Business-like, isn't he?



Building web pages

Using Netscape or Mozilla Composer, nVu, or Kompozer

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001, 2002, 2007

Much as you may be excited to build your own website, schools and other individuals are excited by the oppotunity as well. In this handout, we’re going to look at using a number of free programs to build and maintain relatively simple web sites. But before getting into the tools, it’s important for any wannabee web-builders to spend some time thinking about the purpose of their site, and the potential audience.

Ask yourself questions—what is the purpose of the site? Who’s likely to view it? What technology are they using to view it. For example, if you’re building a site for a Vancouver elementary school, while the site may be available to the whole world, are very many people in other countries really likely to visit? Should you create a site for a world-wide audience, with glowing mission statements? Or is it really more aimed at your current parent body, more interested in being able to verify if next Monday really is a Pro-D day?

Keep in mind that ‘cool content’—big graphics, animations, sounds, special effects all make your site load more slowly—a big concern for people viewing from home over a modem connection. Your page may display quickly when run on your own hard drive, or across a fast network—but still be painfully slow over a phoneline modem. And pages that appear quite readable on a display set to 800x600 or higher resolution will often require too much sideways scrolling to be workable for the many users with screens set to 640x480 resolution. The moral is Keep it Simple! And check how your page looks on a variety of computers, screen sizes, colour depths, Macs/PCs, etc.

Why Composer?

  • Composer offers a so-called WYSIWYG interface—unlike many HTML editors, you don’t work with raw HTML code, but rather with an interface that looks like a web page—if you’re comfortable with a word processor like Word, Word Perfect, Claris Works, etc, you’ll be comfortable with Composer. Serious web page designers need the power and precision of being able to work with raw HTML code—but the rest of use don’t need to get our hands dirty those ways. Sort of like driving with an automatic transmission vs learning to drive standard.
  • It’s free.
  • It creates relatively standard, relatively clean HTML code, that aren’t burdened down with extra junk. The pages you create will run on any server or web-hosting provider—unlike, for example, Microsoft Front Page, which is loaded with lots of neat added features—many of which turn out to be unusable unless you are able to load special Front Page Extensions on your web server (something Vancouver schools can’t do).
  • It’s free.
  • It’s lacking in high end features—frames, cascading style sheets, and a lot of things you haven’t heard of. In this case, a lack of features is a plus, both because they result in a program that’s easier to use, and because it keeps you from designing pages with high-end features that are either unviewable by users with older browsers, or result in overly-complex, messy pages, or both.
  • It’s free. That means you can install it on all the computers in the lab, and get a whole class creating pages at once.
  • There are virtually identical Windows, Linux, and Mac versions.

Getting a copy of Composer

Composer is included in the freely downloadable Netscape Communicator package (for PC or Mac). If you don’t already have a copy, you can get it from Netscape. The program is about an 18 meg download. In general, the default installation settings are usable—and if you are installing it over an existing school copy of Netscape Navigator, it should be OK. (Note: Mac users need to be running OS 7.6 or later to use the current versions. You can find a version compatible with older Macs with older (System 7) operating system versions at: Windows 3.1 users can find Netscape Gold 3.0 (which includes a similar web creation program) at


New and improved versions are available in two different versions:
-- Netscape has spent quite a while trying to get past version 4.x. They skipped numbering 5.x, and version 6.x was pretty awful. As of this writing, however, version 6.2 is actually pretty good, and there's a new version of 7.0 that's getting good reviews. Both include a nice version of Composer, but also a bunch of America Online add-ins that you may not want.
-- Mozilla is an open-source project that is at the base of the new Netscape. And Mozilla 1.0 (or later) is available for download for Windows, Mac OS X, Mac 8.5/9, Linux
and other operating systems. I'm using its version of Composer full-time now, though this tutorial was written using the Windows and Mac versions of Composer included with Netscape 4.x.

2007 update: while either Netscape or Mozilla Composer are still usable, there are several descendents of those programs, updated. SeaMonkey retains the Netscape/Mozilla philosophy of having a suite combining web browser, HTML editor, etc all in one, while nVu and the even newer KompoZer offer the HTML editor on its own. Since most of us already have web browsers, email, etc, I would recommend using KompoZer. With minor differences, everything in this tutorial is applicable to SeaMonkey, nVu, KompoZer, etc. 

