Five Website Blunders That Need to Die

As this century gets into its stride, the computing world is evolving and standards that once ruled are falling away. Websites that fail to take this into account are doing their owners a disservice, both in terms of usability, and by appearing to be out of date.

To find out if your business' Website is an offender, check it against the following list of error messages and egregious requirements.

Get Adobe Reader

We've all seen the small button alongside a link for a PDF document saying users need to download Adobe Reader. Essentially, this is a free ad for Adobe. In any case, it's a lie. There are many other reader programs out there that will let users read PDFs.

In fact, I'd argue that downloading Adobe Reader is one of the worst things anybody can do. History has shown that it can open up your computer to repeated hack attacks, seemingly despite the new "sandbox" approach taken by Adobe Reader 10.

The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) has created the PDFreaders.org Website that lists freely-available PDF reader software for every major platform. Instead of pointing people towards Adobe, why not use one of the FSFE button graphics to direct people towards PDFreaders.org instead?

Your Computer Needs This Plug-in to Continue

Don't misunderstand me: This isn't about the irritation of sites requiring plug-ins. It's the phrasing that's at issue: my computer is missing a plug-in? Seeing the message on the screen of an iPhone or tablet is laughably anachronistic. Smartphones and tablets are "computers" in a literal sense, I guess, but so is my pocket calculator.

We live in an increasingly pluralistic computing universe full of traditional "computers" along with all kinds of mobile devices, as well as things like games consoles that can access Websites. Website creators who see the world only in terms of desktop and laptop computers are living in the last century, as convenient as that view might be for them.

The solution is simply a matter of rephrasing the error to something like: "Fully accessing this Website requires the X plug-in..."

Better still, of course, is avoiding the use of plug-ins completely. Browsers are ready, so why isn't your Website?

You must upgrade your browser to continue

Usually the advice is to upgrade to a "newer version of Internet Explorer." This is laughable when I'm using the latest version of Google Chrome, and on a Mac computer, for which there hasn't been a version of Internet Explorer in a decade. Less savvy Mac users might even download this old version of IE, opening themselves up to a world of misery and incompatibilities.

An online banking site I use still displays a Netscape Navigator favicon (the small icon that appears in bookmark lists) whenever I login with something other than IE. In other words, there are likely two versions of the site's code base: one for Internet Explorer, and one for Netscape Navigator. And Netscape Navigator hasn't been in regular use since the early 2000s.

Indeed, online banking sites are particularly guilty. Several pages at the Bankofamerica.com Website still advise users to upgrade to Internet Explorer 6, for example. You can create your own Google searches to find other offenders.

Sites That Redirect to Country-specific Sites Without Asking

Are you visiting a European country? Then obviously you'll need the local version of Google, even if you typed "google.com" into your browser's address bar, and even if you don't speak the local language. Google knows better than you. Don't argue!

Have Website developers not heard of air travel?

Google isn't alone. Yahoo does the same thing, as do many Websites. Some offer links to the .com site but the worst offenders are the sites that don't, and keep bouncing you back to the local version.

One way around this redirection is to browse using a proxy Website, but these tend to be very slow.

Accessing Via a Phone? Then You'll Need Our Mobile Site

This is similar to the country-specific redirection above, and shows arrogance on behalf of Web designers, who believe they know what's best for their users.

Sometimes the mobile site is pretty good, but I'd rather be asked what I want to do. Don't just redirect me to the mobile site. Often these versions of sites simply lack the functionality of their main counterparts. Modern mobile phones are perfectly capable of viewing standard Websites anyway.

An even worse sin is redirecting a user not based on the browser they're using, but their IP address. This means that if I access certain Websites via my laptop when tethered to my mobile phone, I end up viewing the mobile version of the site. Somebody clearly hasn't thought that through.

Whatever the case, creating a mobile version of a site isn't the best policy. Instead, consider creating an app. Often this isn't as difficult as you might think. Thanks to the unfortunate death of Symbian, nowadays there are three main mobile platforms: iOS, as used with the iPhone and iPad, Google Android, and Blackberry (although the latter is declining popularity). In a year or two's time you might have to consider Windows Phone too, but it's not absolutely necessary

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