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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Site Maps, or the Importance of Planning

A client recently asked me what a site map was. An excellent topic for my blog, I thought ! One can hardly overestimate the importance of planning, when it comes to web design.

One way to look at a site map is as a blue print, or the building drafts for your house. It is a graphic representation of how the website will be structured, and how the individual pages that make up the site will relate to each other: which pages visitors will see first, and where do they lead them? What are the main sections of the site? Which page links to what other pages? This will also determine how the main and secondary navigation menus are built and structured.

As a design document, the site map should also indicate any features that are needed: will there be a database, a login system, a search function? Any content that is dynamically generated? If so, what will be the sorting criteria available to the user? Will there be media files that require special treatment? Will parts of the site be built in Flash? Will there be feedback or enquiry forms, or will the users be able to leave comments and feedback? All these things should be at least considered, and hopefully decided, before work on the actual site design even starts.

The more thoroughly a site is planned out beforehand, the less risk there is of wasting time and money walking down a blind alley somewhere. The site map will also help the designer to give a more accurate estimate of the cost, and of the timeframes involved - particularly if it is a complex site with many sections and/or rich media and interactive content.

It is not only in at the planning stage that a site map is of use, though. It is a document that should be kept up to date as the design process develops - there are bound to be changes or additions at some stage, or things that seemed desirable initially, but may turn out a bit superfluous. A clear structure is user friendly, and keeping track of the site map ensures that this goal will be achieved. It will be extremely helpful when new sections need to be added to the site at some later stage!

Eventually, a site map also will be relevant to your search engine optimisation (SEO). Once the site is live, there should be a page that contains links to every page within the website. This will make sure that the robots which crawl the internet on a regular basis for Google and other search engines, will find and index every page that is part of your site. As you will probably have noticed when browsing on the internet, search engine results always return individual pages, rather than web domains - the page a potential visitor finds in Google may well not be your home page at all. So making sure that *every* page that makes your website is accessed by the search robots, and indexed, increases your chances of being found on the net.

Asni: Multimedia Art & Design:: ::

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Of Servers and Clients

Before I delve into more HTML tags - as promised in my last blog - today I would like to have a look at some of the actual pieces of hardware that make the internet possible. What precisely is a web page? What is it that you see on your computer screen when you call up a page, and how does it get there?

At the most basic level, a web page is a HTML file which is being opened in a computer program which has been specifically developed for this purpose: your browser. Whether you use Firefox or Internet Explorer, Safari or Opera, or even an outdated browser like Netscape, they all do the same thing: They find the location of the file you are looking for, and render it out for you the way the web designer has envisioned it (well - at least, most of the time).

What makes a web page a bit different from your usual word document, or spreadsheet, or the holiday shots you downloaded from your photo camera, is that the file is usually not sitting on your own computer. It lives on some computer which may be in the next town, or on the other side of the country, or halfway around the globe. Apart from slight differences in loading speed, you'd never notice the difference.

The computer where the file is stored is called a *server*. You can host your website on your own computer if you have the appropriate computer equipment and software - which can be downloaded for free from the internet, and Macs even come with all the necessary software already installed. One of the disadvantages of doing this is that the computer needs to be connected to the internet 24/7, or else the website will not be available when the computer is not online. There are also security risks, such as that your site might get hacked. For this reason, most websites are hosted by a dedicated web hosting service - for a reasonably small annual fee, you can hire a certain amount of storage space for your website files, and the company provides all the necessary setup, software and security. Usually they also include a regular backup service, which can come in handy for those times when things just go wrong.

How does your browser find the right file, among all the gazillion files that make up today's internet? That is what the URL is for - that little line of text that appears in your browser navigation bar, and starts like this: http:// . "URL" stands for Uniform Resource Locator - a unique tag that tells the browser where the page (the "resource") is located. URL's don't only apply to the main HTML document that is your web page: Each and every file that makes up the page you end up seeing on your screen, has their own unique URL. For instance, if a web page displays an image, that image will be a separate file with its own unique web address, or URL. The file does not even need to be located on the same computer as the main HTML document - a page can display images, or movie, audio or flash files, which are each located on a different computer, in completely different parts of the world.

The browser's job is to locate all these files, pull them down the wires that connect the server with your own computer, and assemble them in such a way that they look nice, and make sense. Not a small job! Your own computer, when it displays a web page, is called a "client" - as opposed to server. In one of my next blogs, I will go into the difference between server-side and client-side web programming, but for now, I will call it a blog post! Otherwise, it might end up being information overload.

Asni: Multimedia Art & Design:: ::