by Joyce Kohl
Finally, a fully instructional step-by-step and comprehensive “textbook” for planning, creating, and publicizing your business or personal Website is here! Poor Richard’s Web Site: Geek-Free, Commonsense Advice On Building a Low-Cost Web Site (that’s the full title of the book reviewed here) leads both novice and experienced Webmasters through the entire process of designing functional no-nonsense Websites and then getting visitors to beat a path to your “door.”
Build it & They Will Come
Though you may not (I certainly don’t) agree with everything the author, Peter Kent, suggests, you’d better give a lot of thought to whatever it is you prefer to do your own way before you blindly go ahead with your own ideas. Mr. Kent’s focus is on commercial Webmastering, but personal homepage Webmasters will also glean a tremendous amount of information from the book, too.
Mr. Kent’s sensible approach is the best set of instructions I’ve seen to date and will, no doubt, yield better results in your final presence on the World Wide Web. He helps Webmasters “build a better mousetrap.”
[NOTE: I use “Website” (one word) throughout this review and not “Web site” (two words) as found in the book. Some quick research of Web dictionaries shows either way to be correct. I prefer the to use one word and do so throughout this review except when using the title of the book.]
First Things First
Do you need a Website? How and where do you begin? What will it cost? Do you need a professional designer? What do you need to do first? Last? What services will you require? What’s a “domain name?” Do you need a Website? What do you put on a Website?
First, and of greatest importance, you’re asked if you really need a Website and that’s followed by a discussion on reasons why you may want to set up a Website as well as reasons why you may not need a Website. The first six chapters help you decide and then continue to lay out, in a methodical way, everything you need to do and how to do it. This includes the hardware and software a web hosting service should have on hand, and on finding a good ISP (it’s suggested you do not use an ISP for your host – or if you do, be prepared to change all your Web pages if for any reason you change your ISP), Poor Richard’s Web Site gives all the details.
The last two chapters of Part I are about domain names and are the most complete and detailed descriptions I’ve ever seen. It can be frustrating when choosing a name an then registering it, but this book will remove the fear and the intimidating process of signing up for your own domain name. There are screenshots and spoon-feeding instructions. This part of the book alone is worth the cost of the entire book.
Mr. Kent’s basic list of the minimum equipment and tools needed to set up a business on the Web may generate a chuckle or two. It made me think that if a potential Webmaster didn’t know a computer was required, then I doubt the business would last long enough to bother with getting on the Internet! But as I continued to read the book page by page, I realized the value of including even the take-it-for-granted type of information. For example, a “newbie” to the Internet may think an old computer without sufficient RAM would suffice. It won’t. Peter Kent tells you WHY.
Connecting to the Internet
Once you have a computer and operating system capable of allowing online operation, you’ll need a way to connect to the Internet. This can be a telephone modem, an ISDN modem, T1 and a router, DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), or a cable modem.
Apparently Peter Kent is unaware of what a cable modem is or he wouldn’t have this statement on page 26: “Something weird; satellite or cable.” Then the last sentence in the paragraph about cable modems on page 29 is completely erroneous. The statement that cable modems don’t modulate and demodulate is absurd. For more information on cable modems see my article Cable Modems are the Comets of Cyberspace.
Using one of Mr. Kent’s URL resources (dated 1996) for cable modems is this statement:
“A cable modem’s only similarity to telephone modems is that they DO modulate and demodulate! Today, making the cable-to-PC connection requires a cable modem to modulate and demodulate the cable signal into a stream of data.”
Designing and Creating
Part II, Chapter Seven begins with the fun part of having a Website – how you want it to appear; what will it contain; what to include; what to omit; what you need and don’t need. As one whose hobby has been “designing” Websites – and I use the term loosely as I’m definitely one of the artistically challenged – I discovered important tips and tricks which I had never before been able to find. Wow! I felt as if I were in “Website heaven” and found myself wanting to put together another Website. And maybe I will.
Other books I’ve had over the last couple of years or so gave detail after detail of basic HTML, a list of HTML editors, maybe even a CD of shareware (always outdated), a few descriptions of ISPs, etc., but none I’ve read so far are as informative as Poor Richard’s Web Site. If you want to learn HTML, then buy a book for that. This book gives a few basics, suggests a few tools, and then continues with effective Website creation.
The most highly recommended HTML authoring tool by the author is Microsoft FrontPage. I have doubts as to its being the best no matter what the popularity stats say. I consider myself to be reasonably intelligent, but after investing in FrontPage and two third-party guide books, I still found myself unable to master the learning curve. Perhaps I have a mental block; or perhaps FrontPage was overkill for a simple set of pages for a personal Website. At any rate, I gave up on it when I discovered it had reformatted my entire set of HTML pages and wouldn’t accept them the way I wanted them to be! It would have taken me days to return them to their original state, but thank goodness I had backups to rely on and I reverted to them. Mr. Kent also notes other anomalies of FrontPage. My opinion: If you want complete control of your Web pages, then don’t bother with FrontPage and if you don’t have time to learn the program, don’t invest in a dust collector.
