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New White House website raises the bar for everyone

While Barack Obama was giving his inauguration speech on Tuesday, change had already come to American cyberspace: a White House website that instantly made every other governmental and political website look...well, sad.

Teaching webwriting in 2002, I used the Bush White House website as an example of what not to do. It was kludgy, ugly, and full of goofs.

For example, it offered Hispanic voters a page in Spanish -- but the links on the page were still in English.

Bush wasn’t the only one. In 2004, I looked at our own Canadian political websites, and found them truly wretched.

Back in April 2008, The Tyee ran my article on how Obama was transforming online politics.

And late last year, I wondered how the Obamasphere might teach our politicians something about communication in the new century

But I confess I was still not ready for the cool elegance of The White House.

Get past the eye candy -- the gorgeous photos, the stylish typefaces, the Obama-brand blue -- and you find yourself on a superbly usable website.

Its navigability is the best I can recall of any website, commercial or governmental. Run your cursor over the links at the top of the home page, and everything opens up for you, including stuff you hadn’t realized you wanted to know about.

This is what I call a “good-news surprise” -- something you didn’t know that makes you feel really good about whatever you’re thinking of buying. Journalists in particular will feel perilously grateful to have this information smorgasbord laid out before them.

My only quibble is about the display of text-rich pages: The site relies too much on bulleted lists, with no white space between items, and while the subheads are in a serif font, the body text is in sans serif -- the reverse would be more readable. And the site ought to have a printer-friendly version of each page.

These drawbacks are likely to disappear as Obama’s web geniuses tweak the site. In the meantime, expect a lot of other political and governmental websites to plagiarize the daylights out of The White House.

Crawford Kilian, a contributing editor of The Tyee, is working on the fourth edition of his book Writing for the Web.

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