Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Netskills Corner: Beneath the Surface of Your Web Pages

Brian Kelly looks beneath the surface of HTML pages and provides advice on the design of the underlying directory structure.

Pick up a book or read an article on HTML design and what will you find: advice on the use of graphics in Web pages, using tables and providing animation in your pages using technologies such as animated GIFs and client-pull or server-push, use of plug-in software, such as Shockwave, or programming environments such as Java and ActiveX.

There is, however, much more to the design of HTML pages than the appearance as seen by the end user. Of particular importance to the future maintenance of a large set of HTML pages is the underlying directory structure.

It is important to take care in the design of the directory structure used to store your HTML pages in order to ensure (a) that permissions to update areas can be delegated appropriately, (b) that directories will not have to be renamed or files moved, which will cause hypertext links to fail and (c) minimise the resources needed for future maintenance.

An Exercise

Rather than providing a set of guidelines, you may find it more useful to attempt a simple exercise in the design of a directory structure for a departmental information service.

You are responsible for managing the information needs of your department (a computing service). You have analysed the information flow in your department and arrived at the following list:

Staff ListStaff names, phones nos. etc.
DocumentsDocuments produced in your department. These are categorised as follows:
  • Beginners' Guides
  • Further Guides
  • Facts Sheets
  • Tutorial Workbooks
A total of 150 documents are available. Documents are between 8 and 50 A4 sides.
Training MaterialsTraining materials for about 20 software packages. The training materials are produced using Powerpoint.
NewsletterA newsletter, which is produced once a term (about 16 A4 sides).
NewsflashA news sheet which is produced on a weekly basis. One or two sides of A4.
SoftwareA list of software for Unix and PC systems.
ClustersDetails of computer cluster areas on campus. Includes opening times, location, nos. of machines, etc.
Personnel DetailsStaff reviews, promotion requests, etc.

Note that the Information Officer is responsible for producing the Newsletter. The Information Assistant is responsible for producing the NewsFlash. The Training Officer is responsible for producing training materials. About 6 support staff are responsible for maintaining software information. The Admin Assistant is responsible for maintaining cluster information.

The Information Officer, Information Assistant and Training Officer are familiar with Word For Windows and HTML authoring. The Information Assistant only uses PCs, however, and is not familiar with editing on Unix systems. Some software support staff are familiar with Unix and PCs and HTML authoring, but others are reluctant to learn a new skill.

The Admin Assistant uses Microsoft Access to maintain the cluster database. The Admin Assistant is also responsible for the Personnel Details.

The Task

A Solution

Design Exercise

The following table can be used to assist in the design exercise.

Table used In Design Exercise
Figure 1 Table used In Design Exercise

Directory Structure

A sample directory structure for part of the exercise is illustrated in Figure 2.

Directory Design
Figure 2 Directory Design

In Figure 2 the following signs are used:

*The directory will be repeated for other instances using a defined naming convention (initials followed by surname [e.g. jbloggs]; newsnnn, newsflnn, doc-codenn {e.g. beg05, fur13 or fac12] or software name).
$Main menu entry point.


Some of the issues to consider include:


The Information Officer will be responsible for finalising documents before final printing. As part of the final printing exercises, the document will be converted to HTML format (using rtftohtml or Internet Assistant), copying files to the WWW server and links from the appropriate menu files updated.

Permissions needed:
Update docs.html file. Create directories beneath this level.

Software Support Staff will be responsible for updating help files for software and for adding links to corresponding documentation (or should this be done by the Information Officer?).

Permissions needed:
Software support staff group require update permissions to software.html Also need to create directories beneath this level.

The Administrative Assistant will be responsible for updating the staff list and [providing link so the files containing names and phones numbers for each individual member of staff.

Individual members of staff will be responsible for maintaining the name.further.html (subject to departmental and organisational rules and guidelines and UK legislation).

HTML Tools

The following tools will be used:

Using The Tools

Microsoft Office software (Word and Powerpoint) will be used in a rigorous way (e.g. consistent use of styles in Word) as the main authoring tools. Internet Assistant will be used, with a modified template to produce a consistent department look and feel. Modifications to menu files will normally be made on the Unix WWW server using a Unix editor (emacs or vi). Staff will little Unix experience will copy the file to their PC and use a PC editor. An FTP Client (e.g. Rapid Filer) will be used to copy the file between the PC and Unix system and to rename the file (to change from .htm to .html) Microsoft's dbWeb (or equivalent) will be used to provide dynamic access to the cluster database.

Information Not Made Available

Personnel Details will not be made available on the Web.

Tips On The Design Of Your Directory Structure

  1. Produce a paper design of your proposed directory structure before producing your HTML documents.
  2. Review your paper design with your colleagues.
  3. Agree on a naming convention for files and directories consisting of multiple words (e.g. use of hyphens [/docs/overview-guides], underscores [/docs/overview_guides] or capitalisation [/docs/overviewGuides]).
  4. Agree on a convention for the capitalisation of files and directories.
  5. Identify responsibilities for maintaining areas of your Web service and ensure that the directory structure reflects the responsibilities.
  6. Discuss security issues with the system adminstrator of the WWW server.
  7. Arrange a training session on the design of directory structures for your colleagues.


This is the last Netskills Corner article to be written by Brian Kelly. From 1st November 1996 I will be working at UKOLN, University of Bath as the UK Web Focus Officer.

It's been hectic working for Netskills over the past year. I have delivered training courses and given presentations throughout the country (from Aberdeen to Surrey, taking in Belfast, Bradford, Brunel, Coleraine, Durham, Leeds, London, Loughborough, Manchester and Rutherford Labs). I was also fortunate enough to attend the WWW Conference in Paris in May. When not travelling I was involved in the development of Netskills training materials, in particular the HTML Authoring kit.

My new post is a challenging one, acting as a coordinator for the Web for the UK HE community, as well as managing the Information Services Group at UKOLN.

I'm looking forward to this new challenge. No doubt I will continue to contribute articles to Ariadne!

[Editorial comment: You are very right, there :-]