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Website design – When less is better

Creating a new website is only a small part of the role for a webmaster. Maintaining a website takes much more effort over a much longer period of time.

There are tools that can be used to make maintaining a website easier, such as content management systems and blogging tools, but essentially it is still the content that needs to be kept up-to-date.

As a site gets bigger then that job gets harder and harder. There are some pages that can be allowed to become out-dated, in particular blog archives and published papers, but the main structure of a website needs to be kept up-to-date to best fulfil it’s purpose.

As a webmaster there are many pitfalls that you can fall down.

Forgetting about part of the site

One of the traps I’ve fallen down is to forget about part of a large site. In my post “Forgotten part of my website – PenguinTutor Linux hardware, software and book reviews” I realised that there was a section of my website that should have linked to some of my other reviews.

Failing to deliver a promise

The adage goes that it’s far easier to make a promise than to keep one, and that’s certainly true when creating a website.

I recently found some of my pages on one of my sites that had still be promising “more information coming soon” and had been doing so for a year or so. These were pages on the WatkissOnline website that I no longer considered important to the main aims of the site. Rather than delete the pages I instead converted these to an archive entry within my blog so that I could keep these for anyone that finds them useful but without having an out-of-date page on the website.

Content that is out-of-date or irrelevant

Perhaps the hardest to avoid is that of content becoming either out-of-date or irrelevant. This may be that recent advances have superseded the previous information or that directly contradicts the earlier data.

Sometimes there is a distinct event that makes large parts of information obviously outdated. This is quite rare, but happens in the field of first aid where the publication of the new edition of the first aid manual made lots of previous information out-of-date. This is something I could predict and plan for. As a result I performed a significant update to the FirstAidQuiz website which updated the information within only a few weeks.

It is more common that several minor changes or developments make the information become dated over a period of time. It is not necessarily obvious when a page should be considered out-of-date in this case. Should a page need updating when it has only 1% of data that is out-of-date or should that be 5%, 10% or even 50%? The lower this value then the more effort is going to be needed to regularly monitor and update the website.

I’m not sure of any information that has reached that point on my websites as of yet, but I do know I will have to review some content within the next 6 to 12 months or so.

Websites that become stale

The final one is something that I’ve certainly been guilty of. If a website does not get updated recently, or at least has some new content then it will quickly look stale.

When you are looking after 5 or more sites in your spare time this needs a regular commitment. This is something I’ve found through experience. In the past I was able to put the effort in to keep all the sites looking fairly fresh. Commitments change and the birth of my second child meant that I had even less time to spend on the sites and so one of the sites did become out-of-date. One of the issues with the site in question was that maintaining it was a difficult and time-consuming task which had to be done on a local computer. With a modern LAMP webserver running open source tools including php and mysql then it is much easier to create an easily maintainable website. Unfortunately I have no control over the particular webserver which is Windows IIS server without PHP or any of the other scripting languages / tools usually included on a Linux server.

I’m now working my way through a significant revamp of this particular website, which will be simpler and easier to update than the previous version.

Making websites easier to maintain

As you can probably gather I’ve been guilty of many of these transgressions at one time or another. Unless you have someone able to spend a full-time job doing nothing but keeping a website updated then it’s inevitable that any decent sized website is likely to have some of these issues.

The best way to keep the website up-to-date is to make it easy to edit. The harder it is to update a site then the longer it’s going to be before getting around to making the necessary changes.

Failing that then less is better. It’s better to have a smaller up-to-date website than a large site that is too detached from reality or the users it serves.

In future I’ll add some more information on some simple ways that sites can be made easier to maintain using simple php scripts and/or free web software.
[Oh dear, here I go again …]