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Web Enhancements

In its early days the Web was a static medium consisting of HTML pages broadcasting text and still images. Over time both Internet transmission speeds and user expectations have increased exponentially. And new technologies have emerged that take advantage of improved infrastructure and increased demands. This article outlines the major technologies that serve to enhance the basic capabilities of the Web.

Modularity

If, as it probably should be, your Website is hosted on a blog such as WordPress or a Content Management System (CMS) such as Drupal (the distinction between blogs and CMSs is becoming ever more ever more blurred) there's a wide selection of different Web hosting services you can choose. You already benefit from a great deal of enhancements that would have taken considerable effort to add to static sites, including tagging, categorization, search, member management, commenting...

Additionally such software offers countless interchangeable "themes" allowing the site's appearance to be changed throughout with a few mouse clicks, along with numerous "plug-ins" offering all-manner of customized functionality, again installable in just a few clicks. Thanks to the "open source" philosophy much of this software and its optional enhancements is available free of charge and benefits from the support of a large and enthusiastic online community.

User-Generated Content

The much-used term Web 2.0 (or Social Web) describes Web sites that rely to a significant extent on user generated content. Rather than just broadcasting their message to users Web 2.0 sites invite, indeed rely on, user contributions. If your site is built with blog/CMS software it is by default Web 2.0, you just need to enable subscription and commenting and set about building an active community.

For the Web publisher user generated content is a double-edged sword. The content provided by visitors adds multiple hooks by which your site might register in the search engines, and multiple doorways by which new visitors might enter. Unfortunately, participation oriented sites are a magnet for spammers posting inane ads for viagra and the like.

Various technologies have emerged to combat spam, eg:

  • Restricting contribution to registered users
  • Double opt-in registration (ie users must visit an e-mailed link to confirm registration
  • Using a CAPTCHA (eg distorted text phrase that users must re-enter) on posting or registration
  • Moderation of contributions (Only viable on sites of limited postings, though moderation duties can be delegated)

Multimedia

One of the most engaging, and easily added, enhancements to the Web is multimedia, ie audio and video. If you have a computer with sound card, web cam, digital camera or cell phone, you most likely have the necessary hardware to add audio and video to your Web presence. The process is relatively simple.

Once you have downloaded your audio or video clips to your computer you may want to edit your sound or movie before making them available to the world. 

The excellent (and free) Audacity software allows both editing and conversion of audio file formats, with MP3 being the most common for downloadable podcasts. For video editing, Windows users can employ Movie Maker, which comes bundled with the system. Alternatively you can download a free / open source editor (search Google for "free video editor"), or purchase a commercial product such as Adobe Premiere.

Video offers the choice of a number of file formats, however Flash .FLV format remains popular for Web video. FLV files offer good compression for smooth download and playback, and also utilize the ubiquitous Adobe Flash Player, which means most users will be able to click and view without need for cumbersome downloads. There are plenty of free converters, Google "free FLV converter". You'll also need a SWF FLV player (a small Flash movie that “plays” the FLV file) to incorporate Flash videos into your page, many converters provide this automatically along with a sample HTML page. If not, a quick search will locate many choices.

Web Services

Web services are technologies that allow communication between two servers / sites across the Web. As a Web publisher Web services allow you to incorporate content generated by other sites into your pages. Common examples are Amazon's Product Advertising API and Google Maps API Web Services. Using Web services allows you to create pages (mashups) combining content from various sources.

Web Scripting

If you need an enhancement that isn't provided by your blog/CMS you can implement it yourself (or hire someone to do it) from one of the many Web scripting languages.

Scripting is a form of programming, common on the Web, usually referring to short-ish programs written in specially developed scripting languages. Thanks to the open source ethos of the Web, not only are these languages free to use but there are numerous free scripts and code segments available along with a dedicated community only too willing to provide guidance.

Scripts come in two varieties, depending whose computer they run on. Client side scripts run on the client's (ie user's) computer. Server side scripts run on the server, ie the computer that holds your Web pages.

Client-Side Scripting

JavaScript is by far the most common client-side scripting language. JavaScript is embedded within HTML documents and executed by the browser displaying the document. JavaScript has a variety of uses eg providing user feedback such as rollover effects, creating simple animation such as scrolling text banners, and validating user form input prior to submission.

JavaScript may be used in conjunction with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to provide Dynamic HTML (DHTML), a means of changing the contents of a web page displayed in a browser in response to user interaction, eg in menu systems.
JavaScript libraries such as jQuery implement the most common applications of JavaScript, allowing them to be easily incorporated into a Web site by means of function calls.

One of the difficulties of using JavaScript results from the fact that different browsers, and indeed different versions of the same browser, recognize (or fail to recognize) different JavaScript features - though the problem is currently less of an issue than it once was. It is also possible that user's have chosen to disable JavaScript in their browser, so JavaScript should be used to enhance, rather than provide essential functionality.

Server-Side Scripting

Many languages and technologies are used for providing server side functionality, eg PHP, JSP, Perl, Cold Fusion... Server side scripts are run in response to a request from a client's browser, often input from a Web form. Scripts usually produce output in the form of HTML which is returned to the client's browser for display. Because they run on the server the response for a certain input is guaranteed. And, where the output is in simple HTML, what the client sees is also guaranteed. So, no need to worry about which browser your user has or how it's configured.

A common use for server side scripts is interaction with databases such as MySQL, eg allowing customers to search a product catalogue.

One of the most common languages used for server side scripting is the open source PHP (PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor). PHP is usually available as standard on the widely used (and also open source) Apache Web server.

Like JavaScript, PHP statements are also embedded within HTML (or HTML is embedded within PHP depending which way you look at it). PHP files have a .php extension. When a request for a PHP file is received the server executes (runs) the PHP code (rather than sending the file content to the client's browser). The output from the PHP is then returned to the browser.

Ajax

Ajax ("asynchronous JavaScript and XML") describes a group of technologies and techniques that combine the benefits of client-side and server-side scripts, to produce an enhanced user experience. Before Ajax, for a Web page to interact with the server a page re-load would be required. Ajax allows pages to communicate with the server, eg in response to user input, and to instantly update in response. One of the most common examples of Ajax is Google's anticipation of search queries while they are being typed.

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