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Web design hints and tips (Website design considerations)

Why are you building this site?

This might sound like a silly question, but it's one you need to ask yourself before going any further. The answers will determine what the site looks like, how many pages there are, how visitors navigate around the site etc.

Write a mission statement, it sounds corny, but when things are getting confused it gives you something to refer back to. For instance, this site:

To provide a one-stop site for domain name registration, web hosting and web design services (backed by our 100% money-back guarantee), with excellent support services and free information for webmasters and potential webmasters.

Once you know what you're aiming for you can start to concentrate on the important areas, the site is primarily a one-stop shop for webmasters. There are plenty of other sites offering domain names and hosting, so how is this one different? The next parts of the mission statement tells us, first we have a guarantee of satisfaction - if you are not satisfied with the service then we'll give you 100% of your money back, 'excellent support services and free information'. Finally, it's for potential webmasters as well, so the information needs to cover the basics as well as more advanced techniques.

You can now start to think about the content and organisation of the site.

Organising your site

Websites need to be organised.

A website is a collection of files which are held on a computer (server) and delivered to browsers when the page is asked for. Unless your site is NEVER going to change you need to have a naming structure and some organisation for these files. In addition to the files you generate, there will also be other important files on your server. Examine them, download copies, but don't edit them unless you are absolutely sure that you know what you are doing.

Most servers use the Unix operating system, or Linux the open source alternative. This has important implications for your file structure. Firstly names are case sensitive. That means that a file called myfile is different from Myfile, which is different from myFile. Decide how you are going to name your files, a good standard is to use only lower case characters (ie no capitals), and stick to it, ALWAYS!

Some s servers do not like spaces in file names. So don't use them. Always try to pick descriptive file names which are as short as practicable. You are probably going to type them hundreds of times, so the shorter and more memorable they are the easier that will be, If you do need to split a name, use the underscore character, so my_file_name.

If you're a Mac user, a lot of this will be totally alien to you as you are used to calling files anything you like. The next bit is worse!

With some special exceptions, servers can't tell what is in a file, they just find the file and transfer it to the browser. To know what is in the file you need to start using file extensions, so page.htm or page .html is a file called page which contains HTML. Other standard extensions are:

Arrange your site using folders (directories)

For a small site there will only be a few pages and images, but when it grows to say 250 pages, there could easily be 500 or more files altogether. These need organising. Folders or directories are the answer, so that logical parts of the site can be grouped together for convenience. This also means that the top level directory on their server can be left uncluttered. For example, put all images into a folder called images.

How your files are served (delivered) to browsers

When you get webspace on a server what you actually get is a directory for your files. (This discussion is about true hosting packages rather than the few megabytes of space you can get free. When someone requests your homepage, by typing the address (URL) in their browser, eg

http:/www./sitemaster-internet.co.uk

that's only part of what the server needs to deliver the homepage. What the server really needs is the full path to the file. If your homepage is in the top level directory (which is usual) the full path is:

http:/www./sitemaster-internet.co.uk/index.htm

Normally, the browser adds / to the end of the URL giving

http:/www./sitemaster-internet.co.uk/

the final / tells the server to deliver the default file from this directory. Servers are set up so that they deliver index.htm, index.html, index.php or some other special file as the default, which means that you need to pick one of these names, only use .php if you are actually using php which is a pre-processor.

.htm or .html is your choice, but it's best to pick one and stick to it for all your directories and only have that one index file.

Avoiding unwanted 'backdoors' into you site

What's a backdoor? - it's an entry point into your site which you did not intend people to use. The default file serving mechanism described in the previous paragraph can lead to backdoors. The effect is that visitors can be presented with two things:

  1. A directory listing of the files in the folder they ask for. This looks unprofessional, and can lead to visitors seeing information which you would rather they did not, for instance new pages which you developing but have not fully tested. Time sensitive information about forthcoming special offers etc.
  2. Error 404 file not found, which looks just as bad!

How does this happen?

When a browser asks for a folder within a folder, for example

http:/www./sitemaster-internet.co.uk/site/

the server will look for a file called index.htm or index.html etc within the folder called site. If no such file exists, then the server will follow its error procedure and either deliver the directory listing or 404 error message.

You can avoid this type of backdoor by being aware of the circumstances which lead to it, and trying always to have an appropriate file in each sub-directory.

Our severs are programmed to deliver a special page instead of the 404 error message, that means you can present a special message to your visitors. See catching 404 file not found errors.

Catching 404 file not found errors

On our servers we have a simple mechanism which allows you to intercept type 404 errors and present the user with a professional-looking alternative.

How? - our servers are programmed so that before they deliver the 404 error message they look in your top level directory for a special page. If that file is present then it is served to the user instead of the 404 error message. Simple but so effective!

Other errors are handled in the same way.

How to use this mechanism - you write a page which says something like, "The page you requested has been changed, here are some alternatives", then put links to various pages on your site. You've given the user the alternative of going to another page without presenting an error message. That way you'll probably keep them on your site.

Finally, look at your graphical usage statistics which are provided as part of your hosting package. From these you can see how many visitors you are getting and what country they are from. You'll also see graphs indicating the busy times of day, and lots more information.

Careful analysis of these statistics can be a great help in knowing how visitors are using your website.