More often than not web design is about finding a compromise position between eye candy and eye oatmeal. And you often have to privilege one over the other.Continue reading “Web design: art versus engineering”
I gave a workshop on web writing to a group of communications professionals all of whom had been in the biz since before ever there was an internet. (Mind you so have I, but never mind). When I told them that all their pithy, witty, teasing headlines had to go, the workshop went down hill. But now, even a newspaper – The New York Times – is saying writing has to change.
And it’s all because of Google.
The webmaster is dead, long live content management systems. Self-serve content. Freedom from the tedium of pee slash pee pee slash pee bee slash bee. Nice idea. But it’s not quite that simple.
See, a few years ago I set up an open source content management system for a small volunteer organization of which I am a fee paying member.
People were complaining about not getting information or not being able to keep all the emails straight or never hearing about the stuff they wanted to hear about.
“PHPNuke to the rescue,” I thought. “Cut paste and post and you’re done.” I’ve learned a few things since then. One of which is not to use PHPNuke. But the most significant lesson came today. And it has nothing to do with technology.
But I should rejoin the narrative before jumping to the moral.
Content management systems: build them and people won’t come
My site stood empty and unused but for the odd tentative exploration from the dweebier elements of the group. No one posted anything. They continued to share information by distribution lists in their email clients.
I gave up on the site and it continued to gather dust. The organization dutifully renewed its domain every year, but ultimately it was a waste of space. I fell behind on my PHPNuke upgrades and I became increasingly anxious about having an old version of the application with Christ knows how many XSS vulnerabilities just sitting out there on my web server.
So I proposed to the organization’s leadership that they set up a listserv instead. They like email. I mean they really like email and I figured a listserv could make that work more efficient. And I figured Mailman’s listinfo pages could handle the amount of markup required to host the documents they did want in a central repository.
Of course they went for it. And I’ve rejigged the site and set up their lists. Ducky.
But then a funny thing happened. People have started flooding me with things they want me to put on the web site for them. Am I the only person surprised by this?
Never mind that it’s only a few seconds to post something to PHPNuke. Never mind that you need to be only slightly smarter than a mouse pad to post to PHPNuke. Don’t matter. What matters is that someone else is going execute those half dozen or so keystrokes.
The need to communicate vs the need to do less work
The need to communicate is driven by the notion that someone else is doing the communication.
A recent Reuters article describes a survey which suggests about half of Internet users post some form of content – be it photos, a blog, message boards whatever. It’s possible that my co-workers are composed entirely of those belonging to the other half of the survey sample.
But I rather think that it’s more about organizational politics and bureaucracy.
Have I changed my mind on CMSs and self-publishing? Absolutely not. If by eliminating the buck passing and by requiring people to lift a finger to publish something, we force some consideration of whether or not report X should get published, then the CMS will have succeeded in ways I didn’t even imagine.
A content management system can be the solution to the single largest problem with most web sites — keeping content current. Updates take time, cost money and require logistical support. And a few years ago, the digital equivalent of elbow grease was the only solution. Organizations brought on staff or contracted to freelancers the task of marking up text – either by hand or using a visual page editor – to do routine updates to their web sites.
But this sort of coding work is repetitive and predictable. If it sounds to you like a perfect task for a computer you’re right. It is.
Enter the “content management system.” A content management system (CMS) is a generic term for a collection of web pages or web-connected programs that maintain the information on a web site. A CMS does this by storing the information in a database, and then retrieving it and displaying it as a web page when someone visits the site. There is a private and hidden set of pages that authorized individuals use to add, edit or delete the site’s content.
Advantages of a content management system
Your maintenance costs will decrease
If you pay someone to post each page, your costs will decrease if posting a page is a 30 second task involving copy and paste. If your staff already do this, they will have more time for other tasks.
Updates will take less time
Contractors have other clients, staff have other tasks. Delays are inevitable. But you can minimize the lag time between content creation and publishing by making the process as easy as possible.
Publish anytime from anywhere
You use a series of web pages to publish your content, so if you have a web browser and an internet connection, you can publish to your web site. No specialized software required.
Separate content from structure
With your content in a database, you can, by making a relatively trivial change, decide to list your stories by topic, rather than by date because the database does the sorting. With a static page, someone has to rearrange the stories themselves. This is not a complicated task, but it is time consuming and does require some relatively specialized knowledge.
Now anyone can be a web publisher
Most content management systems perform the basic HTML markup tasks themselves, including adding images and links. If you can copy and paste text between your word processor and your web browser, you can be a web publisher.
Your librarian will love you
A web site is a collection of text files with obscure names. Once you’ve been running your site for a few years, you will accumulate hundreds if not thousands of these things. Trying to figure out where all your stories are can be challenging, to say the least. Using a CMS can bring the power of a database to bear on this, including full text search, metadata, content summaries.
Disadvantages of a content management system
If there weren’t any, everyone would be using one of these things.
They cost more to set up
Getting a database to interact with a web server and in turn a visitor’s web browser is a significantly more complicated task than just marking up a bunch of text files to turn them into HTML. So the setup costs are higher. As a general rule, if you have fewer than a hundred pages on your site, a CMS could well be overkill.
They can cost more to host
Depending on your service provider, it may cost you slightly more every month to host your website. But you may already entitled to host some content management systems.
Publishing outside the box can be a bit tricky
Databases like information well-structured and of similar shape. Sometimes that means your pages have less variety than you’d like.
There are lots of content management systems out there. Some of them are commercial software packages that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, some of them are open-source or freely available collections of scripts. Or, you can pay someone to write the thing from scratch.
I have had good experiences with two open source CMS packages: