By Doc Searls
January 23, 1995

Putting the web to work

Just like desktop publishing software made everyone a publisher, HTML editors are now making everyone a web site author. The difference is precedent -- or the absence of one. After all, there was a publishing business before everyone could join it from their desktop. But there was never a web site business. This field is brand new.

The defaults, however, are plentiful. It is easy to leverage the skills, techniques and base assumptions of advertising, publishing, broadcasting, video production and other disciplines, especially since those disciplines already rely on computers.

Web sites, however, serve many different purposes. Off-the-wall 'zines, family photo albums and corporate resource libraries are all smithed with the same tools -- and often by the same kinds of smithies: early adopters with the passion and smarts to learn the skills required.

But they don't all get the same attention from the press, or from the development community. A 90-10 rule seems to apply, only with a steeper ratio. At this early point in Web history, about 99% of the development conversation is devoted to the 1% of the population for whom the web is a medium for artistic expression.

Which is fine. The web is an exciting new frontier for countless art forms. But when Web connections get as common as telephones, the most meaningful verbs will not be "browse" and "surf," but "look," "seek," "search," "find," "read," "link," "learn," "use" and "buy." Most people will use the web the way they now use the yellow pages and card catalogs: as means to an end. That end is usually to find something out.

For the visitor with a practical purpose in mind, a beautiful GIF is often just a big speed bump -- especially if he has to cross it often, and quickly. For example, Infoseek -- easily the most practical and useful search engine on the Web right now -- has two entry points to its search pages: a free one for every visitor, and a paid one for "professionals." The first puts the visitor through no less than 17 GIFs totaling 103K. I just opened the page from my bookmark in Netscape 2.0b4. It took 1:25, at a rate that varied between 78b/s and 1.7K/s. If I go straight to the "professional" page (which I can't, because I need to type in my name and password at an intervening page), it still takes 25 seconds to download the text and half a dozen GIFs. The irony is that Infoseek prides itself on the speed of its searches (my first search took 4 seconds). So, in measured seconds, the score is:

Form, 187
Function, 4

This will change. In time vendors will discover that the key to making the Web work is to respect its practical purposes. The rules below are just a few that have become apparent in the last few months. The list is sure to refine itself and grow. Of course, input and participation is welcome.

  1. Be a presence, don't just create one. If your web site is created out of a sense of obligation rather than a sense of purpose, it'll look like it. Better to have no presence than one that doesn't care.
  2. Respect the active visitor. For every surfer just looking for something cool, there are a hundred visitors on a serious hunt for something useful or interesting. Those are the people who need the most attention. And while their numbers are going up, their patience is going down.
  3. Think of the Web as the ultimate Yellow Pages. It's a place you go to find something you need to know, and probably need to know quickly, with a minimum of bother.
  4. Remember that time is more precious than money. In fact, time is life itself. You can't save it. Each of us is born with an unknown quantity of it, and we have to spend it all before we die. Most users would rather leave a site than drum their fingers and twiddle their thumbs.
  5. Avoid large or needless graphics. Or at least give the user a way to bypass them. "Text version" links may offend the graphic sensibilities of web site artists, but they can be a great kindness to the frequent visitors on whose good will you depend. And, if your goods are graphic and your graphics are large, provide links to them from descriptive text or small versions of full-size images.
  6. Make page-to-page navigation easy. Put helpful directional links at the top and bottom of every page. When you need a footnote, put a link back to the text from the footnote itself. This is one way displayed text can truly improve on printed text. And the visitor will appreciate it.
  7. Avoid big mapped graphics where buttons in the same space will do the same job. Buttons are much faster, and they shows useful information at the bottom of his browser window, where a real destination appears, rather than "124,453 x 68,986." Borderless buttons can easily be assembled into a solid graphic.
  8. Once you find a look that works, stick to it. The Web is a visual place, and if you can make your site a landmark -- one of the few solids in a fluid world -- you'll be a lot easier to find, remember and visit again.
  9. Keep your content current. Nothing looks less cared-for than a site inviting visitors to attend an event that happened last month. And watch out for typos and misspellings. A good way to check is by copying the text from the browser into a word processor with a large and current dictionary.
  10. Be original. Don't just "repurpose" what you do in other media. Nothing is easier to spot, or to hate, than a web site that consists largely of recycled ads, brochures and press releases. The Web works best as a medium for conversation, not for message delivery. This is even true for commercial Web sites where most conversations are centered around sales and support.
  11. Respond instantly to all mail link inquiries. The "mailto" address is the most important link on your entire site. There should be one on every page. Responsiveness, more than anything else, is the biggest challenge to every Web site commitment -- because it requires the willingness to staff up and meet demand for lots of personal contact.
  12. Take the lead with sales, customer service, R&D, tech support and other corporate functions that will increasingly rely on your webwork. They need you. And if you don't take the lead, they'll take it themselves.
  13. Learn and adapt. Web sites are classrooms where visitors and hosts can teach each other constantly. If a site doesn't facilitate conversation, if it doesn't perform a service, if it doesn't attract involvement, it will become a pulpit in an abandoned church.
  14. Extend your conversation from your smallest customer to your biggest executive -- from the user's desk to the board room conference table. Everybody in the company needs to be accessible, open and responsive. If somebody sends an email to the CEO, the CEO needs to respond. Bear this in mind: just about everybody knows who "billg" is. There's a reason.
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