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Blast From the Past: Web Design Advice from 1999

So I was doing my normal reading of the web’s latest interesting web design advice and SEO news, and suddenly, a thought struck me: how much of what we’re reading today is actually new? On the one hand, there’s “nothing new under the sun” (though I’m pretty sure whoever said that hadn’t ever hear of the Internet) — on the other, things evolve pretty quickly online (but how much of that is evolution of syntax vs. evolution of principles?)

My response, as normal around here, was to turn to Google and set the ‘Custom Range’ to end on 12/31/1999. I looked up “web design” — nothing more complex than that — and took a look at what I got. It was pure freaking gold. Here are some of the best and worst of some of the top results of my search.

The Good

  • Don’t jump on the latest buzzwords, such as Push, community, chat, free email, 3D sitemaps, auctions. “There will be a new buzzword next month. Count on it. But don’t jump at it just because Jupiter writes a report about it,” says Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group. I don’t know who Jupiter was, and obviously the words themselves have changed over a decade and a half, but the truth is still there: chase keywords, not buzzwords.
  • Keep your site structure simple. [Link opens a PDF] “If your site is well structured, users can form a mental model of it that helps them understand the scope of the site,” Apple’s 1996 Guide to Web Design states. They also advocate the three-click rule: if you can’t get there in three clicks, assume no one is ever going to get there.
  • You have to give something back. An article on, of all places, tells us, “One of the most basic principles behind the Internet is that those who benefit from the Internet should give something back to the Internet.” This is still excellent advice for web designers today and should be adhered to by everyone.

The Bad

  • Don’t put important information in banners. The phenomenon of ‘banner blindness’ is so commonplace today that we don’t even use a name for it — we just know that banners are for ads, not information…but 15 years ago, this wasn’t something that had sunk into the collective unconscious yet.
  • Take your user’s slow web connections into account. “It is important to minimise the download time as most web users have slow connections,” reminds a, chastising web designers to “design for efficiency.” Now, this isn’t ‘Bad’ because it’s bad advice today — fast sites are still just as important as ever, thanks in part to mobile browsing — but the reasoning is outdated enough that it belonged here.

The Ugly

  • Use color conservatively, the Society for Technical Communication declares. “Although color can engage users, it can distract them unnecessarily or be misinterpreted. Also keep in mind that some users have equipment that only supports monochrome.” This needs no commentary.

I could probably keep going for several pages, but it’s actually more fun if this is your gig to go to Google and set the Custom Range back to a decade or more ago, and just sit back and remember what we all used to worry about, obsess over, and tinker with.

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