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Building Better Web Sites

Copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved.

This page gives you tips on how to build an award-winning Web site. This is the Web version of a FAQ article (now revised to version 3.0) called “Building Better Web Sites,” which I earlier posted on Web-based discussion boards and E-mail mailing lists.

Web Design Tips

I observed hundreds of Web sites during 1998 while letting Web masters who link to my Web site know about the new address for this site:


Over the last few years I've been reading dozens of books about Web site design to improve my site. New families and businesses set up homeschooling Web sites every day, and most Web sites could do better in communicating about their subjects or promoting their businesses, by improving their design to be more user-friendly. I'm posting this free advice on Web site design in a homeschooler's spirit of lifelong learning. You don't have to agree with the ideas I express on the various pages of this site to benefit from the advice on this page on Web site design. Of course your comments are welcome. Many homeschooling sites on the Web implicitly follow all this good advice--not because I advised the site authors, but because they first thought through how to make a Web site useful. Perhaps those authors also listened to reader comments as their sites developed and consulted books about Web site design. Maybe your site, or the site of your best friend, can improve by following the advice below. I'm still learning, so let me know how I'm doing on my own site after you see this advice.

Don't Depend on Scripts on Your Pages

More and more, after E-mail "viruses" have swept the world, smart computer users are realizing that safe computing includes disabling JavaScript, JScript, and especially the notoriously unsafe Visual Basic Scripting that is activated by default on so many personal computers. I routinely turn off all scripting on my computers. So do many other computer users. But I have discovered that many Web designers have taken the incautious approach, and built scripting into the basic site navigation on their sites. What I mean is that computer users who turn off scripting will find some Web sites that don't have regular HTML links on their home pages, but only clickable spots that activate scripts--which means the visitor to that site can't see any of the pages on the site. Always, always, links to other pages on a Web site should be simple HTML links, specified with coding like this:
<a href="filenameofpage.htm">anchor text</a>
or something very similar. If you're calling up scripts in the basic navigational elements of your home page, you're making a big mistake. In particular, pull-down menus of pages on the site that depend on JavaScript are a bad idea, also because of usability considerations [link to a different Web site] connected with pull-down menus. Just say no to any link on your own site that isn't really an HTML link.

Conserve Bandwidth

Many people viewing your site will be waiting for a 28.8 or slower modem to download your site's pages from a busy local dial-up connection, some of them from halfway around the world. They won't enjoy the speed you get when you look at your own pages. If there is one thing that I think Web site designers get wrong the most often, it is assuming that everyone has a high-speed Web connection, with a powerful computer and powerful graphics card. This results in the grave defect of loading up a site with graphics that don't convey information and do waste time, especially for the many people who have timed Internet access accounts. (I even have timed local telephone service where I live, as many people around the world do, and have to pay by the minute to read Web sites that download slowly--so I don't wait around for them.) Always test the downloading speed of your own site's pages with a watch from your friends' homes, or from other computers you are authorized to use anywhere else where your pages aren't already loaded into the browser cache. Flush your cache to find out how long it really takes to download your pages. The full page should load in less than ten seconds. Please learn from the Bandwidth Conservation Society


and from Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox columns on Web design


about why saving download time is important for the usability of Web sites. Below are some specific tips.

Keep graphics small

Overgrown graphic images are the worst reason that Web pages take too long to download and repel readers. A hit counter on your site may produce the illusion that every person who visits your site stays around to read it, which is very unlikely. And I bet this site of mine gets more visitors than 95 percent of the homeschooling sites with visit counters--I check my site server logs to confirm how many page views this site serves up. Many Web page visitors go back to the page they came from or on to another page if they encounter a page that takes a long time to download. Web usability studies show that sites gain page views per visit every time they reduce the number of images on their pages. Most Web readers still, after all these years, have slow Web connections that limit their bandwidth for downloading graphics. For that reason most of the graphics on the Learn in Freedom™ site are confined to this computer-nerd-friendly technical notes page.