Starting Composer

You can start Composer in a variety of ways… Windows users will find a Composer icon in the Start Menu’s Netscape Communicator submenu. Alternatively, if Netscape Navigator has been started, Composer can be opened from its Communicator menu, or by clicking the Composer icon in the floating component bar.
Alternatively, if you find a page you like on the Web, you can load it into Navigator, then make changes to it in Composer, by choosing Navigator’s File/Edit Pagemenu item.

If you choose to start a new file in Composer, using the File/New menu item, you’ll get a choice of a blank page, a template, or a wizard. In this handout, we’re only going to look at starting with a blank page—the other two options open Navigator, taking you to a page on Netscape’s website. You may find them interesting to investigate on your own.
Commiunicator bar

Working with Text

On your new page, you can simply type, as you would with a word processor, and the text will appear onscreen as you would expect. You’ll find a formatting toolbar with options similar to your word processor, but with some important differences as well.

text toolbar

The biggest difference is that unlike your word processor, you don’t really have the power to define text characteristics like font and size very accurately. The reason is that you have no control over the fonts installed on the remote computers that are viewing your page. If you really need to use a special effects font for a headline, make the headline as a graphic in a painting program, and insert the image. Otherwise, the best thing is to accept the limitations.
On the left, is the Paragraph Styledropdown list. Most of the time, you’ll be using the so-called NormalHeadingstyles (Heading 1 is the largest), and a few other, less-widely used—standard body text, in a Times Roman default font, and a standard size. Clicking on the small triangle on the right of the word ‘Normal’ will drop down a list of styles—five
Next, is the font drop-down. Unlike the font-list in your word processor, it describes several standard typesof fonts, without giving their names. Below that, it will list the actual fonts on your system. My advice: don’t choose any of them! All too often, they won’t be present on a viewer’s system, and the results will be unpredictable.
Buttons for bold, italic,underline, work as you’d expect—and you can mix them, for example, getting bold italic-- but don’t use underlining! On web pages, underlined text generally indicates a hyperlink… underlining non-linked text just causes confusion. Instead, get in the habit of using bold or italic for emphasis. (Do the same in your word processor. Underlining is a hold-over habit from typewriters, where it was the only way to show emphasis. It’s not needed with computer-generated text and just looks tacky!)

Next to the underline icon is an icon to Remove Character Styles and Links… I don’t often use it, but it’s a quick way to unlink text. The following two buttons are used to create bulleted and numbered lists—nice for point for lists, for example
  • Here’s my first point in the list. Notice that it can have multiple lines.
  • I pressed enterto get the next bulleted point in the list
  • And here’s the 3rd
    1. With a numbered list, the numbers are entered automatically.
    2. – each time I press enter.
    3. Just like this!

Next come two icons to decrease and increase indentation—something I rarely use. The final toolbar icon is a handy dropdown to control alignment. I often like to center-align headlines and graphics, for example.

Generally, pressing Enter in an HTML document gives you a new paragraph—with a blank space between paragraphs. (This blank line may not show up in Composer or in all browsers). If you want to type on a new line without starting a new paragraph (and adding the blank space), press Shift+Enter.

Making your text into hypertext

Web pages are more than just a bunch of text. Composer includes a set of tools on a so-called composition toolbar to enhance your plain text.
Composer toolbar

The New, Open, and Save buttons work pretty much as you’d expect. Note that when saving files, you should find out whether your server wants to see them with *.HTM or *.HTML file extensions. (Yes, Mac users, you’re into the wonderful world of file extensions—give your files names ending in a period and one of those extensions). For example, if you’re saving on a Vancouver school’s NetVista server, the filename index.htm is a magic name that will open up automatically when a user just types a web address without indicating a filename at the end (i.e. typing http://maquinna.vsb.bc.cawill actually open up an html file named index.htm at that location). Saving onto the Vancouver School Board’s Unix-based server, however, wants the file to be named index.html—a file with the wrong extension won’t work as advertised.

As well, while Windows and the Mac may allow you to use long file names, resist the temptation. Such names are a pain for you and the user to type each time. While it may be okay to name a file: school_calendar_1999-2000, the same filename with spaces simply won’t work as part of a web address. Spaces in filenames are a definite no-no!

