A peep behind the scenes, for those of you who are interested in web geeky stuff.
Big programs like Amazon use databases for their shops.
Little businesses use 5-page websites, just as a little shop window to direct people to a buy- or subscribe-button.
P’kaboo is apparently neither.
Too large for a small 5-page layout. The 5-page layout suits our studio – it’s a fairly obvious product, i.e. the lessons, and the website is there to offer information and help people decide whether they would feel at home in our studio and at ease with our rules, systems and traditions. There is nothing the site needs to do, other than showcase us and have a “contact” page.
But the P’kaboo site, though it started smaller than our studio, is larger than that. It works harder. It actually is a web shop, and the products are adding up now. When we started, we had 5 books. Now though there is a lot more going on there.
The principle of a “flat” html website is that one page (think of a paper page) links to others, by means of links. Think of a messy desk full of papers, but each page is tied to the others with little strings, (ok, imagine really sturdy paper), and to fetch a page from another you pull the string, fishing the page out of the mess. The server at least sorts the pages alphabetically.
You can see the flaw in this one. It is difficult to find things, and cumbersome to follow from link to link to link until you have what you want. This is the way the author pages of P’kaboo are currently organized – individual pages that “pull out” by means of their threads. At least we don’t have hundreds of authors yet or there would be chaos. But the limitation in this web approach is clearly visible.
So, to make the place easier to use, you need a search function. A little box that says “Search” and an empty space for you to type your search term into.
The drawback of all search boxes I have tried out so far is that the first thing they do, is take you out of my website and into Amazon or Google. That is because they are programmed to do so, by Amazon and Google. I have investigated boxes that supposedly stick within one site – none of them does.
Then there are self-built boxes that stick within one page only. Which means you have to put the entire website onto a single page. It can be done, it has been done, and with images on photography sites it is in fact common practice. Visualize this:
If you have a webpage with a single search function, you need to put all the contents (text, images etc) of all the pages onto one huge piece of posterboard (the size of a wall at least), and then put in “jump links”, little beacons all over the posterboard. The search box is a magnifying glass that moves across this massive single page and goes from one beacon to another to look at a particular cut-out of the whole page.
Now, as long as the end user doesn’t know, you ask, what could be wrong with this approach?
When the site loads, it has to load everything upfront. That means, all the images, all the text, one huge enormous page. Downloading megabytes has two drawbacks: Most annoyingly it takes a lot of time; and equally annoyingly, for those with a metered connection, it costs internet. I have been on the sore end of a metered connection long enough to know how much this matters. But time matters too! By the time a website hasn’t loaded ten seconds later, you press the refresh button – restarting the whole process. You, the end user, don’t realize that it isn’t your connection, or generally “the internet being slow” – it’s the actual site.
Iain always took pride in the speed with which his sites would load. You clicked, and if your internet connection was healthy, his sites would come up immediately. He kept images slim and trim, larger images tucked away for later loading if people insist on viewing them.
So, really, what one wants for a shop like this is a welcome page that pops up practically immediately, saying in 5 words or less what we do and offering to find your product for you.
Visualize a database as a bookshelf. The “front page” is the shopkeeper; you ask the pretty young lady about a specific book or author, and she’ll pull out the brochure on that book or author out of the bookshelf.
The bookshelf does not load all its 2 million pages onto your device the second you enter the website. It only loads the little shopkeeper. She then pulls out the brochures as you need them, one by one (or five by five, whatever you, the customer, want).
Of course, this is what I wanted to do for P’kaboo right from the start – except for, also, making it a playful, entertaining site, which I’m glad I did, because it was fun. It was about showcasing authors at play. I don’t know if you enjoy watching children play on a jungle gym or in a kiddie area – I do, I also enjoy watching little animals romp and play. So I thought, readers might enjoy watching authors get up to shenanigans (short story contests etc). Sure, it’s entertaining. I think I’ll retain the play area, but I’ll let the shopkeeper direct the customer to it on request, because not everyone walks into a bookshop to attend a book signing. A lot of us just want a good read (while nicking a few of the edibles). And that, I’m sorry, is the author’s responsibility. All P’kaboo can do about that is offer support.
I hear him comment, “whatever you want to do”. He’s always been there for me. To paraphrase someone I once met: “If ghosts are only in your head, that’s the only place they need to be.” Well, my ghost is in my heart and in my head. And he’s still keeping up the solid support he’s always given me for everything I did, without fail.