Stupid Web Tricks
by Tony Karp

Mucking about with the defaults


Every web page is a user interface. It presents information to the user, and the user can interact with it, mostly by clicking on links.

A number of elements have a 'default' behavior -- how they will appear if they haven't been modified. This takes advantage of the fact that we're creatures of habit -- it means that we don't have to start from scratch with every new page we visit.

One example is the color in which links are presented on the page.

The browser folks have reached sort of a standard -- blue for links you haven't visited and red for links you've already seen. Assuming a page with a white background and black text, these links stand out, showing clearly the various places yet to be visited.

Additionally, some browsers will change the color of a link as you click on it, providing an extra element of user feedback.

The important thing is that the visitor to your page is expecting the links to be blue and red. Seems straightforward enough.

It's dangerous to create a new type of interface that's difficult for the user to comprehend. It's even more dangerous to take a familiar interface and make it act in an unfamiliar way.

Let's take the traffic lights and change the color of the signals so that they better harmonize with the surroundings. Blue means Stop, gray means Go, and red means Caution. But only here. In the next town, they have more trees, so the traffic signals follow a predominantly green motif.

Try switching the faucets around so the hot water is on the right, cold on the left.

Try switching the brake and the accelerator because it looks better.

Switch the meaning of True and False.

You get the idea.

What happens when you change the colors of the links from their default value?

When someone visits your page they first have to figure out that the links aren't in the standard colors. Then they have to figure how your unique color scheme works.

Hmmm.. The black links are the ones that haven't been seen, and the ones you've already seen are gray (but they sort of blend into the textured background, so you may not see them at all).

An interesting variation is to have both the links and all the other text on the page be the same color. Why make it easy?

Another prize-winning variation is to use different color schemes for links on different pages of your site. Don't you hate it when your paradigm shifts?

Or... On a site about the life and work of a famous artist, putting the colors of the links into the various color schemes the artist favored. Is it art?

The most interesting variation in changing the colors of the links is to reverse their meaning -- red means not yet seen, and blue means already seen. What were they thinking?


Here's something else to consider. Each visitor views your page through their own unique combination of hardware and software.

They may be using a different browser, one that doesn't support changing the color of the links. Or their browser may render colors or images differently from yours. Or their graphics hardware may not support the same number of colors as yours. Or perhaps it's a portable with a black-and-white screen. Or perhaps their operating system handles color palettes differently. Or perhaps there's another application on the screen that's screwing up the colors in their browser. Or perhaps...

So many variables, so many ways to cause problems.

Oh, and don't forget that a lot of browsers allow the user to change the default color of the links when shown in their particular browser. Just imagine, this clash of two altered realities -- yours and theirs. In this case, the resulting colors for the links may be defined as... undefined.

The color of the links conveys information. Before you fiddle with the standard, put yourself in your visitors' minds and imagine how they'll react to having to decipher your quirky interface before they can navigate your pages.


Moral: Have a care when mucking about with interface elements that have default values. When making choices, do the thing that will cause your users the least amount of stress.


Note: There have been Macintosh software products that have been rejected by the users because they didn't conform to Apple's User Interface Guidelines.


"You don't have to go looking for trouble. It'll find you on its own."
> Vincent van Gui


Things that Blink



at any time,
for any reason,
unless it's to alert
the viewer
to something
that is highly abnormal,
or needs immediate attention,
or indicates a life-hazard emergency.
And especially,
don't have links
that blink.

"Lord ha' mercy, it's another winkin', blinkin', rollin', scrollin' web page, and me without my bulletproof eyeglasses!"
> Henri de Toulouse-LaTech



One way to impress and entertain the visitors to your site is to do something that surprises or shocks them. Everyone loves the unexpected.

For instance, you can have the page they're looking at suddenly change to another page, right before their very eyes.

That's right -- there's a way to have one HTML page automatically jump to another one after a short delay. (If you think I'm going to tell you how to do this, forget it. You'll have to look this up on your own.)

The original idea was well-intentioned. Suppose you wanted to have a page that displayed something like stock market data and updated itself every once in a while. Use this HTML tag and the page would automatically reload itself with fresh data at an interval that you set within the tag.

But a truly creative webmaster can use this trick to have a page, after a short delay transfer to another. Wow! An introductory page that sits there for a few seconds then goes to your main page. That ought to impress 'em.

However... if a visitor is trying to read something on the first page, and suddenly it switches to another, or if they turn away for a second and then look back to see a different page, or if they're using a browser that doesn't support this form of witchcraft and the page just sits there, or...

Maybe you can surprise your visitors by having your page make a sound or play music.

Imagine the delight of your visitors when, after watching your page sit there, downloading for over a minute, it suddenly begins playing music. Wow! Hopefully, your visitors will like your choice of music, and hopefully they won't mind the wait. They'll probably come back again and again just to hear it.

And imagine their surprise when, after hearing the music for five or ten seconds, they suddenly see a message that says: "This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down." Imagine the thrill of seeing all the bookmarks they've collected for the last two hours suddenly vanishing. Truly a web experience they won't soon forget. Gives a new meaning to the term "Killer Site."

A really resourceful webmaster can find dozens of ways to surprise visitors. Here's a trick: when the visitor clicks on a link on one of your pages, instead of just transferring to a new page, open a new browser window in which to show the page. Don't worry about your visitors becoming disoriented in trying to follow what's happening. After all, they're there for a "Total Web Experience," so let 'em have it with both barrels.

And, if all else fails, you can always grab your visitors' attention with some truly shocking content. Picture their joy as they mutter "Eeew, gross!" and fumble for the browser's "Back" button.


Don't forget the title

Every web page has a title. It's what shows up at the top of the browser's window when a page is displayed. Most people never even notice it.

Guess what's the most popular page title on the web. That's right, it's:

No Title

Followed closely by the ever-popular:


Or the name of the brosewr. Or the URL of the page. It depends on how the browser displays pages that don't have a title, and a number of other factors.

Well, what's the big fuss about forgetting to put a title on your page? Who's going to notice? No one, when the page is displayed in the browser, but...

If someone bookmarks your page, the title is what shows up in their list of bookmarks. Or, if someone puts a link to your site on their page, they'll probably use your page title as the link text. Or, if the page is indexed by a search engine, the title is what shows up in the search results. You get the picture.

So remember to use the "TITLE" tag to add a title to every page on your web site.

But wait, there's more. Even if you do have titles on your pages you still might want to reevaluate the actual wording. Make sure that that the title actually says something. Instead of "My Web Page," how about "John Jones -- My Web page?" Imagine viewing the two of them in a bookmark list.

If you have a business site, you may want to go even further. For instance, you may want to put the name of your business (or an abbreviation) in the title of every page on your site. You never know which of your pages will be bookmarked, and it will be far easier to pick you out in a list of bookmarks, or any other list that uses the page's title.

Copyright 1957-2019 Tony & Marilyn Karp
Originally posted November 16, 1998