The Publish button should allow you to send your page (and associated graphics) to a web server—but it doesn’t work with many servers. With the Vancouver school and school board servers, for example, it doesn’t work—don’t bother trying. Instead, get one on a number of freely available ftp(file transfer protocol) programs. I recommend the free WS-FTP LE program for PC users, and Fetch for Mac users. Both can be downloaded from, among other fine shareware sites.

The Preview button serves an important function—allowing you to see how your page will look when viewed in Netscape Navigator. Composer tries to make your on-screen experience similar to the final page, but it’s not perfect. Previewing also lets you test your links, to see if they actually load what you expect. Before previewing, you need to save your page—and it’s a good idea to preview often.

Next are Cut, Copy, and Paste buttons that work as you’d expect in a word processor or other program. The standard keyboard shortcuts (Control-V, Control-C, Control-X on PC, Command+ the same keys on Mac) work, as expected. Control/Command-Z works for Undo, as in most other programs. Print and Find buttons are also pretty standard.

Link and Target buttons are unique to hypertext. When a user clicks on a link, they go to a new page, either stored locally on their computer or local area network, somewhere across the wide Internet, or to a new location within the same document. Both text and graphics can be linked—in both cases, the procedure is the same. First, select what you want to make into a link—if it’s text, highlight it with the mouse, if it’s a graphic, just click on it. Then click on the Link button. You’ll see:

Link dialogue box

If your link is a local file, you can locate it using the Choose File button. For best results, keep the local files you’re linking to in the same folder—that way, you don’t need to type in location information that will change when your pages are uploaded to your server. If your link is a web page on the Internet, add the full address—type for example, not just If you don’t include the ‘http://’ part, you’ll find your browser looking for the page on your local hard drive—and failing to find it.

In fact, links that work on your local hard drive but fail when you upload the pages to your server are a common problem—after uploading your pages, go there with your browser, and test all the links—and be prepared to experiment a bit to fix the ones that fail to work as expected!

A good way to get the link to a page on the Internet absolutely correct is to go there in your browser, highlight the browser’s address bar, and copy the highlighted address to the clipboard (Edit/Copy or Control/Command+C). Go to Composer, click in the link field (in the above dialogue box), and Paste—Edit/Paste won’t work for this—you can use the Control/Command+V keyboard shortcut, or right-click in the space, choosing Paste from the popup menu.

Notice how the lower portion of the illustrated links dialogue box includes a list of named targets in the current page. This makes use of targets—a useful technique for long web pages. The idea is like having a hypertext table of contents—clicking on a link takes you directly to that section of the document. To make use of this, you first have to define your targets. To define a target, click where you want the target to be—at the beginning of Chapter 2, for example, and click on the Target button. You’ll be asked to give your target a name. (Your name can include spaces, by the way), then click OK.

Once you’ve defined your targets, you’ll see them listed in the Link dialogue, as above- simply select one of the targets to link to it. (The Top target is a handy one in such cases—place a link to it by all your other targets, so a user can quickly jump back to the table of contents.

Adding Images

Most web pages have graphics of some sort—these may be pictures used as pictures, but can also be pictures used as organizational logos, or as navigational links—a Home button, an arrow pointing to the left for ‘previous page’, etc. Once again, it’s important to think about how your users will be accessing your page. And be kind! Most users continue to access the web using a phone-line modem. It’s easy to overload a page with large graphics, and make it take seemingly forever to load.
So shrink your graphics in an image-editing program (such as the free IrfanView for the PC or the shareware Graphics Converter for the Mac-- both downloadable from You may shrink a full-page graphic to a medium-sized one, and be happy with that as the only version. Or post a page with a bunch of thumbnail-sized pictures that link to larger-sized versions of the same picture. That way, the page downloads relatively quickly, and the viewer has the choice whether to take the time to see the larger version or not.
Images on the Web are most commonly stored in so-called GIF (pronounced like’Jif’) or JPEG (pronounced ‘JayPeg) pictures. JPEGs (aka JPGs) are most often used for photos, while GIFs are more often used for illustrations—pictures with 256 or fewer colours, or for animations. (A third format, PNG, is also starting to be used). Composer lets you place GIFs and JPEGs, and also Windows-standard BMP and Mac-standard PICT pictures (in the Windows and Mac versions, respectively)—that means you can use pictures created by students in programs like Windows Paint or KidPix. If you import a BMP or PICT, Composer will offer to convert it to a Web-ready format for you.
To add an image, place your cursor where you want the image to appear. You can left or center-align the cursor, if you like. Click on the Image button, to see the following dialogue box:
Image Properties

You need to specify the image location and file name—or more effectively, perhaps, click on the Choose File button to browse for its location. You probably want to leave the [ ] Leave Image at Original Location option unchecked. If you choose the [x] Use as Background option, the image will be tiled all across your page.

