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Building a Good Author Web Site:


by David Dvorkin

Go to Introduction and Table of Contents

Have you ever gone to a Web page because of a Google search, thought it looked interesting, wondered what the rest of the site was like, and then found that the page contained no way to get to the rest of the site? Frustrating, isn't it? Annoying, too. Frustrated and annoyed are two things you don't want visitors to your site to be.

Remember that a page on your Web site isn't a page floating around in isolation on the Web. It's a page on your site. It's just one part of your site, and it should serve as both a gateway to the rest of your site and an enticement to pass through that gateway.

Less poetically, it should have links to the rest of your site.

Now, about those links. It should be clear that the links are links. It should also be clear what they are links to. And the links should be easy to see and use.

Lotsa Links

Or maybe not. As is the case with Web design in general, the rules are really general guidelines, and you have to use your judgment and be flexible. As my own site has grown, I've had to limit the number of links on each page in order to keep things manageable for me and appealing and useful to the reader. I'd like every page on my site to have links to every other page, but the result would look absurd. Rather than encouraging viewers to click on some of the links, such a huge number of links would cause them to leave my site quickly and in disgust. I've compromised by tailoring the links to the page. So for instance, on this page, I have a few links to my writing-related pages. On my wife's pages, the links point instead to her businesses and books. (For example.)

These at Least

Every page on this site includes a link to the home page, the main page for the site. (Every site should - must! has to! - have such a page. There's more about that below.) Every page also has an e-mail link - mine or my wife's, depending on whose page it is.

There are arguments against having e-mail links anywhere in your site. Some people worry about privacy. Others worry that spider software will pick up the e-mail addresses and add them to the lists of addresses used by spammers. That last one is a genuine problem. You can use a contact form instead, which requires some CGI programming, but some users find such forms off-putting and will react by not sending you a message at all. This is a judgment call on your part.

Also, every (well, almost every) page on this site has a link for sending the URL of the page to a friend. If someone looks at your page and likes it, make it easy for them to pass the URL on by e-mail. Don't make them cut and paste. Instead, use a link that will start the new e-mail letter going for them. On this page, the link is titled Send this page to a friend.

Here's the HTML I used to create that link:

<a href="mailto:?subject=Building%20a%20Good%20Author%20Web%20Page
Send this page to a friend</a>

If you click on that link, your e-mail program should open up with a new letter, nothing in the To: field, "Building a Good Author Web Page" in the Subject: field, and the URL of this page in the body of the e-mail. (If that doesn't happen, your browser doesn't know what your e-mail program is.)

Note that in the above HTML, the spaces in the page title are replaced by %20.

Let Links Be Links

You can use CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to make your links look like ordinary text. Online magazines seem to like to do this. On those, you often can't tell if a string of text is actually a link unless you pass your cursor over it, at which point the appearance of the text changes in some way (e.g., changes color, becomes bold, becomes highlighted). That's clever, and CSS like that is amusing to play with. It's also a very bad idea. You want your viewers to know that a link is a link even if their cursors are far away from it. Why? Because otherwise they might not realize that they can click on it! And being clicked on is the whole reason for links to exist.

Play with the appearance of links if you like playing with CSS, but I urge you to give them a color that's different from ordinary text and to leave them underlined - really underlined, with a solid line, not an almost invisible dotted line or anything of that sort. I.e., make sure that they stand out clearly as links.

You should also avoid using JavaScript for links. JavaScript is lots of fun to play with in a corporate setting. But that's because in a corporate setting you can safely assume (or even require) that your users are using Internet Explorer or Firefox, Version 5.x or above, and that they have JavaScript turned on. On a personal site, you shouldn't set such restrictions. Even when users have JavaScript turned on, they actually have rather different versions of JavaScript turned on. The differences between how IE and Firefox and Opera handle the same JavaScript can drive you crazy. Of course, you can't keep your site so simple that it's fully usable by someone using, say, Netscape Version 1.0. There are limits! But even so, you want to include and attract users, not send them away, annoyed or baffled. So stick with the standard HTML link.

