The Myth of Electronic Publishing
The metaphor, "electronic publishing," to
describe the web is simply wrong, and the source of some of the
worst design on the web, because the techniques that work to make
a successful printed page, often do just the opposite on the
When attempting to locate sites that are worth
emulating you should be looking for successful sites, and not
sites that the viewer thinks "look good" based on their own
subjective opinion. It's very easy to determine which web sites
are successful - they are the ones with the most visitors. There
are multiple ranking sites that can help you find these. The
10 that I am going to examine are
based on Mediametrix's list of the top 50 web sites from July
1999. There are other lists but all they do is move some sites
up or down a few spots. No one can reasonably question that
these 10 sites have massive traffic volume.
I wrote this over 14 years ago and believe it
to be as relevant today as it was then. I've had to make some small
adjustments because sites have changed dramatically, and some things
that I referred to no longer exist. Nothing of what I meant to say
then has changed.
When looking at these 10 sites there are a
number of characteristics that they tend to share; not
surprisingly most of these characteristics are discussed in the
literature on web site design. An excellent crash course on web
design was provided by CIO Web Business Magazine titled
"Must Haves" at
It's gone now, but can still be found at
https://archive.org at the old
URL. It discussed "12 essential" elements for a
successful web site. These were:
- What's New section
- Search engine or site map
- Feedback mechanism
- Consistent Navigation
- Security information (describe your security protocols in a pre
- Linking instructions
- Prominent information on contact and physical location
- Affiliate program
- Easy to use tools for updates
- Style guide
- Simple traffic reports
Most remain relevant, but some show how much times have changed.
It's hard to imagine anyone who develops a website, not knowing
how to link to any external site or web page they are viewing. This
is still relevant for sites which want to control links to their
site. Easy to use tools and traffic reports show how far the web
has come; now its more like information overload trying to decide
which of the many, open source and commercial, web content management
systems and reporting tools, best suit your needs. After 18 years
of working on websites, I'm still stunned at how many sites
obviously do not have a style guide or standards or any sense
that a site should present a consistent appearance.
Because the sites that still exist are so dramatically different
than they were 14 years ago, I decided screenshots of how they looked
in 1999, make more sense than links to the current sites.
All of these pages are the respective intellectual property of the
companies whose names appear on these pages or the companies who have
since bought or merged with them. All the pages are copyrighted and
have trademarked content belonging to their respective owners. I
belive a look back at what the home pages, of 9 of the top ten
websites, looked like over 14 years ago, reasonably qualifies
as fair use. If any owner disagrees I can be reached at
g-e-o-r-g-e dot s=h=a=f=f=e=r at c~o~m~c~a~s~t dot n_e_t
The screen shots were created at the Internet Archive,
The top 10 sites in 1999 were:
- www.microsoft.com (not available)
I'll discuss how these sites have changed at the end of this page.
All 10 sites are almost entirely text
based with very limited use of graphics. The one graphic element,
that every top 10 site uses on every page, is the site or company
logo. The other graphics are limited to small navigation aids and
paid advertising. Only one, Geocities, had a full size banner ad
on its home page. AOL had 4 third to quarter size banner ads and
Angelfire had three similar sized paid ads. Yahoo, Netscape and
Lycos each had one tiny banner ad in a very prominent spot.
Yahoo sometimes used this spot for promotion of its own services.
(Most ads disappeard from the Archive.org content.)
Other than Yahoo's use of its banner spot, not one of these sites
used any graphic to promote its own services. Only two sites
had any photographic image of any kind on its home page and
these are tiny.
All use white backgrounds. Anglefire used to
use a yellow so pale that off-white is a reasonable description;
they have switched to pure white with some significant blue
areas. Geocities uses some large pale yellow areas on a white
Yahoo, Geocities, Go, and Lycos use browser
default text colors and fonts. The others stay with very
conservative variations from the defaults, i.e. text and links
are blue to dark blue, dark grey or black.
All fit comfortably in a browser window that
would fit on an 800 x 600 monitor. Most would fit comfortably,
i.e. without horizontal scrolling, in a 640 x 480 monitor. Note,
this was all true in 1999; when I opened these pages in a browser
that filled most of a 1920 pixel wide monitor, they all expanded
horizontally, i.e., all were designed to use the space available.
You might try resizing your browser to see how this page adapts.
In doing so myself I realized my text lines grew too long to read
easily when the browser got very wide. As a result I set a page
width limit and slightly narrowed the navigation aids column throughout
the site. Otherwise, all page dimension settings have remained unchanged
on all pages since I designed this site design in 2000.