The text alignment options are needed because normally, you can only place a single line of text next to a graphic… they control where that line appears – top, middle, bottom, etc.The last two text wrap buttons allow you to place multiple lines of text next (or around) an image-- but there is a catch. When you select one of these options, it appears as if it isn't working-- you'll only see a single line of text beside the picture... in Composer. If you save and preview in Navigator, you will see that it does work as advertised. This is where Composer's graphical interface falls down, and it makes using this feature quite awkward.

The dimensions settings are useful—and dangerous. They set the size that the browser will leave for the graphic. If you know the exact dimensions (in pixels) of your graphic—perhaps because you resized it in your image-editing program, you can set them here, and the page will load faster because the browser doesn’t have to wait to see how large the graphic is before placing the text.

If you type in dimensions that are smaller than your actual picture size, the picture will appear to shrink on the page—some people have done this, thinking this will give them smaller, faster loading pictures. It won’t. Don’t do it! What happens is the your browser has to download the full, large-sized picture, then resize it—resulting in a page with small graphics that takes forever to load. Very bad idea!

The Space Around Image settings let you control how much blank space appears around your picture. Most times, you can leave these alone.

Do get in the habit of clicking on the Alt Text/Low Res button every time you import an image, however… this lets you add a line of text that will appear while the image is loading, or in place of the image on browsers where the user has turned off loading images. Type in a description of the image. This is invaluable for two classes of users—visually disabled users who are accessing the web using text-reading software, and users of slow modems who have turned off images to speed up page loading times. For similar reasons, if you are using graphics as hyperlinks, also have a text-based link to the same location. Otherwise, people who can’t view your graphics have no access to your link.

The Horizontal Line tool button does just what you’d expect—places a horizontal line clear across your page.

Tables—the big trick

If you can only get a single line of text next to a graphic, how are you able to see web pages that look like newspapers—with pictures surrounded by multiple lines of text? (Composer'sImage Propertiesdialogue that we looked at earlier can be used, but it's awkward and unpredictable-- and the page layout changes on different size screens or even if a user resizes the browser window).
The trick is tables. If you create a table, you can put a graphic in one cell, and as much text as you want in a cell next to it—creating the illusion that you have text neatly wrapped around the picture. As you might expect, you create a table using the Tablebutton. When you click it, you see the following dialogue box:
Table Properties

Set the desired numbers of rows and columns—rows go across, columns go up and down. Table Alignment sets where on the page the table appears. You can leave space for a caption—either above or below the table. Border lines appear as a light line around the table—unless you set a width of zero. I recommend that in many cases where you use a table, but don’t want it to appear as if you’ve done so. If you set the border to zero, Composer will still show you the outline of the table’s cells using dotted lines—these won’t appear in the actual browser. Spacing and padding is the room between table cells, and between the edges of the cell and the text or pictures inside each cell.

You can set the table width as a percentage, or as inches on screen—if set as a percentage, it will resize automatically for different screen sizes. If you remove the [x] Equal Widths setting, you can move the cell boundaries, so the column with the picture, for example, tightly fits the width of the picture.

You can set the colour inside the table—but in most cases you probably shouldn’t. Similarly, you will rarely want to use an image in the background of the table.

After creating your table, you can insert graphics, and type or paste text within the individual cells. If you want to make changes to the table, click in a cell, then right-click (Windows) or hold the mouse button down for about 5 seconds (Mac) and choose Table Properties or Insert or Delete to add or remove rows or columns.

Table Properties returns you to the dialogue box shown above, but adds tabs for rows and cells. The Row options aren’t particularly useful—but the Cell options let you set the width of a cell, and hence of the column it’s in—this is useful if you want the cell holding a graphic to always stay exactly the size of the graphic, while columns with text can freely expand or contract to fit the width of the page.

