By Neil Randall
January 2, 2001
In the Web's early days, individual Webmasters or a small group of developers and designers built most sites. That was before businesses glommed on to the Web's potential. Today, many small sites still operate on skeleton crews, but larger sites are typically the product of sizable groups working for or contracted to the companies. And while the design itself often still gets the glory, the real value of a site lies with its content.
Content has always been king for intranet sites, but increasingly it's ruling public Web sites as well. Contributors throughout your organization feed you the content, as do your customers, your partners, internal and external news sources, and all the information must be put together according to guidelines and regulations that you establish in accordance with your organization's policies and procedures. Yet, this content is worthless unless it's delivered the right way. You must develop processes for getting it to the Web precisely when it's needed, and exactly where your site's designers made room for it. Making sure the right eyes get to see content as it moves through the system is equally important as well.
Not surprisingly, the category of software that assists organizations with managing their content is called content management. These solutions are available from numerous vendors. For a hundred bucks or so, you can buy Micro-soft FrontPage (www.microsoft.com/frontpage) and make use of its limited document management, collaboration, and easy-to-design database features. The other end of the scale is–well, flexible. Openpages' ContentWare suite (www.openpages.com) checks in at roughly $125,000 for a 15- to 20-seat license, a price that is very much in keeping with solutions for large organizations. Of course, the alternative, a mismanaged site, stands to cost you much more than that amount through customer dissatisfaction, loss of potential sales, diminishment of employee morale and respect, drop in your stock value, and even lawsuits.
In fact, that's the whole point of content management software. Web sites are increasingly a crucial part of doing business. Information on the site must be accurate, accessible, tailored, and extremely up to date. The Web is one of an organization's most important communication tools, and it has very demanding needs that aren't satisfied by taking the cheap route. Content might very well be king, and kings cost money.
Speaking of the money, companies that sell products and services through their Web sites rely increasingly on content management. Vendors have responded by incorporating e-commerce support. Providers such as Allaire, Blue Martini, BroadVision, and Open Market have developed their content management systems extensively to interact with e-commerce needs, resulting in what they hope to be a single, complete solution for site development in the e-commerce market. This point is worth keeping in mind when you consider whose content management solution you'll buy. If you need a full content management/e-commerce package, consider these and other vendors. But if you're really looking only for help managing content, don't pay for the extras. Blue Martini's Customer Interaction System (www.bluemartini.com), a high-end example, costs $800,000 or so.
What Is Content Management?
Content management means different things to different vendors. All agree that content needs managing, and that organizations need sophisticated tools and methods to do so. But a simple Web search for content management solutions, yields an enormous range of possibilities. Some solutions are essentially a single product. Others consist of multiple products, from transaction servers to database servers. You have to look carefully at exactly what you're getting. If you don't need one or more components of a package, contact the vendor to determine if you can purchase the package without those components. Also find out the degree of compatibility you'll be getting with your current servers and database systems. Some vendors offer proprietary solutions, others offer significantly greater compatibility with existing products. Despite their differences, however, four components are standard in all serious content management packages: database support, a workflow management system, authoring support, and a publishing system.
Content is data, and you need a database to manage it, because you have so much of it to work with. You can choose a product that has its own database built in, or one that provides extensive tools to work with existing database management products.
Database-driven content management typically relies on templates, preformatted designs into which the content is inserted. Web documents from database-driven sites are constructed as they are requested by visitors to the sites, with specific sections of documents querying the databases, extracting the data, and displaying it in particular sections. Change the data and the site automatically changes. In other words, databases allow sites to be truly dynamic.
Database features, in fact, help determine what content management means to different vendors. For some, especially at the lower price levels, content management refers largely to managing the documents on your Web site. Users produce documents in teams or individually, and through a defined workflow these documents are eventually placed on the site. For other vendors, content management is about every nuance of content: where it comes from, who creates it, who inputs it, how it's inputted, who sees it, who approves it, and who publishes it on the site.
What's the difference? Primarily, the latter view treats content in a highly specific way, while a document-based system concerns itself more with how the content fits into the page to be published. Of course, nothing is so clear-cut in this market, but you can see the difference when comparing a package such as CyberTeams' WebSite Director Pro (www.cyberteams.com) with Chrystal Software's Eclipse (www.chrystal.com). WebSite Director Pro treats authoring primarily as a page-editing process, whereas Eclipse lets you extract content from the database below the paragraph level right down to the work level, and this high granularity lets authors, editors, and managers focus on the content rather than the document. Of course, smaller businesses might not need this degree of granularity–and WebSite Director Pro is aimed at medium-size and small organizations–but large businesses almost certainly will.
The truly universal feature of content management solutions is workflow management. As with print material (books, magazines, reports, brochures, you name it), content gets from authoring to publication through a defined sequence of tasks. These tasks range from initial conception through drafting, editing (often at multiple levels), and various necessary approvals, ending in the approval to publish.
Your content management package should let you set up the workflow as you wish, reflecting the reality of your organization's policies and procedures, the reality of your teams of content producers, and the reality of your content production processes. All major content management solutions offer such customization. Sometimes, as with Vignette's eContent line (www.vignette.com), you design workflow largely through the process of scripting. By comparison, products such as Interwoven's TeamSite (www.interwoven.com) ship with a variety of workflow templates that attempt to prevent the need for scripting. Research the content management products carefully to determine the range of resources that provide for the workflow you need.
Typically, workflow is divided into only a few major areas. Depending on the vendor, these areas are given names such as data creation, extraction, assembly, and delivery. The stages can involve numerous substages, depending on the complexity of your authoring and editing processes. Your content management software should be customizable to the degree that the workflow process can be different for different users. Users should have their own directories for such tasks as saving their as yet unfinished projects, and you'll want to specify precisely what happens when each user clicks to move to the next step.
