79 Ways to Build a Better Web

One of the best ways to build a Web site is to surf for one you like and then view its source code so you can see how various Web-page authors do what they do–it’s a Web tradition. After all, why build a site from scratch if you don’t have to? With that in mind, this story provides dozens of hands-on tips that’ll help you avoid a lot of the heavy lifting it takes to get a Web site off the ground.

For example, the “HTML” section offers a step-by-step guide to hacks that compensate for HTML’s lack of a tag for indenting text and graphics–among other shortcomings. Similarly, in “Browsers,” you’ll learn when and how to use new technologies from Microsoft and Netscape, such as borderless frames and layers, respectively. “Multimedia” focuses on utilities for adding audio, video, and animation to your Web site without bringing users to a crawl. In “Management,” you’ll learn how to lighten the burden of handling hundreds, even thousands, of files scattered across your site.

And in the section on ActiveX, Windows Sources’ AustraliaTaskbar columnist, Paul Bonner, gets you over niggling ActiveX hurdles. For example, he shows you how to get the most from Internet Explorer’s built-in ActiveX controls and, as a result, reduce the amount of code you have to write.

Church and State

Surfing for Tips
If you don’t find the answer to your question in this story, then get online! The best place to start is with a beginner’s guide to HTML. This site is NCSA’s primer for aspiring Web authors, and it includes an overview of HTML and a few simple lessons in Web authoring. For more advanced tips, surf to Microsoft’s sitebuilder workshop, which offers tips not only on HTML but also on programming and administration. And if you want to know what not to do, check out www.earth.com/ bad-style/, which documents common HTML abuses; the home page also includes Yahoo!’s index of page-design and -layout resources, a definite must-surf.

Tip World is a mailing list: Sign up for one or more of the categories, and they’ll e-mail a new tip to you every day for such categories as Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. Another forum is inquiry.com where experts advise you on topics including C++, Java, VB, VRML, and the Web. You can look through previously answered questions for tips to common problems, or ask your own.For ActiveX questions, check out Windows Sources Expert Answers for ActiveX, hosted by Larry Seltzer.

There are literally hundreds of sites offering Internet tips, including Ask Dr. Internet, which is an online advice column. Just send a question to drnet@promo.net, and you’ll get an answer directly by e-mail. If the good doctor thinks the question is interesting, he’ll post the question and answer online. —Brian C. Wilson

But before you start building your site, you’ve got to make a few difficult choices. Will you stick to church-sanctioned HTML and use only tags that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has legalised–which all browsers can view? Or will you go for the glitz and build a site that uses every techno-bauble that comes along?

The answer depends on how many people you want to be able to view your site. The first approach, for example, guarantees the widest possible audience but can result in pretty drab-looking pages, because the legal spec (HTML 2.0) lags way behind the state of the art. And if you go for the glitz, you could end up with a hot site, but one that Mosaic or Netscape 1.1 users can barely view (which can test the patience of even devout surfers).

That’s why we recommend using the HTML 3.2 specification which was recently ratified by W3C. Versions 2.x and 3.x of Netscape and Internet Explorer also support all the tags in HTML 3.2. That makes it a safe bet in terms of reaching a large installed base.

Using HTML 3.2, you can create sophisticated pages, although you can’t use proprietary tags such as Netscape’s MULTICOL or Microsoft’s MARQUEE tag, which W3C hasn’t yet sanctioned.

Of course, you can always add hot new features one at a time (with discretion) as the installed base slowly upgrades. (For an excellent breakdown of what HTML 3.2 can and can’t do, set your browser to www.webreference.com/ html3andns/.)

Reality Check

The question of how backward-compatible your site should be is always a key consideration, and one you can base objectively on the percentage of the public that’s using various browser versions. If you want current statistics on how many people are using each of the leading browsers, the best place to look is the Stats Station.

You’ve also got to learn to see your pages the way others see them. This is something many of us forget when developing a Web site offline–a tendency that breeds bad authoring habits. The best remedy for this is to keep several browser versions on your hard disk.

We recommend keeping at least the 2.x and 3.x versions of Netscape Navigator, and a copy of 1.1 or another version of Mosaic. It’s difficult to retain older versions of Internet Explorer, though, because IE’s install routine always forces you to upgrade to the current one. So if you want multiple copies of IE, rename and create a Shortcut to the executable before you upgrade.

Dial in over a 14.4-Kbps connection and view your site remotely with older browsers. Be sure and empty your cache frequently to make sure you’re loading images off the remote server. Are we being a little tough? Sure. But it’s accurate, practical advice and just a sample of what you’ll find on the pages that follow.