All top 10 sites have small home page sizes
ranging from 18K at Yahoo to 63K at Microsoft. Its interesting
to note that the two largest home page sizes belong to sites with
"captive" audiences. The next closest in size is MSN at 40K and
is much smaller than the two relatively big ones. AOL (62K) has
over 20 million members and when they install their software, the
AOL home page is their home page; many / most users never bother to
change their browser home page. Microsoft is the largest
software company in the world and if you want authoritative
information on their products, free downloads and upgrades or
free tech support you go to their web site.
Not one of the top 10 sites looks like it was
designed by a graphics designer. Every one does look like it was
designed by an experienced software designer. When you compare
the appearance of the top 10 sites to any printed material,
including printed material from these same companies, the web
sites vary in look from plain to cluttered. Not one is "pretty"
or "attractive" when compared to typical print media.
The web has often been referred to as
"electronic publishing." This is wrong. Every web site is a
computer application system regardless of whether its purpose is
the delivery of information or the sale of products or services
or some combination of these. The publishing metaphor comes from
the days when web sites were made from a series of static pages.
Today every significant web site has a large portion of dynamic
content. Many important sites are totally dynamic in that every
page is drawn from information in databases and turned into
HTML when a user clicks on a link. Many
adapt to the users interests or allow the user to find
information of particular interest or assist in the purchase products or
services similar to those they have previously purchased.
Even if a site is entirely static, if it is of
significant size, it needs to organize its content in a manner
that makes it easy for visitors to locate what they are looking
for. Hypertext is inherently non linear in contrast to all print
publications. Every page needs navigation aids or a consistent
set of buttons or links to major areas of the site as well as
ways to easily move to the next and previous page where
sequential information is contained on more than one page. Every
page should have a direct link back to the home page.
The primary way that visitors find a site is from
search engines, which will often take the visitor to a page deep
within the site's structure. There is nothing analogous to this
in the print world.
If the publishing metaphor was ever valid, it
is now about three years out of date. All the experience and
training that a graphic designer brings to designing web sites or
pages works against creating a successful web design (I have a
degree in commercial arts). A graphic
designer is used to working in a medium in which he or she has
total control of every element that appears on the printed page.
Size, proportion, color and even paper stock are either specified
by or known to a graphic designer.
None of these are knowable or controllable by
a web page designer. Though all modern browsers allow the display
of images and sounds, the browser user can and often does turn
these off. The browser user can override all color, font and
font size specifications provided by a web page. Monitors range
in size from 640 x 480 to 2000+ dimensions. Especially on larger
monitors, browsers are rarely used in full screen mode and the
browser window can be either horizontal or vertical in its
orientation. Colors available range from 16 to millions.
In the print world, color costs more to
produce, but except for this difference a magazine reader can
flip past any page at the same speed. The designer must find
ways to get the reader to stop on the page he or she is
designing. The designer can apply every ounce of creative effort
to catch the readers attention and there is no difference in
delivery time of the most complex visual experience the designer
can create and a single word in black on a white page.
music, video and book cover design the graphic designer needs to
do anything that works to get a potential buyers attention. A
designer of brochures for direct mail or display racks has to get
the viewers attention so the mail piece does not land in the
trash unread or the brochure is picked up from the rack or table.
Just about every thing that works for you in print works against
you on the web.
What you need from the graphics design world
is an understanding of basic color theory and some very basic
typographic principles. These are that all uppercase is harder to
read than mixed case, serif type faces are easier to read in
large blocks of text than sans serif faces, good design resists
the desire to use a wide variety of type faces, styles and sizes
on one page and that you need to be very careful if you plan to
use a light color text on a dark background. That's your instant
course in graphic design for the web.
Every person reading this document is a
computer user and each of you knows that one of the most annoying
aspects of using computers is waiting for the computer to do
something while you sit there. It doesn't matter if it's loading
a large program on a slow computer, retrieving a really large
word processing document, waiting for a report or large
spreadsheet recalculation or especially waiting for the computer
to reboot after a crash. Any time the wait is over 10 seconds
the user is likely to start doing something else. At a minimum,
attention starts to wander, but the longer the wait, the more
likely the user is to do something else. For example, in a
windowed environment, you might read e-mail while waiting for a
report to finish.
