So you want to create a home page?

I wrote this because I saw so many ambitious home page projects into which people have invested a lot of time and effort but which have failed miserably. I've seen a lot of Usenet news articles saying "I just finished creating a cool home page, please visit it and send me comments and suggestions on improving it". Sometimes they get some answers, but they get answers (typically wrong answers by the way) to wrong questions, since they asked wrong questions. Do they really expect knowledgeable persons to visit and study a particular page in the sea of millions of pages, if the announcement says nothing more than "this is my cool home page"?

Jukka Korpela

"Well, yes... a cool one... how?"

A home page on the Web, your cool personal presence in the worldwide hypermedia, that's what you want, isn't it?

I have written an introductory document Getting Started with HTML and an extensive document (Learning HTML 3.2 by Examples ) about the technical details of writing a Web page, and there are several other documents about that on the Web. You will have to consult people or local documents at your site to know exactly how to do the dirty work of putting your files somewhere, setting up protections, and so on. We will not discuss such things here. The document at hand is about what and why, not about how, about being cool, not about being technically correct, about aims, not tools. I will assume that you have been netsurfing already, looking at other people's home pages, so that you have at least some vague idea of what the Web is. (You wouldn't dream of writing a book before having read a book, or perhaps several books, would you?)

So, the first question you ask yourself shouldn't be about technicalities. Let other people start from HTML techniques or visual design techniques. They won't get far; most probably they won't even manage to master HTML or visual design, but they will have to claim very aggressively that they do.

Your audience

Thus, you will start from something that might be called thought, although thinking is not so easy and comfortable. Your first question should be the following: why on earth should any soul in the universe be interested in my home page? Well, you might count on yourself, perhaps your mother, and theoretically your Significant Other, too. But that's about all you can imagine that will visit your home page just because it's yours.

Creating a home page just for yourself (and your mom and SO) could be a good idea. Nothing wrong about it, provided that you know what you're doing. It might be useful self-therapy, possibly a lot cheaper than becoming the patient of a psychoanalyst. Painting (for yourself only) or writing a diary or singing alone can help in minor psychic problems, which we all have, and form one part of therapy in serious cases; so can Web page creation. If that's essentially what you are going to do, good luck, sorry about bothering you, and welcome back if you come to other thoughts.

Addressing a stranger

From now on, I will assume that you want to create a home page to be visited by other people, generally by people unknown to you. Let us stop here for a moment. There are several millions of people who can access your home page, and the number - the actual number is not known, we have just some very rough estimates - continues to grow. It doesn't really matter how big the number is. (Some people say that the number of Internet users will soon exceed the total population of the earth.) You won't ever realize how big it is, and neither will I. Or did you ever see just one million human persons at a glance?

A key point is that no matter how specialized area of interest you take, the odds are that sooner or later you will find people on the Internet with the same interest. This is one of the really exciting things about the Internet, much more exciting than TCP/IP, RFCs or HTML.

You can't predict who will visit your home page. I have got messages from people all over the world - Brazil, New Zealand, and even Finland - and I still keep wondering how they found my pages. What they write to me is important and encouraging, even if it's just a few positive words and even if the short E-mail message is the only personal contact between us ever. What I had produced may have been something just at the edge of publication according to my personal standards; yet, someone liked it or made some use of it, and that's really all that matters. What a wonderful world.

Just a short remark about universality. You don't know where a visitor comes from. You might share an intensive interest - and nothing else. You don't know what kind of Web browser he uses. He might live in a world that looks like extraterrestrial to you. He might have a connection as fast as one can get today, or he might have a very slow modem in a country with horrible telephone lines. His computer and his screen will almost certainly differ from yours. So in order to welcome him or her you should be pretty generic. But this is really about technicalities, about using portable and standard-conforming HTML. I just wanted to make it clear that this is the human face of conforming to standards. By writing, say, Netscape enhanced, designed for at least 19" display pages you are saying go away to a lot of people.

Naturally, your pages should clearly identify themselves as your pages by containing at least your name. But emphasize content, not authorship. Consider the following example. When looking for some information, using the popular Web search engine AltaVista, one gets lists (often very large lists) of documents with short excerpts, formed by AltaVista on the basis of the beginning of the document. Reports like the following appear quite often:

10. Welcome to my home page !
Welcome to my home page ! You are visitor number. since 12/30/1995. Hello out there ! Thanks for trying out my home page. My name is ...

