Some Best Practices Emerge in Web Content Management

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 with IT.

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 time."

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 problems."

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," said Ruck.

"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 of you."

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.