Waiting for web pages is no different, except
the normal reaction to a really slow web page, is to hit the
"stop" button and go elsewhere. On a 56K modem the top ten sites
home page load times range from 5 seconds for Yahoo to 19 for
Microsoft, the slowest of the top 10. Microsoft has a
massive amount of content relevant to the large majority of
computer users and not available elsewhere; if you want this information
you have little choice but to wait for Microsoft's home page,
unless a search result or bookmark is taking you directly to an interior page.
The American Association of Critical Care
Nurses, http://www.aacn.org, conducted a study of its member's
internet access in mid 1999 and found that 30% were still
connecting at 28K. Following their study they realized they had
to make their site much faster. Their previous site looked like
a very well designed association web site while their redesigned
home page looked much like the top 10 web sites and not like a
typical association web site. (Since this page was written in
late 1999, AACN has reverted to a "pretty," graphics intensive,
home page characteristic of most associations.)
The largest ISP is AOL and AOL is a slow service
provider. If you've had a chance to compare web access from AOL
and a fast ISP with similar equipment you will know that web
pages download much faster through a fast ISP than through AOL.
A reasonable estimate is that pages take about one and a half
time as long from AOL as from a fast ISP. This is relevant to
anyone serving mostly a home audience via the web.
Despite the growing availability of cable
modems and DSL, most web sites will not be able to ignore the needs of
modem users for a number of years. International Data
Corporation has predicted that by the end of 2002 one third of
homes in the U.S. will have high speed Internet connections.
This means that two thirds will still be web surfing with modem
connections (or still not connected).
Another factor to keep in mind is that in-house
web sites appear much faster to the staff than
to the outside world. Typically an in-house web site will be no
more than 3 hops away and connected at Ethernet or faster
is about 7 times as fast as a T1 line that typically connects
small to medium size businesses to the rest of the world. Even when
site visitors have a "fast"
internet connection (T1, DSL, or Cable with speeds from 200K to
1.5MB) they still see the web pages significantly slower than
staff do because in addition to their slower line speed they are
typically going through 8 to 15 hops (routers, proxy servers,
firewalls, computers) each of which adds a small delay. Also the
bigger the web pages are, the sooner a T1 line will be saturated
requiring a faster and more expensive connection to the Internet.
Regarding the use of plugins, the book Web
Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites
by Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton, Yale University Press, 1999,
says 'Do not produce web sites that depend on one browser
technology or browser plug-in ("This site designed for Netscape
4.05, and ShockWave"). Such notes on the home page of a
corporate or enterprise Web site look sophomoric and will drive
away most users old enough to drive.' Generally this book is
quite serious in its tone. Clearly the authors have
strong opinions on home page plug-ins, but it's a good point.
None of the top 10 sites use proprietary
technology or plugins. Even the two major browser vendors,
Microsoft and Netscape, have developed their sites so that they
are fully functional with their competitor's browser; some of the
scripting used on Microsoft does not work in current Netscape
browsers, but the site is designed so that these features are only a
convenience and not necessary. All of the top 10 sites have
stuck with technology that will work with almost any browser from
the past 3 or so years.
Today's web graphic tools make it very easy to
do fancy graphic tricks such as buttons with bevels, highlights
and drop shadows; all of these "cool" effects add significantly
to the size of each button. None of the top 10 make any significant
use of any of these "cool" effects.
Readers may think that the top 10 web sites
are so different from a small business web site that it's not
reasonable to make comparisons. Lets examine what the top 10
sites are. Seven are portals, two are free web hosting sites and
one is the worlds largest software company. Microsoft could
probably use lousy web design and still have a successful site,
though perhaps not in the top 10. They actually exceed their
own recommendations on web page size.
What's a portal? It's a web site that
attempts to organize the entire world wide web experience so
effectively that web users will make the portal's home page, the
home page in their browser, so that it is the first page the user sees.
In addition to providing a hierarchical categorization of the
web, each includes a search engine, and at least some ability to
personalize the portal home page to each user's special
interests. Most include free e-mail, plus different kinds of
chat or online forums. Basically these sites have nothing to
sell but organization of the web, but they do it so well that
seven of them are in the top 10 web sites; who better to study
for how to organize a web site.
Yahoo used to have direct links to major
online vendors but not anymore. Now they have a shopping area.
You can buy just about anything that's sold on the web through
Yahoo, but its not easy to get out of the Yahoo site. Yahoo is so
big that if an online vendor wants to be included they have to
partner with Yahoo. You might actually buy a book or tape from
Amazon.com but you're still in Yahoo pages, and Yahoo gets a cut
of every sale made through it. Even if you do find the link
directly to Amazon, I'd bet there is tracking so that Amazon
still gives Yahoo its cut if you came from their site. Yahoo is
so big that its virtually essential to be included if you want to
be commercially successful on the web. They have done all this
by being the best guide to finding other things on the Internet.
