It’s time for a brief interlude during all my ranting on porn. Let’s get back to some of this practical stuff.

This time, because I can, I want to talk about what every big sexuality community web site does wrong and what they can do to fix it. Because, frankly, alternative sexuality organization web sites suck my big fat web developer’s dick. (There is plenty, though not an overwhelming amount, of geek-speak ahead. If you want to flame me about that, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Before I rip into these web sites though, let me first acknowledge the incredible hard work that I’m sure mountains of volunteers must put into these things. No one is making money off these sites and, as such, it’s understandably a lot harder to spend the time doing things well. The fact that this stuff is even up online in the first place is really a credit to a lot of people’s passions and commitment. Three cheers for all of you! (Seriously.)

Okay, now that you know all of this is just a good-natured jab to try and make things better, let’s get into the meaty parts where I totally rip your web site to shreds and tell you how badly you’re stuck in the last century.

In the true style of proper web copy (more), here is my conclusion first:

Most BDSM organizations’ web sites utterly fail in their mission to attract people to their events because they are intimidating, hard to use, and decidedly uninformative.

And, the natural fix for this problem:

Make BDSM organization web sites friendlier, easier to navigate, and immediately useful.

You can stop reading now if you don’t actually care about this stuff, but if you do, are at all curious, or—and especially—if you manage one of the web sites I’m talking about, please keep reading. You’ll thank me when you’re done.

The Design Problem or Don’t Scare Away the Newbies, you idiots!

TES’s web site serves as a wonderful example of this first point, that BDSM organization web sites are stupidly intimidating. Why? Here’s why: when the average kink-curious person is searching for BDSM web sites and they see TES’s sad design, here’s what they’re thinking:

  • It’s an inverted white-on-dark design so clearly what they are doing must not be normal or okay. (This person is already probably surfing the TES site under the cloak of darkness in their computer room hoping their spouse or their parents won’t walk in on them. Why are you making it seem like that’s the normal way to get information about kinky sex from you?)
  • It uses lots of colors intended to signify scary things, like deep red and lots of black and mettalic colors, so they must be really dangerous people. (Do you know how much courage it has taken this person to even consider going to a kink event? Why are you making them feel like their fear is justifiable?)
  • They have really tiny text for things I’m interested in (like all the main event descriptions) and really big text and graphics for the things I’m not (like their own logo and big welcome banners), so maybe they’re not actually the group for me. (Don’t you get that this person has come to your web site for information about how to be kinky in their own lives? Don’t focus on the welcome message, which nobody cares about, focus on the reason they’re coming to your site in the first place!)

This is classicly fucked-up design and is unfortunately all too common. The net result is that these types of designs make people feel anxious and afraid and turn site visitors away from the rest of your content pages. Don’t do that.

Contrast this general design sense with, for example, the Polyamorous-NYC web site. While it has other problems, design is not one of them (for the most part).

Whereas TES has lots of light-on-black, some horrendous yellow color, and lots of big red headlines and a logo that looks like the blade to a guillotuine, Poly NYC has several pinks, a neutral beige, some blues, and white along with a picture of three people smiling and holding hands on the home page.

Which site feels more welcoming to you? If you were a hot and sexy 18-year-old looking to explore alternative sexualities, which group would you feel safer checking out first, based solely on the web site’s design?

I think BDSM people really like to brag about how incredibly intense and perverse they are. After all, we kink hard on danger but this is no excuse for confusing your fantasy with your real-life goals, you morons, so stop that shit right the fuck now, okay?

In fairness, TES is not the only group that suffers from this design problem. Dom Sub Friends, the Lesbian Sex Mafia, and to a lesser extent Gay Male S/M Activists do as well. But TES is by far the worst. Sex stores have the same problem. Contrast something like Purple Passion‘s web site with, for instance JT’s Stockroom. The difference is night and day, literally.

The Usability Problem or Stop Making It So Hard To Browse Your Site, asshat!

This is big, so let’s start somewhere that’s got a big database. DSF is often cited as having a great database of links. But in reality, it’s not great, it’s just massive.

Granted, massive can be a facet of usefulness. After all, eBay is fucking massive. You can find just about anything you can kink with on eBay. (Or Amazon, by the way.) However, the distinguishing factor between eBay’s database and DSF’s database is findability, not size.

To an untrained eye (by which I mean, evidently, by DSF’s web site administrator’s eyes), findability just means “use a search engine.” (DSF doesn’t use a search engine on all their resources pages, just some of them, by the way.) This, unfortunately, is totally missing the boat.

