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Suggestions for Student Web Builders

So, you have to build a personal web page for a class. That's easy enough; find a flashy background, slap in your name, a picture of yourself and one of your dog, steal some animated GIF files off the net, add a couple of links to your favorite movie stars, then sit back and wait for the visitors, right? Well, maybe not. If you take a little longer and work a little harder, you can have a Web page people would actually read and appreciate.

This page for high school and college students who are building personal web pages. I broke it into sections. You can get the gist of it by reading these section heads and descriptions. The body has anecdotes, examples and explanations. There is a "Next" link bar at every heading. It goes to the next heading.

Hope you don't suffer from "fuchsia" shock.

Introduction - Why I wrote this. The common complaint about student web pages is that they are "all graphics and no content." They don't have to be that way.

Content vs. Graphics - Try to strike a balance between the two. Playboy and TV Guide are extremes from the magazine world. Playboy is all pictures and TV Guide is all text. Both sell well, for different reasons.

Pick a subject. Your web page is about you, but you will have better results if you focus on one special subject. Everyone is special in some way. Decide what hobby, experience, or interest makes you special among the other 578,145 people who have personal web pages. This helps you stand out from all the other students who list their favorite food, movie, book and band.

(I split the page into two parts here for lightning fast loading.)

Pick an audience. Decide who you want to reach among the 50 million people who surf the web. They will either be people who share your interest, or people who have never done what you do and wonder what it is like.

Build the Web Page. Use your web page to describe your subject, in detail, to your audience. Don't be so general that you don't say anything. This section has some specific examples of the questions you can ask yourself. The answers become paragraphs, and the paragraphs become content.

Limits - You can't be all things to all people. Yahoo does that. They have 700 employees and 110 million dollars. You don't. Set your limits.

Miscellaneous Advice - Use fonts, links, graphics and backgrounds sparingly. Spell check.

Further Reading and Good Examples - Links to pages about web design by real pros.
Links to good examples of pages done by students.

If you've "red" this far, keep going!

Next Section

Introduction - Why I wrote this.

In the summer of 1999 I had two remarkably similar experiences with personal web pages. Mine is 80% genealogy and 20% other stuff, by size. It's titled, cleverly enough, "Ted Pack's Web Site" and sub-titled "No fancy graphics, plain colors and a lot of left-justified text."

One day I did a search for "Ted Pack" in Alta Vista and found a team of five undergraduates at the University of North Carolina had used my web page and three others in a class exercise to rate personal home pages. They gave me a 3 out of 10, citing "no graphics, all text, plain background." They gave another page, "Vince's Web Corner", a 7.5, citing "good graphics, navigational bar, interaction / many links".

Well, shucks. I thought mine was better than a 3. So I started looking for numbers. Vince had 553 visits from 15 Feb 1997 to 06 June 1999, or 19 a month. I had 1,404 between 11 Nov 1998 and 06 June 1999, or 203 per month. Score one for content and 0 for fancy graphics. (Brag, brag, brag.)
(01 Jan 2001 update - Vince is averaging 1.16 visits a day, my site 7.83.)
(23 Nov 2003 update - Vince is gone. My site averages 63 hits a day)
(24 Mar 2005 update - Vince is still gone. My site averages 150 visits a day)
(May 2012 update - 250 a day, usually; during the Christmas Newsletter season, November 15 - December 15, 1,500 visits a day.)
The U of NC clears their cache every school year, so you can't see the rating page.

Second experience - the same summer, I inherited a memoir written by a lady whose maiden name was Cady. In 1898, when she was five years old, her family moved to the Sand Hill country of Nebraska in a covered wagon. She lived in a sod house, traded with the Indians and killed rattlesnakes with a stick. It turned out her branch of the Cady family and ours were not related, but it was an interesting 30 pages.

I looked up her county, Keya Paha, on the Internet. I thought I'd offer her manuscript to their county library. Keya Paha has 1,000+ square miles and 700+ citizens. Their nearest big city is Pierre, South Dakota. While surfing, I found Keya Paha High School in Springview, the county seat, which has a population of 342. KPHS has 48 students. Most of the 10 seniors had built web pages as part of their math and computers course.

One unfortunate young man had a rare genetic disease that caused painful blood clots in his legs, which he wrote about. The rest were pretty standard for teenagers. They listed favorite singer, hobbies and ambitions. One listed her favorite color. Most of them had a portrait or snapshot of themselves.

The pages were pretty, but they fit the complaint - all graphics and no content. What is it like to live in a town that small? How do you have a football team with 24 boys in the entire school? What do they think of big cities, from their vantage point? What is it like to be able to see the stars clear down to the horizon on cold winter nights? You'd never know by reading the web pages from the KPHS class of 99.

