As Kevin mentioned in his earlier post about the new DiggBar, there are a lot of reasons why Webmasters don’t want their sites placed in frames.

Framing prevents viewers from viewing the full site, it alters the URL of the page, making it harder for people to bookmark the site and allows sites to sell ads against other people’s content. In addition to that, there is also the risk that they could make the content inaccessible to the visually impaired as some screen readers struggle with frames.

Despite all of this, framing is on the rise. Two years ago I could only name one major site, About.com, that routinely framed outbound links. However, since inclusion on their site was opt-in, it never caused much of a problem. Today, dozens of sites including Facebook, Ow.ly, StumbleUpon, Krumlr (on its URL shortening service) many others routinely use frames instead of outbound links.

So why has framing, a technique developed in the mid-nineties and soon thereafter largely discarded, made a comeback? You don’t have to look too far to find the reasons. What is a little less clear if why webmasters and users alike should be very worried.

Why Companies Use Frames

Digg, as well as other companies that create similar toolbars, are quick to tout the features they offer readers. For example, in the case of Digg, this includes the ability to Digg a post, read/post comments and find related or random posts.

However, these toolbars provide a great deal of benefit to the companies that build them. Consider the following:

  1. Advertising: Though the DiggBar doesn’t yet contain ads, it almost likely will. This effectively doubles the number of pages Digg can display ads on by letting them run ads on the sites they link to, not just their Digg story pages. This can boost revenue, something that is important when the online advertising market is struggling.
  2. Pageviews: As TechCrunch pointed out, since the URL on these pages is on the Digg.com domain, the traffic will be counted as belonging to Digg on third-party tracking sites like Compete. This can give the site appearance of growth but also the appearance of longer visitor length, making it look like the site is more engaging. This kind of growth can be vital when seeking new funding.
  3. Visitor Retention: In addition to improving a site’s stats, those who frame also increase their visitor retention by maintaining a presence with the visitor as they leave the site. Though many find it annoying, it offers a “way home” if visitors don’t like what they see and it keeps them from going elsewhere instead.

It is easy to see why sites, especially URL shorteners, which have very limited opportunity to earn revenue, would want to use framing. But seeing high-traffic and popular sites like Digg and Facebook use framing may be a sign of a changing time, one where the practice is more common and more frustrating.

The Problem with Frames

In addition to the very legitimate concerns webmasters have with frames and how they impact both their content and their visitors, frames also present a series of problems on the Web.

As was pointed out on ToMuse, during the first heyday of frames, in the mid-to-late-nineties, it was not uncommon to see a site displayed within two or more frames. For example, this link I created, with help from @jfredson, using my site, Unhub, Digg and an Ow.ly frame. (Note: If you want to help grow this list, use a service to put more frames on the page and then post the new link in the comments, will update as new links come in.)

As more and more sites begin to adopt frames and release framed links “into the wild”, chaos begins to erupt and a battle between framers and frame-breakers emerges. Lawsuits over framing were also not uncommon during the late nineties, all of which were settled out of court and result in the site that was framing abandoning the practice.

Eventually, framing fell out of favor due to public frustration and backlash from Webmasters. However, what separates the frames of today from the ones that we saw then is that the ones today are, supposedly, about adding features, not just showing ads or hosting a return link.

Whether this will be enough to keep such criticism at bay remains to be seen, but several major sites are clearly betting that it will.

Not All Frames Are Bad

This isn’t to say that every use of frames is improper, there are some cases where framing seems to be more acceptable. For example, both StumbleUpon and Diigo use frames as part of their site’s functionality. StumbleUpon to let users vote pages they are visiting up and down and Diigo to create Webslides, which are slideshows of Web pages.

However, both of these cases involve closed Web ecosystems. When you leave StumbleUpon or the Diigo slideshow, the frame is gone. Digg, Facebook and others are adding frames into the wild, adding frames to pages as visitors are trying to leave the service (even if just for a moment).

This, in turn, impedes the normal viewing of Web pages and makes possible situations, like the one I demonstrated above, where frames stack on top of frames, having a serious impact on the user experience.

Granted, with the limited number of sites using frames that isn’t a problem yet, it’s not hard to see a future where it could be. It has already happened once.

Bottom Line

Frames, for the most part, died out in the late nineties due to the problems they caused users and webmasters alike. For many, such as myself, who were developing sites during that time, today’s issue with frames seems to be as much a trip down memory lane as news.

Though the push with framing today has more to do with adding features, it still creates the same set of problems and concerns as before. Though frames can have a role on the Web, using them recklessly creates problems for everyone and those problems increase with the more common they become.

Much like popups from the same era, it may be that we have to have a browser-based solution for the framing problem, one that allows desired frames but blocks others. It would be unfortunate if it came to that, but if the annoyance of users increases, which it will of more sites (especially spammers) grab onto this idea, it may be necessary.

I’m hoping that cooler heads will prevail and the use of frames will be limited enough to not warrant such drastic action, but with Digg and Facebook already behind the practice, it likely won’t be long before other sites follow.