Saturday, February 10, 2007

What Makes a Good WebSite?

Think of this as a Buyers Guide to a Good Web Site. Obviously, much of what makes a "good" website is subjective, but the items below are not and are easily measured.

  • Consistent Navigation: All the links, menus, buttons should be in the same place on every page.
  • Printable Pages: All too often web pages are chopped off on the right side when printed. There is no excuse for this. Printer friendly versions of each page can either be maintained separately or reformatting for printing can be enabled for an entire site with an alternate style sheet. Either way, test printing with all the popular web browsers on Windows and on a Mac. In addition, I like to insure that each printed page always displays it's URL (web page address) either at the top or at the bottom. The web browser usually puts it there, but things can go wrong with that.
  • With or without "www": The web site should be usable both with and without the leading three Ws.
  • Page titles: Each page should have a unique title. If you would like people to find the website when searching by location, add the city and state to the titles where appropriate.
  • Liquid Design: The width of a good web page will adjust to fit its container (thus the term liquid). That is, if it's viewed with a resolution of 1024x768, the page will be 1,024 pixels wide. If viewed on a monitor with a resolution of 1280x600, the page will be 1,280 pixels wide. This means less vertical scrolling for the user, a good thing. Not only do narrow sites look silly on wide screens, but they indicate the site designer isn't up to the harder task of the liquid design. The choice of fixed vs. liquid design tells you a lot about the person who designed the web site. If it has a fixed width, get someone else to do your website.
  • Text size: View the website in Internet Explorer. Then, from the menu bar, select View -> Text Size -> Larger. The text on the site should get larger. If not, nag the webmaster to change things so it does. Some people, after all, wear glasses.
  • Adjust to larger text size: If the text does get larger, review a couple pages to insure that various sections of text don't overlay themselves or images. The best test is to use the Internet Explorer "Largest" text size. Also test in Firefox with View -> Text Size -> Increase.
  • Text is text: The use of images of text should be minimal. It is certainly justified for a logo, but probably not in other cases. For one thing, pictures slow down the loading of the website (in two different ways). Also, the text in an image doesn't resize.
  • Statistics: If it's your web site you should be able to easily view stats on its usage.
  • Speed: Pages should load quickly. This means a few things. First, the size and number of images can't be excessive. Defining "excessive" is admittedly a judgment call. Second, if there is a server side database, performance needs to be reviewed. This may mean a dedicated server vs. shared hosting or it may mean changes to the indexes on tables. Finally, the whole world is not yet on broadband, so test page load times on a dial-up connection.
  • Customized Error Pages: The most common error on a web site is a "Page Not Found." A well done site will intercept this error and display a friendly message on a page that looks like all the other pages on the site. A poorly done web site shows a default, ugly error message on a page with no formatting at all. Creating customized error pages is easy, there is no excuse not to have them. One website that deals with Page Not Found errors well is Woot (see example). A site that does not do this well is Trusted Reviews (see example).
  • Feedback: There should be an email address for feedback about the website. Preferably this will be on every page, but at the least, it should be on the Contact Us page.
  • Page Footer: And, speaking of every page, the footer should include the last update date and some contact information.
  • Firefox: Since Firefox is the second most popular web browser, check that web pages display correctly with it. Frequently increasing the font size causes layout problems, but this is fixable. Also, Firefox has an excellent error checker. That is, it logs the errors it encounters when rendering a web page. Some of these errors are important, some are not, but there is no reason for there to be any errors. To use it, Click on Tools -> Error Console. Clear out the old error messages by clicking the "Clear" button at the top (red X). Then load your web pages, one at a time and see what, if any, errors are generated.
  • Adobe Acrobat PDF files: Whenever a link on the site goes to a PDF file rather than a web page, this should be made very obvious to the user before they click on the link. In general a web site is for web pages, not for Adobe Acrobat documents. The use of PDF files should be minimal.
  • JavaScript: A common mistake web developers make is assuming everyone uses JavaScript. In both IE and Firefox try to view the website with JavaScript turned off. It should still function, even if some features don't work. If features of the site absolutely require JavaScript then the site has to check for the presence of JavaScript and when not found, explain this to the user in simple language. (updated May 21, 2007)
  • New Window Links: Sometimes links open new browser windows rather than load the target page in the current browser window. Any such link should clearly indicate that it opens a new window.
  • Directory Browsing: If you go to a valid directory on the website you should never see a list of files. For example, a URL such as www.mysite.com/dirxyz should produce either a web page or an error message saying that directory browsing is not allowed. Test all the sub-directories this way and verify with the webmaster that directory browsing is disabled.
  • Screen resolution of 800x600: Webmasters generally use new hardware and software, but there are still people who view the Internet through 800x600 glasses. They should not have to scroll horizontally to see the entire page.
  • Other web browsers. Other operating systems: Lazy web developers only test a website with Internet Explorer on Windows. Maybe they will test with Firefox on Windows. But you're website is going to be viewed on Macintosh and Linux computers with different web browsers. At browsershots.org you can see how your home page looks when viewed with many different browsers on Macs, Windows and Linux. As of May 2007 it's in Alpha testing (which comes before Beta testing) - in other words, don't expect too much from browsershots.org quite yet.
  • Last updated June 21, 2007
If you paid someone to make a website and it does not have the above characteristics, take your business elsewhere.

If you can.

This last point is the most important of all. Every domain is registered in a big master file in the sky. Whoever did the initial registration, in addition to paying the bill, also got to chose who owns the domain. Us nerds call this the "Registrant". If someone built a website for you they may have registered the name and made themselves the Registrant. If so, it's not your domain, even though you may be paying for it. Paying for the web site hosting has nothing to do with the owner of the domain.

The companies that register domains are called "registrars". At the website of any registrar you can look up the "registrant" for a domain. GoDaddy, which advertises during the Super Bowl, is a registrar. One that I like is Directnic.com. Directnic makes this query particularly easy, just enter a URL in this format:
http://www.directnic.com/whois/?query=mydomainname.com
Behind The Scenes

These reports are designed for techies, but can still be useful for anyone in evaluating a website.

Go to www.siteadvisor.com and get their opinion of your website. Your site should get a green check and the message "We tested this site and didn't find any significant problems." If not, ask the webmaster to make whatever changes are necessary. If your site has not been evaluated by Site Advisor, enter it into their system and check back in a few days.

Go to Google webmaster tools to verify that your site is indexed by Google and to learn the date they last indexed (a.k.a. crawled) your site. (added June 30, 2007)

Go to SiteUpTime to test how fast your website responds to someone in any three cities of the four they offer: New York, Chicago, San Francisco and London. (added December 17, 2007)

A free service for monitoring the availability of your web site is available from BasicState. (added March 10, 2008)

Go to whois.domaintools.com for information on your web site, domain registration and more. This link does an analysis of CNET.com, simply replace "cnet.com" with your domain name. (added February 25, 2008)

Go to Exploit Prevent Labs to get their opinion of your website. You can enter your website address at the bottom of their home page, then click on the Scan button. (added June 15, 2007)

At www.dnsreport.com you can get a free DNS server analysis. Simply put, DNS servers are in charge of telling the world everything about your web site and about your domain. For example, they are the final link in the chain for finding a website. The important point here is that configuring a DNS server computer is complicated and this website offers a free report on how well the DNS servers servicing your website are configured. Anything in red is an outright error, anything in yellow is a warning. Talk to your webmaster about fixing anything in red in this report. (added March 29, 2007)
Posting viewed: times since June 1, 2007

1 comment:

Jessie said...

I just wanted to say thanks for posting this information. I found it extremely helpful. I am a student making my own web site for the first time. Thanks!