Dan's Web Tips | Annoyances

Dan's Web Tips:

Things on the Web that Annoy Me

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The rest of this site has hints for Web developers, with a few rants about my pet peeves thrown in. Here, I've decided to devote a whole article to itemizing some things that are rampant on the Web these days which I find annoying for some reason, in the hopes of making the people responsible for such things give a few second thoughts.

Formulaic Web Articles Arranged as Numbered Lists

[IMAGE: Some numbered-list articles]

This is one of the most overdone things these days, the casting of articles (no matter the subject) as a list of things with numbers before each item (either counting down or counting up), and of course a number in the title. For instance, "10 Ways to Lose Weight" or "The Top 20 Feel-Good Songs of the 2000s". Now, I could have easily baked this article into that mold, by making it "The 10 Most Annoying Things on the Web", or whatever number of annoyances I end up including, which I'd then feel compelled to contrive to make into some nice round number, whether or not that was the actual number of things that came to mind when I started writing the article. With some arbitrary adds, deletes, splits, merges, and so on, I could get it to fit the cookie-cutters, putting each section into a Procrustean Bed to make them of roughly similar length. But that's just not what I feel like doing; I'm writing for self-expression, not whoring for ad clicks. For whatever reason, somebody decided that numbered lists get more hits than other formats, so that's what they produce lots of, even if it means arbitrarily mangling articles to force them into a style that might not be the most natural presentation of their content. Some sites have practically nothing but articles of this format, and many other sites (including very respectable newspaper and magazine sites) frequently resort to it.

And once they've got the articles nicely segmented into numbered points, they then find it simple to do the next annoying thing...

Arbitrary "Page Breaks" within Web Articles

[Prev] [1] [2] [3] [Next]

The Web is not paper. "Pages" on the Web aren't limited to a specific size; they can be long or short depending on the content they need to carry. In general, my preference is for Web pages to contain a complete article, separated from other pages as determined by the logical structure of the site they're in, but complete at the article level in the same document, even if it's a fairly long one. But many sites insist on chopping up articles into multiple pages as if they were printed on paper, where you have to keep selecting "Next" links (and waiting for often-sluggish servers to respond, and reload lots of page cruft that often takes much more space and bandwidth than the actual article text). I'd rather get the whole article at once, where I can scroll through it.

Some of the "numbered-list" article sites break each numbered item into a separate page (even if it's a "Top 100"), while others let a few cluster together on a page, but still break up the whole article into two or more parts without fail, even when it's pretty short. At least the list-formatted articles usually provide good break points for splitting pages; there are other sites that insist on sticking in arbitrary breaks even in the absence of any logical spot for them, even sometimes interrupting sentences.

If they sometimes justify this on the grounds of making the pages shorter so they load more quickly, this can be seen as a lie not only due to the heavy amount of non-text content pages tend to be laden with (and which need to load for each of the multiple pages of the article), but to the common practice of articles including their entire comment section at the bottom of every one of their pages. If you choose to read the whole article before reading the comments, you still have to load them over and over on each page before the last one. Sometimes if there are a lot of comments, those too are broken into chunks needing to be separately loaded, but the first bunch will keep loading on every article page. A true load-time-sensitive page structure would put the comment section on a separate page from the article itself so you could choose whether to load one or the other. The article itself should only need to be broken up if it's really, really long... like megabytes-worth long, so that it risks crashing the browser due to running out of memory (though the amount needed for this is steadily increasing due to the increase in memory size in computers, along with increases in processor speed and bandwidth rates). (The Onion's parody "clickbait" site Clickhole actually put the complete text of Moby Dick in a single-page article, which doesn't take all that long to load on a decent broadband connection.)

And the loading of multiple article pages is made slower by the following...

Sites that Disable Caching

[To display this page, Firefox must send information that will repeat any action (such as a search or order confirmation) that was performed earlier.]

By default, browsers do a good deal of caching of content (HTML, images, etc.) to speed up loading. If there are graphics (such as a site logo) that appear in lots of different pages in a site, the browser only has to load them once. If you use the back button to return to a page you've been recently, it will usually display the entire page from the cache so that no server loading takes place to slow down the action. This, once again, is how browsers generally act by default. Specific sites need to go out of their way to prevent this, but many sites do. They use a variety of techniques such as HTTP headers, META tags, and convoluted scripts, applets, embeds, etc., in order to override normal browser behavior and force constant server loads even when you reach the same content repeatedly. This, combined with the excessive pagination noted above, can make a site excruciatingly painful to read, or even to back out of; once you hit Page 6 of 6 at the end of the article, and want to get back to where you were before, you have to back up through the five earlier pages, each of which insists on doing a complete reload when you back through it (and launch scripts and apps and stuff).

