When I went to New Zealand at the age of 27, some of the things it taught me were about the United States. For example, at that time Baywatch and Pam Anderson were hugely, wildly popular, and a question my friend Tim and I often heard, especially when people learned we were from California, was: Is that what it’s really like? (“Only in Venice,” I said to one.) Another thing I learned was the sheer variety of food we had available in California. At a small grocery store near Christchurch–a decent-sized city–they had two sets of lunch meat. Not three types of meat; three sets, period. You could have ham, or beef. By manufacturer X. That was it; your choices. You didn’t get to decide between grain-fed beef or free-range turkey or whatever; this packet of ham, or that packet of beef. Thanks for shopping!
But the other big thing I noticed about America while I was in New Zealand was . . . standarization. We’re big into standards here. Not quality standards; design standards. Not to gross you out, but the place I noticed it most was in plumbing fixtures, specifically urinals. Here, urinals either look like vertical (when they’re individual) or horizontal (like in older sports stadiums) bathtubs. All of them, everywhere. You go into a men’s room in Omaha and it’ll have a urinal that looks just like the one in your office park in Mt. View. Oh, there’ll be a bit of variety; here there are self-flushing ones, there you have to use a handle and flush manually. But in the main, standards. Hell, there’s a company that makes this stuff called, naturally enough, “American Standard“. We like to standardize.
So you’d think (he said, finally getting to the point) that after 20 or so years, Web pages would be pretty standardized by now. That at least there’d be some agreements on some basic things, like putting an author’s name and email address on there, or some such. But if you think that, you’d be out of luck. And so, in an effort to correct this rather egregious error, I offer to you a very, very short list of simple things everyone can do to their web sites to make life much better for everyone. So pay attention! I’ve been writing online content for longer than the web has existed, and I actually know what I’m talking about here!
Every web page, everywhere, should have a date stamp. You’d think this goes without saying, but apparently it doesn’t because a lot of otherwise fine sites don’t follow this rule. Why is it important? Because in an online world, you can’t always tell by looking how old a post is. You’re reading a post that you got to through google and thinking, “Wait, there’s a chance of a government shutdown?”, and then do a little digging and find that you’re reading a post from 2009 or something. Why make readers guess? Put the date stamp right up there at the top.
Another important ease-of-use issue is: Don’t make readers click through dozens of pages. Yes, I know it ups your click counts; yes, I know you can squeeze in more advertisers that way; yes, I know you can sucker readers into accidentally clicking on ad links that are made to look like a “Next page ->” link. And you know what? That’s a good long-term strategy for driving away readers. I once clicked on a link that was The Top 100 [something]–I can’t remember what–and they were all on their own separate page. Does the writer, or more likely the editor or site owner, really think anyone is going to click through that many pages? It’s absurd. I got out of there in a hurry. I wonder how many hits they got on page 100; close to zero, I’m guessing.
If you feel you must have click throughs, at least give your readers the option of reading it as a single page. Yes, it’s more work for you–which is why I urge you to make your content a single page to begin with!–but it will make your readers happy. Buzzfeed has plenty of long lists, and they don’t force you to go to multiple pages and they’re doing pretty durn good.
And speaking of multiple pages, for the love of God, don’t force open a whole bunch of new pages or tabs when they’re all associated with your site. I went to pay my daughter’s tuition and opened up the main college site. This told me to go to the student site which, when I clicked, opened a new tap in my browser. Then when I logged in and click the “payment plan” button, it opened up yet another new tab; I now had three separate tabs open when all I wanted was to pay the durn bill. Bad design, ACC. And again, if you feel you must open new tabs or pages, let your readers choose at least.
Another feature I think should be avoided is forcing people to “sign up” with your site in order to leave comments. I’ve gone to [random site] following a link from Twitter or Facebook, left a comment, and then had the site ask for my name and email address at a minimum, or access to my Twitter, Facebook, or whatever account. First, stop calling the name field “name”; call it “handle” or “alias” or something so that people know they don’t have to use their real names. But even better would be to stop doing it altogether. I don’t mind my regular sites having that information, but the Atlanta Constitution-Journal or whatever just because I went there that one time? Silly.
Related to that is the obnoxious “opt out” practice. Most sites that use your email are at least polite enough to inform you and give you a “please don’t spam me” checkbox (sometimes checked by default, sometimes not–another tip: Let it always be unchecked by default!). But there are clearly plenty that just grab your email address and start sending you spam, which you then have to opt out of by clicking a link to an “opt out” page. Don’t do that to your readers. And if you have an “opt out” page or pages, don’t force them to answer why they’re opting out; the answer is simple: They’re tired of spam from you! There, I’ve told you; stop asking!
In a similar, and much more obnoxious, vein is the pop-up (or whatever the hell they’re calling it now). Again, it’s an issue of revenue, I’m sure, but two things to avoid: Don’t let it cover the entire page, and have a big, clear, easy-to-find, easy-to-tap “X” in either the upper-right or upper-left corner. That’s where years of Mac or PC use have taught us to look to close stuff. Making the pop-up cover the whole page; having it stay there for a pre-allotted time before you can close it; making it a video that plays automatically; giving it an audio track that plays automatically; making it look like you can close it but really it takes you to another page; all these are douche moves. Don’t do them.
Finally–and I know this will be controversial for some–include the author on each piece. On technical documents on corporate sites this isn’t a real need; on opinion pieces, it really is. And if you don’t want to use your real name–and I know plenty who not only don’t, but legally can’t–use your nome de plume or alias or handle or whatever you write behind, and then include a link to where people can voice their opinions other than the comments page. I think a link to folks’ Twitter accounts is good, but maybe just set up an email account–I’ve got five (I think)–where people can send stuff. Will most of it be dreck? Of course. But one of the benefits of online content is that it makes people feel there are less layers between you and the writer. When I read a Matt Taibbi piece to which I take issue, I don’t comment after the post or send mail to Rolling Stone, I tell Taibbi on his Twitter feed. Maybe he doesn’t respond, but it feels as if he might. And improving people’s feelz when it comes to online content is what we’re talking about here.
Anyway, those are a few of the things I’ve noticed in my time online, and think we should strive to standardize against. What about you?