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Web World weaves wonders.

It's easy;

it's inexpensive

it's cool.

No wonder so many organizations are rushing to communicate via the Internet. Moreover, the audience for the Internet, and more specifically the World Wide Web, is growing at a geometric rate while attracting television, newspaper and magazine articles on a daily basis. Prognosticators see unlimited prospects for Web applications; Investors can't wait to pump dollars into any venture that appears to tap the Web in some new way.

But before communicators rush to jump on the Web's bandwagon, they need to understand that the Web is very different from the conventional media to which they are accustomed and for which they are trained. It's not surprising that many efforts to use the Web to reach desired audiences are wasted. Communicators need to understand that many of their professional reflexes are not just inappropriate but downright counterproductive. Unless they develop new ways of thinking, their communication is likely to be far less successful than it could be. And the enormous potential that the Web represents will be lost to them.

Coronation of the Browser

In the conventional world of communication, the editor is king. He or she largely dictates the information to be provided, the order in which that information will be presented, the emphasis that will be given to the contents and the space to be devoted to it. Not so on the Web.

The key to the World Wide Web is the concept of hypertext. Hypertext allows the user to jump from one subject to another in no particular order other than his or her whim. There are few if any constraints: the reader may jump to a new idea on the same Web page or to a new Web page altogether with equal ease. Moreover, that new Web page may reside in a different city, a different nation or even a different continent; the reader can follow the thread of his or her own curiosity as far as the hyperlinks go. And when there are no "hot links," the reader can summon a search program to find new threads to pursue.

Clearly, such free association is far different from conventional publications. That's why the tools that enable this intellectual roaming of the Web are called "Web browsers." Those who use this software are like browsers in some vast warehouse of ideas, opinion and information.

With the ability to follow hyperlinks in any direction, and with easy access to search engines that automatically sniff out desired subject matter, the editor has been dethroned and the user crowned king of the Web, going wherever is desired, changing subjects and Web pages at will.

A Different World

Communicators must understand that the Web is a very different world than the one to which they are accustomed. First the Web is vast. No one knows how many Web pages exist, and their number is growing daily. A search for Web pages on almost any topic is likely to produce hundreds of possible selections, providing the reader with boundless options from which to choose.

A second difference between the Web and other more conventional forms of communication is the concept of "space." Newspaper editors, for example, constantly keep track of the number of column inches available in each edition. If there are too many, paragraphs will have to be cut or stories pulled altogether. If there are too few, new stories must be added; if none are available, filler will be used.

But on the Web, the concept of "space" does not exist. The physical dimensions of a Web page remain constant whether a story on that page contains 500 or 5,000 words. While the amount of memory required to hold the story may vary, the text simply scrolls by a "window" on the page. Finally, editors of traditional media always believed in their hearts that their audience read their publications from front to back, start to finish. While this belief is seldom valid, even with conventional printed materials, the Web, with its hyperlinks and search engines, renders the concept totally meaningless. To get a taste of the new reality of the Web, communicators should visit the CRAYON Web site ( edu/~boulter/crayon/). CRAYON, which stands for Create Your Own Newspaper, allows a user to choose the categories of information to be included, pick the source of the information and determine the order of presentation.

Now Commandment for Communicators

In this new environment, what can communicators do to increase the effectiveness of their Web pages? The emergence of the Web creates a new commandment for communicators: "Thou shalt not waste the user's time."

"Don't waste the user's time" doesn't mean the user will always find exactly the information he or she desires. But it does mean that Web page editors should set their readers' expectations realistically by providing adequate cues as to what information they will find when reading the Web page or following any link on that page.

The most common way that Web communicators waste users' time is by failing to help users search productively for information. For example, when many communicators first begin to communicate on the Web, they continue to think in terms of the printed page, laying out articles and artwork using well-established principles of design. Unfortunately, while most print communications employ a vertical layout, most computer screens have a horizontal orientation. Thus traditional layouts inevitably hide the majority of the stories and departments from the user's view, below the bottom edge of the computer screen. Usually, the only clue the user gets is the activation of the scroll bar on the right-hand side of the Web page. This cue is subtle, and unless the articles above the screen's margin grab the user's attention and encourage him or her to scroll down, the user may jump to another Web site without ever seeing the rest of the stories.

