Web Design Tools

Thursday May 9th 2002 by SmallBusinessComputing Staff

Web design packages generate HTML documents, the format used to display information on the Web. If you're not familiar with HTML, these programs offer wizards, tutorials, templates, and graphics to get you started. We review five Web design packages that can help you build a compelling Web presence.

www.smallbusinesscomputing Staff

Some businesses use the web to establish a corporate presence, build relationships, and grow profits. Some don't use the Web at all. If you run one of the companies that are avoiding the Web, ask yourself why. Despite the fact that Web development is tricky business, your place in cyberspace can set the tone for your business, allow for more interaction with clients, and act as a dynamic marketing tool.

An effective Web presence requires professional design software. Site-building packages generate HTML documents, the format used for page display on the Web. If you're not familiar with HTML, you can find software with wizards, tutorials, templates, and graphics to get you started. Many applications can also help you find a home for your site on the Web and will help you upload new content, modify existing content, and troubleshoot problems. We reviewed five Web design packages to help you build a compelling Web presence.

Effective Web site development is time-consuming. You must plan your site's layout and learn your way around design options. In addition, serious Web building requires some knowledge of HTML codes and tags if the goal is to master the basics of page layout or troubleshoot problems. If you're willing to try, however, the Web design packages reviewed here are the best available for developing visually rich content to spread the word about your company's products or services.

Test Drive: Adobe GoLive 6.0

Macromedia Dreamweaver 4
Dreamweaver is a tool for the creation of interactive and multimedia-enriched Web sites and supports Macromedia Flash, Shockwave animations, and interactive movies, but you won't find any themes or wizards to get you started. Novice designers have to familiarize themselves with the program by taking animated guided tours, completing a tutorial on building a simple Web site, and working through interactive lessons.

Like other products reviewed here, Dreamweaver is actually two programs. It integrates powerful HTML editing options with a graphical WYSIWYG design environment. You can simply drag and drop page elements onto a Web page and Dreamweaver automatically inserts the associated code into the HTML source. Toolbar buttons make it easy to switch between both views or split the workspace into two windows.

Web developers can import and edit HTML documents without changing any of the document's existing HTML code. As you work in Code view, a Reference panel provides information about specific HTML, JavaScript, and CSS elements, while a JavaScript debugger checks JavaScript documents for errors.

With strong support for JavaScript, XHTML, and C or C++, it's easy to alter menus and personalize the program interface. Likewise, new Flash tools help you create editable vector graphics or insert pre-designed Flash buttons or movies. The program doesn't support drag and drop for Excel or Word documents, but you can draw table cells directly in the program.

Site management tools include reports on errors in the current document, entire local site, selected site files, or a particular folder. You won't get information on page statistics, but you can get information on redundant tags, empty tags, untitled documents, external links, broken links, and files that aren't referenced. An Assets panel tracks site images, colors, scripts, and other media objects. Built into the program are some very easy-to-use tools to transfer files to and from a remote server, synchronize files between local and remote sites, and prevent files from being overwritten.

Third-party extensions are available and enhance Dreamweaver's usefulness. Users interested in Dreamweaver for e-commerce will like the variety of available e-commerce extensions, providing options for tracking site statistics, shopping carts, visitor polling, counters, site statistics, and more.

Dreamweaver has so many options and supports so many multimedia types that it's easy to recommend to people somewhat familiar with Web design. Motivated beginners can climb the steep learning curve.

Microsoft FrontPage 2002
Microsoft FrontPage 2002 targets both business users and novice Web designers and offers support for built-in graphics editing and third-party e-commerce solutions. We found it easy to construct an attractive multi-page Web site with little knowledge of HTML programming code, thanks to the program's numerous templates, professional themes, and wizards.

Users familiar with Microsoft Office will recognize FrontPage's interface. Tight integration with other Microsoft products and content allows users to incorporate dynamic Web content from affiliate Microsoft sites (e.g., MSNBC headlines and weather forecasts, MSN search tools, and Expedia maps). You can also drop the icon of an Excel document or Word table in a FrontPage Web page and have it automatically create a table for the content.

FrontPage 2002 adds several new features, including the ability to create online surveys. FrontPage also includes usage analysis tools, which track how users access and use the site while identifying the pages receiving the most hits daily, weekly, or monthly. Support for SharePoint Team Services technology allows users to create Web sites for sharing project information, calendars, and announcements. New to this release is an option enabling authorized workgroup members to participate in newsgroup-style threaded discussion groups.

Other features added to this release include a new Page tab interface in WYSIWYG view, allowing users to open several pages simultaneously. A Photo Gallery offering customizable layouts optimized for the Web can be used to store regularly used graphics, complete with caption and image descriptions. A Database Interface Wizard reformats the contents of a selected database so that it can be displayed on a Web page. To view database content, however, a Web site must be hosted or published on a Web server configured with Active Server Pages, Active Data Objects, FrontPage 2000 Server Extensions, and Internet Information Server V4.0.

While FrontPage 2002 won't win the hearts and minds of true code warriors, it does give HTML programmers more control over source code appearance and operation than previous versions. You can view and edit source code, but you can't view both source code and WYSIWYG layout simultaneously. FrontPage does not provide HTML code integrity check options.

