If you're reading this, chances are you've gained a strong belief and faith in Troubleshooting As A Process. And if that's true, you probably want to tell others what you've found. One of the best ways I've found for getting the word out is with a website. A website will introduce you and your ideas to people you never would have otherwise met. Through Troubleshooters.Com, I've been contacted by executives of fortune 100 corporations, business owners, students and college professors.
But for those who aren't computer professionals, building a website can be a daunting prospect. It's only in hindsight that it was doable. This issue of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine explores the nuts and bolts of building a professional website in your spare time (lets face it, most of us must still go to our "day job" to put food on the table). The emphasis is on tools that can be learned and used by a relatively intelligent person in his or her spare time, and are affordable to such a person. We also assume that you'll be hosting your site at an Internet Service Provider (ISP), rather than owning and maintaining your own server and T1 (or whatever).
I have reviewed several products in this issue of Troubleshooting Professional, but please keep in mind that I'm not paid to do reviews. Nobody provided me with the software -- I had to procure it myself. I had no staff devoted to helping me with these reviews. In other words, the reviews may not be complete or absolutely accurate -- but they do represent my best beliefs after using the products. The vendors of some of these products will disagree with what I say, and I will print their letters in next months letters to the editor.
So kick back, relax, and read this issue. Evaluate what you read, and consider it with other informational sources as you formulate your Internet strategy. And remember, if you're a Troubleshooter, this is your magazine. Enjoy!.
In mid 1995 I used Notepad to make my first website, Litt's Tips. It was easy but tedious. Figure what I wanted, look up the codes in a reference book, type the codes into Notepad, save, then reload my browser. Litt's Tips was an 8 page plain vanilla website, and it took me way too long to build considering its simplicity. Fortunately, there are now products which are several times more productive than Notepad. The simplest are code editors, which are really just Notepad-style editors with menu choices, buttons and hotkeys to place codes around highlighted text, thereby eliminating the need to look up codes and reducing your mistakes. With code editors you still need to frequently check your work in a browser, and when you want to move something you can't just "drag" or "cut and paste" it where you want -- you must be congnisent of the codes. Gomer is an examples of code editors.
Then there are the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors, which treat web design as a word-processing task -- insert images, format text, create headings etc. right in place, never (or hardly ever) touching actual HTML codes. I've found these to double or triple my productivity, so I use them. As long as a WYSIWYG editor allows you to input custom codes with a code editor, and doesn't try to change your custom codes, you can do 90% of the job with the WYSIWYG editor and still use a code editor for the 10% specialization.
The other major distinction between web authoring tools is whether they recognize an entire site with all its links, as opposed to page-at-a-time editors. All other things being equal, site editors are much more productive because they contain a map of your site and help you with organizing your work. Unfortunately, site editing often comes with the disadvantages of poor performance and version control problems.
Below are the web authoring tools I've used or tested, and my opinions:
Netscape Gold earns my top recommendation due to its simplicity, combined with very good productivity. If you're not a computer technologist, this product is a must. Like most page editors, it's priced well under $100. Netscape Navigator Gold easily installs either from an install file off the web, or a CD Rom, and it doesn't consume much disk space or memory. These days I do most of my web editing using Netscape Gold. This page was made with it.
Using Netscape Gold is simple. You run it as a browser. To create a new web page simply chose File/New Document from the menu, then choose between using a new document, a template, or a wizard. Templates and wizards are on Netscape's website, so if you use them you'll need to connect to the Internet. Otherwise, your editing requires no Internet connection. To edit an existing document, simply chose File/Open file in browser from the browser's menu.
Editing HTML pages is simplicity itself. Your page appears in an almost WYSIWYG imitation of the Netscape Navigator browser, and is edited like a word processing document. This methodology allows you extremely high productivity, no matter what your technical expertise. To change fonts, typefaces, invoke lists, create links or link destinations (anchors), simply highlight the appropriate text and choose the proper styles off the menu or buttonbar.
Inserting an image is as simple as clicking a button then filling out a dialog box, with the ability to browse your hard disk for the proper GIF or JPG. However, to avoid all sorts of problems, that dialog box's "Copy image to the document's location" must be left unchecked. That allows you to do what you should do -- have all the images in an "images" directory below the HTML. To have that checkbox unchecked by default, you must go into Options/Editor preferences to open the Editor Preferences dialog box. Click the "Publish" tab, and make sure the "Keep images with document" checkbox is unchecked. In my opinion, for the most robust website, the entire "publish" tab should be blank -- you should use a separate FTP program to move your site up to your ISP.
