Archive for the ‘Internet Tutorials’ Category

E-Mail Newsletters

Tuesday, December 1st, 1998

(This column first appeared in the November/December 1998 issue of Dive Report)

In my last column, I covered how you would go about promoting your Web site, but neglected to point out that most of the methods of promotion I discussed only dealt with getting first-time visitors to learn about and visit your site. As any good salesman will tell you, first-time buyers are great, but the real money is with repeat customers. The same applies to Web sites – you want to keep your customers coming back to your site.

That’s easy if you have Web content that changes constantly, as is the case with a Web site like CNN’s or USA Today’s. However, for most of us in the dive industry, our Web site content changes rather less frequently, and probably also rather inconsistently. This in turn means that repeat customers can’t expect to visit your site regularly and find new information, so they won’t bother.

The best way to get customers to keep coming back to your site is to let them know when they should come back, and one of the best ways to do this is to this is via an e-mail newsletter. An e-mail newsletter is pretty much what it seems – news specific to your organization, delivered by e-mail. This news can cover new services and products, an update on events that would be of interest to your existing and potential customers, and anything else you want to include which will help you bond with your customers. I should mention that in addition to serving as a way to attract people to your Web site, e-mail newsletters also serve as promotional material in their own right. E-mail newsletters provide two distinct advantages over their printed counterparts. First, production hassles and costs are virtually non-existent. After all, the e-mail newsletter is just text, there are no printing costs, and there’s no postage to be paid. Second, e-mail newsletters can be created and delivered in a very short period of time. I produce a weekly newsletter called the Bonaire E-NewsTM (see http://www.infobonaire.com/html/this_week.html) in a matter of three or four hours, and people have it sitting in their mailboxes mere minutes after I’m done with my final edit.

So, it appears that e-mail newsletters are a no-brainer, right? Not quite.

In preparing this column, I corresponded (by e-mail of course) with Peter Chestnut of Blue Water Photo, Dallas, Texas (bluwater@mindspring.com), Laurie Sutton of Fisheye & Sea-D, Grand Cayman (http://www.fisheye.com), Vicki Howden of Habitat, Curacao (http://www.habitatdiveresorts.com), Ron Marlar of Wet-N-Fla SCUBA, Lake Mary, Florida (wnfscuba@aol.com), and Shellyanne Chase at DEMA (http://www.dema.org), and asked them to share their experiences with the use of e-mail newsletters as a promotional tool.

While universally all of these people were happy with the fact that they had started a newsletter, they all had had some difficulties along the way.

Seven Rules of E-Mail Newsletters
Using the comments of the people I just mention, and my own experience with the topic at hand, I’ve prepared seven rules of creating e-mail newsletters for you to review and use as you wish.

Rule #1 – Clearly define the purpose and goal of the newsletter.
In this context, the “purpose” is what you want readers to understand as the reason they are supposed to read your newsletter. The “goal” is your own personal goal for what you want to accomplish with the newsletter. Without a true purpose and goal, your newsletter will lack focus, and your customers will
assume you don’t know what you’re doing. In fact, to help remind both you and your customers of what your newsletter’s purpose is, you should include the purpose in each edition of the newsletter. Peter Chestnut does this with his Blue Water Newsletter:

A NEWSLETTER that addresses Questions, updates on new films, processes etc.
CLASSIFIED ADS for Underwater Photo Gear & other stuff
ANSWERS to your PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNICAL questions.
MISCELLANEOUS Bits & Pieces that might be of interest

The goal of the newsletter can be anything, although to make it worthwhile to continue doing, there is usually some sort of financial reward usually attached. Most often, the goal of a newsletter will be to remind customers about the newsletter originators products and services in order to get those customers to ultimately spend more money on such products and services. According to Laurie Sutton, the goal of her Fisheye Netnews is to “Keep people interested in diving Cayman and Fisheye, and keep them feeling that they are part of our ‘family’”.

Rule #2 – Good Content is a Must!
People are not going to read your newsletter just because you wrote it. You must provide content which is interesting and useful, and present it in a fashion which is in tune with your customers.

Ron Marler accomplishes this with his newsletter for Wet-N-Fla SCUBA by providing key details about his upcoming dive shop sponsored dive trips, injecting a little humor in a few places, and mentioning the accomplishments of some of his customers and students. His approach helps show his customers that he knows their time is valuable so he isn’t going to fill it with fluff.

Vicki Howden’s Freedom Journal for Habitat Curacao addresses a different audience, namely people looking for an escape from their daily routine, perhaps to a nice Caribbean island resort, so her newsletters contain more a little more prose wrapped around the basic information she wants to impart. Her audience wants to spend a little more time reading because it helps them visualize something they are not exposed to all that often.

