Criteria of Website Excellence
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What makes a website one of the greatest?

This is not an easy question to answer. Even so, each of us has probably visited some of the finest sites on the Web many times. These are the sites that make us think, “how wonderful and amazing that such a site exists!”

Our goal in compiling the “100 Best Websites” list has been to provide you with a collection of the most outstanding of such sites, websites that will dazzle you with their excellence. Many of them you will have heard of, others will almost certainly be new to you. But we think that if you take the time to explore each of these sites, you will be abundantly rewarded for your effort.

Below is a summary of the criteria we use when scouring the Internet for the best websites in existence. Our team of editors has subjected each of these criteria to reflection, discussion, and enlargement, but we feel you might benefit from having a look at this simple summary.

The “100 Best Websites” list is more than the sum of its parts. We have strived to ensure that at least one site from every major area in which the Internet is particularly powerful is represented. Taken together, the sites constitute a very potent collection! We hope it will be useful to you.

Here is a summary of the 21 criteria we use in refining the list of “100 Best Websites”:

I. Primary Criteria: all the sites in our list should score high in each of the following categories. These criteria are listed in no special order: they are weighted roughly equally in considering any candidate site (with the exception of the first and most general of the criteria).

1. Overall Excellence: Is the site simply the best available in its category? This is the least specific and most important of the criteria. Having selected a subject area in which the Internet is especially powerful (such as news, free speech, entertainment, etc.), is there no better representative website of that subject area anywhere on the Web? Of course, the criteria that follow give a greater rigor to our answer to this question, but we should always keep this “overarching gestalt” in mind.

2. Content Richness: Is the site rich in content? Here, we must take care to distinguish great websites from good websites about great things! We might think the Beatles are the greatest rock band in history, but that doesn’t make a website about the Beatles great. For a website about the Beatles to be great, it would have to provide abundant, high-quality content about them (perhaps history, interviews, a timeline, a comprehensive list of their songs, lyrics, biographies, photos, etc.) If the most important three words in real estate are “location, location, location”, the most important three words in website evaluation are “content, content, content”!

3. Breadth: Does the site broadly cover a subject area that is one of the great strengths of the Internet? For example, we might be considering two websites about human history. One attempts to cover the entire scope of human history, providing substantial information about the major civilizations of humankind as well as links to specialized historical websites for additional information. The other might focus on a particular period in history, say, the time if the Indus Valley civilizations of India. Each might be outstanding in its treatment of its subject. But for the purposes of this list, the first website, the broader of the two, would be preferred.

4. User-friendliness: Is the site intuitive and easy to use? Does it enable the user to jump right in with very little “training”?

5. Reliability: Is the site reliable? Is it nearly always available, and is it unlikely to "crash" the user's browser? A wonderful site that is often unavailable is not great.

6. Wholesomeness: before “Censorship!” alarms start going off, a little clarity is in order! For the purposes of this list, what is wholesome is more easily determined via negativa (by seeing what it isn’t) than directly. The questions are pretty straightforward. Is anyone likely to be harmed by exploring this site? Is this site likely to foster states of mind in its viewers that could lead them to harm others? Could this site be viewed by children with approval from loving and thoughtful parents? As a matter of consensus, the editors of this site (a pretty broad-minded lot who cherish free speech) have chosen not to include pornographic websites, websites devoted to the lurid details of infamous crimes, or websites that might reasonably be considered “the dark side of the Net”. No sites that you view in this list should leave you feeling that you need to take a shower or see a psychiatrist after viewing them (except perhaps the news sites)! Is this a bias? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is sound judgment. We can agree to disagree here if needed (hopefully without being disagreeable), but the most important thing is that we disclose this precept to you. We think you’ll find that the list has not suffered for this modest exclusionary rule.

7. Freshness: If applicable, is the site frequently updated? Obviously, this is more important in a news site or online magazine than a site devoted to the philosophy of 5th Century Athens. But even the site on philosophy would probably benefit from occasionally review.

8. Security: Is the free from signficant security risks to the user? If it is a commercial site, does it restrict transactions to a secure interface? If it is a site from which the user can download things, is care taken to ensure that these things are safe for the user's system?

II. Secondary Criteria: these are ceteris paribus or "other things being equal" criteria. It is not essential that a candidate site score high in each of these categories, but it is certainly desirable. These criteria are especially useful in making a final decision among three or four outstanding sites in the same category. Unlike the primary criteria listed above, these are listed in approximate descending order of importance (most important at the top).

9. Free Content? Is the content free? This is not an absolute requirement, but strong preference is given to sites with high-quality no-cost content. A free site that offers 85% of the high-quality content of its for-pay counterpart will probably be preferred to the for-pay site (other things being equal).

10. Skillful Practices? Does the site follow “skillful practices”? Opinions vary greatly on just what constitutes skillful web design. Our feeling is that it is best defined with respect to an imagined "minimal" Web user. Imagine someone using a dial-up connection on a Pentium 133 MHz PC with a 15-inch monitor. Further, this person is using a browser that is a few years old. This is not the most primitive system that can access the Web, but it is a pretty good least common denominator. Would our candidate site load reasonably quickly on such a system? Would the main features of the site be visible without scrolling on a 15-inch monitor with text-size set to "medium"? (If you hold up an 8 1/2" X 11" sheet of paper horizontally, you have the viewable area of a 15-inch monitor. Are all the primary features of this site present within that area?) Though this is an important criterion, we have listed it as secondary because we are willing to tolerate a certain range of unskillful practices if the content of a website is outstanding. (Our consensus is that the model site for skillful practices is Google )

11. Easy Access? If the site has free content, is it easily available (without registration, passwords, or other hoops the user has to jump through)? If the site is available only for pay, is the "access ritual" minimally cumbersome?

12. Modestly priced? If the site is only available for pay, is the cost modest and reasonable? How does the cost compare with other sites offering similar services for pay?

13. Creative? Innovative? Is the site, innovative and/or creative? Some sites redefine a whole category of how things are done on the Web (we think Craigslist with its anonymous email forwarding is an outstanding example of this. Of course, Yahoo is perhaps the superlative case). Sites which take risks and succeed in breathtaking ways are definitely given preference, other things being equal.

14. Objective? If applicable, is the site independent and reasonably objective? This is relevant for sites that present themselves as objective, explicitly or tacitly: news sites, reviews sites, etc.

15. Aesthetic? Is the site aesthetically pleasing? (Interestingly, Mathworld is a site that fares well by this criterion.)

16. Fun? Is the site enjoyable? Never underestimate the value of fun! (We think a great example of this is )

17. Multimedia rich? Is the site multimedia rich (upon demand) and skillful in its use of multimedia?

18. No annoying advertising? Specifically, does the site shun annoying advertising? Web users can happily live without pop-up ads, “Punch the Monkey” banners, and “Skip Intro” videos. Other things being equal, we prefer sites that spare us these minor irritations.

19. Persistence: Is the site likely to be persistent? The determination of the likelihood of persistence is a bit arcane, but we have a method that has worked pretty well!

20. Non-profit? Is the site non-profit? You will find quite a few ".org" and ".edu" sites here. Non-profit sites are not intrinsically preferable, but since they do not get the same attention as their commercial counterparts, one is more likely to find hidden jewels in their ranks.

21. Easy-to-remember URL? Can the site name be memorized easily or “bookmarked in one’s neurons”? Catchy names are not essential, but they do enable a user of the site to access it from just about any Web terminal. If you're at a library terminal and you want to visit, you'll probably remember the URL (web address), but if you want to visit you will probably not remember the URL.

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