|The staff of Bright Pearl Productions, Inc prepared this information. It is offered with the hope of helping others in establishing effective Web sites.
We've divided this document into "chapters" and linked them so if you don't want to wade through the entire document, you can jump to the sections that interest you the most. Here's the "chapter" listing:
Why Have a Web Site?
The Domain Name
The Web Hosting Company
What is a Web Hosting Company?
The Value of A Good Web Hosting Company
Finding the Web Hosting Company
Layout and Artwork
Web Authoring Toolkits
Or......You can just download this same document in Adobe Acrobat file format (good old PDF) and, if you have the Acrobat Reader installed, print the document at your lesiure.
Here's the line to that file: "How The Web Was Won" 36KB PDF
Building this web site was quite an adventure. With all the work, we are pleased with the results. The purpose of this section is to pass along some of our experiences to others who may be about to embark on this great journey. Along the way, we will offer some suggestions on building and running a web site. We don't believe in hard and fast Rules. Few follow them. But, based on what you plan to do with your site, you can choose to try or reject our suggestions. They worked for us. They may work for you.
Why have a Web Site?
The first and not so obvious question that needs to be asked is "Do I need this?" The answer is probably "yeah, you do." Twenty years or so ago, companies such as Atari, Commodore, Radio Shack, Apple, and IBM changed our lives with the introduction of the personal computer. A similar and equally dramatic "sea change" is occurring with the Internet. While Internet technologies are pretty clunky today, particularly when it comes to video, we believe that problems in the interface and delivery of content will be resolved within five years. If so, we believe that this will open up some real exciting possibilities for Bright Pearl. We decided to jump in and embrace the change. We invite you to do so as well.
The real question then is "If I had a Web site, what would I do with it?" When we first thought about it, our natural reaction was "Oh yeah, this web thing is for marketing." But we got a little smarter about the possibilities and came up with some real cool objectives for our site. Here are some of our goals for the Bright Pearl site.
1. Introduce ourselves to others
2. Advertise, market, and sell
3. Find talent
4. Pass on useful information to others
5. Provide two-way communication
Now, there is the first and most important step. We defined the goals for our site. Having done this, we could approach the design of the site in a much more coherent fashion than if we just wandered around in the wilderness for 40 days and emerged with a mad patchwork of ideas coded into a crazed and confused site.
Therefore suggestion number one is as follows:
Determine why you need a web site and if you had one, how would it help your business or organization
By the way, during this very exciting period of brainstorming, you may have someone asking the question "Yeah, that idea is nice but can we afford it?" This is a very important question but you don't want it dampening the enthusiasm of the moment. Get the ideas for the site on the table, determine their priority and then have someone head off do a little research on what it would take to build and support the different ideas that have been generated. Better to find out now then to sink a lot of time and energy into a function that is either not so important or doesn"t provide a good return for the cost.
This gets us to suggestion number two:
After the web site goals are developed and prioritized, develop a high level budget for the design and support of the site goals.
Doesn't this sound so methodical and sensible? Obviously the wise sages at Bright Pearl followed this approach.
Our approach was that once we determined that we needed a web site, we quickly realized that we needed to reserve a domain name that had any meaning.
The Domain Name
What the heck is a domain name? In the world of the Internet, basically everything in the network needs a unique address in order to be located. Computers don't do as well as people in determining who is the right "John Smith" that should receive some email. Additionally computers (or maybe the programmers that design them) seem to like numbers more than names. So, the Internet is made up of millions of unique numeric addresses that look something like this:
Yuck! Most humans would not know or remember that this may be the unique address for the web site for Hollywood Video or the United States House of Representatives. What makes more sense is to come up with a scheme that associates organization names with unique Internet addresses. So, entering a name such as The Ford Motor Company is translated into one of those hideous Internet numbers that computers understand. However, just as the numeric addresses must be unique, the names must be as well. This combination of a unique name with an associated Internet address is what's known as the "domain name".
Who maintains this system? Who provides the order to an otherwise chaotic situation? This task falls to an organization known as the InterNIC. One of the functions of the InterNIC is to approve and register submissions for unique Internet addresses and an associated domain name. If the address and name has not been previously registered, the InterNIC will, for a small fee, grant the submitter the domain name and inform all the network entities of the world who make up the Internet about the new domain name and its location on the Information Super Highway.