Rule #3 – Be Timely
I get pretty annoyed when I get a piece of mail that announces some really interesting event, only to discover that the event has already happened and for some reason I got the announcement late. With e-mail newsletters, there’s no excuse for this to happen. Because your delivery time is virtually nil, you should be able to plan your content so that it gives people enough time to review your newsletter and participate in scheduled events you announce with your newsletter.

Similarly, be consistent with the frequency of your newsletter. If your newsletter is supposed to be monthly, send a newsletter out every month, or, if you don’t have any news for a given issue, let people know that there won’t be a newsletter that month. If you promise one thing, and deliver another, customers
will translate that as a behavior that you use in business dealings too.

Rule #4 – Make it User Friendly
The best e-mail newsletters I receive provide several user friendly features. First, if they cover more than a couple of items, they include a table of contents right at the beginning so I can see if there’s anything in the newsletter that’s of interest to me.

Second, good newsletters have a consistent look and feel. I can tell with a single glance where one article ends and another one starts because they use the same delineator all the time.

Third, good e-mail newsletters have no special formatting (different fonts, bold or italic highlighting, etc.) – just plain text, with less than 80 characters per line to avoid odd-looking line wrapping. If special formatting is recommended to enhance the newsletter in some way, it’s available as an option – you can subscribe to the plain text version or to an enhanced HTML (the same format Web pages are in) version of the e-mail. CNN offers this for all their daily newsletters (see http://cnn.com), for example.

Finally, good e-mail newsletters do not contain file attachments with graphics, executable files, or documents in a specific word processing format. If any of these is recommended, then instead a link to a Web page containing these items should be included in the text of the newsletter.

Rule #5 – Quality is Key
Any materials you produce reflect on your organization. If the materials you produce are of poor quality, it implies your company’s products or services are of poor quality as well. In terms of e-mail newsletters, quality is judged by spelling, grammar, and factual accuracy. So, check your spelling and have someone with good command of the language the newsletter is written in proofread and edit your effort before you send it out. And, always check your facts. The most commonly erroneous facts are phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and Web links. If you’re not sure about something, either don’t include it, or make sure that readers know that you are stating your opinion.

Rule #6 – Respect Your Audience
Without an audience, your newsletter is useless, so you need to show respect for your audience. First, don’t assume that they are stupid. Be truthful in what you write.

Second, understand that your audience does not have huge amounts of time to devote to your newsletter. Make it easy for them to quickly review the information they provide.

Third, not everyone wants to read your newsletter. Make it easy for people to remove themselves from your mailing list. Also, make sure people know that there’s a real person behind the newsletter that they can contact with any issues pertaining to such a removal, and respond to concerns. And, don’t wantonly
send out your newsletter to any e-mail address you can get your hands on – this is called spamming and is the current scourge of the Internet. Instead, send a short note to potential subscribers offering them your newsletter, and don’t take offense if they don’t respond. As an example of how to screw up all of these items, Rodale’s Scuba Diving recently published its first e-mail newsletter. I got five unsolicited copies of the same newsletter, and when I complained that while one copy would be fine, but five wasn’t, I couldn’t easily find who to contact, nor did I ever receive a response once I did finally find an e-mail address to complain to. This shows either a complete lack of organization or a serious disregard for the audience, and neither is very impressive. In fact, when I recently received a request from Rodale’s to swap my mailing lists (something we don’t do anyway) for the Bonaire E-News for some free advertising, I turned it down based on the lack of respect Rodale’s exhibited for me as a member of their audience – I wouldn’t want them treating my subscribers like they treated me.

I should add that there are a number of legitimate ways to get subscriber e-mail addresses. At Habitat Curacao and Fisheye, they have added a line to the dive waiver forms asking people to include an e-mail address if they want to receive the newsletter. For the Bonaire E-News, we post each issue on the InfoBonaire
Web site and document how people can add themselves to the mailing list. DEMA sends its DEMAlog to all DEMA members it has e-mail addresses for.

Finally, respect your audience’s privacy. Promise them that you will not give out their e-mail address, and, when you send e-mail make sure to put all your addressees on the “BCC” (Blind-Carbon-Copy) address line of your e-mail software so that their e-mail address doesn’t show up for all other subscribers (and your competitors) to see.

Rule #7 – Choose The Right Tools
In addition to the newsletter itself, mailing e-mail newsletters requires a list of addressees and some software to do the mailing for you. This software exists in two forms. The first resides on your computer, and can be as simple as your normal e-mail software package. I use Eudora Pro 4.0, and have put my 500+ subscribers for the Bonaire E-News into my address book. The same can be done in most other e-mail software.

