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Get Your Website Right from the Start

Tom Arah looks at the best way of setting up your website to ensure its longterm success..

The Web is an amazing publishing platform offering instant access to a global audience of hundreds of millions. Even better, all you need to get your site published is some low-cost web software and a low-cost host . However producing a successful site is another matter entirely. But it can be done - and it's not rocket science. So here's my three-stage programme to ultimate success. And it’s based on just three major principles: an understanding of the true nature of Web publishing; a focus on the end-user; and a constant eye to the future. It's the hard-won advice that I wish someone had told me when I started out.

Step 1: Get Your Site Concept Right

The first stage is to get your site concept right. Obviously it helps if the idea for your site chimes with the nature of the Web. I was fortunate in that my site draws on my writing for PC Pro, the UK's biggest selling computer monthly, and so naturally suits the Web's computer-literate and technologically pioneering audience and, just as important, is as relevant to the US and beyond as it is to the UK. Times change however and these days the Web is becoming such a seamless part of everyday life that it's difficult to think of an idea that won't find some audience.

However you must be realistic. If you're planning to establish a local presence for your perfume shop, say, or to establish a global community of like-minded vampires, don't expect to attract an audience of millions. This can be just as true if your idea is clearly populist. If you’re planning a Beyoncé tribute site, for example, the competition out there is so stiff that you’ll need a strong angle and selling point to stand out from the crowd. Ultimately, as with any business plan, the ideal is to establish a clear gap in the market – easily researched online – that you can fill better than any one else.

Successdmoz.png: Research your site concept and the competition (www.dmoz.org).

Next you have to decide exactly what you want to achieve. If you're planning a website, presumably you have something that you want to promote, whether this is your company, your products, your services, your ideas, your interests, your opinions or just yourself - or any or all of the above. Recognizing your ultimate goal is important - but once you have, put it to the back of your mind as the Web just isn't a promotional medium, at least not directly. You can't force people to listen to your message, they have to want to. In fact they have to want to so much that they actively seek it out. In other words you have to recognize that the Web is primarily a “pull” rather than a “push” medium and that your interests are therefore (co)incidental to your visitors’.

The only way to achieve your ultimate goal is to understand that web success comes from helping as many users as possible find what they are looking for. And you need to recognize that what they are looking for is content. With its fundamentally link-based nature, the Web was specifically designed to help move users towards the content they are interested in, while the rise of the search engines cut out the middlemen to do the same thing even more efficiently. By providing in-demand content - whether that’s a bargain price, background on your services, useful advice, inflammatory opinions, samples of your music, or just about anything else under the sun – you are effectively weaving your own web with which to attract those web users.

As well as standing back and seeing your site from the viewpoint of your end users’, you also need to see your site from the perspective of time. In particular you must recognize that web publishing is not a one-off act but an ongoing process. Web success doesn’t come overnight but rather needs to be nurtured with a constant input of new content and design ideas to keep you ahead of the competition. If it’s not, you’ll not only quickly lose the audience you have worked so hard to build, but the site you have such high hopes for today will soon become stale and dated, then a dreaded chore, and eventually a source of embarrassment. In other words, before you start, you need to be absolutely sure that you are ready to make the long-term commitment to make your site a success. If you have any doubts, stop now - otherwise there’s a big danger that your site won’t end up as a crowning success, but rather an albatross around your neck.

Websites are always changing - web publishing is an ongoing process (www.web.archive.org).

Step 2: Get Your Site Design Right

Assuming that you do have both a realistic idea for your site and a realistic idea of what will be involved in making it a success, the next stage is to get your site design right. This isn’t the right place to investigate the nuts and bolts of HTML authoring (covered in issue ) or the strengths and weaknesses of individual authoring packages (covered in ) but rather to again stand back to see the bigger picture and understand just what successful web design is all about. Again the focus is on the end user and helping your site visitors get to the information that they want to get to - and doing this as efficiently as possible.

This must be true at all levels starting with your site structure. Again you must think laterally and put yourself in your visitors’ shoes. While you are totally familiar with the content on your site from your own perspective, your visitors are arriving at your site with no prior knowledge and might well think about things in a very different way. While I tend to think of the content on my site in terms of reviews, articles and features, for example, for the visitor the more important categories are likely to be the different design fields. If you’re looking for information on web design, for example, you don’t want that complicated by information about print.

