The home page that Mac built

It has taken Neil McIntosh five years to complete his personal website. And he is the first to admit that he has learnt from his mistakes, which he shares here, in all their glory

Thursday November 9, 2000

My home page took five years to publish. That's not an idle boast, and don't think for a second that if you pop over to it you'll find anything that justifies such a long gestation. It's not even really working properly yet. 

Worse, it is said that every year on the web is worth seven in the "real" world, which makes the wait around 35 web years. And that does one's already tatty web-savvy, working-at-the-speed-of-the-net credentials no good at all. 

What's the problem been? Apart from a near fatal dose of procrastination, and laziness, there have been the shifting sands of web page fashion. 

Back in 1995, when I first started out on this foolhardy project, the web was already established and growing at a frightening pace. New tricks, bells and whistles seemed to appear almost daily. 

During long winter evenings, my little website, isolated on my Mac's hard drive, grew, mutated and shrank in the face of these fashions. It sprouted - and shed - bright coloured backgrounds, giant graphics, animated gifs flashing and winking all over the place, frames dividing and sub dividing the screen, fancy Javascript routines that... well, they just crashed your computer.

But every time I would sit back and say: that looks bloody awful. Everything I created looked as bad as the first examples of desktop-published parish magazines that appeared 15 years ago, which blended an orgy of bad clip-art with an ugly rash of typefaces. 

If only someone had uttered the magic words - "keep it simple, stupid" a bit earlier. 

There are lots of disciples to the "keep it simple" gospel, but the one true prophet is Jakob Nielsen, the web design guru who charges astronomical fees to companies wanting to hear his straightforward message. You can find his words of wisdom at, and it was these pages (remarkably un-designed, funnily enough) that were my road to a virtual Damascus. 

Out went nearly all of the fancy stuff. Instead of futile attempts to look clever by using all the tricks of this dubious trade, I decided to go for simplicity. And that extended to much more than the design. 

The right package

I'd been intending, for instance, to learn HTML to a standard which would allow me to build the way-cool website I had in my mind's eye. I bought the books, I printed out the websites. I swallowed all the techy propaganda which states that the only way you will ever build a proper website is to learn the programming languages which run it. 

This simply ain't so. It might once have been useful to know HTML, a bit in the same way that it was probably once useful for car drivers to understand how their cars worked. 

And, to be fair, it's still worth looking into the HTML of pages just to see how they are structured, a bit like it's a good idea to know where the bonnet release lever is on your Ford. 

But, in the same way most of us would pop down to our local garage to buy a car ready built, rather than order the parts ourselves, knowing the language inside out simply doesn't make sense, unless you plan to make this your career. 

Instead, I bought a web design package. There are lots of these about for Macs and PCs - two years ago I opted for what was, then, called Golive Cyberstudio Personal Edition, which cost 100. 

Nowadays, it's called Adobe Golive 5.0 and has doubled in price. But cheaper alternatives - such as Microsoft's Frontpage 2000 (130) - exist, and do the job well. 

The job of these packages is to make building web pages almost as easy as putting together magazine pages in a desktop publishing program. They allow you to drag and drop elements for the page - images, text and the rest - anywhere you want, with all the difficult coding bit being done by the program in the background. The software will even help you organise your site, and put all the resources you need in the right places. 

Having taken delivery of your page make-up program, it's a good idea to take a little time to mess around with it, putting together sample pages and testing what they look like in various browsers by loading them up from your hard drive (just go to the file menu in Explorer or Navigator and choose "open file" to look at files on your hard drive). 

Browser compatibility remains a sticky part of web weaving, no matter how you design your page - different browsers handle pages in different ways. That's not helped by using a design package, rather than typing in raw HTML, as machine-generated code is often not as efficient as the best human programmer's. 

But with a little experimentation, you should find that you can get your pages looking acceptable in the major browsers. Microsoft's Internet Explorer is the dominant browser, according to web research from Websidestory, with 86% of the market, followed by Netscape's Navigator with 13.9%, so these are the ones which really matter. 

It is surprisingly easy to lock users out of your site. Already, some parts of my pages simply do not work on older browsers, and I've hit the need for a compromise between functionality and compatibility, which has floored many a 

As a rule of thumb, the more complex a site, the less compatible it is likely to be. If you want to include lots of tricks and compatibility is important to you, consider producing a plain vanilla, text-only version as well. 

First: Stop! 

Having experimented a little, the best thing you can do next is move away from your computer and sit down and plan your site. You'll need to decide on a few things before you get going, or life will be much more difficult later on. 

