Articles, tips, and resources for webmasters

a project by Michael Bluejay | email

This is page is an example of how NOT to design; we intentionally violate tip #R1 below so you can see how pages with long lines are hard to read. (Go back to the real article.)

Website design tips

©Michael Bluejay • Written 2001 • Updated Jan. 2007

Owning a word processor won't make you a great writer, and having web-publishing software doesn't mean that the pages you create will necessarily be attractive, or even usable. Presumably you created your page because you have something you want to share -- but you fail to share it successfully if your visitors get annoyed, or if they leave quickly without reading what you had to offer.

Fortunately, the most common website mistakes are very easy to prevent or fix. Here's a guide to doing just that.


Provide compelling content / something of value

C1.  Make sure each page in your website has something valuable to offer.

Though this doesn't really relate to design, it's actually more important than design. And I know many people reading this page are trying to find out how to make useless pages look pretty, because their only goal is to try to make money from the Internet somehow. So let's step back a minute and realize that fundamentally a web page exists to provide something that's useful or interesting to visitors. If your page doesn't have that, then add that before you worry about how to present it. If you throw mud at a canvas, then even if you put it in a gold frame, it's still just a canvas of mud.

If your plan is to make money from advertising, then go for a ratio of not less than 75% editorial to 25% advertising. Amazingly, I see some sites that are almost nothing but ads. Would you turn on the TV if it were just commercials, and no programs? Would you buy a magazine if it were just ads, and no articles? If not, then make sure your web pages doesn't suffer from the same mistake.

Avoid Distractions

D1.  Don't distract your visitors with blinking text, scrolling text, animated GIFs, or sound files.

Animation and sounds are distracting. How can anyone concentrate on reading what's on your site when there are things flying around the page? It's like trying to read a newspaper when someone's poking you in the shoulder repeatedly. Also, visitors who have dial-up connections instead of high-speed connections may resent that you wasted their time by forcing them to load animations and sound files against their will. Research shows that animated banner ads may be no more effective than static ads, anyway.

D2.  Don't annoy your visitors with pop-up windows.

Nobody likes them. They waste time and space. Which of these reactions do you think your visitor is more likely to have?
(a) A popup window, oh goody! I love sites with popups! I will make certain to bookmark this site and visit often. I will also certainly click the ad or links in the popup because I have such a strong love of popups.

(b) @#&$! Whoever made this website obviously has no respect for me as a visitor. When I leave here I will never come back.

Don't bog your website down

B1.  Compress your image files.

Nothing is more annoying to readers than waiting for a 200k graphic to load when it should be only 20k instead. Graphics software can compress files so they take up less room on your disk, and therefore take less time to load into your visitors' browsers. Get some graphics software and shrink those file sizes! GifBot is quick and easy, and shrinks your graphics right on a webpage. Or you can download graphics software: Windows: HVS GifCruncher and JPEG Wizard. Macintosh: GraphicConverter.

And as mentioned earlier, don't bog your site down with auto-playing sound files, either.

B2.  Don't let flashy multimedia ruin your site.

Flashy graphics and multimedia controls may look nice, but they're bad when they make it hard for visitors to get the information they want from your site. Nobody wants to be annoyed by having to use a cumbersome Java scroller to see all the text in a field, much less wait for all the doodads to load -- if they even work at all. Stay away from sitebuilders like (The exception, of course, are sites whose content is about creative things such as art or music.)

Website Readability

R1.  No line of text should be more than 600 pixels wide.

The reason that newspapers and magazines are printed in columns is to make the lines short, so it's easy to find the start of next line after you've read a line. The page you're reading now shows one approach to making line length manageable: put the text in a fixed-width table in the center of the page. Here's an example of a bad page with no limits on line length.

Here's another example of a good page, with sidebars to the left and right of the content. A potential problem with that layout is that the content will be too wide for visitors with really large screens, since the content is fluid and expands when the window is bigger. A way around that is to make the content a fixed width, but that poses another problem: Pages should be designed to work on screens as small as 800x600, which means no more than 770 pixels wide to account for scrollbars and such. The two sidebars on the page in question take up about 175 pixels each, or 350 pixels total. That leaves 770-350 = 420 pixels for the content, which is really thin and ugly on the larger 1024x768 monitors, which are the most common. So if I want two 175-pixel sidebars, I can either:

(a) make the content 420 pixels wide, which will look crappy on 800x600 screens,

(b) or I can make the content fluid, which will look okay on both 800x600 and 1024x768 screens, but worse on even larger screens.

I chose (b), because that gives the best result for the majority of web visitors.