Usability is key to the success of your site – though aesthetics shouldn’t be forgotten (www.useit.com).

Once you’ve worked out a clear, end-user-focused site structure, accessible site navigation based on it should fall into place almost naturally with clearly marked and differentiated links to site sections (usually rollovers) and individual pages (usually text links). But remember that the Web isn’t built on text but rather on hypertext, which means that each visitor chooses their own way through your site content. And it won’t necessarily be the clear drill-down approach from your home page to your individual content pages that you’d expect.

In particular you need to recognize that readers always want to cut to the chase and to get directly to the information they are seeking. On my site, for example, it would be much easier for me to have a single, easily updatable drill-down list of all web software reviews - once you’d read one, you could simply back up to the list and drill down again to any other. Except that many users wouldn’t back up to explore further. In fact many users wouldn’t even know this was an option as they’ll have been delivered direct to one of the review pages by a search engine. Instead it’s far better to provide direct links to all other relevant pages on every page – it’s much more work for the author but less for the end visitor and that’s what matters.

When you appreciate that visitors aren’t necessarily arriving by your front door, you’ll also realise why it’s so important to have links to your home page and major site sections on every page. Almost as important is an easily-accessible sitemap page showing just how your site is organized and best navigated. And as a last resort for those users who still can’t find the content they are looking for, a site search capability is invaluable. This involves some server-side handling so support for site searching might be something to add to your requirement list when looking for a host (see below). Alternatively you can take advantage of Google’s free site search capability http://www.google.com/searchcode.html.

Good design helps end users get to the information they seek (www.google.com).

So far we’ve been talking about good web design at the structural level, but the same principle of helping users get the information they want as efficiently as possible applies at the individual page level. This is basically a matter of getting the fundamentals right: keep the page design clear and simple and you won’t go far wrong. To begin with, make sure that you are using an easily readable font for your main body copy (Times and Arial might be commonplace but that’s because they are optimized for low-resolution onscreen display) and that the end user can change the size of it within their browser (this is important not just for the visually impaired but for those using high-resolution displays). As the Web is all about browsing rather than reading, it’s also important to pull out the main hierarchy of information on each page with clearly distinguished headings, and also the different types of information it contains via bullet-pointed lists, italicized addresses and so on.

This clear marking up of the content on your page shouldn’t be a problem as HTML ( HyperText Markup Language), the foundation on which the Web is built, was designed specifically for this purpose based on a small range of content-based tags. More generally, you (or your designers if you decide to go the third-party route) are going to have to work efficiently with HTML throughout your design, understanding just what the language was designed to do and what it wasn’t. And, for a truly successful site that means directly handling and optimising the code on which your pages and site depend. In fact these days, you also need to understand and exploit the inner workings of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), the markup language designed to handle the presentation of your site’s text content.

It’s not just text and code handling that you have to master. Graphics are an integral part of any site design and probably even more important when it comes to giving your site its identity and impact. Obviously your graphics’ appearance is crucial but so is their size – if you don’t optimize your GIFs and JPEGs in a dedicated web graphics package such as Macromedia Fireworks or Adobe ImageReady, they will send your bandwidth requirements soaring. This might seem overkill - after all you’re probably only talking about saving the odd kilobyte here or there - but remember that a core navigational graphic on a successful site could well be hit hundreds of thousands of times a month. More to the point, if you don’t squeeze your graphics to within an inch of their life, they’ll slow your site and, whenever that happens, you lose traffic.

This is a crucial point. Ultimately the way that your site comes over is entirely dependent on how it appears to the end user in their browser and over their internet connection. And that can be very different to how it appears to you on your own testing set-up. In particular, although the spread of broadband means that bandwidth capabilities and so design expectations are rising, you still need to make sure that all the elements of your site are as optimized and responsive as possible. You also need to make sure that your site actually appears more-or-less as you expect it to across as wide a range of standard browser versions as possible (ideally test your pages in the browsers themselves but, if not, use a package that lets you validate against the main browser standards). Again these problems of browser incompatibility are diminishing with time, but you still need to be careful, especially with CSS-based formatting and positioning.