Netscape Gold's WYSIWYG environment fills 90% of your needs in a high productivity manner. However, in some instances, you may need to resort to manual HTML coding. That's no problem, simply tell Netscape Gold what code editor you wish to use in its Options/Editor preferences dialog box, after which the web page will appear in that editor when you choose View/Edit document source. One factor earning Netscape Gold my top recommendation is that it doesn't mess with codes you insert manually (contrast this with Pagemill and others). Instead, it simply shows the unknown code as a little icon in the WYSIWYG environment.
Netscape Gold is an especially good editor to put on your notebook computer, where disk space and memory are at a premium. Its footprint and maintenance requirements are minimal (contrast this to Frontpage).
No product is perfect. Netscape Gold's default configuration copies images to the HTML source directory, thereby creating version problems. More problematic is its handling of large tables or tables within tables. Memory leaks prevent WYSIWYG editing of large tables for more than a few sentences at a time, requiring you to go into a code editor to achieve real productivity. Luckily, if you save frequently, you won't lose work when the memory leak hangs Netscape Gold.
If I had to use only one HTML editor, it would be Netscape Gold. It has the best combination of simplicity, low maintenance, and high productivity.
Frontpage is by far the fastest productivity environment I've used for new construction of 20+ page sites . It combines a very good WYSIWYG editing environment with a site outline which keeps track of your pages and their relationships. Especially cool (and missing from top-rated Netscape Gold) is a provision, upon making a link to a not-yet-created page, to either create the page immediately or put it on a todo list for later creation. Upon creating a page, it presents your page properties very succinctly so its easy to get the page right the first time. It also allows you to choose a web page to on which to pattern your background color and image. If either of those are changed on the master page, they will be retroactively changed on all subsequent pages. These three features give an unexpected boost to productivity on multi-page sites.
If your ISP or server has the Frontpage extensions, you can create forms and other interactive products without using CGI or Java -- a HUGE advantage. It's possible to do everything from your end, rather than relying on your ISP.
Frontpage was downgraded to a rating of "very good" for three reasons: 1) version control problems, 2) very complex maintenance requirements, and 3) huge use of your computer's resources. The version control problems come from the fact that it's a site editor, and not all the information is kept in the HTML files themselves. Therefore, if you use another tool to make a small change in an HTML file, then go back to Frontpage, often those changes are lost. I had it lose my Java applet, the symptom description wizard, three times. Note however, that Frontpage creates an excellent website which can be imported into another tool. Problems occur only when you jump back and forth.
Frontpage has a "personal server" which is murder to configure, consumes huge resources, and seems to mess with your TCP/IP and dialup settings (I can't prove this, but it seems like these things changed every time I maintained my "personal server"). Saving files can take a very long time because of this personal server, and often files which you haven't changed have their dates updated -- a disadvantage in synchronizing your hard-disk site with your ISP site.
To be fair, I used only Frontpage 1.0. By the time 1.1 came out, I had converted to Netscape Gold and didn't have time to try again with Frontpage. However, the next time I build a site from scratch, I'll probably give Frontpage another try.
Frontpage is an ultra-productivity tool suitable only for serious technical people willing to maintain it on a regular basis. It is the best product in two situations: 1) where your ISP or server has the Frontpage extensions, you can do all the work yourself from the comfort of your own desktop, and 2) to construct a large site from scratch, after which you'll import that site into a lower maintenance tool (like Netscape Gold).
Gomer does one thing and does it well. Gomer is a single-page code editor allowing you to directly edit HTML code without remembering the codes. Its hot-keys are especially good at increasing productivity -- you rarely need the mouse. As with any other code editor, you can build a page or a site by coding HTML, saving, then viewing with a browser. However, an even better way to use it is as a dedicated code editor attached to Netscape Gold or another WYSIWYG editor. Do the 90% development that's easy with the WYSIWYG editor, and do the remaining 10% in Gomer.
Code editors are never as easy as WYSIWYG editors, but Gomer does a good job at making things easy. When you need a page-at-a-time HTML code editor, Gomer is one of the best. Unfortunately, it's hard to find, with no 800 number. You'll need to either buy it on the net, or send in a check and order form. It costs about $25.
If you own Word 97, you already have the easiest to use WYSIWYG page editor there is. Unfortunately, the pages you can make with it are limited, and not suitable for a really professional site. Nevertheless, if you need to bang out a quick and dirty web page, Word 97 will do the job.
