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“Poor Richard” provides rich advice

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2001. Poor Richardís internet marketing and promotions. [Book review] Impact!, Newsletter of the STC Marketing SIG, Spring:4.

Kent, P. 1998. Poor Richard’s web site. Geek-free, commonsense advice on building a low-cost web site. Top Floor Publishing, Lakewood, Colorado. ISBN 0-9661032-8-9. <http://www.poorrichard.com/book/>

If you’ve been to a bookstore lately, you’ve seen the glut of books on how to code in HTML, and how to use all the latest and greatest attention-grabbing Web tricks to make your site “cool”. But until now, there hasn’t been a really good guide to producing an effective Web page. Poor Richard changes all that, and it’s about time. From the title, you’d think this book is nothing more than a guide to putting up your Web page as cheaply as possible, something most people who have an Internet account can already do without looking any further than their ISP’s “how to” page. That’s unfortunate, because although there’s no question this book can help you cut costs in opening and maintaining a Web site, this book is so much more than a no-frills publishing guide.

Kent pulls the rug out from under your feet right off the bat by debunking the myth that everyone needs a Web page, and that those who do can be content with the equivalent of a billboard in cyberspace. Heresy, but oh how refreshing to hear! He follows up with such gems as “the Internet is a giant job creation program for computer geeks”, and that refreshingly irreverent attitude permeates the book. But to give substance to that spice, there’s plenty of hearty, commonsense advice to chew on. Kent introduces the technical writer’s mantra of audience and purpose as a reminder that you can’t succeed without understanding both. If you don’t have a good idea what you hope to accomplish on the Web that you couldn’t accomplish better at the local mall or through a magazine ad, you’re wasting your time creating a site. Kent considers the Web a giant collection of niches waiting to be filled, and you’ve got to know your niche—but if that niche doesn’t involve some kind of interactivity, then the Web isn’t the right choice for you. Most importantly, he reminds readers that interactivity means finding a way to actively meet the needs of your audience, not simply providing lots of links to click on and animations to watch.

The book is packed full of valuable tips and resources. For example, did you know how useful it can be to have more than one ISP so you can still check your mail when you’re travelling or if your main ISP dies an untimely death? OK, so you knew that, but did you also know that your home internet service provider (ISP) need not be the host of your Web site or your e-mail account? I sort of knew that, but I didn’t understand it. Kent not only introduces this tip, but provides solid advice on finding a host for your Web site, and makes it quite clear that if you’re planning a permanent, professional presence on the Web, you should choose and register your own domain name so you can take it with you if you need to change hosts. Although having an AOL address isn’t necessarily the mark of shame it’s often made out to be, it’s simply not as professional as having your own name: contrast the respective cachets of “billg@aol.com” and “william.h.gates@microsoft.com”, for example. Kent presents everything you need to know to handle the administrivia of establishing a site in enough detail that you really shouldn’t have to look elsewhere for this information.

My favorite piece of advice is something that most Web designers simply haven’t learned yet: that a Web page doesn’t exist solely for you any more than it exists solely for visitors. A truly successful Web site strikes a balance that meets both sets of needs. Unfortunately, you’ll have to test the usability of a site to confirm that it really does meet both sets of needs, and the lack of such testing is sufficiently obvious to anyone who’s surfed the Web that the advice to test your site merits a hearty Amen! My second-favorite piece of advice is that simplicity still works just fine if you’ve paid attention to the first bit of advice. In particular, Kent advocates writing to the current HTML standard while letting Microsoft and Netscape fight their battles elsewhere than on your site. Would that more Web designers “just said no” to this particular turf war! Last but not least, the author reminds us that it’s all very well to provide links to the rest of cyberspace, but if your purpose is to attract people to your site, these links are self-defeating. One excellent solution is to open the linked pages in a secondary window, leaving your own site open in the background so visitors needn’t reload it.

Kent provides a thorough discussion of how, without violating the rules of good netiquette, you can ensure that everyone who’s likely to be interested in your site can find it. There are URLs for registering with the usual suspects (Altavista, Yahoo, Excite), but more importantly, there are links to various services that will do much of the grunt work for you for a small fee. One excellent piece of advice is what brought this book to my attention in the first place: including information on your site in the signature line of each e-mail message you send. If people respect what you’ve said, they’ll be curious to see what else you have to offer, and that will inevitably lead them to your door. Thinking a bit further outside the box, there’s a pointed reminder that there are many non-Internet ways to ensure that people learn of your site (e.g., press releases that lead to magazine articles, review copies of a book left with strategic individuals).

Advertising your site is just one example of another of the book’s strengths: the book is packed full of what the author claims are more than 750 links to useful Web sites. I didn’t bother counting; even if the claim’s an exaggeration, there are obviously hundreds of URLs. More to the point, these aren’t simply the unverified output from an Internet search engine; Kent has performed the monumental task of screening these reference sources and gathering them together in one place. The results will vastly reduce your own time spent searching for information, particularly since the book’s index is thorough and effective. I doubt that any printed reference to the Internet will ever be comprehensive, but this one makes a heroic effort, and you can always visit the Web site for a more up-to-date list.

The advice on what to include in a Web page is as solid as the rest of the information. For instance, Kent reminds us to:

I have very few quibbles with the book, starting with the fact that Kent’s writing style will definitely grate on some readers. It’s not that the writing is difficult—quite on the contrary, it’s smooth, effortless and effective reading—but rather that Kent wastes no time endorsing or explaining options that he believes won’t suit you. If you want more information on those options, and don’t share his belief that they’re not worth pursuing, this approach can seem patronizing, but in fairness to the author, why should he try to help you do something he believes is foolish?

This leads to my second quibble. Although the author makes a decent effort to cover Macintosh-specific software for those of us who “think different”, there’s a clear Windows bias. Granted, more development effort has been going into producing Windows tools lately, but the Macintosh Web community is thriving, and will only grow bigger with booming sales of the iMac. Indeed, some sources claim that most of the Web’s content is still being authored on Macs.

The sections on HTML coding and scripting strike me as weak, for several reasons. First, because the actual mechanics of building a page is not the purpose of the book, there’s too little space to cover the material adequately. These sections are intended more as examples than as a tutorial, and an inexperienced reader who doesn’t pick up on this emphasis might despair at ever mastering HTML and scripting, when in fact anyone can learn the basics of HTML coding. In fairness to the author, this is consistent with the author’s overall approach: almost anyone can do good work with a WYSIWYG editor such as FrontPage, so why do it the hard way? (For those who like to tinker, there are the familiar lists of URLs to obtain more information.) As well, the editing, proofreading, and design of these sections is not up to the high standard set in the rest of the book. For example:

None of these quibbles detracts from the overall value of the book. Peter Kent has produced an essential resource for aspiring Webmasters that goes far beyond the brass tacks of coding HTML to the more important topic of determining what you want to accomplish by being on the Web, and showing you how to get there. If you don’t already understand this, you’ll have a hard time finding a better place to start learning, and if Poor Richard follows his own advice, we’ll soon be referring to him as just “Rich”. And that’s what this book is: a rich resource. Highly recommended.


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