WEBBING YOUR WORLD III: WHAT GOES INTO YOUR WEBBED WORLD?
By Steven Savage
Archives available at The Way With Worlds Home Page
OK, you've got the web-space, the HTML skills, and the graphics, and you know what extras you can stick on your site. You're ready to put your works on the web. The question is, what goes up, how should you design your site, and what goes with them?
My answer to this is simple; you put in what makes your site useful to visitors. A website is a utility, just like a program or a tool - it does something for someone. Take a look at sites like cnn.com, ufomind.com, and fanfiction.net - these sites help you find or do something. You may not have the time or resources or inclination to run a supercomplex site, but you still have to keep in mind your site is there to do something for people, otherwise people have no reason to come.
When your site is a host to your fiction, what it does is make your fiction, related works, and you, the creator, accessible. Those are the basic services you provide; think of it almost like a business.
So, with that in mind, lets take a look at common features that your site should - or shouldn't - have. I'll be drawing on my previous experience in my webmastering of my own site and others.
First of all, scribble out a diagram of how your web site will work - what pages there will be, what links go where. Play around with it until you get a way of working, a workflow as its called, that is easy to use.
One of the biggest mistakes made in site design is requiring too many clicks of links/buttons/back/forward for things to get done. That's why I follow what I call my 1-2-3 rule:
I don't find this rule holds up in all areas of websites - for instance if you have a complicated search or other utility, there may be all sorts of clicking and selecting. I apply this rule to the major areas and sub-areas of a website.
One way to reduce "clicks" is to have a site map that is easily accessible - an organized list of links to EVERYTHING. It may not look pretty, but keep it tucked away, one click away from major pages, and it'll be very useful.
Obviously you need this since people need somewhere to go first - good old index.html. I usually find it's good to use this as a launchpad to other parts of the site, and to display recent news. If you're going for a personal feel, it's a good place to display rants, chatty commentary, etc.
One of the most irritating things to do with a main page is insert musical tracks, large pictures, java, etc. The main page is people's first experience - don't make them suffer through a hideous upload time or a browser crash or both.
Remember your site is a utility - make the main page count. For instance, I keep a "what's new" and "latest updates" section on my index page.
You kind of want to include these on your site, since thats what its there for. However, there are several factors to consider:
If you're like me and you have a complex world and storyline, a page with a guide, a FAQ, character profiles, etc. can help immensely. Sure, you may remember everything, but don't count on your readers to do so or make the effort to keep every little detail in mind. If your story and world are complex enough, consider a guide page.
At the least, have a good FAQ. In some cases, you may want separate character profiles and summaries. Just remember, there's a lot of maintenance. (And I know as my FAQ is quite behind; well it would be if I had one yet . . .)
ART AND ART
Art galleries are just additions that can actually enhance the experience of your webbed work; let people see pictures of the characters, scenes, etc. It can help them enter your world, and just be fun to browse. Art combined with a Guide section can help people really understanding and visualizing your setting.
An art gallery is also a way for people to do some mutually beneficial work. If artists other than yourself contribute, list their email or web pages. Give them a chance to make some contacts and friends too.
As an addition, you may want to try illustrating your stories. Just be careful with layout and make sure it doesn't interfere with story flow.
I have mixed feelings on author profiles. On one hand, they can paint a picture of the creator(s) of the site, add a human face to the text and HTML and graphics. On the other hand they can seem (or be) arrogant and self-promoting. People should look at your work, not you.
Including an Author Profile is a judgment call that I think depends on ones site and one's goal. It all comes back to the question "Does it make the site better for the visitors?" and, I think "does it warrant letting the visitors know more about the creator or creators?"
One thing I've found is great for an Author profile is contact information - email, ICQ number, etc. Unless you're avoiding your readers deliberately, make yourself available. Yes, you might get some flames, but you'll more likely get feedback and make new friends.
Sometimes your project may be complicated or unusual, and you may want to explain it to visitors. An About page is a good way to help.
I myself have combined the Author and About page on my own site, and found that its a nice way to put informative information on one page and avoid egotism or its appearance. I also put thanks to people who helped out and other useful tidbits.