Backward-compatibility remains an issue, but these days forward-compatibility is just as important. The Web is in a constant state of change and HTML itself is always evolving. Practices such as the use of <font> tags for text control are now officially deprecated, for example, and should be eradicated in favour of CSS formatting. In the longer term the use of tables for layout will go the same way in favour of CSS-positioning. Eventually HTML itself will be phased out or rather evolved into the new XML-compatible variant, XHTML. You need to be aware of all these shifts and ready for them. And remember that your own requirements might also change. At some point you might decide to embrace the benefits of data-driven publishing, for example, in which case you’ll want to extend your use of HTML with one of the specialist markup languages such as Microsoft’s ASP/ASP. NET or Macromedia ColdFusion.

You need to keep on top of the changing nature of the underlying Web technologies (www.w3c.org).

You also need to plan for the future at a more immediately practical level. Web publishing is an ongoing process and for a successful site you will constantly be adding new material, updating existing pages (if only to add the new links) and occasionally reworking the entire site. To keep on top of this constant development - and to stop it getting on top of you - you need to have a system. Much of this again boils down to keeping things simple. Create an easy-to-apply design and then apply it absolutely rigorously, doing exactly the same things to each and every page in exactly the same order – edit the title, apply the same tags, add the same size graphics and so on. It’s supremely dull but it’s effective and the best way of ensuring consistency.

You also need to take advantage of any features that your software provides to help you gain some centralized control. This is an area where Dreamweaver scores particularly well but most apps with professional aspirations offer similar functionality. With templates, for example, you can create a layout on which to base new pages complete with control over just what sections are editable. Even better, when you update the master template, all the pages based on it are automatically updated. Acting in a similar way at a lower level are shared library items – absolutely essential for simultaneously updating the links on dozens of pages. At the lowest level of all, you can easily store and access snippets of code for regular re-use.

The most practical way of taking a firm grip of your overall site design, and available to you whatever package you use, is the ability to base all your text formatting on a single external CSS stylesheet. This not only ensures absolute consistency, but offers greater design control than vanilla HTML along with far greater data efficiency (no reams of <font> tags). Best of all, it means that you can totally change the appearance of your entire site by editing just one file. It’s more work to set-up in the first place but the rewards over time are immense (imagine updating every file manually!) and really show the benefits of streamlining your design and your workflow from the outset.

Cascading style sheets provide efficiency, consistency, control and flexibility (www.csszengarden.com)

Step 3: Get Your Site Set-Up Right

Once you’ve applied your high-impact but simple, efficient and flexible design to your content, you’re ready to let your site loose on the public. But first you need to register a unique name for your site. So what should it be? Clearly the ideal is an easily recognized short name that sums up what your site is all about, but obviously these days most generic names are already taken. That makes it tempting to choose a less common TLD (Top Level Domain) extension such as .org or .biz but don’t use an extension which isn’t directly relevant and you’re generally better sticking to the .com and co.uk standards. Also don’t be tempted into any trickery – replacing a lower case “l” with the numeral “1” for example – remember that your site name will also be used as the basis of your email addresses and you don’t want to spend the rest of your life spelling them out.

Your best bet is almost certainly a reasonably short (some older browsers have a limit of 22 characters) and immediately intelligible compound name, hyphenated if necessary (spaces are not allowed and case is ignored). But don’t jump at the first one that you come up with. You’re going to have to live with your site name so spend some time thinking up and trying out alternatives. When you’re ready with a range of strong candidates you can visit any number of domain name registration services and use their search facility to check which are available. At www.whois.net you can also search on keywords to see the competition and view previously registered names that are now available again.

Research possible domain names thoroughly before making your choice (www.whois.net)

The advantage of registering your name independently with a registration service is that you can change your hosting server provider and simply redirect your web forwarding. These days however, most users decide that it’s more convenient to have your hosting provider take care of your name as well - especially as most now include the initial naming and renewal fees as part of the costs of their service. If you do go down this route though, be sure that your site name is registered in your name or you might find it difficult to change host.