So, if you want someone to find you, you need a domain name that clearly describes who you are. You need to get your domain name request to the InterNIC fast before someone else claims that name. Once you miss this opportunity, you are in the undesirable position of making up names that become increasingly meaningless to you and others or possibly buying the name you want from the entity who beat you in registering that desired name with the InterNIC.
A short segue here that underlines my point:
I once helped a very large bank headquartered in the United States set up a web site. When we searched the InterNIC to find out what domain names were available that best described the bank's legal name, we found that almost all were taken. Most of the domain names that we wanted were registered to someone in Russia. Oops!
In the case of Bright Pearl, we were more fortunate. With the exception of one name (BrightPearl) which was registered to a sewing company in the Hunan providence of China, we had lots of choices available.
So, suggestion number three is:
Come up with a very short name and a few alternatives that identify your organization and register it with the InterNIC; quickly.
This was our first step at Bright Pearl.
But how do you register a domain name? Amazingly this takes us to the next decision that Bright Pearl made: selecting a web hosting company.
The Web Hosting Company
We believe that the rational approach is choosing your web-hosting provider later in the project, probably toward the end of the design phase. However, at Bright Pearl, we decided on our web hosting company at the same time we registered our domain name. Why? Because one of the services that most web hosting companies offer is that they will handle the complexities of registering your site for you if you do business with them. This was worth it for us.
What is a Web Hosting company?
Your web site is a collection of HyperText Markup Language (HTML) pages, graphics, images, sound/picture files, text, and who knows what else. This assemblage is contained in a series of computer files that are linked together. The computer files need to be stored somewhere and made accessible to the Internet and its millions of users. This requires an information systems infrastructure.
What is the information infrastructure that you need? Without dragging through a lot of detail, we're referring to highly reliable fast computers (servers), security systems, firewalls, fast network connections, trained computer technicians working around the clock on your behalf, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Unless you are a mad raving computer geek, a very large corporation or a telecommunications giant, you probably don't want to own and deal with all this. Let others do it. And there are lots of them. Springing up like mushrooms after a hard rain in a cow pasture are web hosting companies that, for a fee, handle the entire information infrastructure for you. Along with the plethora of hosting companies are a panoply of options, plans, and choices. Here are a few choices that we considered:
1. Do you buy your own computer, and have the hosting company operate it for you?
2. Do you rent one of the hosting company's computers?
3. Do you share a computer with other sites? This is known as "virtural hosting"
4. Which computer operating system do you host on: Windows NT, UNIX, or something else?
5. Do you need e-commerce services?
The Value of a Good Web Hosting Company
For Bright Pearl, we developed a little decision filter. The decision filter was our critical criteria that we needed for the site to be successful. With the criteria, we could then rank how each web-hosting candidate best met our set of standards. Here they are:
1. Good support for media delivery (audio and video)
2. E-commerce capability
3. Security for our users and Bright Pearl
4. Price and corresponding value
5. Excellent site performance
6. High site availability
7. Word-of-mouth leadership in the industry
First, we believe that our web site will evolve and grow, however, initially, the resources needed to run it would be modest. We aren't yet to the level of e-commerce transaction processing such as Amazon.com so there was no need for a dedicated computer to host our site. We would share with others. Important in this decision is "who are the others and how many of them are there?" We would obviously prefer sharing with a few other companies that get a modest amount of traffic to their site. Sharing a computer with CNN Interactive would obviously be disastrous to us. In order to get some idea of how to judge this, many web-hosting companies offer free site performance statistics to those who are hosting on their systems. You kinda have to be indoctrinated in computer technology to read them but this service helps some. More importantly are a set of rules established by the hosting company as to how much traffic will be allowed on the computer before they move one of the more busy sites to another less busy system. You can monitor their adherence to this rule with the statistics.
The second decision that we ran into is which operating system should be running on the computer server that is hosting our site? The choices to us seemed to be Windows NT, UNIX, LINUX, or MacOS.
We wanted to be on a Mac platform. We believe that the Mac still is light years ahead in the area of video/audio design and support. And as a media company we love our Mac tools. However, in our search of web hosting companies, we found very few that offered the MacOS as a hosting option. Bummer. That left UNIX, NT, and LINUX. We knew close to nothing about LINUX. Not that this was a huge problem because we knew next to nothing about NT or UNIX as well. However, we found that lots of others know about NT and UNIX. Additionally, we were concerned about how well LINUX would support other features such as audio/video delivery and e-commerce. Scratch that one. It came down to NT or UNIX. This is the choice that most of the hosting companies offer. To us, UNIX offers more flexibility; NT seems to be more of a growing standard in web support. We chose NT, primarily due to its better security and e-commerce support. We still aren?t sure of this decision. Fortunately, our hosting company only charges us $50 to switch.
