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Four Hundred Issues and a Dynamic Web Site

I like marking numerical milestones. TidBITS-100 was the first issue formatted in setext (structure-enhanced text), a format that we’ve used for email distribution ever since. For TidBITS-300 we had a party for a few friends, and came up with 300 reasons the Mac is great.


We’ve had no time for such theatrics for TidBITS-400 because we’ve been busy launching NetBITS and working on our Web site, and it’s our Web site I want to tell you about here.


Since TidBITS predates the Web by several years, we had a mature publication and distribution scheme when the Web became real. Our early Web efforts weren’t impressive, but most early sites would look amateurish today. About a year ago, we completely redesigned our Web site, which set the stage for this year’s update. We were happy with the basic organization, but the site felt dull and slow to navigate. We took a good number of hits every Tuesday as people read the latest issue, but hits dropped off on other days. We wanted to improve the look, navigation, and content relevance to increase traffic and make TidBITS more useful.

The Graphic — Our first move was to devise a new logo, and the new graphic served as impetus to create a more functional page design with a left-side navigation bar. Graphics have always been tricky for us, since TidBITS is pure text, but working with our friend Jon Hersh <[email protected]>, a graphic designer in Seattle, we arrived at the current logo, which relies heavily on the word TidBITS for visual interest. Color is provided by the purple "torn paper" out of which the "BITS" is cut, and the strong vertical line between the "Tid" and "BITS" helps separate navigational elements on the left from content on the right.

The navigation bar also enabled us to emphasize aspects of TidBITS. For instance, we linked to our translations there and provided direct links to a few of the exclusive DealBITS discounts for TidBITS readers.

The Changing Graphic — On most pages, the logo is static, but if you visit our home page frequently, you’ll notice there’s a "slug" (a short slogan) below the "BITS" and some callout text to the right. Clicking the callout text takes you to a specially chosen article or collection of articles in our FileMaker article database, accessed through Blue World Communications’ Lasso.


Once per hour, a program Geoff wrote called BlurbMaster chooses a random slug, picks a callout from a select set of articles in FileMaker, then uses clip2gif to create a new graphic with the text of the slug and callout. Next, it generates a new copy of the home page with an appropriate image map tag and uploads the new files.

Every time you visit our home page, you see a random callout that provides access to some of our most interesting articles. Try it – it’s neat, and many of the more than 3,000 articles that have appeared in TidBITS are still relevant.

TidBITS Updates — BlurbMaster does even more to jazz up our home page. To make our Web site interesting throughout the week, we came up with TidBITS Updates: high-quality, concise updates to topics that have been discussed in previous issues, or breaking news items that can’t wait for the next issue. All the updates, like our back articles, live in a FileMaker database. When we add an update via a Web form, BlurbMaster regenerates both the home page and the TidBITS Updates page.

Got BITS? But that’s not all. We needed to solve a problem TidBITS Updates created. We wanted people to be able to link permanently to an individual update, but we also wanted updates listed on our home page. It was easy to link from the home page to named anchors on the TidBITS Updates page, but since updates expire off the bottom of that page, named links would break after a week or so. Geoff’s solution was a CGI called GetBITS that does one of two things when someone asks for an update. If the update is active, GetBITS goes to an appropriate anchor on the TidBITS Updates page. If the update has expired, GetBITS instead pulls it out of the database. Thus, to link to a recent update, just copy the URL from our home page and GetBITS will ensure people always end up in the right place.

GetBITS proved helpful in another way, too. In the past, no one has been able to link directly to a specific article in TidBITS. You could point at a named anchor within a TidBITS issue, but that meant loading the full issue. Geoff’s article database provided the article granularity we needed, but the Lasso URLs are far too long to use in TidBITS. So, GetBITS acts as a traffic cop, accepting a request for a specific article via a short URL, then redirecting that request into a longer Lasso URL.

From now on, you’ll see URLs pointing to, which is where GetBITS lives. Click them to read specific TidBITS articles. If you want to link to a specific article or update, click the Search Author/Title link on our home page, find the article you want, and look at the bottom of the page for a GetBITS URL to copy into your HTML file.

Dynamic Doings — Overall, it feels great to reach our 400th issue and to add new features to the Web site. Now it’s time to turn some attention back to finding sponsors for TidBITS; if you have suggestions or leads, we welcome them at <[email protected]>.

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