If you want to personalize the e-mail, akin to how mail merging works in word processing software, you could look at a package like WorldMerge (http://www.softwaretitles.com/worldmerge/), which Habitat Curacao was experimenting with, or MailKing (http://www.mailking.com) which I have experimented with.

The other scenario is to use a mailing list manager residing on a mail server. The most common of these mailing list software packages are Majordomo and Listserv, and require quite a bit of work to set up to work the way you want, and usually require the involvement of someone at the company offering the mail servers (such as your local ISP). I just came across a more user friendly remote list manager called ListBot (http://www.listbot.com), which gives list owners a Web-based management interface. All of these work by sending your newsletter to one specific e-mail address. The remote mailing list software then broadcasts your newsletter to all the e-mail addresses on the list you set it up with. The remote mailing list software offers the ability to allow people to automatically subscribe and unsubscribe from your mailing list, but you need to make sure that they are set up so that only you can send messages to the whole list. Otherwise your competitors could use your list to contact your customers.

Summary
E-mail newsletters are an excellent way to communicate with and excite your existing and potential customers, but you need to make sure you do it right. After all, you want to impress your audience and not turn them off.

On a separate note, if you’re going to DEMA, you may want to catch one of my two Internet sessions. One will include a panel of dive industry members sharing their pain and gain from Internet marketing (at this time I’m still looking for panelists, so please contact me if you have Internet marketing experiences you’d like to share), and the other is a presentation to help people understand how the Internet can be made to work for them. Hope to see you there!

Marketing Your Web Site

Tuesday, September 1st, 1998

(This column first appeared in the September/October 1998 issue of Dive Report)

So, your Web site’s done, and you’ve had it accessible to the public for several weeks now. You’ve been checking the Web site access statistics that your Internet Service Provider has been providing you with (or should be), but you haven’t seen any real traffic at your site… If that’s the case, chances are that you haven’t done enough to publicize your web site to Web surfers!

So how do you promote your Web site so people know about it? The best way to figure this out is to understand how users find the Web sites they want to explore. There are three basic ways that users get to a given Web site:

  1. They find it via a search engine (see my column in the January/February 1998 issue of Dive Report).
  2. They find it through a link on another Web site, from a newsgroup, or via e-mail.
  3. They got the address via an advertisement or printed promotional materials (i.e. not via an on-line link).

Let’s take a look at each one of these.

Search Engines
A search engine is like a phone book for the Internet, except that none of the search engines contains a list of all the pages on the Web. Not even close. According to a recent research project, it turns out that the most any search engine covers is about 40% of the Web. Most search engines work via a “spider” software program which follows links from one Web site to another to another, and so on and so on. As each page is located, its contents are added to the search engine database and the site is “indexed” (each word is cataloged in such a way as to be able to find a reference to the page when a user enters the proper search parameter).

However, this spidering process can be slow to find your site, and won’t find it at all if no other Web pages link to it. The solution is to tell the search engine that your site exists, and to index your site. In Table 1, I’ve provided the names of the top search engines along with the addresses at which the “add a site” pages for the search engines are located. The reason I provided the exact address information (which has to be entered exactly as listed, including upper and lower case characters) is that on a number of the search engines, the pages to add a site are very difficult to find on your own. Note that once you tell a search engine to add your site to its index, it can take as long as three to four weeks for it to actually appear as a result of a search.

Table 1 – List of the top search engines along with the address to use to add a Web site to the search engine.
Altavista http://altavista.digital.com/av/content/addurl.htm
Excite http://www.excite.com/Info/add_url.html
HotBot http://www.hotbot.com/addurl.html
Infoseek http://www.infoseek.com/AddUrl?pg=DCaddurl.html
Lycos http://www.lycos.com/addasite.html
NetFind http://www.aol.com/netfind/info/addyoursite.html
NorthernLight http://www.northernlight.com/docs/register.htm
WebCrawler http://www.webcrawler.com/Help/GetListed/AddURLS.html
Yahoo http://www.yahoo.com (get to desired topic, click on “Suggest a Site” at bottom of page)

The only search engine in the list which does not use an automated program to add Web sites to its index is Yahoo!, which uses humans to review Web site submissions to determine if the site should be added, and if so, which Yahoo! category it should be added to. I’ve found that on the average, you need to submit your site to Yahoo! about five times in order to get yourself listed.

Another thing that’s important to consider is that each search engine has different criteria for determining how important a given Web page is when a user searches for a given keyword or phrase that appears on the page. The goal is to have your pages appear in the top 10 or 20 matches for the keywords you would like users to use to find your Web site.

