University of Botswana History Department

Some basics of academic web use

Including why frames and dynamic content are problematic for academic (as opposed to commercial) web sites

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Academic versus commercial web standards

The World Wide Web and its language HTML were originally invented by academics (at CERN, the physics lab) as a practical working tool for academic communication. Later it was adopted for wider use, including commercial use, and HTML was adapted and extended for new purposes. Many of the pretty "bells and whistles" such as multimedia features were developed for commercial use; and of course academic users have in turn borrowed these. But it remains true that the academic web is still a bit different from the commercial web, because it does somewhat different things. This is not surprising - the Journal of Theoretical Physics is rather different from Hello! magazine or Drum, although both use basically similar similar printing technology.

Finding information on the web: search engines

Unlike libraries or bookshops, the web has no general catalogues. Instead, search engines such as Google and AltaVista play a crucial role in finding material. Let us imagine that a researcher in Canada wants to find some material about agricultural practices in Botswana. She enters "agricultural practices botswana" into the search engine, and sees what it produces. If we are placing material about Botswana agriculture on the web, we hope this search will find us. Will it?

It depends. In particular, it depends on us having written our pages in a way that the search engines can index easily. There are some practices, very common -indeed standard - in commercial web usage, which tend to prevent indexing. In the following points, I refer especially to the notes published for the use of webmasters by Google, arguably the most important engine of all.

Google states, under "Reasons your site may not be included":

Your page uses frames. Google supports frames to the extent that it can. Frames tend to cause problems with search engines, bookmarks, emailing links and so on, because frames don't fit the conceptual model of the web (every page corresponds to a single URL).
Your pages are dynamically generated. We are able to index dynamically generated pages. However, because our web crawler can easily overwhelm and crash sites serving dynamic content, we limit the amount of dynamic pages we index.

Google pages explaining indexing:

Now of course, in commercial use both frames and dynamic content are very common.

Frames are the device which split up the screen into separate parts which can be scrolled separately. For commercial web-sites this is often very useful, as it enables the visitor to navigate quickly. But as <> point out, it is contrary to the conceptual model of the web as designed as an intellectual access system.

Dynamic content means that the site has a data-base of information and pages are created by the server on request from this data-base. A good example is the book-seller You go to the Amazon site, and type in (for example) some words of a title. The computers at Amazon then search their data-bases and send you back a page listing all the books which match your request. The page you get back did not exist before you asked for it. "botswana politics parsons" will get one set of books, "botswana politics parsons bolaane" will get another. This dynamic content is the ideal solution for someone who comes to Amazon and wants to find a book. But obviously, the information cannot easily be searched and indexed by search engines. They cannot get at the data-base directly, and there are an astronomical number of possible queries they could send in.

For Amazon, that is not a problem. However, it is a problem if someone is trying to find information and does not already know where to find it. I.e., dynamic content is useful if and only if visitors have already found your site. If you are as famous as Amazon, or if you are not interested in people outside your own organization, then this is not a problem. If you are using the web as a way of communicating with the outside world and advertising yourself, then it is.

So - dynamic content is useful for some things, such as answering queries from someone who has found your site; whereas ordinary static pages are good for other things, notably establishing a "web presence" and enabling people to find you in the first place.


See our page "About this site" for information on the standards generally followed in this site. Accessibility has several aspects:

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Copyright © 2001 University of Botswana History Department
Last updated 22 November 2001