Some Best Practices Emerge in Web Content Management
- By Rich Seeley
- May 29, 2001
As e-commerce and e-business Web sites mushroom — International Data Corp. (IDC)
projects that Internet business-to-business sales alone will reach $331 billion
by 2002 - the job of managing and maintaining these sites is becoming increasingly
complex. From within an organization, programmers, marketers, content providers
and graphic artists constantly change the site.
From the outside, customers and business partners hit the site 24 hours a
day seeking information and services, and expecting flawless, easy, speedy and
secure transaction processing. How can any one manager, or even any one team
of managers, keep a handle on everything going into and out of their organization's
Web site? How can this be accomplished as the requirements for commercial Web
sites continue to change overnight?
Most Web content management experts - analysts, CM software vendors and IT
managers - agree that the era of the Webmaster as Lone Ranger is over. With
technology and business requirements evolving at "Web speed," the time has passed
when one guru could set up and manage a Web site to provide a corporate presence
on the Internet. As Web sites have grown in size and complexity, the Webmaster's
role has changed from being a solution to being a problem, said David Yockelson,
senior research director, electronic business at the Meta Group, a Stamford,
Conn.-based research firm.
"The rapid influx of Web technology into organizations created an artificial,
if at least temporarily effective, solution to this issue - the Webmaster,"
Yockelson said in a white paper written for IntraNet Solutions Inc., a content
management software provider in Eden Prairie, Minn. "There is a reason that
for some time, many Webmasters were paid more than many CIOs in organizations.
Specifically, the Webmaster became the point of control, development and architecture
for everything Web in an organization.
"However, along with this stature came tremendous amounts of work: content
acceptance (receive hundreds or thousands of e-mails from authors with content
to be contributed to particular Web venues), translation, coding and scripting,
format changing, template creation, site navigation, look-and-feel consistency
and so on," continued Yockelson. "Very quickly, the Webmaster often became a
bottleneck for content publishing within the organization."
When the e-commerce and e-business sites envisioned by senior executives failed
to get up and running on time with the content and functionality desired, there
was plenty of blame to go around. IT department staffers also had the "bottleneck"
tag hung around their necks. But since finger-pointing does not get the job
done, most organizations working on major Web sites have developed a more cooperative
approach in which Webmasters, if they still even work under that title, share
responsibilities with more traditional IT professionals. Webmasters now co-exist
Of course, Webmasters and IT staffers are not the only bottlenecks or potential
bottlenecks to adding functionality and content such as product information
submitted in a variety of formats from internal marketing departments and business
partners. Everything from graphics to new software applications needs to go
through quality assurance (QA) to be sure it does not crash the site or hang
up a prospective customer's browser. Content frequently requires approval from
corporate legal departments, as well as senior executives, to make sure the
information on the site reflects the larger corporate vision and does not put
the company at risk of costly law suits or government investigations.
The solution has been to develop workflow and content management procedures
- which are frequently supported by either homegrown or packaged applications
- that ensure that content and functionality are added to corporate Web sites
in a timely but responsible manner.
Bringing it all together
One of the issues that remains is how to get everyone to work together. Mortice
Kern Systems (MKS) Inc., Waterloo, Ontario, takes a big picture view of the
complexities involved in the overall process, from executives envisioning e-business
opportunities to programmers writing code and marketers writing copy.
"All of those complexities come together in this strategic initiative and
it has to be managed," said Lori Ellsworth, vice president of e-business strategy
at MKS. "You've got people across the organization that need to be involved,
from upper-level managers who are defining the e-business strategy, right down
to the developers who are writing the code and/or the people in the marketing
department who are creating the graphics and some of the messaging and brochure-ware.
And it's imperative that they all be involved; otherwise, you aren't going to
be able to deliver on the most effective information or the most effective initiative
for your target audience."
Among the software vendors seeking to help bring this all together is Eprise
Corp., Framingham, Mass., which provides Web site management software and consulting
services to companies such as American Express. Eprise representatives contend
that best practices involve understanding that content management is as much
about people as it is about content. Like most computer tasks, Web content management
is, they indicated, about automating time-consuming processes.