This all leads us to suggestion number four:
Know what you are looking before, before you go looking. Develop the web site criteria you need for the site?s success.
Finding the Web Hosting Company
Okay, we built the decision filter. Now, how do we find the candidates? We thought about this problem. If we need a hosting platform, maybe the best approach is to ask a group of people who, all day long, manage web sites. For Bright Pearl, this meant reading some of the recommendations and message threads put out by the community of webmasters. Understand that some of these sites can turn pretty negative. It's more satisfying to publicly vent than to praise. However, a high volume of similar complaints about a specific hosting company should put you on your guard. That, combined with some recommendations from webmaster ranking sites ought to get you down to a handful of choices. From that point, using your own criteria, you should be able to make a pretty good decision. As extra insurance, find out about the "going out" or exit policy of the hosting company you prefer. Most make the terms and conditions pretty easy. Just make sure that you, rather than they, own the very valuable domain name.
With your decision filter, a list of acceptable candidates, you should be on your way to picking your web hosting company. It's on to the next step.
Here's where things really start to get exciting. At Bright Pearl, we followed what seems to be a fairly commonsense approach. Here are our steps in chronological order.
1. Develop the framework of the site
2. Determine "the look"
3. Figure out navigation
4. Add text, also known as content
A web site is (or should be) a set of pages logically tied together with links. Everyone seems to agree on this. From that point on, the debate rages as to how the pages tie together; what we will call the site framework. There are a couple schools of thought. The traditionalists advocate the hierarchical approach. This consists of a structure, similar to an organizational chart of many corporations. At the top is a home page. From there, links are provided to a second level set of pages that contain the major topics covered by the site. Below these are detail pages that provide more information or contain a set of actions (send mail, buy something, play a game) that the user can take. If you are still confused, think about a tree. You start with the roots, travel up to the branches, and finally end up at a twig, hopefully picking some yummy fruit.
With all things, this framework has advantages and disadvantages. The good news is that this site is easy for the web designer to organize and the user to navigate. Most of us have had some experience with navigating a hierarchical structure. Easy navigation for a web site is critical. You do not want anyone lost, particularly if you want to sell something. For some sites, their whole purpose is to drive the user to what is known as the "money page". Yeah, that is the page where they take your money. You sure do not want anyone to get lost before that happens.
A disadvantage of the hierarchical structure is that it is rigid and boring. This describes most of the hierarchies that I am familiar with.
Another approach is to develop a framework that is circular. Think of the wheel. At the center is the hub. Spokes radiate out and are seamlessly interconnected to form the perimeter of the wheel. The user starts at the hub and travels down a spoke. If desired, they can as easily jump back to the hub or go directly to another spoke.
This seems to be a pretty flexible approach for the user. One click gets them to any other part of the site allowing for the freedom of choice that most Internet surfers desire. However, the risk is that they either get lost in the site or instead spin merrily off the wheel heading off to another source of interest in the "Net". Additionally, the structure does not lend itself well in driving users toward the "money page". Again, if your site is primarily about e-commerce, selling something, the goal is to get the user to the "money page". Once you get them to the "money page", you take them as deep as you possibly can, answering endless questions, that they psychologically commit to the transaction just in part to end it. The circular framework just does not lend itself well to hardcore e-commerce activities.
Lastly, there are some that advocate the framework of the labyrinth. The whole idea of the labyrinth is to avoid predictable structure. There are multiple points of entry and the user wanders around following clues that lead to cool surprises. The structure is not predictable and the fun is in discovery. This structure is great when the purpose is either to keep the user on your site as long as possible, providing entertainment without frustration. The obvious downsides are that the user gets tired of the adventure and leaves the site. Again, if the purpose of the site is to influence a desired behavior on the part of the user (like, buy something, now) then the labyrinth structure does not lend itself to directing that form of behavior.
We looked at the different framework choices and decided to create a blend of the hierarchical and circular. Again, the choice related back to our site goals. The purpose of our site is not exclusively to drive users toward a "money page". We wanted to give our users more freedom to move around the site. At the same time, we felt that clear navigation is critical. Most users understand how to navigate a hierarchy.
We laid out our structure with a basic drafting package. We used VISIO, which worked great for this purpose.
This all leads us to another suggestion.
Before coding up your pages, develop a site navigation roadmap.