But at least those sites still do let you use the back button; there are other sites that commit an even worse sin by hijacking the back button altogether, through the use of auto-redirects that trap you in the site by sending you back forward every time you try to go back, or convoluted scripts that cause the page you get to when you go back to be different from the one you left in the first place.

As you try to navigate through those sites, you often run into another issue...

Obstacle Courses for your Mouse

[Image: screen shot of site with lots of ads]

Have you tried to click somewhere on a browser window in order to give it focus so that it comes forward above other windows on your screen, and is scrollable by the arrow keys and mouse wheel... and had this unexpectedly cause the browser to load an advertiser's site, or spawn a popup, or start playing audio or video? Then you've run into one of the many pages that forces you to play a game of Minesweeper every time you move your mouse anywhere on it. Booby-traps abound; best of luck finding a safe spot to click on. In fact, you don't always even have to click the mouse to get in trouble; sometimes just mousing over the wrong spot will make annoying stuff happen. If that spot is right between the main page content and the navigation menu, hope you can get past those shoals.

Those are some ways text-based sites can be annoying. But the multimedia sites with video content have their own ways of annoying you...

Videos that Keep On Playing

[Playing next... 05]

Like the purveyors of web articles are determined to treat the medium as if it is paper, those who put videos on the Web sometimes want to turn the medium into a clone of television. The "Boob Tube" is something you turn on, and then it keeps on playing indefinitely, beaming a steady stream of "infotainment" at you (with frequent commercial breaks) until you take the initiative of turning it off or changing the channel. (The days of late-night "signoffs" where they play the national anthem and then dissolve to a test pattern are long gone.) In contrast, the Web has traditionally worked by entirely different rules. You go to an online article, video, or other content that is something you specifically want to read/watch/listen to, you read or view it, and then it's over and you can surf on to whatever else you choose to go to (or step away from your computer and resume your offline life, if you have one). However, some sites subvert this by making their online videos keep going endlessly. You start up the video you want to see (or a video starts up automatically when you load a page that embeds it, which is yet another annoyance some sites foist on you), and it runs to completion (perhaps preceded by an annoying pre-roll ad, and then partially obscured with pop-up ads you have to play "whack-a-mole" to dismiss... but I'm once again digressing into other annoyances than the one I'm addressing now), and then, instead of peacefully ending, it launches yet another video that you didn't ask for.

Sometimes in between videos in such sites, you get a countdown saying "Next video starts in 5...4...3...", which is reminiscent of the time-bombs in Hollywood movies with their convenient digital counters so that the hero can disarm them or move them to a safe place just in time. (The recent "Dark Knight" movie did this with its nuke, which was rather weird given that its imminent explosion wasn't actually due to a planned timer, but was an effect of the instability of the device when removed from the reactor it was docked to, so exactly how it acquired a to-the-second countdown display is unclear... but I digress.) This puts me in a panicky mode of trying to close the page as rapidly as I can, which is probably not the reaction the site developers wanted to get.

Fortunately, the most popular video site, YouTube, doesn't do this; it's possible for users to set up video playlists that can be launched in an auto-play mode, but that's not the normal manner that the site's videos are commonly experienced; instead, at the end of a normal YouTube play, the player blissfully stops, giving you a few suggestions of other videos you might want to see, but letting you (not them) have the final choice of whether to start up one of them. Unfortunately, there are a whole bunch of other sites (especially those connected with the mainstream television and news industries, such as TV station and network sites and some newspaper and magazine sites as well) that are more pushy than that, and decide on their own what you should be watching next, like it or not.

And while I'm on the subject of web video annoyances, I wish sites that use their social media feeds (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to promote their varied-media content (text, audio, video, image slideshows, etc.) would clearly note which of the links are to things like audio and video, particularly when they're set up to start blasting sound at you immediately when you follow the link. Sometimes you're in a time and place when you don't want your computer to start playing multimedia content, so it's helpful to know this in advance so you know the difference between a link to text or images you're willing to look at now and other content you'd rather pass on until a more convenient later time. Among online humor sites, The Onion does this used to do this, but Cracked fails to do it.

But this leads me into another social-media pet peeve...

Repetitive Social-Feed Content

[Republished by Blog Post Promoter]

OK, everybody and their second cousin twice removed has already ranted about the clutter in social media feeds caused by every app and game you ever join wanting to spam all your friends with notices that you've become the mayor of your bedroom closet, or need assistance raising fake rutabaga. That's not what I'm going on about here. Rather, I'm concerned with feeds that provide some very interesting content, such as the official feed of sites that notify you when they have posted a new article, video, or cartoon so you can check it out without obsessive-compulsively reloading their site all the time to see if maybe they've got something new now. Unfortunately, those feeds rarely seem to confine themselves to informing their readers of something new; they get so self-promotional that they have to keep repeating their neat link or clever quip over and over again. They'll post the link to their latest article in the morning, then in case somebody missed it, post the same link again that evening, and once more during the weekend, and a bunch more times scattered over subsequent months and years. Thus, a faithful follower of the feed ends up constantly suckered into clicking on links, thinking they're to something new, and finding that they're just the same old article they've already read several times.

