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  CGI Scripts

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CGI Scripts: Web form processing requires more than HTML

By now, you probably have some experience designing web pages. You know that you can use any HTML editor, or a variety of other tools to create web pages. Publishing is simply a matter of uploading the page to the right place on your webserver. Just upload and it works!

Unfortunately, once you start working with HTML forms, things are not so simple. You can, of course, design forms using any HTML editor. But you can't make it do anything with HTML. 

If you design a great looking form and then upload it to your website, you'll find that when you fill out the form and click the submit button...nothing at all happens!   

In order to get a form working, it is not enough to just design the form itself in HTML. You also have to create a  CGI script or form processor program. The CGI script  (CGI stands for common gateway interface) is a program that runs on the webserver. The CGI script takes the information entered in the web form by the user and does something with it .

What it does depends on the nature and complexity of the web form.  For a simple contact form, the CGI script might do nothing except send the the information entered to an email address.  (Contact forms are often used to hide the recipient's email address, since including it on the website usually results in tons of spam). For a more sophisticated application, the form processor script might be a highly complex program with ties in with databases and performs a variety of functions.

The CGI script is NOT part of the HTML, it is a separate program which must be installed on your webserver. The location of the CGI script is specified in the HTML form tag. It looks something like this:

<form name="forms" action="http://www.mysite.com/cgi-bin/myhandler.cgi">

The red text above shows the location of the CGI form processing script.  This program must be installed and set up on your server.

So how do I get a CGI script working?

To get your webforms working, you basically have three choices:

1 . You can find and use an existing CGI script. There are a variety of these available. You will need to edit/setup the script, upload it to your webserver and then set the proper permissions so it will execute as a program. Aside from the fact that they can be hard to set up, there are a number of important drawbacks to these scripts:

  • The script function is very limited. Pre-written/standard CGI scripts will only send an email with the data entered in the web form. They lack advanced features such as sending an autoreply email, saving data on the server for later retrieval, etc.
  • Pre-writen CGI scripts expose your email address to spammers. This is because the email address is hidden in the HTML code. Spammers crawl the web looking for email addresses and they can easily find ypurs and add it to their list (even if the email address is not visible on the page--it's still visible in the page HTML source).
  • These CGI scripts have a history of being unsecure and can be hijacked and used to send spam. Spammers know about CGI scripts and  routinely probe websites for scripts with names like "formmail.cgi". Then they try to crack the script and use your server to send hundreds of thousands of spam emails. That can get your domain blacklisted and your webhosting company upset. There are many different versions of CGI scripts out there; some are safer than others. It is difficult to know exactly what you are using and whether it will be cracked by spammers in the future.

2. You can hire someone to design and install a custom form script for you. This solution has the advantage that you can create a web form processor script to do exactly what you want. For example, you would be able to go beyond just emailing the submission results to the webmaster and perhaps save the data in a file on the webserver for later retrieval, send an automatic confirmation or "thank you" reply to the person who filled out the form, etc. This is the solution employed by most large businesses and organizations that want to insure their website operates in a highly professional and efficient way. The drawback to this solution for smaller businesses and organizations is, of course, the high cost and time associated with finding and hiring a qualified programmer.

3. You can use a remote form processing service, like FormBreeze . A remote service has the advantage that you do not have to worry about writing, installing or setting up a form processor program, because the program runs on a remote server. Someone else takes care of the technical details for you. A second important advantage of a high quality service like FormBreeze is that you can get many of the features and professional appearance that would otherwise only be available from hiring a programmer to create a custom form hander for you.

FormBreeze offers a unique combination of power and ease of use because it offers a control panel. To control the way your forms work, you simply log into your control panel using your user name and password, you can then specify exactly how your want your forms to work, see statistics, download all the data users have entered in your forms and much more.

Here are some of the features available in the FormBreeze service:

  • No limitations. Works with any form.
  • Checks the information entered to make sure it is correctly formatted.
  • Emails submission results to you.
  • Collects data for later download in HTML, tab-delimited text or csv formats.
  • Sends personalized autoresponder messages back to the visitor (for example, you can address your visitor by the name he or she enters in your form).
  • New! Can send a second, personalized "follow-up" email to the visitor at a later date. This is a powerful way to maintain visibility and turn prospects into customers!
  • Integrates with mailing list software so you an build lists automatically. Includes "Opt-in" support.
  • No programming. No editing HTML. No scripts. No configuration or software installation.
  • Completely professional appearance. No ads. No links to us.  FormBreeze works in the background to process your forms.
  • Secure from spammers. Your email address never appears on your web pages (even in hidden locations).

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  Copyright (c) FormBreeze.com, 2006