Dear Webby
by Tony Karp
I am a graduate teacher's assistant (who was totally web illiterate until a month ago) and I am working with a professor to design a web page (well, an entire site) at VeryFirst Tech. The site will be for the Political Economy of Systems Technology (PEST). I am starting with my little book (Guide to the Student's Internet) and "Art and the Zen of web sites."
Anything you can e-mail me would be greatly appreciated. (I don't want my newness to the web to be blatantly obvious.)

- First time webber

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Dear First time,

First, let me congratulate you on your choice of reading matter.

Even though it's your first page, there's no reason to be nervous. Dear Webby will help you through this difficult time. And there's no need to hide this advice in a plain brown wrapper.

Actually, it's not the newcomers who do the harm. They don't know enough to be dangerous and, with any luck, they won't do much damage. It's the experienced site builders who do the most damage. They're the ones who show off by creating winkin', blinkin', rollin', scrollin', bandwidth-hogging multimedia bazaars, festooned with every do-dat, tchothke, gewgaw, and widget their pages can hold.

Technical note: A "do-dat" is something on your pages that makes others who come to your site say, "How did you do dat?" The second or third time they come to your site, they'll say, "Why did you do dat?"

1. Start simple and stay simple. Stick to providing information rather than entertaining. Make it easy for visitors to find what they need on your site. Let your site evolve as you learn more.

2. Don't try to build a "killer web site." Leave that for those with lots of spare time on their hands.

3. Avoid learning HTML. Get a WYSIWYG web page editor (most of these are like using a word processor). But keep an HTML manual handy, just as you'd carry a phrase book or dictionary when visiting a foreign country. And don't try to keep up with the latest HTML version. Everything you need to start with is in version Two Point Something. You should be able to build a decent web site with about a dozen HTML tags.

4. Study other people's pages. It's the fastest way to learn. You'll soon find out what makes good pages good, and vice versa. You can get the source of any page just by using the "Save As..." under the "File" menu on your browser. Then put it into your web page editor and play with it to learn how it works.

And every once in a while, go back and read "Art and the Zen of web sites."

No place like home (page)


Dear Webby,

The words on my web page are different colors than the default. It works with my browser at home. However, on other terminals, the colors seem to go to the default colors (thus burying my text in my background). What is a would-be webber to do?

- Just Curious

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Dear Curious,

When you change the default color of the text or links, you are mucking about with the elemental forces of nature, and there's a good chance that misfortune will find you. You were wise to seek Dear Webby's counsel in this matter.

The best answer, since it looks okay on your browser at home, is to invite everyone over to your house to look at your web page. This will also give you a chance to meet new friends, making your home a rest stop on the information highway. You might want to provide some simple snacks and drinks for those visitors who have to wait their turn in line.

It would give a new meaning to the term "home page."

The other thing you could do is ask yourself why you're saying things in weird-colored text in the first place. Or why you're using a colored or textured background.

Dear Webby believes that colored or textured backgrounds, or weirdly colored text or links, are a sure sign of a "first generation" web site, where we all tried to look like Wired magazine.

Do you think Netscape does this on their pages? Or Microsoft? Does the New York Times (or the Boston Globe) print stories in colored ink on textured paper? Does the New Yorker print stories on black pages with bright green ink?

Dear Webby recommends practicing safe HTML. Avoid putting things on your page that might distress or confuse your visitors. And avoid doing things that look different when viewed with different browsers, operating system, hardware, software, etc, etc, etc.

"Don't put me in front of that textured background. How do you know where it's been?"
> Vincent van Gui

  Degree of difficulty


Dear Webby,

In "Art and the Zen of web sites" it says:

"You have to decide whether the goal of your site is to impress the 'in crowd' with your technical razzle-dazzle, or to make it a site for the enjoyment of everyone. (Note: the 'in crowd' is usually very small.)"

Would you consider the 87% of your visitors who use Netscape to be part of this "very small" 'in crowd'??

- Curious in Chicago

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Dear Curious,


In the Olympics, they award extra points for the 'degree of difficulty' in sports such as diving.

On the web, however, you get points for aesthetics, content, and ease of use.

Degree of difficulty counts for little if anything.

Only a small fraction of your visitors (the in crowd) know or care how difficult it was for you to screw up your page with frames or tables, change the colors of the links, make the text unreadable with a heavily textured background, or distract the visitor with an annoying Java applet.

So a small percentage of your visitors will look at your page and say,

"Oh, wow!"

The rest will say,

"What was he thinking?"

Or maybe they won't, because they can't see your page in all its tortured magnificence, because it can only be seen by the very latest version of the browser, used by perhaps 20% of your visitors.

But that's the "in" crowd, and you've warned away everyone else, so what do you care?


Nervous newbie


Dear Webby,

I'm working on my first web site. It's almost done, but I'm afraid to show it to anybody. Suppose I've committed some terrible faux pas that will have me ostracized as a newbie.

What should I do?

- Nervous in Nebraska

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Dear Nervous,

Not to worry.

Even the most accomplished webmaster commits an occasional faux pas. (The tales I could tell!)

The good news is that the web, unlike real life, gives you a chance to fix your mistakes. But first you have to find them.

It's amazing how many broken web pages I've seen. Missing images, missing HTML pages, links to sites that have long since expired. Why, just the other day, I saw a page where this poor man's HTML tags were actually showing. (He forgot that quotation marks have to be in pairs. Leave one out and see what happens.)

And you wonder, how this could be happening?

The first thing to realize is that if there's a problem with your site, no one will tell you. ("Hey, your web page has a little bit of spinach on its teeth.") They figure you know your site is broken, but you're too lazy to fix it.

So what does Dear Webby recommend?