R2.  Don't make your page too wide.

Your page should be 770 pixels wide at most (so people with 800x600 screens can read it). If your pages are wider than that, then many visitors won't be able to see everything without scrolling left to right.

R3.  Use contrasting colors or simple backgrounds to make your text easy to read.

It's hard to read light text on a light background, or dark text on a dark background. Also, it's hard to read text on background images that have a wide mixture of light and dark; background images should be simple and mostly dark or mostly light. You can improve readability of text on a background image by increasing the text size and/or making it bold.

You should almost never put text on an image or textured background. Unless you really know what you're doing, such text is usually difficult or annoying to read -- if not impossible.

R4.  Make the text large enough to read.

This ought to be a no-brainer, yet just today a webmaster referred me to his site which I had to squint to read. Don't punish your visitors if you want them to actually read your content. With CSS rules, go for 12 or 13px Arial, and 11 or 12px Verdana.

R5.  Increase the line spacing (leading) to improve readibility.

Putting some space after each line gives it some breathing room and makes it a lot easier to read. If you don't specify the leading, you don't get any -- you get the default of cramped lines. I set this article to 160%, which you can see adds some attractive space between the lines and makes the text appear less daunting. But I kept this particular paragraph at the default, so you can see how it's much less attractive and harder to read. Add spacing by using CSS commands. To set the leading for a table cell, use something like <td style="font:11px/160% Verdana">. For a long block of text put all the text between div's: <div style="font:11px/160%>(long block of text)</div>. That's enough to get you started, but to really master CSS you'll want to learn how to create CSS rules.

R6.  Don't type more than a few words in ALL CAPS.

Words that are in ALL CAPS draw attention to themselves because they seem different from the small letters around them. But if you type everything in all caps, then you completely lose the effect, since everything looks the same, so none of it looks important. If you want to draw readers' attention to something, make the headline stand out -- bold, bright color, maybe a little larger -- but keep the text that follows it normal.

R7.  Never use more than one exclamation point!

Typing several (or worse, a gazillion) exclamation points does not make your text seem any more important than just one. In fact, rather than conveying urgency, what multiple exclamation marks really scream is "Amateurish!".

R8.  Use a spelling checker.

Obviously, people who spell poorly may not notice or care that your site is badly misspelled, but literate people may notice and care, and they're in the majority.

Make it Easy to Find Stuff

F.  Include a way to get back to the home page, on every page.

When users get lost they like to start over from square one. Make it easy for them to do so. If you're including a clickable logo on the top of every page, make sure to also include text that says something like "Back to Home Page", because some users don't realize that logos take you back to the home page. [Example site]

Also remember that users might not be able to hit the "Back" button to go back to your home page, because they might have entered the middle of your site after clicking a link to it from a search engine or from some other site.

F1.  Include navigation tools on every page.

While you should provide a way for users to get back to your home page quickly, you shouldn't force them to go home before they can go somewhere else. Include a menu on the left or the top of each page. [example of menu at left] [example of menu at top]

Don't put navigation links only at the bottom of pages, because then users will have to scroll down to the bottom to get to them (unless your pages are very short). Users clearly dislike links at the bottom of long pages. On long pages, you'll want navigation elements on BOTH the top and bottom, so that users who have read a lengthy page don't have to scroll back up to get to the navigation parts.

F2.  Don't use frames.

You might be tempted to use frames because it makes it easy to have the same header or menus appear throughout the site. And usability studies do show that users find sites with frames "Easy to Comprehend", "Easy to Navigate", and "Easy to Find Info". But there are two serious downsides to frames: First, the address bar doesn't change as you go from page to page. That makes it impossible for anyone to bookmark or link to a specific page in your site, or to share that page with a friend by emailing them the link. Second, when a page within your site other than the frameset shows up in a search engine, a visitor clicking over to that page will see just that subpage without the surrounding frame.

F3.  Put some thought into organization.

Think about what content you have and how it should be organized. You do your readers a disservice if they can't easily find what they're looking for if everything is thrown up on your site in a haphazard fashion.

On a related note, don't put too much info on a page, nor too little. When there's too much info on a page then it's overwhelming. But when there's not enough info then you force users to click through a bunch of different pages to get all the info they need.

The right and wrong way to use links

L1.  Don't underline words if they're not links.

On the web, something that's underlined is supposed to be a link. If you underline gratuitously, readers will be annoyed when they try to click those underlined words only to discover that they're not really links. If you want to emphasize something, use italics (or boldface, or another color).

L2.  Make links blue or underlined, or both.