You'll also want to be able to provide different automated routines for each user or user class. There might well be times when an approver in the workflow will not be able to perform those duties. Upper executives, for example, might in principle want to give final approval for all materials created for specific purposes but, in fact, will do so for only 25 percent of the cases or even fewer. A workflow design for this situation might be switched on when the VP is available, or it could specify that if the VP does not give approval within a certain time frame, the document passes to the next stage automatically.
Authoring Content And Templates
Not surprisingly, authoring commands considerable attention in content management software. After all, you can't publish content that isn't there yet. One very important point is the degree to which the software supports external authoring tools. Users of Microsoft FrontPage and Microsoft Word, Macromedia's Dreamweaver, Adobe GoLive, Allaire's HomeSite, and other well-known tools should be able to use them to create their content. Openpages' ContentWare line, for example, supports 12 such popular third-party tools. Chrystal Software's Eclipse supports a variety of HTML creation tools, and it encourages the use of an XML creator such as SoftQuad's XMetaL (www.softquad.com). More on the increasing role of XML later.
In addition to support for external authoring tools, your content management package should let users input data through a Web browser. The majority of packages do, in fact, provide such a feature: NCompass Resolution is one example (www.ncompasslabs.com), and Percussion Software's Rhythmyx is another (www.percussion.com), but Rhythmyx also supports any Web authoring tool that generates standard HTML. The content managing package should come with or be able to generate forms into which contributors can simply insert their content. The form will feed the content into the system's database and place it automatically in the appropriate workflow queue.
All packages also provide a means for designing templates or importing them from third-party design tools. Given the importance of templates for maintaining a consistent look and feel on professional sites, this feature is as important as any other in the entire package. Templates are containers for your Web content, and as such they are responsible for the formatting of the content and the design of the page as a whole. Look for solutions that let you use a well-known Web authoring tool such as FrontPage or Dreamweaver to design templates. Be sure, in addition, that your templates allow for the inclusion of a wide variety of content types. Text is perhaps the most common of these, but your contributors might also need to include PDF, graphics, MP3, AVI, and other multimedia types.
The Role Of XML
Increasingly, the focus of the database features of content management software is turning to XML (eXtensible Markup Language). Unlike HTML, XML sharply differentiates between the formatting of the content (its style) and the content itself. The content is given a structure through clearly defined sets of tags that are easily understandable, and the content is easily reusable. Formatting for human viewing is handled through XSL (eXtensible Stylesheet Language). XSL examines the XML file and applies appropriate formatting to specific tags according to predefined rules; for example, content appearing with a tag called "heading" will be assigned text attributes defined by that particular style. For content management purposes, XSL lets you set up your formatting templates, and the content for the templates will be structured according to the XML rules.
Percussion Software's Rhythmyx Content Manager features native support for XML, sending all data through an XML filtering process. The process first applies relevancy rules to the requested data; these rules tell the system where to find the content and how to put it together for posting on the Web. Once the content is assembled, it flows to the XSL module to be converted into a displayable format, typically HTML but possibly other markup languages and even file types such as PDF. Percussion's XSpLit technology splits an existing Web pages into two XML files, one with the content definition and the other with the XSL style details, an obviously useful feature for converting previously built Web documents into your newly standard format.
Several other content management providers use XML at their core. With the Tridion DialogServer (www.tridion.com), for example, you perform all your content authoring and management tasks through a browser interface, and it stores all content in XML format. Chrystal Software's Eclipse provides support for XML documents and XML design tools. Broadvision's content creation and interactive publishing tools let you design in XML, and content is stored as XML in a repository that checks for XML validity. Vignette's V/5 Content Management Server supports data stored in a variety of database formats, including XML. The company also provides an XML-specific server called XML Connect, and XML is fast becoming the standard throughout its product line. eBusiness Technologies' engenda (www.ebt.com) is fully built around XML, including XML templates and the conversion of Word documents into XML.
Customization And Localization
The final goal of content management is, of course, publishing. Content management software lets you do so in a variety of ways and from a variety of sources. The page builds dynamically by drawing content from databases and applying template rules to it. This is all wonderful from the standpoint of the company, but the most exquisitely designed and most frequently updated Web site on the planet isn't worth anything if its visitors aren't engaged. What engages, designers and managers now realize, is a site that speaks to the individual visitor. The visitor wants customized and localized content. For companies with global markets, this means content based on a visitor's profile or the country or region where the visitor lives. Profiles can be user-defined or based on a visitor's behavior over the course of several visits. The idea is to deliver content that your visitors will be drawn to immediately and not force them to read, see, or hear content that has nothing to do with them. There are always global aspects to the site, but these are much more effective when combined with personalized, localized content.
Content management solutions providers have adopted personalization and localization as highly important components of their products and services. Open Market's e-Business Suite (www.openmarket.com), for example, offers a content server with several "centers" riding on top of it. There's the Content Centre and Catalog Centre, and there's also the Personalization Centre. The Personalization Centre lets you create extensive rules for different types of personalization, including personalized ads. Other systems such as Allaire's Spectra and Interwoven's TeamSite 4.5 emphasize personalization. Tridion's DialogServer and SDL International's WebFlow (www.sdlintl.com), with its multilingual features, focus on localization.
Make The Move
With all the purported content management solutions available, there's no magic answer about which one you should choose. Any of them will cost you for the purchase and the training–employee time if nothing else–but if you set up the system and use it as intended, you should recover the costs and much more over the year following implementation. A sophisticated and strong content management strategy is no longer an option for any large site, and the more your software solution can help, the better off you clearly are.
Neil Randall is a contributing editor of PC Magazine.
Copyright (c) 2001 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.