The techniques used to get your Web site listed in the top 10 or 20 matches vary from search engine to search engine, ranging from including a series of related key word hidden in your page header via something called a “Meta” tag, to making sure your keywords are liberally used in the visible text of your Web pages. Some engines also use a count of how many other pages link to a page to determine how important it is. Describing all these techniques in detail would be enough to fill several columns, so instead I’ll refer you to the most comprehensive coverage of this information on the Web, namely the Search Engine Watch Web site (http://www.searchenginewatch.com).

Links
Another great way to get traffic on your Web site is to get other people to link to you from their Web sites. Of course, this only works if the Web sites you’re linked from are ones related to the field or industry your Web site promotes. For example, if your site promotes your dive shop, then links that make sense are ones from your customers on their pages dealing with local diving or dive trips they’ve taken with you, dive magazines with regional listings, city guides that list local recreation and sports, and sites which have all sorts of links to scuba diving. Additionally, it’s a great idea to try and get links from sites which do appear in the top 10 for the keywords you expect users to use to find your site. This way, even if they don’t get to your site at first, Web surfers have a good chance of getting there through the other sites.

Actually getting people to add links to your site is a whole different matter, unfortunately, since everyone seems to have a different idea of what a link is worth. As such, you’ll find that there are three types of links: free, reciprocal, and paid.

Free links come in all forms, and frequently occur simply by asking the owner of a relevant Web site for a link to your site. However, I’ve only found free links to come from people who have personal sites. Businesses on the Web are usually as interested as you are in getting good link exposure, so they will tend to at least want a link back to their site from yours. This is called a reciprocal link.

Web sites that get a lot of traffic will be far less likely to provide a free or even reciprocal link to your site, since they benefit little from any links you might add to their Web site, but you would benefit a lot from links from their site to yours. In this case, if links is available (some Web sites don’t want surfers to leave their site), you will have to pay the owners of the larger, more popular Web site for a link. There’s no set pricing for how much such a link should or will cost, but if someone does offer to charge you for a link you should ask them for information on how much traffic there is at their site, and in particular what sort of metering system they have to track the number of people who see the page with your link on it, and perhaps even if they can track how many people have clicked on your link. Ultimately, you need to figure out if the price you’re being asked to pay is worth the potential results.

The same applies for the most common form of paid linking, namely on-line advertising. Unless you’re a Web recluse, you’ve seen banner advertising on the more popular Web sites (like those of search engines). You too can buy banner ads, and the prices vary enormously depending on the popularity of the site they are on. As an example, a banner on one of the search engines which would appear when someone enters particular keywords starts at $2,000 per month, but on a small site dealing with a more limited topic might only be $50-100 per month.

The final kind of linking is including a link to your Web site in your own e-mail and newsgroup messages as part of your signature – the signature is one or more lines of text that your e-mail or news reader software will automatically append to every message you send or post. This way, if people like what you have to say they can click on the link to see what your company is all about.

Other Media
On-line promotion of your Web site isn’t the only way to get your Web address in front of someone’s face. Traditional media, such as business cards, brochures, and even advertising in the form of print, radio, and television. You may have noticed that many TV advertisements now include Web addresses because companies have discovered that their Web sites are an excellent way to supplement the small amount of time they have in traditional media to sell their product or service.

Of course, in addition to spending money to promote your Web address via traditional media, you should consider promoting the launch or face-lift of your Web site by issuing press releases to all the newspapers and magazines that pertain to your field (and location) of business. See my article in the previous issue of Dive Report on how your press release should be written and to whom it should be sent. Editorial coverage is the least expensive and most expansive means of marketing your business and its latest efforts, including your Web site, to the public.

Summary
The above recommendations for promoting your Web site are not an all or nothing proposition. You can pretty much use any of these Web promotion tools at any time, with the exception of the
press releases, which should be sent out as soon as possible after you open your Web site to the public, since editors only write about new news, not old news.

So, go forth and promote!

Mistakes In Web Site Design

Wednesday, July 1st, 1998

(This column first appeared in the July/August 1998 issue of Dive Report)

So you’re still trying to figure out what to put on your Web site, right? Do a little market research to help you understand what might be the best design for your site. The beauty of the Internet is that market research is only a few keystrokes away. Start with visiting Web sites which offer services similar to yours. You can find some of these sites by using the various search engines that I discussed in my January/February 1998 column. Another way is to peruse the sales literature of your competitors, and locate their Web addresses, and then check out those Web sites.

As you surf these Web sites, take note of how the site looks and its impact on you. When a site doesn’t appeal to you, you should try to figure out why. Similarly, if you find a site to be attractive and usable, try and understand why that is. However, try to be objective when you do this, and also take into consideration how your average customer might view things – it’s easy to be overly enamored of ones own products and think that everyone else will be too, but that’s rarely the case. Once you take down all these impressions, you should have the foundation of what you might want your Web site to look like. At the same time, however, you’ll also want to make sure that you don’t accidentally make any serious design blunders, which is the purpose of this issue’s column.

