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    PlanetQuake | Features | Articles | Classic PQ | Web Page 101
   

Web Page 101

So You Wanna Be a WebPimp...

By Fargo

[Author's note-- I originally wrote this article a few months ago, but the topic seems as timely as ever and I'm glad we're taking this opportunity to re-run it. It's been a while since I ran Fargo's Frontpage, but the lessons I learned are still valuable. I hope this essay helps future webmasters out there to keep the Quake community strong. Enjoy!]

Web Page 101 - By Dave "Fargo" Kosak

"HTML is easy. I want to write a Quake Webpage! It'll rawk!"

Well, okay, I can't tell you otherwise: HTML is easy. If you're computer literate, have a book and a spare evening, you'll be coding pages in no time. Hell, you might not even need the book ... a little patience can dig up a wealth of page-creation materials online. The good thing about the World-Wide Web is that anyone can make their mark if they've got a few extra hours and an ISP. So we have hundreds of pages about any particular special interest... as I write this, I see that 1000 Quake-related links are listed at SlipGate Central. That's great! The only problem is that for every great page there's ten that don't go anywhere and represent the best of intentions but a lot of wasted time and energy. Since I've seen many pages come and go and since I've managed to create a somewhat successful page or two, I thought I'd present some advice for all the would-be webmasters out there. I'm not trying to preach, just trying to pass on a few experiences in order to help out. Running a web page is a lot of work but it can also be a lot of fun... Hopefully this essay will help you get onto the right track.

Before You Begin

Before you begin, you should first take a good look at what your goals are. It's important to make some decisions before typing a single character. For one thing, how often will you update your content? It's possible to create a great page that's never updated, but warrants at least one visit from anyone interested in your subject matter. This is a good solution if you don't expect to have a lot of free time in the future (for instance, you're on Winter Break). Of course, don't expect to generate more than a few thousand hits, and that's only if your content is really good. The other extreme is a page that's updated multiple times a day. I like pages like these because they really leverage what's great about the web: it's now, it's current, it's practically live. Pages that update several times a day and have good strong content (IE genuine news) will generate many hits a day (from hundreds to thousands, possibly more) and stand to gain a following over time. That can be very satisfying, but think about the time commitment. You're looking at possibly one or two hours each day, even more as the site grows in popularity. Can you afford to stick with it? Of course, another option is more middle-of-the-road. A site that's updated once or twice a week can still be a very useful part of the community.

More importantly, another question to ask is why you're coding the site. Would you like a job in the gaming or web industry? (If so, this is an ideal opportunity!) Do you just want attention? (Don't be ashamed. That's half the reason I do it!) Are you doing it to meet people online? To dwell on your favorite hobby? To show off your artistic talent? To make people laugh? To learn HTML? To contribute something to a group who've helped you get the most out of your $50 game? Or are you doing it for a combination of these reasons? Figuring this out will help you decide what kind of page to create. For instance, if you just want to learn HTML, you probably don't want to create a page that's going to require daily maintenence. Here's some helpful advice: if you only want to make a page "because it would be cool," you probably won't follow through with it. That alone isn't much of a motivation. But if you understand why you really want to do this, then chances are you'll finish the project ... even through the tougher times.

Okay, so you've made a couple of decisions, and I'll assume you already have an understanding of HTML and an Internet Service Provider who allows you to put your own page on a server. Now you're ready to get into the nuts and bolts of starting your very own site. Here's some help, nut for nut and bolt for bolt:

Tips for Creating a Useful, Popular Web Page

  • Provide a Service. Even if you're in this just to learn HTML and to have a fancy page to file in your portfolio, I still recommend that you provide something for your audience. After all, you may be putting in anywhere from a couple hours to a couple weeks of work just to launch a site, and in my opinion, all that effort will be more satisfying if you offer something of value to people. It's fun to get mail thanking you for your hard work. Also, if you want to generate hits and be popular, you won't do so by creating another "Quake is c00l!" page. Try and provide content that people are going to want. (A popular saying in the Interactive industry is "Content is King.") What content will work? That's a nice lead-in to my next point...

