added yet. Busy sites like Amazon and Yahoo are always under construction, but they try really hard to never leave a gaping hole while they fix or improve things. So don't put up a banner telling visitors their trip to your website was wasted.
  12. Put in an "email us" link
    There are two reasons why you might want someone to email you. First, because they're interested in the content of the site - they want to buy your product, share a recipe, or ask a question. Secondly, they have something to say or ask about the website itself. Sometimes they want you to clarify something, or report a problem, or ask for new content. Surprisingly, people often send emails thanking you for providing information, or congratulating you for its quality.

    Most web-editor programs have an option for inserting your email as a link - if you're editing the HTML yourself then the code looks like this:

            <a href="">email us</a>
    One thing you need to worry about - these days spammers have programs that search the web for "mailto" links like the one above. Almost all the spam I get comes from such spam "spiders". So if you put your personal email addresses on the website, the spammers will soon get hold of it and start sending you stuff on it. The best idea is to make a special email address (perhaps at somewhere like hotmail or yahoo mail) and use it for the website's mailto links. When the spammers find it, make a new account, alter the website accordingly, and abandon the old one.