My previous column closed off with a list of the top ten fatal Web design mistakes as researched by Dr. Jakob Nielsen of Sun Microsystems (a leading supplier of Web server hardware) a couple of years ago, but which still hold very true today. In this column, I’ll delve into each one of these design mistakes in greater detail to help you understand why they are a problem, and how to avoid them in order to have a top-notch Web site that people will want to look at and explore.

To help prevent you from madly scrambling to locate the May/June ‘98 issue of Dive Report to find the aforementioned list, I’ve included the list again below:

  1. Using Frames
  2. Gratuitous use of bleeding-edge technology
  3. Scrolling text, marquees, and constantly running animations
  4. Complex URLs
  5. Orphan pages
  6. Long, scrolling pages
  7. Lack of navigation support
  8. Non-standard link colors
  9. Outdated information
  10. Overly long download times

Let’s take a look at each one of these.

Using Frames
The average Web user views the Web at a resolution of 640 by 480. In layman terms, that means that his entire browser desktop has to fit into a space no larger than 640 pixels (the colored dots on a monitor) by 480 pixels. Even worse, a noticeable part of this space is occupied by the browser controls themselves, meaning that the part of a Web site that’s viewable at any one time to the average Web surfer is only about 620 pixels wide by 300 pixels high. That means your initial impact has to be made on the Web surfer in just that space. Fortunately, because it’s quite acceptable to scroll a Web page vertically, Web pages can be much longer than 300 pixels. However, it is not acceptable to force users to scroll horizontally – that’s very uncomfortable to the average person.

The reason I mention these size limitations is because some Web designers insist on using a Web feature called “frames”, which allows the Web browser window to be split into two or more other windows such that each window can be separately scrolled. Frames are normally used to create menu windows or logo windows which don’t move when the main window is scrolled. An example is shown in Figure 1 below, which shows PADI’s Web site, which uses frames to separate its menu from the main content of its pages (note the vertical scroll bar next to the menu in addition to the scroll bar at the far right).


PADI’s Web site (http://www.padi.com) uses frames for menu access

There are a number of problems with frames, not the least of which is that they tie up precious screen real-estate, which is already very limited as I pointed out above. Next, frames make navigation via the browsers’ heavily used “Back” button (to go to a previous page) a challenge, because the browser doesn’t know which frame you want to go back in, and almost always has an undesired result. The same applies to printing a page with frames – it’s quite easy to end up with the wrong information printed. And, if you’re trying to make your Web site easily locatable via the numerous search engines, frames screw up that process because search engines don’t support frames. As if that weren’t enough, frame-based Web sites also take a little longer to load because the browser has to load multiple documents (never mind that frame based sites are difficult to design and manage, and some older browsers don’t support them).

Finally, if you take a look at the most popular sites on the Web, such as Netscape’s, Microsoft’s, CNN, Yahoo, Excite, etc., you won’t find a single one that uses frames. That’s pretty telling, isn’t it?

Gratuitous Use of Bleeding-Edge Technology
Unless you’re a real techie, this item shouldn’t be a problem for you, although if you use an outside Web designer, it may apply. In any case, bleeding-edge technology is whatever happens to be the Web technology of the moment. Last year it was Java and Shockwave, this year it’s something called DHTML and XML. Whatever these acronyms or names mean is actually unimportant. Why?  Because bleeding edge technology means that only computer users with bleeding edge browsers and systems can take advantage of them, and that is a very small percentage of world-wide Web surfers. Why do something exotic if only a tiny fraction of the millions of people using the Web can enjoy it?

The best way to ensure that you’re not using bleeding edge technology is to make sure that your Web site views well and correctly in both Netscape Navigator 3.0 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 (the latter is impossible to use if you have Internet Explorer 4.0 thanks to Microsoft’s design). The 3.0 versions of those respective browsers account for over 90% of the installed browsers world-wide.

Scrolling Text, Marquees, and Constantly Running Animations
While neat looking, any sort of motion on a Web page tends to be distracting, and usually can add significant time to the loading of the Web page in a user’s browser. One not uncommon example of this is offered by the web site designed by interKnowledge for Bonaire (see http://www.bonaire.org), which has a beautiful rippled water animation of the word “Bonaire”, but which is a whopping 160,000 bytes in size! (That’s four to five times larger than the average Web page size, and that’s only for one graphic element).

Another problem with animations is that with users running anything from an old PC or Macintosh computer to today’s powerhouses, the playback speed of the animations varies greatly, resulting in some rather unpleasant visual effects if run on a machine other than the type they were designed on.

