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Deciding Whether to Use Frames

While frames do offer an interesting way to divide a Web page, many Web designers hold their noses or shake their heads disapprovingly when looking at a site that uses frames. Some of their objections are aestheticakin to modern fashionistas who cringe at the big hair trends of previous decades. Other objections stem from frame-specific technical disadvantages, like the problems they create for search engines (more about that in a moment). And yet for some people, frames remain a helpful tool. What follows is a quick pros-and-cons tour so you can decide for yourself.

Figure 6-1. This frames page displays three different HTML pages. As a viewer clicks links in the frame on the left, different pages display in the main window on the lower right. The banner at top and menu on the left never change.

Some advantages of frames:

  • Frames save you from having to add a navigation menu to every page of your site. Using frames, you can save loads of time by creating the menu just once and placing its Web page in a frame.

  • With frames, you can feature a page from another site, but display it surrounded by your own banner and menu offerings. This way, visitors may not even know they've left your site.

  • With only one part of the browser window updating, readers don't need to reorient themselves, as they might on a site where every page changes. Using frames, menus and border elements remain constant.

Unfortunately, the drawbacks that come with using frames seem to outweigh the advantages. Many Web design veterans who have used frames end up redesigning out of frustration. Common causes of disenchantment include:

  • Not all browsers can display sites that use frames. Visitors instead see an empty page or a message declaring that the browser they're using doesn't support frames. (These browsers are a tiny minority and include versions of Internet Explorer before 3.0 and pre-2.0 Netscape. Others are Mosaic 1.0 and Lynx, which displays framed pages as separate documents. And Opera lets you decide whether or not to view frames.)

  • Many search engines have a hard time indexing (cataloging) content on sites that use frames. The reason? Each frame is actually a separate HTML file, and some search engines will mistakenly index only one framesay, the one containing a bannerand ignore the content in the other frames. When people use the search site, their results would include only links to your banner frame and not to the important stuff elsewhere on your site.

  • Web surfers won't be able to bookmark certain pages in your site. Say a reader has been merrily clicking away and is viewing deeply buried content in a frame when she bookmarks (or adds a favorite page to) her browser. The problem is, the browser won't necessarily save what she's looking at. As far as the browser is concerned, she hasn't left the frameset page (the page coordinating all the other, individually framed pages). So, when she clicks her bookmark later, she'll see the initial frameset page rather than the one she was looking at when she saved the bookmark.

  • Printing frames is difficult, as most browsers can't tell which framed pages to print. If you've ever tried to print a page and ended up with only a picture of navigation buttons, frames were probably to blame.

If you're still game, or if you're just curious to learn more about how your Web forefathers and mothers designed many of their sites, read on.