Philosophy of a Web Site (part 1) by Russell D. Hoffman

Philosophy of a Web Site (Part 1)

First in a series by Russell D. Hoffman. Copyright (c) 1996.

I ramble for about 600 words in the beginning of this article, so if you like, you can Cut to the Chase.

For new programmers starting out in the field, a bank is a great place to land your first job. It's the kind of place where you definitely learn to test. If your calculations round incorrectly by a tenth of a cent in the wrong direction, how many millions of dollars will the bank give to it's customers, or perhaps worse, steal from them, over the period of time from when the mistake is first coded and implemented to when the mistake is found (hopefully soon, and by the accounting department) or the software is replaced by all new code?

How many times will they put up with running 30,000 month-end statements with the date in DD/MM/YY order (in the U.S., it's strictly MM/DD/YY as we all know)? I don't know, but I do know this: At least they'll let you get away with it once.

I had left work at 3:00 a.m. the day before, but I guess I should have run one more test... Then I had an accident on the way to work the next morning, about five hours later. Put a big dent in my otherwise spotless Datsun 280-Z. (But that's another story--and a good one!)

I get to work, and find out that the stuff I worked so hard to get out--is currently being shredded and headed for the Dempster Dumpster. I also learn that I still have a job. So, it was a good day. Like a pilot's creed "Any landing you walk away from is a good landing" any day you still have your job at the end of, is probably a good day.

You also learn to maintain other people's code when you work at a bank, which is an awful job. Almost as bad as working on your own code! In a multi-billion dollar bank run by about 9 Systems Analysts and 9 Programmers and two managers, you do some of just about everything. I've programmed bank merger reports, ATM extract files, monthly, debit, IRA, CD, savings, checking, you-name-it bank statements by the dozen...

Most of the folks in the MIS department of the bank were retired military programmers, who had used Univacs (90/60 and 90/80 MVS models) and even older stuff in the Army or the Marines or something. You couldn't learn from a better group of people. And those old Univacs were good machines. Good scrap iron now, of course.

One day, when I was a rookie programmer, around 1980, I was chided by one of my learned teachers of programming who was guiding and directing me. He was a Systems Analyst at the bank where I was a "Junior Programmer".

The day before, the Systems Analyst had asked me how some piece of code that I proposed was going to work.

I told him what the philosophy of the subroutine was. The details of what counters represented what real values, and what error processing I had devised, and so forth. He said okay and I went off and programmed it.

The next day, I was at his desk to discuss the next phase of whatever it was we were working on. I asked my question, and he just looked at me quizzically, raised one eyebrow, and said "Philosophy of a Subroutine?!?"

Here is the philosophy of a web site (Part 1)...

A web site can serve many functions, but the primary function of a web site must be defined. What do you want to achieve with the site? Common functions include sales, support, advertising, generating interest in a company, a product, or a service, or simply: Maintaining a presence so that when your potential customers search the web, they don't just find your competitors. They'll find you too.

This reason should be analyzed, because if many companies get on board just to keep up with their competitors, it follows like sweat follows work that the first thing they'll do is look at their competitors sites, so they can try to build a better one--but not much better. Why waste effort?

Also, if you want to be found by your customers when they go to the web, then using proper KEYWORDS is your tool. It's too big a topic to include here but a later article will discuss keywords extensively.

If you are just starting out building your own web site, and you are trying to figure out what you need the web for, there's a simple plan: just try to match your major competitors, and hope they don't decide to upgrade their sites (and spend a lot of money, causing you to have to spend a lot of money just to stay competitive.)

But if you really want to build a site, you need to decide--philosophically--what you want to achieve from your web site.

First of all, you want everyone who visits your web site to find everything there that might be of interest to them, to find little else besides, and to want to return when they think you might have posted new stuff that they will enjoy. Also, you want to try to know, and even control, where people go when they exit your site so that you can get those sites they go to, to consider linking back to you!

If you use it for support, the most important consideration is simply this: can you provide better support by directing people to your web site, or can you cut down on your total costs for support by including support via a web site? It's a cold hard decision. But be careful! I think most people right now, mid 1996, don't see all the benefits that web support can be a part of. For example, your faxback system can be a subset of your web support system. Even the printed material that you still send out can be copied directly off the web if you do it right. That way, you also entice people to come to your web site just by association, or rather, by design.

Your web site can be your #1 support tool

Consider your web site to be your major support tool. It should be used freely by your customers, your staff, and your trainees. Knowledge is power, and the more information you provide, the more powerful your customers and your employees are.