Complex URLs
I went into this item some months ago, but to reiterate, it’s a lot easier to get to a Web page or Web site if the address (the URL or Uniform Resource Locator) is easy to remember and type. That a strong argument for your own domain name and a well designed site.

Orphan pages
As the name might imply, an orphan page is one without any related pages attached to it. It also refers to pages that don’t exist anymore. All too often I see pages that have no links to anything and just strand the viewer, who then has to resort to the “Back” button on the browser (hoping he isn’t on a frame-based Web site). This is a result of poor Web site and navigation design (a sin of its own).

I also frequently click on links that result in a “404” error, meaning that the page the link pointed to has just disappeared, and the Web site maintainer neglected to update or remove his links.

Both of these are signs of a poorly managed and designed Web site. I will point out that the latter can be detected quite easily using a variety of tools. My current personal favorite is Adobe’s PageMill 3.0 ($99, see http://www.adobe.com), which is a Web page design program which includes a site management tool to help detect bad links. The site management software makes it very easy to fix incorrect links as well as track down links to non-existent pages.

Long, Scrolling Pages
While I mentioned earlier that vertical scrolling of a Web page is acceptable, it shouldn’t be overdone. In most cases, you’ll want to keep each Web page on your Web site to 2-3 “page downs” of scrollable material. More than that and you’ll turn off viewers because such pages take much longer to download and make it much harder to find specific information. It’s better to figure out how to delineate your material across several separate Web pages. The only exception to such a requirement is if the material is an article or paper, and therefore doesn’t make sense to split into multiple Web pages.

Lack of Navigation Support
One of the most frustrating things I find on some Web sites is poor or missing navigation support, i.e. standard links to other pages on the site. What this means is that I get to a page, and find I can’t get to another page in the site from there, or when I can, it’s a page that makes no sense to go to. Just as bad are sites that are inconsistent in their navigation. On such sites, some pages do a beautiful job of linking you to everything else on the site, usually via a nicely structured navigation menu (text or graphics), while others pages on the same site give you one or no options to get to other pages.

The trick to good navigation is to always provide at least one (if not two) sets of navigation controls on your Web site. One set of navigation controls should always be at the bottom of a Web page, since most people read top to bottom. If a second set is used, it should be at the top or side of the page. See Figures 2 for an example of this on the Sunbelt Realty site – note the navigation menu in the upper right of the Web page, as well as the one at the end of the main text. For consistency, this same navigation mechanism is used throughout the site on every page. Additionally, the navigation menu shows the current page in a different (non-link) color to help the user figure out where he or she is.


Sunbelt Realty’s Web site (http://www.sunbelt.an) offers navigation menus at the top of the page as well as after the main text.

Another poor navigation decision is to use large graphics with “imagemaps”. Imagemaps are hot-spots on a graphical image that allow people to click there to get to different Web pages. The original DEMA Web site (http://www.dema.org) design relied on such a graphic as the only means to get around the site, but they have fortunately changed that. This becomes a real problem when you realize that 30% of Web surfers turn off graphics in their Web browsers in order to make pages load much more quickly.

In order to avoid the graphical navigation problem, turn off graphics in your Web browser and then go look at your pages. If you can’t easily figure out how to get to any part of your Web site, you’re too dependent on graphics and need to change your design.

To turn off the loading of graphics in your Web browser use these directions. For Netscape Navigator 3.0, simply go to the “Options” pull-down menu and click on the “Auto-Load Images” menu item. With Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0, use the “View” menu to select the “Options…” dialog box. Under the “General” tab, un-check the box that says “Show pictures” and click “OK”. To undo these changes, just repeat the steps – in both cases these options are toggles.

Note that you may still see some graphics even after you disable the graphics viewing per the above instructions. That’s because Web browsers cache (store) copies of images you’ve recently viewed on your hard disk to retrieve them more quickly. If this is happening to you, use your browser’s help system to find out how to clear, reset, or empty your cache. In any event, don’t rely solely on graphics for your navigation. The final aspect of navigation problems to cover is that of not making contact information readily available on your Web site. In my mind, this is as bad as printing a great brochure about your business and not including your phone number or address. Make sure that each page on your Web site offers a way to let visitors contact you in case they have a questions (see the very end of the Web page in Figure 2 for an example – it lists an address and offers a link to an e-mail address (as well as listing out the e-mail address). This footer exists on every page of the Web site. For those wanting even more contact information, such as that of individual employees or representatives of a company, the Sunbelt site offers an “About Sunbelt Realty” page. The net result is that at any time, on any page of the site, a visitor can get in touch with someone at the company via e-mail, or at least get the information they need in order to do so via more conventional means, such as phone, fax, or regular mail.