A House Is a Home

Web sites often use a little graphic of a house for the link to the site's home or main page. That's become so common that it's fairly safe to do it - users know what it means. Similarly, a text link that says Home is also clear, and maybe even clearer.

You certainly wouldn't want to label the home link "Corespace" or "iNNerbeIng."

Just as you want viewers to see the links clearly, you also want them to know what they link to. Other than the standard little house, or left and right arrows to indicate links to the previous and next pages in a long document, that pretty much limits you to text links rather than graphic ones. Nor do you want the text for a link to be very long. Long links are confusing to the viewer's eye and take up too much real estate. In practice, you'll find yourself compromising between clarity and length.

Placement of Links

Where the links should be on a page is pretty much a matter of taste.

But they should be in the same place(s) on every page. That's part of the basic principle that every page on your site should look fairly similar, because significant visual or layout differences from page to page are jarring, annoying, and confusing.

The links should also be in only a few places and kept together. It's confusing and annoying when links are scattered all over the place. I've standardized on having the same links at the top and bottom of each page. Some people prefer to have them down the left-hand side of each page. In either case, unless the entire page is displayed in the user's window, some or all of the links will not be visible. That's generally unavoidable, although that did motivate me to put the links on the bottom as well as the top; at least that way, the user will see them again when he gets to the bottom of the page (assuming he reads that far). I find links on the left-hand side very usable but also rather distracting, so I prefer the top-and-bottom approach. But again, it's a matter of taste.

There are techniques that can keep the links in view. You can use frames or floating boxes (CSS is good for that). Frames have various drawbacks, and most good personal sites avoid them. Floating boxes are intensely annoying to many people, which is a good reason to avoid them. (One CSS trick you can use to keep the links in view is explained in the section titled Fixing the Navigation Bar with CSS.)

Ideally, pages should be fairly short and compact, with links to other pages for more detail. That keeps the links in view by keeping all of the page in the browser window. But it also can put off some users who want to get the whole of the subject you're covering on one page without having to jump around a lot to other pages. Too much of that jumping results in users who don't know where they are on your site, no matter how well you've designed the site. Once again, you run into the problem of confused or annoyed users, who go clicking away into Hyperlinkspace instead of spending hours frolicking around in your site. There is no ideal solution.

Essential Pages


You should always have a main page on your site that serves as the introduction or overview. It also highlights what you want to emphasize at the moment, such as your most recent book or short story publication. On most Web servers, it will be named index.htm or index.html. That's what the Home link points to. If a user does get lost or confused in your site, you can hope that he will click the Home link (which is on every page, remember!) and go back to the starting point.

Site Map

This is a page that lists all of the other pages on your site, with links to them, so that if a viewer is interested in something on your site but for some reason can't find it, he can try the site map. It serves the same purpose as an index in a non-fiction book.

On commercial sites, the site map is usually organized like a Table of Contents - i.e., it duplicates the hierarchical structure of the site. (This is what I call the conceptual hierarchy in the section titled Directory Structure.) There may be value in that, especially in a very large and complex site. My problem with this approach is that the site's home page should have already shown the user the layout of the site and its major topics and subtopics. Moreover, if the user is looking for a particular topic, he's more likely to find it quickly by going to an alphabetized index than by looking through something that describes the site's layout, while he's trying to guess under what heading the people who built the site put the topic he's looking for. Consider these gruesome examples: Apple, Ebay, Los Angeles Times.

I favor the index style, that is, an alphabetical listing of all pages on my site. This site is big and getting bigger, and I think the alphabetical listing is the only thing that works at all.

To see my site map, click here. You can see that I've listed my books there in a way that highlights them. Of course that wasn't an accident. Highlighting your publications in every way you can without being (too) obnoxious is the fundamental purpose in having an author site.

By the way, note that there's a link to the site map file on my home page. If I give someone the URL to my site, they'll see the home page first. That shows the general structure of the site. In many cases, the next thing they'll want to do is look at some page that shows them everything that's in the site and lets them go directly to some page they're interested in.


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