"Under Construction" signs are unnecessary

Every Web site is under construction. Therefore no site needs an "under construction" sign. A page needs to be constructed until it is ready for critical readers before being posted and linked--don't put up links to pages that are only "under construction" signs. Once links to your site get out, they will spread around the world, but we hope not on lists of worst sites or something like that.

Make Your Site Navigable

Navigation aids are friendly to readers. The best idea you can learn from the best Web site designers is to think of Web site design, not Web page design. Every page you post on a particular subject should be related to (and often explicitly linked to) the other pages you post on the same subject. Think of building a site from the beginning, and each page you build will be better. Absolutely, positively link every page you build to the index (home) page of its site.

Title every page with name of site

This advice comes from Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and it is great common-sense advice. Use the TITLE element on each of your pages to give your pages a common name that relates to the overall name of your site. You will see on my site that just about every page (I think I've done this right) has the name "Learn in Freedom!" as part of the specific name of the page. That way readers can remember what site they are on as they visit my pages, and know when they have left my site. That also helps them remember the name of my site if they download or print out one of my pages. Any multipage site should do something like this, so that readers don't get lost (a very common problem in usability studies of Web sites) and so that they remember the name of your site. Similarly, every page should have some (or many) design elements in common with all other pages on the site, and every page should have a heading (marked with the HTML <h1> </h1> tag pair indicating a first-level heading) to give the name of the page some visibility. I have found out that some Web page authors don't even use the title tag for their pages! (That's considered very bad coding by people who know the Web.)

Link to your home page on every page

I can't believe that people build Web pages without linking back to their home pages. The way to avoid that mistake and make sure that every page on your site has a link to the home page is to build each page from a template of standard codes that make sure your pages have useful common design elements. Laura Lemay's books on Web page design


and other good Web design books tell how to make templates. Use a template that includes a link to your home page to build every one of your pages. If your site has a logo, make sure every page has the site logo (preferably on the top left of each page) and make sure that logo is a link back to the home page, except on the home page itself. If your Web page design software doesn't make using templates easy (and even simple text-processing programs make using templates easy if you know how to copy-and-paste), get a different program. Templates save time, reduce typing errors, and make a better organized site.

Include a site map, index, and search form, linked to from every page

Users like help in looking around to see what's on your site. Most home pages link to most other pages on a person's site. Some home pages link to a specialized index or table of contents or site map or whatever it is called to help users find pages. Pages such as index or table of contents or site map pages are well worth making. A good index on your site helps prevent E-mail from users saying, "I was looking for information on [subject you have a page about] on your site, but I couldn't find it." Why write and post a page at all, if your site's users can't find it readily? If you can get keyword-based text search for your site (which I now get from Google), get it. That is a very user-friendly feature and saves you much time in site maintenance.

Thou Shalt Not Steal

I have been appalled to see how much material on the Web is stolen from its original authors and reposted on multiple sites. This is inexcusable. First, it is illegal. Second, it messes up search engine searches. Third, it makes the thief look like a total lout, which is why this conduct should never occur on a site supporting a worthy cause--but it does, too often.

Material on the Web and elsewhere on-line is copyrighted--whether the copyright is claimed or not. All developed countries and most Third World countries have copyright laws that protect works of authorship from the moment of "fixation." Simply put, by the time you see a Web page posted on the Web or a Usenet message posted in a newsgroup, it has achieved fixation and is protected by copyright. You are not permitted to copy it, even if there is no copyright notice on the page or message. Reposting that page somewhere else breaks the law of just about every country, and always breaches the contract you have with any site where you post copyright-infringing material. Don't even thinking about copying other Web pages. Link to good Web pages, and meanwhile write your own good Web pages, because anything you write is also protected by copyright, without registration. (Registration and posting copyright notices provide legal advantages in case of a lawsuit, but neither registration nor posting a copyright notice is necessary to have copyright, not in the United States and not almost anywhere else.) Just to be clear, I have granted readers of my site a nonexclusive limited license to download my pages to their own personal computers or to print out one copy of each page for personal use. Other issues of the material here are only legal if you obtain my written permission. For sure, copying and reposting the content of a Web site on another Web site is wrong, illegal, unethical, and a violation of additional principles, for example rules against plagiarism that are part of the user contract for most Web sites. Don't even think about copying what you didn't write. Write your own material and link to what you like on other people's sites. I always permit links to this site.

