SAN FRANCISCO (01/31/2000) - The list of most-neglected species includes middle children, voter guides, and half-empty jars of imported capers. To that group you can now add the personal Web site. When I first created one a few years back, I was so proud of myself. Since I'm devoid of design skills, I just learned a little HTML, threw the thing together in a way that made sense to me, and left it there to molder, virtually. No surprise, then, that offers and assignments failed to pour in from editors around the globe.
But recently it occurred to me that if my site could present the Scott Spanbauer story more effectively and professionally, I might land a prestigious assignment from Rolling Stone or the New Yorker. I'd also had a couple of years to stare at the same old design--plenty of time to notice its shortcomings. The three-column table of links was too cumbersome a gateway to the hundreds of PC World article links my site contains. Adding new links required inserting table rows, moving data between table cells, and doing other bits of HTML housework I dislike. The image map I used as a navigational device was sufficiently hard to update that I simply never did. And my photo was goofy. In short, I needed a redesign. By following some of the tips below, I ended up with a brighter, more professional-looking page.
Time For a Redesign?
Perhaps your site needs a refresh too. It's not a trivial decision: If your visitors are used to finding information in a certain way or place, reshaping the geography could put them off. And the job might take longer than you expect, especially if your site has grown over the years. On the other hand, if the new design makes the site easier to use, the pain may be worth enduring.
If you can't imagine changing your site's look or you need structural ideas, scout the Web. Look for sites that present information in a way that would make sense for you--and steal the design. If you can't figure out how a particular site works, choose View*Source in Internet Explorer, or View*Page Source in Navigator to see the HTML code that makes it tick.
The Web is also a great place to learn how not to design your site. If you're considering adding Web doodads, take a few minutes to revisit some of the garish, blinking, flashing sites that drive you crazy. More important, observe how frequently designers--both professional and amateur--let their enthusiasm get in the way of easy navigation. For the bottom line on what not to do, see Jakob Nielsen's "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design" at www.useit.com/alertbox/9605.html.
Less Is More
Web sites can contain lots of things--animated graphics, image maps, scripting, background images, background music, and color, color, color. But they don't have to. Your site's most important element is text; it should be as concise as possible and sensibly organized via HTML's headings, paragraphs, and lists. Put anything that interferes with your message on the to-be-jettisoned list.
Background colors and bit maps can make your page pretty, and they often improve on the default gray background that browsers display when a page does not specify a background color. White or light-colored text on a black or very dark background can be fairly readable as well, but for a really radical scheme, consider black text on a white background. It works for books, magazines, and newspapers, and it works on the Web too. But don't take my word for it--check out www.salon.com, www.nytimes.com, and www.pcworld.com for proof.
Text is your site's main ingredient, but images are the spice that gives the content flavor--the trick is not to add too much. Even a tiny graphic slows a page's load time, and the longer you make visitors wait, the greater the chance they'll hit the Back button and go elsewhere. As a rule of thumb, keep your pages under 50KB--some top sites, such as Yahoo's, are even smaller. For help slimming your JPEG images, visit the Online JPEG Wizard at www.jpegwizard.com.
Weaving Your First Web Site
Haven't jumped aboard the runaway Web train yet? Not everyone needs a site, but if you maintain a private Internet account with an ISP such as AOL, MindSpring, or Prodigy, it probably permits you to post a Web site. And advertising your business isn't the only reason to publish a site--the Web is a good way to share photos or information with family and friends, or to share your expertise in a particular area with people around the world.
Probably the easiest way to start is to launch the Web-authoring tool that comes with your browser. Netscape's Communicator includes Composer; choose Start*Programs*Netscape Communicator*Netscape Composer to run it. Starting with version 4.0, Internet Explorer includes Front Page Express. To launch it, choose Start*Programs*Internet Explorer*Front Page Express (Start*Programs*Accessories*Internet Tools*FrontPage Express with IE 5).
If Front Page Express isn't installed on your PC and you use Internet Explorer 4 as your Web browser, choose Start*Settings*Control Panel, double-click Add/Remove Programs, pick the Windows Setup tab, double-click the Internet Tools entry in the Components list, check Microsoft FrontPage Express in the resulting Components list, and click OK twice to start the installation. If your browser is IE 5, you can download FrontPage Express 2 from Microsoft's Windows Update site (windowsupdate.microsoft.com).
FrontPage Express doesn't come with a tutorial, but you can find a handy primer at the University of Sioux Falls' Web site (www.thecoo.edu/~iverson/fpetutorial/frontpage_express_tutorial.htm). Even though Composer's Help files are reasonably good, Montana State University's Composer tutorial (www.msubillings.edu/tool/tutorial) is better.
You can use these tools to get an uncomplicated site up and running quickly, but it pays to know the basics of HTML (short for Hypertext Markup Language).
The authoring tools don't always do a perfect job of generating HTML, and they don't let you create every kind of HTML command, or tag. PageResource.com offers dozens of Web design tutorials, including beginning HTML guides, at www.pageresource.com/html/hclist.htm. Or go straight to the source: HTML 4.0 lead architect Dave Raggett's "Getting Started With HTML" at www.w3.org/MarkUp/Guide. For a more comprehensive reference work printed on paper, get Chuck Musciano's and Bill Kennedy's HTML: The Definitive Guide, 3rd Edition ($35, O'Reilly & Associates, 1998) or Ian S. Graham's HTML 4.0 Sourcebook ($35, John Wiley & Sons, 1998).
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Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.
Defeat Dial-Tone Dilemmas
Ever drag your laptop into the office, only to find that you can't access the Net? Office phone systems often change the dial tone from a steady drone to a stuttering beep to notify you of waiting messages--and unfortunately Windows' Dial-Up Networking can't handle this tone. Select Start*Programs*Accessories*Communications*Dial-Up Networking, right-click the connection icon you want to use, choose Properties, and click Configure and then the Connection tab. Uncheck Wait for dial tone before dialing.
Download of the Month
Internet connection sharing is one of the few reasons to upgrade from Windows 98 to Windows 98 Second Edition. ICS lets all the PCs on your home or small-office network share one computer's connection to the Internet, saving you the cost and hassle of additional lines and modems or more costly routers.
ICS is fairly easy to set up. Unfortunately, Microsoft forgot to endow ICS with any user interface for configuring its more advanced settings. For example, you might want to block Microsoft's file-sharing protocol over the shared connection to keep hackers away from your hard disks. And to discourage your employees, children, and spouse from gobbling up time and bandwidth, you might need to block the standard TCP/IP ports used by the game Quake.
Allan McCombs's free ICSConfig utility lets you do all this and more. You'll find the teeny-tiny 21KB download on McCombs's Web site at lynx.neu.edu/aamccombs or on FileWorld. If you're not a networking guru, though, you may have trouble with some of the settings. An included readme file offers basic instructions. For more help, check McCombs's site, which contains a link to a discussion board where the author and other users can give you a hand.