What is Larry Thinking? #1 => Introduction to the Newsletter, Creating a Successful Web Site

June 25, 2007

In this edition…

About this Newsletter

This is the first edition of my first (and only) newsletter. I should have started a newsletter/mailing list years ago but you know how things go sometime (the number of itbs on my TODO list that never get done is frightening). Anyway, my thanks to you for your interest in what I have to say. I sincerely hope that this newsletter will be useful and interesting for you; something you actually read, or at least peruse, before sending it along to that great electronic trash bin in the sky. Towards that end, the bulk of each newsletter will be things I’ve seen/learned/discovered that never made it into a book or are just more topical. For example, if you do PHP development, you might be interested in this Web site or in this application or you should read this interview. Stuff like that. The newsletters will also handle all the book giveaways (more on that below), provide updates on my existing and forthcoming books, and will have the occasional article written specifically for the newsletter (the first part of one is below).

You are more than welcome to reply to this newsletter if you have any feedback, suggestions, or questions. Understand that you will not get a direct reply, though. What I will (or might) do is apply your feedback or suggestions to, or answer interesting questions in, future newsletters. If you need a reply to a question or want to talk more about a subject raised here, use the forum dedicated to Newsletter Topics. In that forum there can be more of a dialogue with me and with other subscribers.

Also, I will create an archive of these newsletters on my Web site. I’ll announce that information once I’ve done it!

On the Web

As part of the PHP Security Consortium, is a relatively new project called PhpSecInfo. PhpSecInfo is a very simple to use set of PHP scripts that perform a security audit on your Web server. It reports what the current settings and versions are that may or may not be a problem. If you’re on a hosted server, you might not be able to do anything about these settings but it’s still best to be aware of the potential issues. After running the audit, don’t panic! The report are recommendations, not necessarily clear-cut problems. You might also be interested in what else you find on the PHP Security Consortium Web site or in this interview with the creator of PhpSecInfo.

In the Forums

A couple years ago a fairly serious issue arose where spambots began using HTML forms in an attempt to send spam. The premise is this: most forms online are handled by some server side technology (PHP, ASP.NET, CGI, etc.) that often results in an email being sent (like to a site’s administrator letting them know what was entered in the form). What the spambots try to do is manipulate the form data so that the sent email isn’t just a simple message to one person but rather spam sent to any number of recipients. This is possible because of the way an email message is structured. In this forum thread–Avoiding SPAM!!!–I introduce the subject, point to another forum thread where I show PHP code that can prevent these attacks, and list a couple other relevant Web sites.

What is Larry Thinking?

I’ve written many books related to making a Web site. These almost exclusively focus on the functionality of a site: creating databases, programing code, and so on. What I haven’t written about, primarily because the topic is both too large and too generic, is how to create a successful Web site. Many readers have questions and miscomprehensions about this subject, so I thought I’d put together this little article. This is just how I view the subject, based upon my experience. You might disagree with what I write but hopefully it’ll get you thinking about the bigger picture when it comes to your own sites.

Part 1: Intent

The key word in this article’s title is successful. What makes a successful Web site? To start, you need to think about the intent of a Web site. This is the criteria by which success can be measured. I think of intent as having two parts: the goal and the audience. Intent is represented by this sentence:

The Web site should [do what] [to/for whom].

I’ve come up with four broad categories of intent:

  1. Make money
  2. Provide information
  3. Represent your business
  4. Personal

For example, Amazon’s intent might be to sell everything under the sun to everyone on the planet. Or a “goal” of a “provide information” intent might be to list errata, the table of contents, and updates, for a book; the “audience” being existing and potential readers.

Obviously there will be some overlap among these categories. You can make money selling things (actual tangible things or virtual things, like PDFs), providing access to content and information, or by selling advertising on a site that’s free to the users. Providing information is just that, although you might also provide information for a fee or provide information in order to get visitors in order to sell advertising. Representing your business is a common intent, where the actual money would be made by the normal business affairs. Personal sites represent a lot of the smaller sites online. You want to share pictures of your vacations, your affection for a particular musician, or create a way for your friends to gamble on sports.

For each of these different intents, there’s a different idea of “success”. Personal sites have the most achievable target: can your friends and family see your vacation photos? Making money is the most demanding goal. First you have to get people to your site, then you need to get them to spend money, then you need them to come back. Not an easy task! I’ve personally created many sites with each of these intents. The personal ones always work: my parents love seeing the pictures of their grandchildren on that site; my friends and I play in a sports pool on a different site; and so on. Representing my business is primarily what the www.DMCInsights.com site does. I don’t know how successful it is in getting people to hire my company or buy my books but I think it does pretty well in telling people about my company and supporting my books. I’ve done a number of informational sites, primarily within the realm of education, and these are easy to be successful with. Normally the goal is to make information on X topic publicly available. The audience is whoever comes, without really having the pressure of trying to get so many visitors.

I’ll continue this article in the next newsletter, where I talk about the role of content and a mysterious third piece that goes into creating a successful Web site.

Book Giveaway Update

For each book I write I get 20 or so free copies. Some go to friends and family, others clutter up my office (and when you’ve written a dozen-plus books, there’s quite a pile). Sometimes I also get four copies of books translated into other languages (but not always, translations are a nebulous area that I don’t always know about). I would like these extra copies to go to people that could use them, so I’ve tried various book giveaways over the years. I had been doing it online but that wasn’t really working out (I ended up spending a lot of time trying to manage it all). From here on out, all book giveaways will be handled through the newsletter. I haven’t figured out exactly how I’ll do that, though, so hopefully I’ll have worked out the logistics by the second or third newsletter (third at the latest).

My Book News

I have finished primary writing on my Ajax book, titled “Building Better Web Sites with Ajax: Visual QuickProject Guide”, and am in the final editing stages now. It should come out in late July or August. It’s a slightly different series than most of my books, with much more “do this then do this” and less discussion (although there is adequate discussion of the why’s). I think it covers a wide range of Ajax techniques and all the code should have great cross-browser reliability.

I’m just now starting writing a book on Adobe’s AIR technology, short for Adobe Integrated Runtime (formerly called “Apollo”). The technology is currently in beta but is very promising. AIR provides a way to create cross-platform applications much like the way Java runtime allows a Java app to run on any operating system. Where AIR has an advantage over Java is first in performance (Java applications are notoriously slow). Second, the really exciting thing about AIR is that you can use the same technologies used to create Web sites–HTML, JavaScript, CSS, Flash, and Flex–to make these applications. Think of them as Rich Internet Applications (RIA) that run outside of a browser, can work online or offline, and can access the computer’s file system. It’s really cool stuff and Adobe is really promoting it. It terms of the book, I think it’ll be my first book that’s also done as a “Rough Cut” series, where you can download the chapters in rough format as I write them.

At the end of the summer I begin writing the third edition of my popular “PHP and MySQL for Dynamic Web Sites”, updated for PHP 6.

More information on these titles and more in future newsletters.