No day goes by where we don't hear about "the browser wars", with Netscape and Microsoft zealots speaking their piece. I think most of the controversy centers on the companies and the way they do business, because both browsers are excellent performers with similar features. You can't go wrong with either one.
My top recommendation goes to Netscape Navigator because if you buy it in the Gold package you get the top-rated authoring tool with it, and because I feel it's worth a few bucks to give the Microsoft Monopoly some competition.
Once your site is up and running, you must know its visitation patterns in order to improve it. For instance, early in the life of Troubleshooters.Com, my statistics indicated that the "Windows 95 Experts" page was by far the most visited subpage. So I added lots of Win95 local content, concentrated on Win95 sites for link exchanges, and my traffic went way up.
There are two ways to count traffic -- counters and log file analyzers. Counters can be misleading, and you really don't want to put one on every page, and they can't add hits to your whole domain. Besides, until you're getting 1000 visits a day, you really don't want to let your visitors know your stats. Log file analyzers analyze the log file your ISP keeps on your site traffic, and provides summary reports such as "what are my top 10 most visited pages, and how many visits?", or "How many visits do I get per month (week, day, etc)", or "Who's visiting me, and where are they from?".
This is made possible by your site's log file, which is a list of every request for a resource (HTML, GIF, JPG, CLASS, CGI, etc). Each request record includes the IP address of the person requesting (hitting), the date and time of the request, the filename of the resource (index.html, mybanner.gif, etc), and a result code indicating the success or failure of the request. A "visit" is defined by a distinct IP address requesting anything on your site, where "distinct" means an IP address that hasn't made a request in the last 30 minutes (you can change that 30 minutes to anything you want).
Since log files can be huge (Troubleshooters.Com's grows by a megabyte per week), the preferred method is to keep a local database and simply add unrecorded log file records to it. That way each update takes little time, and the reports don't have to parse a log file. Of the three reviewed programs, Hit List Standard and Net.Analysis Desktop worked this way. However, top rated WebTrends did not. A further time and disk saving move is to limit log reporting to HTML and CGI resources, because its immaterial whether someone clicks on a specific graphic (unless advertising is involved). All the reviewed programs had options to keep image resources out of the analysis.
All three programs have a nifty feature called "reverse DNS", where they look up the URL of the requesting site based on the IP address in the log. Since this feature requires an Internet lookup, it's slows the process considerably. I'm not sure this is such a vital feature, but I did enjoy seeing that the #9 and #10 hosts most frequently accessing Troubleshooter.Com were IBM.NET and FEDEX.COM respectively.
All three programs had bugs or usability problems. With Net.Analysis Desktop, the bugs were show-stopping. With Hit List Standard, you could work around them. Webtrends had no obvious bugs, but there were some usability issues the need to be addressed. These usability issues involved mainly their design decision to report directly off the log file instead of from a database.
All three products had inadequate support for log files on remote sites. All three had FTP support, but I couldn't get it to work on Net.Analysis Desktop or Hit List Standard. With Webtrends, I got FTP to work on one website but not on another. Not that FTP is the answer -- it's pretty silly to bring a many-megabyte log file across a phone line just to take the last 5% of it that's new. If I were writing this program, I'd find a way of opening the file on the remote end (Java?), then doing a binary search (or pseudo binary search, since records are lines and not fixed length), to find the first record not brought over, and start from there.
Webtrends is the best of the lot. You can report off numerous websites. The reports are clean and useful, and everything works. The problem is, it wasn't really intended to be used over a phone line. They require shipping the entire log file each every day you do your report. On Troubleshooters.Com (about 200 distinct visitors per day), it takes about 20-30 minutes in the middle of the month when the log file is 3 megabytes long.
If you get Webtrends, I recommend you do your FTP manually with a program such as WS_FTP, then report off the local version of the log file. That way, if you want to do multiple reports, you don't have to ship the log file for each report. If you turn off Reverse DNS and page names, you don't even have to be hooked to the net to run your reports.
Webtrends costs $299.00. If you administer multiple websites, or if you require presentation quality reports, or if you just want something that works reasonably well and are willing to pay for it, I'd recommend webtrends.
Hit List Standard is free! That fact makes it an easy choice. As far as I can see, it won't work on multiple websites. I couldn't get the FTP to work, so you'll need to FTP your log files down manually. And it has a problem with graphic DLL versions (or did on my machine), so you'll get lots of error message boxes to click through on the report, and the report will contain no graphics. It will, however, deliver some basic statistics that can be useful in marketing your website.
