Mac Musings

Toward a Less Annoying Web

Daniel Knight - 2002.05.28 -

I like taking surveys, crunching the numbers, and seeing what the rest of the world thinks about things. Our Annoying Web Stuff survey gave me the opportunity to learn what you, the Web user, think of features on the Web that some find annoying.

I find this interesting both as a Web user and an online publisher. My biases shape the way I create my sites, which sites I frequent, and how likely I am to provide links to them. Feedback from the 735 people who took our survey helps me put these in perspective.

Links that are colored but not underlined: I asked this because I have received a few complaints about non-underlined links on Low End Mac and my other sites. I personally like the cleaner, less cluttered look, and over half those who took our survey (51.0%) aren't bothered by links identified by color alone. Only 1.9% view non-underlined links as a reason to avoid a website. (I probably should have included a question about sites that use nonstandard link colors.)

Sites that ask for financial support: I don't think any medium has changed as rapidly as the Web. Two years ago you could make a living from ads if you had a fairly popular site. Economic realities have changed, and a lot of sites are going to donation and/or subscription models to supplement ad income. Nearly half of those polled (46.6%) don't mind it when sites ask for donations, and only about 16.0% hate it. I think donations may be the future of hobby sites.

Display of current date & time - it's redundant: I think it's silly for a page to display the current date and time when your Mac or Windows PC is already displaying it. Silly, but not a reason to avoid a site. Nearly half of you (46.6%) don't mind it at all, but don't expect to see it on Low End Mac.

Sites that look just like Slashdot but aren't: Don't get me wrong - I think Slashdot is great, and I've seen some very nice sites that use Slash and other code to follow the Slashdot look and feel. What I and other object to is sites that simply copy the code without making any attempt to personalize it other than maybe change the color scheme and graphics. I like to see more creativity in Web design.

White text on a black background: White text has one thing going for it and three strikes against it. Done right, I can be very crisp and look stunning. But white-on-black can be difficult or impossible to print, the contrast can be hard on the eyes, and some typefaces - especially at small sizes - are very hard to read on a laptop screen or flat panel display, especially with modern operating systems that anti-alias text. Maybe that's why more than one person in six (17.3%) strongly dislikes white text on a black background.

Lack of a search engine: Low End Mac reached the point years ago where there was so much content that nobody could keep track of it, so we added a search engine. Although over one-third (34.6%) of those surveyed don't mind a site without a search engine, with so many free search engines available to mine your site, any site with over 100 pages should consider a search function.

Links that are underlined but not colored: You don't see this often, although we use it on our printer-friendly pages. (Our rationale is that people will be printing out these pages, so underlining is important but a colored link is just a waste of colored ink.)

Articles with unidentified authors: When we link to an outside article, we like to include the title of the article, its author, the site it's published on, and the date of publication. (Publication date - another thing I didn't ask about in this poll.) I like seeing a name attached to an article, and so do over 77.5% of you.

No way to email webmaster or author: I'm sure you've read something on the Web and felt compelled to email the author or webmaster. "Um, that link on your home page is broken," or "What in the world are you thinking?!?" 77.8% of us find it frustrating when there's no way to email the publisher or author.

Articles without titles: This one frustrates me as a publisher - how in the world can anyone expect a site to link to their content when the article has no title? MacSurfer has sometimes addressed this by quoting the first sentence or so, something they seem to be steering away from - it's a less than elegant solution to a real problem. If you're going to take the time to write something and publish it on the Web, giving it a title makes it far easier for others to link to your writing. 84.7% of those polled agree.

Pages that don't print out decently: Whether we're dealing with white text, pages too wide to fit a sheet of paper, or all the clutter surrounding the core of an article, 82.1% of us dislike it when an article can't be printed out conveniently. This is important, designers, as it's sometimes easier for a reader to print out a few copies of an article and pass them along to coworkers than it is to give them the URL and have them read it online. (In some businesses, only some employees have Web access.) We go out of our way to provide printer-friendly versions of our current editorial content at Low End Mac, even to the point of using a different style and typeface for improved readability on the printed page.

Email links lead only to webmail; won't use your email client: I love Claris Emailer and am growing comfortable with PowerMail. I don't like Web-based email. I know some sites use webmail as a way to avoid the spammer's spiders, but I prefer using my own email client so I can spell check before sending and have a copy of the message I've sent. 77.6% of those polled feel the same way.

Sites "best viewed" at a specific window size: HTML was conceived as a very flexible way of presenting data. It's not hard to create a page design that flows to the visitor's browser window. At the very least, it should be possible to view the main body of text even on a 640 x 480 monitor. That's one reason why sites that are "best viewed" at 800 x 600 or 1024 x 768 are annoying. Why prevent others from enjoying your site simply because they have old hardware? (Yes, this is a big one for us at Low End Mac and Low End PC.)

Sites that require Flash: Flash has its place. Sometimes it's the best or only solution. Flash can be more efficient than traditional HTML, but in most cases a Flash-powered site should be an alternative to a traditional one, not the only choice. 73.8% of those surveyed agree.