Emphasize Unique Content

I have several pages that have the honor (?) of being some of the most plagiarized homeschooling pages on the Web. (Some of these were plagiarized by other Web masters who saw them first as Usenet postings, but that is no excuse. Copying original works of authorship without permission, as some have done to me, is immoral, illegal, and unbecoming to someone who claims to be an "unschooler." Most of the plagiarizing sites have now vanished from the Web, after contacts from me or the Learn in Freedom! site's readers.) This assures me that some of what I post at my site, at least, is such valuable information that people would rather steal it than ask me for permission to reprint it. Every site should have something that good, and many sites do. Content, content, content is the advice of most authors on how to build better Web sites.

One unique content item I emphasize on this site is the Colleges That Admit Homeschoolers FAQ, which has become the most popular content page on this site, with dozens of direct links pointing to it and favorable press notices from Newsweek magazine and U.S. News and World Report magazine's on-line edition.

Anyone has some unique knowledge about something. The homeschoolers in Canada are giving the homeschoolers in most of the rest of the world a great example, by forming a joint site with several cooperating authors who among them provide a comprehensive picture of homeschooling in Canada. Take a look at the Canadian Home-Based Education Page (http://www.flora.org/homeschool-ca/) to see what I'm talking about. Great site, great information, a great example. (I think most of the use of graphics on that site is appropriate; it seems to load fast in my browser even when I've just flushed my cache.)

Other Web masters of good homeschooling sites think that Web authors, rather than stealing other people's content, should be developing original content. I try not to duplicate content of the sites founded earlier than mine, and think there is plenty of room for more good original content on homeschooling Web pages. Particularly, there is a need for more state homeschooling resource pages. Some good state resource pages already exist, but not fifty yet to cover the whole United States.

Visit Links Before You Post Them

I would have little need to write E-mails to Web masters about my new URL (which should be permanent, having lasted more than two years already) if Web masters had an easy way to verify links. I have this problem with my existing links to other sites--I have to check them from time to time to see if they are still good. Tim Berners-Lee knew from the beginning that dead links would be a problem with the World Wide Web, but he thought that the advantages of the Web outweigh this disadvantage. I think he's right, but check those links--no one else is checking them for you, and your readers judge your site by the quality of the external links. But a bad problem is posting a link that was never good in the first place. Note that on this site's Pages That Link to Learn in Freedom! Site page I partially disregard this rule of checking every link, but I can at least verify that those links were live links quite recently, or they wouldn't have shown up on this site's server access logs.

Don't copy links posted on another Web page

The fastest way to add dead links to your site is to copy links from another site without checking them. Note that this misconduct also violates the rule against plagiarism--it's one thing to use someone else's link list as an idea of what to visit yourself, but it's wrong to simply copy the whole list. Links to old addresses of my site have spread around the Web from people who copied Yahoo's homeschooling links page, which then was copied again and again and again, without anyone checking for an updated link. (Meanwhile, Yahoo has updated the address for my site on its own list.) In general, don't post any link you find on another Web site until you have visited it yourself, and go back and check your links often. It looks really stupid to have a link on your site pointing to a site that has been obsolete for a year or more.