In explaining how content is about people, Wendy Moldauer, senior product
manager for Participant Server, Eprise's content management tool, advocates
the team approach to Web content creation and management. Like many purveyors
of content management solutions, Moldauer discusses her technology in terms
that may indicate it is evolving into tailor-made content management tools,
also known as personalization or Web customer relationship management solutions.
"First of all, take advantage of your existing talents and assets," she said.
"You have technical people; use them where they are most necessary. And you
have content specialists; absolutely take advantage of their capabilities and
make it very easy for them to go 'soup to nuts' doing all of the things they
are best able to do and have the best knowledge on."
An Eprise white paper points out that Web sites offer an opportunity that
does not exist in any other communications medium - print, television or radio
- that content can be interactively tailored to the needs and interests of the
individual logging on to the Web site.
"There are a lot of things you already know about the people who are coming
to your site," said Moldauer. "You know quite a bit about your partners, you
know quite a bit about your customers, you have a pretty good idea about your
prospects, and [you know] your employees well. You can get a big jump on communicating
the information that is going to be the most valuable to those audiences by
targeting information and how it's displayed directly to each of those groups."
By exploiting information about viewer behavior and organization, Web sites
can dynamically tailor navigation, content displays and application programs
to try to obtain specific business results, Eprise representatives said.
The concept that the first step in designing an effective e-business Web site
is taking advantage of the medium's ability to tailor content to individual
users is also stressed by Bill Daniel, senior vice president at Austin, Texas-based
Vignette Corp., a competitor of Eprise, and a major force in defining a content
management segment that is increasingly about customer relationship management.
"You need to organize your content within your overall business objectives,"
he said. "That way you will have thought about issues like how you will offer
compelling personalized interaction to the users of your online business. How
will you create an environment that not only attracts new customers but is conducive
to retaining existing customers. And how you will create a content-rich context
that allows you to move people through the engagement process into actual shopping,
and then buying and becoming repeat buyers."
Eye on workflow
The content for such a Web site comes from a variety of sources. From within
the company, documents are created in departments such as marketing, sales and
production, human resources and legal. Additional copy may come from business
partners and vendors. Graphics may come from many of the same sources. New software
applications are created internally and purchased off-the-shelf from thousands
of vendors. Because it would be virtually impossible to have all of this content
and programming created using a single tool, Web sites have to be structured
so that they can make use of content created in almost every imaginable format.
Programmer's Paradise, a catalog company that has moved onto the Web and sells
more than 100,000 products to software development professionals and IT departments,
is a good example of content coming from many sources.
"Basically, the way the site is set up we have developers and MIS staff that
handle all the development of the sites and the databases and so on," explained
Vito Legrottaglie, vice president of operations and information systems at Programmer's
Paradise. "The content is derived from all of our vendors, publishers and manufacturers
of the software products that we sell."
"We have a lot of direct relationships set up because of the developer niche
and product lines we cover, so there's a lot of interactivity [between] our
company and those companies," said Jeff Largiader, marketing vice president
at Programmer's Paradise. "We can, in many cases, be the primary channel, and
[vendors, publishers and manufacturers have] had a history of working with us
through our catalogs and we've now extended their marketing visibility throughout
our Web site. We're constantly going back and forth with them, and interacting
and pulling new content.
"They send quite a bit of [content] to us directly, sometimes simultaneously
while we are building on the print side. If we aren't getting it directly from
them, then we have individuals working on going out to their Web site and proactively
gathering the information," continued Largiader. "We also have some third-party
sources that we work with where we can also gather quite a bit of content. We
have full-time resources dedicated to that."
Programmer's Paradise has developed its own workflow procedures for handling
this content. For example, the MIS department is in the process of setting up
a password-protected staging area where vendors will be able to post new product
information and graphics that can then be moved quickly onto the Web site.
"[Vendors] can go in and view the product information that we are carrying
right now, and make changes to those ... delete, add or drop in the appropriate
content associated with the changes they are making," explained Largiader. "And
they can do that 24 hours a day. We're going to build in a commitment to, within
24 hours, turn around and respond to whatever changes they've made."
"There will be a QC process and once [material] goes through that QC process,
it will update our Web site and our production system real time," added the
firm's Legrottaglie. "So there should be no problem in meeting that 24-hour
demand unless we're backed up in the QC process. But as far as the updating
of our products, once they are approved, they will update our Web site in real
Dan Ryan at IntraNet Solutions suggests carrying this staging area a step
further in order to create a centralized repository for all Web content, instead
of a file system. Within the repository would be a revision management system
that would contain links between the new content and the Web site.
