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We highlight commercial websites that are unreasonably hard to use, don't work properly, or don't actually offer what they promise. It's a way for web developers everywhere to learn what kind of mistakes they should avoid -- and of course, an opportunity for the companies listed here to fix the problems we document.

Orphaned Pages:

BBB Bike Parts

reviewed Dec. 29, 2006

If you arrive at a page inside BBB Bike Parts' website from a search engine, you won't be able to navigate to any other page within the site. That's because there are no links on the page you land on. And that's because the site uses an ancient, largely discredited website technology: frames.

In fact, the problem this website suffers is one of the main reasons that web designers abandoned frames, way back in the 90's. Frames can easily cause serious problems for users.

Frames are one way for webmasters because they provide an easy way to have the same elements on every "page", such as the same logo or menus. The way they work is that they assemble two or more pages into the same window. One page could contain the menus, which could be combined with whatever page the user is looking at.

One way this breaks down is with the example above: The search engines have no way to show a page with the frame page that's supposed to come with it. So users get the naked product page without the accompanying logo or menus. And they're stuck.

I came across this site when I was searching for one of their products, called the NightBeam. I searched Google for "bbb nightbeam" and their page was the first hit. I clicked it and immediately found myself on an orphaned page, with no way to click to the rest of the website.

Orphaned pages aren't the only problem caused by frames. Even when a user does enter from the front page and gets all the frames as they go through the site, they have another problem: The address bar never changes. That means it's impossible for the user to bookmark that page, copy the address to link to it from another site, or send it to a friend or colleague.

There are clunky Javascript scripts which will force frames onto a page when a user lands on an orphaned page, and even cumbersome ways to get the address bar to show a proper url that can actually be bookmarked, copied, and linked to. But these are a lot of work, and they still provide for a bad user experience, as the first thing the user sees when they go to an orphaned page is the page disappearing and then redirecting to a frameset so the whole frame can be drawn. If the idea of using frames was to have the some same content throughout the site in order to save time, then grafting clunky Javascript code into each and every page certainly defeats the purpose.

Of course, there are some cases in which frames can be put to good use, but they're definitely the rare exception and not the rule.


How BBB Bike Parts can fix this problem

The preferred method for reusing content on every page of a site is to use SSI (server-side includes). BBB could use SSI and get rid of the frames.

It could also add a bunch of clunky Javascript, but simply using SSI is the preferred solution.

Update, Nov. 2007:

I went back to check to see if BBB had fixed the problem yet, and discovered that the original page I linked to was gone! Evidently they no longer make that product, so they unceremoniously removed the whole page from their website. But that causes even more problems. First, customers sometimes like to look up information even about discontinued products, and now they can't.

Second, since BBB just removed the page without redirecting it, anyone who clicks a link to that page will get a big ugly "Page not found" error. If BBB really felt they didn't want to offer information about their old products any more, they should at least have redirected visitors to the home page so that users don't end up at a "Page not found" dead end.