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Frames or no Frames?

To use Frames or not to use Frames...

That is the question...

I've kept away from using frames in any of my work where possible. As much as I like some of the features that frames offer, such as a static header area and side menu bar, there is still a number of negative aspects to their use.

So what are these frames (framed sites) anyway?

A frames page itself contains no visible content; it contains instructions on which pages to show simultaneously and how they will be displayed within the browser window . Think of it as a clear overlay, much like a panelled window frame - except this window frame allows you to look into different rooms of the house. A frames page can contain references to many other pages, but usually they consist of references to pages to be used as the header, the content, a left hand menu bar and a perhaps a footer bar. When a hyperlink is clicked in one frame, say the left hand navigation window, it will open a page in the content window, or the target frame.

This makes site-wide changes easy to implement (especially when used in conjunction with Cascading Style Sheets) as you can change the items such as the menu bar and logo for your site in one page, and that will update the entire site.

Using a frame for the header (top) area or navigation bar of your pages will also make it static (fixed) so visitors can easily access menus etc... no more scrolling back up the page.

All this sounds great, but there are a number of points you need to consider before implementing a framed site, especially when using WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) web page editors .

1) Many search engines cannot index framed sites. Because the home page is merely a frame, with very little content or hyperlinks to follow, search engine spiders may stop dead on the page and have 'nothing to report'. A way around this is the proper implementation of Meta tags and use of the "noframes" tag. (See further resources at the end of this article)

2) If a search engine does manage to spider your site, visitors from search engines may land on the content pages, rather than the full-framed version, i.e. they may arrive on your site and all they will see is the menu bar! For a work-around for this issue, see further resources at the end of this article)

3) Non-frames capable browsers. Fortunately, only 1% of visitors' browsers fall into this category. Once again the use of the 'noframes' tag will assist, but to be used effectively you basically need to create two sites, one framed, one not - the "time saving" is suddenly gone.

4) Bookmarking. A visitor cannot bookmark a specific page in your site without requiring additional customized scripting for each page. Even then there is a risk of visitors landing on the content frame, with no navigation frames to view.

5) Visitor opinion. Many find frames annoying.

6) Copyright issues. You'll need to ensure that all links within your site that point to external sources open in a new window to avoid copyright wrangles. There have been legal precedents in relation to this issue. Many site owners object to their content appearing in someone else's frame, to the point that special "frame busting" code is used.

7) Internal linking. Special attention will need to be paid to your internal links to ensure that any page pointing to, for example, the home page opens as a "whole page", otherwise the framed home page will appear in the target window, causing confusion to visitors.

8) Printing issues. Visitors need to take further steps within their print settings to ensure the information they want is printed correctly. In most cases, a full page cannot be printed as displayed on the screen, only in sections corresponding to the frame.

9) Scroll bars, divider bars. If your framed site uses a number of frames, scroll bars can prove to be unsightly. These can be removed, but check compatibility with other popular browsers. (See further resources at the end of this article)

10) External linkages to your site. If other sites wish to link to specific pages in your site, it is more difficult for them to do so.

11) Refresh/Reload problems. Again, special care needs to be taken with coding otherwise when a visitor tries to refresh a particular page, they may be taken back to the original frameset. A common problem.

SSI - the alternative to frames

If you are a FrontPage user publishing to a FrontPage enable web server, the "Include Page" function is very handy and easy to implement. For others Server Side Includes (SSI) may also be an option - it can save many hours in global site updates.

How to use SSI/includes

When using SSI, instead of creating entire pages, a basic framework is used - empty tables for recurring elements such as nav bars, headers and footers, plus an area for the content. Then page elements such as navigation bars are created as separate files - without <head></head> tags. In your template page, you then "insert" the common files with the coding in the appropriate position.

Example SSI Coding

'Normal' SSI

<!--#include virtual="/menu.htm" -->

or in the case of the element being in another folder

<!--#include virtual="/folder/menu.htm" -->

Note: to use "normal" SSI, you will need to check with your web host first and probably rename your SSI enable pages to .shtml. There is a workaround to having to rename all your pages by adding the following to your .htaccess file:

AddType text/x-server-parsed-html .html

Be very careful when editing your .htaccess file and ensure you don't disturb any of the existing coding within it - it should only be opened with a text editor and a backup should be made before editing. .htaccess files contain specific instructions for certain requests, including security, redirection issues and how to handle certain errors.

FrontPage SSI

To use FrontPage SSI (known as Include Pages) ensure you are working within a FrontPage web, otherwise this won't work.

On the FrontPage menu bar:

Insert -> Component -> Include Page -> then navigate to the element, click OK. You should now be able to see your included element in both Normal and Preview modes.

PHP SSI Coding

If your web host supports php, you can also use the PHP version of SSI - remember to exclude the <head> tags from your element pages.

include ("/navbar.htm");

The file extension of your template page will need to be renamed to .php - the Include element itself can be PHP or straight HTML.

Related learning resources

CSS Tutorial
Want a quick way to implement site wide formatting updates? Cascading Style Sheets may be just the thing you're looking for!

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
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Last modified: June 20, 2013