Non-standard link colors
There is quite a bit of flexibility in the colors a Web designer can use to design a Web site. Unfortunately, this means that some people desire to make significant changes in the color layout of a Web site, including changing the color of navigation links. You may notice in Figure 2 that all recently unvisited links are blue (look at the navigation menus) while recently visited links are purple. Those are the standard link colors. Now imagine what happens if a Web designer reverses those… Chaos. Users will think they’ve visited pages they haven’t and vice versa, and the site will become impossible to navigate. Almost similar is the result when the link colors are changed into something completely different, usually done because an unusual background color or graphic has been selected, and the standard link colors don’t show well against it. The basic concept here is that if you change something that people are used to into something they are not, then people will have problems adjusting. And, if visitors to your Web site can’t figure out how to get around because you’ve done something “creative”, your site won’t be very useful to them or to you.

Outdated information
Most people get very excited about their Web sites initially, and then as the newness of the whole experience wears off and people realize that keeping a Web site up to date can actually be rather time consuming, they slack off, and the result is a Web site that has cobwebs because it hasn’t been updated in a long time. Common signs of outdated information are announcements about an event that happened months ago, or prices valid only for a year gone by.

The only cure for this is to make updating and freshening of your Web site a scheduled event on your calendar, and then being disciplined enough to adhere to the schedule. Keep in mind that updating a Web site on a regular basis is also made easier by having a simple Web site design (i.e. no frames, no graphic navigation imagemaps, etc.)

Overly long download times
Perhaps the biggest Web site sin of them all is one I started to go into in my previous column, namely Web pages that seem to take forever to download. A typical Web surfer’s attention span is about 30 seconds for a Web page. A typical Web surfer’s connection to the Internet runs at about 1500-2000 bytes per second. The math is simple – if your Web page is larger than 45,000 bytes in size, including all the graphics, you’re going lose the attention of many visitors. I’ve had clients explain to me that their site is different, and that customers visiting their site won’t mind waiting a minute or two to download each page. No amount of discussion, Web statistics, or anything else will convince them otherwise. But, don’t fall into this self-delusional trap – most commercial Web pages are not worth waiting minutes for.

Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com), for example, keeps its pages at under 10,000 bytes a piece for the most part, to provide incredibly quick viewing times. In order to accomplish this, Yahoo! Uses minimal graphics, and relies instead on crisp, clean text and font formatting. Now, I’m not encouraging you to follow Yahoo’s example completely, but moderation in use of graphics is certainly recommended if you want to keep Web surfers on your site, possibly converting them to customers. After all, it wouldn’t do to have them go to your competitor’s site because your site was too slow, right?

Conclusion
If you follow the above advice in designing your Web site, and combine it with a good, clean layout and design, your potential and existing customers will be able to benefit from your Web site, and in turn you’ll benefit too. A good, positive image on the Web implies you know what you’re doing, and that builds confidence in your products and services. And confidence is easier to turn into sales than mistrust or annoyance.

In my next column, I’ll show you how to better promote your Web site to attract visitors and business.

Content, Content, Content!

Friday, May 1st, 1998

(This column first appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of Dive Report)

As you’ve hopefully been learning via my columns, the Internet and the World Wide Web provide an excellent opportunity to get in touch with potential and existing customers. The Web is a great way to present information about your company and its services and products to the world. However, as with any marketing medium, it’s very easy to give people a negative impression if you don’t know what you’re doing. In this column, I’ll explain basic Web site design philosophy so that you can avoid creating a negative impression immediately, and instead build a positive one from the moment a visitor enters your Web site.

Convenience
To understand how to create marketing material of any sort, you need to understand your audience. One thing all audiences share in common is that they are creatures of convenience. Something that’s convenient will always be more attractive and interesting than an equivalent that’s less convenient. So, how do we define convenience?

Well, convenience has to do with ease of access and the immediacy of response and gratification. If the marketing material itself conveys convenience, then it will give the impression that the services or products described in the marketing material will also be convenient. Therefore, the information being presented has to be easy to read and peruse, as well as answer all the questions a person might have. Therein lies the key to good marketing materials in general, and good Web design in particular.

However, the Web adds another component to the convenience equation. While traditional print media, such as brochures or print advertisements, puts the information you’re looking for right in your hand, there’s a small but measurable delay in getting information from the Web. This delay is the result of the fact that all Web information has to be transmitted from one location to another, with the slowest link usually being the modem in the user’s computer. To make matters worse, the information trickles into the user’s computer, meaning that there is a direct proportion between the amount of information being viewed and the amount of time it takes for it to be transmitted.

The net result is that if you want to make your Web site convenient for your audience, you need to put lots of effort into making your information compact, while ensuring it stays easy to use. If you don’t put this effort in, it’s likely that potential customers will avoid your Web site in favor of that of a competitor who has made the effort to have a responsive and usable Web site.

