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Forms and CGI scripts

You will often encounter forms on Web sites. They are useful as a way of collecting input from readers, and are also the way in which readers enter the details of what they want to search for. There ara various ways of dealing with the completed form, but in most cases the information is passed to a program on the Web server called a CGI script (commonly written in a computer language called perl), which deals with the data entered in the form and sends a response to the reader.

For example, in the simple Sussex Parish Register Search on my own genealogy site, you can use the form to select exactly which records from a database you want to see and then click the Begin Search button. This sends the form data to the server, which then runs a script to look through the database, select the matching records, and present them as a Web page. The virtue for anyone wanting to put transcripts or indexes on-line is that no one can access the whole database at once (and therefore have a complete copy of it) but anyone can extract the information they want.

Designing a Web page with a form is not itself particularly difficult, but for the GCI script you will need programming skills if you intend to do this yourself. However, most ISPs do not provide this sort of facility for non-business users. On the other hand, some ISPs provide a selection of basic scripts for any subscriber to use, including, typically, a search script and one for e-mailing the contents of a form - have a look at RootsWeb's Mailmerge CGI Script, for example.

Your ISP will provide some documentation about how to interface with such scripts. If you need this sort of facility, make sure you check this when choosing where your pages are hosted.

A further possibility for is to use Microsoft's FrontPage. This can create pages which, when run on a FrontPage server, are able to exploit the server's script facilities without further ado. However, ISPs seem to provide FrontPage servers mainly for business customers and at a greater cost than normal Web space, so this is not likely to be of use for personal Web pages. If you are planning a site for a society or project, it may be worth considering.

If all you want to do is help people find their way around your Web site, then you don't really need to program a search facility. If your Web site is well organized, i.e. it is clearly structured and each page provides clear navigational information, then a good table of contents on your home page will be more than adequate. If you've got too many pages for that to be a good solution, a separate page devoted to a site map may be worth creating.

Don't forget, too, that once you have submitted your url to the search engines, these will provide an index for you, and people will come to your Web site knowing there are pages which are potentially relevant to their interests. Indeed, some search engines (such as Google) can provide you with access to their own index to search just the pages on your site.

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7. Advanced Web Facilities