They have always stayed a step or two ahead of their competition
and I don't think it's any coincidence that the number one web
site has about the smallest home page of any web site you can
Its interesting to compare the last 10 of the
top 50 web sites to the top 10. These sites tend to be more
focused on a single subject than the top ten but most of their
design principles are pretty much the same. What separates 41 -
50 from 1 - 10 is that they tend to have a lot more graphics and
have an average home page size that's almost twice the size of
the top 10. Their average home page size is just a little
smaller than Microsoft's home page. Still not really bad, but
these sites are typically among the leaders in their specific
area, and have lots of substantive content that appeals to a large
Another metaphor that's fundamentally wrong is
"browsing the web." This suggests some casual meandering without
any specific focus. My personal experience and observations of
others is that nearly all web activity is purposeful in nature.
There are five ways to get to a site: 1) type in a URL, 2) use a
search engine, 3) follow a link, 4) select a favorite or
bookmark, 5) select from your history list. The first two are
clearly purposeful suggesting a deliberate action to go to a
location that the user hopes has a particular type of information
or product of interest. The fourth and fifth are even more
purposeful because a user is deliberately returning to a site
that they have been to previously and know what to expect.
The third is the only one that might take on a meandering quality.
This occurs when the user clicks on a link that appears to lead
to something unrelated to the user's original purpose. Even in
this case, while the big picture may be one of not clearly
directed action, each time a user selects a specific link they
are making a choice to go to a location that they think has
something of interest to them; it's not really relevant that the
user has become side tracked from their original goal.
If you think about what "browsing the web"
implies, why would any web site want casual browsers except to
increase advertising revenue based on impressions? Traffic that
has no interest in the content offered by the web site but only
the site's appearance is of little value to the site. You should
want visitors that are interested in your products, services or
point of view. These are potential customers, members or
I hope this has succeeded in convincing readers
of the need to make web sites clean and functional and to forget
about trying to make them pretty or "designed." Every
organization can choose between a site that staff and managment
think "looks good" and one that provides the maximum
functionality for visitors who come to the
site looking for information or products or services they may buy.
It's the choice between a collective ego trip and making a site
that compares well with the best that the web has to offer.
2014 and Beyond
Obviously the Internet is much faster today than 15 years ago.
In most situations people want and expect to see graphics. Even
with intangible things like software, people want to see screen
shots. Rather than suggest any limits on total page size, I'd suggest
that anyone creating a web site attempt to find out what is the
slowest connection that is widely used by the audience you wish to
reach, and find a way to insure that under normal conditions your
audience experiences page downloads of no more than a second.
A quarter to half a second is noticeably faster than a second and
clearly preferred. By 10 seconds people start to get seriously
annoyed, and much longer than that and you won't have an
Remember there is a lot more to "normal conditions" than the final
pipe to your page's destination. A lot of high speed Internet infrastucture
was created in the late 1990s and early 2000s and constantly increasing
loads are being placed on that infrastructure; on average the Internet
is not quite as fast as it was a few years ago. In 2013 Kansas City
was connected with all fiberoptic cable and then had the fastest Internet
connections in the U.S. Finland and South Korea typically have much
faster Internet connections than the U.S., and at a lower cost. These
With dynamic content
you need to allow for the time it takes the server to assemble or calculate
page rendering time in the browser. You should test at your peak hours,
with hardware and browsers, representative of what your target audience
are likely to be using. If you are at or near your server location,
you need to allow for additional network time, plus additional
time if your audience is likely to have smaller destination througput, compared
to the throughput between your test location and your web server.
In 2014, would I recommend emulating the top 10 sites, for a site looking
for direction? No. Two are stripped down search sites and two more are password protected.
I can't say the login page represents the home page or discuss how they
are organized internally. The remaining six have a lot of content to
organize; much more than most "ordinary" sites. I think
it's worth looking at the content sites among the top 25 sites. Then
scale back to your needs and content, and there is probably something to
learn. However much content these sites may have, they typically have
a short list of major category areas at the top, with sub categories
below these when you click on or hover over them, plus site search engines.
The key is they try to make it easy for visitors to find what they need.