While I was at it, I looked up the home pages built by the five UNC students who had rated me. They were not much better than the high school students, for content. Most of them had pictures of themselves and their family. Two of the five had a link to Yahoo, in case no one had heard of it. The college students had more years of education, better tools and a bigger computer science department than the KPHS students. They didn't do much better. All in all, the KPHS kids did a decent job.

En verde, veritas.

Next Section

Content vs. Graphics

Content, for student web pages, is usually text. Graphics are decoration. You need them both. Think of two examples from the magazine world. Playboy is nothing but graphics. If anyone tells you he buys it for the articles, he's lying. TV Guide, on the other hand, is nothing but content. Most people skip the pictures and go straight for the listings.

Graphics get boring quickly unless they are part of the story you are telling. If it is a personal web page you pretty much have to have a picture of yourself, but you don't need ten. If the picture ties into what makes you special, so much the better. If you sky dive, barrel race or play concert piano, use an action photo.

Animated GIF files are even worse. They are distracting. If they draw your reader's attention away from your story, you are defeating the purpose. Do you really need your e-mail link to rotate?

Content - text - is harder to come up with than graphics. It means you'll have to tell people why you thought it was important to become a Scout, go backpacking, raise a horse, learn to fly, collect heirloom recipes, climb a mountain, raft a river, etc., etc., etc. You'll be writing an essay, when it comes down to it. (This web page is about 3,000 words, for instance.)

The worst web page I ever saw had no content at all; just a name in flaming red animated letters on a black background, and a couple of links to more of the same. It reminded me of a bad rock and roll band - the kind that has no talent, so they turn the volume up loud enough to kill mice three blocks away.

Four bars of the . . . Blues!

The next section is on Page 2

Pick a subject.

Everyone is special in some way. Where have you gone on vacation? What do you do in your spare time? Where do you live? Do you have an unusual job, hobby or interest? Don't forget that "ordinary" to you might be "rare and exotic" to someone else. Five-year old Eskimos think everyone in the world builds an igloo when they go hunting, just like their daddy does. The high school students in Nebraska probably didn't see anything special about having a horse in their back yard. There are nine-year old girls in New York, Chicago and San Francisco who would think they had died and gone to heaven if they woke up one morning and saw a horse nibbling the roses.

Are you involved in Scouts, YMCA, 4-H, choir, band, orchestra, football, basketball, the Chess Club? Do you dance, sing, sky dive, pilot a small plane, sail a boat, ride a horse? Do you live in a really big city or a really small town? On the East Coast or the West Coast? Write about it!

One way to ask yourself if what you pick would be interesting is to reverse the role. For instance, if you live in a small town, would you like to know what life in a big city is like, for someone your age? If you would, chances are good someone your age who lives in a big city would like to know what your life is like.

Once you pick a subject, do a search for it in Yahoo, in the "Personal Home pages" category. If you get less than fifty matches, you've found a niche - fill it.

Here are two paragraphs about students in Borneo who thought their lives were boring. If you've had enough of my Peace Corps stories, you can skip them. Go to Page 2.

I taught English in the Peace Corps, years ago, in Sarawak. Some of my students had to walk for a day through the jungle to get to our boarding school. Some lived in homes with skulls hanging in baskets on the front porch, trophies from World War II or the headhunting days of the 19th century. Their grandfathers would talk about the Japanese occupation sometimes, after dinner, gathered around the wood fire in the kitchen area. When I asked them to write about themselves, they would complain their lives were "boring". They wanted to write about secret agents, Gung Fu fighters and cowboys, which they learned about in the movies.

I suspect all teachers have the same battle; students consider their lives dull, so, instead of writing about it they go for the flash. They also want to be too general, just like my students did. I used to tell them I would much prefer they pick one small, interesting aspect of their life and describe it in detail than to try to tell me everything in general. (On the first "describe yourself" essay I assigned, to two classes, 60 of the 80 started out with eye, hair and skin color. Since they were Iban, Malay and Chinese, it was black, black and brown on all 60 essays.)

Go to Page 2.

This is a page in my site's section on Web Design. The section has a page for:
Student Web Site suggestions
Church Web Site suggestions
HTML colors and Hexadecimal numbers
Usability suggestions for any non-profit organization with a volunteer web master.
You might also like the essay, My Adventures as a UU Web Master, a talk I gave to my church about being their web master.

Sections of my web site:

Home | Christmas Letters | Genealogy | Homilies | Misc. Essays | Peace Corps | Web Design

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This page updated: June 24, 2014