Pictures and Words
Web pages, for the most part, are composed of two basic types of elements: text and graphics. Text is what you’re reading now. It can appear in a variety of sizes, be bold or italic, and even be in different typefaces.

Graphics covers any visual element that isn’t text. While you can design a text only Web site, which is certainly the fastest to view, text Web sites are generally only suited for archival documents and other boring applications. Graphics are what add zest and personality to a Web site and make it interesting for visitors.

Of course, zest comes at a price, and that is that graphics images can easily get very large in terms of their actual digital size. You can think of the byte size of a graphic as the amount of space it requires to store the graphic in a file on your computer. While each letter in a text entry on a Web site only requires one byte of storage (and therefore is one byte of transmission), a graphic element is much more dense. In fact, each colored dot of a graphic can be one or more bytes of data. In a worst case situation, a small 200×200 graphic element could require 160,000 bytes of data. That’s like 40 pages of double spaced text from a typewriter. That’s a lot of bytes. In fact, a typical Web surfer, connected to the Internet via a standard 28.8 Kbps modem, would need about a minute to download that graphic element if his modem connection were running at top speed. Try staring a blank screen for a full minute to see how much fun that is. Fortunately, there are all sorts of ways to make graphics more compact, including a variety of special digital compression techniques inherent in standard graphics file formats. There are two types of standard graphics file formats in use on the Web, GIF (pronounced “Jiff” ) and JPG (“Jay-peg” ). GIF graphics are limited to a maximum of 256 different color, and are well suited for images that have been created on the computer. JPG graphics files are true-color, meaning they can contain images with a virtually unlimited assortment of colors, and are therefore ideal for photographs. All modern paint and image editing software, such as Adobe’s PhotoDeluxe, JASC’s PaintShopPro, and MGI’s PhotoSuite, can generate GIF and JPG files.

Navigation
It’s the proper combination of text and graphics, in an attractive layout, that make a Web site inviting and convenient. However, if you have more than one page on your Web site, you need to make it very easy for visitors to move around the Web site, and this is done with links. Just as a link on a Web site can point to another Web site, links can also point to other pages on the same Web site. Such navigation links can exist both within the body of the text on a Web page, as well as in clearly distinguished parts of a page designed to aid in navigation. These navigation areas, sometimes  called navigation bars, can be text, graphics, or a combination of the two.

Navigation bars should be easily accessible, which means that they should appear near the top of a Web page and probably on the bottom as well. The navigation links should be self explanatory and concise as well. For example, if you have a page about your latest Frabistam offering, your link should be something like “New Frabistams” (assuming your visitors know what a Frabistam is). You should not have sentence long links, like “Click here to find out as much as you ever wanted to know about our new line of Frabistams”. A key part of coming up with good navigation for your Web site is to look at the Web site as a whole. You need to figure out what information you want to present on the Web site, and then categorize the information into a handful of key topics. If a particular topics has a lot of information in it compared to other topics, you can have a number of pages which cover that topic, accessible through the topics main page – kind of a Web site within a Web site. The best way to map out these relationships is to understand that a Web site is like an inverted tree. You start with the root (the home page of the Web site), and build downward from there. The figure below shows a sample Web site layout (courtesy of the Web layout tool in NetObject’s Fusion software) I prepared for a dive shop. Note that the figure shows the top level as being the Home page. Below that are topic pages labeled About, Training, Dive Gear, Service, Travel, and Dive Local. The Training and Dive Gear pages have additional descriptive pages below them.

A sample Web site layout for a dive shop.

By flowcharting a site, and mapping it out in this fashion, you can quickly figure out what makes sense where. In our dive shop example, making BCDs and Regs pages that have the same importance as the Training and Travel pages doesn’t really make sense, so we created the Dive Gear page to act as a topic page which does have the same sort of importance as the other pages at that level. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the layout of your site does not prevent you from linking from any page to any other if you so desire. For example, the dive shop Web site above could mention that all training classes use AquaPro BCDs and then include a link to the BCD page in that text. That’s the beauty of the Web – you can link as much or as little as you like. Unfortunately, many people overdo it.

With that note, I’ll leave you with a list of the top ten fatal Web site design mistakes according to researcher Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., of Sun Microsystem, and in my next column I’ll delve into these mistakes in greater detail.

The Top 10 mistakes in Web design

    1. Using Frames
    2. Gratuitous use of bleeding-edge technology
    3. Scrolling text, marquees, and constantly running animations
    4. Complex URLs
    5. Orphan pages
    6. Long, scrolling pages
    7. Lack of navigation support
    8. Non-standard link colors
    9. Outdated information
    10. Overly long download times