Tuesday, June 11, 2013

About Web Design / HTML: Data driven sites intrigue me

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From Jennifer Kyrnin, your Guide to Web Design / HTML

I have been in love with the idea of websites driven by database backends for as long as I've been building web pages. When I first started designing web pages on the NETCOM website I had the opportunity to use an application developed by a friend of mine called HTDB. This was in the mid- to late-90s, and most people were working on flat websites with straight HTML, and I had the opportunity to play with some really dynamic and ground-breaking stuff. I had a blast, and was hooked on creating sites where the content was managed by a database ever since. For example, one Halloween I created what I called the "Haunted Homeport" for the NETCOM site. HTDB delivered a haunted version of the Homeport page at random, so if you reloaded you might get haunted and (more likely) you'd get the normal page. This was a huge hit, and would have been very difficult to do without the content being stored in a database.

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Why Use a Database for Website Content

Often, when I bring up the idea of a data driven site, I'm asked "but, why? My HTML site works just fine." This is true for people and companies that are posting just a few blog posts a week or don't update their site very much. But once your site moves beyond the small stages of basic websites, you might find that a database can be helpful for controlling and manipulating your data.

When you are using a complex system like HTDB, everything content related is pushed out to the content developers, and the management of that content is controlled by the program. This means that a content creator can do what they do best and create content while programmers and designers can focus on their areas of expertise.

But that is a boring reason. The reason I like using databases is because they make your site so flexible. Today you might show your content with headlines and subheads linking to a separate page with the full article and tomorrow you might show a headline and excerpt from the first paragraph. And since the content is separated into those elements, you can easily do that.

If you think about it, this sounds a lot like a blog, right? If you thought that, you'd be right. Most blogging software out there like WordPress, Blogger, and others all use a database to store the content. So if you decide that your black on blue theme isn't working for you you can switch it to a nice pastel one without having to touch your content at all.

Of course, if you already use blog software, you probably think you don't need another database. And if all you're doing is blogging, you probably don't. But there is lots of content that many sites display that could benefit from being in a database. For example, if you put product inventory in a database your customers can search by what's in stock or just sort your sale items more quickly. And if it's quick and easy for them, they are more likely to make a purchase.

You Can Use CSV Files as a Simple Database

Okay, technically, CSV (comma separated values) files are not databases, but they are a great way to get started creating data-driven web pages. You just have to know the format of your CSV file so that you can deliver the data correctly. When I first started in web design, I didn't have access to a database, but I did have permissions to write and edit files on the web server. So I used CSV and tab-delimited files all the time as quasi-databases.

To do this you need to use Perl or PHP to access your CSV file and then display the contents by calling the different elements of the file. Here's an article on how to Parse Text Files using Perl.

Search Related Topics:  importing data  financial software data files  csv

There is No Perfect Database Software

There are lots of database tools out there. I tend to use MySQL because I'm most familiar with it, but there are lots of options. If you want to create dynamic, data-driven web pages, you won't go wrong in learning how to use at least one database.

And About.com has some Guides that can help you:


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This newsletter is written by:
Jennifer Kyrnin
Web Design / HTML Guide
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