To Frame or Not To Frame: That Is The Question
by Shirley E. Kaiser, M.A., SKDesigns
Published November, 1999. Updated March, 2006. Copyright © 2001-2017, Shirley E. Kaiser, M.A., SKDesigns. All rights reserved. Published at websitetips.com with permission.
Please note that although this tutorial was written November 1999, most of the information is still valid. Also, most modern Web browsers now support frames, although accessibility issues remain problematic.
The question of whether or not to use frames within a Web site's design can be a hot topic of debate. Many people don't like framed Web sites because they “get stuck in someone's frames,” they can't bookmark a particular page within a framed Web site, the search engines don't list their Web sites, and some browsers can't read framed Web sites at all. Clearly these are legitimate problems.
This article's intent is to help clarify some of the advantages and disadvantages of using frames and provide resources for further information.
On this page:
Web Site Architecture
A Web site needs to be designed with many factors in mind. A Web site should not be designed using frames simply because the designer, client, or Web site owner likes frames.
The design decision, including whether or not to use frames, needs to be based on a variety of reasons, including:
- the overall needs of the Web site,
- navigation needs,
- target audience,
- accessibility issues,
- the importance of search engines spidering and registering the site,
I do NOT feel that design or graphics ideas for the overall look of a Web site overrides any or all the above.
As a Web site designer specializing in Web site architecture, design and graphics, one might think that the look of the Web site would be foremost in my mind and take priority; however, that is not the case.
Although the overall look is an important ingredient, other elements are also critical to the success of a Web site, as described below.
Content needs to be the first consideration and remain the most important consideration.
Content is generally the main reason that visitors access your Web site and also will return, whether the content is text, products, services, or a combination.
Web sites most often need to be designed with the widest possible accessibility:
- A variety of browsers,
- A variety of operating systems,
- Assistive technology, special readers, or other equipment for the disabled,
- Ever-expanding technology is beginning to include the need for voice readers for mobile Internet access,
- Search engine access to list, spider the Web site.
- Fast-loading pages,
- Navigation needs to be clear, convenient, easy.
- The first and lasting impression needs to accurately reflect the purpose of the Web site.
- The first and lasting impression also reflects the company or individual who owns the Web site.
- Visual organization impacts navigation, and needs to be clear.
- Consistency throughout is critical.
- Graphic elements need to enhance content. (Otherwise, do not include them.)
It is recommended to design the look and feel of the Web site with the above in mind.
Advantages of Frames
There are instances in which framed Web sites are truly a great approach.
- Static navigation can be visible all the time, thus providing navigational convenience. Example: Course Technology's Web site for the new textbook, Electronic Commerce.
Editor note February 2006: Note that CSS can provide this approach, allowing far better accessibility than the use of frames, and modern browsers support the CSS approach for this quite well now (unlike in 1999 when this article was originally written).
- Company logos, messages, or other information can be kept in one frame that is constantly visible, if desired.
Editor note March 2006: Just as above, note that CSS can provide this approach, allowing far better accessibility than the use of frames, and modern browsers support the CSS approach quite well now (unlike in 1999 when this article was originally written).
- Some design issues can be resolved by using frames. A nice example is at Dragonfly Dreams.
Editor note March 2006: Using an inline frames (
IFRAMES) approach rather than a multitude of frames like those used in the linked example would allow far better accessibility when implemented according to the
IFRAMESWAI Guidelines. See also WebsiteTips.com's section on IFRAMES, Web Site Resources » HTML » Tutorials » IFRAME Element and HTML.
Disadvantages of Frames
- Search engines may not be able to properly spider a framed site.
Search engines have a tough time with frames. Using frames either prevents them from finding pages within a web site, or it causes them to send visitors into a site without the proper frame "context" being established.1Therefore, if a visitor comes into the Web site from a search engine link, the Web page may be on its own without reference, links, or other means to connect into the rest of the Web site. Unless the Web site developer allows for this situation (such as providing links to the main page of the framed Web site), the visitors will not have any navigation or reference into the Web site.
- Bookmarking a framed page within a Web site generally won't work, and typically only the main page of the Web site can be bookmarked. There are workarounds within the HTML, but they are not often used. (These workarounds will be addressed in the frames follow-up article, coming soon. An example is at the Electronic Commerce Web site, mentioned above.)
- For the same reason that bookmarking a framed page within a Web site generally doesn't work properly, the URL for the entire site appears only as the main page. This can be confusing, especially for newbies to the Internet. (There is a work-around for this, but too often developers don't consider the potential URL confusion.)
- Not all browsers support frames.2 Therefore, to maintain accessibility, a framed and non-framed version of the Web site is recommended by the W3 Consortium guidelines.3
- A framed and non-framed version of the Web site are generally needed,4 raising the cost of the Web site and the maintenance.
- Often framed Web sites do not close properly when the visitor goes to another Web site, thus keeping the previous Web site's frames around a different Web site. This can be frustrating and confusing for websurfers. The Web site designer must use proper markup within the Web site page links to avoid this problem. Additionally, lawsuits are beginning to appear because of this.5
- Framed Web sites can be problematic for smaller browser windows or laptops, or those prefering to keep their browser windows relatively small.
While I am not totally opposed to using frames within a Web site design, there are major elements to consider with the technology in its current state (as of 1999), including target market and accessibility. Most often, but not always, the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages.
Editor note March 2006: In the ten + years that I've been in the Web design business, I haven't found a need to use frames for a public Web site, and in fact, I don't recommend using frames because of the problems and challenges noted above. I've used them a couple of times for clients insistent upon their use for a public Web site, but framed and no-frames versions of the sites were created. Another instance was for a private Intranet in a controlled environment for which the client insisted upon their use despite my recommendations otherwise. In each of these cases, a frames approach was not at all necessary.
- Designing Web Sites with Frames
Tutorials, tips, articles here at WebsiteTips.com.
- Accessibility and Web Site Design
Designing Web sites for access to anyone, including disabled, voice-activated browsers, more - here at WebsiteTips.com.
1Search Engines And Frames, Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Watch.
2Reference: Browser Chart, Webmonkey, The Developer's Resource.
3Frames, Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. W3C Note, May 5, 1999. (W3C's official guidelines)
5Unlawful Linking and Framing, by Tanya E. Rose. (no longer online)