Text that can't be resized: There are several reasons why a site might have fixed-size text, ranging from the way their WYSIWYG page editor works to poor testing to simply ignoring the fact that not everyone uses Windows (or Macs). One of the greatest browser innovations is the pair of buttons that can make text a size larger or smaller, but these sites somehow prevent that from working. It's not only inconvenient, it may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, and it definitely makes a site less friendly to those with visual impairment. 16.9% of those surveyed don't mind this, but 83.1% do. Webmasters, don't do this. (I did a lot of testing in the early days of style sheets. The only safe way to size type is relative - <FONT SIZE="+1"> or <FONT SIZE="-1"> - anything else will not work consistently across browsers, and this lets the visitor view your site in whatever size font they choose.)

Use of Acrobat PDF files when HTML would do: Like Flash, Acrobat has its place on the Web. It's a great way to create contracts and data sheets that will print exactly as you want them to. It's a great way for manufacturers to put product brochures on the Web and make them freely available. But there's a lot of overhead involved - both the PDF file and Acrobat Reader are large, so downloads can take a good while, and then Acrobat Reader has to launch inside your browser. Acrobat should be used where control over presentation is crucial; HTML should be used when you want the broadest accessibility to your content. 85.0% of those surveyed agree that Acrobat shouldn't be used when HTML is adequate.

Single articles that appear on page after page after page: I was a computer geek long before Macs - and years before the IBM PC - so I like to keep up on technology on the other side of things. Tom's Hardware Guide can be an excellent technical resource, but almost every article seems to consist of a half dozen or more pages. Sometimes that's helpful because of huge graphics (esp. their benchmark comparisons), but other times it's obviously a way to boost the hit count, display more ads, and make more money.

As a rule of thumb: Unless there's a good reason for it, avoid breaking up long articles unless they're published as a series over the course of several days or weeks. I've done multipart articles a few times, and it's disheartening to see how few will read part 3. Articles should be broken into pieces judiciously and only when necessary (got that, Wired?).

I could go on, but suffice it to say that 88.6% of the people who took our survey dislike the practice.

Pages that don't scale to fit my browser window: We've covered this somewhat under sites best viewed at a certain screen size. On this question, 89.6% dislike pages that won't fit their browser widow.

Text too small to read easily: We touched on this topic above. Remember, the whole world doesn't use Windows. Let the visitor see text at a comfortable size - and be sure they can increase or decrease it as desired.

Frames that make it impossible to bookmark a page: There are sites that make excellent use of frames, and frames aren't always bad, but they can make it difficult or even impossible to bookmark a page or create a link to it. If you're designing a site, think twice before implementing frames. Webmasters are unlikely to link to your content if there's no easy way to link to a specific page. Almost 90% of those surveyed dislike it when they can't bookmark a page because of frames.

Sites "best viewed" with a specific browser: Back in the day, we had the Browser Wars. Some sites optimized for Netscape; others for Internet Explorer. Today we have Opera, iCab, OmniWeb, Mozilla, and other options. Don't offend those who choose different browsers by saying your site is best viewed with another one. Use standard HTML as much as possible so your site will display nicely on all platforms. Otherwise, do one of those JavaScript tricks to figure out which browser the visitor is using - but don't tell them they've made the wrong browser choice. Over 85% of those polled don't want to be told which browser they should use when visiting your site.

No navigation system or a poor one: When you find a new site, you probably want to do some exploring. That's why a navigation system is crucial. How else will a visitor have any clue what's on your site? Over 96% of those surveyed agree that a good navigation system is important.

Sites that require free user registration: There are some good reasons for registering on some sites, like having Yahoo! Games remember your rating in Euchre or being able to participate in a Slashdot discussion without being labeled an anonymous coward.

Still, there are two issues here: privacy and forgetfulness. Some people object to registering on the basis of privacy, and others just find it a nuisance to have to keep track of one more login ID (was it my email address? which one?) and password (did I use the short password I prefer or was it the longer one some sites require?). Cookies and keychains help, but over 86% dislike registering to use a site. I've also been to some sites that make users who don't register feel second-class, but that's a topic for another day.

Blinking or flashing banner ads: This is the least objectionable ad-related item in our survey. Remember that ads are designed to get your attention and then create good will toward the advertiser. Bad ads get your attention and create ill will toward the sponsor - and sometimes toward the site displaying the ads as well.

Before popup ads, we had the blink tag and flashing banners. Blinking text seems to have gone the way of the dodo, but some advertisers still think that hyper-flashing banners will make them friends. Animation is one thing, but the only reason a lot of us click the annoying banners is to email the company and complain. Bad PR. Over 90% of those polled agree. At Low End Mac, we try to avoid such ads - and our readers let us know when they see ads that drive them to distraction.

Whether on radio, TV, or the Web, I'm sure you can think of ads that are so annoying to turn off the sound, change the station, or consider turning off the graphics in your browser. No advertiser should do that to their audience.