If you're not ready to pay $299 for Webtrends, try Hit List Standard.
Here are some other products essential to webmasters.
PKWare's PKZip is a rock-solid, reliable and convenient way to back up and restore. Iomega's Zip drive is a rock-solid, reliable media/drive combination to keep your data. Use these two together, mail a backup offsite every once in a while in case of earthquake, and you'll sleep well at night.
FTPing your site up to your ISP is never easy, but at least there's WS_FTP to make it more straightforward and robust. I use WS_FTP. It has the local system directory on the left, the remote system on the right. You just highlight the files you want to transfer, and click the appropriate transfer button. It has an auto filetype checkbox, which will send some files (images, Java classes) binary and others (HTML) ASCII. Filetypes and their transfer mechanisms can be configured. Another great feature is its ability to transfer entire directory trees, so uploading your entire site is a 1 button, unattended process.
It can keep track of many FTP setups, so you don't have to remember anything to transfer your site up or transfer your log files down. WS_FTP makes life (relatively) easy.
It's free! Email that works every time, it's easy and it's fast. It works with only one mail account, but I installed it three times in three directories to access my three different email accounts, and it worked just fine. It has a limit on the number of recipients of a message (I found that out the hard way when I sent out Troubleshooters.Com's birth announcement), but that's a minor inconvenience that I imagine would go away if I bought their professional package.
All letters become the property of the publisher (Steve Litt), and may be edited for clarity or brevity. We especially welcome additions, clarifications, corrections or flames from vendors whose products have been reviewed in this magazine. We reserve the right to not publish letters we deem in bad taste (bad language, obscenity, hate, lewd, violence, etc.).
These first few issues, we'd greatly appreciate feedback type letters. Especially valuable are balanced letters, mixing suggested alternatives with criticism, or mixing areas of improvement with praise. Flames for flames sake or sycophantic praise aren't as valuable.
Submit letters to the editor to Steve Litt's email address, and be sure the subject reads "Letter to the Editor". We regret that we cannot return your letter, so please make a copy of it for future reference.
We anticipate two to five articles per issue, with issues coming out monthly. The next few issues we'll be looking for articles on how to bring the Troubleshooting Process to all areas of business and society. This can be done as an essay (like the articles above), with humor, or with a case study. A Troubleshooting poem would be nice. We are *not* looking for ultra-technical or system-specific articles in the next few issues. Submissions should be between 250 and 2000 words long.
All submissions become the property of the publisher (Steve Litt), unless other arrangements are previously made in writing. We do not currently pay for articles. Troubleshooters.Com reserves the right to edit any submission for clarity or brevity. Any published article will include a two sentence description of the author, a hypertext link to his or her email, and a phone number if desired. Upon request, we will include a hypertext link, at the end of the magazine issue, to the author's website, providing that website meets the Troubleshooters.Com criteria for links and that the author's website first links to Troubleshooters.Com.
Submissions should be emailed to Steve Litt's email address, with subject line Article Submission. The first paragraph of your message should read as follows (unless other arrangements are previously made in writing):
After that paragraph, write the title, text of the article, and a two sentence description of the author.
http://www.troubleshooters.com is Steve Litt's website.
http://www.troubleshooters.com/littstip/: Steve Litt's original "Litt's Tips" website.
http://www.stoopidsoftware.com: Home of the Gomer HTML editor.
http://www.adobe.com/prodindex/pagemill/main.html: Pagemill for Windows download page.
http://www.microsoft.com: Makers of Frontpage, MS Word, MS Paint.
http://www.netscape.com: Makers of Netscape Navigator and Netscape Gold.
http://www.wbmedia.com/publisher: Home of Web Media Publisher Pro 2.
http://www.sausage.com: Home of Hot Dog Pro.
http://www.jasc.com: The JASC (Paintshop Pro) website.
http://www.mindworkshop.com/alchemy/gifcon.html: Gif construction set download page.
http://www.micrografx.com: Home of Micrografx Photo Magic.
http://www.marketwave.com: Home of Hit List Standard
http://www.netgen.com/products/net.Analysis/Desktop/1.1/: Home of Net.Analysis Desktop
http://www.eudora.com: Home of Eudora Light.
http://www.ipswitch.com: Home of WS_FTP
http://www.pkware.com: Home of PKZip
http://www.iomega.com: Home of the Iomega Zip drive