The Guestbook is another website element I have mixed feelings about. In some ways, its a good way for people to make contacts, in others its a statement of ego, and yet in others it can get quickly filled up and be a pain to maintain. However, with the many free services, they're very easy to implement.
Done right, the guestbook is both a utility for visitors and for yourself - a way of maintaining contact. Ask yourself if you really need it (posting an email address on the site usually works well enough), and if you have a large traffic flow, if you want to keep reading it and deleting old entries. A good rule of thumb I've found is that you won't need one unless you have at least 50 visits a day.
And if your goal is to stroke your ego, don't do it. Avoid the temptation.
Message Boards, like guestbooks, are easy to build these days. Like guestbooks, they can also be included for the wrong reason - egotism, a lack of foresight, and the "everyone is doing it" mentality.
Me, I find MB's useless unless a site has a lot of traffic (50-100 hits a day) and has elements of community building. If your works are that popular (and they may be), an MB is a way to support your fan community. If your work is a group project, an MB can be an excellent way of coordinating and getting reader input (and don't forget the use of listservs as well)
Just remember the maintenance that goes with them. You're going to have messages to delete.
I find that guestbooks compete with messageboards. Ask yourself if you are looking for communication or just a way for someone to acknowledge they saw/reacted to the site. Unless you're sure both will be used, chose the one appropriate to your goals, your site, and the kind of experience you want to provide users.
Ah, counters. A chance to count your hits, a chance to feel inadequate, or a chance to provide better services to your visitors? Actually, counters are all three.
Personally, I use them mainly for myself - to know how many hits I'm getting, to know, in short, if anyone cares. I suggest using them mainly for this - as a tool. Yes, a nice big number is neat, but lets face it you can fake that easily. The feedback of knowing people are actually visiting is more important.
Some services provide invisible counters or counters that are company icons, not numeric displays. These are great if you don't want to display numbers, don't care, or don't want to make to make the impression you're jonesing for hits.
I find these useful as long as they're not intrusive. Offering people a chance to know whe your work is updated, etc. is offering them a service - as long as you don't do things like pester them inappropriately, etc.
I myself use netmind (http://www.netmind), so people automatically find out when my page is updated. It's simple, non-intrusive, and doesn't require much work for either party.
If your site is popular enough, a good general listserv may be in order for readers and contributors. I would not reccomend something like this unless it's requested by several people or you're constantly getting Guestbook/Messageboard updates by interested parties. If you're not sure, put a post/poll on your main page and see what people think!
Ultimately, your site may be a centerpoint for an e-community, and a listserv can act similar to a message board. Again, ask yourself what services your visitors really want and need before implementing them (or implementing any).
It goes without saying, you have a links page, right? The web is about connection, but a displayed body of works isn't a personal page. Again, as noted, its presentation and utility. Give your visitors a reason to be here.
First of all, you may not even need a links page. If your story/world page is a subpage of another, larger page, put the links there. Don't trouble yourself or your readers.
If you do want to put links on the story pages, make them relevant and functional. I recommend:
Banners. I've got mixed feelings about them. I feel they can be quite cool and artistic as well as promote sites, but sometimes they end up dominating pages, or end up hidden away. One also faces the threat that your site will look banner-dominated, sold-out, or commercial. Then there are legal aspects depending on your host and copyrights.
Your use of banners will depend on your design choices. One can put them on the front page, spread out, or on a page all their own. It depends on what you want to do, how it should look, and what agreements you have with your banner contributors.
(Note that if you enter banner swaps with automated/swap services they may have very strict rules on display and positioning. Read and follow these carefully)
I also recommend that if you have links AND banners separate. If you consider a site whose banner you display very important or worthwhile, give the site its own link too.
I rather like webrings when I get in a surfing mood, and they're a way to declare an allegiance to an interest. Of course, like banners, they can be overused or underused, and you need to make sure you follow the rules of particular rings. I usually subdivide them into appropriate categories.
I once encountered a page with two java applets, one a complete chat system - on the index page. Needless to say, my browser, a bit taxed with other tasks, completely exploded.
Your site is a utility for your visitors. Enough said.
Well, that's it for now in "Webbing Your World." I hope it's been useful - now get out there and show the world what you've done! Let me see your sites, I may just share them with people in a future column!