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Structure provides Web's glue


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 17, 1998

Now that you've got your content for your small business Web site in order, having sketched out a map of your site of what's going where, you're no doubt champing at the proverbial bit to get the darned thing up on the Web.

This planning is going to pay off like a demented slot machine. A Web site map, much like a book's index, is one of the most important parts of your site; maybe even more important than a search engine. It will allow your visitors to get an overview of where everything is in a single glance.

Neat freaks will also revel in the art of organizing content into logical folders. For example, if you were in the shoe business, you might want to put all the pages that talk about your products in, well, a folder called products. Sandals could have their own folder while dress shoes could have another. Maybe you could separate these at a higher level into Men's, Women's and Kids'.

The structure is probably going to be a parallel to the way your business currently organizes itself. No re-invention of the wheel necessary. But choosing the right tools to use is vital.

Don't get me wrong about organization. I am one of the most disorganized individuals ever to walk the Earth. But putting folders, site maps and electronic things where they should be has enabled me to remain a part of a fast-moving Web team that has constructed some very large Web sites in very little time.

Maybe, at the minimum, it's allowed me to keep my job!

A FrontPage approach

When the Web was young, a bunch of smart people at a company called Vermeer came up with a brilliant idea of a product that would not only organize the content of your site but also allow you to author Web pages without having to learn hypertext markup language (HTML).

In fact, the idea was so smart, Microsoft got out the vacuum cleaner in early 1996 and sucked little Vermeer and its nifty FrontPage product into the Microsoft Office fold. It also dropped the price from close to a thousand dollars back then to about $149 today.

FrontPage has been a roaring success. Just about any Web-hosting provider will allow you to create Web sites with it. Prices for hosting, on average, are $20 to $40 a month, depending on features.

FrontPage is broken into two main parts: the Explorer, which is the site-management portion; and the Editor, the page-authoring portion. The Explorer does a grand job of managing your content, much more so than on your local disk. If you decide to move or rename a part of your site, it will automatically update all the links to that file. A very powerful feature and, in theory, it should mean the end of broken links.

If you can wield a word processor and bash out good-looking documents, you can probably get used to the way the Editor works in no time at all. All of your familiar word processor features, such as drag-and-dropping text around, construction of tables and importing data from other programs, are built right in.

HTML purists and Web designers have a less charitable view of the Editor. It has its own view of just how things should be laid out. While it will allow you to change the source code of your Web page, once you save it, it'll just reformat it to the way it likes things. Infuriating.

Most people won't really care what FrontPage does behind the scenes. Snobs like me can configure FrontPage to allow other editors to work with the Explorer so there is a happy medium. FrontPage comes in Windows 95 and Macintosh flavors. More details can be found at www.microsoft.com/frontpage/ (there is a 45-day trial available for the cost of shipping).

Note that while Internet Explorer has an option called FrontPage Express, it is a drastically reduced version of FrontPage. This poor cousin is missing the site-management capabilities, and unless you're just saving pages to your local disk, it's a little monster when you try to get it to publish content up to a Web site.

Netscape Composer

If your computer isn't running Windows 95 or Windows 98 or it isn't a Macintosh, don't worry. You'll still be able to create groovy Web content with Netscape's Composer (www.netscape.com/).

Composer is available for Windows version 3 and many variants of Unix, while FrontPage runs 32-bit Windows only. Now that the pre-release source code for Netscape version 5 has been made available to programers across the globe, expect to see versions for platforms that time has forgotten. The bottom line on Composer is it's just as easy to use as FrontPage's Editor and runs without the need for tons of random access memory.

Netscape started giving away the Navigator browser portion of its Communicator product line (the Standard Edition) some time ago. Unfortunately, many people are under the false assumption that all of Communicator is free. Not so.

In order to get the bit that does the publishing, you have to download or order the $29 Professional Edition. It's a weird situation: You can download the Pro Edition without registering. There are no "nag" screens as there are in traditional try-before-you-buy products, and I had a hard time actually finding somewhere on Netscape's site that would take my money.

Savvy businesses will know that they need to buy software in order to stay out of deep trouble. But Netscape doesn't make it easy on us. I wonder if they care if you actually pay or not!

The Pro Edition is missing the FrontPage Explorer-like site-management features. To get those, you'll need to order Publishing Suite, which weighs in at $49 after an $80 rebate. To add to the confusion, Publishing Suite runs only on Windows 95.

Other choices

Just about any program that deals in words, spaces and numbers written in the past couple of years can export documents into HTML. This includes word processors, spreadsheets, data bases and many desktop publishing programs. You'll almost certainly need to manually tweak what these programs export. But if you can do the bulk of the grunt work yourself, your budget may suddenly allow the extravagance of a professional designer. Something to think about.

There are plenty of other programs available that will allow you to create your own Web site. Some are free, others about the same price as Communicator or FrontPage and high-end software that could cost you three figures.

If you're adventurous, some good places to hunt for these goodies are Cnet's shareware review site (www.download.com/), Dave Central (www.davecentral.com/) and the Windows-oriented CWS list (cws.internet.com/).

For higher-end products, you might investigate NetObject's Fusion (www.netobjects.com/); MacroMedia's DreamWeaver (www.dreamweaver.com); UserLand's Frontier (www.userland.com); and Trellix Corp.'s brilliant namesake product (www.trellix.com/).

Creating a Web site is jolly rewarding -- and very hard -- work. With the hard part (planning) behind you, now's the time to choose your tools and actually have fun.Questions

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