First of all, you must TEST, TEST, TEST!

Test your site locally, on your own computer, if you can. (It will save you hours.) Set up all the files in one directory, and point your browser at the home page. When everything is working, move the images and HTML pages to the server and test again.

Test all the routes through the site. Make sure all the links work, and that all the images show up. If you have links to other sites, make sure they still work.

And don't forget to test with several of the most popular web browsers. You'd be amazed at how different your poor little web site will look in different browsers. If you're really brave, visit your site with a text-only browser like Lynx.

And have others test your site, using their hardware, their software, and their Internet provider. You'd be amazed at what they'll find.

The biggest danger is when you've made some seemingly trivial change to the site. One that doesn't need testing, it's such a small change. (Don't you believe it.)

And don't forget to check your spelling. So many tools around, that there's no excuse for a faux pas like this. (There are people on the net who love to pounce on misspellings.)

And now I'll tell you Dear Webby's secret method for finding problems with your web site:

Learn to read the error log!

Most people don't even know that the web server keeps a record of all its problems in a special file. On most web servers it's called 'error_log'.

If you don't know how to read this file, get in touch with the technical support folks for your server. Say something flattering, then ask how to read the error log. (Tell 'em Dear Webby sent you.)

What you really want to do is to search the error log for all the entries that contain your user ID. If there's a bad link, or a missing page or image, this'll show it to you. The tech support people will show you how to write a simple script that searches the error log. After that, you can do it on your own.

Note: You can also find errors by searching the access log. This can be helpful if you can't get to your server's access log. Just search for entries that have both your ID and an error code.

At regular intervals, you should check to see if there's a problem with your site. Why bother after everything seems to be working okay? It's just that things outside your control can cause problems. Files get corrupted, directories get switched around, and perhaps Edsel Murphy (who discovered that famous law) is the system administrator on your web server.

An occasional visit might even give you some ideas for new additions and changes.

Paranoia strikes deep


Dear Webby,

I wanna be me! I'm ready for my fifteen minutes of fame! Let it all hang out! It's the ultimate version of the vanity license plate!

 I just finished my home page, and guess what? It's all about me!

It's got my picture, and it's got my address (just in case someone wants to send me a postcard), and it's got my phone number (just in case someone in Paris wants to call and tell me how much they like my page).

It's got the kids and the dog. And you know that nifty wallpaper in the upstairs bathroom? I used it for the textured background on my page.

Did I leave anything out?

- Wannabe Me

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Dear Wannabe,

Cool your jets. Mellow out. Take a deep breath. Better now?

As much as Dear Webby admires your enthusiasm, you might be better off making a more cautious start on the long route to your first appearance on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless."

Before you expose the world to your charms, there are a few things you may want to consider.

Like whether or not it's such a great idea to post your picture or other personal information on your home page. While it's true that you're just another blade of grass on the great golf course of the web, you never know whose attention you might attract.

The net is still evolving and who knows what sort of life forms will show up. Posting the things you have in mind could lead to the sort of thing that Stephen King writes about. (Stephen, if you're reading this, I have a GREAT idea for a horror novel about the Internet.)

So, with discretion being the better part of valor, trim back the personal information you show on your page. Remember Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street? Picture him reading your web page.

And that's not all.

Assuming you're not a public figure like a movie star, a politician, or someone with a publicist, you have certain rights as an individual. Public figures don't have these rights. You can make fun of politicians in public, but you might be able, as a private individual, to sue someone who makes the same sort of remark about you.

The field of Internet-related law is brand new. There are some lawyers who believe that posting your picture or other personal information can compromise your rights as a private individual, denying you certain protection in civil cases involving things like libel or slander. Lots of differing opinions about this, but who wants to be a test case?

It might revolve around the issue of whether or not you posted this information yourself. It's not the same as if your picture appears in public, but you were not responsible for it.

A side note: There was a big flap when one Internet provider in New York forced their subscribers to use their real names when posting to newsgroups, and made it easy for others to get personal information, such as their phone numbers.

So, in choosing how to present yourself to the web, the best advice is:

"Be careful out there."

Oh, and about that textured background you mentioned. Lose it.

Asking the right question


Dear Webby,

In "Art and the Zen of web sites" it recommends using the "<CENTER>" tag to center things on the page.

Shouldn't you be using using "<p align=center></p>" instead?

- Off Center

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Dear Off Center,

The obvious answer for using 'center' instead of the other way is that they are not equivalent. They have different uses and one may be more prone to errors or mistakes. One centers a paragraph, and the other centers a section of your document that may include multiple paragraphs, images, headlines, and what have you. Doing it by paragraph can be more error-prone, simply because it's more complex.

But this is a simplistic answer to the wrong question.

The right question is: Why are we coding up web pages in HTML? It's sort of an assembly language view of a page. It's certainly not how I do my word processing (although I did do it this way 20 years ago).

It's like doing your word processing directly in PostScript.


Why is HTML so good at complex, seldom-used things, and so poor at simple, commonly-used things?

Like if I have two lines of text and I want two blank lines between them, why isn't there an obvious way to do it -- one that will work with all browsers? Is there an official way?

Or if I have two images side-by-side on the same line, why isn't there an easy way to insert some space between them?

Why can't I do simple indenting without resorting to sets of tags that weren't meant for indenting?

Why isn't there a 'back' tag that does the same thing as pressing the browser's 'Back' button? This would help in creating structured documents and let you have pages that could be called from several different places.


If HTML is a standard, why does my HTML page look different in every browser, even within different versions of Netscape?

And so forth.

Something to meditate on.

To be continued...

Copyright 1957-2019 Tony & Marilyn Karp
Originally posted October 10, 1996