  • Find a Niche. It's true that people want to read general Quake News. But, if you coded another news site, would they come and read yours? Probably not. Because it's already been done, many times over, by several good sites. There's a need for general news, but it's already been filled. It's no use to re-tread old dirt ... you've got to figure out what kinds of things people are going to want to see, but you've also got to make sure that the material isn't already taken, unless you think you can do a significantly better job. Usually it's easiest to find a niche that hasn't been covered yet--believe me, they're out there. For instance, when I first started writing for PlanetQuake, I wanted to create a useful page for them ... I noticed that the Quake Clan scene was very exciting, with a ton of activity, but nobody was covering the action. My idea was to create a sort of "sports pages" for the clan scene, and this idea eventually became "Fargo's FrontPage." It was the first page of its kind, to my knowledge, and it definately fulfilled a need. As a result it started to become a focal point of clan news and activity (it took a while, but it eventually caught on.) Finding a niche is the key to success. Look around, read the Quake newsgroups, read the Quake pages, get a feel for the pulse of the community, and then ask yourself, "What's missing?" or "What hasn't been done good enough yet?" Finding the right idea is very important if you want your page to be popular. "Me-too" sites rarely gain a following.

  • Use Your Talents. Another way to state this is "Don't try and be something you're not." For instance, I know that my strongest talents lie in my writing. That's why my original design for Fargo's Frontpage focused on the text, with no fancy stuff and no graphical buttons. One time I decided to do a big page redesign, because I looked with envy to all the fancy-schmancy pages out there. What a mistake. I threw this big ugly animated graphic on there and coded frames and everything, and this went over about as well as New Coke or Crystal Pepsi. I was getting letters that used words like "hideous!" or subjects like "Nooo!" I'm not a terrible artist, nor am I a terrible coder. But I should never try to do an "artsy" page, because my art can't live up to the writing. After learning that lesson, I've stuck to straightforward layouts and pages of mostly prose.... it's what I do best, and my pages can still be popular even without the flashy graphics. In a nutshell, create a page that will leverage the skills you're the best at.
    There's a footnote to this last tip ... A great way to meet people and create a stronger overall page is to find people whose talents compliment yours. Maybe someday I'll find an artist who wants to donate time to spruce up my pages--that would be great. It's satisfying to accomplish something as a group. (One of the great things about PlanetQuake is the pool of talent we have here all contributing different things to make great webpages.)

  • Pay Attention to Design. A site with a good design is organized. For instance, it has the vital information up at the top, so you won't have to scroll through a huge logo or other nonsense to get the good stuff. It's easy to navigate, the buttons are clear and it's easy to find what you need. It's clean and reads well. A site with bad design features red text on an orange background beneath a huge baffling high-res image of a screaming emu and an unlabeled list of buttons, some of which lead to sites containing nothing but spaghetti recipies. Do us a favor and chuck the emu. After all, sites with good design keep people coming back. What's good design? I can't pretend to give you a design tutorial in the context of this page (people spend years in art school learning design principals), but a good rule of thumb is to keep things as simple as possible. And along those lines...

  • Have a Consistant Theme. If you have a lot of art on your page, make sure it matches. Have a concept for how the site should look and follow through ... make sure all your buttons look similar (unless there's a reason to make some of them stick out) and that all the art you include is relevant. For instance, my "Quake University" theme is a pretty good concept (See How to Quake in College and School of Total Conversions as examples of a theme carried through) ... It's not neccessarily that compelling, but at least it ties all of these related pages together. Coming up with a good theme can inspire a lot of your art and text, so it's a worthwhile step.

  • Go Easy on the Browser. Not everyone has a fast connection and a lot of patience. Include only neccessary graphics, and use the HEIGHT and WIDTH tags to make sure the browser can wrap text around your images while they load. Remember that Quake will be coming out for the Macintosh soon, and despite what they say about the web being a multi-platform medium, I've seen pages that don't work on all browsers or all computers because they try and use some fancy (and unstable) new features. So if you want a large audience, try and stick to the basics as much as possible. I often surf the web from my T1 in the office, but I'll admit that I have a 14.4K modem at home. I consider a good web page to be one that I'll check just as often from home as I do when I'm in the office. Next time you're coding away at a page with giant animations and lengthy Java applets, remember Fargo's 14.4. It's a good rule of thumb.

