Web design and promotion: 5 must-read guidebooks

With all the competition for viewer eyeballs out there on the Internet, it's getting ever harder to make your business or personal Web site stand out from all the rest. So what's an experienced Web designer -- or a novice, for that matter -- to do? How can you create pages that entice with striking visual elements, innovative designs and ease of navigation that will help bring in viewers?

The best answer is to start out with all the latest and best tools that you can include in your Web design arsenal and use them to make your pages shine.

Here are five must-read books on modern Web design, creation and marketing that will help you design and produce gorgeous pages for your clients, your company or yourself. This collection of titles highlights some of the keys for great Web pages in 2010: how to create and use cascading style sheets (CSS), how to design pages using Web standards that will display your pages properly in any Web browser, and how to understand and use search engine optimization.

Designing with Web Standards, 3rd Edition by Jeffrey Zeldman with Ethan Marcotte (New Riders, Oct. 2009, $50)

Designing Web pages used to be an exercise in frustration because every browser used different rules to display pages. That meant that you had to build pages, then test them individually in each Web browser so you could make sure that viewers were seeing them displayed just the way you had designed them. It was a major hassle and meant that Web designers had to spend far more time than necessary to be sure everything worked everywhere.

Web standards let designers build to one specification that then can be properly displayed by all browsers that use those standards. The idea is simple: Write your code once and publish it everywhere. It took many years for all the browser makers to get on board the Web standards train, and some browsers still don't adhere to Web standards completely. But the most recent versions of the major browsers are closer than ever before -- which means that these days you really can write Web-standard code.

This book shows you how to better code your Web pages to take advantage of these strategies. Using lots of colorful and clear illustrations and examples, this book will help you "future-proof" your Web sites, using everything from XHTML to JavaScript to CSS and more. There's even information about the next iteration of HTML being developed now -- HTML5 -- which will allow Web pages to be brought to life as richer, more feature-enabled Web applications.

CSS: The Missing Manual, Second Edition by David Sawyer McFarland (O'Reilly Media/Pogue Press, Aug. 2009, $35)

Not everyone who designs Web pages is an expert. That's where this book (and others in the "Missing Manual" series) comes to the rescue. When you need to know where to start with CSS -- literally at the ground level -- this is a great volume for you. It helps you understand all the essentials about CSS from elements to selectors and everything in between through well-arranged and detailed definitions, tutorials, hand-holding, work-arounds and more.

Although this book focuses primarily on existing CSS 2.1 standards, it also gently introduces the reader to the world of CSS 3, which is still very much under development. That means that while you are learning about using the CSS 2 code that's active now, you can already be looking ahead to the innovations that are coming with CSS 3. In other words, you can get ahead of the curve even as the curves are being put in place.

Handcrafted CSS: More Bulletproof Web Design by Dan Cederholm with Ethan Marcotte (New Riders, Aug. 2009, $40)

Learning how to use the available Web design tools out there is a great start to Web site creation. In this book, you dive in deeper, learning how to use CSS and HTML to hand-craft your pages to differentiate them from others.

My favorite aspect of this book is that it's written with the bright future of CSS in mind. Those still-nascent CSS 3 standards? This book dives right into them, explaining how you can build Web pages using that emerging CSS 3 code even if it's not fully recognized by the latest browsers.

The book calls this "future-proofing" your code, which I think is brilliant: By using CSS 3 tools as they appear now, you won't have to go back and change your code later to conform to future CSS 3 standards. You'll already have them in place. That's just smart design.

The book, which assumes you have a good foundation with CSS and HTML already, uses a case study for a fictional business to illustrate its CSS lessons and at each step shows you how your actions affect the pages you are building. I like that the book doesn't try to teach too much too quickly. Each lesson is explained, demonstrated and set up to prepare you for the next one, giving you plenty of time to absorb what you just saw and learned.

The Art of SEO: Mastering Search Engine Optimization by Eric Enge, Stephen Spencer, Rand Fishkin & Jessie C. Stricchiola (O'Reilly Books, Oct. 2009, $45)

If your Web site is up but no one can find it out there in the vastness of the Internet, it really doesn't matter how beautiful, useful or fabulous it is. Once you build it, you have to help your visitors find it easily using a search engine.

That's where search engine optimization (SEO) comes in. Search engines use complex algorithms to rank pages for content relevant to the search they're being asked to do. The higher your site's ranking, the more likely it'll be found by visitors. This ultra-detailed book teaches you how to code your Web pages for improved search rankings and provides many other tricks to help visitors discover your Web site.

What I find most valuable about this book is that it breaks this complex topic down into bite-sized pieces that can be absorbed and then brought back together to help the reader really understand why SEO is so important. Then the book boldly walks you through the intricate steps needed to deeply integrate SEO throughout your business thinking. It graphically explains not only what to do, but tells you why you are doing it and how it will make a huge difference for your company.

This book shows you the power of SEO and why it is so important today. It's the SEO title that will best help you jump in feet first and understand what you need to know from the start.

Search Engine Optimization Bible, 2nd Edition by Jerri L. Ledford (Wiley Books, April 2009, $40)

If you want to know everything about SEO, from building an SEO-friendly Web site to using pay-per-click strategies and effectively using keywords to help bring viewers to your site, then this is the book for you. The book is organized so you can quickly find helpful information on topics you need to know about right now, so you can pick and choose your SEO lessons as needed.

The level of detail is impressive, particularly when breaking SEO strategies down to their individual pieces, such as how and when to use pay-per-click marketing to bring in new customers. The is the SEO guide that you want to have at your fingertips for a much deeper dive into SEO, from its complex formulas to its wide reach in all that your company is trying to do online. Even SEO experts will likely learn new lessons from this book.

Formerly a Computerworld staff reporter, Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. Follow him on Twitter @TechManTalking.

Read more about development in Computerworld's Development Knowledge Center.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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