Like other products reviewed here, FrontPage 2002 includes an FTP client to upload completed Web content to a host server. We could upload single pages or individual site files, as well as entire sites. We could even delete pages from the server, but because it's not a full-fledged FTP client, it did not allow the deletion of the hidden folders it placed on the site.

FrontPage 2002 is the only product in this roundup to include three months of free Web site hosting. It also includes support for optional e-commerce solutions, thanks to Microsoft's bCentral Commerce Manager Add-in, providing templates for an online product catalog, shopping, and credit card processing. These services, in combination with the program's ease of use, make it the best choice for the businessperson just getting started in Web design.

NetObjects Fusion MX
Fusion is another package that blurs the lines between pro and novice, but is best suited for people unfamiliar with Web design. The program is easy to use, has several templates and tips to help you along, and offers wizards to get you started.

A multimedia-rich tutorial introduces the skills you'll need to get started and develop a Web site from scratch. Fusion also includes a sample site to explore how various program features work. The program's graphical interface and friendly tools simplify the tasks of manipulating Web page text and graphics. The WYSIWYG editor features precise pixel control over object placement, plus support for drag and drop positioning and mouse rollover effects.

Fusion comes with eFuse Stylizer, an add-in that provides over 200 customizable SiteStyles for giving your site a consistent look. All SiteStyle templates can be modified or enhanced with animations and interactive elements, thanks to Fusion's extensible architecture, allowing Web developers to add components that tie into product, sales, inventory, and other business databases. There is no support for Microsoft Office documents, but you can import Word documents and use copy/paste to handle the contents of Excel spreadsheets.

Strong graphical editing and support for third-party products, however, are not matched by parallel strengths in HTML coding. The program lets users examine, insert, and copy the HTML code, but it won't let you edit protected code or check the properties of code you add. In addition, you can't view coding and graphic representations side by side.

Support for third-party services and tools extend the functionality of the program by dropping in components to analyze traffic and interact with visitors. If you're looking for a product that facilitates e-commerce solutions, Fusion will oblige.

NetObjects Fusion is a reliable Web design package for businesses that are just starting to dip their feet in the Web pool, but the lack of robust HTML control and multitude of third-party add-ons - instead of included features - will be less satisfying for more experienced users.

SoftQuad HoTMetaL Pro 6.0
Combining layout, editing, and visual design functions with full-featured HTML coding, site management, and publishing tools, HoTMetaL Pro 6.0 targets Web beginners, but can satisfy advanced developers. Newbies will enjoy the program's WYSIWYG editing environment, complete with wizards and ready-made themes based on personal profile information and business type. There's even an option to build a business site complete with an online store.

Site construction in the WYSIWYG view requires little prior HTML knowledge, but those who want to learn HTML can take the included Introduction to HTML and JavaScript tutorials. Authors with intermediate coding skills can switch to HoTMetaL Pro's Tags On view, which displays HTML tags and provides authoring assistance. There are no options to view graphical and coding window contents side-by-side.

Advanced coders can write and manage code directly in Source View. There's a handy automatic rule checker to verify that the markup in a document is correct and complete. There's also an option to import HTML created in other editors without reformatting the imported code.

The program ships with over 5,000 Web graphics, plus Ulead Systems PhotoImpact Editor, GIF Animator, and Photo Explorer. It also includes ready-made Dynamic HTML scripts and Cascading Style Sheets, and supports several scripting engines, including JavaScript, VBScript, and Perl. It has both a spelling checker and a thesaurus, and supports drag and drop for Microsoft Office documents.

Site management is facilitated by HoTMetaL Pro's Web view, which shows broken links. Page summaries note file sizes and download times. The program's built-in Asset Manager allowed us to drag asset types such as images, multimedia files, applets, and scripts directly from a Web browser and drop them onto the program's pages.

It's easy to upload individual pages, revisions, or complete sites using the program's built-in FTP client. You can even edit files on the remote server. The program supports site synchronization between local and remote sites. It also comes with a copy of Ipswitch WS_FTP PRO 6.02 for full control over directories and files on the remote server.

Thanks to partnerships with other technology vendors, you can adapt your HoTMetaL Pro Web site for e-commerce on the Web, accommodating credit card and check payment transactions or managing an online store. Information about other Web hosting options is also included. While site statistics report options are not built into the program, HoTMetaL Pro does offer tie-ins for site reporting tools available from MyComputer.com.

HoTMetaL Pro is a flexible, full-featured program and an asset to professionals and beginners alike.

Outsourcing Your Site
If you lack the skills required to create a great-looking Web site, hire a professional Web designer. This is especially important if you want your site to handle online order processing and payments, tie into your corporate database, utilize Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption, or employ multimedia video, audio, animations, and rollover effects.

With the Net economy stuttering, there are many Web design firms and independent Web designers eager for work. Here's how to find one:

- Surf the Web and find other sites you like. Check out what other companies in your industry are doing. If you find a Web site you like, find out who designed it.

- Visit http://all-designers.com or www.webdesigners.com. Both sites can direct you to a designer or firm in your area. The HTML Writer's Guild, a professional organization for Web page designers, lets you post job openings and requests on its Web page (www.hwg.org).

- Ask your friends and associates for a referral.

- Contact your local Internet or Web professional organization.

Whatever you do, realize that Web sites can be an expensive investment. Most professionals work on a contract basis and can require anywhere from $1,000 to $250,000 to build your site.

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