Web Video for Beginners

Video is all over the place on the web nowadays, and nobody wants to get left behind. But how do you add video to a website, and, more importantly, why should you?

The advent of video-sharing websites and the increasing ubiquity of broadband internet connections are shifting the role of video on the web from an occasional bit player to a regular lead actor. Web-based video technologies have exploded in number and complexity, making it more confusing than ever to figure out how to integrate video content with your website. So where to start?

This article won’t get into the nitty-gritty details of programming code, but we will give you the basic information necessary to make informed decisions about how and where to add video to your site.

What Is Your Purpose?

Before you begin thinking about the technical details, the first thing you need to consider is why you want video on your site. If your answer is something like, “because I want everyone to see my home video of my granddaughter’s birthday party,” your subsequent decisions are going to be very different from those you’ll have if you’re putting a demo reel up in the hopes that some Hollywood producer will stumble by your site and decide you’re the next Spielberg or Scorsese.

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Where Does It Go?

Once you know why you want video, your next step is to consider its presentation on your site: where does it go, and how will it look? Do you want to embed the video in your website? In other words, do you want a little screen, on which the video plays, to appear right in the middle of your home page?

Perhaps your video is too large to embed, or you might have too many videos on one page of your site to comfortably fit them all. In that case, you may prefer to have your target audience click a link that opens the video in a separate window, either for immediate viewing or a later download. For the sake of comfort and eyestrain, it’s typically more acceptable to embed short, small clips, while giving longer, larger movies their own windows.

Proper Placement

Whether you’re embedding or not, there are a couple of rules of thumb to follow when putting a video on your site. The first is to put any video or audio at least once click deep. You should not assault visitors who have just arrived at your site with motion and sound; instead they should click an item to request that playback.

The second rule is to have a caption and graphic for every video you’re embedding, with some indicator of where to click. Even if it’s just a small still shot with a “Click Here” caption, it’s important to give the viewer some sense of what they’re about to watch and how they’re supposed to get to it.


Technology Choices

Now that you’ve answered why and where (and hopefully what) you’re going to be putting up for all the world to see, you can start thinking about how you’re going to make that available – which technologies you’re going to use and how you’re going to implement them. Your two major options are hosting the video yourself or using one of the major video-sharing sites like YouTube or Google Video.

Video Sharing

Using a video-sharing site is the easier solution. Just upload your file to the service, which will convert it to the correct format and provide you with a snippet of code you can use to embed the video in your site. Just look for the section that says Embed, then copy and paste. It’s free to you and convenient for your viewers.

The downside? You have very little control over the size, quality or format of the video, and you may expose your viewers to various advertisements or cross-promotions from the hosting site (see the Video-Sharing Sites Specifications feature on our website for a site-by-site breakdown of the pluses and minuses). Additionally, your video may not fit within the guidelines or format requirements of a third-party site.

Do-It-Yourself

Hosting it yourself provides you with greater control and zero restrictions on content or format (besides the law and – we hope – good taste), but you really need to know what you’re doing. You have to pick a size, format, codec and bitrate (see sidebar) that will best serve your viewers, host the video yourself (which incurs bandwidth and storage costs) and write your own inclusion code, which can range from the very simple to the extremely complicated.

There are plenty of how-to guides and tutorials on the web – including some on our own site at www.videomaker.com – but even with step-by-step help, hosting your own video takes a level of technical involvement with which you may or may not be comfortable.

Summary

It’s very important to consider purpose, location and presentation before you even start thinking about the technical how-to aspects of putting video on your website. In many cases, you can even rely on a third-party video-sharing site to handle the technical heavy lifting. If you decide to do it yourself, make sure you do the required research, because it can get a little complicated.

Mike VanHelder is an IT professional with a sideline in film production.

Side Bar: Important Terms

File format typically determines which media player application you can use to play a particular video and is referred to either by name or by the three-letter file extension that files of that type share. Popular web video formats include Windows Media (.wmv), QuickTime (.mov), AVI (.avi) or Flash Video (.flv). Think of a file format as a package or envelope for the video within, much like physical video formats like DVD or VHS.

Codec is short for compressor/decompressor. It refers to a particular mathematical algorithm used to store video data. A codec is like a language. If your computer doesn’t have a given codec installed, it won’t play a movie that uses it, and you’ll get the dreaded “Codec not found” error message. Popular codecs include MPEG-2, MPEG-4, wmv, H.264 and DivX. Some codecs are associated with particular file formats – for example, most wmv files use one of several wmv codecs.

Bitrate measures how much data per time period there is in any given video, typically expressed in bits per second, or bps. As a rule, the higher the bitrate, the better in quality the video will be, but also the more demand it will put on a viewer’s internet connection and computer hardware.

On a standard commercial DVD, for example, the video information is in DVD-Video format, encoded using the MPEG-2 codec at a variable bitrate of anywhere from 5-11Mbps. The popular internet video-sharing site YouTube uses the Flash Video (.flv) format, with the Sorenson Spark H.263 codec, at a bitrate of up to 300kbps.

So which format, codec and bitrate are best? Unfortunately, there isn’t one simple answer to that question. Obviously, as a video producer or webmaster, you want to select your technology based on accessibility and quality. To that end, the three formats with the most market penetration and support are Windows Media, QuickTime and Flash.

Side Bar: A Familiar Example

Let’s take a look at a video we have embedded in the Videomaker website. Its purpose is to entertain and educate our visitors, so it appears on our front page for maximum exposure. It has a two-line caption below a version of our logo with the universal Play button triangle across it, indicating where to click to start the movie. That makes the video exactly one click deep. We’ve decided to use the Flash format, because it’s small and fast and has an estimated 90% non-exclusive market share. The video itself is encoded using a version of the H.263 codec, which comes with Flash. It’s relatively small in size, with a bitrate friendly to those without super-high-speed connections.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.