How to Create an Online Web Help System

Web Help is an HTML-based help system that users can access with a regular browser program such as Internet Explorer or Google Chrome, which, in turn, makes Web Help a platform-independent documentation format.

While there is no common standard for an online help system, the Web Help format implemented in different help authoring tools provide some common features such as the Table of Contents, alphabetical Index, full-text Search capability, and also the possibility to integrate such a help system with an application or website.

Features of a Web Help System

  • A Table of Contents reflecting the structure of the help system.
  • Index tool that allows the user to find a specific term in a sorted list of terms and to get the help topics associated with that term.
  • Full-text search capability to find topics whose content matches a requested keyword.
  • The possibility to customize the help system's layout (for example, to fit the help system's appearance to the company's common style).
  • Integration with a website or application and the possibility to provide context-sensitive Help.
  • Support for mobile platforms such as Android and iOS.
  • Optimization for SEO factors such as internal URLs, proper use of HTML tags, ALT attributes for images, and so on.
A Web Help system displayed in a web browser

A Web Help system displayed in a web browser

How to Create a Web Help System

To create a Web Help system, you can use a help authoring tool that provides support for this documentation format and also enables you to generate other kinds of documentation such as a help file and PDF manual using the same source project.

In other words, using a help authoring tool, you can:

  1. Write the content of your help topics in a full-featured editor that allows you to add hyperlinks, images, videos, and other objects that you may need.
  2. Organize the Table of Contents structure of your help system.
  3. Add keywords for the Index tool.
  4. Customize the help system's appearance by using a built-in design theme or by creating a custom theme.
  5. Setup help system's general settings such as the documentation title and default help topic.
  6. Finally, compile you project and get your Web Help system's files that you can upload to your web server, or share in a local area network, so other users can access it.

Accessibility of a Web Help System

The way how your help system will be accessed by your users depends on the specific tasks and also on the implementation of the Web Help format in your help authoring tool. Below are the most typical situations of how you can distribute your online documentation:

  • Put your Web Help system to your web server, so other people can access it from anywhere in the world.
  • Use an Intranet server for company's internal documentation with limited access.
  • Similarly, you can put the help system in a shared folder of your local area network (however, this will work only for a stand-alone Web Help that does not require a server part such as PHP or database).
  • Distribute the Web Help system within an archive file, or within the distribution package of your desktop application.

In all of these cases, your users will be able to get access to the help system by using a regular browser program such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Google Chrome. Also, if a Web Help system placed on a web server includes a responsive layout, it can also be accessed from mobile devices such as tables and smartphones, which makes Web Help a truly versatile format for technical documentation.

Customization Possibilities

While many help authoring tools provide a set of ready design themes that you can select for your help system, they also allow you to create a customized theme, so you can manually modify font settings, formatting of individual elements, backgrounds, and so on.

Also, some help authoring tools provide you with full access to the underlying HTML/CSS code of the Web Help layout which you can edit according with your own needs and get the necessary result.

Integration with an Application

When it comes to integrating an online help system with your website, or even with a desktop application, you may need to add hyperlinks linking to the corresponding help topics from different parts of your website or application. Thus, your users will be able to get immediate assistance on a particular application's feature, user interface, or issue.

In most cases, the possibility to integrate a Web Help system is based on support for special URL parameters that allow a developer to perform actions such as displaying a specific help topic.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Web Help

The key advantage of the Web Help format is its portability and platform independence since such a help system can be viewed with a regular browser on any platform without the necessity for the user to install additional software. Also, we should mention the Web Help's tools providing easy navigation through the documentation including the built-in search engine, and also its integration possibilities.

Concerning the disadvantages, it should be pointed out that an online-based help system cannot be accessed in case of lack of internet or intranet connection, which can be crucial in a certain situation.

Download a Help Authoring Tool

You can download one of the recommendable help authoring tools that combines a rich feature-set, slight learning curve, and affordable price.

HelpSmith Download

HelpSmith main window

Product Details:

Detail Value
Product HelpSmith 7.3
Filename HelpSmithSetup.exe
File size 40 MB
Platform Windows 10/8/7/Vista/XP
System requirements 1 GHz processor, 512MB RAM, 150MB free disk space