You can place tables inside tables, giving the possibility of fairly complex arrangements of text and graphics. This is how it’s done on the web pages that appear to have pretty sophisticated page layouts.

A couple last things…

One useful collection of settings isn’t on the various toolbars—in the Format menu, there’s the Page Colors and Properties item, bringing up this three-tabbed dialogue box:
Page Properties
Be sure to give your page a descriptive title. This is different from the saved filename—it’s what appears in the top title bar of the browser when it’s viewing your page. Add a list of keywords (separated with commas) to describe your page—this will help it show up (eventually) in search engines. (To speed up the process of becoming listed by search engines, you can submit your site to the various search engines, either by visiting each search engine manually, or using an automated service such
Colors and Background

The Colors and Background tab lets you set these page properties. I’d suggest leaving the link text settings alone, but you could choose a different colour for normal text, and for the background. But try and be tasteful, please! You can choose to use an image as a background—it will be tiled across the page. You’ll need an image that is faded out enough that you can read the text placed on top of it.

One popular trick used by many web sites is to appear as if they have a coloured stripe running down the page—usually on the left, with text of links appearing over this. This is done by creating a picture in a paint program, with a size that’s a screen-wide, by a single pixel high—and painting the colour part-way across… sort of:

Green Green Green Green Green White White White White White White, etc.

This will be a very small image that will load quickly, but if set as the background image will be tiled—repeated down the length of the page.

Then create a table, with a left-hand column set to the width of the coloured stripe, and you’re in business.

We’ll ignore the MetaTags page. Along with keywords, these are often manipulated by shady webpage designers, wanting to increase the likelihood that their pages will show up in searches—even for topics that are not really related to the page’s contents.

Getting your page(s) onto the server

After your pages are done, you need to get them, along with the associated image files, onto the server. Unlike a word processor or page design program, the images are not embedded into your file—all that’s actually present in your HTML file is text—including instructions for the browser to insert a graphic in the place indicated. If the graphic isn’t available (or the name doesn’t match), then all users will see is a space where the graphic should be, and an icon looking like a torn page.
Vancouver school users, as we’ve noted, can’t use Composer’s Publish command. Instead, they need to use an FTP program. But first, you need to get permission to upload to your school server. This is surprisingly quick and easy—phone the VSB’s HelpDesk (local 4444), and explain who you are and what you need. You’ll be given a user ID and password (you can make them the same as your NetVista account or create a generic one for your school). Once you have an account and an FTP program, you’re ready to load your pages onto the server. I’ll illustrate using the free (Windows) WS FTP_LE. (Note—you can do this from school, from home, from anywhere you have an Internet connection).
Open WS FTP, and click on the New button to create a new session. Give it the name of your school, and enter information as in the example below (for Vancouver’s Maquinna Elementary):
WS_FTP Session Properties

If you’re doing this on a publicly-accessible computer, leave the password blank—you’ll be prompted for it each time you connect. When you’re connected, you’ll see the entry-level folder for the website on your school server.

WS_FTP main screen

The window on the left is on your computer—the one on the right is on the school’s NetVista server. You can fumble your way through folders on the left (click on the up-arrow at the top to move up a level of folders) until you find the files you want upload. Select the desired files—you can Control+Click or Shift+Click to select multiple files at one time—on the left, then click on the --> button to send them across to the right-hand side. (Similarly, you can select files on the right, click on the <-- button to send them from the server to your computer.

If desired, create folders on the server, using the right-hand window’s MkDir command—that will enable you to have groups of pages and graphics neatly housed in their own folders, and let you have a document named Index.htm as the default page for each folder.

(For more detail on using WS-FTP to manage your website,  go to my tutorialon that subject).

That’s it! It should only take a few minutes to upload all your pages—and they take effect immediately.

Good luck and have fun!

Web Page Creation and Maintenance:
Before you begin- an Introduction 
Using Netscape Composer to create web pages 
Webpage Creation hands-on practice 
Using Netscape Gold to create web pages
Adding sounds and music to your webpages  new!
Using WS_FTP to upload and maintain your web pages
Making web animations with free tools new!
Tricks of the trade: Extend Composer with hand coding new!

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at

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