The reason that traditional editors put too much information on the first page is that they have been taught to avoid "jumps" whenever possible. While that rule made good sense for printed communications, effective Web communicators will take full advantage of the hypertext links, knowing that on a Web page jumping from one place to another is the norm, not the exception.

Another common error is to assume that users will automatically follow every hot link provided. Readers are likely to explore links that seem to take them to desired information. But don't expect users to follow links with ambiguous titles or cute GIFs (graphic image files) that don't clearly indicate where they will lead. It will take only a few wrong leads before the user decides to go elsewhere.

How can a communicator set realistic expectations? First and foremost, the communicator should clearly indicate to the reader what information can be found in each edition of the Web page. Thus communicators who understand the dynamics of Web-based where the reader can easily see them, and then provide hot links to quickly take the reader to those of interest. Another way to set expectations is to clearly indicate when the contents of your Web page will be refreshed. Nothing wastes a user's time more than looking for new information only to find something he or she had previously read. New information is a reward for users that reinforces their return; seeing "old" information is a form of negative reinforcement.

But the Web is global in scope, and Web users can and do access the Web at any time. Clearly, it is not possible to ensure that every user will see new material every time he or she logs on to a given Web page. Therefore, it is particularly important for the communicator to inform the reader of the schedule for refreshing the contents.

Traditionally, communicators refer to their publications by the publishing cycle: "dailies," "monthlies," "quarterlies," etc. These cycles are sufficient to set readers' expectations when the physical arrival of the publication will serve to remind readers of its frequency. But on the Web, there is no delivery to remind users, so greater specificity is important.

For an example, suppose your Web page is produced monthly. With a printed publication, there is no question about missing an issue because each edition is delivered to the subscriber. But with Web pages, there is no cue such as the arrival of the mail to signal when a new edition is available. Thus you can only hope that your audience will return to the Web site at the appropriate time. But does the new edition come out on the first of the month, the middle or the end? The term "monthly" provides insufficient information. A wise communicator will indicate the date and even the time when users can expect to find new information. Even this may not be sufficient, however, because it may not be obvious to the reader that what you've provided is new material. Simply changing the contents may not be enough; users can't be expected to memorize the headlines and contents of each edition so that they can mentally compare the two. Many Web page editors display the time their page was last updated. Others make a visual change to the design, such as employing a different background color to reinforce the fact that this is a new edition.

Some Web pages don't replace the entire contents with every update. In such cases, it's important to indicate what has been updated and when. Many Web pages employ a "What' New" option to automatically list any files that have been changed. Hiding this list behind a button assumes that the user will take the time to look. Since this is not necessarily a safe assumption, it may be necessary to highlight new information or changes on the front page.

Fulfilling Expectations

In the rush to participate in this new and exciting communication medium, there are many who fall into the trap of applying traditional thinking to a new form of communication. To such people, the problems described above may not seem very significant. But what they don't realize is either the extent of the Web or the ease of navigating it. Users of the Web today have access of sophisticated search engines and publicity about new sites makes finding information increasingly easy. And switching from one Web site to another is just as simple as switching from one story to another on the same Web page. Given the number of options and the ease of change, communicators had better do everything in their power to attract and then retain their desired audience's attention.

But more than just a change in technique, communicating over the World Wide Web requires a change of thinking. In a world where information is available in unprecedented quantity, the critical differentiator will be ease and speed of access. The Web sites that prove most successful will be those that make it easiest for users to review the page's information contents quickly.

Given this new form of communication, communicators had better change their thinking. To fail to do so is to risk having the user leave your Web page, delete the "bookmark" and never return. On the Web, not only will traditional thinking produce unsuccessful communication, but a conventional approach will not even yield clues as to what went wrong.

: IBM's home page clearly shows what's available. But when will it be updated -- presumably in March, but what day? Apple's home page, by contrast, makes it very clear not only when it was updated but who did it. Below: The Reuters news service, as carried by Yahoo!, makes it crystal
COPYRIGHT 1996 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:communication through the World Wide Web
Author:Brandon, Mike
Publication:Communication World
Date:Apr 1, 1996
Previous Article:What's in a name?
Next Article:Will this kill that?

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