The web: publishing for kiddies
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The web: publishing for kiddies

People frequently buy toys for small children that resemble things that adults use, such as cars, computers and telephones. By contrast to the “adult” version, the toys are severely restricted in function and usually brightly coloured, and prominent features are much coarser. It had gradually dawned on me that that's the same relationship as exists between conventional publishing and the current state of the art on the web. I've chosen a couple of examples here; unlike many of my rants, they're not the worst, just those with the biggest discrepancy between their normal (paper) advertising publications and the web version.


Aldi is a German discounter who is currently expanding significantly in Australia. They have special offers every week, and they print a weekly brochure, available about a week in advance, describing the specials. They also publish the offers on the web, and send email if you want it. Here's the front page of the current brochure, along with the front page of the web site:

Image Image

The brochure shows three specials, all of them interesting, along with three different kinds of washing powder. By contrast, the web site shows only one of the offers, along with one other (which is on the back page of the brochure, not shown here), and a lot of information that doesn't relate to the special offers, much of it continually changing. OK, it's their home page, so that makes sense that the content isn't the same. It also offers you not one, but two links to “Special Buys from thursday 29 nov” (their capitalization, not mine, and not that of my spelling checker either). The links are different colours, and despite the identical text, they take you to two different places. Following the red one takes you to “Christmas specials”; the yellow one takes you to “special buys”:


Here we see the three specials on the front page of the brochure, along with one single datum in each case: the price. The volume of the refrigerator is also mentioned. To find the other details in the brochure, you need to select the image or the text:

Image Image Image

When you're done, you have to go back again and try the next one. There are also two miniscule symbols underneath the text for each item. Selecting the left-hand one gives me a tiny pop-up window with no more information than before:


But there's a scroll bar, so maybe this is just typical broken Javascript. Expanding the window (which you have to do for Every Single Window) shows:


What's that? I can't find a way of writing into the space, and I can't think of any earthly reason to want to do so. If I want to make notes, I have text editors and notepads made of paper.

Selecting the other brings up a window with the complete description, along with the opportunity to spam somebody with the information. I suppose this one is marginally useful, but it still seems to be too much like a toy “Look what I can do!”.

The brochure has 12 pages and includes both the “normal” specials and Christmas specials. On the web there are 39 specials and 3 Christmas specials. I'm assuming that they are the same as those in the brochure, though finding out would take a lot of work. To find them all in the brochure, you need to turn over 6 pages. To find them all on the web, you need to follow 44 links and return 42 times, a total of 86 transitions. You'd really have to be bored to do that. But this is advertising; you'd expect that companies would do everything they can to ensure that people read these pages.


Jaycar is an Australian hobbyist electronics company. They bring out quite a good catalogue every year. For the sake of the discussion, let's assume that I'm looking for a 10 metre HDMI cable. The following is page 275 of the current catalogue, one of the first places I'd go to look for this kind of cable:


Catalogue number WQ-7405 in the second position of the right-hand column would seem to fit the bill. I could have looked for it on the web as well. There I go to the home page and am immediately presented with two decisions: “Select a Cat” and “Select a Sut”. Looking for the cats, I find:


I have a drop-down list that requires scrolling to see the lot, though there's plenty of space on the screen. That's the browser's fault (firefox), not Jaycar's, but they could have worked around it. A quick check shows that “Internet Explorer” shows more (probably because it refuses to show a legible text size), but it still requires scrolling. In this case, there is no category “Cable” (nor “CABLE”, for that matter); it's in “WIRE & CABLE”. And there's a sub-category “AUDIO / VIDEO” which gives me 26 results, not very many.

Of course, I can use the box at the top. The following image is magnified about 10 times relative to what I see on the screen:


After entering “video cable” into the box, the pattern of dots changes:


After pressing the “search” button, I get:


24 results, spread over three pages. None of the items I can see are video cables. There are a couple on the second page, and finally on the third page I find some of the same cables:


This page shows almost only the second item on the right-hand column of the catalogue page. It's repetitive, incomplete and badly laid out, even given the constraints of the low resolution of web pages, the catalogue numbers are missing the - character in the middle —and it's missing the 10 metre cable!

Searching for the cable finds it:


The descriptive text is completely different, and this cable does not show up in the 24 search results; clearly the “new” product hasn't been properly merged into the catalogue. Neither do most of the SCART cables—the only exception is the third entry in the left-hand column. By contrast, catalogue pages 274 and 275 alone include 10 items matching “SCART”. This suggests once again that the professionals who write the catalogue are not the same people as the cowboys who do the web site, who, it would seem, don't even know how to categorize the data.

So: who in his right mind would use Jaycar's web site?

How to fix this problem

I should stress once again that Aldi and Jaycar are no exception; if anything, they're better than average. I don't know of any commercial web site that does things right. The real problem is HTML and the people who write it: I'm sure that the web will finally grow up, and that HTML will be replaced by or evolve into something better. I'm just astounded how long it's taking.

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