Bignosebird.com is a webmastery site that is a bit different than most. It avoids the glitz and bleeding edge and tries to provide people with a good understanding of how to create good web sites. This does not mean boring web sites, but stressing that if you don't have content, looks just don't matter! BigNoseBird (BNB) also doesn't need to turn a profit. Almost all of the advertising on the site points to our own pages!
BNB was designed to be a destination, not a
set of links, and almost all of the 200 pages on the site are original content. The other
point about BNB I would like to make is that we try and keep things in plain English, and
I founded Bignosebird.com back in June of 1997 and do most of the writing. Christine Hunt joined up with me last year and my term of endearment for her is, "Crayon Handler". Art is not my strength!
CGI, or the Common Gateway Interface is a means by which your web server software can interact with the rest of your computer system. This allows you to gather information from your site using forms, or to tailor your pages to your reader's needs. The name cgi-bin is really just the name of the directory on the server that holds your scripts!
A web page as HTML is basically dumb as dirt. It sits there and browser figures out how to present the information to you. With CGI, you can create an interactive experience for your readers. When you use CGI, you can tailor your output for your reader's browser. If you are running a site where people log in, you can actually tailor their pages to meet their individual needs. This is how you create the "MY-wherever.com" type of pages.
HTML is a one way trip down the information highway. The server sends you a page. CGI allows your readers to supply information back to your server, and you can then do whatever you want with the information you receive.
CGI scripts give you the ability to create easier to use sites. The truth is this: poor design with or without CGI will result in a poor experience for your readers. With CGI, you have many more options available. Want to offer a site search? You need to run something on the server to get the query and then act on it. This is an example of how CGI fits into the big picture.
You also have more information to work with. For instance, if you use CGI you know where the person came from, what browser they are using, what operating system they are on, and some other useful tidbits. With CGI, you can pass information from one page to the next allowing you to do things such as offer them links to the last few pages they visited on your site!
Performance is a rather complex problem. My attitude is that horsepower is cheap and getting cheaper all the time. The truth is that using CGI and/or Server Side Includes (another great way to create interactive pages) do place a load on server resources. If you have a busy site and create dynamic pages, then you need to take a good look at your hosting situation. I recently moved BNB to its own server due to the stress the site was placing on the hosting company's system. Currently BNB is handling about 100,000 file requests per day and it's load is close to zero! The system is a PC with a few extra parts and runs Redhat Linux and the Apache Server.
Download time should not be an issue. The information that is being sent to the browser is nothing more than good old HTML code. So, if your static page was about 10K and your dynamic page is about 10K, they should arrive in the same amount of time.
The bottom line is this: Do what you have to do to make your site work for your audience.
Just the opposite! CGI creates whatever type of output you want -- typically straight HTML that of course you can tailor to the release version of the browser. The browser does not know that anything special is happening on the server side, it just receives a "page" of information. The beauty of CGI is that it works great with any browser, and if someday there is the equivalent of "Handicapped Plates" for browser identifiers, concerned webmasters could further tailor their pages to meet everyone's needs.
I like my own. ;-) Well, actually I like seeing what other webmasters do with them! In all seriousness, I admire the works of Selena Sol (www.extropia.com) and Matt Wright (www.cgi-resources.com). I also find the work at Fluid Dynamics (www.xav.com) to be great stuff.
I think our general design advice and graphics tutorials are a great help to people. They stick to the basics and try to instill some not-so-common sense ideas in people. In other words, I love teaching people from my mistakes!
I also try to get people to think about what they are doing. Web design is like painting, not sculpture. You do not put everything out and then take away what is not needed. I make the point that if you place a graphic on your site that takes a minute to download, and millions of people visit your site- you have the potential to waste an entire lifetime worth of moments. ;-) A very scary concept.
Another part of the site I really enjoyed creating was the BNB Definitive Guide to Server Side Includes (SSI). SSI can both make your site more usable and more maintainable. All of the navigation on my site is done using this method. To put it simply, it is like a document merge. The server assembles the pages from various pieces. If a link is changed or added, I only have to edit one file, and automatically all of my pages are updated!
People need to concentrate on content. I get letters all the time from people wanting to start a web site and need to know where to start. I usually suggest "coming up with an idea!" Define your content. Identify your audience. With some luck, they shall come.
The most important thing to me is content. Concentrate on what you have to say. Develop your content, and do not waste your time wondering why things look slightly different in each browser.
Avoid that "Looks Best with" nonsense. Your reader that uses a particular browser is used to seeing things a certain way. Why make half your audience feel like they should leave your site for no good reason??? I love visiting a site with both browsers and then writing the webmaster to tell them that it seems to work fine with either one!
Understand that being a webmaster means wearing more than one hat. Move beyond straight HTML and give techniques such as Server Side Includes and CGI a try. You will be able to provide tailored content and have the satisfaction of having developed some good, and I might say marketable, skills!
A plug? Okay. Be sure to stop by Bignosebird.com and have a look around. While you are at it, be sure to tell all your friends about it as well.
By the way, here's Bruce Gronich's bio...
I strongly encourage everyone to visit BigNoseBird.com -- it is an excellent resource for Web developers at all levels. It is a Web site that I visit often.
(This interview was conducted via email by John S. Rhodes)
Read another popular interview: No More Broken Links!
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(c)1998-99 by John S. Rhodes. All rights
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