Listing the “more prominent choices” of HTML editors did not list my favorite, though its popularity is extremely well-known: Allaire’s HomeSite.
All through the book you’ll find URLs to resources on the Internet and most of them are in bold print making it an easy task to look for them again. A few of the listings as they appear in the book are no longer available, but don’t let that stop you from going on to the next one. Better yet, if you don’t care to type these in from the book, then go to Poor Richard’s Links and download the list of over 800 links to your hard drive, or follow them around from link to link. The links are updated and changed on a regular basis and noted as such beside each link. Suggestion: Correct the broken links in your book for future reference.
One of the best ways to make Website design decisions is to check out the available information on the Internet. You’ll find opposing ideas and conflicting information. But isn’t that what research is all about? Peter Kent isn’t afraid to lead you to further information even though his book is concise and clear. When you’re not fully comprehending a concept, or you aren’t sure of information, the best thing you can do is to research the topic in question.
Poor Richard’s Website takes the pain out of researching by providing the sources for you. Finding these on your own would require numerous hours, days, weeks or months. Once again, I suggest to you that this book is worth the entire cost. If you find nothing else useful to you, this information alone could save you an enormous amount of time. If you’re wanting to get a commercial site Online, then you already know your time is money.
Advice On Web Design
For the most part, the design advice given is top-of-the-line. Some of it may not work in the way expected. One URL on page 169 at the bottom of the page is a good example. I couldn’t spend even a few minutes on the site, let alone consider it to be one of two most important sites to visit. The site is supposed to have 52 individual topics. Where were they? Following just one of them locked me into a refresh page making it impossible to return to the main page without re-entering the original URL.
There’s also a mention of Kai’s Power Tools being a nuisance, and shadows being ugly. No reasons were given for the former; and I disagree with the latter.
The other second most important site to visit, says Peter Kent, is the one where you can enter a URL and have it analyzed. I’ve known about this site for a long time, and it is a good one . . . if you don’t mind waiting literally minutes to get the results on only one page. I’ve tried the site at various times, early morning, late morning, afternoons at any time, and late at night. It’s always slow and requires more patience than I care to exert most of the time. But if you’re willing to wait, and your ISP doesn’t have a habit of disconnecting you (something that doesn’t happen with cable modem access), then give it a try. Maybe the site is so busy it cannot handle the traffic?
Changing Video Mode
It’s no doubt good advice to check your Website with different video modes, and especially if you’re creating a commercial site. On the assumption that the majority of visitors will be using 14″ screens, do they really use only 640 x 480? I seriously doubt it. In my opinion, that mode is archaic and resembles the old CGA monitors. Remember those? You can count the pixels! Designing for 800 x 600 is the norm or at least that’s what I see while surfing the Internet, though don’t dismiss the fact that a great many people are now using 1024 x 768 even on 15″ monitors. I personally don’t know one person who uses anything less than 800 x 600, and 1024 x 768 is, in my opinion, better for a plethora of reasons. Even withOUT my trifocals, I prefer 1024 x 768 which gives me a great resolution with no visible pixels “squaring” up my desktop, and with the use of either tables or the blockquote command, pages can be “designed” for all modes without my needing to change the mode of my system in order to be sure low-end visitors will like my Web site. Well, at least that’s my opinion.
Just keep in mind why you’re creating a Website and the purpose it will serve. For a personal set of pages, I would probably continue to design my way, but if you’re a prospective commercial designer, you’d better listen to the pros. In my case, I always figured it’s my site so I’ll do it my way and that’s not the way to think for a commercial site.
On page 171, Mr. Kent explains his reason for accommodating all screen sizes. If I were designing a commercial site, I would prefer my site to be pleasing to the majority of visitors rather than the minority – and anyone still using a 14.4k modem and 12-14″ screens is in the minority and probably aren’t on the Internet anyhow. If they are on the Internet, they quickly begin upgrading their equipment or can change THEIR mode to text only.
Therefore, I would definitely not worry about all visitors all the time. I would heed the cliché about not being able to please all of the the people all of the time, but being able to please some of the people all of the time and take it a step further in concentrating on pleasing most of the people most of the time.
One thing I agree with 100% is to design all your pages to be easily accessible by the blind. The use of the ALT tag helps to accomplish this, but there are also many other ways – done with tables and a special tag for images allowing longer descriptions to be “read” and thus giving far more meaning to otherwise unknown images and unreadable text that may all flow together and become a meaningless jumble of garbage.
