Website Design – Is Your Site Ready For The Big Time?
One thing any Web design guru worth their salt will tell you is that when designing a site, it pays to think big. This comes naturally to some people, but many of us are used to talking down our achievements as much as we can.
When putting a site together, it’s all too easy to forget that once all the pieces have been slotted into place and the site’s been uploaded to the Web, if the content is good enough and it hits the right nerve, then there’s every likelihood that it could attract many more visitors than you originally envisaged.
However, all this extra popularity has a price. When a large number of visitors hit your site, things can quickly start grinding to a halt. Bandwidth can become choked, overused services can get clogged up, access times can go through the roof, and at the end of it all there’s a real possibility that your site might bite the digital dust and refuse to load at all. Which, as we all know, is definitely not good.
When sites go down, one thing is sure to happen people will be put off visiting in their droves. Once your loyal punters are upset, you can guarantee your email inbox will start filling up with angry mails and criticisms, which is quite enough to put a dent in the confidence of even the toughest Flash fiddler. So what can you do? Well, quite a bit, as it turns out.
Make Your Site Universal
Before we start talking about what you can do to speed things up and ensure that your site doesn’t buckle under the strain of a huge influx of visitors, let’s take a look at some of the things that can help attract people in the first place.
Perhaps the most obvious principle to take on board is that the quickest way to get hits is to make the site as welcoming as possible. We’re not talking about a pleasant introductory paragraph on your home page, but pointing out that the site has to be able to take visitors using a wide range of browsers. It’s no use getting 400,000 hits a day if only a third of that number can actually get in and use the thing. There’s nothing more annoying to a Web punter than a message big that the page they’re trying to view cannot be rendered in their browser, even if they’re using a beta version of the latest Netscape clone.
To combat this, it’s good sense to sure you don’t build your site ground up with only one user in mind. Not everyone on the web uses Internet Explorer to surf the net, so if the site isn’t viewable on that browser you’ll be neglecting a shedload of people. In addition to all the different browsers available, it’s also worth noting that many people don’t want to update their browser software, and may therefore be using the same ancient version that turned up with their copy of Windows 95.
To this end, any funky IE version 6+ only features that you employ will be totally lost to these users, and may even prevent the site from loading at all.
your design in a variety of browsers at every stage of the process, to make sure everything is as cross platform as possible. Don’t just test things at the end, because it might take a lot of hard work to correct a mistake that was made early on in the build.
Finally, it’s also not a good idea to stick a great number of nested tables into the design. These are notorious for slowing access times down to a crawl for many users, and again those using older software may have problems viewing them. Instead, try to counteract this by using Cascading Style Sheets (any web designer worth their salt should be doing this by default now). These are a universal method for controlling layout concerns like fonts and visual text layouts, and they go a long way to ensuring that each site visitor will see the site as you intended it, with very few compatibility issues. It also means you have to write less code, which we think you’ll agree makes the prospect instantly appealing.
But no matter how usable the site is, the most crucial thing to remember if you want to keep that hit count up is that you need to update the site content regularly. While visitors may flock to your new, all singing, all dancing site in their thousands when it’s first uploaded to the Net, once they’ve read every word and seen every image, they’ll be wanting more. And you must provide it, or else these demanding folk will take their business elsewhere, and your hit counter will plateau in an embarrassing and unrewarding way.
So, it’s of the utmost importance to keep supplying new material for your consumers. The best and most popular sites take supply and demand extremely seriously, with portals such as BBCi, news provider Sky News and even your typical ISP home page all racing to update their content countless times a day so it stays as current and as appealing as possible.
Of course, this can be a daunting prospect if you have to code each and every update yourself, but thankfully this task can be made much easier if you move your site onto a server based database. This way, you can fast track new material to the relevant pages pretty much automatically, without having to mess around coding new objects and images into the layout. It also gives you much more time to come up with original content in the first place, so it’s a win win situation.
But if you don’t fancy transporting things to a database, you can achieve similar results by employing the use of a Content Management System. These are more frequently used by large sites that need to process huge volumes of material, but that doesn’t mean you have to be mega rich to use one. Indeed, smaller punters may want to check out the OpenCMS Project, which provides users with a licence free CMS built around bohemian open source code. It’s well worth a peek, and may save you a great deal of time and effort, not to mention cash.
If you begin to update your site regularly via one of these more automated options, one side effect that will quickly make itself apparent is that it’s best to keep page sizes down to a minimum. There’s no point spending ages updating stacks of information on just one page in a large site, because the chances of people actually noticing it are pretty remote. So one trick is to keep the material small but plentiful.
But this doesn’t mean the only benefits to be had are in terms of saved time. In fact, smaller pages are one of the best ways to ensure that your bandwidth and access times remain constantly high. Remember all those people queuing up to gain access to your site? Well, keep the page size to a minimum, and the time it takes each user to load a page will reduce accordingly which immediately keeps things flowing. Put simply, the more compact your code, the quicker it can be supplied to your punters.
Along with this, it also makes sense to keep other content such as images and videos as small as possible. Never forget that a huge number of surfers out there are not experiencing the delights of broadband, and these folk aren’t going to thank you for making them wait five minutes for a large image or QuickTime movie to download. So cut those images down to screen resolution (72dpi) and compress them as much as possible in JPEG mode to keep viewing times quick. Also, don’t forget to chop larger images into slices to aid transfer speeds.
When all’s said and done, the most important thing to remember is that the smaller your site the quicker it will respond. Fast sites are the favourites of every Web surfer, and they can also be updated far more quickly and readily on the production side of things. Finally, small, nippy sites are much less likely to crumble at the sight of a horde of simultaneous users which brings us neatly back to where we began. Only this time, instead of thinking big, it may just be that the best design principles come about by thinking small.