"Building a Web Site for Dummies," David and Rhonda Crowder

Pros: Great tone; some wonderful practical know-how and philosophy
Cons: …And then it all goes bad…
Rating: 2 out of 5

First published 10/16/2001

I started off loving this book. How could I not? It was such a fabulous beginning! The tone was amusing and entertaining. The book employs quite a bit of common sense, overviewing various issues such as fixing the theme of your web site, not drifting off topic, setting limits, having a consistent layout and style, making navigation easy, providing new material to keep people interested, and so on. It was wonderful! I bookmarked all sorts of pages.

This book contains more practical know-how and philosophy than technical material; it provides only a very simple crash course in coding just in case you accidentally picked this book up before you bought a real HTML book. The book employs easy-to-understand coding conventions, is incredibly common-sensical (I know, I already said that, but it bears repeating), and matches overview of issues with real-world examples (such as their discussion of different sorts of plain text and WYSIWYG HTML editors).

I was singing the book’s praises loudly through “The Zen of Sites,” “Pouring the Foundation,” “Web Page Construction 101,” and even “Plugging in Scripts and Applets.” All of these chapters held good, useful information that anyone could make use of.

And Then It All Derailed

It started straight off with Chapter 5, “Making Site Navigation Easier.” From Chapter 5 through “Making Things Look Great” (graphics), “Web Sights and Sounds,” “Web Aerobics: Tuning Up Your Site” (link checking, code validation, making graphics files smaller), “Listening to Your Visitors” (polls, forms), “Letting ‘Em Have Their Say” (guestbooks and message boards), “Just Plain Fun” (extras), and “Using Content Providers,” this book sucked. I cannot say it more strongly than that. And here’s why…

Up until chapter 5, the pattern was great: overviewish discussion touching on all the various issues; plenty of helpful practical common-sense advice; and maybe a few examples of specific programs or services. Starting with chapter 5, that went straight out the window.

You might expect that a chapter of “Making Site Navigation Easier” in this book would discuss various philosophies of navigation and organizing your site, with some hints about which work well and which don’t, and maybe one or two specific examples. Nope. Instead you get several very specific web services that can provide you with search engine functionality for your site. You get a very specific Java applet that makes your links look like a cutesy bookshelf. You get a specific program to help you create navigational menus. The book spends most of its space from here on out doing these things, and wastes most of its space giving you the exact instructions for how to sign up for these online services, right down to instructions like “Click the Instant Sign-up button.” As though any beginner couldn’t figure out that the next thing to do, after you’ve filled in the box in step three (labelled step three on the web page, helpfully shown here in a figure) is to click the box in step four, next to the words “Click this button and you’re done!”

But the simple trading of one sort of information for another is not the worst thing this tactic does. The worst thing is that pretty much all of this information is useless within about one or two months of publication, at most.

Prices will be out of date by now. Privacy policies touted as amazing might have changed. Companies lauded as amazing and helpful may not be so helpful any more if they’ve had to cut staff or otherwise tighten their belts. All of those careful pages of step-by-step instructions for filling out self-explanatory forms… well, those forms don’t look the same any more. The instructions in the book for one graphics web site were so far out of date that it looked like I’d found the wrong site. (Not to mention that I couldn’t get this so-called amazing web site to cough up its product – errors greeted me instead.)

Frankly, giving us this sort of information makes half of this book completely and utterly useless.

It (Partially) Got Better

Still, despite that, I got through most of the book determined to give it three stars out of five. After all, a lot of the material in the front was very useful. And some of the stuff that came later was, too. There’s some great information about running an online business: merchant accounts, focusing on what you do best, affiliate programs (from both sides!), hosting your web site somewhere, publicizing your site, keeping in touch with your customers…

Oh, wait, in that last chapter there we fell off the wagon again. Two specific auto-responder services, two specific opt-in newsletter services, and one specific service for updating your visitors about site changes. Foiled again. I’m frankly not at all certain why there’s the traditional “Part of Tens” chapter at the back, in which they tell you about ten useful sites to get advice from, ten tools for e-commerce, and ten great add-ins for your site. Why bother? The rest of the book has already been all about specific services! These three chapters are practically redundant.

Merchant Accounts

Let’s go back to merchant accounts for a moment. Most of this chapter is an incredibly depressing account of why no bank will ever give you a merchant account and why you’ll have to pay through the nose to use one. Oh, but wait! A very brief, one-paragaph mention of the fact that online malls and dedicated server providers usually have some sort of merchant account services! AGH! The authors couldn’t have mentioned this earlier? This feels a lot like the authors wasting pages on having an axe to grind, rather than wanting to legitimately use their space to provide us with useful information.

Reciprocal Links

Please, bear with me for a moment while I quote the following paragraph from page 292. It’s necessary – this is the one that single-handedly tipped the scales and convinced me to give this book two stars instead of three:

It doesn’t hurt to take the time to put in a link to the other site first.
That way, you can say something like, “I’ve linked to your site and would
appreciate a return link from yours.” This takes the discussion out of the
realm of the hypothetical and puts the other site’s Webmaster under an
obligation to respond in kind. No guarantees, but most people do.

It puts us under an obligation, does it? You know, when companies send unsolicited products to someone and tell them to pay up, the “customer” (ahem) has a legal right to keep the products and pay absolutely nothing. They have no obligation whatsoever. Obviously the “customer” in this case can’t “keep” the link since it isn’t a physical product that’s been handed over, but it’s a very similar type of marketing. This is sleazy. It’s sleazy when companies send you a physical product; it’s every bit as sleazy when you do it with web links. Just because you’re requesting a link-back as payment for your unsolicited “service” instead of cash doesn’t change the situation one bit.

I guess I have these authors to thank for those rude emails I occasionally get demanding a link-back for the unsolicited link they’ve given me. I don’t link to people who do that, and neither do a number of other webmasters I know. I do link to people who nicely ask me to do so and have a web site that’s appropriate to one of the links listings I keep up. No coercion needed; not even a link to my site needed. Try it – you’ll find it works much better than this kind of coercion tactic.

Ahem…

Okay, rant over. The short of it is, there’s a fair amount of useful information in this book. There’s a lot more information that is not only utterly useless, but thinly-veiled advertisement for various services as well – you shouldn’t have to pay to be advertised to! And then there are things like the suggestion above which will simply earn you the irritation of many webmasters you contact, and ruin your chances at getting links from some of the sites you like.

While I think that a lot of the good information is absolutely great, you’ll only want to buy this book if you can find it on sale. $25 for maybe a third or a half of the information in this book is way too much to cough up. And remember, when reading the publicity suggestions: filter them through your own common sense and sense of manners and etiquette. Angering other webmasters with sleazy promotion tactics is not the route to good publicity.

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