Other Design Tips
Some of the most wanted things for a Website by novices are the very things Mr. Kent advises against. Others are forgotten about by the majority of Websites and should be included. Be sure you read about these and then use them. A few examples of only a few things mentioned and discussed in the book:
• Page Counters, touted to be “cute clutter”
• Footer on every page
• Contact Information
• Grammar and spelling errors need to be corrected
• If you use frames, they can be double-edged swords
• Add visitor interaction
• Break rules only if you know what you’re doing
CGI programs are suggested and discussed in several places, but I found nothing in the book to explain why most ISPs do not allow their clients to use them and why CGI bin is part of their packages. Some of the biggest host sites tell their clients there are security risks, and they therefore do not permit their use. Some hosts have pre-programmed scripts available for you to use, and changing a few simple things within them make them available for use on your own Website. They do not resemble anything such as those in Poor Richard’s Web Site, so if you want the availability of CGI, you may need to put that at the top of your list when searching for a suitable host for your Web pages.
To recap and to stress my point again: The last time I had a domain name and a host for my Website, the host information stated that they did not provide access to CGI bins because of the ability to compromise the security of the server and of other clients. They would, however, take a look at CGI scripts and IF they were approved, they could be used – for an additional charge.
Visitors interacting with a Website is one of the most important topics discussed in this book. Commercial Websites require many types of things for their visitors to do and this includes everything from a contact link, which should be easily found, to email feedback forms, and sophisticated databases and ways to order and pay for merchandise.
Each of these is presented thoroughly and comprehensively. Personal Website designers will also appreciate the many pages devoted to interaction with visitors and how to accomplish this best for each particular need. There are examples and numerous URLs for purchasing needed software, using 900 numbers, credit cards, digital cash, and ending with autoresponding and mail forwarding.
Offering something free to visitors will help build an email address list, but pay attention to what the book says about these. Learn how to use them, not abuse them. You’ll also learn about what “spam” is and why it’s not an acceptable method of advertising.
The importance of having your own domain name cannot be stressed enough, and Mr. Kent repeats this message throughout his book, always giving more examples of what can be done with your own domain name. He uses a great one for an example: Th domain name of “acmesewercover.com” is still available, too!
The Final Steps
Promoting your finished Website, advertising it, and finding out what others think about it are the finishing touches to any Website. Poor Richard’s Web Site devotes over a hundred pages to this subject. Pay attention to every single word of every single page and you’ll be able to make informed decisions.
Learn how to search for yourself or your domain name; the importance of a proper title for each of your pages, using the META tag correctly, describing your images in the ALT attribute, joining a banner exchange program, and how to and where to register your site with search engines.
What remains? Getting people to visit your site. Chapter Nineteen addresses this within its fifteen pages. Learn the etiquette of your email signatures, how to post in newsgroups, and much more. And did you know you can forward a browser automatically without visitor input? If not, check out page 335.
Chapter 20 taught me something I didn’t know (that’s easy, though). Have you ever seen anything like this in any of your email?: “received=20” I have, and have never been able to figure out what the heck the “=20” meant. Read pages 344-345 for the answer. I also learned that it’s preferable to enter carriage returns after every 65 characters when using my email client because some email programs get confused with line wrapping. I don’t know if this still applies in updated versions of email clients or not, but a few messages written to myself showed me the value of following this method.
Last But Not Least
Appendix A, pages 395 through 401 compiles a checklist for comparing Web hosts. Appendix B, four pages, details a checklist for promoting your finished Website. What a bonus these pages are! Make several Xeroxed copies of each checklist, then use one for each host you contact. Thanks to these terrific pages, you will be able to compare hosts easily and select the one to suit your needs as well as your wallet.
The index is one of the best I’ve seen. It’s obvious a great amount of care was taken in creating it. For example, even the small paragraph on cable modems is listed.
Even the front cover and back cover pages are used! The inside lists reviews; the back is a condensed list of what you’ll find in the book and it continues to inside of the cover and the preceding page.
This book is the best I’ve seen of its kind. In fact, it’s probably one-of-a-kind. It’s constructed in a logical order and contains little wasted space. I learned loads of new information; I appreciated the 800+ URLs; and for me the book would be worth the price for this one “trick” I found:
Adding target=”Window1″ inside hypertext links will keep a visitor tied to your site by causing a new window to pop up with that site’s URL. I had always wondered how that was done! To see how it works, try any of links I included in this review (including the one in the next paragraph) which will take you away from Go Inside Magazine, but only under the new window of your browser! Now that’s neat! Close the new window by exiting it as you would any other window.
Poor Richard’s Web Site: Geek-Free, Commonsense Advice On Building a Low-Cost Web Site can be purchased on the Website at 15% off the retail price of $37.95. For only $32.26 and a 100% 365-day guarantee, you can own this book published by Top Floor Publishing. There are also sample chapters online, and as mentioned previously in this review, the list of over 800 resource links.
The information about cable modems was glaringly in error and I thought too much space was used to push FrontPage. I give Poor Richard’s Website four out of five Go Inside Review Lights.