First, what are you going to put on your site? It's easy to be far too ambitious at first, so try and err on the side of caution - it's demoralising if you make plans you subsequently can't follow. Obviously, you'll start with the home page itself, but it makes sense to divide the rest of your content up so that the first page is not too big (you should be able to hold your breath, without blacking out, for the time it takes for a page to download using a standard 56k modem). Create submenus for, say, family snaps, a page of links, an online diary or your personal details. You could then use your front page simply to say what's new on your site, or point to the most important bits. 

Second, bear in mind that you don't want your site to go too deep. This means users should not have to click on more than two or three links to see anything on your site: users tire of sites which force them to burrow too deep. 

Third, decide what your site's name is going to be. With domain names now so cheap, it's easy to buy your own domain name, which will make your site easier for people to find, and give you a cooler email address too. 

I bought my domain name from Get Dotted for around 30, and the company also threw in unlimited web space and forwarding through the Freeola ISP. 

Freeola's web servers might not be the fastest, but otherwise the service is excellent (with useful step-by-step instructions for uploading pages), and there are plenty of other low-cost domain name registrars who offer great value, low cost deals, too. 

Costs and value for money can vary wildly: I bought an address as a present from NetNames, a London registrar, and it cost more than 100. Yet, despite the premium price, NetNames took days, several phone calls, and a flurry of angry emails to get the address "pointing" at the right website. Even they beat Demon Internet, who didn't return my calls . 

Finally, with your new name in mind, think up a template for your page design which will be used for all, or at least the majority, of your pages. Doing this before you start gives you a number of advantages. Your site will look much more slick and download faster if the pages use the same basic graphics and layout, and the process of creating the site will be made much faster by having ready made pages to use. A typical template page will have your site's logo or name, and links to the main sub-menus at the top (and bottom, perhaps), so that users always know where to go to navigate around. 

Once you've made your template, insert a picture and some random text, and try uploading it (your ISP or webspace provider should give instructions on what you need to do. Your web building software's manual will tell you how to do it). By putting it on the web, you can get some practice in the sometimes fiddly process of uploading, and you also get to test the design on other machines. 

Getting on with it

After all this planning comes the most important bit: producing the pages. And here, alas, there's no hi-tech substitute for a large pot of coffee, a free weekend and a bit of hard work. 

Try to keep to your plans, and avoid being distracted by the temptation to insert any fancy gimmicks. If, like me, you've looked around the web for tips on designing web pages, you will have found lots of bits of code you can paste in to do fancy tricks: avoid them. One disadvantage of not knowing HTML is that pasting these into the computer-generated code that your web editing software has written can be very tricky. It can be very demoralising to upload everything for the first time to find that a hit counter inserted on every page, for instance, has messed up the whole thing. You can always experiment later when you want to update the site. 

Which brings us back to the last important point: updating. The web changes all the time, yet so many sites - personal and corporate - are created then forgotten. 

Nobody expects a home page to update every hour, or even every day. But it doesn't matter if your audience is the world, or just your mates: if it's clear you haven't done anything in months, everyone will stop bothering to look. 

And after all your planning and effort, that would be a shame, wouldn't it? 

Can you cheat?

Does all this look like like a little too much effort? Many websites now help you build your pages online, making the process even simpler. The best known include Angelfire and Homestead at, but even the likes of Handbag, the UK women's portal, is getting in on the act at

You put together the pages through your web browser, using a series of templates and forms and uploading pictures from your hard disk. Most of the services have additional features which you can add to your pages, from animated graphics, through scripts and games - even digital video. 

There are downsides. Some people would argue that if you use these services to their fullest extent, it could be simpler to buy a web design program. Others would argue that these services encourage you to build over-complex, gimmick-laden pages, while restricting those people who have a specific idea of how their pages should turn out. And, of course, it could be easy to run up a big phone bill as you build the site online, unless you have one of the new "always on" broadband connections. 

But these sites and their ever-popular gimmicks are growing in popularity, and the services are becoming more and more sophisticated and flexible. 

The only downside is that banner adverts may pop up as people browse your site - that's how they make their money. But, for millions, that's a price worth paying. 

Born of frustration: 10 tips from five years

1 Consider buying a web design package 
2 Plan your site carefully 
3 Don't be too ambitious 
4 Always think of the user 
5 Avoid graphical gimmicks 
6 Build a template 
7 Keep your site's design as consistent as you can 
8 Shop around for domain names and web space 
9 Make sure pages don't take too long to download 
10 Set a deadline for finishing your site... 

Neil McIntosh's site is at

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