Giving away information for free on the Internet is not selling knowledge short! Generally the accumulator and presentor of that so-called 'free' information wields a very powerful sword.

If your competition presents 'scientifically proven data' online showing why their product is better than yours, you better be ready to counter that with some of your own 'scientifically proven data'. If they are able to respond to customer inquiries online in a manner that the customer feels comfortable with, you better be able to do that too.

Publish technical data on the Web

I think all automobile manufacturers should be required by law to place all their shop manuals online for free access by their customers. And not just automobile manufacturers, but also toaster ovens, refrigerators, any product where you would be expected, or required, to provide schematics and shop references. At the very least you should be allowed to fulfill any requirement to publish technical data for your product by publishing it (and leaving it up) on the Web.

VCR's shouldn't bother to come with a manual you can't read anyway! Put it on the web and make it readable! Better yet: Let you use the web to control the VCR at it's very own URL address. Every VCR should have it's own address on the web! And every toaster oven too! Using a web interface that includes upcoming TV shows that you could click on, the signal would go to the VCR to record those shows.

How subtle should advertising be? Very!

Concerning the VCR, as an example, if the VCR manufacturer visualized the process as a complex synergistic alliance between themselves and their customers, rather than between themselves and the broadcasters, they could make VCR's that delete commercials. So the price of watching things live would simply be--the commercials. Some would pay it, some wouldn't. But the advertisers would learn to live with the new rules. Remember, advertisers exist for the pleasure of their companies' bottom line. You have no obligation to buy their product or even watch their commercial. The average of 6 or 8 minutes of commercials in every half hour of TV is absurd, and the only reason it's so high is because people think they have to put up with it. It becomes a vicious circle wherein advertisers know you'll jump around during thier commercials, so they buy key spots on a multitude of stations so you'll eventually hear their message, usually dozens of times.

Have you ever had a commercial that irritated you so much that you just had to turn it off or change the station every time it came on? Maybe a whiny voice or a company who gave you really bad service when you bought their product. For weeks, sometimes years, you have to keep the remote close to you.

It's like some creep that keeps knocking on your door or calling you and they won't go away until you've acknowledged their existence in some way. Why do people put up with it? And who among us needs to be told thirty times in a week which soda to drink? Can't I just decide which one I like and stick to it? Why should car races, to pick on an easy tarket, for instance, ever have to be interrupted on TV for commercials, when we're watching nothing more than moving billboards flashing past stationary ones the whole time? Every wonder about that? Same with basketball and most other sports.

The prime advertising is already on the field in plain view. So why the interruptions as well? Just wondering.

Can Multimedia help? Yes!

Another way of looking at it: If it's really multimedia like "they" say it is, why can't we have one 'channel' (or whatever you want to call it) of the MM experience be the commercial, and the rest be interesting, so that interesting stuff is happening all the time? Even if the commercial is 'happening' all the time, well, that can be perfectly OK if it's subtle enough, like a hook on a hat.

Come to think of it, suppose we only allowed subliminal and descreet advertising on TV, on the Internet, wherever? Suppose, just for the sake of arguement (I guess) that we (the viewing public) only put up with the most subtle forms of advertisement. Much more subtle than that imbedded graphic, of course... What if we decided that subliminal was what we wanted? Just asking.

Certainly various shoe companies don't need to ever take out a 'real' ad! But they do, and shoes are such big business (at least my shoes are big) that they can afford to hire the best directors, and soon we're flooded with shoe ads. We're convinced that the most important decision we'll make all year is whether we want air pockets or air pumps in our air shoes.

The world crumbles... Whatever...

Meanwhile the world crumbles for lack of direction. We want to save the environment, but we won't build hydroelectric dams for fear of the ecological damage it might cause. So we listen to the issues on the 6:00 news and it's the same issues over and over, because it's just the basics. Man destroys machine. Man killed by machine. Unstoppable weather causes hurricanes in Florida and Texas needs rain. But the details are different every time, and there's a pattern to some things but not to others, and some patterns are false indicators of nonexistent events (being, in reality, indicators of undiscovered combinations of events). So the evening news provides us with nearly nothing, but we know that we should buy new shoes.

It's your Internet...

Is this what you want the Internet to become? Are we really going to turn over this wonderful distributed software communication machine to the big corporations and the silly shoe salesmen? We laugh at Al Bundy and pay rapt attention to Air Jordan. Why?

Now that I'm finished with this article I'm going to go write an ad for my products, because my products are worth advertising!

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The Animated Software Company
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First placed online July 23rd, 1996.
Last modified March 27th, 1997.
Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman
Copyright (c) Russell D. Hoffman