Would you feel excited to take a look at such a page, among the 1136 or so pages the search engine found for you?

So what have you got?

Now, what have you got to give to a total stranger? Who knows. It depends on you. The point is that we are not talking about you. We are talking about something which you can give and are willing to give to others. Remember that nobody is really interested in you for your own sake. More exactly, if there are such people - and I hope there are - they are some very personal relatives or friends of yours. The Web is for other kinds of contacts. (You might, by chance, make real friends on the net, but probably not by intensive attempts to make friends.)

Most people avoid the question. Typically they start collecting links to Web documents about things they are interested in, and they create Web pages which essentially contain lists of links and nothing more. They expect that other people interested in similar issues - say, a particular type of music or literature - will find the link list interesting. This is comparable to sharing your personal notebook with other people; in fact, a published link list is usually something that works fine as the person's own bookmark list (or hotlist or whatever your browser vendor calls it, to make a difference) and no more. Again, if you are happy with that, no problem. But you should not think you have made a contribution. In most areas which human beings might conceivably be interested in, link lists abound on the net. (See Zangelding - The Official Homepage.) Your list might, of course, be exceptionally good, but how do you expect total strangers to find this out? Moreover, link lists tend to become out-of-date pretty soon; a list which contains the best links today might be worse than useless after half a year. (It could easily make people read outdated material instead of using search engines to find what's really available.)

An annotated link list might be truly valuable. If you have taken the effort of investigating a large number of Web documents and ranked them, you may have done something that other people might be interested in. If your ranking is just your subjective opinions in some scale, quantitative or qualitative, there is little reason to believe that other people would take you seriously. But if you have done some real work, explaining the starting points and criteria of your judgements, really studying the documents in question and their validity and suitability to some specific purposes, and presented the results saying why some documents are good and others are not, your work might be really valuable. If you are explicit about your criteria, people visiting your page can decide whether their interests match yours sufficiently well to make your investigation relevant to them.

Yet, what you should really aim at is giving your own contribution, something that you have created, a work of your own. But creativity is not a goal in itself; what really matters is not what you put into the work but what others get from it.

At this point, you might wish to read a good satire: Teach Yourself HTM Programming by Scott Oglesby.

Sharing what you have...

Evidently, if you have a report on original and important scientific work by you, or an excellent novel written by you, or wonderful photographs taken by you, or a useful and well-documented computer program written by you, and you wish to give it for free, then the Web is an excellent tool for you. (I am assuming that you haven't given rights to your work to someone else. If your text has been published as a book, for example, you must check the contract; the contract typically implies that you need the publisher's permission to distribute the work on the Web.)

The essential thing is what you have, and the next important thing is to write a few descriptive words, to be used as the title and headings, to help other people to find your contribution. You should describe your work simply and clearly. You can't really add much value to it using fancy animations and blinking red texts on your Web pages; they would just make it more difficult to find the beef, your contribution. (If people have to wait minutes to get big images loaded, they may well decide not to wait and go elsewhere, so they may never see your text, which would have been loaded in a few seconds.)

Of course, if your work itself is visual art (or music), you need to put it onto Web in digital image (or sound) format. You should additionally write a textual description, as a separate document with a link to the image (or with the image embedded). If you have several pictures, then about the worst thing you can do is to embed them into a single document. People will notice that it takes too long time to load the monster. Write a document which contains, as a simple list or as a sequence of paragraphs, descriptions of and links to the pictures. Perhaps you could put a few small images there, so that they act as "thumbnails" and links to the full-size images, but don't go too far.

I suppose you realize that nobody is going to pay you a cent for publishing your work on the Web. On the contrary, you have to pay for Internet connection, disk space, and other resources. Even if you get them for free, you have to pay in terms of your own time. Sharing your work without asking for money is your choice. In my opinion, it is often a good choice, for many reasons. One of the reasons is that by sharing good works by you now you may gain some reputation which may help you later, and you may have something to refer to when applying for a job, for instance. (And of course it is conceivable, although possibly not very realistic, that you try to make some money by asking for shareware fees.)

It is possible, to some people under some circumstances, to earn one's living by creating Web pages, but I suggest that even if that is your intended career, you practice first with less financial aims.

