File structure of web sites?

Subject: File structure of web sites?
From: "Geoff Hart" <geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Wed, 8 Dec 1999 15:36:40 -0500

Barbara Stuhlemmer is seeking <<...insight in to the best way to
configure the file structure of a web site? We currently have a lot of
small files in a few large directories. The concern is that the file
structure may inhibit the performance of the server and reduce the
usability of the web site.>>

Unless your audience and information are both identical to the one
on which some hypothetical standard is based, it's unlikely that
you'll find any published solution that is much use. Audience
analysis and usability testing of your assumptions based on that
analysis are the only sure way to develop a good solution. You
need to find out the content of the information that your audience is
most likely to want to receive when each file downloads: for some
topics, that may be a five-line summary, whereas for others, they
want the whole 20-page white paper. Then you need to test your
solutions to ensure that they really do meet audience needs, and
that they're feasible given constraints on your server.

That being said, some general guidelines:

- Try to come up with a design that downloads at least the first text
components quickly so that users can quickly determine whether
they've found the right page (or set of pages). If they've found the
right page, they can start reading immediately while the rest of it
downloads; if not, they can stop the download fast instead of
waiting for the whole thing to complete.

- Make the hierarchy relatively flat rather than relatively deep (more
choices on each page, rather than fewer choices and more steps
until you reach the final set of choices). The balance between flat
and deep depends on the nature of the information and thus, on
how users will try to access it. And avoid the "everything on one
page" approach you see with so many portal sites: the more
information you put on a page, the harder it can be to find specific
information buried in all that clutter. It'll take some work to come up
with a good compromise solution.

- If you have tons of files, stay away from search engines; the
typical search engine remains more of an exercise in frustration
than a truly efficient tool for locating information. That may change
over the next year or so, but imho, search engines are still works in
progress. Instead, consider producing an index (just like in the
back of a book) that presents users with all your keywords so they
can read until they find the keywords that relate to what they're
seeking. (Search engines don't work largely because they conceal
the keywords, and make you guess what keywords the author of a
page used to describe the page. The better portal sites, such as
Yahoo are popular precisely because some human has done the
work of categorizing pages and placing them in relevant
categories.) With this approach, you'll find that the index gets
downloaded a lot once users learn it's there and learn that it's
useful; if it is truly useful, then you'll also minimize the load on your
server because users will go directly to the page they need rather
than downloading dozens of files in a vain attempt to find what they
need. You can build small indexes manually, but for larger jobs,
look into a tool such as HTML Indexer (http://www.html-, which automates the process.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca (Pointe-Claire, Quebec)
"If you can't explain it to an 8-year-old, you don't understand it"--Albert Einstein

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