What 1999's Top 10 Are Doing Now
On the Internet, high volume traffic may be prerequisite for success but does not
assure success. Eight of the top 10 sites from 1999 still
exist in some form. GeoCities has closed. Netscape was aquired
by AOL and now netscape.com takes you to netscape.aol.com which
is functionally the same as AOL with a few visual tweaks you might
miss if you don't look closely.
The current rankings of what were once the top 10
web sites are from Ranking.com. Yahoo is
still succesful at number 4; it's been passed by 3 sites that were
small or did not exist in 1999. What Yahoo is today appears to be
an evolutionary growth from what it was 15 years ago. It's added
a lot of graphics (3MB) and I think it looks cluttered and busy.
AOL is no longer an Internet service provider; it
looks like a general purpose portal. It's added lots of graphics
including large ads and looks very cluttered with no focus. It is
2MB. I'm surprised to see that it's still ranked as high as
it is at 19. Maybe users who learned to use the Internet via AOL when
it was the top ISP are still loyal. I don't see any attraction
but then I did not regularly use any of the top 10 in 1999 and
I don't use what they've become today.
MSN is still a portal site. Like all sites it's added graphics
and is now 1.6MB. It has a clean, relatively
elegant look if that is possible with this type of site. It's ranked
a very respectable 8 given how much the web has changed.
Go was acquired by Disney and still exists
as go.com, but it appears to be all Disney and Disney owned
companies; it's company name is Walt Disney Internet Group and
it's entirely different than disney.com. When I checked it's
size and came up with 10K I thought that can't be right. I
looked at the source and thought just the text of the
HTML source has to be way over 10KB. I saved it and it was
46KB. I then used Firefox to save the whole thing, i.e.,
all the files that are referenced and loaded with the page.
This was 1.7MB. I rechecked
all the sites I'd already done and all were much larger than
I got from Firefox's page info, so I did my own site and it
was 3 times larger than Firefox said and there is nothing
on my web page that would create deception regarding page size.
The others however tended to be about 20 to 50 times larger
than Firefox indicated. Apparently something is wrong with
Firefox's page info. Go is even bigger that the saved
page suggests as several graphics files that have to be
moderately large were not saved. It's currently ranked 22.
Microsoft has a rather clean look to it,
It was just under a megabyte, but it seems www.microsoft.com
is not really the home page; I could not find any way back
to it after clicking on any link. The Xbox site seems completely independent.
Once there, I could find no links back to any other Microsoft products
or web sites. Windows Phone and Bing also have no links back to the
other sites. In Microsoft Store and Surface all of the links to other
Microsoft sites open a new browser tab or window but don't take you
there directly. Windows, Office and Skype link normally to the other
sites so you can jump between those three.
On some of the Microsoft sites there are somewhat standard page tops and
bottoms, but the different Microsoft sites, in my opinion, don't have a
Ranking.com lists microsoft.com as number 11. This must be the
microsoft.com with Windows, Office and all the software support pages
and including Skype. I find Microsoft's handling of their web
sites and sub domains rather confusing. Why
should I expect more? It's good enough; who cares
about good let alone excellent. Regardless of what I think,
Microsoft is doing pretty well; Bing is at number 9, so that's
3 Microsoft sites at 8, 9 and 11.
Lycos is still around but not doing well at 181,153. Its a search
site and perhaps a portal. They have 8 moderate size graphics most
of which link to areas typical for a portal. In 1999 angelfire.com
was owned by Lycos but separate. Now it's a subdomain of Lycos: angelfire.lycos.com.
Thats 2 domains from the top 10, which combined are are approaching
a 200,000 ranking. Angelfire is still a web hosting site and still
offers free hosting. These are very limited; clearly the intent is
to get people to start building web sites with their proprietary
development tool, epecting people to upgrade when they realize how
little they can doo with 20 megabytes and almost no hosting features.
The Lycos.com home page is 628K.
Excite is still around and still a portal though it's dropped to 7710,
which is a lot better than 181,000, but a long way from 9. Perhaps
the most interesting thing is that it's still primarily text and
even looks basically the same, except a lot bigger. Dark blue type
on yellow bars still identify
the topics, and blue type on white the entries. There is a lot more
text and some more graphics. The page size has grown to 772KB, smallish
by today's standards but seemingly a lot for a page that's mostly text.
fill the available bandwidth. You have to wonder what all that script
could be doing. None of these pages were particularly slow, but I've come
across some pages that are consistently slow to render. By this I mean part of
the page appears quickly but it takes a while before the whole page is visible.
of these pages.
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