As another warning, you should expect anyone to see your work. It could your old aunt or your future employer - or anyone. Even your current or future children, those little monsters, might find it some day. It isn't so serious that someone laughs at your work; in some cases, it might even mean that the work serves the intended purpose. Writing nasty things about other people, for instance, might be an entirely different issue; it might strike back some day. Be brave, but don't be stupid.

... and creating things to be shared

Obviously, if you are still reading this, you haven't got such a great contribution to share. (If you had, you would right now be putting it onto the Web.) Relax. Some day you will. Meanwhile, work on something less ambitious, yet useful or entertaining to other people. It might be just a good presentation of some ideas you have read about, like your own two-page explanation of the basic contents of a 500-page book. A lot of people might benefit from it, for various reasons. (Consider reasons why you might appreciate a good summary.) Or it might be a simple record - in tabular or prose or photograph form, for example - of some experience or observations by you. If you, for some odd reason, have made observations of the behavior of blackbirds on your backyard during a few years, someone else might, for some odd reason, be carrying a serious research on blackbird behavior in the world, find your Web page about your observations, and perhaps find out some striking differences in blackbird behavior between his country and yours. This may sound unrealistic, but in any case the Web page finding part requires no miracle. (You would of course have included the scientific name of the species into the title of your page, wouldn't you? And you would expect a scientist use the scientific name among the keywords when searching for interesting pages.)

Assuming you have something to share, you should primarily make it accessible via the Web and forget the idea of doing it in some cool way. Let coolness be in the contents. Of course you don't want to share garbage, so you should check that the information is correct and presented in a manner which satisfies some minimal requirements. Worry about polishing later. Keep it simple; do what has to be done to put the stuff meaningfully onto the Web. If you have a picture or drawing, you will have to scan it, perhaps process the scanned image to produce a GIF or JPEG file, and you will need to write a minimal HTML page containing information about and link to the picture. If you have text, you have to create an HTML file containing it plus some simple tags indicating structural features like paragraph breaks and headings. If you have recorded your observations in tabular form, you will create an HTML table. If you have a program, you will design a distribution kit (or kits, for various computers) and a description it. But keep things simple, for two very good reasons. In most cases, a simple Web page is considerable improvement over all enhancements to it. And you have other things to do, such as some other contribution to work on, or a nice sunset to enjoy.

Giving birth to a page to be abandoned?

It makes little sense to create a page and then forget it. Children often passionately ask for a pet but might rather soon neglect it if they got it. You should be a good, thinking parent to the child within you.

Suppose, for example, that you have put some bus timetables onto the Web and then forgotten them. People will find your document, find information in it, and find the information out-of-date, perhaps with very sad consequences. Even if you have put a time stamp there and indicated the period of validity of the timetables, many people won't take a note - before it is too late. Timetables are essentially transient information, so you should not even think about putting them onto the Web unless you will commit yourself to maintaining it, or at the very least to removing it as soon as it is out of date.

Remember now that you are not going to remember. And it is extremely improbable that you will be more enthusiastic - rather, a lot less - about updating a page than you are now enthusiastic about creating it. Try to find some external reminders, such as a calendar into which you can write notes to yourself; it should work well for documents like timetables or documents which have to be updated at the beginning of each month, for example.

Of course, pages are different. There are pages which are not expected to change after they have been completed, except if someone finds an error. For example, a travel report or a research report is often such a page, an essentially immutable page. You should even resist the temptation to fix such pages. If you have published your master's thesis on the Web, you should not improve it later, because this would give false impressions. (Instead you can, of course, add links to separate documents describing your later results.)

Most pages are neither immutable nor transient with predictable date of expiry (or need for update). Most pages should be checked once in a while to see what needs to be updated. This is one reason why you should have a document which lists your documents; at the same time it serves your users (which may have found one of your lovely pages and are eager to see more of them). But the most essential thing is that you must be willing and capable of really maintaining your pages.

It is better to start from creating one or a few well-designed documents and maintaining them than to write a lot of documents which will not be maintained. When you have really maintained a document for a few months, you are getting a realistic picture of what it takes, and then you may consider creating additional documents. This emphasizes the importance of selecting carefully the purposes and themes of your first documents.

"Under construction"

Don't apologize. If something is not worth being made public, don't make it public.

