Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review: Creating a Web Site: The Missing Manual

Author: Matthew MacDonald Format: Paperback, 606 pages Publisher: Pogue Press; 2nd edition (January 7, 2009) ISBN-10: 0596520972 ISBN-13: 978-0596520977 Matthew MacDonald is something of an "in-house" author for the Missing Manual series. He's "penned" (and I use the term loosely in this day of the word processor) Access 2007: The Missing Manual, Excel 2007: The Missing Manual and, of all titles, Your Brain: The Missing Manual (and since I've reviewed all three of these books, I can tell you that he had a little expert help with the last one, especially). He's also written quite extensively for Apress and seems to be well versed on a number of topics. That's why I thought Creating a Web Site might be a little "light" for him. I don't belittle the creativity and technical expertise involved in developing a website (and having created a few in my day, I know whereof I speak), but HTML, CSS, and a smattering of JavaScript isn't perhaps as challenging as writing about how your brain works. On the other hand, there's really so many details to web design that, instead of being to "light", MacDonald may have bitten off more than he could chew by trying to cram "everything" into a single book. Of course, I'm speaking from the point of view of not having cracked open the cover yet. Let's see what this book has under the hood (and I'm really mixing my metaphors in this paragraph). Actually, it's "the hood" I noticed first, or rather the red "ribbon" on the cover saying, "Fully-Revised 2nd Edition". I'm used to reviewing later editions of earlier classics (the first edition of this book reviewed quite well), but "fully-revised" caught my attention. When writing a subsequent edition, often much of the original content doesn't need to be changed; just the bits of the technology that have been updated in the few years between books. Fully-Revised implies MacDonald overhauled the entire thing. It would be almost like writing a new book. No clues were to be had on the back cover, so under the hood I went. I was also disappointed that the Introduction held nothing that said "What's New in this Book". I'd be willing to bet that Part Five: Blogs is probably one of the sections that was added. Of course, if MacDonald really did completely redo the book from scratch, there will be no new "parts" of the book; the entire structure and content will be new. Sadly, I didn't find any direct indication of this in the opening parts of the book, either. What I did find, at least at the beginning, was a book written for the beginner. Fortunately, there's no "history lesson" on the development of "the Internet" or web browser development (I don't think I could have forced myself to take another stroll into the early years of Netscape). Chapter 1 does lightly gloss over about a page worth of Internet history, the major browsers (including Google Chrome; newbie on the block) and various conceptual items. Chapter 2 offers the reader the opportunity to create their first webpage and so on. Definitely starting at ground zero, which isn't a bad thing. If you wanted to design your own wee site, you'd want a book to hold your hand and guide you along the front end of the trail. There's enough in the second chapter to get the reader to create a single HTML page and display it in a browser. Progressing through the book is like walking up a set of stairs. This is good for a linear thinker like me. Since this is a book about building websites, it presents more than just HTML and such. Chapter 3 talks about how to choose a webhost; necessary if you expect people to be able to access your site via the web. Chapter 4 introduces the reader to web editors including Adobe Dreamweaver (of course) and Microsoft Expression Web, but also lesser known editors such as open source Nvu and's Amaya. Since this is a general text about building websites, the material here goes into virtually no depth at all and we know that entire racks of books have been dedicated to Dreamweaver. Don't expect to become an expert on any of the editors from what this text gives you. Part Two takes the reader back into the basics of building and developing web pages, going into more detail about XHTML and CSS, then building on those concepts and practices. This part of the book is what you'd typically expect and MacDonald delivers. In fact, at roughly 200 pages, you could consider this section to be a small book all it's own, teaching the language side of website construction. Remember though, a generalist book has to cover a lot of territory. Part Three is the "marketing" section. Once you've built a site, it doesn't do much good if people don't visit. There's even some material on how to monetize your site using tools such as Google AdSense, Amazon Associates and so on. I thought we were probably through with the "technical" side of website development, when MacDonald took me back into the realm with what he calls "Web Site Frills". These days, I don't consider JavaScript a "frill" but rather a standard "screwdriver" or "hammer" in the web designer's toolbox. Of course, limited to one chapter, there's not a huge amount of information to be gleaned (and The Missing Manual series has an entire book dedicated to JavaScript written by David Sawyer McFarland, but I digress). Of course, how many amateur web designers just "Google" for the bit of JavaScript they need and paste the ready-made code into their webpages? The part of the book on Blogs seemed a bit of a departure from everything that came before, mainly because a blog isn't a website as such. People (myself included) often have a website and blog, since they fulfill different functions on the web. Even MacDonald introduces this section by telling the reader that he's moving away from the web site building agenda. He makes heavy use of Google's Blogger which is building a blog with assistance. I will admit that the skills the reader should have learned up to this point will let them customize the style sheets underlying the standard templates, so they can create their own look and feel (functionality is still largely controlled by the available widgets). I found the "hazards" of blogging box interesting as the author addresses some of the social pitfalls of putting what amounts to a personal journal on the web for all to see. If you've never made a blog with Blogger before and think you might be intimidated by the process, this section contains a nice tutorial for the you. "Marketing" your blog is restricted to another box at the end of the section, but it might be helpful for the uninitiated. I was pleased to see that the appendixes included the expected XHTML reference and a "useful web sites" list, but I'm not sure what to think of the book overall. It's been awhile since I've needed a basic primer on building a web site, and I'm torn between thinking the book was too short and too long. It really tried to cover all the basics and then some, and yes, the reader will be able to design, develop, and publish a site to the web if they follow what this book says. On the other hand, it's a mile wide and an inch deep. You can't cover everything you'd really need to know to design a really good site in a single book, even if it's over 600 pages long. I think the book might better have served its audience, even if it reduced itself in size, by confining itself to teaching web design and publishing basics. I'm not even sure I'd have thrown JavaScript into the mix but instead, would have pumped in more HTML and CSS. I'm torn because, as I previously said, you hardly find a site on the Internet anymore that doesn't have some JavaScript. So where do you draw the line as far as what to put in this book and what to leave out? What I really wanted to see was references to the other Missing Manuals that more exclusively cover the technologies barely touched upon in this text. The Missing Manual series has books on just about everything that addresses CSS, JavaScript, Dreamweaver, and such and in depth. Using this book as a spring board into those other books might have been the way to go. Don't get me wrong. The book will teach you want you need to know to create a web site, and MacDonald is honest, albeit in the Blog part of the book, that what the book doesn't address is how to maintain a website. If you do what the book says, you'll have a website on the Internet that will function at least adequately. If that's the goal of the book and the reader, then you're all set. It's just that so much more can be done and many of the book's chapters could have ended with something like "Please see CSS: The Missing Manual to get more out of your style sheets". As a parting thought, I received Head First Web Design from O'Reilly the same day as I did the Missing Manual book, so it'll be interesting to me (and hopefully to you) to compare the two books when I write the "Head First" review. Which book is better for the beginning web designer or, does each book point to a different audience? We'll find out soon.


  1. A very nice read James, I will have to check those manuals out they look very interesting and helpful. One of my main issues/problems when I first started to sell online after opening up my own business was ranking. I just couldn't get into the search engines, and when I did my company wasn't anywhere that would really benefit me. So after a few months I did some research and found a company called Spear who specialised in this magical element of SEO. Didn't have a clue what it was but I knew it was something that I really needed to get my website ranked. Fair enough it did take a few months but now I realise the importance of having your website optimised because the sales started to pour in after everything had settled down. PPC is also something I don't know a great deal about that I would like to look into.

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