Blogs do this too; there's an obnoxious program out there called Old Post Promoter whose sole function is to dredge up ancient history from the blog's archives and move it up to a recent date and send it back out on the blog's RSS feed, so that readers can be fooled into thinking what's old is new. It's annoying to be checking out the blog or its feed in order to see what's new, and getting suckered into re-reading something from a long time ago, with outdated information. Now, I'm not one of those who thinks only the newest stuff ever matters; sometimes I like delving into old history. But I'd prefer that sites be honest in labeling what's new and what's old, rather than trying to fool people about it. By the same token, I can't stand sites that use scripting (client or server side) to embed the current date somewhere in the page, as if it makes whatever content is there somehow more up-to-the-minute. Put a real date in your articles, representing when the content was actually created or updated, please! (See the bottom of this article for creation and last-modified dates, as I always place on my pages; it might be helpful in interpreting topical references like when I refer to "the recent 'Dark Knight' movie".)

When these old-timey postings get dredged up, often the links in them don't work, because of the next annoyance...

Link Rot

[Page Not Found]

A famous article by Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee advocated web addresses that stay put once they're established, and debunked various excuses used to justify changing them and breaking old links. Nevertheless, link rot is a continuing problem on the Web. Sometimes it's because a site producer feels compelled to get new domain names for every special event, slogan, marketing gimmick, and the like, and then fails to renew them all once their time is past, causing all the old links to die (or maybe get redirected to porn). Logical use of subdomains would solve this. Or the site gets redesigned by a graphical-designer type who cares only about how it looks, not whether the URL structure of the previous site version is maintained, so the new site is built from scratch in different tools from the last one and breaks all the old links.

Unfortunately, there are some sites that regularly let their articles succumb to link rot even in the absence of a major redesign, or even intentionally break their links on a regular basis. This includes many news sites, whose articles frequently get linked in blog postings discussing current events, but whose site maintainers sometimes seem to be actively hostile toward keeping old articles around at their original URLs. Sometimes they move old articles to an "archive" section behind a paywall, other times the old stuff just goes away without a trace as they only seem to care about current news even though disk space is extremely cheap these days. George Orwell's 1984 had ruling-party operatives changing articles in old newspapers to make them more politically correct, but that's not needed if our cultural guardians discard all history to begin with.

If you're trying to post or e-mail a link to an article while it does still exist, you may run into this next one...

URLs a Mile Long

Ever since SEO became trendy, most articles found on websites have tended to have long, unwieldy URLs, as the site operators feel compelled to stuff them with keywords. So, rather than something short and sweet, an article is likely to have a filename at its end that encompasses all or most of a long-winded title, like dans_web_tips_things_on_the_web_that_annoy_me.html, rather than the abbreviated annoying.html that I actually used. That example is actually on the short side compared to some article-titles-turned-into-URLs that can be encountered. The result is URLs that are often problematic; if you put them in plain-text e-mail, they're likely to wrap between lines and might not be properly clickable, and woe be upon anybody who has to actually type them in (e.g., if the URL appears in a print medium).

[Image: Part of huge URL in address bar; too long to fit]

Another place where such URLs used to be a problem was on Twitter, which spurred yet another Web annoyance...

URL Shorteners

[Please wait... 2 seconds]

With the tendency for URLs to get long, as discussed above, as well as the sometime need to fit them in smaller spaces, the concept of "URL shorteners" arose a few years ago. One place where they were particularly popular was Twitter, which was originally very strict in enforcing its 140-character limit, including all characters of URLs that were tweeted; a "SEO-enhanced" web article URL could exceed that all by itself. Thus, people started running their URLs through various services like TinyURL and Ow.ly which set up short, cryptic URL strings that redirected to the real URL, and which could be tweeted without using very many characters.

Eventually, Twitter started automatically shortening URLs for its users, which saved a step, but was applied universally to all URLs, even ones that were short to begin with; even ones that actually got longer when "shortened" this way. And various other social-networking sites and other sites that published links followed suit, even though they didn't have such strict character limits that their users needed this service. The reason for this was that such URL redirection allowed the site to track who clicked on a link, and the big Internet sites these days are all about keeping track of everything their users do, the better to market to them.

And what's wrong with that? Let me count the ways...