So what other factors do you need from your host? Take a look at a range of providers online and you’ll see that most split their packages into categories based primarily on the amount of hosting space provided. This is slightly bizarre as, while obviously you need enough space to hold your files, you can run a very successful text-only site with just 10MB space, while a site with hundreds of megabytes of video clips might never be seen. More important is the amount of “bandwidth” provided in the package as this depends on your site traffic as well as content (essentially it’s your site’s total monthly data transfer based on the number of hits received multiplied by the size of each file requested).

The two other factors that are most important to you are rarely foregrounded as they are less easy to quantify. First off, you need to know that your site is reliable. The platform that the server runs on plays a part here, with Unix/Linux a longterm favourite for industrial-strength stability, but it’s also down to the expertise of your host so make sure that you find out about their track record for up-time and any guarantees. The second factor is speed as it’s so crucial to how your site is perceived. The main inputs here are the size of your host’s pipeline to the Internet and, if you’re sharing it as most users do, the number of other sites involved and their bandwidth requirements. It’s also important to realise that the amount of traffic varies over the day so a site that’s responsive in the morning can grind to a halt in the evening. Again ask for the names of sites currently hosted and check them out yourself.

Research the full range of potential hosting providers.

Space, bandwidth, reliability and speed are the universal requirements but other host-based services can prove just as crucial. If you’re hosting a data-driven site for example, you’re going to need to ensure that your host supports your technology of choice – ASP, ColdFusion or whatever. Likewise if you’re planning an ecommerce site you’ll need server support for secure transactions or a turnkey system such as Actinic, while a video or music site will need streaming media support. Coming down the scale somewhat if you’re using FrontPage you’ll want a server that supports the FrontPage extensions. At the most fundamental level, what CGI scripts does your host provide and can you add your own? Email handling could also determine your choice – in particular are enough separate POP 3 accounts included and is web access provided?

Another factor that is crucial to your longterm success and often overlooked is the ability to monitor your traffic (see this month’s RW article). Most providers now offer basic stats as part of the package but to produce a truly successful site you really need to understand exactly how your site is being used so that you can fine-tune it accordingly, and for this you need direct access to your server log files. Finally there’s the crucial issue of support, which can range from paid helplines designed to make money for the host through to an ongoing personal relationship designed to help make your site as successful as possible (many thanks from me to Paul Jeffrey at NSL/ Iomart for all his help over the years).

What web success is all about – rising site traffic.

When you have a checklist of must-have and desirable features it’s a case of checking out the various options available online to see which offers the best fit. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the bigger providers necessarily offer a better service or deal than the smaller players and remember that because requirements and packages vary so much, one provider won’t suit all. More to the point, because both requirements and packages are always changing a good fit today might not be tomorrow. To some extent you can plan for this by including the likely future costs of additional bandwidth, disk space and functionality in your calculations. More important though is ensuring that, if things don’t work out as you’d like, your provider has a policy of helping users move to a new host with no release fees, hassle or delay.

Conclusion: Ready for Success

When you’re confident that you’ve got your site concept, design and set-up right, you’re finally ready to publish. Of course though, that’s not the end of the matter but rather the beginning. In particular you’ve now got to help your site and its audience to grow. It’s tempting to fall for one of the huge number of get-rich style schemes promising to deliver thousands of visitors to your door, usually by trying to trick Google and the other search engines into placing your site top of their lists. However there are no shortcuts. You now have to settle in to fine-tuning your site, optimizing both its content and design to ensure that it becomes even more attractive.

Crucially, you have the right platform on which to build. To begin with, you have an attractive site concept based on providing end users with content that they are actively seeking. Next you have an efficient and easily accessible design intended to get them to that content as quickly as possible. And finally, thanks to your site setup, you have a responsive and fully-functioning site designed to ensure a positive experience of that content. With these three elements in place you’ll find that the Web starts working for you. Your high-quality content combined with your site’s many internal links will lead to search-engine based visitors who, impressed, will both bookmark the site to return and tell others about it in newsgroups and on their own sites. The search engines and other sites will pick up on these links, pushing your site further up the rankings producing more new traffic, more repeat traffic, more links, a higher ranking and so on.

If you get the platform right, web success will follow.

Tom Arah

July 2004

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