Here is where all your hard planning should really start to pay off. You have a defined set of goals on the purpose of your web site. You have an idea of whom you are appealing to. You can now incorporate these decisions into design. For us, we believe that good design should be aimed toward building a set of feelings from your users. Since our business is about effective storytelling, we believed that we needed to have the design tell a story. Our story is about the enjoyment of seeing. We want our users to feel good about what they see; the excitement and pleasure of being part of the audience and seeing something really cool.
What set of emotions do you wish to invoke from your users? Action, excitement, pity, the desire to help, to buy, to laugh, to get angry, to be amused? We are sure that you want to avoid boring your users. However, we see so many web sites that unwittingly do just that. Think about establishing the desired emotion you want from your users. Out of this decision, your choices of colors, images, graphics, and font choices become very clear.
Time for another suggestion.
Before starting your design work, make sure you know how you want your viewers to react to your site. Know what set of emotions you want from your viewing community.
Layout and Artwork
We were now ready for the fun part. We knew the goals for our site, we had developed a framework, and we had a good sense of the look we were after. It was time for page design.
Our approach was to do all the design work for page layout before we actually starting developing the HTML needed to display the pages on web browsers. While it would be very desirable to have a great software package that was tops in design and also built web pages, we really did not find anything in the market that fulfilled both these goals. Instead, what we encountered were web programs that had rudimentary design features or design programs that had grown up to serve the needs of graphic artists.
Bright Pearl Productions has its roots in film and video; primarily film. For us, it is all about maintaining the best image quality possible to make the story come alive. To that end, we shuffle millions of pixels and colors all to the purpose of showing the sparkle in the eye, the heat of the explosion, or the richness of a fabric. We shudder when we are reduced from high-end digital beta formats to low grade VHS. Web designers who have their roots in photography or print design face the same quandary. Instead of designing pages for users who have large crystal clear monitors, high end graphics accelerators, and tons of network bandwidth, designers are told to create designs that could be viewed by all types of systems. This means you orient the design to almost the lowest common denominator of computer platforms. The image you should now have in your head is a PC built around 1987 with a 13" low-res VGA monitor, an extremely limited color range (215 colors) and a pokey modem operating between 19.2 and 28.8kb. Yuck! Back to the Stone Age!
In thinking about this design constraint, we decided that we could not take such a dramatic leap back in computer time. In understanding our desired user population we felt that most would be at least in the 90s of computer architecture. This meant something like a medium quality 15" SVGA monitor, a decent graphics accelerator that could handle at least 16 bit color, and a modem operating between 28.8 and 56kb. This allowed us some additional design freedom. We would make our display pages slightly larger, our color palette more varied but that we would keep page sizes down for reasonably fast page download times. Since we gave ourselves additional latitude, we chose a high end design package that was optimized for graphics artists but adapted itself well for translating designs to web technologies.
Web Authoring Toolkits
This gets us to an endorsement. We worship at the altar of Adobe. We believe that a company's roots and culture permeate everything that they do. Adobe started as a software font factory and then either built or bought a wide range of design tools that were complimentary to type. This included PageMaker, Photoshop, After Effects, Illustrator, and plenty of others. Our roots are in After Effects, Premiere, and Photoshop. Therefore, it seemed natural for us to do our page layout in Photoshop. As it turns out, Adobe has done a great job in providing a bridge from Photoshop design into web pages. Photoshop 5.5 includes Adobe's ImageReady whose whole purpose seems to be in taking your Photoshop design and translating it into formats that web authoring programs can use. If you take the next step, as we did and use Adobe's GoLive which is their web authoring tool, you have a very nice set of tools that are great for workflow and have the necessary features to do just about anything. We are currently testing Adobe's LiveMotion beta, which promises to bring a higher level of animation possibilities to web design. Yeah, Adobe rocks!
This is not to say that your choice should be the same. We have other design and web authoring tools that we feel do a fine job for their intended purpose. Microsoft's FrontPage, which, as you would expect, is quickly becoming an industry standard, is great for quickly knocking out pages that do not make design a high priority. FrontPage makes design and page construction easy and quick. Based on the goals for your site, FrontPage may be the right choice. We also have used some of the Macromedia products; Director, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, and Flash. This tool set is also a good alternative, particularly if animation will be a big part of your site. No one can currently touch Macromedia when it comes to .GIF animation. We also looked at something called ColdFusion. This program seemed to be oriented to web sites that needed lots of custom programming. E-commerce or Intranet applications come to mind here. Since our site goals were different, we got "cold" feet looking at ColdFusion.
