Site review: wlbz2.com

Written by Adrian Holovaty on July 29, 2002

Wlbz2.com is the news Web site of television station WLBZ in Bangor, Maine. Its help page says, "It can be tough to find everything that a website has to offer." The rest of the site aims to prove that statement.

  • The home page leaves room for about two stories above the fold: a lead story, placed dead center, and part of a second story that's located to the lower left. (That is, under the banner ad, to the left of the rectangular boxes that look like ads, and to the right of the left-rail boxes that look like ads.) This MSNBC-style spotlight on a single story leaves me searching desperately for more content. And finding little more than rectangular JPEGs and GIFs. And getting progressively frustrated.
  • The problem is, the banner ad cuts sharply through the middle of the page, leaving everything disjointed. Everything on these pages seems to be compartmentalized. I feel claustrophobic when I try to focus on a part of the page, and I feel overwhelmed when I try to take it all in at once. (The sharp contrast between blue background and white foreground may add to this.)
  • Perhaps more content would fit if the large, blue, drop-shadowed image at the top center of each page were eliminated. It measures 495 by 85 pixels, weighs 10 K and achieves nothing. A study has shown users expect the top center of a Web page to contain banner ads, but in this case, there's no ad -- only empty space. And I think that's why that giant slab o' blue feels so awkward.
  • If that banner ad was moved up there, the news content would no longer be split into two sections, loosely joined by a "continued below," and it would feel a lot friendlier.
  • Well, whaddya know. The site uses breadcrumb navigation, as I discussed yesterday. However, I question its usefulness here, as it uses different names for its site categories (e.g. "Our station") than the left navigation bar does (e.g. "About Us"). It's a noble effort, but consistency would help.
  • When I checked, the Weather Extra page presented a 473 by 319 pixel image that simply displayed five lines of text over an image of red roses. To devote 49,389 bytes to an image that displays five lines of text is absurd. And, to make matters worse, the image lacks ALT text.
  • Speaking of unnecessary file size, I was intrigued by the sheer amount of overkill -- both graphical and textual -- on this site. I tested the food page and found it weighed 260K, with images, script and all. The page's necessary components (the content unique to that page) weighed around 2K. Yes, that means the page weighed more than 100 times what it could weigh.
  • Adding significantly to the page weight are the rectangular images under "NEWS CENTER Segments." As far as I can tell, they appear on the right side of the content area on every news story page. They tease to other news content on the site, such as special reports. Not only are these images excessive, they look like ads, too, so my eyes ignore them. If they were text links, they'd give the page more breathing room, they'd save tons of bandwidth, and, heck, they'd probably get clicked more often.
  • The image of a person clicking on a mouse has got to go. This stinks of "Oh, I need to fill this slot with an image."
  • There's a "Recommended Plug Ins" message in the lower left corner of each page. It recommends Acrobat Reader and Flash, but it doesn't link to them. Instead, it provides a pair of indecipherable 12 by 12 pixel images.

Alas, all is not bad with this site. I believe every news site can teach us something other than what not to do. Here are a few positive points:

  • The left-rail navigation, shaped like a remote control, is a breath of fresh air in the artistically drained world of left-rail navbars. It's different enough to be quirky, but it's not so different as to confuse users. A remote control is the perfect TV analogy for navigation; and such user-interface analogies are hard to pull off. (Of course, using an image map for navigation means users won't be able to resize the text if they think it's too small...)
  • Another good thing about the remote control: The Web designers were thoughtful enough to give the image map ALT attributes. This is especially appropriate for the upper four "arrow" icons, which were meaningless to me until I held my cursor and saw the ALT content in a ToolTip.

Pitch in with your own review of wlbz2.com by posting a comment below.

Comments

Posted by Sara on July 29, 2002, at 11:46 p.m.:

Whoa. Maybe my inner ear is off, but that site looked like it was leaning to the left. I think it's the angle of the obviously stock photograph of the ambulance with the main story. Weird. And not fun.

Posted by Justin on July 30, 2002, at 12:48 a.m.:

I dig the remote control, too.

Posted by Nathan on July 30, 2002, at 3 a.m.:

I completely agree about the content-poor MSNBC-style layout, but I also have to register my dislike of that remote control. It's a creative idea, and I might use it in a special project but not in my main site navigation. Pixels are precious and I don't like how it wastes perhaps 20 of them on each side of the remote control's buttons. Regular text would be more compact as well as more familiar. But what really irks me are those "arrow" icons at the top. Adrian, you got it exactly right when you say they were "meaningless to me until I held my cursor and saw the ALT tag content in a ToolTip." That's nice if you're using Internet Explorer, but I got no ToolTips in Netscape, even Netscape 6. And in IE, I would prefer to know what the links did without having to run my mouse over all of them like I'm playing a shell game. Bottom line for me: Don't use some kind of icon when text will do (although I must say "folder" would not be very meaningful text, either).

Posted by Rob on July 30, 2002, at 10:40 a.m.:

I agree with Nathan re: the remote control. It's a decent idea, but it's not worth the extra document weight and image size.

This site as a whole seems to exemplify the typical broadcast site (though it's better than a lot of them) -- image-heavy and short on actual content. The breadcrumb navigation and a few other thoughtful ideas (such as the repetition of the sections in text form underneath the content) raise this site above your ordinary broadcast site, but it's still shackled by unforgivably huge document weights.

Posted by AgentKen on August 2, 2002, at 7:17 p.m.:

I like the remote control -- though it could be presented as text instead of graphics.

It's "cute" but appropriate for the site.

What I want to know is why they are expecting snow in August? Shouldn't the "Closing and Cancellations" link be removed when school isn't even in session and there is no possibility of snow?

Just a stupid question.

Oh, and for out-of-market site visitors (of which there will be very few), it takes about 20 seconds to figure out where this station is physically located, and the city location is (I think) in one spot in 8-px type.

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