Get to know the Web before deciding what's a good link

Search engines do a bad job of showing which Web sites are best. Even the search engines that purport to show rated or selected sites often are badly out of date (for instance, they have old addresses for my site) or are otherwise an incomplete guide to what good homeschooling sites are on the Web. (The best search engine in this respect is Google, which analyzes link structures thoroughly to identify which sites are linked to by the most high-quality sites. This site, I'm happy to say, ranks quite highly among homeschooling sites by Google's criteria.) I've been promoting the Learn in Freedom™ site more heavily than I promoted my last site, and I've used some of the general submission services to get my site indexed sooner and more widely. Write-ups of Web directory services in the computer press have suggested that some Web directories take quite a while (that is, six months or more) to include new sites in their listings after a URL is submitted to them. Web directory services are also said to vary immensely in how well they sort relevant from irrelevant information. I have found this to be so. Look around and browse the Web for a long time before putting up your own site. Then you'll know which resources not to duplicate, which sites to link to, and what makes a good site.

Make Your Site Readable

One of the very tricky things about the Web is that not all people are looking at Web pages with the same machinery. The majority of users access the Web with personal computers running Windows, and most of those use either Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape software to read the Web, but there are many exceptions. Not all Windows systems have the same characteristics, and it is well known that Apple computers display colors differently from computers running Windows. Some Web readers can't see graphics at all. One of the other widely used browsers is Lynx (which many readers can use for free dial-up access through a public library), which is a text-only browser. Indeed, some Web users can't see anything at all, and use text-to-speech equipment designed for blind readers.

Colored backgrounds often look ghastly

Multicolored backgrounds for pages use too much bandwidth (see above), are only useful for navigation if they are common to every page on your site (see above again) and often are just plain ugly. They also often make it terribly hard to read the text on Web pages. I guess the authors of pages that have such backgrounds don't want their text to be read. When I see pages with backgrounds like that, I just jump over to another site, as I have learned busy backgrounds are a reliable sign of useless Web sites. Note that I had to correct my own page background color early in the history of my Web site. I thought a distinctive color would be good for navigation, but it proved to be too hard on readability. The final test was viewing my old pages on a 16-color monitor. Find a 16-color monitor (some old Windows 3.1 systems have them) and view your pages with it. Once you see how colors change on a 16-color monitor, you'll be more conservative with page backgrounds. Printing out your own pages in black-and-white will also give you clues.

My current practice for new pages I post is to go with the "industry standard" background color (that is, white defined by cascading style sheets, but no color at all specified in the site's BODY elements). I tried when I first experimented with setting up the site to use a .GIF file to get a textured look for the background, but that loaded unacceptably slowly. I have seen quite a few Web sites with rather garish backgrounds that take a long time to load, and I don't want to imitate their example. Because I don't consider myself any kind of design expert, I'll be glad to read suggestions from interested readers about how to make these pages prettier while keeping them readable.

Don't change link colors

Jakob Nielsen is a full-time Web usability researcher


who tests how actual real-live people use the Web. The established conventions of the browser software programs, to mark unvisited links as blue and visited links as purple, are very helpful for people navigating in complicated sites. Don't change your link colors. Set a link color if you set a background color (so that the colors aren't identical for text and background) but leave the defaults for links alone. I get confused a lot by sites with funny link colors, and research shows that I am not alone in being disgusted with randomly selected link colors.

Check your coding in more than one browser

First Netscape and now Internet Explorer have dominated the browser market. But some poor, benighted homeschoolers may still use CompuServe's Netsloucher, er, Netlauncher, or the partly broken early AOL browser. (Prodigy's browser is remarkably good, and doesn't have the problems of CompuServe's or AOL's.) Each of those browsers does a few things differently. Netscape is notorious (famous?) for silently disregarding coding errors on pages and showing you a page the way the author meant, rather than the way the author coded. That makes Netscape great for reading other people's pages, but lousy for proofreading your own pages. Your pages might look great in Netscape and be incomprehensible to users of other browsers--especially if you forget about text-only browsers like Lynx. Even many users of Netscape use Netscape the smart way, with automatic downloading of graphics turned off. So I make sure that my graphics images have alt="" attributes set in the <IMG> tags that define image elements so that Lynx users and other text-only users can see what I put on the page. And I make sure to use other browsers besides Netscape for proofing my pages, and also occasionally run my pages through the W3C HTML Validation Service and other on-line means of checking page coding.

