[Editor’s Note: Twenty years ago I reprinted Bill Bowers’ catalog of online fanac, Fan Basic 101, in an issue of File 770. As a companion piece, I wrote about my own experiences as a novice website creator. They now make a rather nostalgic set of confessions.]
By Mike Glyer: If you have to write your own HTML code, designing a web page is a lot like being forced to solve one of those word problems that starts “if a train leaves Baltimore at 50 miles per hour.” On the other hand. I’ve always used Microsoft Publisher and I feel the experience combines the best features of building blocks and finger-painting, with no tidying afterwards.
I started out like an Internet neo, searching for free icons, copying blinky lights, culling through hundreds of animated GIFs, and thieving other pages’ colorful backgrounds. Naturally, I also spent hours selecting a free hit counter.
A link on CompuServe’s Ourworld (which hosts my web page) led me to a suite of icons created from photographs of the nine planets as seen from space. They are very well crafted, and float beautifully on a mottled gray background reminiscent of a lunar landscape. I made them the thematic elements of my main page.
Somewhere else I found three sets of animated red, yellow and green console lights that blink at slow, frequent, and rapid speeds. Every article about web page design warns against loading a page with too many animated files and blinking lights. Because “too many” is not a numerical limit, I am free to assume that the ten or twelve blinky lights I’ve used as hyperlinks to news stories is not “too many.”
Once I had my web page set up, I wanted it to be easy for you to read and use. My first concern was the address:
Try getting anyone to type a 55-character address! One solution is getting other web pages to link to mine. Then, the only person who ever has to type the address correctly is the other webmaster. Chaz Boston Baden and the Chicon 2000 page have sent some of you my way. I’d like to set up reciprocal links with more fannish web pages.
I’ve also thought about how to get a shorter URL. The obvious way is to register my own domain and pay to have it hosted on a server. Domain registration costs about $70 for the first two years. At that price I have to ask, for the number of hits I’m going to get, does it make more sense to pay for my own domain, or just send each of you a dollar bill with a polite request to look at the site?
Another way to get a shorter URL is by going through someone else’s domain. Charlie, how about — www.locusmag.com/file770….?
Or maybe I can go in with a local group. SCIFI wants to set up a web page to get some good publicity. Shaun Lyon offered to handle the whole thing for us through Network Solutions. His own “Dr. Who” pages are getting 12,000 hits a day. Hearing that, I darned near left the meeting to drive home and add some “Dr. Who” stuff to my site.
But no. If the sole object was to reach the maximum number of people, it would have made the most sense to convert File 770 to an e-mailed zine. The medium’s practically free. The audience is still there — most, if by no means all, fans get e-mail. Best of all, fans will immediately read something delivered to them, whereas many will never get around to browsing a fannish web page, or necessarily look at one more than once. Despite the advantages I’m not going to do that. Developing layouts that flow text and art together is something I enjoy too much to give up editing a paper fanzine. Designing a web page involves the same pleasures, and adds new dimensions of color, animation, sound and mutability.
As yet, a faned can’t use e-mail to achieve all he can do on a web page. The culture of e-mail use, more than technology, is the main barrier to distributing documents with the same level of design complexity found on a web page. Any use of graphics rapidly increases a document’s size, and fans don’t seem to appreciate receiving unsolicited 400K e-mails. (Bill Bowers handles this by sending a notice that his e-zine is available for you to request.) There are also some technical limits. A document’s layout is unlikely to remain stable if it is read by a different program than created it. And megabyte-sized files will be rejected by the filters on some services.
So for the time being, I’m investing my energy in a web page, and keeping it consistent with the purpose of the paper File 770, not adding any Doctor Who stuff. Of course, I want more people to read it. I assume that when I mail out 325 copies of File 770, 325 people read it. What if I actually knew the truth, the way I know how many readers access my web page? In fact, the number on my hit counter hasn’t changed since last Thursday. Odd how that little counter subverts everything. Suddenly, I don’t need LoCs, I don’t need contributions — I need a big number! I want to win! How can I tap the power of the Internet to draw an audience and shift my counter into overdrive?
I heard there were free services that promote web pages. A search on Altavista promptly retrieved a list of 14. The first one I looked at – SelfPromotion.com — worked so satisfactorily I’ve made no comparisons. SelfPromotion.com is an easy-to-use, free site with extensive and intelligent coverage of search engines and indexes.
It’s even fun to use. SelfPromotion.com’s designer believes – correctly – that users will disdain the simplest instructions and blunder ahead, filling in blanks on the computerized forms with their unenlightened best guesses. So the designer steers us to a tutorial cleverly written as a dialogue between himself and his 6-year-old son. The tutorial proceeds as if we adults were looking over little James Ueki’s shoulder as he learns how to make Dad’s site promote his first web page:
“At first, James wants to use the account name ‘Anakin Skywalker,’ but after Dad explains who Anakin grows up to be, James (unimaginatively) decides to use his name as his account name, and his nickname (‘jkun’ is Japanese for ‘jimmy’) as his password. Dad will have to talk to him about choosing an unguessable password later!”
Fellows like Dad and I are too grown-up to need instructions ourselves, of course, but I closely watch little Jimmy’s progress so that I won’t be embarrassed by making any errors he’s managed to avoid. Along the way I pick up a lot of good information about the differences between a search engine and an index, what they’re looking for and strategies to optimize a page for selection.
He makes Yahoo sound like the grail for anyone trying to increase traffic on their website. He says that Yahoo is selective and it helps a page get listed if it has won some legitimate awards. So my first thought was to go back to the ISP that hosts my page, CompuServe’s “Ourworld,” and apply for consideration as Ourworld’s Site-of-the-Day.
Within hours of getting my e-mail, they notified me that my page had been “suspended.” They sternly reminded me about the three cardinal rules Ourworld homepages must obey: (1) they can’t violate copyright, (2) they can’t post pornography, and (3) they can’t carry on a business. I hadn’t done (1) or (2). That left (3). I knew this was about the subscription rates in the colophons. So I spent a couple of hours finding and deleting the subscription info and reloading the page. The authorities did not trouble me again.
I may never get listed on Yahoo, but I did become CompuServe Out-of-Sight for a day.
Meantime, the SelfPromotion.com robots are doing their work. I’ve been listed on at least one search engine. Where? I’ll give you a hint.
People on the island of Vanuatu can’t brag very often about having something North America lacks. Now added to that very short list is getting the File 770 web page indexed on Matilda, their local Internet portal. The Matilda search engine has a series of portal pages tailored for users throughout the South Pacific, including Vanuatu, though Australia and New Zealand probably account for most of their traffic. Matilda added File 770‘s page to its index within two days of submission, a decision encouraged by the frequent mention of “Australia” in stories about the latest Worldcon. Until Altavista, Excite, and perhaps the big prize, Yahoo!, catch up with Matilda’s leadership, fan(s) on Vanuatu will have a lot easier time searching for the File 770 web page than most of you.
But please keep trying!
[The only place you can see that old website anymore isn’t on Vanuatu but at the Internet Archive.]