  • Update Frequently or At Least Regularly. Unless you intend your page to be a one hit wonder, you should try and stick to a regular schedule of updates. If you do, and the content is worth it, people will fit it into their schedule to stop by. Also, in a medium as dynamic as the Internet, nothing is worse than logging into a page and seeing that the last update was a couple of weeks ago. People like it when a page is "fresh."

  • Don't Provide What You Can't Support. If you can't fit it into your schedule to update daily, then don't start a page that requires daily attention. Similarly, if you can't support a lengthy database, don't code a CGI program that solicits info for the database. Don't provide a chat room unless you can be sure that it's online when people need it. Promises alone won't win favor. I learned this lesson myself ... I had something I called "The Fargo Forum" where I was going to post interesting commentaries that people had mailed to me about a particular topic. One time I hit on a hot one ... "The Need for Order," I called it, and it was a discussion about how the Clans needed a league or some sort of organizational scheme, and how such a scheme could be organized. This was right when ClanRing's League was just getting off the ground, and it was a pretty controversial topic. I had decided to create this forum without backing it up with software ... that is to say, I had to personally cut and paste comments from peoples' letters into the HTML. It started off great, I was posting all the commentary I could, but eventually I couldn't keep up. People were sending me these very articulate essays but I was swamped, I didn't have time to paste it all up and edit out the irrelevant stuff in order to keep the discussion flowing. So the page stopped being updated. I didn't hear much about it, but I imagine I upset a lot of people who had clearly taken the time to spell out their views only to have them seemingly ignored. It's a mistake I'll try never to make again. Don't ever provide a service you can't support.

  • Stick With It! Yep, a web page is 5% inspiration, 5% persperation, and 90% persitance. Even if you update every day, don't expect your page to take off instantly. It will take a couple of months for all but the best sites to "catch on." What'll happen, though, if you're consistant, is that people will start to bookmark your page, and then they'll tell their friends about it on IRC, and then their friends will bookmark it, and go on IRC, and so on and so forth ... but it takes time. So be patient, and stick with it. This is especially true if you find youself in competition with other sites--you'll find that it's really a war of attrition. And here again I have a real-life experience to share. As I said, Fargo's FrontPage was covering clan news, and I was doing a good job for a few weeks and gaining a following. Then a few similar pages cropped up. One was named the "official" ClanRing news source and basically covered my beat. Meanwhile, another site also started calling itself a "Sports Pages" of the clan scene, and it had a nicer layout than I did. They even one-upped me ... they offered a "Fight Board" that allowed clans to challenge one another right on the web page, a feature that required coding that I didn't have the saavy or time to implement. This site would send observers to watch clan matches and then write up a report, complete with screenshot. I thought I was in trouble. Especially when one of my competitors was ranked above me in the Quake user awards.

But patience pays off. One site closed because its maintainer needed to concentrate on graduating from college. And the site that offered the "Fight Board" required almost contstant vigilance, and its webmasters couldn't keep up ... remember, don't offer a service you can't support! After a few weeks my site continued to grow and the others stopped alltogether. It's a good thing I didn't give up back then. (Since then I've stopped covering Clan news in favor of other things, which rewarded the patience of any sites that were holding out and waiting for me to disappear.) This is a dynamic medium, and commitment is key. The Quake sites that are popular today are popular because they've stuck with it all along.

Hopefully this advice has been of some use to all the would-be webmasters out there. As I said, I don't mean to preach, I only wanted to relate some practical experiences that taught me a good deal. Oh, and you'll find that the advice above doesn't just relate to Quake sites ... yup, no matter what site you decide to create, these tips will probably come in handy. Having said all of that, I encourage you to embrace the Internet and go for it! After all, if you do craft a successful page, you'll have accomplished quite a bit and I'm sure you'll have met a lot of great people in the process. Yes, it's a lot of work. But it can be awfully rewarding if you stick with it and avoid a few of the pitfalls I've outlined above. The web is a wonderful thing. Where else can you publish material viewable by millions of people and only pay twenty bucks a month? If the net were any hipper we'd all have addresses at pelvis.com.

Web Page 101 - Part 2

-Fargo

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