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High Five:
Tips for Webmasters

Susan Ives teaches the Jumpstart Your Web Page class for Alamo PC every second Wednesday from 5:30 until 7 p.m.

This time of year I reflect on what I’ve learned and relearned about Web design over the past twelve months. Then, I share it with you. None of these tips are earth shattering. In fact, most of them are so basic that I’m almost embarrassed to write them down. But sometimes I forget what I once knew and sometimes I’m a slow learner. Most of the examples are from the peaceCENTER’s Web site.

Cherish user feedback
A few weeks ago a teacher from Michigan left a series of frantic calls on the peaceCENTER’s answering machine. She wanted to use one of our features, Blessed are the Peacemakers, in the classroom the next day. It consists of about 30 photos of well-known peacemakers. Under each picture is a link that says, “who am I?” Click on the link and the name and biography of the peacemaker appears in a pop-up window. I thought this was obvious. It wasn’t obvious to the teacher. She didn’t recognize all the photos and desperately needed the answer key. That afternoon, I added a sentence at the bottom of the page explaining how to uncover the answers. If one person was confused enough to make six long-distance phone calls, there are probably a hundred more who are sitting in silent befuddlement.

On the same site there is a graphical link to “This Week in Peace History.” Under it is a week’s worth of peace and justice events which is periodically updated. Click on the graphic and it takes you to a huge list – the whole year! I was the only one who ever clicked on the graphic. I started getting e-mail from people asking how they could get the entire year’s worth of events. I changed the graphic to add a clue: “click here for the whole year.” No more questions.

What is obvious to you might be confusing to your users. Cherish your feedback.

Plan ahead for new content
All of the experts recommend refreshing your site by adding new content at least once a month. It keeps people coming back. On the Alamo PC Web site we insert the new reviews and columns soon after the magazine is published. Your site might not have such an obvious source of new material.

On the peaceCENTER’s site we’ve developed some ongoing features, most of which can be prepared in advance, that are used to refresh the site. The most obvious – and also the most difficult to maintain - is a calendar. Nothing dates a Web site as much as an outdated calendar. I’ve visited hundreds of sites that boast of a calendar but the last entry expired more than a year ago. This casts doubts on the usefulness of the entire site. Even worse, many calendars don’t include the year. An old calendar, still listing year-old events that appear to be current, can create ill will. If you decide on a calendar, or on any dated material, make sure you have the resources to maintain it

Other features are what a print editor would call evergreen – they never go out of date. You can create them all at once, keep them in the hopper, and drop them into your site on schedule. One example from the peaceCENTER’s site is the “This Week in Peace History” feature that I spoke about earlier. I maintain the list in an Excel spreadsheet. Each week, I just cut and paste the new data into my HTML document. It takes about five minutes to format it. Do you have data that you could hold in reserve, doling it out in bits once a week or once a month? Consider a database of quotes or hot tips. If you collect the data all at once it becomes a no-brainer to drop it in on schedule

Another recurring feature on the peaceCENTER site is our “New Language of Peace” Banners. I now have almost 60 of these, each one exactly the same size. You can see the whole collection at <www.salsa.net/peace/kidsphotos/>. You probably wouldn’t want to expose your strategy by showing them all at once; the peaceCENTER is in the business of sharing these resources, so our technique is more transparent than in most Web sites. About once a week I replace the banner – it takes about a minute, but makes the site look totally different.

Taking a few hours to develop a plan that will keep your site fresh will pay off in return visitors

Use what you’ve got
I try to milk all I can out of my high-priced software – I paid for the features, why not use them?  The Microsoft Office Suite is a good example. Documents created in any of the programs – Word, Access, Excel and PowerPoint – can easily be turned into web pages at the click of a mouse. The Corel Suite will do the same.

Here’s an example. I have a big Excel spreadsheet – more than 900 lines – that contains key dates in peace and justice history. You can see it online  I didn’t do all of the coding by hand. Excel has a feature, “save as HTML,” that did 99% of the work for me. After I processed the file, I make a few minor changes. I deleted the table borders (where the code said <table border=”yes> I changed it to <table border=”0”> I made the font size one increment smaller (where the Excel code said, <font face=”arial”> I changed it to <font face=”arial size=”-1”>) I did this using search-and-replace so that the 1,800 changes only took a few seconds. Finally, I cut-and-pasted the banner at the top (the lion graphics and quote) and the navigation data at the bottom right into the new HTML document. It takes longer to read this paragraph than it took me to generate more than 8,000 lines of code.

Another example is the Prayer for the Children. Note the link in the upper right corner of the screen sending you to the slide show version. This takes you to a Powerpoint slide show, converted to HTML. Powerpoint did all of the work.

Milk your current software for all it’s worth

Add Free Content
Check out the peaceCENTER’s calendar page. See that little weather logo on the left column? I got it free from  the Weather Underground  You can get one too. All I had to do was follow their directions to add the icon, and the weather data is automatically updated.

Or go to [www.salsa.net/peace/newsfeed]. The news feeds come from [www.moreover.com]. Free, of course. They have more than 800 news categories culled from more than 1,500 sources. The Google search box on the peaceCENTER’s main page? Free. The Amazon.Com bookstore? Free

I find most of the free stuff that I use by noticing it on other sites and following their links to the source. A good online list of free content on the Web is at [www.findsticky.com], which points you to everything from free stock tickers to free games and cartoons.

Content is expensive to develop. If others are willing to do it for you for free, take them up on it

Use relative references
This is a technical tip concerning HTML coding. I’ve found that there is a surprising demand to display Web sites off-line. For example, you might want to dump all of a site’s files onto a floppy or CD-ROM and show it to someone without connecting to the Internet. Over the past year I’ve had requests to do this with several of my sites.

Here’s the catch. When you create a link to an internal page on your Web site you have two options. You can use an absolute reference, which provides the entire URL. For example, a link from the first page of the peaceCENTER’s site to the peace timeline could read: <A HREF=”http://www.salsa.net/peace/timeline/thisday.html>. This works fine when you are connected to the Internet, but if you try to use the site offline it’s a dead end. The computer will keep trying to get onto the Internet to find the link and won’t budge. 

However, if you use a relative reference you can click through. In this instance, the relative reference would read: <A HREF=”timeline/thisday.html”> . All I’ve done here is list the sub-directory, if any, and the file name. This works fine when you’re offline.

I’m in the process of cleaning up my sites to make all of the internal references relative. This is tedious work. Neither way of creating a reference is right or wrong, but I’m finding that the relative references are more flexible. Wish I knew that three years ago.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference.

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