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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Planning your Site: The How

In my last blog, I talked about two of the most important questions you ought to ask yourself when planning your website: "Who will this site be for?" and "What do I want them to do?"

In this blog, I will look at some of the most obvious tasks a website can perform for you, and the technologies that are needed to make those tasks possible.

Most professional or business websites fulfill one or more of the following functions:

  • present information about your work or your products in an easily accessible manner that can conveniently be kept up to date - the "brochure" website
  • sell things, either directly through a shopping cart system, or by enabling people to place orders from a product catalogue - the "online shop" website
  • offer user interaction: guest books or message boards to leave feedback, search functions to find targeted information, forms to request quotes, online booking systems, online help desks - the "interactive" website
  • inform and entertain: blogs about topics relevant to your industry, collections of helpful or fun links, image galleries, online video or flash presentations, interactive games - the "brand building" website

Different technologies are needed to fulfill these different functions: a brochure type site may only require straightforward html/css - though it may be advisable to include features like a search function, login system, or catalogue type features, which would require Php/MySql, or another programming language that works with a database. And unless you are comfortable to update your own html, by using an html editor or even writing your own code, you may wish to have a content management system included, which also requires some programming.

Shopping carts can be installed either as ready made packages - Zendcart or Cubecart are popular systems, though it requires some programming expertise to set them up - or they can be custom programmed. Security is an important issue when it comes to e-commerce applications: you would want to make sure that your client's credit card information will be well protected! The simplest (and free) solution is using the Paypal system. This is only really advisable for shops with relatively few products, but it is a feasible solution if for one reason or another, you cannot run Php/MySql on your web server.

If you would like to interact with your clients via message boards, have "members only" features on your site, enable visitors to do site searches, or even upload content themselves, you will not get around using Php/MySql or one of the other web programming languages, such as ASP. All these features work with an online database, where information can by uploaded, by yourself or even by visitor to the site, depending on how it is set up. The Php scripts then pull this information from the database and automatically write the html code that is at the base of what your site visitors see. Not only does this make site maintenance and updates much faster and more painless, it also allows for all sorts of customizations - to the point where no two people will see exactly the same content when they visit your site! It does require a bit of setting up and programming, and the price tag for an interactive site is therefore quite a bit higher than that for a simple brochure type site or even an online shopping cart.

Flash is another technology which is very prominent on the web. Flash has got a bit of a bad name in some web design circles: not just because of the infamous (and once so popular) "Flash intro" that takes fifteen minutes to load and is a surefire way to make most prospective visitors click on to the next site - but mainly because sites which are built entirely in Flash, cannot be indexed by search engines. Obviously, this is not good for your search engine ranking! A Flash site essentially is a self contained file that is embedded in an html page. Search engines only read html, they do not read Flash - so any keywords you display within your Flash site will be invisible from the search engine's point of view.

The beauty of Flash, however, lies in using Flash components within an html context. Flash also comes with its own very powerful programming language, Actionscript 3.0. It is an essential technology if you wish to include rich multimedia content in your site: music clips, video, slide shows, animations, little interactive games or even just a few cool buttons that do interesting things.

Asni: Multimedia Art & Design:: ::