All this leads to another suggestion.
The goals of your site and its corresponding design should provide clear direction toward the web toolkits that you use in building your site.
Okay where are we?
You have developed the site's purpose, you have got a domain name and a web hosting strategy, you have laid out a site framework and built a great set of designs for your web pages. The question now is "what are you going to say?"
What is your copy? Is it a set of short well-constructed pearls, long epistles, brief testimonials, or just an order form with a set of directions? How does it integrate into design and reinforce the message? For your users, they are not stopping at your site to view pretty pictures. They want content. They want to hear your message, know your thoughts, learn from your experiences, follow your directions.
For us at Bright Pearl, we suspect that we approached this phase much later in our process than others. Our orientation is images; of seeing pictures and reacting to them. While we had a general idea as to what we would say on each page, we saved writing the actual page copy as one of the last steps in building our site. We suspect that many others approach writing copy first, then wrapping design around the copy. This approach seems to make sense. We just did it different.
We tried to match how we structured copy to the framework of our site. At the top of our hierarchy, we decided to keep the information very brief. We wanted to give the viewer just enough information to make a decision whether or not they wanted to learn more or just bail out of the site. Why keep someone around if they do not want to be there? As the viewer drops down into the site, we provide more and more information. We figured that if the viewer was very interested in the topic, we would provide the most copy in the third level of the site, which we call the detail pages.
Here comes our next suggestion
Your copy needs to shine. That is what the user came for
So, at this point, you should be pretty much ready to go. Design is laid out and approved. Copy is developed and integrated. All that is left is coding the HTML including your choice of colors, fonts, page layout, images graphics, and text. We reviewed a few of the choices for web-authoring programs. They all seem to do a good job generating clean HTML so pick the one that best works for you.
The last few steps are to test the living daylights out of your pages. The test scenarios need to be built to replicate your desired viewer base. Figure out what range of equipment and constraints your different users will have and then pretend you are one of them. Use that framework to evaluate whether your pages meet their goals or further tweaking is necessary. This leads to of course, another suggestion:
Know your user base and their limitations. Pretend you are one of your desired users and test your pages to ensure that they meet their desired goals.
You 're ready to go. Make sure that your links are all operational, particularly if they go to another site that is handling your sales transactions. Are your forms working, does e-mail get to its proper destination? Have you adequately protected your user's security and privacy?
If so, its time to upload the site to the server. Invoke that File Transfer Protocol (FTP) program that you just have waiting for this momentous event and upload your site (we hope that you have packaged this as a single folder and set of sub-folders with all pages, links, text, images, artwork, etc, necessary to make the site work). Run through the same set of tests that you used before you uploaded the site. This way, you make sure that everything really works as advertised.
Your site is up, it works, its time to have a wrap party. Everyone deserves it. Go crazy!
After you have had a chance to recover from all the fun you have had, there are a few more steps that you want to consider.
First, you need a plan on how to register your site with the search engines so your desired viewers can find you. Consider holding off for a while before you madly dash out and register your site with every possible search engine in the known universe. Make sure that the site is really working well and can handle projected volumes. Monitor server performance with one of those site statistics tools that hopefully have been provided to you by your web-hosting provider. When you feel like its time to show off your baby to the world, you are off to register your site.
Basically there are two approaches, you can either register your site yourself or have a registration service do it for you. There are plenty of companies who offer this service. You can probably do a better job yourself but like all things, it will take time and energy. We recommend using a registration service and then monitoring site statistics to see if you are getting the audience that you desired. If not, then step in and do some additional registration on your own. We feel that if you do a good job telling the registration service company what your site is about, they should do a pretty good job for you. Log on to some of the Internet portal sites that have the search engines where you are registered. (Yahoo, Alta Vista, Excite, and Lycos come to mind here). Do a search based on the keywords that are important in describing your site. Did your site appear in the results? How far down the list? I know for myself, I cannot get past three pages of search results unless I am incredibly desperate for information. If your site is not near the top of the list of search results, you may have to step in and spend some time yourself on getting the site registered. This trial and error process is painfully tedious but heck, if you spent all that time and energy creating an awesome web site, you sure want people to see it.
This leads us to our final suggestion
Have a plan for registering your site. Monitor the results through your site statistics as well as testing search engine results.
Well that is it. Our web site experience brought to you in painful endless detail. We hope that we have made reading this worth your while.
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