Bad spelling, poor punctuation, misCapitaLization, etc.: I don't expect perfection from a website, but I do expect to see the vast majority of the words spelled properly, punctuation used more or less correctly, and words like its/it's and their/there not confused. Correct use of upper and lower case is very helpful if you want to be taken seriously. Use italic or bold text - or even color to make a point - NOT ALL CAPS. Over 93% of those surveyed dislike misspellings, poor punctuation, and nonstandard capitalization.

Text that's hard to read: bad fonts, busy backgrounds, etc.: This should go without saying. Worse than white-on-black and too small text, it makes absolutely no sense to write an article, design a page, publish it on the Internet, and then make it practically impossible for anyone to actually read it. Over 98% of those surveyed agree, and one-in-four won't go back to such a site.

Pages that take too long to load: "Too long" is subjective and depends on your Internet connection speed, your browser, and your computer. If pages take too long to load (a problem we ran into last week due to an external ad server), people will go elsewhere. Over 95% dislike slow-loading pages.

So many ads that you have to scroll down for any real content: I have a PowerBook G4 with an 1152 x 768 display. My browser window is usually full height and about 640 pixels wide. One site I visit several times daily fills most of that window with navigation links and ads - only one new content link is displayed at the bottom of my screen. Another one I visit frequently goes beyond that - between navigation links and ads and a subscription request, I have to scroll down a full screen and then go to the middle of the second screen before I see any new links.

Low End Mac isn't perfect, and we have to make room for ads, but we try to have our stock info, top link, and "of the day" listings on the first screen of the home page. Subscribers with ad-free access (only $20/year or $2/month - hint, hint) should be able to see our newest links without scrolling. We have to put those ads somewhere, but we try to put them where you'll actually see them instead of lumping them all together and having you scroll right past them without looking.

Sites that require a paid subscription: The subscription debate may be with us for years. Some sites simply require a paid subscription for access. Period. Others have "premium" services, such as stock advice or access to their archives. I don't believe that "information wants to be free," but I do believe that people want free access to information. Given the choice, most will look elsewhere rather than pay for it. And if they do have to pay, they don't want to pay a lot. 57.4% of those surveyed say they won't go back to a site that requires a paid subscription.

Ads for online gambling: A telling comment from one reader - he sees ads for online casinos as a sign of a site that's in financial difficulty. Over 90% of those surveyed find these ads objectionable, and 39.5% say they'll stop frequenting a site that displays them. Webmasters, think long and hard before you agree to run these ads.

Sites that automatically play music: Okay, Hampster Dance was cute and annoying, but whether it's a church site playing a MIDI file, a "grack" sound, or the webmaster saying, "Welcome to my site," over 95% of those surveyed find it a turnoff. That beats ads for online porn. If you want to use sound, make it optional. 41.9% of those surveyed said they avoid returning to noisy sites.

Ads for online porn: You think online gambling is a scam and the ads will drive away visitors? That's nothing compared with porn ads. 92.6% don't want to see porn ads, and half (49.9%) say they avoid returning to a site displaying "adult" ads. This is not a way to build site traffic, even if it does generate some short-term income.

Pop-up or pop-under ads: Worse than porn ads, autoplay music, and required subscriptions - popup and pop-under ads are one way advertisers are sure to get your attention. They spawn a new window, slow down loading of the page you want to see, clutter up your screen, and in some cases multiply like rabbits. Sure, they have a higher click-through rate than banner ads, but I'll bet a lot of those are from people trying to close the window. 98.6% of those surveyed dislike popups and pop-unders, 83.8% strongly dislike them, and over one-third (34.5%) avoid sites with them when they can.

One reader notes that he likes to open multiple pages at the same time, reading whichever page loads first. His problem with popups is that they not only open a new window, but they also bring the related page to the front - right over the page he's currently reading.

Pop-up ads may be effective, but their overuse may drive customers away from advertisers - and websites that display pop-ups.

Pop-up/under ads that appear when you leave a site/page: The king of Web annoyances is pop-after ads - they show up when you leave a site or a page, so you may associate them with the site you just went to instead of the one you left. 99.2% of those surveyed dislike pop-afters, and nearly half say they'll avoid sites that use them.

My pet peeve: the "Subscribe to Macworld" pop-after at MacCentral. C'mon, guys, I've got 15 years left on my subscription. I'd love to see a button that could turn that pop-after off for a week, a month, a year, or until my subscription is about to expire in 2017.

Let me close by suggesting to advertisers that use popping ads: Do like X10 and give people a way to opt out of your ads for a specified amount of time - and unlike X10, make it easy to find a way to do so. Not only will this generate good will toward your company, it may also decrease your ad costs over time since you'll no longer be paying to show ads to those who opt out of seeing your ads.

A suggestion to online publishers: Don't drive your visitors away with the wrong kind of ads or too many of them. Find creative ways to work with sponsors, deep-six campaigns that your visitors find strongly objectionable, and discover the most effective way to incorporate attention getting ads into your site while keeping both sponsors and visitors happy.