Why you need to think about what you’re doing or Obviously you’re too busy jacking off at the computer

First of all, how do you think search engines work? They work by analyzing structured data to produce information that is ultimately relevant to the user’s needs. Do you think all that data just structured itself? No, someone had to structure it, someone had to think about how to present it, and someone had to think about how to do all of that in a way that meets the user’s goals.

Taking this out of the theoretical and back to the practical, let’s take a closer look at DSF’s resource pages. First thing you notice is that they have a “BDSM Resources” page on which there is an incredibly strange, unnatural distinction between “Organizations and Forums” and the rest of their “BDSM Resources”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t you consider organizations and forums to be BDSM resources on a BDSM resource page? Why the separation? What’s the point?

It’s pretty common knowledge that only the most persistent users will click through a web site to find what they’re looking for. Most users will click on one or two links and if they haven’t found what they’re looking for, they’ll go back to their search engine of choice and try all over again. Then lather, rinse, repeat. As a web developer, every decision you make impacts your users, so you damn well have a good reason for doing something. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong.

Of course, this problem is much easier to tackle when the volume of information you have isn’t as large. Look at NYBOL’s web site to see the complete opposite spectrum of the very same poor architectural problems. What is that? An entry for the “let’s see who can make an entire web site on a single web page” contest? They don’t even have a lot of information and they have given absolutely no thought to how their content should be structured.

There are two primary navigational modes users are accustomed to on the web. These are search and browse. Listen closely because I’m only going to say this a hundred billion times: users search when they are answering a question or trying to solve a problem. Users browse in order to learn about a problem or to gather information. When you think about how to structure the content on your web site, you need to think about how users will interact with this content in those two modes of navigation.

As an example of a web site that does this relatively well (and which took me a grand total of maybe three or four hours to implement, literally), take a look at the way Conversio Virium organizes its content.

  • Main navigational tabs provide hierarchical structure to the content of the web site. The constitution is in the about CV section, the presenter guidelines are in the meetings and events section, and information about specific leadership positions are in the membership section. Makes sense, right? (Admittedly, it’s not always so clear moving forwad, but hindsight is always 20/20.)
  • The single search bar in a prominent position at the top of every page searches all the content on the site. (Being objective, I will also note that the serch results page for CV does need a lot of work. I did only put about three hours into the implementation of this site, you recall.)
  • Content is organized according to strict guidelines using categories and an events calendar, allowing faceted navigation so that users can either search or browse the site and end up at the same content by following a variety of paths.
  • Finally, the content itself cross-links to other relevant contents. Posts link to other posts. Events link to previous posts. News items link to events. Static pages link to each other. The more links you have, the easier it is to find what you’re looking for.

These days, this sort of thing is actually pretty easy to do at least decently well. Simply knowing how to make good use of a content management system helps a lot. TES uses Mambo, but they failed to provide the kind of faceted navigation of their site that CV provides for their’s, and so their CMS isn’t as useful to them.

I could get all technical here and start talking about why these sites should be getting rid of their URL cruft, why they are browser-hostile (fucking overuse of frames and JavaScript), and a dozen other topics, but you’d all be bored and obviously no one is reading this anyway. So, hoping that we’ve got this point down, I’ll just move on.

Make Yourself Useful or Stop Trying to Top Your Users, you freakin’ sex addicts!

If all of that isn’t enough already, let’s talk about one last point. (I promise this’ll be the last point I make and that you can all go back to jacking off at your own brilliance soon, as I too will do.) Usefulness. This is the most important point out of all three of my points today, so if you’re scanning this post and want to read just one point, I hope it’s this one.

You need to make your web site useful, or no one will use it. Well, duh, but what does that entail? Here’s the process, broken down into really simple steps:

  1. Find out what your members want to do.
  2. Make it possible for them to do that thing they want using a web site.

I swear, that’s all there is to it. Let me give you some examples.

The BDSM calendar that no one uses

Almost every single site I linked to above has some form of events calendar. TES and DSF both have so-called “dynamic” calendars. GMSMA, LSM, and Poly-NYC, among others, have so-called “static” calendars, which are really nothing more than unchanging pages that have some information about their next event. The problem with all of these calendars is that they are either totally useless or not-as-useful as they could be for the following reasons:

  • You can only view them on the page they’re published on. If I am interested in DSF meetings and GMSMA meetings, then I have to make my own page or my own calendar that combines both of these group’s information.
  • You can’t safely link directly to events because the location they are published on eventually changes (such as when being archived). If I want to link to an LSM event, I can’t, because the event itself isn’t a permanent fixture anywhere. Instead, I have to link to their events page and hope that my site users find the event on the page, if it’s still there.
  • Moving data out of this calendar into any kind of actually useful form is nearly impossible. Copy-and-paste is a waste of everyone’s time (computers were invented in order to obviate the need for humans to perform repetitive tasks).