Occasionally, it makes sense to warn your readers that a document is only partly written. For example, you might have headings only for some section but you might still wish to make the document public, because you assume that the existing sections are useful. Alternatively, you might have completed the first half of your document while the rest is preliminary, unchecked and possibly confusing. Since the beginning looks pretty well written, readers may assume that the rest is, too, and get annoyed.

So sometimes a word of warning is needed. But don't use the words Under construction, since on the Web they are the common way of indicating that the author has not yet taken his job seriously and probably never will. The same applies to common signs for Under construction.

Use simple, short but descriptive sentences if you need to inform readers about the status or incompleteness of your documents. For example, if you haven't yet written a section about the economic prerequisites of your proposals, you might add the following warning (possibly within a STRONG element) at the beginning of your document: Warning: I haven't yet estimated how much money it would cost to implement my proposal. Or you might include a warning which lists those sections which are not written yet or for which you have just preliminary sketches; this will also be a useful to-do list for you, won't it?

Hello world, here it is, or announcing your work

If you have followed my advice, you might be amazed by people finding your page. In a sense, providing a good title and perhaps keywords is the the author's (that's you) job, making good queries is the educated Web user's job, and making the good query to find the well-documented document is the job of a search engine.

There are, however, things which you can do to speed up the process. If you have, for instance, written a collection of good example programs in a particular programming language, you could and you should announce it in a Usenet newsgroup devoted to that language. (Don't even think of sending it to a large number of groups to get more publicity. You will get publicity that way, but you surely won't like it!)

Additionally, if you know a good and popular collection of links (preferably, of selected links) on the subject area of your document, you should inform its author of your new product. And there are all kinds of things you might consider, such as writing about the document into some printed publication which might be interested, or appending the Web address of the document into your Usenet news articles (when relevant, and provided that you keep such things short and avoid egocentric signatures).

If the document is of wide general interest - and please remember that you regard your work as much more important than other people do - then you may check, for instance, the advice about getting indexed by search engines in section Web Publishing of WDG's Web Authoring FAQ.

Getting noticed

People may visit your Web pages through many different routes. They might see your announcement about the page, but more probably they are either following a link somewhere or investigating the addresses returned by a search engine.

A visitor may have some idea of what to expect, or he may arrive in a rather random fashion, with empty mind. Especially in the latter case you have about ten seconds or less of his time to convince him to look at your page seriously. Diane Wilson has written a brilliant essay about this: A Web Site is a Harsh Mistress)

As described above, you should carefully provide essential information in your headings and other key parts of your page. If a small image helps in telling the visitor what you have on the page and why it might be important to him, put the image there. (Large images are seldom useful for that. It might take time before the visitor sees them, even more than the ten seconds you've got.)

Relax, and wait for feedback

If you get feedback, you can consider improvements. You will learn from other people's comments what you should work on, such as make your text more understandable, or explain some issues in more detail, or draw more pictures, or add a few nice features into your program. You will know that you are not improving your contribution in vain, for its own sake, in search of perfection, but because other people need it.

Yes, feedback is important. If you don't get it, consider making some other contribution. And don't be disappointed. Some people may have found your work and found it useful, they just didn't bother to send you any message; perhaps it was so good that they need not ask for any improvement.

You can ask for feedback on your page, of course. However, posting an article to Usenet news just to get feedback isn't such a great idea. It isn't important what you get but what others get, so asking for feedback is asking the wrong question. Of course, when posting a good announcement to a relevant (to the subject) newsgroup, you may for instance tell that you intend to do some more work with the document and would like to know which parts of it should be elaborated on. If that really is the case.

Forget counters. (I am referring to "page access counters" which are claimed to keep record of the number of accesses to a Web page.) First, counters are unreliable. Second, even if they correctly counted visitors - which they do not - they would not count people who liked your work or benefited from it. Third, the most common use of counters is to make them show the counter value to visitors, and this alone is a clear indication of what the true motives of using counters are. Your aim should be to serve people, not to count them, even less to impress them by telling them how many people have accessed your page (as if you could know).

You may ask: if I don't use counters, how can I know which of my pages are the most useful ones to other people so that I can concentrate on those pages (and pages with similar themes)? You may think, not without justification, that only a small minority of people sends any constructive comments - or any comments at all. But first, counters don't actually solve or even address this problem. And second, rest assured that if a considerable number of people find your page attractive, some of them will tell it to you.

What about putting other people's work onto the Web?