  1. They obscure where the link goes. Normal URLs usually give at least some clues about what they are, like the domain name of the site and the path and file names. Shortened URLs are entirely opaque, so they're like opening a surprise package, but one which might end up being a booby-prize.
  2. If any of the shortening services goes out of business, has a server crash, or just decides they don't want to do that URL shortening stuff any more, thousands of links get a sudden case of link rot. Web services, even ones owned by big, respectable companies, go away on short notice all the time; look at GeoCities and MobileMe (oops, sorry, you can't; they're gone, even though they were owned by Yahoo and Apple respectively). If it's a free service, you get what you pay for! (But even paid services can vanish if their business model didn't work out, or their owner decides to scrap it in favor of something they think is "better".)
  3. They could even be forced offline by some government. Many of the shortening services use country-code domains (they're only two letters long, not three like .com!), often from rather unstable countries (bit.ly and ow.ly are in Libya's country code). It would just take some regime deciding that the link-shortener was going to subversive, blasphemous, or other immoral content to get the whole service shut down; I believe that actually happened to one of those services a few years ago. Perhaps that's why bit.ly is trying to re-brand itself as bitly.com, even though that's three characters longer... well, that and the usual "dot-com-itis" that leads just about every Internet service that evolves from a geek plaything to a big-money company to start insisting that its name have a .com in it.
  4. And don't think that if a particular service happens to use a domain controlled by the good old USA, that makes it immune to that sort of thing; the U.S. government is actually rather vigorous in yanking domains of anybody they suspect of engaging in piracy, trademark violations, gambling, or kiddie porn. Once they shut down a free web hosting service because one of its sites was dodgy, causing thousands of entirely innocent subdomains to sprout a message claiming the sites were shut down because they hosted child pornography. That could happen to a URL shortener.
  5. When the link shortening is done automatically, such as by social networks when a link is posted, you could end up with a whole cascade of redirects if a link is repeatedly re-posted. The link is to one shortening service, which goes to a second one, which goes to a third one, and so on. Eventually you reach the browser's redirection limit and it fails, but if it stays short of this it is still slow and has multiple points of failure should any of the services go down. Previously, such "redirect hell" was mostly found in marketing affiliate links, where there were a bunch of middlemen tracking them, but thanks to social networks doing automatic link shortening, this can come up anywhere and everywhere.
  6. A few of the link shorteners even intentionally pause at an interstitial screen, sometimes just to inform you of what site the link is going to, but sometimes to shove ads at you (e.g., ad.ly... er, adly.com, since that's yet another service trying to rebrand itself with a .com name). Fortunately, most of the shortened links aren't from such services.

And sometimes they end up "auto-shortening" links that weren't even intended as links, like when somebody's tweet mentions a company with .com in its name... which brings up my final item....

Companies with .COM in Their Name

[PICTURE: 1-800-Flowers.com store]

Or .NET, or any other top-level domain, or any other part of any addressing system... This is not just a "thing that annoys me on the Web", because it's spilled over into the so-called real world. You can even find honest-to-goodness brick-and-mortar (or glass-and-concrete) storefronts whose signs give their names as SomethingOrOther.com. That's gone in and out of fashion several times since the original late-'90s ".com boom", but the Marketing Types never will let it drop permanently. Some companies even embed more than one addressing system in their name, like with 1-800-Flowers.com, which is a company name that is a domain name that is a phone number (with a top-level domain appended). A number of other companies and organizations do something similar; do a search on domain names starting with "1800" some time; they're not about the year 1800!

It's not just commercial outfits that are doing this; you can see in legal filings from the big legal case over California's Proposition 8 (which banned gay marriage marriage equality) that one of the groups involved in that case (on the side of defending the proposition and opposing gay marriage marriage equality) has as its official name ProtectMarriage.com. A .org name would be more logical (and getting rid of "Protect Marriage" from the name of a group that is seeking to restrict marriage also would be logical, but I digress), but it doesn't really make sense to have any domain ending in the organization name; that implies that it's a website that has an organization, rather than an organization that has a website. The tail is wagging the dog!

Preserve the distinction between names and addresses; refer to companies, organizations, products, and services by proper names, and only add domain suffixes to them when specifically citing their Internet address.

 

Any comments? Agree or disagree with my views? Have any other web annoyances that get your goat? Join the comments thread You used to be able to join the comments thread, but unfortunately I had to close it due to massive spamming in the page linked below:

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Or send me mail... my e-mail address is at the bottom of the page, entirely without obfuscation of any sort, as I've done it since I started doing web pages in 1995; I refuse to let spammers intimidate me into changing this practice, because then The Terrorists Have Won.

 

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This page was first created 09 Aug 2012, and was last modified 22 Aug 2014.
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