The group with the absolute worst calendar scheme has to be OneTaste NY (and why is a fucking MySpace profile the thing that comes up on Google when I search for that phrase, by the way?), which—despite having a relatively decent calendar on their web site, actually—chooses to email me a massive hunk of HTML vomit every few weeks with their entire calendar for the month stuffed into it. Yuck! Why don’t you promote your web site calendar instead and offer an iCalander subscription feed or something like what CV does? You have the technology! You can rebuild it!

The only people who use these calendars are either devoted members of the club already, in which case you could probably force them to jump through rings of fire and they’d still do it just to get a look at the calendar, or are the people creating the calendar, in which case why do you even need a calendar since you already know what’s going on when? Answer: you don’t. You just suck at web development, is all.

(As an aside, there are a number of email-only subscription newsletters dealing with alternative lifestlye events. These aren’t really web sites so I didn’t say anything about them, but a word to the wise: please stop writing out these emails as though they are really long love letters. If you’re going to put out a newsletter in plain text as an event listing, for god’s sake, use some kind of convention to indicate the thing is actually a list, okay?)

A final note: all your print calendars need to have your web site’s calendar address on them, and you do actually have to change your web site calendar once in a while to keep it up to date. What’s the point of a calendar with the wrong information on it? Sheesh.

Anyway, moving on….

Other Web Sites Are Your Friends or The point of a link is to link you to something, dimwit!

The mentality of “stay at my site longer” is sooooo 1995. I’m serious, there’s nothing you can do to prevent web site users from going to another web site. Just give up the whole idea that your one site will ever be the be-all and end-all of information about any topic in the world right now, because if you don’t you’ll never be able to make a good web site for as long as you live.

Instead, actively embrace the idea that the more outbound links you have that go to good places the better your site will be. Why is this so? Because users like being linked to good, interesting information. They appreciate a useful service, whether that be in event information, educational material, or whatever else you can offer them. The way to do this is with links. So for fuck’s sake, link liberally!

In the BDSM community world, this means you need to link to other group’s web sites! Why is it that the only community web site I know about that links to other organizations on every page is Conversio Virium? (May, you made the CV web site. Oh, right, thanks. I forgot.) Seriously, why the fuck does TES not link to DSF? Or to LSM? Or to GMSMA? Or to MaST? Why does GMSMA not link back to TES?

Why are all you arrogant fucktards so concerned with recruiting members instead of actually being the useful, educational, supportive organization you so proudly claim to be? None of you are actually doing what you so nobly claim to do, and it’s about time you got off your high horses and started actually doing it. And you know what, the best tool you have to do that with is your web site. So come on, GET ON IT!

And by golly, I didn’t even get into the really fun bits like implementation and search engine optimizations. I mean, seriously, why is CV’s site the number one hit on Google right now for the search query “floating world bdsm”? That should be embarassing.

That was the end, but here is an outtake for humor’s sake

Let’s start with none other than The Eulenspiegel Society, the self-proclaimed oldest and largest BDSM education and support organization in the United States. Smack-dab on the top of the home page, TES proclaims their web site to be, and I quote, the official TES® web site. As if there are hordes of unofficial TES web sites out there on the Internet. They even italicize the word “official” to make it stand out more, to remind us that we are actually at the center of the BDSM universe. Please, get over yourselves, TES web site committee members. Neither you nor your organization (and especially not your web site) is that impressive.

While we’re on the topic of italicizing things, by the way, take a look at how they’ve italicized it. Do you know what this code is called?

<P ALIGN=Center> <FONT SIZE=+3>Welcome to the <I>Official </I>TES</FONT><FONT size="6"><B><SUP>®</SUP></B></FONT><FONT SIZE=+3> 
Web Site.</FONT>

No? It’s called HTML vomit, that’s what it’s called. font elements have been deprecated since HTML 4.01, which became a W3C recommendation on the 24th of December, in 1999. Did you hear that? Nineteen-ninety-fucking-nine. What the hell are font tags still doing on your home page? Has it not been updated since 1999?

To be fair, this exact problem plagues pretty much every web site built by people who don’t actually know how to work with the Web, which includes the vast majority of every so-called self-proclaimed “web designer” out there, which is also, coincidentally, apparently pretty much every tech-savvy kinky person in existence.

Morale of the story? Get someone who knows what they’re doing. And yes, they will either be very generous or they will charge you through the nose—and yes, you’re gonna like it.