Learn From Your Readers

The best source of advice about a Web site is the site's readers. That means I'll learn even more from readers of this who visit my site and tell me what I'm still doing wrong than any of them will learn from me. You can learn from readers if you have a Web site. And you can (if my experience is any guide) generally count on people being polite even if they are complaining about a gross mistake in design. Reader advice makes for better Web sites.

Put E-mail links to yourself on all your pages

I advise putting a working E-mail link to your E-mail address on every page of your site. Not just the home page, but every page. Yeah, I know, there are Web spiders that crawl all over the Web looking for E-mail addresses. That's why I don't put anybody else's E-mail address on my Web site. But I put my own E-mail address on every page on my site, and I fight the spam-mailing-list-building spiders by two means:
  1. adding the characters "%20" before the actual E-mail address in all my E-mail links (which I'm told messes up some spiders) and
  2. setting the ROBOTS.TXT file for my site to exclude spam-mailing-list-building spiders.

In actual point of fact, I get very little junk E-mail, and my E-mail program filters junk E-mail so reliably that I rarely see it. I do get an E-mail or two per day with interesting comments about my Web site. Most of what's any good about my site is a result of reader comments that I have taken to heart. Most of what will improve about my site in the next year will be the result of further reader comments that I have yet to implement. If you get a high volume of E-mail, you may want to set up an automatic reply message. My automatic reply message, set up by my site's site master, sends out answers to the informational questions most frequently asked by visitors to my site. That leaves me time to write messages like this and to update my site.

Put a comment form on your site, linked to from every page

Some readers of your site will have software set-ups that allow using comment forms but don't allow using E-mail to contact you. Therefore also have a comment form page on your site, linked to from every other page. My comment form page is used much less often than the site's E-mail links, but it's used frequently. Make your comment form user-friendly by not burdening it with required fields and allowing users to submit as little information about themselves as they please. I just want to know what my readers think; I don't care whether or not I know their return E-mail addresses.

Links to Web Usability Information

My number-one recommendation for all Web masters, advice that many Web masters of the best sites already take, is to pickle yourself in the specific suggestions found on Jakob Nielsen's Useit.com site,

http://www.useit.com/ [link to a different Web site]

and especially the content of nearly all of his Alertbox biweekly columns on Web usability issues. Nielsen has done more research, more thoroughly and for longer, than almost anyone else about Web usability issues. In particular, Nielsen has a familiarity with hypertext and hypermedia design principles and usability testing that goes back a long time before there was such a thing as the World Wide Web. His Alertbox columns "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design" (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9605.html [link to a different Web site]) and the follow-up to that column, "'Top Ten Mistakes' Revisited" (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/990502.html [link to a different Web site]) are classic descriptions of what goes wrong in Web design, and his new column "Top-10 New Mistakes of Web Design" (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/990530.html [link to a different Web site]) is sure to become another classic article favored by all thinking Web designers. Just about all of Nielsen's Alertbox columns are valuable for every Web master, as is most all the rest of the free advice on his site.

Nielsen's Useit.com site has a good list of links, but Nielsen recommends rather than tries to duplicate the superb usability link list kept at the Usable Web (http://www.usableweb.com [link to a different Web site]) which will lead you to enormous amounts of too-little-known information on making Web sites more usable.

A really good on-line resource about building better Web sites, by another Web master interested in homeschooling, is Tips for Novice Web Page Designers with many specific tips on how to make your Web site more usable for readers interested in homeschooling. I recommend this site highly. Another Web resource with good tips is Advice for Making Good Web Pages, whose author has independently reached many of the same conclusions I have reached, expressing them with his own flair.