"This would allow you to actually manage the components, graphics and logos
in a library services manner with meta data so that you are pointing at a URL
instead of a file system," said Ryan.
But the question remains as to how to ensure that the QC and approval processes
do not become bottlenecks. Eprise's white paper advocates automating costly,
time-consuming processes. And almost everyone agrees that the workflow process
- which provides constantly updated content, editorial control and approval
- needs to be automated with either off-the-shelf or, as in the case of Programmer's
Paradise, homegrown software.
For example, said Eprise's Moldauer, instead of having people "racing around
looking for approvals" you could instead "use E-mail notifications to bring
somebody to a very easy-to-use [process such as] just point and click, and here's
my OK, further edit or so on."
Without established workflow and approval processes, the rush to get content
onto a site at Web speed can result in embarrassing, and/or costly errors, according
to Joe Ruck, vice president of marketing at Interwoven Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif.,
another provider of content management software.
"You have to put in place appropriate and comprehensive approval processes
to make sure that the content that gets reflected on the Web is correct," he
said. "There's been a number of different instances where either inappropriate
content or downright incorrect content was posted, and that creates serious
As an example, Ruck cited an incident in which the Department of Labor posted
employment figures on its Web site a day early, which could have resulted in
potential political and economic consequences. For example, stock prices are
sometimes affected by announced employment rates.
"That was clearly a case where there was some sort of breakdown in the process.
But because it's done in a technical environment, those kinds of things aren't
necessarily that obvious, much like they may have been in a paper environment,"
"So it's key that those kinds of things are controlled and that there's a
process in place. That's why we're emphasizing workflow so much, because it
makes sure that the different approvers get to check it off. Clearly, if something's
being published on a public site, lawyers typically want to have some say-so
over that. And there may be a technical approver to make sure there are no broken
links, that the content is actually in the right format and that the HTML is
in the right font," he explained.
Checking for technical problems can at least, in part, be automated, according
to Jeff Merinshock, director of product marketing at Interwoven. "You can also
have automatic programs launched to do those kinds of things," Merinshock said.
"Things like link checking or style checking can be automatically launched as
content moves through the workflow approval cycle, and you can have those pieces
of content automatically validated against external programs."
One nightmare scenario for retail Web sites is when a misplaced decimal point
results in a $99 camera having its price displayed as $9.90. Programmer's Paradise
has an automated solution for this problem.
"We have some algorithms running in the background so that if a cost change
occurs where the cost has been increased over a price that we are offering,
an algorithm will kick in and re-price it automatically," said the firm's Largiader.
In cases where human approval is still required, such as when a corporate
attorney or product manager must OK copy before it can go up on the Web site,
there is still the problem of bottlenecks when copy sits on an approver's desk
and no action is taken. However, a majority of the workflow software on the
market highlights such bottlenecks. For example, Eprise's Participant Server
can graphically alert an approver's supervisor when there is a delay.
"In the work center, we have an area that is the first place you come to when
you come into the Participant Server work space," explained Eprise's Moldauer.
"You see a couple of things. One is an in-box that [contains] items requiring
your action, and the other is an in-process box that shows all of the things
that you are in the stream for but may not be the next person required to take
action. You always have that ability to monitor. If you are a manager of a certain
area and somebody's not getting [the approvals] done, it's right there in front
For its part, NCompass Labs Inc., a Web-based content management solution
vendor based in Vancouver, British Columbia, positions its Resolution software
as an out-of-the-box solution that allows end users to post their updates directly
to a Web site. Many customers are implementing the product in support of e-commerce
or so-called e-relationship management objectives, said Gerri Sinclair, NCompass
Labs' CEO. For example, GTE Communications Corp. recently went online with an
extranet solution that provides employees and partners with information about
ongoing projects in more than 50 network locations across the U.S.
While all the best practices that vendors and analysts advocate look good
on paper, it is important to remember that most of the technology they are discussing
is only a few years old. As Web sites for e-commerce and e-business evolve and
mature, so will the best practices that govern them.