Perhaps you are so interested in, say, a novel writer or a composer or a cartoonist that you would like to do a favor: to make his works accessible on the Web. For example, you might wish to scan some pictures from printed sources and put them onto your Web pages.

Forget it. Don't. Stop thinking about it. It violates the rights of the author. You might or might not be caught and prosecuted, but in any case you would really have acted against the author and other fans, not for them. Authors typically live on income they get from royalties. Other fans might first love to get works of the author for free, but would they like him to starve? Even if the author is horribly rich and could live without any royalties, it's none of your business to copy and distribute his works without his permission.

Admittedly, you might ask and get a permission. In most cases, asking for a permission is just waste of time - your time and the author's time. If and when the author or his publisher decides to put some works or excerpts from them onto the Web, for some purpose, they will do it themselves or hire some professionals do the job.

If you do ask for a permission, it is bad policy to begin with I'd like to do so-and-so. Start with a suggestion for putting some works onto the Web, and present yourself as a volunteer, should the author decide to adopt the idea.

"So should the work be my home page?"

Now, suppose you have one contribution to be put onto the Web. Should you create a home page containing it - say, a few good recipes from you?

Yes and no. The concept of home page is vague, and people use it to denote very different things. It can mean a Web document which tells about a particular person - sort of digital business card. Alternatively, it can denote any Web document in somebody's personal area, a personal creation. It can also denote a document such as a "company home page", which is in some sense the top-level document in the hierarchy of pages by a company, sort of main entry to them. To confuse things more, the word site is sometimes used to denote a home page in one of those meanings, or in some other meaning, although it should basically be used to denote the entire collection of Web pages of a company or institution, residing on a Web server.

Luckily you can mostly just ignore that confusion. Just make each work of yours a separate Web document, equip it with a title and headings and your own name. And make your name in each document a link to your home page in the business card sense.

This simple model is easily extendible or, as computer specialists say, scalable. If you have lots of documents, each of them can contain just your name which is a link to your home page. Moreover, since people who come to your home page via such links might be interested in other works by you, you should put a list of your works onto your home page. The list may grow and you may need to consider making it separate document, even dividing it into sections, etc. Anyway, stay cool. For each document, put just the title (acting as a link) into the list in your home page, plus in rare cases a few explanatory words. Let the list speak for itself; if it short so far, it makes no good to put buttons and images and frames around it, on the contrary.

The ultimate home page

Your home page proper, the digital business card, should simply tell the basic facts about you - the kind of information about you which other people might be interested in after seeing some work of yours.

Minimally, it should contain your E-mail address (if you are willing to get E-mail, of course).

Typically, other relevant information might be about your country, education, status like "student of ... at ..." or "employed as ... by ...", and perhaps your age and sex - if you wish to tell them. The point is that people will (and usually should) take texts differently according to such things. (If you read an interesting text on the dangers of nuclear reactors, you would probably like to know whether the writer is a 16-year old schoolgirl, or a professor of physics, or Mr. H. Simpson working in a nuclear power plant. As an intelligent person, you would of course still consider the facts and arguments if they seem reasonable, but if it turned out that they are valid, you would esteem the author more if she was a schoolgirl.)

The rest is up to you, but don't try to be artistic here. A good photograph from which you can be recognized might be useful to some people. But that's about all illustration that should be put onto a home page proper. If you are able to produce visual art that pleases other people, you can, and perhaps should, establish an art exhibition on the Web, but art deserves a better place than a digital business card can provide.

If you wish to provide detailed information about yourself, such as a curriculum vitae, put it into separate documents, and have just links to them in your home page proper.

But what about being cool?

If you additionally wish to create a truly personal home page with all kinds of personal stuff on it, from photos of you as a baby to impressive Java code by you as more or less adult, well, why not. Link the two home pages together and allow others decide whether they want to have a very personal look at you (on your terms) or not.

To tell you a secret, it's no more cool to be cool. Be warm to people, in the cool way of giving them something they like, without making a fuss about it.

But basically we have reached the conclusion that you can forget the home page idea, in the sense of a personal home page about you as a person. Or, more exactly, we have reduced it to the idea of having a simple document, a little more than a business card in digital form, to be used - via the marvelous hypertext concept - as a footnote to really interesting documents by you, not about you.

Jukka K. Korpela
Originally written: 1997-12-19
Last update: 2002-05-05.