You can find interesting answers to the question, "What Makes a Great Web Site?" on a page by that name (http://webreference.com/greatsite.html [link to a different Web site]) that reinforces much of the advice above, and also reveals the technological tricks behind the big commercial sites. The rest of the site that page comes from is well worth a look.

[End of Building Better Web Sites section of this page]

Additional Comments about the Site

I do my HTML the old-fashioned way, by hand. I now use the wonderful shareware program (for which I gladly paid the shareware registration fee) TextPad 4.3.2 [link to a different Web site] (32-bit Edition) by Helios Software Solutions. TextPad has good search and macro capabilities for revising complicated pages, and as a true text editor it doesn't mess up my use of white space in HTML files. TextPad is highly recommended by many software user groups, and now by me after years of satisfied use. I wish all my Windows software (and Windows itself!) worked as well. I've gradually developed a set of macros for writing the nastiest HTML codes, and I make extensive use of template documents and cutting and pasting code from one page (of my own, that is) to another to save typing. Daniel Kehoe of Bookport [link to a different Web site] gave me tremendous help at the beginning by E-mailing me a template for the bibliographies that I first posted at his site. Later I designed my own template when I first set up the Learn in Freedom! site, and have revised that template a few times. You can use TextPad to replace entirely the Notepad program included with Microsoft Windows. TextPad handles larger files, and handles them more ably.

I troubleshoot new pages for this site by reading them offline in the Netscape Communicator version 4.5 or 4.71 browser, also the Microsoft Internet Explorer version 4 or version 5 browser, the Opera browser evaluation version, the Amaya browser (which is published by the World Wide Web Consortium for free downloading [link to a different Web site]), and any other browser I have at hand on the computer I'm working on. I often use the W3C HTML Validation Service [link to a different Web site] for on-line checking of my pages right after I post them. Now that service accepts file uploads too, so you can check pages before you post them. After posting, I have on many occasions read my pages in Lynx, a UNIX-based text-only browser, which is available to many people through Telnet access to public library systems. I use a lint service to check the coding of these pages too. Nice HTML

I like QBullets [link to a different Web site], a set of cues to the nature of hypertext links. They were one of the very first sets of icons for identifying links on webpages. Feel free to visit the QBullets site to learn how to use QBullets on a site you maintain.

This site has been rated as free of offensive content according to the criteria of various rating services that issue Platform for Internet Content Selection meta labels.

What advice do you have for me? What are some of your favorite Web sites about learning in freedom, and why do you like them?

[Building Better Web Sites (Technical Notes) page version 4.0, last revised 4 January 2013]


QBullets are used to indicate the function of hypertext links. QBullets appear courtesy of Matterform Media [link to a different Web site]. QBullets are freeware, Copyright © 2006 by Matterform Media. See the QBullet legend [link to a different Web site] for the meanings of all the QBullets.

What else would you like to know about the technical details of this site? It wouldn't be sporting to frustrate your curiosity after devoting a whole site to the cause of free, independent learning. So ask away, and I'll try to answer your questions in future revisions of this page. Or send me your comments about my site, and I'll learn something from you. I really appreciate your comments.

Feel free to come back to the Learn in Freedom™ page (http://learninfreedom.org) and to this "Building Better Web Sites (Technical Notes)" page (http://learninfreedom.org/technical_notes.html) again soon.

This School Is Dead: Building Better Websites page is copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved.

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.
John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859)
Feel free to contact the Learn in Freedom™ site owner, Karl M. Bunday, at any time. Fill out this site's Google Docs comment form or email or send postal mail to the Learn in Freedom webmaster as you like.
webmaster@learninfreedom.org [mailto link]
Karl M. Bunday
P. O. Box 1858
Minnetonka, MN 55345