Users expect links to be blue and underlined, because that's the way they appear on 99% of other websites. If you use a different color then at least the underline is a clue that a link is a link. Likewise, if you remove the underline but keep the link blue, then the color is the clue that a link is a link. So it's best to use both blue and underlined, but using at least one or the other is acceptable.

What's wrong is doing neither -- having links that aren't blue and aren't underlined. How are users supposed to know what's a link at that point? We ran across one page (no longer up) whose main link is red with no underline. To make matters worse, elsewhere on the page they use blue text, which looks like a link, but which isn't. (We tried to bring this to the attention of the site but owner he bragged that nobody else has ever complained.)

L3.  Explain what you're linking to.

If your site has a Links page, include a short description of each site you link to, say 1-5 sentences. That way visitors have an idea of what's on those sites, which will help them make their decision on whether to visit those sites, and help them find what they're looking for, while avoiding what they're not looking for.

Nothing is less useful than a whole bunch of links to other sites when those links consist of nothing more than the names of those sites (or worse, the urls). Without any description of what you're linking to, readers are forced to visit each and every site to get an idea of what's there. Imagine 100 of your visitors all repeating that same laborious surfing, needlessly. You could have told them what's on those sites, because you (presumably) visited those sites yourself, so you know what's on them. Do your readers a favor and share your knowledge with them. [Example site]

There are clunky Javascript tricks that can overcome these problems, but once you hassle with that to get your frames to work properly then you're defeating the purpose of using frames because you wanted a quick & easy solution in the first place. The preferred way of having the same elements on a page throughout a site is to use server-side includes.

Be Accessible

A1.  Put your contact info, or a link to it, on the top and/or bottom of every page.

Don't waste your readers' time by making them hunt around your site for how to contact you. Make your contact info easy to get to. Put your contact info (or a link to it), on the top of every page. [Example] 

If you're not printing your phone and/or email anywhere because you don't have the resources to handle inquiries, then do your readers the courtesy of letting them know that, so they don't spend forever hunting in vain for contact info that doesn't exist.

Unfortunately you can't link up your email address with a simple mailto: link, unless you want lots of spam. That's because spambots are good at stealing such addresses from web pages. We have a separate article about how to hide your email address from spambots.

Make sure it works, and that it keeps working

W1.  Test your links.

Make sure your site works! Load your site in a browser from the Internet (not from your hard disk), make sure all the images appear correctly, and click on all the links. This may seem obvious, but if it's so obvious, then why do I constantly find sites whose images and internal links don't work right? If you're using a link checker that's built in to your web editor and your site is framed, then you can't depend on the link checker, because it can't check for framing problems (e.g., pages load into wrong frames, clicking a link results in frames within a frame, etc.). Check it yourself.

W2.  Remove dead external links periodically.

If you link to any external sites, some of those links will almost certainly stop working at some point as the sites move or become extinct. Don't waste your readers' time by forcing them to follow broken links. Check your links at least once every few months. You can use software to automatically check your links to external sites to see if any of them have gone dead. [Here's a link checker for Windows.]

W3.  Include a "Last Modified" date on the top or bottom of your pages.

If your site contains information that could become outdated, then do your visitors the courtesy of letting them know when the information they're reading was written. That way, visitors won't have to wonder whether the info was written last week or five years ago.

If your content by its very nature can't become outdated. (e.g., poetry, stories, art, website design tips), then a date isn't absolutely essential,, but readers may still appreciate knowing when a page was authored anyway.


Hate Mail

We used to use PsychoCycles as an example of a site that violated nearly every single rule listed above, but they've redesigned it several times since then. But for nearly two years and counting, they've sent us a ton of illiterate hate mail and threats.


Links to Technical Tips

Guidelines for web credibility. Items that make your website appear credible to visitors. From Stanford University research.

WebWeaver Tips & Tricks
This site has answers to questions like these:

How do I find out how many sites are linked to mine and who they are?
How do I link to a specific spot on a page?
How can I give visitors a way out if they are trapped in a frame?
How can I automatically redirect someone to my new site?
My page is slow to load but I don't want to lose my pictures!
How do you preload an image?
AAARRGGHHH! There's a banner in every frame!
Why are some people seeing an old version of my site?
On emails from my site I'd like the subject filled in for them. How do I do that?
Can I fill out the body of an email for my visitors?
I think someone is linking directly to my graphics, how do I find out who?
How do I find sites that are stealing my content?
What is "linking directly to graphics" and why is it wrong?
Is it possible to change two out of three frames at the same time?
My server doesn't have SSI, how can I fake an includes?


  Articles, tips, and resources for webmasters

a project by Michael Bluejay | email